Notes: Somaliland & Question time at the House of Commons on 23 February 1955 on the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement of 1954 (+copy)
Somalilandsun – The Agreement this House of Commons session of 23 February 1955 is heatedly discussing is that between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of Ethiopia 1 relating to certain matters connected with the withdrawal of British Military Administration from the territories designated as the Reserved Area and the Ogaden, London, November 29, 1954 as the copy from the FCO office puts it.
This is the fourteenth posting of a reproduction of a series of historical notes, articles,tracts and academic discourses to mark proud landmarks in the history of Somaliland from 1884 which highlight events leading to the country’s two independences of 1960 & 1991.
1955: William Shepherd Morrison, who was Speaker from 1951 to 1959, and went on to become governor general of Australia
HC Deb 23 February 1955 vol 537 cc1281-9
I will now, with permission, Mr. Speaker, answer Questions Nos. 37, 63, 69 and 71.
The Somaliland (Ethiopia) Order in Council, 1955, makes provision for the exercise by the Protectorate authorities and courts of the powers accorded by an Agreement concluded between the Ethiopian Government and Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom on 29th November, 1954. I have, of course, throughout been in the closest contact with the Foreign Secretary, who signed the Agreement on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.
The Agreement provides for the withdrawal of British Military Administration from certain areas of Ethiopia bordering on the Somaliland Protectorate known as the Haud and the Reserved Areas. Although these areas are used predominantly by members of’ British protected tribes from the Somaliland Protectorate they have been Ethiopian territory in international law since the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1897. No British territory is, therefore, being transferred to Ethiopia. The Wartime Agreement of 1944, by virtue of which the areas are under British Military Administration, was made without prejudice to Ethiopian sovereignty and could, in fact, be terminated by either side at three months’ notice.
Last year the Ethiopian. Government indicated that they wished to assume the full exercise of their sovereignty in the areas at an early date and the negotiations which followed resulted in the Agreement of last November. During the negotiation of that Agreement, Her Majesty’s Government had constantly in mind the interests of the Somali tribes who use the areas and were able to secure certain very important rights for the Protectorate Government and for the tribes from the Somaliland Protectorate grazing in the areas. In view of the fact that the areas were Ethiopian in international law it was not, however, possible to arrange for the continuance of British occupation.
The news of the Agreement has given rise to widespread feeling in Somaliland and a delegation was sent to see me to protest against the Agreement and to secure a postponement of its implementation. The delegation put their point of view with dignity and force and made abundantly clear the value that they attach to being under British administration. I have had no alternative but to inform them that Her Majesty’s Government must abide by their obligations in international law. I have made clear to them what those obligations are, and have told them that there can be no question of Her Majesty’s Government’s repudiating international agreements.
Her Majesty’s Government have carefully considered the proposal of the delegation that the date of the bringing into force of the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement of November, 1954, should be postponed. Her Majesty’s Government asked the Ethiopian Government whether they would be prepared to consider a postponement. The Ethiopian Government have felt unable to agree that the handover should be postponed beyond the date laid down in the Agreement, namely, 28th February.
I am satisfied that the arrangements made with the Ethiopian Government are the best that could be made against the background of our international obligations, and in negotiations regarding the arrangements for the hand-over the Ethiopian Government have given a number of assurances on such subjects as customs and property rights which will, I hope, be of benefit to the Somali tribes concerned. I have urged on the delegation how important it is, in the interests of the British Protected tribes, that the new Agreement should work as smoothly as possible in order that they may benefit to the full from the rights which the agreement accords them
British Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, 1955
The right hon. Gentleman has referred on a number of occasions to international rights. Does he not agree that one of the great difficulties with which he is now faced is that there are, in fact, two Agreements—one, the Agreement with Ethiopia of 1897 and the other, the earlier Agreement with the Somalis which stated that, influenced by motives of friendship and with a desire to conform to the principles on which the great British Government is conducted, they agreed to accept British protection? As there are these two contrary Agreements, will he not again ask the Ethiopian Government to postpone the carrying into force of this Agreement until such time as it can be brought before the International Court for its opinion?
That is not possible. It would be quite wrong to hold out any suggestion of that kind and not in the long-term interests of the British protected people themselves. I think that in many ways the 1897 Treaty with Ethiopia was unfortunate, but it suffered from our limited knowledge of Somaliland at the time and we must see it against a background of that knowledge and of the expansionist tendencies of Ethiopia in 1897. It is true that, because of the British military occupation since 1944, many people had imagined that the status quo could continue indefinitely, but the Ethiopians could have repudiated the Treaty at three months’ notice and then our protected people would not have had the very solid rights which the new Agreement has given them.
