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Congo (United Nations Forces)

Volume 654: debated on Friday 2 March 1962

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. F. Pearson.]

4.1 p.m.

I rise to put forward for this short debate the question of the behaviour and discipline of United Nations troops in the Congo. I do so with some sense of personal inadequacy to the problem raised, because though the incidents with which I shall be dealing are localised and limited to a comparatively few people, I submit that the moral issues are profound in the extreme.

The debate arises out of Questions asked in the House by some of my hon. Friends and myself on 29th January, when I felt, and I think my hon. Friends felt, that the matter was not adequately covered. Even though I am speaking here as a still small voice at perhaps the quietest time of the week in the House, I hope nevertheless that what I have to say will carry beyond this Chamber both by the agency of my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs who has been kind enough to come here to answer my remarks and also through other channels.

I should like to set out the moral issue briefly. It is that here, on the one hand, we have the Charter of the United Nations with its splendid preamble about its objects:
"to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small …"
While on the other hand, in consequence of recent events, we have been faced with the uncomfortable fact of what has happened when the United Nations has gone into action.

These facts are fully acknowledged, though there may be differences in degrees of acknowledgment. The Sunday Telegraph, on 24th January, reports that at least ten Europeans had been killed wantonly and women raped. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, answering my Question, admitted that violence had taken place, with looting and the raping of at least two women. As we all know there are further and wider allegations in the offing which this short debate does not give us time to consider in the full particulars

The best thing that I can do in the time available is to recapitulate the story as objectively as possible, and in doing this I am anxious to confine the debate entirely to the humanitarian and moral issues and take it out of the realm of politics as such as much as possible. The story is that, following the withdrawal of the Belgian authorities from the Congo, there was a breakdown of law and order, on account of which a number of Belgian troops were redrafted back into the Congo for the purpose of keeping law and order.

The Belgian troops and authorities who acted were considered to be colonialists and imperialists, and it was felt in the United Nations that this procedure was objectionable. That led eventually to the 873rd meeting of the Security Council on 14th July, where, after a brief debate, certain resolutions were passed. One resolution called upon the Government of Belgium to withdraw their troops from the territory of the Republic of Congo. Another one, more immediately to this debate, authorised the Secretary-General to take the necessary steps in consultation with the Congolese Government to provide that Government with such military assistance as might be necessary until, through the efforts of the Congolese Government, with the technical assistance of the United Nations, their own national security forces were able to meet fully their tasks.

Reading the debate, it is clear that none of the participants visualised at the time what this would lead to. One is pleased to observe that, as if by some presentiment, the British delegate abstained from voting.

We then come to the question of responsibility passed to the Secretary-General. The question of the choice of troops must have arisen. Here there is a gap in my knowledge which I wonder whether my hon. Friend will be able to fill. Presumably the choice was made on the general principle that the troops should come from nations which were untainted by imperialism or colonialism. The fact that they were free of such unfashionable taints evidently endowed them, in the opinion of the Secretary-General, with certain qualities and virtues which in the outcome they did not, unfortunately, possess.

The troops were sent to the Congo, first, under a very loose mandate which, as we know, was interpreted in the widest fashion; secondly, without thought of how the individual troops might react to conditions of disorder and stress; and thirdly—this is above all the point I want to stress in this debate—evidently without specific instructions about the conditions of the Geneva Convention.

There are incidents of rape, killing and so on which obviously involve breaches of the Geneva Convention—interference with civilians and the facilities of the Red Cross. Indeed, there was such marked lack of respect for the Red Cross that among the saddest of the casualties was the killing of the International Red Cross delegate on the spot.

One is bound pointedly to ask whether, when the troops were dispatched, any attention was paid to this very important angle of military action. In addition, in consequence of my short research, I would point out to my hon. Friend that, though Ethiopia is a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Convention, there is no trace of her having formally ratified it. I should like to know, for instance, what steps were taken to ensure such ratification and what has been done since, and whether this matter was pointed out to the Ethiopian Government.

A further point is that there was evidently resistance to any form of inquiry on the spot. The Brussels newspaper, La Metropole, gives an account of an incident where United Nations troops—Ethiopian troops—actually suppressed attempts at an inquiry. One appreciates that a wiser decision has since been taken and that the United Nations authorities themselves are making an inquiry, the outcome of which I and many other hon. Members await with interest. Perhaps my hon. Friend can tell us, later if not now, when we may expect it.

The point is whether this internal inquiry is entirely sufficient. Should we not have a more generalised one, in the light of the whole picture? Should not the inquiry be made by an independent authority? Again, what publicity will this inquiry have, because there is no question that moral support for the United Nations throughout this country must depend on satisfactory answers to these charges, and this, in turn, will make itself felt in more tangible ways in resistance to our financial contributions, not only to the United Nations in general, but also to specific operations such as this.

