HC Deb 10 July 1978 vol 953 cc1041-50
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr. David Owen)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on the trials of Anatoly Shcharansky and Alexander Ginzburg which have opened in the Soviet Union today.

The whole House will deplore the fact that the Soviet Government have now put on trial 15 members of the Helsinki monitoring group. The Helsinki Final Act states that individuals have the right to know and act upon their rights and duties in the field of human rights. These trials, inasmuch as the charges relate specifically to activities fully compatible with the Helsinki Final Act, are in direct contravention of the spirit and intention of the Act.

The British Government have repeatedly warned the Soviet Government of the consequences which their handling of such cases could have for the atmosphere of their relations with the United Kingdom, and for the chances of making progress on vital issues in East-West relations generally. I personally made this clear to the Soviet Foreign Minister when I met him on 1st June.

A preparatory meeting for the CSCE scientific forum is now taking place in Bonn. I have instructed our representatives to raise at the earliest opportunity Soviet actions in relation to the Helsinki monitoring group and to make it crystal clear that we expect all the provisions of the Act to be implemented.

Mr. John Davies

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, the brevity of which is appreciated in view of the fact that apparently it slipped through the net of parliamentary convention and was not made available to the Opposition Front Bench in the usual timely fashion.

The Opposition share the deep sentiments which the right hon. Gentleman expressed. We have a horror of thinking of innocent men being put on trial for crimes which we cannot recognise. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he contemplates going beyond words and taking some action in the matter, as I understand the President of the United States has done in cancelling visits to the Soviet Union?

Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that this further act reveals the total hostility of the USSR to any efforts to placate it, and will he take that lesson to heart in all his considerations of these fearful problems that we have in Africa?

Dr. Owen

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I am sorry that the statement was not issued. The main reason was that I was trying to discover whether our representatives had been allowed to take part in witnessing the trial of Mr. Ginzburg in Kaluga. I have not yet obtained information for the House about this, although we know that they have been prevented from attending the Shcharansky trial in Moscow.

As for what specific action can be taken, the House knows that, following the trial and sentencing of Professor Orlov, we stopped a bilateral sporting agreement being signed, and that is still held up. I think that we have to look at the question of what direct action we can take. I do not believe, for instance, that it would be right to call off our participation in the negotiations on comprehensive test bans or on mutual and balanced force reductions. I believe that we have shown in the most practical way our recognition of the deterioration in the atmosphere of detente generally by the decision to increase the defence budget by 3 per cent. a year as part of an overall NATO response. I think that that was a necessary response in the light of the events which we have been seeing.

I think also that we shall have to take into account Soviet susceptibilities in our relations with other countries, but I do not think that we will necessarily attach the same degree of importance to them as we might do otherwise. I have in mind our relations with China and other countries. We shall make those decisions on their merits. We seek good relations with the Soviet Union and with other countries, but we will not be intimidated, and we shall not make any distinctions in our approach to detente around the world. The Soviet Government claim that they recognise that detente is indivisible. I agree with the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) that we must challenge their adventurism and attitudes in Africa.

Mr. Greville Janner

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the very forthright statements made by him and by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister this afternoon reflect accurately the anxiety and anger of the vast majority of this House and of the British people at these terrible travesty trials and at their increasing tempo? Will my right hon. Friend impress upon the Soviet authorities that when they imprison and exile people such as Orlov, Slepak and Nudel and put on trial people such as Shcharansky and Ginzburg, they not only bring themselves into disrepute amongst those who are happy to find hatred for the Soviet Union but, in particular, they offend and upset those of us who have not forgotten that at one time they were our allies and those of us who want detente and are seeing it relentlessly destroyed by them?

Dr. Owen

I know my hon. and learned Friend's great interest in these issues, and I recognise that he and others want to see progress in detente. But there is a connection, and the Soviet Union had better understand it. That connection lies, if not in the actions of Governments' certainly in the attitudes of the people of our countries. They would not allow Governments to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom were they to sec daily evidence paraded before their eyes that the Soviet Union was not respecting the basic provisions of the Helsinki Final Act. The Soviet Government will have to understand that soon they will have to choose. There will not be an improvement in the atmosphere of detente if they continue to conduct matters like this in the way that they are showing every sign of doing.

Mr. Powell

What would be the reaction of Her Majesty's Government if the Soviet Government sought to interfere with the administration of the law in this country?

Dr. Owen

It would be to reject it. For that reason, I have very carefully—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman did not listen to what I said—not referred to the specific court proceedings taking place, and that is why I have always observed that and referred to the Helsinki monitoring group and its activities. Whatever one's disagreements with Governments—and they are very great, especially on this score—we must still respect due processes as far as we can and hope even at this late date that the courts will allow fair and just hearings. I say only that there are anxieties about that in the Soviet Government not allowing the press and officials of other countries to take part in this. That is why I attach particular importance to the trial of Mr. Ginzburg, because the charge relating to him is very similar to the one faced by Professor Orlov. That relates specifically to activities involving the Helsinki monitoring group. I draw a distinction between the two charges.

