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Bechuanaland (Un South-West Africa Committee)

Volume 644: debated on Monday 10 July 1961

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations on what grounds permission to the United Nations mission to South-West Africa to visit Bechuanaland had been suspended.

The South-West Africa Committee of the United Nations asked us for facilities to enter Bechuanaland for the purpose of gathering information in the Protectorate.

In my reply to the hon. Member of 6th July, I explained that we had informed the Committee that in granting these facilities it was Her Majesty's Government's understanding that the members of the Committee did not intend to enter South-West Africa from Bechuanaland without the permission of the South African Government.

The Committee have again been told that if that understanding is confirmed, Her Majesty's Government remain fully prepared to provide the facilities. It has, however, declined to give this confirmation, and we have, therefore, regretfully had to inform the Committee that entry into South-West Africa from Bechuanaland without permission would be an illegal act irrespective of the terms of the United Nations resolution upon which the Committee was acting; that Her Majesty's Government have a primary responsibility for the inhabitants of the Protectorate and for law and order there, and that, pending the receipt of the required assurance, the visas and the offer of facilities for visiting the territory must be regarded as being in suspense.

Did the hon. Member expect the chairman of the United Nations Committee to disavow his instructions from the United Nations to visit South-West Africa? Secondly, if there were a technical illegality, would it not be the illegality of entering South-West Africa rather than of leaving Bechuanaland, and would it not then have been the responsibility of the Government of the Union of South Africa? Is not this whole policy one of appeasement of the Government of the Union of South Africa rather than of loyalty to the United Nations?

May I deal, first, with the last of the three points which the hon. Member put to me? The answer is an emphatic "No". Our understanding of the situation was put to the Committee in a letter of 29th June before the reactions of the South African Government were known to our intention to grant there facilities for the Committee to visit Bechuanaland. In this context, I remind the hon. Member that we had earlier made clear to the Committee the willingness of the Tanganyika Government to offer it facilities to interview South-West African refugees in Tanganyika. In other words, we have been fully prepared throughout to grant facilities.

Turning to the first question, while we have been willing to co-operate with the Committee in carrying out the task of gathering information, for which task alone facilities were requested, Her Majesty's Government refuse to assist the Committee to break the law of a neighbouring territory. Apart from the fact that we abstained with 15 other countries, including Canada and Australia, on this paragraph of the United Nations resolution, which is a quite unprecedented paragraph, a resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations is not, in any case, binding.

Let me make it plain that while we were glad to provide facilities for the Committee to visit Bechuanaland to see there whom it chose to see, we could not be party to anyone entering our territory with the purpose of breaking the law of a neighbouring country and creating a situation which must cause embarrassment and possibly even distress for the inhabitants of a territory for whom we in this House and in the country have a responsibility.

Why does the Minister assume that the Committee has an intention of breaking any law? Why not content himself with giving permission, as he said last Thursday he was ready to do, for the Committee to visit Bechuanaland? Why assume responsibility for what might happen later? In view of his apparent fear that some illegality may occur, has he instructed our Ambassador to take up with the Union Government the desirability of using our good offices to ensure that this Committee is allowed to go into South-West Africa?

We were advised by our High Commissioner in Ghana on 4th July that the Committee had published a Press statement

"reaffirming its determination to go to South-West Africa with or without the co-operation of the South African Government".
That naturally led us to seek confirmation of our understanding that the Committee would not enter South-West Africa from Bechuanaland without the permission of the South African authorities. Our understanding was implied in the Committee's request to us in the first place for the facilities which, as I say, we were perfectly willing to grant.

As for representations to the Union of South Africa, that is not the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government at this stage. We have informed the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the position and I am still hopeful—this is the answer—that the Committee may reconsider its decision.

Have not the Government shown any reactions to the conduct of South Africa? Have they made no comment upon the action of the South African Government which, even if it is strictly legal, is totally against the spirit of the United Nations or the international obligations of that country? Are we to make any protest to the South African Government about their conduct over this matter?

That is quite another question. In so far as the United Nations Committee asked us for facilities to interview refugees from South-West Africa or Herero residents in the territory, a colony of whom have been there since before the First World War, we were quite willing to grant those facilities. Beyond that I cannot go.

While acknowledging that there is something in what the hon. Member said about this being the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, will he not approach the Secretary-General and offer the Government's good offices to try to persuade the Union of South Africa to do what the Secretary-General wants done?

We have not yet had any response from the Secretary-General. I will take note of what the right hon. Gentleman said.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway), the Minister said that the United Kingdom had voted against the part of the United Nations resolution that lies at the back of the desire to enter this territory. Can he say whether the Government's attitude would have been different if we had voted for that paragraph? If so, is he telling the House that our support for United Nations positions depends on whether we are in favour of them or not?

Unless I misheard the hon. Gentleman, the question is entirely hypothetical—what would have been the position. I am not in a position to allow that.

With respect, Mr. Speaker, it is not hypothetical in any disorderly sense. The hon. Gentleman made it one of his grounds for the Government's attitude that the Government had taken a particular attitude at the United Nations. Surely, therefore—

If the hon. Gentleman had put his question the other way round, and had asked what was the bearing of the vote on the activity, it would have got his question into order.

With great respect, Sir, the point I am putting to the Minister is how far the reluctance of the Government to allow these people into Bechuanaland depends on the same motivation that led the Government to vote against the paragraph in the resolution in the first place—so as to lead to my final question.