Finally, how seriously is this matter being taken by certain elements in the United Nations? Because it seems as if certain of them are perhaps less anxious to put their own house in order than they are to embark on fresh adventures of this kind, as witness the recent resolution in regard to Southern Rhodesia.

Returning to the point I made at the beginning of my speech, from a moral point of view I do not think one can pitch this thing too highly. If the benches opposite were filled with hon. Members instead of being entirely empty as I see them at this moment, I am sure that I would be greeted with cries of "Mercenaries", "Suez" and that sort of thing. I ask those hon. Members opposite Who did indeed make remarks of that kind when the original question was asked, whether, in their own minds, they are comparing like with like. Suez, in their opinion, if not, perhaps, in mine, was an action by tainted imperialists. The mercenaries were discredited. Why, therefore, compare this new perfected organisation, which is to keep the peace of mankind in the future, with other incidents and other people?

Surely, in this matter, the important thing is that, in this organisation in which our hopes are placed for the future of mankind, what is commonly known as the "old Adam" is coming to the fore once again. Is it not important that in the eagerness for the new enthusiasms of this age, we should not make the mistake of surrendering the humanitarian traditions which we have been precariously putting together in the last hundred years of Western civilisation?

4.13 p.m.

In one respect, in particular, I find this a difficult debate to answer, because although the consciences of us all must be stirred by accusations of inhumanity against United Nations troops in the Congo, we have, in fact, no direct responsibility for their actions. Moreover, and this again is an added difficulty and weakness in the system, the United Nations Command does not have the measure of disciplinary control over its forces, which, for example, we were accustomed to in the integrated allied forces during the late war.

The commander of the United Nations forces has military command of his forces, but he has no power of court-martial over them. If there is any question of his troops being disciplined, then it must be a matter solely for the senior officer of the contingent concerned. This presents very real difficulties. It explains also in part why it is that if an inquiry is mounted into the activities of a particular contingent, it is the senior officer of that contingent who will be entrusted by the United Nations with carrying out the inquiry. This is a problem which has faced General McKeown in dealing with accusations which have been made about the conduct of some units of his forces in the course of the fighting which took place in Katanga both in September and December of last year.

Another problem to which I should like to refer is the question of the chain of command. My hon. Friend will remember that in December there was also considerable doubt about the extent of United Nations civilian control of the military. This is a point to which we in this country attach considerable constitutional importance. It has, however, been clear that the control exercised by headquarters in New York has been less complete than we have thought desirable. The events of 13th September, as described by Dr. O'Brien himself in a newspaper in this country, to which my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal drew attention in the debate in this House in December, gave us cause for grave anxiety about the chain of command by which instructions reach United Nations officers in the field. We believe that the Acting Secretary-General has taken steps to tighten up command procedures. We think this is needed and greatly welcome it.

My hon. Friend inquired about the recruitment of contingents for the United Nations force and the choice of particular troops. Under the terms of the Security Council Resolution of 14th July, 1960, the Secretary-General was empowered to approach United Nations members with a request that they should supply contingents for the United Nations Congo force. By a self-denying ordinance it was tacitly agreed that contingents should not be drawn from the great Powers. Indeed, particular stress was laid on obtaining troops from the Afro-Asian countries. There have, however, also been contingents or specialists from a number of European countries.

No fewer than sixteen countries responded to the invitation by sending contingents. Of these, seven sent over 1,000 men: they were Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Indonesia, Ireland, Morocco, and Tunisia. India, whose first contingent was only a battalion, has now a full brigade there. Smaller forces or technicians came from Canada, Liberia, Malaya, Mali, Pakistan, Sudan, Norway, Sweden and the United Arab Republic. Later a Nigerian battalion was sent, and Italy supplied ninety aviation personnel. Some of these countries subsequently withdrew their forces for various reasons, but the following countries are at present still represented in the Congo: India, Pakistan, Canada, Nigeria, Ghana, Malaya, Sierra Leone—all these in the Commonwealth—and Ethiopia, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Liberia, and Tunisia.

My hon. Friend in his speech has dealt in the main with accusations of indiscipline and indeed serious misbehaviour on the part of certain United Nations troops. Let me say at once, as Government spokesmen have had occasion to say more than once both here and in another place, that we strongly deplore indiscipline and misbehaviour resulting in actions such as my hon. Friend described, wherever they may occur and by whomsoever they may be committed.

No words can be too strong in condemning that type of action. But, in saying this, I do not want to give the impression that I subscribe to or endorse the impression which, I regret to say, my hon. Friend gave, that this was done in a widespread fashion by United Nations troops in the Congo. I am not able to do so, first of all because I have no means of assessing the truth or accuracy of all the allegations he has made. Of course, we have received, both from our representatives in the Congo, and through the Press, as he has, accounts of certain events in the Congo which we deeply deplore, but we are not in a position to confirm or to deny the accuracy of the specific allegations which he has made today.

