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Volume 164: debated on Wednesday 20 December 1989

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3.31 pm

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the American activities in Panama and on the safety of British citizens.

We welcome the establishment of democratic government in Panama. We fully support the American action to remove General Noriega, which was undertaken with the agreement of the leaders who clearly won the elections held last May. Noriega's arbitrary rule was maintained by force. We and many others have repeatedly condemned Noriega and called for the election result in Panama to be respected. Every peaceful means of trying to see the results of the democratic elections respected had failed.

We have been in touch with the British charge d'affaires in Panama. So far as he has been able to establish, there have been no British casualties. The embassy has advised British residents to remain in their homes until the situation becomes clearer.

Will the Secretary of State be more forthcoming about the position of British subjects? Is the embassy in touch with them? Does it know where they are and can it guarantee their safety? Will they be given assistance to return home if that is what they want to do?

There is no doubt that General Noriega is a corrupt dictator and that Panama will be better off without him. Will the Secretary of State answer my following questions?

Under what provision of the canal treaty have United States forces intervened? If it is that relating to the smooth operation of the canal, can the Americans offer guarantees that the canal will continue to operate smoothly? Under what provision of the United Nations charter have the United States forces intervened? If the United States is citing section 51 of the charter, has it reported its action to the Security Council as a section 51 action? If the death of a United States service man triggered off the action, does the intervention qualify as self-defence under section 51? [Interruption.]

If so, does the Foreign Secretary believe that the deaths of 50 people, including nine American service men, justified the action—[Interruption.]

Does the United States regard General Noriega's statement that a state of war existed between the United States and Panama as a declaration of war? Is this an action of war, a police action, or an action of self-defence?

We ask these questions because any action of this kind, if it is to be justified internationally, must stand up to international scrutiny. Noriega's crimes are to be condemned, but any action that is taken against Noriega must thoroughly justify itself. So far, no such justification has been provided.

The right hon. Gentleman asks first about the British community. There are about 450 of them. Of course, the position on the ground is still obscure. There are no plans for evacuating them at present, but, obviously, our charge d'affaires is keeping an eye on matters and will do his best to offer them such advice and protection as they may need.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman's main point, the President of the United States has stated that he took action only as a last resort. He gave four reasons: to protect American lives; to defend democracy; to arrest an indicted drugs trafficker; and to defend the integrity of the Panama canal treaty. That is the President's statement.

The right hon. Gentleman is right: no one can possibly accurately describe General Noriega as a romantic victim of oppression or as a symbol of legality. There was an election. There is no doubt of the result of that election. That result was overturned. There has been a clear threat to United States lives, including the recent death of an American officer and a statement from Noriega that Panama was in a state of war with the United States. Those seem to Her Majesty's Government to be strong and sufficient reasons.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that the people of Panama are very peace-loving and gentle and that, above everything else, they value their freedom? One thing that they have expressed to me time and again is their desire to be free from the military Government of their country. Above all, they look for freedom from American interference. The new Government will be yet another Government imposed upon the people of Panama by the American Government.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the Americans that the people of Panama, now that they have a Government who are free from the military dictatorship of General Noriega and the possibility of an election, also want freedom from American interference in Panama?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has the background correct. President Endara and the two vice-presidents were not selected by the United States Administration; they were elected by the people of Panama last May. Also, 279 independent observers from 21 countries, including at least one Member of this House, after observing the elections in Panama last May, formally declared that the election was overwhelmingly won by the Opposition alliance headed by President Endara. From what President Bush has been saying to the American people today, it is clear that the Americans have their rights under the treaty, but they have no desire to impose a Government on Panama, nor have they done so in this case.

When the President of the United States spoke to the Prime Minister this morning about this matter, which item of the United Nations charter did he cite as the authority under which he acted? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that for the United States President to act as judge and executioner in his own cause and in the cause of his country is a plain defiance of the United Nations charter? Do the British Government really intend that this shame should be repeated at the Security Council? Are we to stand up for the charter or to humiliate ourselves once again by supporting the United States' action?

In his conversation with my right hon. Friend, the President expounded the action that is being taken on the same lines as he then made it public when speaking to the American people. The right hon. Gentleman is on the wrong side in this matter—he is on the wrong footing. It is not a question of the United States intervening to impose a Government. A Government were elected but that election was set aside—[Interruption.] I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is listening, but these are the facts. Independent observers, of a type of which the right hon. Gentleman is always much in favour, observed the election and upheld the result. However, it was then set aside.

Constant efforts have been made—not just by the United States, but by many others also—to have the democratic results restored, but all those efforts have failed. More recently, an American officer has been murdered, threats and attacks have been made on others and General Noriega has declared that his country must be regarded as in a state of war with the United States. Having added up those considerations, they appear to us to be strong and sufficient.

Having led a delegation into the interior of Panama to supervise the recent election, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend will accept it from me that two statements are clear beyond peradventure? The first is that the opposition, led by Mr. Endara won an overwhelming victory, and the second is that, however much it may disappoint Opposition Members, far from sentiments of anti-Americanism, we received frequent expressions of sentiment that the United States must help the Panamanian people to secure the democracy that they so deeply wanted. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we give Mr. Endara and his budding Government every support in the most difficult days that they are surely going to face?