May I ask whether any consideration has been given to negotiations about the boundaries with Ethiopia? I recall that the previous troubles with Ethiopia seemed to arise out of very artificial boundaries among the tribes, their grazing rights and wells, etc. Has no attempt been made possibly to modify the position, instead of standing on international law, and to negotiate more reasonable boundaries in this area?
Emperor Haile Selassie inspecting the Guard of Honour in Bath High Street 18 Oct 1954
As I think the right hon. Gentleman knows, the boundaries of the Haud and Reserved areas have been laid down for some time. Small adjustments in those boundaries would not have met the fears of the Somali tribes. It appeared to us to be much more important, while not disputing the undeniable Ethiopian sovereignty, to concentrate on getting protection of the grazing rights. Up to now the only protection in law which the tribes had was the right to cross the frontier for purposes of grazing. We have now got the grazing rights guaranteed in perpetuity, with a number of other important rights. Her Majesty’s Government have every confidence that the Ethiopian Government will observe the Treaty in the spirit as well as in the letter. While recognising, as I do, that the Somali people do not like this arrangement, I hope they will do their utmost to see that the situation is handled in a calm and statesmanlike way.
Will my right hon. Friend tell the House the area and the population involved, and whether there will be any change in citizenship by the population?
There would be neither. There is no transfer of British territory to Ethiopia and there is no change of British citizenship. The numbers involved vary, but I believe that about 300,000 people go from the Somali-land Protectorate into Ethiopian territory for grazing and will continue to do so under the guaranteed rights secured by this Agreement.
Is not the Secretary of State being unduly dogmatic? This is a difficult and obscure question. As he himself has said, it is an involved question, but in view of the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, does he not think that there is still an opportunity to widen the discussions and to postpone this decision?
All these questions were gone into during the very protracted negotiations which began at Addis Ababa and were continued in London at the highest level. I would certainly not be dogmatic about this very human problem, which, I can assure the House, has given me very great anxiety, not lessened by the high bearing and courage of the delegation. Very few tasks which it has fallen to me to do were less agreeable than recognising international obligations, as I have been bound to do in this field.
How can an Agreement be satisfactory under which tribes graze for part of the year on one side of an international frontier and for the other part of the year on the other side of the frontier? If it is the case, as I understand it is, that these Somali tribes challenge the Agreement of 1897 and claim that their own Agreement with Her Majesty’s Government of 1884 overrides it, why should not Her Majesty’s Government themselves take the initiative in notifying the Ethiopian Government that the Agreement has not yet come into force—it will not come into force until 28th February, next Monday—and that they themselves will postpone its operation until such time as the dispute about the two treaties has been referred to the International Court of Justice?
Every aspect of this problem was gone into most carefully during the negotiations and I am afraid that it is impossible to reopen them. [HON. MEMBERS: “Why?”] The hon. Member said that it would be difficult to imagine tribes grazing for one part of the year on one side of an international boundary and for the other part of the year on the other side of the boundary, but I think he is a little inclined to look at the problems of Africa through the eyes of South Wales.
Mr. F. M. Bennett
On the last part of the question by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), could the Secretary of State tell us whether, if this dispute were taken to the International Court of Justice at The Hague—on whose decision we should be bound to rely—the decision which the Government have made would be upheld? Are we satisfied that that would be the result?
When we made the military agreement in 1944, under which the present British Administration have been conducting their affairs, it was clearly recognised that this was Ethiopian territory. We have never disputed it. I regret the Treaty of 1897 but, like much that has happened before, it is impossible to undo it.
May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, in the course of the negotiations, he made any attempt to meet the Ethiopian position either by purchase or a long lease?
All other possible solutions were gone into. The Ethiopians attach immense importance to their sovereignty which, in a number of successive treaties, we never disputed.
Mr. J. Johnson
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the 1881 Agreement was the only one made with the Sultans of Somaliland and the 1897 Agreement was made without their consent? Therefore, is it lawful to hand over to Abyssinia about 25,000 square miles without the consent of the inhabitants?
If we were doing that now it would be something to which we should all apply our minds. I have no doubt what would be my answer to it, but the 1897 Agreement defined Ethiopian territory in these areas and I have no right to go back on that.
On what date was the information of the nature of the negotiations and Agreement conveyed by the Administration to the sheikh of the tribes concerned?
