HC Deb 06 August 1976 vol 916 cc2396-410

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

As the final act before we move into the recess, I am privileged to bring before the House the problem of the non-implementation of the Final Act of the Helsinki Agreement by the Soviet authorities. On 1st August 1975 the Final Act of the agreement was signed. At that time it was a vision of hope and a symbol of possible freedom for hundreds of thousands of under-privileged people. It has turned largely into a mirage.

Those who are most disappointed are those who hoped for the most from it and who are friends of the Soviet Union—who remember that we were once in battle at their side, as allies against the Nazis. Those who are enemies of the Soviet Union merely say "We told you so." If we are to have detente and good will, this agreement must be adhered to in future as it has not been adhered to so far.

Those of us on the All-Party Parliamentary Committee for the Release of Soviet Jewry—I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes)—have been trying hard to convince the Soviet authorities—

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Walter Harrison.]

Mr. Janner

The Soviet authorities should pay attention to the cries of anger and distress from all parts of this House and not regard them as an interference in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union. They should understand that freedom, justice, decency and commitment to the Final Act are the concern of all of us in every country. No matter where those who are being persecuted may happen to live, freedom to move out of a country is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and and in the Final Act, and it is being abused.

Those of us who have spoken to Soviet leaders and have raised this question have always been told "You are interfering in our affairs." That is a travesty, as they well know. When they rightly complain about the mistreatment of minorities in other countries, they are within their rights and performing their duty.

When we in the House and country complain about interference with the rights of people in the Soviet Union, that is our right, duty and privilege. We live in a land where we are free to speak our minds. We do not speak today on behalf of our own citizens but on behalf of others. That, too, is a right of which we are proud.

As a founder member of the International Commission for Human Rights in the USSR, I have a deep concern for all who are being persecuted in that country. The roll of honour is long. At its head is Professor Andrei Sakharov, whom some of us had the honour of proposing for the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, he was not permitted to collect that prize in Oslo. I am happy that my wife was present with Madame Sakharov when she received the Nobel Prize on his behalf. He is one of the greatest heroes of this century. Some of us are able to speak to him occasionally by telephone. Often the lines are cut and interfered with.

Dr. Sakharov is too great and too famous for the Soviet authorities to incarcerate in prison. But many of his colleagues, friends and associates are today hidden away in prisons or mental hospitals, or are living in a state of permanent fear.

Others, such as the Ukranians or Baptists, are persecuted for their religion. All whatever their nationality or beliefs, are entitled to have basic freedom under the Final Act. They are entitled in particular to freedom of religion, but in the Soviet Union that is denied them. Names, such as Georgi Vins and Bukovski, are becoming household words in this country as demonstrating the Soviets' inhumanity to their own citizens.

As senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, I shall present some examples of breaches of the Final Act from the area that I know best—namely, persecution of those Jews in the Soviet Union who seek to leave. I wish at the start to pay tribute to my colleague and friend, Dr. Stephen Roth, whose pamphlet "The Helsinki 'Final Act' and Soviet Jewry" has been read into the records of the United States Congress in a way which is not possible under the rules of this House. That pamphlet has been of enormous assistance to me in the preparation of this case.

One of the declarations on principles guiding relations among participating States is the statement in the Final Act that in part reads as follows: "VII. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. They will promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development. Within this framework the participating States will recognise and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practise, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience. Those Jews in the Soviet Union who seek to practise their beliefs are not permitted to teach their children. There are no Hebrew schools. There is no freedom to import books. In the case of Leonid Slepak, whose barmitzvah was celebrated by people in this House three years ago, over 200 Members on all sides of the House signed a prayer book which was sent to him, but it has come back. The lad was not allowed to receive it. While the heroic Slepak family remains as it still does, incarcerated in Moscow, no one of us can believe that the Soviet Union intends to comply with the Final Act of the Helsinki Agreement.

Parcels of matzot, of unleavened bread, disappear in the post. Ninety per cent. of the 12,000 parcels of matzot sent to Jews in the Soviet Union last year never reached their destination.

