Debate on the Address
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [22 November]
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows : Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.-- [Sir Giles Shaw.]
Question again proposed.
Foreign Affairs and Defence
Mr. Speaker : Before I call the Foreign Secretary, may I tell the House that a large number of right hon. and hon. Members are anxious to take part in the debate and ask for brief contributions? 9.35 am
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe) : It is five months since we had our last full-scale debate on foreign affairs. Today, as the House knows, we are to cover defence issues as well as foreign affairs, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, at the close of the debate. The fact that both topics are being considered together reminds me of the suggestion made by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), that time should be more generously allocated to discussion of foreign affairs. That is an understandable point. I certainly will not be able to deal today with all the possible questions that might arise and my right hon. Friend's suggestion is still under consideration.
At our last debate I offered the House the opinion that the foreign policy climate had taken an undoubted turn for the better. Today one can go further than that. In the West, the European Community is pressing ahead with the revolution in the way its people live and do business. In the East, President Gorbachev is promoting a revolution of his own, the impact of which is being felt far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. Together we are rediscovering the potential of some of the post-war institutions, perhaps most notably the United Nations.
Column 336In other words, we live in a time of great opportunity for constructive action by the United Kingdom in foreign affairs, of opportunity to shape the destiny of Europe as we approach 1992 and beyond, and of opportunity to shape the direction of what may be a new era in East-West relations.
If, then, we have reached a new beginning, it is one that Britain has helped to bring about. This Government have proved that they have the vision, capacity and will to build for the future. In foreign policy as in economic policy we have never hesitated to follow the course that we believe to be right. That has been true in our handling of arms control, the Community budget and Southern Africa, just as it was true when, as Chancellor, I confronted a large part of the economic establishment with the 1981 Budget and won my contest with the 364 long forgotten economists of that time.
So, too, with foreign policy. The lesson of the past decade is that Britain's influence in the world can grow and not forever retreat, as seemed inevitable with the Opposition. The Government's foreign policy rests upon a few simple and clear long-term objectives. We are determined to advance democracy, to defend freedom and to maintain and promote our prosperity. We shall defend our national interests and advance western values at the same time by being a reliable ally and trusted partner.
Our starting point is our place in Europe. The United Kingdom is an active and committed member of the European Community, which promotes democracy, enhances our competitive strength in world trade and plays a significant part in our prosperity.
Likewise, we are an active and committed member of NATO, the guarantor of our security. Through those organisations, we protect and promote our interests and determine our own destiny.
A moment ago, I said that we had helped to shape a new beginning in foreign affairs. In East-West relations--a topic on which the Foreign Affairs Committee is currently doing a great deal of work--we have consistently pursued a policy that combines strong defence with the search for dialogue, not dialogue for its own sake, but to get results.
After the years of confrontation following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it was, finally, the Soviet Union, under Mr. Gorbachev, which began to move towards our agenda. Notable successes have followed : the INF treaty ; and the prospect of withdrawal from Afghanistan itself. Throughout that period, NATO has been fortified by the strength of our bilateral relationship with the United States. The Prime Minister and President Reagan have forged a bond which, as we saw last week in Washington, in its closeness and warmth, has been unprecedented since the war. The election of Vice-President Bush--we warmly congratulate him on his success--offers the prospect of welcome continuity in American policy.
Meanwhile, we look forward to President Gorbachev's third visit to the United Kingdom next month. Discussions with him are always lively, in marked contrast to those with his predecessors. On the occasions when I challenged Mr. Gromyko, for example, on any point of Soviet policy, the almost invariable consequence was the replaying of a well-worn record. I have a particular instance in mind--one of many. When I raised with him the all-too-familiar catalogue of human rights cases--many of them now
Column 337solved--his only response was to tell me that I was "lowering the tone of the conversation". There was no serious debate whatever.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm or deny whether, at the same meeting, representatives of the Soviet Government mentioned human rights abuses in this country and the number of people held in prison in Northern Ireland?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : Absolutely not. The hon. Gentleman's question reveals just how little he has understood the purport of what I am saying. On other occasions when I have raised the question of human rights with Mr. Gromyko, he declined to comment at all. On that occasion, his contribution was remarkably generous, when he offered that one sentence and said that we were lowering the tone of our conversation. That was the character of the dialogue at the time--no serious debate at all.
