With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on AngloSyrian relations.
The House will be aware that the trial of Nezar Hindawi at the Central Criminal Court ended today. Hindawi was found guilty of attempting to place a bomb on an El Al aircraft at Heathrow on 17 April and was sentenced to 45 years' imprisonment. Hindawi has been convicted of a monstrous and inhumane crime. If he had been successful, hundreds of innocent lives would have been lost. The way in which he deceived his pregnant girl friend into carrying the bomb was particularly wicked and has aroused deep and universal repugnance.
There is conclusive evidence of Syrian official involvement with Hindawi. The House will recall that in May after Hindawi's arrest the Government demanded the withdrawal of three Syrian embassy attaches whose diplomatic immunity the Syrian Government declined to waive so that the police could question them. Evidence at the trial revealed something of the part these attaches played in this affair. The Syrians claim that they dealt with Hindawi throughout as a bona fide journalist. That claim is frankly incredible.
Evidence was produced at the trial that Hindawi spent some time in hotel accommodation reserved for Syrian Arab Airlines crew, and that Hindawi spent the night after the bombing attempt in Syrian embassy accommodation, where his hair clippings and hair dye were found. Certain facts are undisputed. Hindawi travelled on an official Syrian passport in a false name; his visa applications were on two occasions backed by official notes from the Syrian Foreign Ministry; and he met the Syrian ambassador, Dr. Haydar, in his embassy after the discovery of the bomb.
In addition, we have independent evidence that the Syrian ambassador was personally involved several months before the commission of the offence in securing for Hindawi the sponsorship of the Syrian intelligence authorities. We have equally compelling evidence that during his detention Hindawi sought to contact secretly Syrian intelligence officials in Damascus with a request for their assistance in securing his release.
The whole House will be outraged by the Syrian role in this case. It is unacceptable that the ambassador, members of his staff, and the Syrian authorities in Damascus should be involved with a criminal like Hindawi. We have therefore decided to break diplomatic relations with Syria.
Dr. Haydar was informed of this decision this morning and was told to close his embassy and leave the country within 14 days. The British embassy in Damascus will also be closed. We shall seek to make alternative arrangements of the usual kind for the protection of British interests in Syria. We are also tightening the security arrangements surrounding the operations in London of Syrian Arab Airlines by imposing special controls on all Syrian Arab Airlines aircraft and crew, including stricter searches of personnel, passengers and baggage. The House will recall that last June we introduced a tougher and stricter visa regime for Syrians wishing to enter the United Kingdom. We shall maintain and strengthen this regime.
We are taking urgent steps to inform our European partners and other friendly Governments about the details of the case and the measures that we are taking. We are impressing on them the wider security implications of the involvement of the Syrian authorities and are urging them to take appropriate supporting action. We regret that these actions have been forced on us by the unacceptable behaviour of the Syrian authorities. We remain determined to play our full part with moderate Arab states in the search for peaceful settlement of the region's problems, but we remain second to none in our determination to continue the fight to stamp out terrorism in our midst.
The Opposition enthusiastically applaud the sentence of the court upon this evil man, and share the Government's sense of outrage at the role of Syrian officials. If the Foreign Secretary is convinced that the Syrian ambassador was knowingly involved, it is clearly unacceptable that either he or any of his staff involved should remain in this country. The Foreign Secretary will know that in the past the Opposition have always endorsed the strongest action against international terrorism and all efforts to coordinate effective international action against it.
Is the Foreign Secretary aware of evidence that Mr. Hindawi, together with his brother, was also involved with the Abu Nidal movement from Syrian bases in the Berlin discotheque bombing? If, as a result of new evidence, that is the case, does it not at least throw some doubt on the justification for the bombing of Libya in response to that outrage?
Is the Foreign Secretary convinced by the evidence that the Syrian Government, at the highest level, were involved in the Hindawi incident?
On the question of our allies, as the Foreign Secretary referred to independent evidence against the ambassador predating this offence, to what extent have our allies already been alerted about the evidence available to us and our likely action in response — quite irrespective of today's jury verdict and the sentence?