Religious services have been interfered with in places as far apart as Zhmerinka in the Ukraine and Kalarash in Moldavia. Religious education of persons under 18 is forbidden.

So much for the Soviet Union's professed compliance with the "respect for human rights", including fundamental freedoms such as thought, conscience, religion or belief.

Then, in science and technology the participating States are to co-operate together so that scientific and technical cooperation will make an important contribution to the strengthening of security among them. We know in this House a great deal of the trials and tribulations of Academician Benjamin Levich and his family. His two sons and their families have been allowed out. Academician Levich and his wife are still held in the Soviet Union.

Not only that, but as has been pointed out so eloquently by Professor Brian Spalding, to whom I pay tribute on behalf of all hon. Members in the House for his battle on behalf of the Levichs, whilst Levich has been invited to various conferences, he has not been permitted to attend. He has accepted a fellowship at University College, Oxford. He is not allowed to take it up. He was promised that he could leave the Soviet Union by last December. That promise has been broken. We in this House do not and shall not forget him. He and his colleagues, Professor Mark Azbel and Professor Brailovsky and the rest, have to hold their seminars in their own homes and to try to keep their scientific skills alive in secrecy and in a brave attempt not to sink into lethargy. They will not allow their minds to rot.

All Jews who seek to leave the Soviet Union to be reunited with their families in Israel, as Professor Levich and his wife wish to do with their sons, and Professor Marc Azbel with his son—whom we have had in this country as our guest on two occasions will lose their jobs. They are not entitled to teach or to use libraries. They are shunned and they are treated as traitors. And this at a time when the Final Act of the Helsinki Agreement has been in force for a year.

I turn to another example—human contacts and the reunification of families and the whole section dealing with the opening up of ordinary basic human rights which we here take completely for granted. Instead of the Act being complied with, there are sad thousands of people not being permitted to leave the Soviet Union. Some have to wait for years, never knowing whether they will ever be allowed out.

I wish very briefly to read a list of names of some people who have been waiting for a very long time and whose cases are now under investigation by the United States Congress. I shall read them because I believe that they should be enshrined as a roll of honour of freedom in the annals of this House: Abramovich, Adamsky, Alter, Ass, Professor Mark Azbel, Barras, Begun, Beilin, Bogomolny, Brailovsky, Chertin, Druk, Eidelman, Elistratov, Essas, Professor Benjamin Fain, Feliman, Fineberg, Fish, Fishkin, Flomenblit, Fridman, Frumkin, Gaberman, Gelfand, Gendin, Girshas, Godin, Gofman, Goldberg, Goldenberg, Goldin, Goliman, the brave Goldstein brothers from Tbilisi, Isai and Grigory Gorelik, Goman, Grinshpun, Grober, Gurfel, Inditsky, Iskhakov, Groberman, Kaminsky, Kandel-Kamov, Kazieva, Kerzhner, Kessler, Khess, Kiblitsky, Kislik, Kislyuk, Kosharovsky, Kotonos, Lainer, Lazaris, Leibzon, Lekhtman, Lenchik, and Professor Alexander Lerner—one of the bravest of all and one of the oldest friends of some of us.

The hon. Member for Harrow, East and I and two of our colleagues, one of whom is now Solicitor-General, were refused permission to enter the Soviet Union to see Professor Lerner and his friends. They are not allowed out; we are not allowed in. Is this what the Final Act was seeking to ensure?

The roll continues: Levinson, Liberman, Lifshits, Livchak, Lvovsky, Mikhail, Minkin, Mishiev, Mishiev, Moiseyev, Novikova, Nudel—a committee has been set up consisting of hon. lady Members of the House and wives of hon. Gentlemen to try to help that brave and saintly lady—Ospovat, Colonel Ovsishcher—whom the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and others have been battling to have freed before he, like his distinguished colleague, Colonel Davidovitch, die in captivity—Pavlotsky, Prestin, Raiz, Rosenshtein, Roitburd, Roizman, Shaknovsky, Shekhtman, Shur, the Slepak family, Smelyanskaya, Soifer, Stoylar, Sverdlin, Taratuta, Tsipin, Tsirulnikova, Ulanovsky, Yampolsky, Yankelvich and Zubarev.