With President Gorbachev and my opposite number Mr. Shevardnadze, we have established a real dialogue on the issues. It is refreshing to be able to explore, and often to diminish, our differences frankly and openly. Mr. Gorbachev has launched an historic process of political and economic reform in his country. His thinking has become more radical as he has come to realise the full extent of the overhaul that is needed. We welcome what Mr. Gorbachev is trying to do. If he succeeds, it will be an event of far- reaching importance for the Soviet Union and for the wider world. Surely we cannot be certain that he will succeed. His own country--from Tbilisi to Tallinn--is in ferment. The Soviet Union is not going to end up as a Western-style democracy. It is hard for Mr. Gorbachev to achieve democratic goals when the means at his disposal are essentially non-democratic. He wants to make the existing one-party system more efficient, not dismantle it.
We also have to face up to the fact that the Soviet Union will remain a military superpower. Soviet military might is a stark reality. The Soviet Union still spends at least 15 per cent. of its GNP on defence. Why does the Soviet Union need more than 5 million active members in its armed forces--as many as the entire population of Denmark? Why do the Russians still build twice as many tanks as NATO every year? What is it all for?
The Soviet Union claims that its force levels and deployments in Europe are purely defensive. Yet we see Warsaw pact forces superior in numbers and geared for offensive operations. The answer to that paradox lies in the facts--cold, simple facts. Without agreed facts, there can be no starting point for negotiations, no reliable verification, and no arms control agreements. We need the facts out in the open--facts that underpin our case and justify NATO's entire approach to arms control.
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Surely the right hon. and learned Gentleman must know the history of the whole business. He must understand that, after the revolution in 1917, the Soviet Union was invaded by countries from the West, including our own. He must also be aware that, eventually, despite the agreement with Hitler for a short period, the Germans marched in against
Column 338the Russians, and 20 million people were killed. In such circumstances, would not the right hon. and learned Gentleman be concerned about the future?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The hon. Gentleman made a point that I have made on many occasions, and it is important to concede it. But the two conflicts to which he referred--bloody and dreadful as were their consequences for the people of the Soviet Union--occurred decades ago. The points that he made show why we should be concerned about historial recollection in the Soviet Union. They do not show why, today, the Soviet Union, under its new dispensation, is still manufacturing twice as many tanks as the whole of NATO manufactures. They do not show why, today, the Soviet Union is still launching one new submarine every 37 days. They are the facts that we need to address in today's debate.
That is why I am glad to announce today that, as a result of a British initiative, the NATO allies are publishing--in this document--a new in- depth assessment of the balance of conventional forces in Europe. It is the most exhaustive analysis of the available data ever undertaken. The allies have concealed no detail of their own forces, and spared no efforts accurately to estimate the Warsaw pact forces. The Warsaw pact may challenge our figures. My message to them--my message to President Gorbachev--is this : "Follow our example. Put your cards on the table. Face up."
Military glasnost is a prerequisite for successful arms control. The figures published today show that, despite the improved atmosphere of East- West relations, the balance has not improved in recent years. There is still an imbalance of three to one in the Warsaw pact's favour in tanks and artillery, and two to one in combat aircraft. The Soviet Union alone--I emphasise that--has more tanks and artillery in Europe than the whole of the rest of the Warsaw pact and NATO combined.
Faced with this huge conventional superiority, NATO cannot afford to abandon the policy of nuclear deterrence that has kept the peace for 40 years.
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan) : Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us, before its publication, whether the document will go beyond the kind of narrow bean counting that he has just been indulging in and whether it will involve the publication of net assessments of threat which, apparently, are available to the allies and to the Alliance, or will we get another version of Soviet military power in time for the Christmas fiction lists?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The hon. Gentleman's observations offer a tragically revealing insight into Opposition Members' approach to these matters. To describe the lethal comparison of Soviet military power with the rest of the military alliance as bean counting is to reveal the paucity of the hon. Gentleman's imagination and insight in the most catastrophic way.
The Labour party, as the hon. Gentleman's intervention and last month's Labour conference have confirmed, remains firmly shackled to unilateralism. Opposition Members fundamentally misunderstand or wilfully ignore the part that deterrence plays in our defence. Mr. Gorbachev, for all his talk of a nuclear-free world, is happy to leave unilateralism to somebody else. The Socialist Government of France would not dream of taking lessons from Labour. No nuclear power has ever
Column 339given up its deterrent, nor would anybody follow us if we were to do so. That lesson has still not penetrated Opposition Members' minds.
