HL Deb 08 June 1971 vol 320 cc26-35

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"Since the House debated the situation in Pakistan there has been a serious deterioration due to the flow of refugees from East Pakistan into India. The number is now estimated as upwards of 4 million.

"It was clear in April that events in East Pakistan could be followed by the gravest consequences particularly in relation to food supplies. That is why, when the American Secretary of State was here for the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation meeting, we jointly approached the Secretary-General of the United Nations and urged him to establish a United Nations team in East Pakistan so as to estimate future needs and to organise international relief on an adequate scale.

"To the first appeal for money issued by U Thant in relation to the refugees in India Her Majesty's Government subscribed £1 million on the following day, the money to he used for that relief which seemed to those on the spot to be most urgent. In addition, we have pledged £750,000 worth of food. Of the contributions made in the two weeks following the appeal, Her Majesty's Government's represented 30 to 40 per cent. of the total. Other countries have subscribed direct to the Indian Government and I am glad to say that more are now subscribing to the United Nations relief effort, but much more is required if the Secretary-General's target of 175 million dollars is to be reached. We have also promised to give more when we are told by those working on the spot what assistance is most urgently required. We made this immediate grant to ensure that the United Nations would not be short of funds and that essential needs would be met while the necessary international organisation was being set up to co-ordinate relief.

"With the increasing flood of refugees and the declaration by the Indian Government of a cholera epidemic on the 4th of June certain priorities can be identified—shelter, medical supplies, transport and food.

"To help towards the first, the British charities sent tents out as early as the 6th of May in transport which Her Majesty's Government paid for. We are now arranging to send large tents available in Singapore. As I announced yesterday, we are prepared to pay for cholera vaccine, syringes and saline fluid, so that finance need cause no delay. Two mass injectors, over one million doses of vaccine and a mobile hospital have been dispatched by the British charities. We have made available the transport necessary to make sure that the supplies arrive and we will continue to do so. I have told U Thant that we are ready to supply medical and qualified administrative staff. As far as food is concerned, our pledged aid will be channeled through the United Nations.

"The response of the British charities to the challenge was magnificent. But the size of this problem requires co-ordination and direction by a central body. The Indian Government have responded with generosity and resource but clearly the burden is such that it must not rest solely on them. Her Majesty's Government believe therefore that the responsibility must be assumed by the United Nations.

"U Thant has appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as Co-ordinator. The High Commissioner himself is now in Pakistan and has representatives on the ground in West Bengal and in East Pakistan.

"I have told U Thant that we are ready to make further contributions in money and kind as the situation demands and that I hope the Coordinator will ensure that all the help from public bodies and private sources will be applied to the best advantage.

"There are three problems which are interrelated. First, that of the refugees. To halt the flow and to arrange their return to Pakistan requires the restoration of confidence in East Pakistan, which in turn depends upon a political settlement. Secondly, there is the ability of the Pakistan economy to sustain life throughout the whole country. No new aid is being supplied, but to stop development schemes already under way would throw thousands out of work and simply add new areas of misery to an already heart-rending situation.

"There is finally the possibility of widespread starvation later in the year in East Pakistan by reason of the disruption of communications and of a short-fall in the rice harvest.

"Plans must he made by the Pakistan Government in co-operation with the United Nations Co-ordinator urgently to anticipate their needs.

"I will keep the House informed as the situation develops."

My Lords, that is the Statement.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Marquess for repeating that Statement. It does not add a great deal to what the House will already know from having read the newspaper reports of recent days. May I say to the noble Marquess that there is grave disquiet in this country and throughout the world about the inability of Governments and countries to respond to one of 'the gravest problems that has confronted the world for many a year. There may be some 5 million refugees who have come from a very poor country who are seeking shelter in a country which already has its own food and health problems, and is quite incapable of looking after the welfare of 4 or 5 million people. There is also the matter of cholera, pneumonia and many other diseases that can follow from malnutrition and starvation.

I do not think that this is a moment to go into the rights or wrongs of how this situation has come about. If we are a civilised community we have to react in a much stronger and more precise way than we have done in the past week. In the political field—which is the long-term solution to the refugee problem—is there not a choice open to Her Majesty's Government? They can either take the initiative with the Government of Pakistan to seek a political settlement by which these refugees can return to their homeland, or, if the Government view is that that is not possible, to approach the Security Council of the United Nations to see whether they can use their services to bring about a political settlement in Pakistan? Having said that, I am deeply conscious that this is an internal matter. But it is an internal matter that has now flooded forth into India and, therefore, more drastic, urgent steps are needed.