In the light of the Tokyo agreement and the EEC declaration on combating terrorism, can we assume that both our EEC partners and our American allies will be fully behind us in preparing a similar and co-ordinated response? As the Soviets have made frequent declarations of their own opposition to international terrorism, should not we at least try to put them to the test with the evidence that is available to us?
It is clear that our own national response will be very much weakened if we do not have the support of our allies, including the USA, in response to this outrage. We believe that a clear message should come from a united House that terrorism, from whatever source, will be met with a speedy, robust and exemplary response.
I begin by thanking the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has approached the matter and for his plain and outspoken endorsement of the approach adopted by Her Majesty's Government to this serious and difficult matter.
On the Berlin bombing, there is no evidence implicating Syria or any country other than Libya in the bombing of the La Belle discotheque last April. That remains the position.
On the question of the implication of the Syrian Government, I have spelt out the series of matters that show the plain involvement of the Syrian intelligence agency and the Syrian ambassador. Quite frankly, it is absurd and untenable to argue that a Government are not responsible and accountable for the actions of their intelligence services and ambassador. That is the basis on which we have formed our conclusions.
The evidence involved in the case is either, as I have described, evidence given in court, evidence about which there was no dispute in court or evidence in respect of which the Government are in a unique position to make their own judgment on the reliability of the information and about which we are completely satisfied.
There has been a limit to the extent to which we have been able to take action to alert in advance our Community and other allied partners because of the inhibitions properly imposed by the dangers of contempt of court. The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of a concerted common response to governmental misconduct of this kind. That is why we have taken such care to promote commitments in Europe, and at the Tokyo summit, to such concerted action.
It must be said, as I said in a speech in Bournemouth the other day, that we have not yet reached the point where a country in the front line in such a situation can look to the scale of unity in response from other countries that we would wish. Certainly, we are doing everything that we can to promote the united action for which the hon. Gentleman has pressed. I shall take into account his suggestion that the Soviet Union should similarly be invited to participate in this case.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the whole House will want to endorse his comments on the sentence passed by the court and that the whole country, in the light of the unassailable evidence available to it and all our allies, will want to welcome the prompt and firm action that the Government have taken?
Has it not been apparent since before this vile plot was mercifully foiled that a bloodstained trail has been left by Syrian-sponsored agents in Europe and all over the middle east, and that now that trail has been proved to lead back to the doors of the Syrian embassy? Has not the world preferred to turn a blind eye to Syria and concentrate instead on the activities of Libya? The Foreign Secretary's decision is right and justified, but what else is he considering? If we are to stamp out terrorism, we have to make sacrifices, arid must we not look further at actions such as the cessation of Syrian Arab Airlines' flights into this country? Will the Foreign Secretary pursue vigourously the point put by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) about reminding the Soviet Union of its responsibility to use what influence it has over one of its allies and clients?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for underlining, in his last observation, the point made by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson). As to the general involvement of Syria, it is not prudent for me to make any broad observations. Suffice it to say that the evidence in this case is clear-cut and beyond doubt. We have had to evaluate that evidence in deciding what action to take against the Syrian Government and in relation to Syrian Arab Airlines. There is clear evidence of the involvement of the airline. accommodation and perhaps of the crew to the extent that I have specified, but there is no evidence to support the allegation made by Hindawi that Syrian Arab Airlines is involved in bringing in firearms, explosives and drugs to the United Kingdom. Therefore, we judged that the evidence in this case does not justify stopping its services. We are taking the firmest possible action to step up the surveillance and control of aircraft, crew and passengers.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his prompt statement will receive widespread approval in the country and will be a considerable relief to those of us who have for some time been concerned about the activities of Damascus and its missions overseas in international terrorism? Will he take this opportunity to look again at the activities of PLO representatives in London and ask himself whether something needs to be done about them?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his endorsement of the action that I have taken. As he says, if we mean what we have said on so many occasions about our commitment to fighting terrorism, we cannot shirk, and must be ready to take, such tough decisions, and we must be ready to take them when the evidence justifies such a conclusion. I shall bear in mind his observations about the PLO, but in each case one is concerned with the evidential quality on which one makes a conclusion.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his positive response to the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) that he pass to the Government of the Soviet Union the information which he is passing to other Governments. Is it not a fact that the Government of the Soviet Union have more influence with the Syrian Government than any other Government have? Is it not also a fact that there are some signs that, in the past year or two, the Soviets have become a bit disillusioned with Syria as an ally, and is there not a possibility, therefore, that the Soviet Union may turn out to be very helpful in this matter?