Mr. Faulds

Will my right hon. Friend accept the warm reassurance and support of the House for his statement, except perhaps for that somewhat dubious comment from the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell)? Would my right hon. Friend consider, as a measure of the disapproval of Great Britain and of this House of such Soviet behaviour, the suspension from here on of all cultural connections with the Soviet Union?

An Hon. Member

And sporting.

Dr. Owen

These are difficult questions on which, in terms of culture and sport, there is a considerable element of individual choice. It is often an individual club or an individual orchestra or ballet company which will also be able to make its voice heard. In those activities, the decisive voice often is not the Government's but the people's. I believe that it is wise to make a distinction between discussions involving military detente such as SALT, CTB and MBFR and trading and commercial matters—those are best left to carry on in the normal way—and those other aspects which are cultural, sporting and in relation to the Helsinki Final Act where I think there is a strong case for individual actions to take effect.

Mr. Thorpe

In so far as diplomats and journalists from the western world have to date been excluded from both trials, is it not pertinent to remind ourselves that, when the European Court of Human Rights was looking into an allegation made by the Irish Republic against this country, the largest press corps present was from the Soviet Union? Is it not extraordinary that they should show so much interest in reporting human rights matters in other countries and be so frightened of having them reported in theirs?

For the record, is it not right to say that Shcharansky has been held at the Lefortovo gaol incommunicado for 18 months, contrary to the criminal code in the Soviet Union, that he has been denied access to any lawyer, and that the Soviet lawyer, Madame Kaminskaya, who wished to represent him, was told to leave the country because she was not on the KGB approved list of lawyers, which was essential before she could act for him? Finally, since the right hon. Gentleman says he wishes to make crystal clear that the implementation of the Helsinki Final Act matters to this country, will he consider the possibility of Great Britain withdrawing from the scientific forum in Bonn unless we get a satisfactory explanation from the Soviet Union?

Dr. Owen

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the period of detention. Certainly they have been in detention for 16 months without being brought to trial, and I understand that there is a maximum period laid down in the Soviet Union which already has been exceeded. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that that aspect of itself causes great concern.

As for being present during the trial, I think that people would find much more sympathy with the point made by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) if they had seen proceedings in open court with the whole world being able to witness them and form its own judgment about the justice meted out.

As I say, there are problems in relation to the charge against Mr. Shcharansky because it is one of espionage, and in these cases, sometimes even in the western courts, a different procedure is adopted. I do not yet know the situation so far as Mr. Ginzburg is concerned, but it gives cause for concern, too, that even the relatives have been excluded from some of these trials.

The subject of the scientific forum will have to be left open. It is for consideration whether we can continue with the CSCE process while one aspect of it is being flagrantly flouted.

Sir Harold Wilson

As I am the only hon. Member in the House who was a signatory of the Final Act in common with the Heads of Government of every European country and the two North American countries, signing it in good faith and on the assumption that all others were signing it in good faith, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether, on this matter of the breach of certain carefully considered and important aspects of the Helsinki Final Act, he will make it his business, for the benefit of the House and the public generally, to give us a categoric statement in detail linking, section by section, the Final Act of Helsinki with the actions taken? Is my right hon. Friend aware that I believe that if he could make it his business to publish this, whether by way of a White Paper or in some other way, it would be extremely helpful? It would be better than talking a lot about cancelling this football match or that dirt track meeting, which would not have the same relevance in the public mind and could easily be dismissed by those whom he is seeking to influence.

Dr. Owen

I pay tribute to the success of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) in getting a signature for the Helsinki Final Act, which opened up the prospect of human rights which many people thought would never have been able to be included in that Final Act. I have no doubt whatever that it was right for Britain to sign the Helsinki Final Act and I believe that it is right for us to go on, despite all the difficulties, pursuing the possibilities of detente.

Turning to the specific question raised by my right hon. Friend, following the Belgrade meeting we published a detailed White Paper which, although it did not mention the specific cases raised—because the Belgrade meeting was in private—gave a clear account of the representations that were made in a specific and detailed way over a whole range of areas concerning which we were dissatisfied with the implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. I will certainly see whether we can elaborate that White Paper further. We have tried to give as much information as possible to the House about the dialogue that took place at Belgrade. It was both specific and detailed. The point that my right hon. Friend makes is valid. We need to see the process as a whole rather than isolate certain aspects of it.

Sir Harold Wilson

May I put a supplementary question? We all know about the Belgrade meetings. They were at secondary level and they did not come to anything very much. It was a multilateral document that was produced. The fact that my right hon. Friend has asked the leave of the House to make a statement this afternoon suggests that something new has happened since Belgrade. Therefore, what Belgrade said is not, I think, of particular importance at this stage. Will my right hon. Friend present his own assessment, on behalf of the Government, of the position as he sees it today and not the lowest common denominator of agreement among the 35 countries at Belgrade?