In regard to health and food, I am glad that we have given some £1¾ million, but that kind of sum is utterly inadequate in the circumstances in India. I hope that the Government will not feel that they have done what is due of them by making those sums available to the United Nations and rely upon the United Nations to produce a co-ordinated programme. I hope that the Government will feel that, as one of the senior members of the Commonwealth, this is very much a Commonwealth matter and that they will make a real effort, first, to galvanise within the Commonwealth a real interest and real effort in this matter, and also to take a very active role at the United Nations. This is not a short-term problem. It may be possible to deal with cholera and other diseases that may arise, and also immediate starvation, but this is a problem that will go on for very many months until a political settlement is arrived at. Therefore, the Government should be very active in this matter.

My Lords, I do not wish to say anything further at this stage. I hope that the Government will come back next week with yet another Statement as to what progress has been made in this field, and will give a much clearer insight as to what is the problem in India.


My Lords, we on these Benches endorse exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has said, and would express our horror at the scale of human suffering involved in this tragedy. I should also like to endorse the expressions of pride in the Statement at the way the British charities have responded. While in no way belittling Government aid, I would support what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has said. This is going to be aid which will eventually be counted in tens of millions, if not in hundreds of millions, of pounds, and I hope that some new momentum will be given to the whole question of organising aid for the food, medical and equipment requirements.

On the longer term, what most of us are worried about is that there does not appear to be any initiative coming from anywhere to get a political settlement. I do not think that Her Majesty's Government can accept the full responsibility for that. This is a world and an international responsibility which must be shouldered. But, having said that, I would ask Her Majesty's Government to use their best endeavours in the United Nations, or with the major Powers, to ensure that we get a political settlement which will not only enable refugees to return but immediately prevent more refugees from coming out. Because unless confidence is increased we shall get another flood of refugees, and instead of 5 million refugees we shall have 10 million. This is the urgency of the matter regarding a political settlement. Once again, may I plead with the Government to take the initiative in trying to get a permanent emergency force within the United Nations, properly deployed strategically, with its manpower, its equipment and its stocks, and, moreover, with the power to direct supplies as soon as an emergency occurs? I believe that the creation within the United Nations of a permanent emergency force is something vital for this decade.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Shepherd and Lord Byers, for what they have said. I fully share with them and the rest of the House our horror at the present situation, and would echo what they have said with regard to the splendid achievements of the British charities. Of course I will, as my right honourable friend in another place has undertaken to do, keep the House informed as to progress, not only on the humanitarian aspect but also on the political aspect, because, as both noble Lords have said, in the end we must have a political solution to this problem. I can assure the House that Her Majesty's Government will certainly use their best endeavours in this respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, made a suggestion that this matter might be referred to the Security Council, but he also qualified that with the remark that this is an internal matter and would not strictly be taken by the Security Council unless a threat to peace could be proved. With regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Byers, said about the need for a United Nations emergency force, this is something which is very much in the mind of Her Majesty's Government. Indeed, as long ago as last February we sent a suggestion to this effect to the Secretary General, and we are obviously going to continue to press for this. In the immediate instance the fact that the High Commissioner for Refugees has been appointed a co-ordinator on the spot will do something to alleviate the difficulties in this specific case, but I agree that something is needed more generally.


My Lords, may I join others in thanking the noble Marquess for repeating that Statement and for the supplementary statement he has now made? As Members on the Back Benches are not allowed to make a speech. may' I put twos questions separately? The first concerns relief. Is the noble Marquess aware that many of us who are intimately concerned with this tragedy are now relieved to think that peoples and Governments are now awakening to its extent? While we recognise that Her Majesty's Government acted immediately, it soon became clear that much more was necessary, and other Governments have not done sufficiently. May I ask the noble Marquess whether, in view of these circumstances and the absolute impossibility of India's dealing with this situation, with her own appalling problems of poverty, Her Majesty's Government will immediately raise this issue at the Security Council of the United Nations, with a view to a call on all Governments to make contributions, coordinated by the Commissioner whom U Thant has proposed? Will Her Majesty's Government deal with this matter with the urgency the tragedy demands?


My Lords, I am not certain whether I can undertake to raise this matter with the Security Council, but I can certainly undertake, and assure the noble Lord, that Her Majesty's Government will use every effort to persuade other countries to produce funds or supplies to help the Government of India.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Earl the Leader of the House and the noble Marquess can arrange for a Statement to be made next week. This would do much to allay the concern which I think is felt throughout the House. If we could have that undertaking, we should be very happy to proceed with the Business of the day.