I had hoped that my hon. Friend would be in his place, because it was he who joined observers from other countries to observe the election. From his personal experience, he has corroborated the points that I was trying to make. Of course it is regrettable and tragic that there should be loss of life on such occasions, but many people have already died as a direct result of the brutal and arbitrary rule of General Noriega. I endorse what my hon. Friend has said. We wish President Endara and his democratically elected Government every success in steering Panama out of this tragic chapter in its history.

We support the United States action, but do so under the terms of the United Nations charter that relate to self-defence. Whatever the provocation, is it not a vital principle, always worth upholding, that countries should invade others only under the terms of international law? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, having had a declaration by General Noriega of a state of war between the two countries and having had threats to the lives of American service men who had every right to be in Panama, it is under the terms of the charter that the Americans should now rest their case, not on the restoration of democracy, however desirable?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to stress the two latter points, on which, as I have said, we rest our belief that the reasons were strong and sufficient. However, one cannot get away from the political context, and I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman would want us to do so. We are not talking about a military ruler being imposed by the United States; we are talking about a military ruler being deposed and a democratically elected president being able to take up his position.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the situation in Panama at present is an absolute tragedy? When the rest of Latin America is returning to democracy, is it right that Panama should be left under a jumped-up thug financed by drug money? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that the United States should be congratulated if it were to succeed, as it did in Grenada, in restoring democracy, removing tyranny and then withdrawing?

It is certainly the United States' aim, which we entirely share, that democracy in Panama should be restored. Fortunately, there was an election with a clear result which was attested by international opinion, so it is not a matter of choosing somebody from a group of Panamanian politicians and having to ask, "Is he the right man, or is he not?" We are talking about a person who was elected along with his two vice presidents. It amazes me that it should be thought undemocratic to restore democracy.

What attitude would Conservative Members have taken if that action had been taken by the Soviet Union in a sovereign country? However the right hon. Gentleman dresses it up, the American invasion of Panama City is an act of naked aggression against the sovereignty of that country. He knows that that is true. Whatever he might think of General Noriega, to describe the Noriega regime as a reign of terror is grotesque in the light of what is happening in Romania, what happened in Tianamen square and the death squad activities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

When will the Government insist that the United States of America begins to act like a civilised nation upholding the United Nations treaty? When will the Government stop acting as apologists for every act of aggression perpetrated by the United States?

The hon. Gentleman is well astray. In the long-distant past, under policies now abandoned, the Soviet Union did intervene in eastern Europe—not to uphold a democratically elected Government but to suppress it. Our condemnation of that action was clear and absolute, under different Governments at the time. Now, fortunately, that policy has changed. There is no parallel with the position of the United States.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that our American allies were not exactly helpful when we faced a crisis over the Suez canal? May I say how glad I am that, with the future of a great international waterway at stake, we are better allies to them than they were to us?

There is a great deal of history in a special relationship, and my right hon. Friend remembers most of it. We are faced now not with history or with reminding people of events long past, but simply with common-sense practicalities and, I think, the morality of the present position. The considerations that we weighed up brought us to the conclusion that the American action was justified.

The Foreign Secretary is propounding a strange doctrine—that if the cause is good, the action must be right. Does he recall that, at the time of the invasion of South Georgia, the Government relied heavily and properly on the rule of international law? Where is the principle of the rule of international law in this affair?

The right hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, is at odds with the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who drew attention to the rules of article 51 of the United Nations charter; reminded us that an American colonel had been murdered and that there had been threats against others; and pointed out that a few days ago General Noriega declared that his country should be considered to be in a state of war with the United States.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that during a recent speech, and while waving a machete, General Noriega declared war on the United States? Can my right hon. Friend explain how it could possibly be in the interests of this or any other country for Panama and its important waterway to remain in the hands of an utterly corrupt regime and a dictator who is a psychopath, a drug trafficker and a flouter of the democratic will of his own people?

How can the Labour party, in its hostility to the United States, find it possible to praise almost anybody, including Noriega, just to make its own point?

The Labour party stance on these matters appears to become more and more eccentric. We are not concerned just with the strategic importance of Panama, although that is undoubted. For several years, efforts have been made by the United States, by democracies in central and southern America and by the international community to deal with the problem. Those efforts were made in good faith but have not been successful.

The moment clearly came, in the judgment of the President of the United States, when other action was required. It was justified by the election results and by the declaration of General Noriega to which my hon. Friend referred. We believe the action to be justified.

Listening to the hyperbole of Conservative Members, one could be forgiven for believing that they had bitterly condemned Noriega's Government during the past decade. Does the Secretary of State recognise that, until 1986, the United States awarded prizes to Noriega for his work against drugs and that, as recently as 1986, Interpol held conferences in Panama in recognition of the work done there against drugs? Does he recognise that what has happened today has nothing to do with drugs, little to do with the personality of General Noriega and everything to do with an American determination to renege on the Panama canal treaty? Does he recognise that to support military action aimed at creating the circumstances in which the treaty democratically arrived at by Torrijos and Carter can be reneged upon is a dangerous precedent for this country?

It is not a question of reneging: the hon. Gentleman gives a phoney account of what occurred. By his own admission, for several years the true nature, character and villainy of General Noriega's regime have been apparent to everyone. Elections in Panama this year were not cooked. Noriega lost them and overturned the result. I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman makes excuses.

Order. This is an extension of Question Time. We must move on to the statement on Hong Kong.