HC Deb 20 February 1985 vol 73 cc1022-4
8. Mr. Woodall

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what progress has been made in the implementation by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of the human rights provisions of the Helsinki final act during the past six months.

10. Mr. Brando-Bravo

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether there has been any change in the degree of Soviet compliance with the provisions of the Helsinki agreement.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

During the past six months, in spite of welcome progress on a small number of bilateral personal cases, Soviet compliance with the majority of its Helsinki commitments has remained completely unsatisfactory.

Mr. Woodall

I thank the Minister for that reply, but it is disappointing. In view of the Soviet Union's failure to honour its human rights obligations, will the Minister make further representations to the Soviet Foreign Minister? Will he approach Mr. Gromyko and ask him to use the occasion of the 40th anniversary of VE day to declare an amnesty for all Soviet war veterans, such as Colonel Lev Ousischer, who have been detained for many years against their will, and to allow them to visit their families and friends abroad? It is because they have expressed a desire to do that that they are locked away.

Mr. Rifkind

The problem of human rights was raised during the visit of Mr. Gorbachev to the United Kingdom in December. I note the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, and the celebrations of the 40th anniversary, which are intended to be an occasion of reconciliation, would provide an adequate and desirable opportunity for acts of the kind recommended by him.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

Since a right to believe in God and to practise one's religion is a right which we take for granted in this country but which, in practice, is still considered to be an offence against the state in the Soviet Union, should we not put that country in the dock for its utter failure to live up to the aspirations of the Helsinki and Madrid agreements?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. The ironic fact is that the Soviet constitution purports to grant freedom of religious observance to Soviet citizens. We are unfortunately aware that that does not happen in practice. It is important to remind the Soviet Union of that. For that reason we included cases of religious persecution in the representations made to Mr. Gorbachev and on other occasions.

Mr. Allen McKay

Will the Minister acknowledge the visit that was led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason) to the Soviet Union recently to study the plight of Soviet Jewry? There are a number of people in prison whose only sin is to want to go to Israel. Will the Minister take those matters into consideration and increase the pressure on the Soviet authorities to reverse the trend which is increasing the number of those in prison, increasing the harassment, and deterring many people from making representations to them?

Mr. Rifkind

We are delighted when parliamentarians make representations similar to those made by Her Majesty's Government. The hon. Gentleman correctly draws attention to the dramatic fall in the number of Soviet Jews permitted to leave the Soviet Union. Last year the figure was some 900, compared to 51,000 several years earlier. There is no doubt that that is because of the refusal of the Soviet authorities to process applications from those who would like to leave.

Sir Peter Blaker

Would it not be a cause for great rejoicing if the Soviet Union were to make half as much progress in the field of human and democratic rights as Turkey has in the past few years?

Mr. Rifkind

My right hon. Friend is justified in making that comment. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State emphasised, human rights in Turkey have improved progressively over the past few years. It is unfortunate that we cannot say the same about the Soviet Union.

Mr. Winnick

Does the Minister realise that when there was a question about Guatemala not one of his Back Benchers stood up to speak, despite the terror in that country? Is the Minister also aware that the Soviet Union would receive a more sympathetic hearing in this country if it pursued different policies towards people who want to practise their religion or leave the Soviet Union? The sooner the Soviet Union modifies its policy the better.

Mr. Rifkind

With regard to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, if he wishes to be consistent, I should expect him to be advocating the same sort of policy of dialogue and contact with Turkey or Guatemala as he seems keen to have with the Soviet Union.

Mr. Lawrence

Is my hon. Friend aware that at the visit referred to by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) five Members of the House were allowed to visit 37 refuseniks? They told us in Moscow that they were grateful to the Government for continuing to make the point with the Soviet authorities that if the Soviets want us to trust their undertakings on peace they must first honour their international undertakings to respect fundamental human rights.

Mr. Rifkind

We have noted that whenever representations are made to the Soviet authorities they take careful note of the points that are made and of the individuals who are mentioned. We can only hope that they are the basis for the action that is taken by the Soviet authorities. There has been some modest progress with regard to certain personal cases which my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised. We hope that that will be the beginning of more substantial improvements. There is as yet no hard evidence to support any degree of optimism.

Mr. George Robertson

May I emphasise to the Minister that Opposition Members who campaign for human rights do it even-handedly in East and West. Discussions on the middle east are taking place in Stockholm and between the Soviet Union and the United States in Vienna this week. Is this not an opportunity whereby the British Government might pursue the idea of greater flexibility on the Soviet Union's part in allowing some of its Jewish citizens to go to Israel, in contrast to the record of that country over the last few years?

Mr. Rifkind

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that no country should feel obliged to forbid its citizens to leave its territory. If it does so forbid its citizens, that is a mark of a substantial lack of self-confidence in the merits of the country concerned.

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