Skip to main content

Falkland Islands

Volume 23: debated on Tuesday 4 May 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.30 pm

Since we debated the Falklands crisis last Thursday, there have been some important military developments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will report on those in a few minutes. Meanwhile, I wish to pay tribute to the efficiency and courage of our forces. Our relief that British lives have not been lost is inevitably tempered by our deep regret at Argentine casualties. I know that the whole House would wish to be associated with these sentiments.

These military achievements have been in support of our overall strategy; they have not been, and will not become, a substitute for it. As the House knows, we are maintaining the maximum pressure on Argentina in the diplomatic, economic and military fields with the objective of securing Argentine withdrawal at the earliest possible moment and in compliance with the mandatory resolution of the United Nations Security Council.

The military pressure that we have exercised has been challenged despite our clear warnings and our desire to use the minimum force. Our response in the circumstances was as inevitable as it was right. However, I can assure the House that what we are seeking is not the military humiliation of Argentina but a victory for the rule of law in international affairs.

Since the House last met, I have visited Washington and New York to reinforce our diplomatic efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement as soon as possible. I had extensive talks with Secretary Haig. These covered the diplomatic, economic and military dimensions of the crisis.

On the diplomatic side, Mr. Haig made it clear that, just as we have not abandoned our diplomatic endeavours following Argentina's rejection of the earlier American proposals, nor has he. We discussed a range of ideas for a settlement. We are continuing our work with all urgency. As the House will be aware, other Governments have also been active in promoting a settlement. We welcome this and are in close touch with them. Therefore, we are working actively on various ideas, including those put forward by the President of Peru. I can assure the House that we are losing no time in developing our thoughts about them and communicating our constructive views to those concerned. The framework for a settlement remains as I have outlined it to the House.

Proposals are needed which cover the essential elements of resolution 502—withdrawal, and negotiations on the future, unprejudiced in any way. They must also address the interim arrangements and guarantees required.

On the economic front, Mr. Haig described the measures which the United States has recently announced. They are a tangible sign of American support for our cause. I know that the Americans have not closed their mind to additional steps.

On the military front, Mr. Haig and Mr. Weinberger confirmed that they are ready to provide material support for our forces and I welcomed this. We are following it up in detail and urgently.

In New York I discussed diplomatic possibilities with the Secretary-General of the United Nations and with the President of the Security Council. I made it clear to them that our immediate concern is the implementation of resolution 502, and that we are open to any ideas which would achieve this on a satisfactory basis, namely, an Argentine withdrawal followed by negotiations on the long-term solution without prejudice to basic principles.

We were able to consider together the various possible ways of involving the United Nations. We recognised that a solution will require not only the right ideas but the right timing and the right sequence of events. I know that the Secretary-General is in touch with the Argentine Government. The burden of compliance with what has already been decided, of course, rests squarely with them.

It must not be forgotten that we remain the victims of a totally unprovoked act of aggression in defiance of the United Nations charter. We are seeking to ensure that Argentina does not profit from aggression and to uphold the rule of law in international affairs. That is an interest which all members of the United Nations must share.

Our resolve should not be doubted, nor should our readiness to talk and our will for peace.

I shall not be drawn into discussing now the military operations of the weekend as the Secretary of State for Defence is about to make a statement on them, except to join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the courage and efficiency shown by our forces.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that Mr. Haig, in announcing the shift in American policy on Friday, said that
"a purely military outcome cannot endure over time. There will have to be a negotiated solution. Otherwise we will all face unending hostility and insecurity in the South Atlantic."
I hope that Her Majesty's Government share those views, because they are shared unanimously by Labour Members.

There is deep concern among Labour Members and many of our allies in case certain types of military action—the attack on the cruiser "General Belgrano" may be such an instance—intended, as the Foreign Secretary said, to back up negotiations, may weaken or even destroy the possibility of negotiations for a long-term solution. He must be aware from telegrams that have been received in the Foreign Office this morning that the operations of the last few days have already cost us a great deal of support among our European allies.

On Friday Mr. Haig said that he had reason to hope that the United Kingdom would consider a settlement along the lines of his proposals. We understand from newspaper reports that Mr. Haig's proposals were put again, although perhaps in a modified form, by the Peruvian Government in the past two days.

