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Suez Canal(British Tankers)

Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 14 June 1950

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asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what notification he has had from the Egyptian Government of the legal basis under which they have considered themselves entitled to close the Suez Canal to British tankers.

The Egyptian Government have never claimed that they were entitled to close the Suez Canal to British tankers. They have, however, claimed the right of a belligerent to visit and search for contraband of war destined for Israel.

Can the Minister say, in view of that answer, why we tolerate the fact that the Egyptian Government will not allow tankers to go to the oil refinery at Haifa?

It is a question of treating the oil as contraband and not, as was put in the Question, a question of closing the Canal to tankers. It is a question of what they consider to be contraband going through the Canal.

May I ask whether His Majesty's Government accept that there is still a state of war between Egypt and Israel? Is not that the only ground on which this action could be taken? Should we not invite the Egyptian Government to view the whole matter in a different light, and allow this oil to proceed?

We are making representations to the Egyptian Government precisely on that point and the question of whether present conditions justify the application of Articles IX and X of the Treaty in the way the Egyptian Government claims is one of the very difficult points of law we have been going into. The position does not necessarily remain the same as months go by. In our view the situation may be changing and we are making representations to the Egyptian Government in that regard.

Can my hon. Friend say whether there was ever a time when our Government accepted that Egypt was in a state of belligerency within the meaning of those Articles? May I further ask whether the enforcement of this boycott is undertaken with armaments supplied by this country?

I do not think that, without notice, I could undertake to answer what is a very difficult legal problem about the precise nature of belligerency. If my hon. Friend will put a precise Question down, I will endeavour to give a precise legal ansfer, but I do not think I should attempt it without notice.

Having regard to the fact that the hon. Gentleman admits that serious questions of law are involved, have His Majesty's Government considered submitting the case to the International Court at The Hague, where appropriate claims for compensation are put forward?

This is one of the numerous aspects of the case we have been considering.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this has been dragging on for months, with heavy losses to everyone concerned? Could not the Government consider whether, either through the United Nations, or the International Court, this could be settled, as far more difficult questions than this have been solved in a very much shorter time in years gone by?

Is my hon. Friend aware that under Article IV of the Suez Canal Convention, 1888, free passage through the Canal is guaranteed, even in time of war? Is there any legal question at all involved? Should he not point this out to the Egyptian Government and ask them to fulfil their obligations under that Treaty?

We have, of course, pointed out these things to the Egyptian Government, but there is certainly a legal question which does arise.

In view of the answers given by the Minister, I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter again on the Adjournment.