It is vital that the West remains united in its approach to arms control. The Soviet Union can simply impose unanimity in defence matters on its Warsaw pact allies and on its own public opinion. In NATO, we have to build consensus. We have done so successfully in the past--for instance, over the difficult question of INF deployment. We must continue to do so when we face other difficult decisions--for instance, over nuclear modernisation.
Nine of the European members of NATO, now including Spain and Portugal, are members of the Western European Union. We believe that a stronger and more active WEU will strengthen NATO as well. We see a role for the WEU in the protection of out-of-area European security interests also. For example, we have led the WEU in co-ordinating common European naval patrols in the Gulf. The whole House will agree that our own Armilla patrol--still there-- deserves our special thanks.
Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East) : First, will the Secretary of State explain why the Prime Minister publicly opposed the entry of Spain into the WEU? Did he personally persuade her to change her mind? Secondly, if the Secretary of State regards the WEU as a possible pillar for Europe in NATO, does he accept that France, Germany and Belgium already disagree with Britain on the modernisation of tactical nuclear weapons in Germany?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to conclude my generous remarks about him. His insight on this question is uncharacteristically at fault. I cannot put it more gently than that, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree with me.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I am delighted to see the right hon. Gentleman sitting like a bird perched on the Back Benches. I am sure that he agrees that vigilance and a strong defence remain crucial to the future of Western security.
We want further progress in arms control as well. Here, too, NATO has set the agenda of 50 per cent. cuts in United States and Soviet strategic nuclear arsenals, a global ban on chemical weapons and the elimination of conventional imbalances in Europe.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to the prospects for the START negotiations in her speech on Tuesday. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence replies to the debate, he will emphasise the particular importance that we place on a chemical weapons ban with effective verification.
I shall now deal briefly with conventional arms control. I spent polling day in June 1987 at Reykjavik, and while I was there we were able to hammer out an agreed NATO position and an agreement that there should be talks on conventional stability. [Interruption.] I returned in time for the count and the result was never in doubt. It was agreed that talks on conventional stability--CST--and
Column 340separate talks on confidence-building measures should both take place within the framework of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe.
We also agreed that the conventional stability talks should be confined to the 23 members of the Eastern and Western alliances, who would retain autonomy over the subject matter and procedure of those talks. We must stand by that agreement. NATO's overall objective for the talks is a stable and verifiable balance of conventional forces at lower levels.
At the Moscow peace forum in 1987, Mr. Gorbachev said that the right way to correct imbalances was for the side with the larger forces to make the reductions. Who can possibly disagree with that? The question now is whether the Soviet Union is ready to put those words into effect. We shall be putting that question squarely to the Warsaw pact at the Vienna CST meeting, and to Mr. Gorbachev when he visits London next month.
The Vienna meeting is not, however, just about military security. It is also about the kind of security that a citizen feels in a country where his human rights are respected. We want an agreement that strengthens respect for human rights.
When the Soviet Union first proposed some two years ago that a CSCE conference on human rights should be held in Moscow of all places, the reaction of Western delegations was one of sheer disbelief. But, in the time since that idea first surfaced, the Soviet human rights record has improved. It is now possible to begin to take the Soviet proposal seriously --so seriously, in fact, that we want to be sure that the proposed conference will genuinely advance the cause of human rights in the Soviet Union.
However, we are not prepared to take part in a propaganda showcase. If the Soviet Union wants the conference to take place it must provide clear evidence that it intends the improvement in its human rights record to be permanent, that it accepts that human rights must be respected as of right and that it will ensure open conditions for the holding of the conference itself. Not to set and insist on strict conditions of that kind would be to deny all the effort we have made over the years on behalf of those in the Soviet Union--and elsewhere--who are seeking their basic freedom.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : May I confirm, having recently been in Moscow, that my right hon. Friend's words will be welcomed by many of those whom we met there, who are most concerned that the West may agree too easily to a conference on human rights and who have considerable support for the Government's line?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, which underline the importance of the point I have made. We see no inconsistency between firm Western positions on security and human rights issues and our overall desire for better relations with the Soviet Union. The facts show that Western firmness has helped rather than hindered dialogue by establishing a clear framework within which both sides can work.
Our active engagement with the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe in recent years has been graphically illustrated by the highly successful visit to Poland of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. It is the result, not of a cold war mentality, but of clear and consistent
Column 341policies, plainly spelt out in my own earlier visits to every East European capital. The Governments of the Soviet Union and of Eastern Europe know that we are a Government with whom they can do business. It is fascinating to study the current processes of change in the East. It is easy to see where their economies have gone wrong and to prescribe a greater role for market mechanisms and individual enterprise, but it is much harder for them to take the tough economic decisions that are necessary without the political framework of elections and free speech. It is there that the East is still groping for the solution.