Has not the time now come when the Foreign Secretary should tell us a little bit about those proposals as it is the Argentine failure to acceot them which has led to the military action over the past few days and the shift in American policy? The House has the right to that information at this time because it is now being made available to Governments in many other parts of the world.

Finally, may I ask the Foreign Secretary about his visit to the United Nations? I understand from newspaper reports that the Common Market Commission will put to the Council of Ministers this week the proposal that the continuing support of the Common Market for the British position over the Falkland Islands should depend on our asking the Secretary-General of the United Nations to provide his good offices. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the Argentine Foreign Minister, at a meeting last Friday, invited the Secretary-General to give his good offices. He will know that the Secretary-General is able to do so if we, as the other party to the dispute, ask him to do so. Has the Foreign Secretary asked Mr. Costa Mendez to take over the role of intermediary—[Interruption.] I am sorry; we all make mistakes of that nature, as did the Prime Minister a moment ago in Question Time. Has the right hon. Gentleman asked the United Nations Secretary-General to take over the role of intermediary at this time? If he has not, why not?

Over the weekend the Foreign Secretary said that it was Her Majesty's Government's intention to secure the withdrawal of Argentine forces by negotiation. The Government refuse to negotiate directly with the Argentine Government so long as Argentine troops are still on the Falkland Islands. If they are not prepared to negotiate directly, will they ask the United Nations to take over the role of intermediary?

I hope that there is no truth in the newspaper reports of the past two days that the only reason why the right hon. Gentleman visited the United Nations this weekend was to appease opinion in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. We believe that the time has come when the United Nations must play the central role in securing the withdrawal of Argentine troops from the Falkland Islands and that it will have a very important role in implementing the ultimate settlement.

The right hon. Gentleman is less than fair when he suggests that what I have done during this weekend and in previous weeks is anything other than to do everything that I conceivably can to bring about "a negotiated settlement as soon as possible", the words that I used in my statement. We do not yet know whether that can be achieved, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that in the end, whenever that is, there must be a negotiated settlement. The sooner that it comes, the better it will be. That is what my expedition was intended to try to further.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Secretary-General is in touch with the Argentine Government and is talking with them in the same way that he is talking with me. He did not describe himself as an intermediary, but, as he is in touch with both Governments, I suppose that one could describe that as his position. I have had many talks with him about the various possibilities, but the essential point remains that the Argentines are already under a mandatory obligation to withdraw. One problem that the United Nations faces is how to ensure that that withdrawal is carried out. That must be a precondition for taking matters further. The other essential condition is that the Argentines must come off their hook of saying that the outcome of the negotiations should be predetermined in favour of Argentina. That clearly cannot be acceptable. It may be that the Argentines will move from both those positions, in which case we may make a real advance.

I visited not only the United Nations but Mr. Haig to explore all those matters. Although the United Nations is a possible forum and can help in many ways, there are other possibilities, and I referred in my statement to the work that is going on, based on ideas that originated with Peru. The original American proposals were rejected last week by the Argentines. We are now working on a new series of proposals. I shall make a constructive input to those proposals and I am already doing so. They are different in character, but they cover the same area that I mentioned in last week's debate—withdrawal, what happens in the interim, and the final negotiations. Whatever detail is discussed, it must cover those areas. That is what we are pursuing actively, constructively and positively, as I am sure the House wishes.

That is the present position. It is difficult in the United Nations at the moment for the simple reason that the mandatory resolution has not been fulfilled by the Argentines. The right hon. Gentleman is right in intimating that one member of the European Community raised a matter with the president of the Security Council today. There may be a meeting, but I do not yet know what specific proposal will be put to the Security Council. That is perhaps not as important as the search for the means by which we can achieve a negotiated settlement.

Another matter on which I must comment, although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will come to it in a moment, is the military action, which is essentially directed to securing the total exclusion zone of which we gave due notice. We declared a maritime exclusion zone, to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred, which was subsequently extended. The action that has been taken so far is wholly in accordance with the principles that we outlined and the warnings that we gave in advance.

