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The "Kiev": Passage Through Bosphorus

Volume 374: debated on Thursday 7 October 1976

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what protests are being made by any of the signatories to the Montreux convention against the passage of the aircraft-carrier "Kiev" through the Bosphorus in July.

My Lords, I am not aware of any such protests. The Turkish Government, which is responsible for supervising the provisions of the Convention relating to the transit of warships, were notified by the Soviet authorities that an unnamed cruiser would transit the Straits and accepted the "Kiev's" passage on the basis of this description. In these circumstances Her Majesty's Government did not consider it appropriate to make a formal objection, nor indeed did any other Governments.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply, which I am bound to say I find far from reassuring. Do the Government accept that the Soviet Government did in fact pass an aircraft carrier through the Bosphorus and, if so, do they agree that that would have been in contravention of the Montreux Convention?

My Lords, can my noble friend say upon what mission the aircraft carrier "Kiev" was engaged in its passage through the Bosphorus?

My Lords, could the noble Lord tell the House what are the intentions of Her Majesty's Government and, indeed, of NATO as a whole towards the probable passage of two or three more Soviet aircraft carriers now under construction in the Black Sea, to say nothing of the 11 more which are alleged to be planned for construction in the Black Sea, if and when the time comes for them also to pass out through the Bosphorus?

My Lords, whenever it is proposed to pass any vessel either into the Black Sea or out of it, on each occasion specific notification of transit has to be made to the Turkish Government. The attitude of Her Majesty's Government and their cosignatories would be dictated at that time by the circumstances of that occasion.

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether, when Her Majesty's Government sit down to negotiate arms control arrangements with the Russians, they will inquire of them whether they are arrangements of a type which are intended to be kept or arrangements of the Montreux type?

My Lords, disregarding the tendentiousness of the last part of the noble Lord's question, with which I have certain sympathy, actually, one would hope that successive conventions, especially relating to the security of countries, would be somewhat more precisely drafted than proved possible in regard to the 1936 Convention.

My Lords, could the Minister indicate to us whether Her Majesty's Government considered carefully the point that, while a protest would have been quite unavailing, none the less there is something to be said for going on record so that a bad precedent in international law is not created?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Gore-Booth for putting it so precisely, as we are in search of precision in this matter. It is very helpful indeed that, short of protest—and that, as the House knows, is a term of art in diplomacy—concern, and more than concern, is expressed in this House so that those who are co-signatories of conventions understand that at least in future we all expect more precise conformity with what has been agreed.

My Lords, is not our intelligence sufficiently good to enable us to prod the Turks in advance, so stopping the passage of these vessels?

My Lords, we and our co-signatories have every confidence in the Turkish Government to carry out their functions under the 1936 Convention.

My Lords, will not the noble Lord agree that 10 years ago the Government created the situation for themselves by causing us to describe aircraft carriers as through-deck cruisers?

My Lords, that is a matter of opinion and considerable argument.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us were concerned in 1936 about the Montreux agreement, that there has been a great war since then, and that the Russians have suffered 35 million dead, and will be therefore ask the Opposition not to act like God? What would the Opposition do? Would the Opposition use military force to stop ships from sailing in a sea which is contiguous to one of the greatest countries in area in the world? Will my noble friend let the House know what is the exact position today regarding our relationship with NATO concerning these Straits?

My Lords, it is not for me to attempt to answer on behalf of the Opposition, least of all to my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek, on any matter. As to the relationship with NATO, we have to be very careful. NATO has no standing vis-à-vis the Montreux Convention. The implication of any such convention which could be described as an arms control convention is of interest to NATO, particularly in the theatre to which that convention applies. I should like to assure the House, if such an assurance is necessary, that we have and will continue to have discussions with our friends and allies in NATO and outside about this matter.

My Lords, is not the true lesson, among others, of the last war and its 35 million Russian dead that if you continue to disregard treaties that have been solemnly entered into there is likely to be another?

My Lords, no doubt my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek will ponder that reply to his question.

My Lords, in pursuance of the last question but two, is it not the case that our through-deck cruiser carries 5 aircraft while the "Kiev" carried 35 fixed wing aircraft and 25 helicopters?

No doubt, my Lords. The point is that we regard this vessel as an aircraft carrier. However, our view of its classification is not universally shared, even among our own allies.