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Chile: Diplomatic Representation And Arms Sales

Volume 413: debated on Tuesday 14 October 1980

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2.41 p.m.

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 whether, in view of recent events, they will make a statement on the level of their diplomatic representation in Chile and their policy towards selling armaments to that country.

My Lords, relations with Chile were restored to ambassadorial level earlier this year. On 22nd July my noble friend the Foreign Secretray informed your Lordships that the embargo imposed by the last Government on defence sales to Chile would be lifted. This remains the position.

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that on July 18, four days before the armaments sales were resumed, a British citizen, Miss Wilson, was released from prison in Chile by the British diplomatic officers there? Can he tell the House whether the British diplomatic mission in Chile has been able to discover whether she or anyone else within their purview has been the subject of torture; and if the answer is, Yes, how does he equate that with the statement of his noble friend Lord Strathcona on 10th March of this year in this House (col. 54):

"We would not export arms to a country which is guilty of torture?"

My Lords, the case to which the noble Lord refers was drawn to our attention slightly later than the noble Lord indicates. The decision on the arms embargo was taken and announced before the allegations of torture came to our attention. But, in any event, a single case such as that to which the noble Lord has referred is not necessarily one that would alter our policies in this matter.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the person concerned, Miss Wilson—or friends acting on her behalf—lodged an affidavit with our embassy in Santiago on July 22nd stating that she had been tortured and that, to put it at its lowest, announcement of the restoration of arms sales to Chile was a matter of singularly unfortunate timing? Is the noble Lord aware that Miss Wilson is not the only person to have been tortured recently by the Chilean regime? In particular, her fiancé, Mr. José Benado, whose relatives live in the United Kingdom and who have asked the Foreign Office to intervene on his behalf, was viciously tortured at the same time as Miss Wilson. Would the noble Lord say how many cases of torture are required to be drawn to the attention of the Government before they will reconsider the question of arms sales to that country?

My Lords, it is true that the human rights situation in Chile is less satisfactory by far than we would wish. On the other hand, it is the case that there has been an improvement in the situation there since 1974 when the embargo was imposed. We have to judge our decisions and reach our conclusions on these matters in the light of all the considerations, including British interests.

My Lords, this really has not answered the Question. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has pointed out there have been many substantiated cases of torture in Chile. It is not simply the question of Miss Wilson. The noble Lord will recall that of Dr. Cassidy some years ago. There have been many other cases established by reputable international authorities that torture is practised in Chile. When he says that the British Government have to take all sorts of things into consideration, how does he equate that with the plain statement of fact made by his noble friend that I read previously and will repeat?

"We would not export arms to a country which is guilty of torture…".
It does not say how much torture; it says "of torture". How does he equate the two statements?

My Lords, I feel sure that if my noble friend had been speaking at greater length he would have qualified some of the things that he said—which is a general quotation which the noble Lord has taken quite out of context. The fact remains that we have to judge our actions in these matters according to British interests and according to all the circumstances prevailing.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there are many countries in the world where, to use his phrase, "the human rights situation is less satisfactory that we would wish"; and that some of us feel that this continual singling out of this particular country, whereas the others are never mentioned, is an example of double standards which some of us find very hard to defend?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. The fact is that the situation in Chile, although, as I have said, unsatisfactory, is indeed not worse than in many other countries with which we have dealings. All our European partners traded with Chile, including arms trading with Chile, during the time that we enforced the embargo.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we on this side attack torture wherever it happens—wherever in the world? Is he further aware it is not a matter of our simply singling out Chile? Is he aware that Cardinal Hume has made a special appeal to the Government, in view of his evidence from Chile that torture is growing and that the security police have been given new draconian powers; and that he appealed to the Government not to sell arms and not to resume trade?

My Lords, I have no doubt that if the Cardinal had looked elsewhere he would have found unfortunate evidence of human rights breaches and, perhaps, torture in other countries as well. As for the supply of arms to Chile, although the overall embargo has been lifted, all arms sales to Chile remain subject to strict licensing procedures.

My Lords, the noble Lord ventured to suggest that my noble friend had quoted the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, out of context. I do not think that that was a right suggestion to make. The observation of the noble Lord was:

"My Lords, I have already said that the way in which a potential client government conduct their affairs is one of the issues that we take into account. We would not export arms to a country which is guilty of torture".—[Official Report, 10/3/80; col. 540.]
Does not the raising of the level of diplomatic representation in Chile amount to a vote of confidence in a régime inflicting torture?

No, my Lords it amounts to no such thing. The purpose of diplomatic representation, particularly as far as Chile is concerned, and, indeed, in all countries where the human rights question may be questionable is, among other things, to give us a better line of communication to that government and to make our views known on their policies.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, in a subsequent debate on the Government's policy on arms sales generally, retracted the unequivocal statement that we would not sell arms to a country guilty of torture when he corrected himself to say that the Government would not sell arms to these régimes which are guilty of torture that could be used against the civilian population—however that may be defined? Is the noble Lord aware that it is impossible to make any such clear distinction and that if we are to stand up and be counted in matters of human rights we ought not to sell arms, not only to countries like Chile but also to Argentina and Ethiopia and any country found guilty of atrocities against its own populations?

My Lords, that is rather wide of the original Question. So far as Chile is concerned, we would not license an arms sale where those arms were clearly intended for repressive purposes.

My Lords, we have given this matter—which is important—a pretty good run. If it is for the convenience of your Lordships, perhaps we ought to pass on; but I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has been trying to speak on two or three occasions. May I suggest that he asks his question and that we then move on?

That is very kind of the noble Earl. My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, made this statement in answer to a Question that I put to the House? If he will look at the Official Report, he will find that the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, made no qualification whatsoever in his statement that we would not supply arms to countries guilty of torture.

My Lords, as I said earlier, if my noble friend had been speaking at greater length, I am sure he would have done so.