The Foreign Secretary has made two important statements. First, he said that he believed that the word "intermediary" might be appropriate to de scribe the function that is now being carried out by the United Nations Secretary-General. Secondly—I am surprised that he did not tell the House this in his original statement—he said that a member of the European Community was already in touch with the United Nations Secretary-General with a view to calling a meeting of the Security Council.

The Foreign Secretary will be well aware that there is a defined procedure at the United Nations under which the Secretary-General can operate a good offices role, either personally or by appointing an individual or individuals, in order to bring hostile parties together to solve a problem. In the light of the information that the Foreign Secretary gave us about another possible meeting of the Security Council, it is now very urgent, in the interests of the United Kingdom, that, the Argentine Foreign Minister having already asked the Secretary-General to assume that role, we should do the same now so that no time is lost and the future is not prejudiced, as I warned the right hon. Gentleman in our debate last week it might be. by a decision of the Security Council which might be much more hostile to our interests than the present one.

The Security Council has already passed resolution 502, which requires the Argentines to withdraw. That is the basic position. British sovereign territory has been invaded and, during the past three weeks, the Argentine forces have been heavily reinforced. Clearly the first move must be an Argentine withdrawal from that territory. The Secretary-General is in touch with the Argentine Government, as I made clear in my statement, and one of his objectives is to ensure that resolution 502 is implemented.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I have had no direct communication from any member of the European Community. However, it is on the tapes and it has been made public knowledge that one member has taken certain action. I shall comment upon that and react to it when I hear from the member State what it intends. However, not only the Secretary-General but the President of the Security Council had consultations throughout yesterday—no doubt they continued today—with all the members of the Security Council. Therefore, the United Nations' work on this important crisis is very active.

Order. I propose to allow 20 minutes for questions on this statement, as I have allowed on previous statements. Another statement is to follow.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the vast majority of the British public are behind the Government in their resolution against the naked aggression of the Argentines? Is it not regrettable that the right hon. Members for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart) have recently made statements that have been used by the Argentine Government as propaganda to hoodwink the Argentine people? Is it not a disgrace that two Privy Councillors should make statements which can be used by the Argentine Government and which could extend hostilities and jeopardise British lives?

A number of right hon. and hon. Members would agree with my hon. Friend's remarks. The propaganda and the information put out by Argentina has been proved to be extremely inaccurate in many important respects—indeed deliberately misleading, no doubt for its own purposes. During my visit to America I gave an assurance that what we put out from our forces would be accurate and true. The Argentine junta is carrying on a misleading campaign of propaganda such as we have seen before which in the end does the country no good. However, it will be helpful if we speak with the greatest unity that we can possibly achieve.

In view of the Foreign Secretary's remark that there must be negotiation, does he agree that it would be helpful in that negotiation if there was now a truce on both sides so that the matter could now go to the United Nations without further loss of life?

There can be a truce, but Argentina must withdraw and there must be no prejudgment of the ultimate outcome of the negotiations in the longer term.

May I associate the SDP with the expressions of regret at the loss of life of the Argentinian Service men and also pay tribute to the courage and skill of the British Service men who have been operating in very difficult circumstances?

Will the Foreign Secretary say a little more about the initiative taken by the President of Peru? Is not Peru uniquely well placed to act in that way, as a friend of the Argentine and with close relations with the United States and friendly relations with Britain—quite apart from its association with the Secretary-General of the United Nations? What does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do about taking up that initiative? Is he ready to negotiate without precondition, and would such negotiations include the acceptance of a readiness to talk about the trusteeship council provision?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. The President of Peru formulated a series of proposals which he communicated to the United States and directly to the Argentines, who turned them down. With Mr. Haig, I am responding positively to the ideas contained in the proposal and I will communicate some ideas of my own which may lead to a possible basis. I should not like to raise undue hopes, but I will do everything that I can.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of negotiations without preconditions, but there must be the precondition of the withdrawal of Argentine forces, who have no right to be in the Falkland Islands and no prejudice to the ultimate negotiations. Then we could start talking. In the longer term, I hope sooner rather than later, when we sit round the table to discuss the longer-term solution there will be a range of possibilities that could and should be discussed. Our immediate worry and anxiety is to get into a position where we can start talking at the negotiating table.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the support that he has on the Back Benches for his untiring work in the United States to obtain a start to negotiations. Was the safety of the Falkland Islanders raised in any of his discussions? Is there any way that negotiations would provide for the temporary evacuation of the women and children of the Falkland Islands? Can my right hon. Friend give me any message for the many Falkland Islanders who now reside in my constituency?