Dr. Owen

We made our own view clear in the same White Paper following Belgrade, and not so many months have passed since. What might be interesting to the House are the details of the charges and the record of the 15 members who have already been brought to trial and some of the other members of the Helsinki monitoring group who are threatened at the moment.

Sir David Renton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that no one could accuse him of interfering in the internal affairs of the Sovet Union if he were to remind the Soviet Government that the mere holding of these trials is itself a breach of an international obligation?

Dr. Owen

We still have to face the fact that the courts can throw the charge out in the Soviet Union. Most of us would be surprised if that happened. That is the possibility that exists, and the main aim of the defence is to try to show that the case ought never to have been brought. This relates to the point made by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), that there has been a serious attempt to try to ensure proper legal advice for some of these people, sometimes from people outside the Soviet Union, at their own specific request. We have been unable to get legal advice for them while they have been in detention and unable to get them properly legally represented in the courts. It is this which is causing great concern.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must be fair to the Private Member's motion which will finish at 7 o'clock. That debate has already been much abbreviated. I propose to call two more hon. Members from each side.

Mr. Whitehead

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real answer to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is total absence of due process where both these prisoners are concerned? Would he not agree that this is bound to condition the way other States see the Soviet Union in the light of the Soviet Union's interpretation of the law in its own country? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that it would be appropriate for Her Majesty's Government to begin preparing now, along the lines suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), a memorandum which can be submitted at the next review conference in Madrid so that that conference shall discuss questions of civil rights, as was not done at Belgrade?

Dr. Owen

I agree with that, although Madrid is two years away. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton wants action rather earlier than that. The whole House may wish to debate some of these issues. We have had a discussion on this in the past. I shall draw the issue to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Mr. Blaker

I understood the Secretary of State to say that we should not link Soviet breaches of human rights with economic matters. I can see that we would want to think carefully before making such a linkage. However, are not those two matters linked in the Helsinki agreement, and were they not part of one bargain? Are not the economic provisions of the agreement very advantageous to the Soviet Union and sometimes doubtfully advantageous to us?

Dr. Owen

I said "at this moment". My preliminary reaction was that I would not take this into areas of trade. I do not think that we can exclude that possibility. In particular, there has been anxiety about the transfer of technology. The House has to be blunt with itself on this issue. It is one thing for us to withhold technology, but all the signs are that many other countries, many of them our allies, would not do the same. We would put our own industry and economic prosperity at risk. If there is any case for taking action in any of these areas—[An HON. MEMBER: "South Africa."] As for South Africa, it is best that action be taken collectively by the member nations of the world, or, if not the world, in the Community. It is better to look at this in relation to our allies as we have done at Belgrade and in other ways, when we have co-ordinated very effectively inside the European Community through political co-operation.

Mr. Newens

May I ask my right hon. Friend to note that while many of us on the Left deeply deplore the activities of the CIA and utterly condemn any action which it may be taking to intervene in Soviet domestic affairs, as it has done in Africa and elsewhere, we would none the less deeply deplore the trials which are taking place in the Soviet Union at present? Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that it is not people who are habitually opposed to the Soviet Union or to detente who are speaking out against these trials but many of those who are committed Socialists and who feel very deeply about the cause of social change throughout the world?

Dr. Owen

This is something which the Soviet Union would do well to understand, that the condemnation and repugnance over this activity is common to all hon. Members and to all people in the country. The Soviet Union must recognise that the people of the United Kingdom will not accept that there can be progress with detente and an improvement in relations between our two countries without progress being made on individual human rights.

Mr. Baker

While I welcome the original statement which has been made, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to convey to the Prime Minister the fact that many people in the country feel that it would be appropriate for the Prime Minister to convey to Mr. Brezhnev at Prime Ministerial level the sense of outrage felt by Britain about the travesty of justice in Russia this week? The Prime Minister should tell Mr. Brezhnev that trials in camera when the verdict is already known are no enhancement of human rights but rather a denial of them. Is it not appropriate that, while Russia continues to treat human rights in this way, it would be a correct and suitable approach for the Government to consider all points of contact—cultural, trading and even defence limitation talks—until there is more evidence that the Government of Russia are prepared to honour the obligations into which they have entered, such as the Helsinki agreement, which they signed?

Dr. Owen

The hon. Gentleman represents a point of view. I do not share it. I do not believe that it would be right at this moment to encourage the United States not to proceed with its discussions on the SALT talks or for us to withdraw from the comprehensive test ban negotiations or the negotiations on mutual and balanced force reductions. We have to try still to seek progress in these areas and not to let a reasonable and wholly justified sense of outrage affect what may be far-reaching consequences for relations between the two countries. I would not accept that at this stage we should contemplate withdrawing from those military dialogues.