From A to Z it is a catalogue of the bravery of people who have risked all. They know that a person who applies to leave the Soviet Union not merely loses his job but risks being locked up in a mental hospital, as Victor Feinberg and his wife have shown. The applicant for a visa to leave for Israel risks being the centre of a show trial, risks becoming another of the prisoners of conscience. There are today some 40 Jewish prisoners of conscience in the USSR. We pay tribute to them. We shall not rest until they are all free to be reunited with their families in Israel. They have committed no crime. They simply wish to enjoy the freedom which we all have and so freely appreciate.

Sons of these people may be called up for military service so as to delay the departure for Israel of their entire families. Conscript Anatoli Malkin is now, I understand, in prison. All applicants for visas risk everything for the freedom which we imbibe in the very air that we breathe.

Apart from not being allowed to leave the country, there is the disgraceful harassment of those who apply to leave. There is meant to be freedom of communication, but in fact there is very little. Telephones are cut off, and letters are interfered with. People are not only treated as pariahs in their own country, but every effort is made to isolate them, so that both the isolation itself and the fear of it will prevent others from following the path that these people have so bravely chosen.

After that catalogue of misery, is it possible that the Helsinki Agreement could have been worth having? I still believe that the answer must be "Yes", because if one does not have hope there is nothing to batten on to. The Helsinki Agreement is an indication that the Soviet Union appreciates that if it wishes to be included in the catalogue of civilised countries it must adhere to the basic decencies of human life. Were it not for the Final Act and for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights there would be no such accepted standards. What we are seeking is that the Soviet Union should adhere to the standards that it has itself proclaimed.

What do we ask that the Government do in these circumstances? First, I ask that my hon. Friend will repeat the undertaking given by his colleague the Under-Secretary of State in the House the other day—that he will express the deep concern of both sides of the House and of people outside for those who are still suffering and that he will bring to the attention of the Soviet authorities, publicly and privately, whenever there is a proper opportunity and occasion to do so, this concern which comes from us all.

Second, I invite my hon. Friend to give the most serious consideration to the possibility of setting up a monitoring arrangement such as that created by Public Law 94–304 of the United States Congress which says: The Commission is authorised and directed to monitor the acts of the signatories which reflect compliance with or violation of the provisions that are listed in the document. The commission includes members of the House of Representatives and of the Senate and appointees of the President of the United States. We in this House should have the same sort of monitoring arrangement within the rules of this House. I know that this is not a matter to which my hon. Friend can agree now, but I ask him to undertake to discuss this with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and his colleagues and give it the most serious consideration.

Third, we should protest to the international telegraphic and postal authorities and demand an end to the restrictions on communications.

Fourth, we should support all organisations in the field of human rights battling for the rights of the persecuted.

Fifth, we should emphasise that detente means the relaxation of strain, which cannot occur while minorities are held in bondage.

Sixth, we should emphasise that the friends of the USSR are most concerned about this matter and warn that Belgrade is less than a year away and when the time comes up for reconsideration of the Final Act it is by no means certain that it will remain in effect.

I end with a tribute to Mr. Victor Feinberg and to his wife, whose stepson Misha, aged nine, is apparently now to be kept permanently in the Soviet Union. We are told that Mrs. Fainberg is to be deprived of her maternal rights. That young boy wrote to his mother a poem, which ends: the pen will write the law of eternal happiness and then without doubt unhappiness will suddenly die". We pray that unhappiness will die for all those who are suffering like that family.

We pay tribute to the brave of every faith and to all those who are seeking to keep alive the embers of freedom in the Soviet Union. We trust that, with the co-operation of the Government and hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House, the Final Act will one day lead to freedom for all in the Soviet Union.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I must congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) on his skilful and moving speech. I welcome the opportunity briefly to support all that he has said and I repeat the requests that he has just made to the Minister for some information about the Government's attitude in relation to the problem of human rights, and in particular on the question of the Jewish minority in the Soviet Union, many of whose members wish to emigrate from the Soviet Union, but have had no success.