I have had the islanders very much in my mind all the time and I appreciate the risks that they are incurring and the difficulties that they face. I have sent messages to them when I have had the opportunity to do so, and I have thought about the possibility of an evacuation. It would be difficult to arrange, but if the islanders want it and we could arrange it we would naturally provide a passage for them. However, I do not think that that would be easy now. I have thought about the possibility a great deal and have tried to involve the International Red Cross and to do whatever I can.

We must never forget that we are involved in this crisis and are taking the major steps that we are taking because of the people who live on British territory. It is for them that this started. They have been denied certain rights and the Argentines wish to impose on them a certain sort of rule which they may or may not want. We are there in the defence of those people's rights. That is why we got involved in the first place and we must never forget that.

Did the Secretary-General of the United Nations tell the Foreign Secretary what he had in mind about how resolution 502 could be implemented?

No, he did not. There is a very great difficulty for the United Nations over that. The Secretary-General did not put any specific suggestions to me. Naturally, in expressing and explaining the British point of view to him, I was anxious to hear what views and ideas he had. He had a number and we discussed them, but there was nothing specific. Similarly, the President of the Security Council had no specific proposal to put before me immediately, but we explored the area together and that was useful. We are in daily touch and more often than that through our ambassador.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to negotiations to take place after the repossession of the islands. Will he tell the House on what subjects it would be proper, in the Government's view, for those negotiations to take place?

The basis on which they should take place is the charter of the United Nations. As to the format, there are a number of possible ways in which it could be done; that has not yet been decided. There are a number of options and we have an open mind about them, but the most urgent requirement is to get into a position where those negotiations can take place.

My right hon. Friend speaks of a readiness to negotiate, but what does he have in mind that is negotiable? Surely if the Falkland Islanders are in his mind he cannot contemplate discussions over sovereignty, which would mean the handing over of the Falkland Islanders to a State which has almost the worst human rights record in the world. Is it the Government's intention at any time to raise with the United Nations the question of investigating the disappearance of thousands of Argentines, the use of torture and behaviour that puts that country completely outside the pale of civilisation?

The sovereignty question is the heart of the issue and dispute. For years we have been negotiating about the future status of the islands.

But that is a matter of history. That is what has been happening. We are not in any doubt about our title to the Falkland Islands, and we never have been. We have been governing, administering and having a British presence on the islands for the people there and we have always taken full account of their views. The Argentines assert that they have sovereignty and they now assert that they are not prepared to negotiate about it. That is not an acceptable position.

As to the long-term future of the islands, successive British Governments have taken the view that if the people there wished to have a different sort of Government or to organise their affairs in another way the British Government would not stand in their way. We are there as trustees for those people. That is the issue. We are not prepared to enter negotiations while Argentina remains so obdurate in upholding a claim which it believes is valid but which we are confident is not valid.

If the Security Council is faced with a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, will the United Kingdom veto it?

In so far as we are engaged in military operations, we are doing so in self-defence under the United Nations charter. The way that we have done it is by declaring—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] Yes, on the conditions that I have just stated—that there is a withdrawal of forces and no prejudice to the ultimate solution. That is quite clear. In the meantime, in preserving British territory and British citizens, we have said that we will secure the total exclusion zone, and that is what we are engaged in doing.

Will my right hon. Friend lose no chance to point out that the responsibility for the tragic deaths in the South Atlantic lies fairly and squarely with President Galtieri and his junta? Will he also point out that any negotiations would become extremely difficult if British lives were lost or British ships sunk?

The truth is— and it cannot he said too often—that the Argentines started this trouble. They invaded the islands, which they had no right to dc. That was the cause of the whole trouble and that is where the blame lies. The condition for making any progress is that they withdraw. Any casualty suffered in the meantime, on whichever side, is a tradegy. That is one reason why we have a real incentive to achieve a negotiated settlement, but it requires two to do that and it is up to the Argentines to withdraw and to have no prejudice about the final settlement that may be achieved. Then we can get round the table in a civilised way and discuss the issue as it ought to be discussed.