One must proceed with some caution in this area, although it is certainly true that the Soviet Union has been expressing a more significant interest in the need for international co-operation in the fight against terrorism than has been the case in the past. It is also a fact that there has been and still is a relationship between the Soviet Union and Syria which justifies, in general terms, the point made by the hon. Gentleman. But I cannot say how practically effective that link may turn out to be.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that not only the whole House—as is obvious already — but the whole country will applaud the prompt and effective action that he has taken and that all of us share his horror and repugnance for this abominable crime and the Syrian connection with it? Because of the serious implications for all civilised exchanges between nations, is my right hon. and learned Friend in close touch with all our allies as to the next steps that must be taken to deal with Governments who are actively engaged in terrorist activity around the world?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support. As I said in my statement, we are in touch with other friendly Governments, including moderate Arab Governments, about the way in which to handle this problem in the future as well as up to now. One returns to the central proposition that the principles of our response are not in doubt. We must improve the detailed extent to which we co-operate with each other in the sharing of information, in the preparation of warnings and in the extent to which we support each other by taking the necessary action in proven cases. We shall certainly press for an appropriate response in this case, but I must confess that I am by no means certain that we shall get as universal a response as I would wish. I shall do my best to achieve it.
The Secretary of State must be commended on the action which he has announced. Is he aware that many of us recognise the even-handed attitude which Her Majesty's Government adopt to middle eastern problems and that the decision which he has announced today could not have been taken lightly? Therefore, it must have rested upon conclusive evidence in the Government's possession. May I also commend to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) that the Soviet Union be brought into the matter? The Soviet Union holds the key to the problem which has been shown by Syrian involvement in this matter. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Soviet Union does not wish to be a party to international terrorism and would assist if it was brought into the discussion on this serious matter?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for endorsing the balanced way in which we have tried to approach this and similar matters. It cannot be made too plain that we remain determined to play our full part, with moderate Arab states and others, in the search for a peaceful settlement to the problems of that region. We are determined to achieve such co-operation as we sensibly can with the Soviet Union in that respect as well.
It is no secret that the attitude of the Soviet Union has been changing in relation to these matters. There has been a well-known connection between the Soviet Union and Libya over many years, but that has not enabled the Soviet Union, if she wished, to achieve the restraint that we would all have wished from Libya. So one must be cautious about expecting too total a conversion, but it is certainly right to take advantage of the renewed willingness of the Soviet Union to address herself to these matters seriously.
Before we allow ourselves to wallow in an orgy of self-congratulation, may I put one or two points to my right hon. and learned Friend? There are some rather odd points about all this and they need to be answered. He talks about controls on airlines, but has he considered the fact that the bomb in the bag was apparently carried through all the checks at Heathrow, which have been particularly stringent of late, and was discovered by members of the E1 A1 staff in the E1 A1 departure lounge? If my right hon. and learned Friend is thinking of putting controls on an airline, might he not ask himself or the authorities at Heathrow whether something else needs to be done to see that bombs do not get through all the normal checks into a departure lounge, if that is indeed what happened?
My right hon. and learned Friend said that Hindawi went to the Syrian embassy. Are we to believe that part of the plot involved Mr. Hindawi walking through the front door of the Syrian embassy in Belgrave square? If the circumstances are as they have been described to us, I find them slightly unusual.
