Prisoners of War (Compensation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:22 pm on 6th June 1991.

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Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale 8:22 pm, 6th June 1991

I have been describing the 1951 peace treaty. I shall say something later about the change in Japanese circumstances since the war. I reiterate that I was describing the 1951 peace treaty, but my right hon. Friend will be aware that that does not mean that the Government will impede or obstruct in any way the private attempts of any group to obtain further compensation. The Government could not directly associate themselves with such attempts, but we have every sympathy with their aim.

I should not give my right hon. Friend any reason to believe that the chances of success of claims for further compensation are likely to be good, but I shall touch upon a recent development to the claim lodged with the United Nations Commission for Human Rights by the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors Association. It was lodged under a procedure known as resolution 1503, on which my right hon. Friend made comment.

I shall go into a little detail about the procedure. It is a confidential system that is designed to establish, on the basis of personal petition, whether there has occurred a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights by states rather than to adjudicate on individual complaints. There is no obligation on the Japanese Government to pay compensation to complainants under the procedure.

It gives me little comfort to refer to what must be regarded as cold legal technicalities. Indeed, my right hon. Friend intervened to make that very point. I can say, however, that I hope very much that the Japanese Government will respond to the petitions as sympathetically as possible.

I referred earlier to the bitterness that many must feel to see the country that was guilty of such cruelty and oppression two generations ago now so successful and prosperous and a member of the world community. The world has changed. That makes it even harder for the wounds inflicted at the time, for which, perhaps, no compensation can ever be entirely adequate.

It is important to understand the way in which Japan has changed, which my right hon. Friend has generously acknowledged, and why it has changed. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will allow me one more quotation from article 14 of the 1951 treaty. The contents of the article are not always remembered now. The passage states that: it is also recognised that the resources of Japan are not presently sufficient, if it is to maintain a viable economy, to make complete reparation for all such damage and suffering and at the same time meet its other obligations. That was stated in 1951 because the negotiators of the treaty were acutely conscious of the terribly dangerous precedent that had been set after the first world war by the onerous burdens of the treaty of Versailles.

Of course, the negotiators had conflicting obligations. They had as far as possible to ensure an equitable settlement of manifest wartime injustice; they had to ensure also that the circumstances that led to the war were prevented from recurring. There may have been no very happy medium between the two responsibilities, but I do not think that we can easily ignore the imperative that lay behind the words that I have just quoted.

Japan is prosperous and successful and plays a constructive and responsible role in the affairs of the world, because the negotiators of the peace treaty were far-sighted enough to recognise the awful dangers of squeezing Japan as Germany had been squeezed after the first world war. In the 1930s and 1940s, Japan was a terrifying and brutal force in the region. As my right hon. Friend has rightly conceded, Japan is now democratic and peaceful. Its military strength once laid nations waste, but its economic strength now definitely contributes to their welfare and prosperity.

Sometimes, Japan is criticised for not making more contribution in terms of personnel and resources, as well as money, to the protection of the world order in which she herself has grown and prospered. That has been touched upon, for example, in terms of the recent crisis in the Gulf. However much it is right to encourage Japan to play a role in such affairs commensurate with its economic strength, we must recognise that the pacifism and self-restraint that holds it back from doing everything that we like to see was born of a determination among the Japanese never to allow themselves again to be seduced down the path of totalitarian oppression and aggression overseas. We welcome that commitment to peace and justice and must remember that it owes its strength to the spirit of magnanimity and conciliation that infused the treaty of peace that was signed 40 years ago.

My right hon. Friend said that there is a growing recognition in Japan of some of the harrowing truths which he has described. I believe that a growing sense of contrition is being expressed in Japan for the atrocities which were committed. Most Japanese today were born after the end of the second world war. Many others were too young at the end of the war to have played any substantial part in it. It is right that the new generations should know enough of the evils of the past to ensure that they are never repeated. It is equally right that we should never forget our debt to the generation which, as my right hon. Friend recalled, defended our freedom in that war.

It is a matter of the deepest regret to me that I am prevented from giving a more positive response to the questions that my right hon. Friend raised. I have tried to explain the Government's views of the underlying principles that bear on the issues. These are not questions that can be debated in terms of political expediency. I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept that my response, however discouraging it must seem, is meant to convey a spirit of great respect for the memory of the men and women whose almost unimaginable suffering we have been discussing.