We are under no illusions. We cannot directly influence these developments, but we believe that our efforts to encourage cultural, political commercial and personal links will, in the long term, exert an influence and, by example, help the East to evolve in our direction.
I sometimes find myself wondering whether it will ever be possible for the Labour party to learn what the Communist world is fast acknowledging--that the free market works. There is another crucial difference. Unlike the Labour party here, in the Soviet Union, it is those who oppose new thinking who are being shed from the Politburo--what a contrast to the Labour party.
There is another contrast between the economic stagnation of Eastern Europe and the dynamism of the West. Through our membership of the European Community, we are helping to transform Europe's future. Today's European agenda has, in large measure, been set by Britain. The concept of the single market owes a great deal to our way of thinking and will revolutionise the way in which Europe does business. We have worked energetically with our partners to put in place more than 100 of the 300 measures for the single market envisaged in the 1985 White Paper.
We can work towards the completion of the single market because we have cleared many of the old problems from our agenda. Agricultural spending is now finally being brought under control, stocks are being reduced-- sometimes dramatically--finances have been put in order and the structural funds have been reformed.
The Europe that Britain wants to see will be a Europe not just of growing prosperity but of growing political significance in world affairs and a force for stability, democracy and economic freedom. It will be a Europe open for business and open to the world, and both are important.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : Does the Secretary of State recall that when Mr. Delors made his famous forecast about 80 per cent. of our legislation stemming from Europe in 10 years' time, there was an immediate reaction from the Government and the media? Can he explain why, when I revealed in the House two weeks ago that the current rate was already 80 per cent., there was complete silence? The Government had to accept the unanimity of article 236 of the treaty of Rome in putting through the Single European Act. Will the Secretary of State undertake to accept full responsibility for any legal consequences which flow from that Act, particularly as it was put through the House on a guillotine and a three-line Whip?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I think that the House is more than glad to accept responsibility for that legislation, as it has done for the original legislation on accession to the European Community. The House had a full opportunity to debate the legislation, as the hon. Gentleman well knows.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : Nevertheless, the House had a full and lengthy opportunity to consider the legislation, and the House endorsed it with a substantial majority. We are now working within the framework endorsed by the House. That includes the proposition that I have just set out, of a Europe that is open for business and a Europe, as the hon. Gentleman often emphasises, that is open to the world, because we want other countries to make their markets as open as we are determined that the European market shall be after 1992. The Community has already scored successes with the United States over the recent trade legislation and with Japan over the importation of Scotch whisky.
We want to build on those successes at the forthcoming mid-term meeting of GATT in Montreal. With our partners, we shall be seeking agreements of substance and of principle, not just empty declarations. In particular, in the GATT forum, we must register gains in the key area of agriculture. The Community has cut agricultural support and protection. We must do more, but our GATT partners must make similar efforts so that, between us, we can bring agriculture back closer to market realities.
From our place in Europe, Britain derives additional authority for the influence we bring to bear in the wider world. The Commonwealth remains a significant focus of our political, aid and trade relationship with more than 40 developing countries. In the United Nations, we have led the search for solutions to regional conflicts through the Security Council and, in particular, through renewed co-operation between the five permanent members of the Council. We have, for example, secured the resumption, after an interval of many years, of meetings between the five Foreign Ministers at the time of the General Assembly. Much of the ground for these important meetings was prepared by Britain's ambassador in New York, Sir Crispin Tickell, who has led the co-operation between the five permanent representatives.
As I sat down in New York with my four colleagues and the Secretary-General this September for the second such meeting we were all, I think, conscious of the historic importance of the institution that we were helping to recreate. The founding fathers of the United Nations had intended it to be built upon co-operation between the five permanent members, but, almost from the outset, that role was never fulfilled. Now, after more than 40 arid years, there is a clear sense that we really are moving towards genuine co-operation. A combination of changed superpower relations, and a determinations to use the Security Council to solve real problems, offer hope of effective action on regional issues which threaten peace. The House needs no reminding that, as a permanent
Column 343member of the Security Council, under this Government, Britain is playing her full part in those important developments.