Finally, I wish to draw a serious matter to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend. On 10 October an article by David Watt appeared in The Times under the headline
What shall we do about Syria?
It was a straight lift from the prosecution case in the trial and seemed to me quite clearly likely to pervert the jury in what it was trying to do. That was accompanied by the expulsion of six Syrians from this country. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend at least to get the Attorney-General to discuss with The Times newspaper whether it is appropriate that such one-sided articles should appear in the middle of a trial when they could undoubtedly do nothing but affect the jury.
I am sure that the House can often look with confidence to my hon. Friend to prevent us from indulging in an orgy of self-congratulation. A number of the points that he has raised deserve to be considered by the appropriate authorities. His first point about the control and surveillance of luggage at London airport will no doubt be considered in the light of all the evidence in the case.
My hon. Friend asked about Hindawi's access to the Syrian embassy and whether he passed through the front door, but I am not in a position to answer that question precisely. My hon. Friend is certainly right to say that there are a number of slightly unusual features about this case.
The article by Mr. David Watt in The Times was only one of a number of articles that have been written during the trial, some of them quite recently, speculating on what would be the appropriate reaction by the Government if a conviction were recorded. In so far as those had or may have had any bearing on the conduct of the trial, one would normally expect that point to be directed to the attention of the court either by the very experienced trial judge or by the very experienced defence counsel. As far as I know, that did not happen in this case.
Has the Foreign Secretary any evidence or suspicion that diplomatic bags were used to smuggle terrorist items into the Syrian embassy? Even if it does not apply in this case, following the departure of the Syrian people, are there not grounds for reopening the discussion about whether diplomatic bags should be searched as a matter of routine? The documents in the bags would not be read and would be kept confidential, but such searches should be carried out, possibly in the presence of representatives of the embassies to which the bags were sent.
As far as I know, there is no evidence in this case bearing on that problem. In a sense, that highlights the importance of the point put by the hon. Gentleman. He will recall that the question was carefully considered by the Foreign Affairs Committee about 12 months ago and by the Government at the time. But the problem remains that, if the legitimate value of immunity from inspection for diplomatic bags is not to be challenged and overthrown worldwide, oné must stop short of committing search as a general rule. I believe that the Foreign Affairs Comittee endorsed our view that in certain exceptional circumstances, where danger to human life is anticipated, the right to search may arise. I do not think that the debate has yet advanced beyond that, but I am aware of a continuing interest in this question on both sides of the House and outside this country. It is extremely difficult to see how we can advance beyond the position defined by the Select Committee.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the House will wish him to convey our thanks, and those of the country, to those whose vigilance prevented a tragedy and to those whose diligence brought this man to justice? Is he further aware that the vast majority of our fellow citizens wish to maintain friendly relations with the moderate people of the Arab world? However, at the same time we have had more than enough of our country being used as a battleground for warring factions in the middle east. Consequently, we warmly welcome the court's sentence and the diplomatic action that my right hon. and learned Friend has taken today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as it is right to remind me to convey the thanks and congratulations of the House to all those who detected the crime and brought it successfully to a conclusion in a court of justice. My hon. Friend was also right to underline the point that I have already made twice, that we certainly wish to co-operate with all members of moderate Arab countries in order to try to bring about a solution to the problems of the middle east. That must involve a willingness to approach the matter in an even-handed fashion and to require Israel as well as the Arab countries continually to readdress the fundamental injustices in the region. Only if we tackle the root causes can we be confident of having destroyed the atmosphere in which terrorism can so easily breed.
What is the size of the British community in Syria? What steps have been taken to notify it of the Government's decision to close the embassy in Damascus? What steps will the Foreign Secretary be taking to protect the interests of the British community between now and the embassy's closure in 14 days' time?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising those points. The British community in Syria is approximately 250-strong. Through Her Majesty's ambassador in Damascus, we have made it clear to the Syrian authorities that we hold them responsible for guaranteeing the continued safety of the British community there. In response, the Syrian Government have confirmed that they will continue to take responsibility for the safety of British lives and property in Syria. Even so, British citizens must understand that if they decide to travel to, or reside in Syria, they do so on their responsibility and that of the Syrian Government. We intend to establish an interests section in Damascus under the auspices of a protecting power, but it is important to be clear that such representation cannot provide the full range of consular protection.