I do not want to give the impression that the Government have heard with equanimity the various allegations made, that we have adopted the attitude of Pilate. On the contrary, our disquiet at the reports which have reached us, both in September and in December, has repeatedly been brought to the attention of the United Nations. This we have done both through our local representatives in the Congo and through our permanent mission in New York.

All of us, I am sure, are fully aware of the extremely difficult position in which United Nations troops in the Congo find themselves. First, as my hon. Friend said, they operate under a mandate which is itself the result of compromise. It is by no means as clear and unequivocal as we should like. Secondly, a mixed force of this kind must inevitably pose very real problems of command—because of language, if for no other reason. Thirdly, the United Nations forces have in the past suffered a number of cruel blows through small bodies of troops being cut off and massacred. This must inevitably make them quicker on the draw than they would otherwise be. I should certainly not wish it to be thought that, because there have obviously been serious lapses from discipline, the whole United Nations force should be tarred by the same brush.

The House must also remember that there have been counter allegations of malpractices and misbehaviour by the Katangan forces and European civilians, including misuse of the Red Cross and firing by civilians on the United Nations forces. There is probably substance in a number of these allegations too.

My hon. Friend inquired about the application of the Geneva Convention to the United Nations forces. I understand that the United Nations have more than once in the past assured the International Red Cross that their forces are instructed to operate only within the Geneva Conventions. On 11th October, 1961, Dr. Linner, then the head of United Nations operations in the Congo, gave an assurance in writing to the International Red Cross in the following terms:
"The United Nations in the Congo respect and adhere to the principles of general international conventions to the extent applicable, particularly when they relate to recognised humanitarian principles."
In these circumstances, what is to be done? My hon. Friend said that there should be an inquiry. Is there, for example, any use in an inquiry which looks into one set of allegations only and not into the other? Could the accused party be expected to co-operate in such an inquiry? If, therefore, there is to be an inquiry—Her Majesty's Government are certainly not opposed in principle to one—in our view it must deal with both sets of allegations.

The other question is how such an inquiry could be organised. In a matter of this sort I believe that only the General Assembly or the Security Council could give the necessary instructions to the Secretariat. There is little doubt, however, that a resolution calling for such an inquiry as my hon. Friend suggested would be regarded by the majority of the United Nations as an unacceptable slur on the forces of the United Nations and on the capacity of national contingents to see to their own discipline.

In these circumstances, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State said in reply to a Question on 29th January, a question referred to by my hon. Friend, much as we deplore some of the events which have occurred in Katanga—and, as I have stressed, no one side has a monopoly of the accusations of bad behaviour—Her Majesty's Government do not believe that it would be useful to call for a general inquiry into the events of September, 1961, and December, 1961. We deeply regret that certain incidents should have taken place, but believe that raking over the embers at this point of time can only do harm. An inquiry into the circumstances of the death of M. Olivet, of the International Red Cross, and his two companions is still in train. My hon. Friend asked if I am able to give him some indication as to when the report will be issued. I am afraid that I have no information on that at the moment.

What we find heartening at the moment is the greatly improved spirit of co-operation between the United Nations and the Provincial Government of Katanga. We would certainly not wish to imperil these better relations by calling for an inquiry at the moment.

The United Nations and the Katangan Government are now co-operating in the Mixed Commissions to see that Mr. Tshombe is carrying out his declared policy of getting rid of mercenaries. We warmly welcome this and hope that those trouble makers who came to Katanga and whose sole interest was in making money or in fighting will soon depart. Such adventurers have little or no interest in the fate of Katanga or the Congo as a whole.

Her Majesty's Government have already stated their warm welcome for the Kitona Agreement. Despite the reservations expressed upon it recently by the Katanga Assembly, we welcome the fact that the Assembly has authorised Mr. Tshombe to continue talks with Mr. Adoula on the basis of it. Reports in recent days suggest that the two men will shortly meet for further discussions about the implementation of the agreement. That seems to us to be the right way to proceed. Progress can never be made in the reintegration of Katanga into the Congo, which we so earnestly desire, on the basis of mutual recrimination.

I believe that the United Nations are working hard to make it possible for a political solution of these immensely difficult problems to be found. If such a solution is found, it will of course make it possible for the United Nations to reduce the number of their troops on garrison duty and to turn to more profitable work. Not only is there an enormous job facing them in the reorganisation and retraining of Congolese forces, but there are also countless tasks in the economic, technical and social fields. In these the sums of money made available by member-nations can far more usefully be spent.

In short, we want to see peace and law and order restored in the Congo so that its people can then, without outside hindrance, settle for themselves their own political problems.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Four o'clock.