The first fruit of such efforts has been a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war, a year after the acceptance of resolution 598, which resulted from a British initiative. We support the efforts of the Secretary-General to negotiate the implementation in full of resolution 598. The House knows that we have recently agreed to restore full diplomatic representation with Iran. We did not take that step lightly, but we see it as a common-sense move as Iran emerges from a senseless war, apparently ready to rejoin the international community. Now is the right time to improve our channels of communication with a major power in the region.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : The Foreign Secretary earlier mentioned the Armilla patrol. In view of what he has now said, is the continued presence of the Armilla patrol being kept under review? Is there any end to that patrol, in view of the cost to the British taxpayer and of the number of foreign vessels that have been flagged to take advantage of the British presence?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The matter is kept under review, as it has been throughout. I shall leave my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to deal with the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The House is right to emphasise this point, and we have laid great emphasis on it ourselves. We have pressed for action in the Security Council. I raised the matter in my speech to the General Assembly. We have noted the response by the Iraqi Government that they are seeking to comply with international obligations, but we believe that the matter needs to be kept continuously on the international agenda. Therefore, we are supporting the important conference being convened in Paris in January on the proposal of the Presidents of United States and France about the 1925 Geneva convention on chemical weapons. The hon. Gentleman can remain assured that chemical weapons, and the particular example that he cites, remain a source of continuous preoccupation to Her Majesty's Government. It is a ghastly feature of today's world scene that those dreadful weapons should have re-emerged into active use anywhere on the face of the globe. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will have more to say about it later on.
The House will want to know, but will need no reassurance, that we have made no deals over our hostages in the Lebanon or the two British subjects imprisoned without trial in Iran. We have long been urging the Iranian authorities to release Mr. Nicola and Mr. Cooper and to do all in their power to help secure the release of our hostages. I raised these issues personally with Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr. Velayati, when I met him in New
Column 344York in September. Prospects for the further development of our relations must certainly be affected by the Iranian approach to these questions.
The Gulf ceasefire has shown what a sustained international endeavour can achieve. A similar international effort is urgently needed to tackle the Palestine problem. Mr. Bush assured my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Washington last week that he would make this one of his priorities. We look forward to discussing it also with Mr. Gorbachev next month.
Our position is clear and consistent. We believe that the only answer is a negotiated settlement based on the principles of security for all states and justice for all peoples in the region, including Palestinian self- determination. An international conference still offers the best framework for negotiations.
The recent meeting of the Palestine National Council in Algiers gives some grounds for hope. The apparent willingness of the PNC to accept an international conference on the basis of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 is a positive move, but ambiguities remain. The PNC has not moved as far as it will have to on renunciation of violence and explicit acceptance of Israel's right to exist. The declaration of a Palestinian state does not help to carry the matter forward. While recognising the movement that the Palestinians have made, we look to them to reinforce their more promising words with deeds.
It is high time for Israel, whose past policies have provoked the continuing Palestinian uprising, to move as well. Blanket rejection of Palestinian overtures is no answer. Each side must be prepared to make the other an offer it cannot refuse. Britain has been working consistently for a negotiated settlement, in co-operation with our EC partners. Our policy was reflected in the statement by Community Foreign Ministers earlier this week. The formation of a new Israeli Government offers a new opportunity. We will be ready to work with it to help Israel and her neighbours to obtain peace and security. I emphasise that the PNC decisions offer a good basis on which to build.
In another long-standing area of conflict, patient diplomacy has finally brought results. We warmly welcome the approval by the Cuban, Angolan and South African Governments of the Geneva agreement on a timetable for Cuban troop withdrawal. Namibian independence on the basis of UN Security Council resolution 435 is nearer now than at any time in the past 10 years. Patient, persistent and imaginative American diplomacy, ably managed by Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, has brought results, and he deserves our thanks. We have given full support to the negotiations. The Soviet Union also played a constructive role during the talks. We very much welcome this positive example of United States-Soviet co-operation which could serve as a precedent for the resolution of other major regional problems.
We have confirmed our willingness to contribute to the United Nations transitional assistance group. As a permanent member of the Security Council, we shall have a special role in working for early implementation of resolution 435. With our Community and Commonwealth partners, we shall be ready to offer economic and other assistance to an independent Namibia. The main credit for the progress achieved must go to those who over the years have supported the unjustly derided policy of staying engaged. I see here an eloquent justification of our own
Column 345policy towards South Africa. The lesson is that engagement achieves much more than walking away from a problem.