Is it not clear that the Government should be supported for reluctantly taking this step? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Syria is a major factor in the Lebanon, the Gulf war and in the search for a settlement to the Palestinian question? When the dust has settled, a certain amount of damage limitation will be called for by my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues if Britain's trade with that part of the world is not to he adversely affected. Will he confirm that the vast majority of Palestinians on the occupied west bank and in Gaza are totally opposed to international terrorism?
One of the ironic tragedies of terrorism is that in virtually every case it is not endorsed or welcomed by those on whose behalf it is deployed. I have met Palestinians on the west bank and my impression is that they recognise the extent to which their cause is damaged by its identification with terrorism. My hon. Friend is right to point out that Syria is, and will remain, an important power in the region. We have no wish unnecessarily to increase tension there. The fact is that any damage at this stage to bilateral relations is the responsibility and fault of the Syrians and not ourselves. I hope that as a result of this the Syrian Government will realise the strength of the sense of revulsion in Britain and the rest of the world against terrorism and states that give support to such terrorism. We look forward to being able to co-operate with Syria, as with every other state in the region, in helping to solve difficult problems.
Will the Secretary of State accept my assurance, as a London Member of Parliament, that Londoners will welcome any effective measures that the Government can take to convince foreign Governments that their diplomatic missions in London should be used for that purpose and that purpose only and not used ever again as bases for international terrorism or threats to the life and limb of people who live in London, or as bases from which to harass students and citizens of other countries whose diplomatic missions are located in London? Will he also accept that the application of one single rigorous standard will help in that, because we cannot have a double standard? We must be opposed to Syrian terrorism in London and, equally strongly, to French terrorism in New Zealand.
I cannot on an occasion such as this be drawn into commenting on questions of a different and more complicated nature, whether or not the hon. Gentleman is a London MP. I am certainly ready to endorse the observations made by the hon. Gentleman. It is of the utmost importance that Governments should take effective action so far as they can to prevent terrorism bursting on the streets and citizens of our capital city and any other in the world. In trying to do that, it is important to apply a uniform standard. This Government have done and will continue to do everything that can be done in that direction.
Order. The statement has already run for half an hour. In view of the importance of the subject, I shall call hon. Gentlemen who have risen, but I ask them to put their questions briefly.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that, following the sentence on Hindawi of 45 years, there is some concern that Abu Nidal might seek to take reprisals against bases in Cyprus or British legations around the world or in London. Can my right hon. and learned Friend advise me what steps, if any, have been taken regarding that matter? What action would the Government take if such steps were taken by the Syrian Government?
I think my hon. Friend is right in underlining the anxiety that must be felt about the risk of reprisals as a result of such action in any circumstances. Our response to that is twofold: first, we must make it plain that the Government cannot and will not flinch from doing what must be done in such cases because of fear of reprisal. To adopt any other attitude would positively encourage terrorism. Secondly, we must take the fullest possible range of precautions, especially for premises overseas, to protect those who might be threatened by reprisals. Sadly, so long as terrorism remains a threat, one cannot produce a complete guarantee against it.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his robust and prompt action and join others who have done so. I ask him what measures he is taking to ensure that people who are appointed here in a diplomatic role arc bona fide diplomats and are not in some way agents of either their secret service or terrorist organisations. Is he making certain that all diplomats are properly vetted before they are accepted as proper representatives of their country in London?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. He is right to draw attention to that point which, as he knows, was considered by the Foreign Affairs Committee. We seek to scrutinise the qualifications of those appointed to diplomatic positions in this country with those factors in mind, with particular vigilance where there is special reason to do so, and take action as appropriate. This case will serve to underline the need for further care and vigilance in that respect.