My Lords, I will certainly undertake to have a word with my right honourable friend about that suggestion. He has undertaken to keep another place informed. I do not quite know the precise timetable, but I will do what the noble Lord suggests.


My Lords, many people will think that British charities and the British Government have given a magnificent lead in bringing aid in this terrible tragedy. The noble Lord opposite mentioned that a number of other countries have not done very much. Are any steps proposed to try to pull in more aid following the lead given by Her Majesty's Government?


My Lords, would the Government think it appropriate, in view of the terrific possibility of pandemic cholera, to take an initiative at the United Nations to see whether we could not get the four great Powers involved together? Here is an opportunity for the Soviet Union, the United States, China and Britain to do a constructive job of humanitarian work in helping refugees which might also do good in regard to the tensions in the world at the moment. Could some approach of that kind be made?


My Lords, I will certainly undertake to consider the noble Lord's suggestion. Regarding what my noble friend, Lord Grimston of Westbury, has said, of course we want to encourage increased supplies from wherever we can get them, whether from private charities or from Governments.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether it is true, as newspapers report, that the majority of refugees coming into India are Hindus? If that is the case, is it realistic to suppose that a political settlement within Muslim East Pakistan will solve the problem of Hindu refugees in India? Is not the problem for the future, therefore, going to be one of supporting the Government of India in dealing with what may become for it a permanent problem?


My Lords, I think that that is looking rather ahead. I am afraid that I have no information about the religion of the refugees to whom the noble Lord has alluded, but this is obviously a problem which is going to be very much in our minds and is one of the greatest complexity. But I think this point is slightly ahead at the moment.


My Lords, as one engaged in one of the voluntary organisations, may I first ask the noble Marquess whether he is aware that they will be very grateful for what has been said about them by your Lordships? Secondly, may I ask the Minister whether he has any information on whether it is going to be a little easier in the near future to recommence relief operations for the people of East Pakistan in East Pakistan, the difficulty about which has held up a good deal of relief work? Thirdly, may I ask whether it is not fair to say that, while we are all greatly in sympathy with the ambitious plans which many noble Lords have voiced, there is always for the Government a problem, in bringing aid into countries which are at loggerheads with each other, of being very careful about the relationships between us and each of them?


My Lords, I entirely accept that last point of the noble Lord. Regarding his point about East Pakistan, we hope that now that the High Commissioner has a representative on the ground in East Pakistan the situation will become easier, and that it will be possible for relief to flow more adequately.


My Lords, may I ask the second question, of which I gave notice, on the political issue? Seeking to be careful about words—because one does not want to aggravate the situation—may I ask this question'? Have the Government any knowledge about the leader of the party who was elected by a great majority, not only in East Pakistan but with some support in West Pakistan, of whom there has been no knowledge since he was arrested? Will Her Majesty's Government, through the United Nations, urge that a political solution must be found by discussions between representatives of the party which obtained this majority and the President? Further, may I ask the noble Marquess this question? I think he used the phrase that no new aid was being given to the Pakistan Government. Is he aware that many of us feel very deeply the tragedy that it should have been Western arms that have been responsible for what has happened in East Pakistan? Will Her Majesty's Government deny aid until discussions take place for a political solution?


My Lords, as I said in the Statement, no new aid is being given to the Pakistan Government. So far as future aid is concerned, we shall ensure that this will be dependent upon a return to political life in East Pakistan and, of course, on a cessation of hostilities. I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Lord any information on the first part of his question regarding the leader of the party in East Pakistan, but I of course take his point regarding the need for political discussions with all parties in that country before coming to a settlement.


My Lords, can the noble Marquess inform the House whether the Pakistan Government is actively co-operating in relief measures within its territory of East Pakistan; and would it be fair to ask the Government to use their influence to persuade the Government of Pakistan to refrain from any repressive measures of any kind, so long as the present toll of human misery continues?


My Lords, we shall do our best so far as the West Pakistani Government is concerned. I am afraid that I do not have much information as to how the Government of Pakistan is co-operating with relief authorities, but as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, now that the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner is there, the presumption is that there is co-operation.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Marquess whether there is any chance of increasing the number of mass injectors that can be sent to this part of the world? I am sure he knows that the British charities who have arranged to send two such injectors have said that they could do with many more. There might be a dozen available in this country if they could only be lent to them for this purpose. Is anything being done in this direction?


My Lords, I will certainly look into that question.