I am confident, too, that there is increasing understanding in black African countries of our position. They know that we are worrying for an end to apartheid, which is a violation of basic human rights and human dignity. They know that we are working for the unconditional--I emphasise "unconditional"--release of Nelson Mandela, whose case my right hon. Friend the Minister of State raised again during her visit to South Africa last week. They know of our concern for other prisoners in South Africa, including the Sharpeville Six. We had repeatedly urged the South African authorities to reprieve them. Now they have done so, and we welcome it.
Those countries know, too, we are helping black Africans within South Africa and that we are working to strengthen the prosperity and stability of neighbouring countries--for example, through the civil assistance and military training that we supply to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Our voice is a positive one aimed at alleviating, not exacerbating, a difficult situation. That is why we reject punitive sanctions, which would impoverish and abandon the very people whom we are seeking to help.
Today this country is in the vanguard of an international community that is on the move. Our foreign policy is coherent and effective. In East-West relations we have put the wasted years behind us. Historic opportunities are opening up. While safeguarding our own security, we are working for arms control and greater freedom in the East. In NATO we are a robust ally and in Europe we are a committed partner advocating bold steps to strengthen the Community. On the global stage and in the United Nations we are an informed and influential participant.
Wherever one looks, the story is the same. One sees Britain acting as a force for freedom, a dynamo of democracy, and a champion of common sense. That is the philosophy and the effect of our foreign policy today ; and that is why I commend it to the House.
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) : In the five months since the House last debated foreign affairs it cannot be said that the world situation has improved overall. It is true that there have been some encouraging developments. As the Foreign Secretary has said, Iran has at last accepted United Nations Security Council resolution 598, and there is a good possibility that the murderous Iran-Iraq war will come to an end after so many years of needless slaughter. I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the Armilla patrol and to the men in our minesweepers in the Gulf. I was most impressed by their dedication and morale when I visited them last year. The election last week in Pakistan seems to have signalled a return to democracy in that country. We trust that a Government will shortly be formed which will reflect the will of the Pakistani people as expressed at the polls. Elsewhere, however, there are too few promising signs.
The Foreign Secretary spoke about human rights. All over the world we see invasions of and attacks on human rights. I was interested to note the change of tone by the
Column 346Government on the possibility of participating in the human rights conference proposed by the Soviet Government in Moscow. Of course, we are well aware of the problems about human rights in the Soviet bloc and in other countries and we are anxious about them. Sometimes we get a response that is difficult to answer.
I was in Prague this week, and in talks at the Foreign Ministry and with the secretary of the Communist party there I raised the question of human rights in Czechoslovakia and specifically discussed the response with tear gas and water cannon to the demonstration in Wenceslas square only a few days ago. I made very clear the feelings of the Labour party on matters like that. In that discussion I found it difficult to justify the legislation in this country which criminalises demonstrations and marches and which takes away the rights of defendants. I also found it difficult to justify the censorship of television and radio and the pursuit of newspapers through the courts for which the Government have now become notorious.
It is sad that little further progress has been made in central America. We trust that president-elect Bush will end any further attempt to fund the Contra terrorists and will bend his efforts towards helping the peace initiative of President Arias of Costa Rica. Our Government continue to play a negative role. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State is shortly to visit central America but that he is not to include Nicaragua in his itinerary. Is that correct, and, if so, why? With the exception of Costa Rica any central American country that he visits will be less democratic and more authoritarian than Nicaragua. Is he to bestow his benison on the death squads of El Salvador but not on those working for better health and higher standards of literacy in Nicaragua?
The Government's initial response to the hurricane disaster in Nicaragua was disgraceful and even now ought to be improved upon. It is about time that the Government pursued a positive policy towards the central American peace process and to the one country which, despite adverse developments, has taken more positive steps than any other to implement that peace process. Of course, we welcome the results of the plebiscite in Chile, but here again the vote of the people does not seem to have resulted in genuine respect for that verdict by the bloodstained President Pinochet. Will the Government put much-needed pressure on Chile to return to democracy ; and, if not, why not?
The situation in South Africa remains dim and depressing. We are happy that unprecedented international pressure has won the reprieve of the Sharpeville six, although those innocent people still face long prison sentences, and that Paul Setlaba has gained a stay of execution. These are simply welcome candles in appalling gloom. Five more people were hanged yesterday ; and Nelson Mandela, at the age of 70, has been in captivity for 26 years. Peaceful organisations working for change continue to be banned. The whole vile apparatus of apartheid remains in place setting the stage for ultimate bloodshed on a horrifying scale unless peaceful change can be achieved.