There is a story at the height of the Stalinist tyranny about two peasants from the Ukraine who went to Moscow for the first time and paid a visit to the mausoleum. When they came out they asked each other what they felt and one said he was very impressed but the other replied "It is just like us in Russia, dead but not buried." That story may be apocryphal and it is tempting to assume that things are not as bad as they were. And to some extent that is true. But minorities in the Soviet Union are persecuted. There is a special characteristic of one significant minority, namely, the Jews, and that is their wish to emigrate to Israel and go to the ancient Jewish homeland. That is a perfectly understandable, acceptable and justifiable wish. In addition, the idea that families will be divided is particularly horrendous to us who live in a civilised society in the West.

The Soviet Union must provide—the delay is already excessive—ample evidence that in trade, in human rights and humanitarian relations in general it will abide by the Final Act of Helsinki. The Foreign Office and Ministers may ask with some justification, "What can we do? These internal matters are no concern of ours." But they are; they have become internationalised as a result of Helsinki. That is why one inevitably compares the positive action taken in the United States on this matter with the somewhat more negative—I regret to say it—posture adopted by the British Government.

It may be that we are less powerful than the United States but with our traditions of freedom and a free society I believe that we can still apply the pressure to embarrass the Soviet Union far more than many of us believe. That is why I particularly welcome the debate and the initiative of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West in raising the subject and I express the hope that the Minister will be positive this afternoon.

4.19 p.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Edward Rowlands)

It is a familiar prejudice that the Foreign Office is some sort of ivory tower, not really in touch with the lives and worries of ordinary people. Those who hold that prejudice ought to have sat at my ministerial desk over the last twelve months or so. Over this long Session which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) and I now bring to a close, I have been involved in and concerned with some of the most heart-breaking and tragic human events—whether it be the torture of British citizens in Chile; the plight of refugees in Argentina; the worries and fears of parents and relatives of those kidnapped in Ethiopia; the pathos of the mercenaries in Angola; the bitterness of Soweto and the arrest of Dr. and Mrs. Rabkin and Mr. Weech in South Africa; and now the problem of minorities in the Soviet Union, particularly the Jewish minority. It is fitting that I should respond to my hon. and learned Friend on this the last day of term. I hope that it demonstrates that this is not an ivory tower Ministry and that the Foreign Office can be involved in heartaches, life and death.

My hon. and learned Friend has chosen to raise the question of the implementation of the Helsinki Agreement. We are well aware that it is and will be of value, but it is only as valuable as the extent to which the provisions of the Final Act are implemented. With that in mind, we are watching closely the performance of the participating States in following up the Final Act. This is not a negative attitude; it is a realistic one. Inevitably one accepts the elements of participation in which we and every other country involve ourselves by signing the agreement.

As part of the process, we are having increasingly frequent meetings with our partners in the EEC, with our NATO allies, and with other European countries in the East as well as in the West to discuss the progress that has been made so far. In all these meetings, as in our public statements, our stand has been clear and uniquivocal: we shall not be satisfied until all the provisions of the Final Act have been put into effect by all the signatory States. The passage written into the record by my hon. Friend is part and parcel of those provisions.

It is important to understand the process of the Helsinki Agreement and the follow-up to it. We must remember that the Final Act was the beginning rather than the end of a process and that dramatic changes were not to be expected overnight, with a sudden transformation of long-held attitudes, philosophies and approaches to problems of individual rights or to relationships between one State or another.

The participants at Helsinki set the middle of 1977 as the time for striking a first balance and, at a time of reviewing the progress made, it would, in our view, be unwise as well as improper to anticipate the work of the review conference by making a full assessment now. All we can say is that, while some steps have been taken on implementation, much more remains to be done, particularly, as the Prime Minister said in his message of 29th July to the Soviet news agency Tass, in making freedom of movement and the free exchange of information a reality between the Soviet Union and the Western world.