Is it not the case that despite the right hon. Gentleman's vigorous diplomatic efforts, on which he is to be congratulated, the essence of his statement is "no progress"? Given that fact, why has not the right hon. Gentleman maintained the closest contact possible with our Community partners to prevent, for example, action by one member with the United Nations such as he mentioned in his response to the question of the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey).

It may seem that the essence of my statement is "no progress". Perhaps that is a fair description, but, given the data of the problem, the differences between the two sides, the intransigence of the Argentines and their unlawful occupation of British sovereign territory, it is hardly surprising that it would take some time to arrive at a negotiated settlement.

A week after I came to my present office, I went over to Brussels to keep our Community partners informed. I saw them last week and again kept them informed. I have had other contacts with them this week. This weekend I shall see the Foreign Ministers of the other countries in the Community, who are my opposite numbers. Therefore, I have kept in close touch with them. They have been supportive and helpful. I have had no communication direct from any member in any opposite sense. I referred earlier to a newsflash that I had seen on the tape before I came into the Chamber. There is close contact between me and the other countries, which I intend to maintain.

Has the Foreign Secretary's attention been drawn to the fact that in The Sunday Times a public opinion poll showed that six out of 10 people in Britain were not prepared to see one Service man's life or a Falkland islander's life put at risk and that such a majority in Britain will not be rejoicing with the Prime Minister at the loss of life when the ship—[HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] —was torpedoed without a declaration of war well outside the exclusion zone? Will the Foreign Secretary take account of the desire for peace in Britain by agreeing to a ceasefire and to the transfer at once to the United Nations of sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and its administration pending a settlement under United Nations auspices?

In making those points and others that he makes from time to time, which may be controversial and with which many people disagree, it is disgraceful for the right hon. Gentleman to attribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the reaction that he has alleged. I believe that it is utterly wrong to impute such motives or thoughts when they are untrue. That spoils the validity of everything else that the right hon. Gentleman says.

Does my right hon. Friend regard it as indicative that the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) should base himself and his argument upon one answer to a question in a popular opinion poll? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it seems to be the general pattern of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks to put all sorts of sombre prophecies and suggestions into cold storage to be extracted perhaps one day to his own advantage at a moment of disadvantage to his country?

I think that a number of hon. Members would agree with my right hon. Friend. What the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) has said this afternoon was disgraceful.

As the transfer of sovereignty of the Falkland Islands has been considered for 20 years or so, and as the Prime Minister has now had her skirmish in this atavistic and unnecessary exercise in the South Atlantic, which she and the chairman of the Conservative Party have launched, will the Government today order a suspension of hostilities before many more young men are unnecessarily killed and transfer the solution of the problem to where it should be, the United Nations, where eventually a negotiated settlement will have to be reached anyway?

I dissociate myself from the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Once withdrawal has taken place and there is no prejudice to the outcome of the long-term negotiations, of course there will be a ceasefire. This issue is already before the United Nations. We took it there right away. Opposition Members sometimes seem to forget that. The United Nations passed a resolution requiring the Argentines to withdraw. We want that to be fulfilled and then we can get down to proper long-term negotiations. The hon. Gentleman's deliberate misdescription of what we are doing is not helpful.

If, as has been suggested by the right hon. Members for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), and Lanark (Dame Judith Hart) and the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds), negotiations take place while the Argentines are in occupation, will not that be accepting aggression, which will be regretted not only by the Labour Party but by many other countries?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. To take such a course would be to acknowledge that an act of aggression could pay the invader. That cannot be allowed. Incidentally, it would be in breach of the resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council. This is not just an argument between Britain and the Argentine. Its implications are wider. We are talking about international order and conducting the affairs of the world on the basis of law and in peace. That is what the United Nations is for. If we carry that through—we hope by peaceful settlement, but ultimately by a settlement-and if we right this wrong, I predict that the world, at any rate for a few years ahead, will be a more peaceful place than it was before. The re-establishment of international order on proper rules will bring an enormous amount of relief to an enormous number of countries and millions of individuals.