In congratulating my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary on the robust and swift way in which he has handled the matter, will he assure the House that if, as has come to light in the past few weeks of the trial and the heightened interest in the matter, there is any evidence that there is terrorist activity being run from other embassies in London, regardless of where they come from, he will not hesitate to act again?
I am sure that the House will need no reminding of the extent to which we seek to apply a uniform standard in relation to all these matters. Terrorism, especially if it is promoted or provoked by diplomatic misconduct, cannot be tolerated.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that to say to him that his action will meet with virtually universal approval in this country is not, as has been suggested, to wallow in congratulation but simply to state a fact, a fact which I feel sure will be recognised by the tacit support and understanding of responsible Governments in the Arab world? In view of the notorious record of the Alawite regime in Syria, whose sinister activities have gone unpublicised and unpunished for far too long, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that our security forces will now be placed on an exceptionally high level of alert against further possible Syrian terrorist action?
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to underline the importance of precautionary action of the sort that he has described. It is right that we should be especially vigilant in our security precautions at this time. It is right also that we should continue to leave the Syrian Government in no doubt of our abhorrence of terrorists and those who support them. We have discussed this through normal channels, as it were. I have done so myself with more than one Syrian Foreign Minister and with the Syrian president. Sadly, the earlier discussions do not seem to have been taken to heart.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for an unusually helpful and encouraging observation. The irony of the problem is that diplomatic immunity, properly exercised, is essential to the conduct of representation of Governments around the world, which is in itself essential if we are to be in a position to safeguard the interests of our citizens who travel overseas. When it is abused, however, the civilised world collectively has to make plain its determination not to tolerate such abuse. The United Kingdom and Her Majesty's Government have been in the forefront of encouraging the acceptance of that standard, sadly, perhaps, as a result of our exposure to abuse of diplomatic immunity. We shall continue pressing the case.
As diplomatic immunity and privileges have been used traditionally to allow diplomats to report back to their Governments privately and thereby retain the good relations of which candid knowledge must be a part, have not diplomatic immunities and privileges been used increasingly in recent years for a far more sinister purpose, which is to undermine, subvert and even directly attack host countries? Therefore, has not the time come for us, in consultation with our friends and allies, to reconsider once again the scope of these immunities? It seems to me and to many others that the Syrian ambassador, whom we have just expelled, has as much in common with the traditional notion of diplomacy as, for example, the vicious armed robber who breaks into the back of a house has in common with a door-to-door salesman who knocks politely on the front door?
My hon. Friend, as always, has a gift for apt analogy and argument. It must be understood that when I stand at the Dispatch Box as the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and speak in justification of diplomatic immunity, I do not make the point on behalf of myself, my Department or my office. I do so because of the necessity to have immunity that covers legitimate diplomatic activities around the world. Having said that, there is a growing concern about the scale, nature and extent of abuse of these immunities. That is something that has preoccupied the House many times and an issue that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has considered in depth over the past 12 months. The conclusion which the Select Committee arrived at was not that immunities should be stripped away, nor that we should seek to negotiate internationally to limit them. I think that it would be almost impossible to achieve international agreement on this issue. We should be profoundly vigilant in our surveillance and about the abuse of those immunities. We should encourage other nations to be similarly vigilant and intolerant of abuse. That is precisely what we have been doing. We shall be firm and vigilant in our actions in relation to abuse and we shall continue to promote a comparable response from other countries. There is no alternative way that is tolerable, not only for the sake of diplomats, but for citizens, to prevent it altogether.
In reply to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), my right hon. and learned Friend gave some advice to British citizens who are still resident in Syria. Is any advice being given to companies with substantial business interests in Syria? In particular, as we are not ceasing airline connections, is any advice being given to airline companies in relation to their employees?
I do not think that we have given any separate and specific advice at this stage because the decision has only just been made. We shall give consideration to all the possible implications that follow from this. We have given special advice to British citizens living in the Lebanon, reinforcing advice already given to people living there of the need in Lebanon in particular to observe a high level of caution and to consider carefully whether they have sufficient reason to remain there.