We have made it clear to the Soviet Government, at all levels from the top down, that we attach considerable importance to the early resolution of the various outstanding cases of family reunification. It has for some years been our practice to raise these matters formally with the Soviet authorities where the individual concerned has an immediate relative who is British, even if the individual is a Soviet citizen.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State had a discussion on this subject with the Soviet Ambassador on 16th February. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised the matter with Mr. Grimyko on 23rd March. My right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State took it up once more when he saw the Soviet Chargé d'Affaires on 26th July. We shall continue to make representations in this regard to the Soviet authorities whenever necessary. But I should emphasise that, in our view, progress between Governments, as opposed to the representations which hon. Members may wish to make, is more likely to come from negotiation and discussion than from public remonstration. It would not be in the interest of those most directly concerned for the Government to enter into specific details concerning individual cases. However, I reaffirm the assurances which were given to my hon. Friend during the last Question Time in which the Foreign Office was involved. We shall do whatever we can to help.

My hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) have referred to the question of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union. We would make formal representations if an individual had an immediate relative who was British. Her Majesty's Government have no formal standing to intervene in cases in which no United Kingdom citizen is involved. However, we take suitable opportunities—and I ask hon. Members to press me no further than this—when we have access to leading Soviet personalities to convey to the Soviet authorities the strong feelings which their emigration policies arouse in this country. They have been reminded in concrete ways in which the British nation is affected not only by human rights cases involving a British subject, a British citizen or a link with a British subject, but also by the issues which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West drew to our attention and some of the individual cases which he mentioned. We shall miss no appropriate opportunity to speak in a similar vein in future.

The House will be aware of the speech made at the Helsinki summit on 30th July last year by the then Prime Minister my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), which ran as follows: I hope that what we have each of us committed ourselves to within Europe, can also apply to those within our countries who want to go to start a new life outside Europe, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. Subsequently, my right hon. Friend stated in the House on 5th August 1975 that in this pasage he had in mind Soviet Jews being free to go to the Middle East.

My hon. and learned Friend referred to the cases of Sakharov and Bukovsky and others. The Government are very much aware of these sad cases. The Soviet authorities can be in no doubt about our attitude in these matters or of the strength of feeling which such cases rightly arouse in this country.

My hon. and learned Friend also mentioned the cases of Vladimir Shaknovsky, Nudel and others. We are aware of these cases, and I am sure that the Soviet authorities appreciate the strength of feeling expressed on the individual as well as the collective problem of human rights cases in the Soviet Union.

My hon. and learned Friend said that he has not rejected the Helsinki Agreement and that he does not reject the process of détente that has been furthered by the agreement. We are working, for example, on improving working conditions for journalists, as envisaged in Basket III of the Final Act. We have made progress of this kind which has been described in parliamentary answers, and I need not reiterate it.

My hon. and learned Friend asked whether the Government would consider the possibility of setting up a watchdog group to monitor implementation of the Final Act's provisions. We shall certainly look at the proposal very carefully. There are differences of emphasis and approach between what my hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Gentleman and others might be able to do in a freewheeling manner to bring pressure to bear and what the Government can do. The manner of approach and the emphasis that we give to matters brought to the attention of the Soviet authorities are best left to our assessment.

It seems more important to look for development and growth rather than to criticise, reject and confront. There is a great deal to be said for trying to create a working relationship through which and by which we can make the representions which my hon. and learned Friend wishes us to make.

The improved political relations that have been created between ourselves and the Soviet Union in the last two years or more allow freer expression of thought and allow us to make representations at various levels more frankly than if there were no worthwhile relations between the two countries. Frank exchange of views is a matter of considerable importance. We are anxious that improved political relations shall result in freer contact between people in Britain and in the Soviet Union, as provided for under the CSCE Final Act. Greater international stability is important in itself, but it has to be complemented by better contacts between peoples. That is what my hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Gentleman emphasised today. Neither of those approaches is possible unless we manage to create a better working relationship with the Soviet Government to enable us to make representations on specific issues.

I hope that the debate will be noted by the Soviet Government and its allies as a reminder of the great importance we attach to steady progress with CSCE implementation, which is as important to individual relationships between people as it is to the relationship between Governments.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock till Monday 11th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.