On 5th January—[HON. MEMBERS: “This year?”]—this year. As to the question of consultation, I must make it plain that in the view of Her Majesty’s Government it would not have been fair to ask Somali leaders to share responsibility for a decision that was bound to be unpopular and was made necessary by the international obligations of Her Majesty’s Government. The date of 5th January was chosen to enable the Somali Government to make arrangements for the proper dissemination of the news of the Agreement among the nomadic tribesmen and as far as possible by acquainting the district officers of its terms to prevent garbled accounts and false rumours prevailing.
As the Agreement was made on 29th November, why was it not conveyed to the Sultans until January? Does the right hon. Gentleman think it reasonable that they should be required to make different arrangements with a notice of less than seven weeks when their whole future prospects are at stake and they are being handed over to another country?
The hon. Member must not say that they are being handed over to another country. I am delighted to find this pride in the British Commonwealth and I pay great attention to it, but the hon. Member is not right in saying that they are being handed over to another country. Their rights of grazing in another country are, by this Agreement, being legally protected. I have dealt with the point about delay in notifying the people in the reply I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport).
Mr. Elwyn Jones
Will these important rights of pasturage and of water be enforceable in the Ethiopian courts? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the Ethiopian authorities have the means and ability to secure the enjoyment of these rights by the tribes concerned?
We attach the greatest importance to this undertaking being carried out in the letter and the spirit. The Ethiopians are bound to consult the British liaison officer about their relations with the tribes. The Agreement secures a whole number of rights for our people which, I hope, hon. Members will read carefully before they make up their minds on this matter. If there are disputes between the members of the tribes they will be settled in British courts in the Protectorate, but disputes involving Ethiopians and the tribes will be decided in Ethiopian courts. We have every confidence that the Ethiopian Government, recognising the great importance we attach to the scrupulous observance of the Agreement, will do so strictly.
I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance—
Order. There is another Government statement to be made.
I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, The decision of Her Majesty’s Government to hand over certain territories now administered by the British Government to the Government of Ethiopia.
The right hon. Gentleman asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House on a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, The decision of Her Majesty’s Government to hand over certain territories now administered by the British Government to the Government of Ethiopia. I have carefully considered this matter and I cannot find that it comes within Standing Order No. 9. Having listened to the Minister’s statement, it seems to me that in this case Her Majesty’s Ministers, in acting as they have done, consider themselves bound by international law. To that extent, their responsibility for their action is diminished.
I also would point out that the Treaty has been issued as a White Paper and was in the Vote Office on 5th January, and has been in the hands of hon. Members at any rate since 25th January, when the House resumed. I cannot believe that the matter is urgent in that sense. It seems to me that the Ministers are merely carrying out treaty obligations and that this is not a matter which comes within the Standing Order.
The only point that I want to introduce, Sir, is that there are two sets of obligations in international law, and it is because of the difference between those two in international law that I think the matter ought to be fully discussed.
I understand that international law applies to agreements between States. If I understood the Secretary of State aright, it has been the Government’s view for a long time that we were bound by a specific Treaty with Ethiopia, and, indeed, we were subject to eviction recently at three months’ notice. I cannot find that the matter comes within the Standing Order.
May I put one further consideration to you, Mr. Speaker? The Agreement comes into force next Monday and it is, surely, within the competence of either party to propose to postpone it. Is there any reason why the Government should not take that initiative in order to submit themselves to the International Court of Justice on the ground that here is a dispute that should be resolved? If we had not raised this matter earlier, would you not consider it to be sufficient reason that negotiations were taking place in London between the tribesmen and the Colonial Secretary, who, apparently, was asking Ethiopia to postpone the Agreement, and none of us wished to prejudice his success in that?
I think I follow what the hon. Member meant. The actual Treaty stipulates the date of coming into operation as 28th February, and that has been known. On the second point, I understood from the Colonial Secretary’s statement—although I stand to be corrected—that the Government had asked the Ethiopian Government to postpone the commencement of the Agreement, but that the Ethiopian Government had refused; they are quite within their rights in so doing. I find that the matter is one of international law and not within the Standing Order.
The Treaty comes into force in about seven days’ time, Mr. Speaker. It has never been ratified by this House. What opportunity are we to have to discuss it? If the House did not like it, the Government would fall, quite apart from whether they are right or wrong in international law.
This is a matter which rests with the House, and it lies within the power of the House to dismiss the Government which has concluded this Agreement.
Let us do that.