With great respect, it hardly seems very far out of our present discussion. It is surely very relevant to know whether the Government's attitude to United Nations decisions is to be dependent on whether or not they voted for them.

I do not know, but some of the hypothesis seems to have gone out of it. Perhaps the Minister can answer the substance of that question.

Our attitude in the matter has throughout been governed, and is governed now, by the consideration that it would be quite wrong for a United Nations Committee to involve Bechuanaland and its people by attempting to use the Protectorate as a jumping-off ground to perform an illegal act. I do not believe that either this Parliament or the nation would approve of such action.

Will the Minister represent to the Government of South Africa that if they refuse to admit the United Nations Committee, the whole of this House and the whole world will judge them as making a tacit admission that they are not fulfilling their international obligations?

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that South Africa has already refused these facilities; in other words, South Africa's attitude in the matter is crystal-clear. Her Majesty's Government are concerned solely with the question whether, having granted facilities to a United Nations Committee to go into a British territory, which we gladly gave, we should then connive at an illegal act which, in its train, may bring grave distress to people for whom we have a direct responsibility.

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether or not the Government of South Africa have asked Her Majesty's Government to make this a condition of entry into Bechuanaland? Is it at the request of the South African Government that we make it a condition of entry?

The Minister has made a very definite statement that it would be illegal for this United Nations Committee to seek to enter South African territory. Does he really suggest that, after a resolution has been properly passed by the Security Council and by the General Assembly of the United Nations, requesting that this Committee should enter South Africa, which is a member of the United Nations, that is an illegal act? Surely, for that to happen is quite inconsistent with international law.

With great respect, this is, of course, going very wide of the original question—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The resolution was not a resolution of the Security Council, but a resolution of the General Assembly and, as I understand, such a resolution is not, in any case, binding. But, quite apart from the question whether we should connive at what is clearly an illegal act—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]—we have a responsibility in this matter which Her Majesty's Government clearly intend to discharge.

I will allow the Leader of the Opposition, who was half-rising, to ask a question.

Is the Minister aware that the action of the British Government in making permission to enter Bechuanaland dependent on an undertaking not to attempt to enter South-West Africa will be widely regarded as implying that the British Government are on the side of South Africa against the United Nations? Will he try to explain what business it is of ours to try to prevent a United Nations Committee from breaking South African law if it thinks it right to do so? Why should we do that? Has any approach on the matter been made to the Secretary-General of the United Nations? If so, when was it made, and with what result?

To answer the right hon. Gentleman's last question first, on instructions sent to him on 6th July, the United Kingdom representative in New York has informed the Secretary-General of our decision, and the reasons for it. As I said in answer to an earlier supplementary question, we have not yet had any reaction to that step.

I really think that the right hon. Gentleman is being unrealistic in the argument he advances in the first part of his supplementary question. It is surely right and proper for us to take a stand not to encourage the breaking of the law—[HON. MEMBERS: "NO"] All right, there is a difference between us; but there should surely be no difference between right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite and those on this side of the Chamber about our responsibility for ensuring the good order of people in the Protectorate. If a United Nations body is to go into Bechuanaland, flout the law of a neighbouring territory and create a situation which may lead to difficulty that redounds on the heads of Africans inside the Bechuanaland Protectorate, I do not think that the inhabitants will be grateful to the right hon. Genleman and his hon. Friends.

Why is it supposed that if this United Nations Committee—which consists, I suppose, of a few gentlemen from different countries —goes to the frontier of South-West Africa and seeks admission, and is refused—which is, apparently, what is likely to happen—this will, in some way or other, do terrible harm to the people of the Bechuanaland Protectorate? Will the Minister explain what he means? Does he think that South Africa will attack those people because a United Nations Committee goes up to the frontier and asks leave to go in? It really is an extraordinary position.

At one moment, the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends suggest that the situation is an intolerable one in South-West Africa in regard to the South African authorities and, in the very next breath, the right hon. Gentleman invites us to connive at a situation in which a United Nations team enters our territory and attempts illegally o cross a border.

Perhaps I may say that this is a purely hypothetical situation. It may well be that there will be no difficulty at all—if the United Nations Committee will give us the assurance that we seek. I still hope—and this is where I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will exercise some restraint—that the Committee will have second thoughts, and will give us the assurance we seek It will then be able to go into the Protectorate and interview whom it wishes to interview.

Order. We really cannot debate this further without a Question before the House.

The Minister has constantly referred to breaking the law, Mr. Speaker, and I want to ask him a question on that—

I am sorry, but I cannot allow the right hon. Gentleman or anyone else to ask a question. There really must be some limit to what we pursue without a Question before the House.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask permission to move the adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely,

"the decision by Her Majesty's Government to suspend facilities in Bechuanaland for the United Nations Committee on South-West Africa."
I submit, first, that this matter is definite—the Government have made a decision. Secondly, that it is urgent—the United Nations Committee is held up at Salisbury, in Southern Rhodesia, on the way to Bechuanaland. Thirdly, that it is a matter of public importance, because it is a United Nations decision that Her Majesty's Government are obstructing.

The hon. Gentleman asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely,

"the decision by Her Majesty's Government to suspend facilities in Bechuanaland for the United Nations' Committee on South-West Africa."
Naturally, I anticipated this and had a chance to think about it. I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's application. Quite plainly, this flows from the condition attached by Her Majesty's Government of which the House was told last Thursday, and in those circumstances it cannot be within the Standing Order.