HL Deb 14 June 1977 vol 384 cc123-50

8.17 p.m.

The Duke of DEVONSHIRE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the continuing difficulties of Soviet Jews who wish to exercise their basic right to emigrate, and in particular the present harassment of Vladimir Prestin. The noble Duke said: My Lords, let me preface my remarks (because, quite rightly, under the rules of procedure in this House I have no right of reply to an Unstarred Question) by saying how grateful I am to those who organise Government business for finding time for my Question. I really do appreciate it. May I say also how much I appreciate the attendance of those noble Lords who have stayed so late to make a contribution to the debate. I hope I shall not be thought churlish if I say that, in my view at least, my debate is more worthy of your Lordships' time than the debate initiated earlier this afternoon by my noble kinsman Lord Arran which detained the House for so long. However, that may be a churlish attitude.

Your Lordships will have seen the Question that I have put down. It seemed to me and my friends that this was a singularly fortunate date for the Question to be raised, since in two days' time the Belgrade Conference is to open, where the principles of the Helsinki Conference of two years ago will no doubt be reaffirmed. I feel justified in drawing to the attention of Her Majesty's Government the continuing difficulties put in the way of Soviet Jews wishing to exercise their basic right to emigrate, and in particular in drawing their attention to the case of Vladimir Prestin. I hope it is right to be specific, because there are, alas! all too many Vladimir Prestins in Soviet Russia at the moment. I am anxious to show, and I will try to show in my remarks, that I am very conscious that he is only one among many, but he is one to whom my attention has been particularly drawn. The treatment by the Soviet Government of such unfortunate people is—I say this with all the weight that is attached to it—in direct contradiction to the principles laid down in the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe held in Helsinki two years ago, and which is likely to be reaffirmed in Belgrade in two days' time.

As a preamble to my remarks I should like to say that I am aware that in recent years there has been some softening in the Soviet Government's attitude to Soviet Jewry, certainly compared with the Stalin era. That may offend some of my friends in the Jewish community who may think that that is the wrong thing to say, but it is right because there has been some amelioration of their lot, and if one acknowledges that fact it may carry more weight with the Russian authorities. The fact that we acknowledge it may help those who are still suffering from this basic lack of freedom.

Some Soviet Jews have been let out but many have not. I should like to feel that this debate will put perhaps a little more pressure on the Soviet Government to hasten the process until the happy time is reached when all Russian Jews who wish to leave their country can do so, as is their undeniable right. Although there have been some improvements, there is still a very long way to go.

I hope that noble Lords will remember that the case of Vladimir Prestin is only one of many. He is, or rather was, an able and distinguished electrical engineer. He is a Jew living in Moscow and first applied for exit visas for himself, his wife and son to go to Israel back in 1970. He wanted to go to his homeland but additionally—and this is of some possible relevance—he wished to be reunited with his sister. That application was refused, as have been the many applications he has since made. The reason given by the Soviet authorities for the refusal is that, as an electrical engineer, he worked on computers and was involved in secret work in that field between 1968 and 1969. However, that does not stand up to any examination. It has been established that his work on computers was to do with Model 360. T know very little about anything and I certainly know nothing about computers, but I am told on the best authority that Model 360 in the computer world is now totally out of date and any information he might have gleaned from it would be of absolutely no interest or value to the West. So that simply does not stand up and should not be allowed to fool anyone. However, that was the reason given.

Worse was to follow. He lost his job as soon as his first application for visas for himself and his family was turned down. To begin with, he was able to get a variety of totally menial jobs which was an insult to a very able man of great knowledge and skill. To add insult to injury, his telephone was cut off and, so far as can be established, has never been reconnected. It is certainly true that a vast amount of mail sent to him from this country has never reached him.

All that treatment—sacked for totally inadequate reasons, given jobs unworthy of him, having no telephone and receiving no mail from this country—is in direct contradiction to the principles of the Helsinki Conference. I should like to quote a relevant passage from the Final Act of that Conference. The Final Act sets out in Basket One, Section VII, paragraph 8 that: …the participant States will act in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ". The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the Helsinki signatories thus promised to implement states categorically in Article 13, subsection 2: … everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country". That is clearly set out. That shows perfectly clearly how the Russians are contradicting the Helsinki Treaty to which we all know they were a signatory.

Vladimir Prestin is far from being alone in his predicament of being unable to establish his basic right which was given to the citizens of all the 35 signatories of the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference. A further example of the hollowness of Russia's signature to the Helsinki Agreement is as follows. Again I quote from Basket Three, Section 1(b), paragraph 8, where it states: They [the 35 signatory States] confirm that the presentation of an application concerning family renunification will not modify the rights and obligations of the applicant or of members of his family ". Surely the cutting off of one's telephone, the losing of one's job and the restriction on one's mail by any normal standards must be a very severe modification of a person's rights, and, in this particular case, of the rights of Vladimir Prestin. Again I stress the hollowness of Russia's signature to this great document.

Mr. Prestin has been arbitrarily put in prison, for admittedly short periods of 14 or 15 days, on several occasions since he first sent in his application for a visa. When he has been at liberty most of his time has been taken up in learning about and teaching others about the cultural activities of the Jewish people and the Hebrew language. However, here again his work has received consistent and, one would have thought, totally unnecessary frustration. Perhaps it is difficult for us living on this island to imagine that no book on Jewish history or culture or on the Hebrew language or, of course, the Bible is either allowed to be printed or published or, indeed, allowed into Soviet Russia. Not even the Bible is allowed in. Yet in spite of these really hideous and appalling difficulties many Jews living in Soviet Russia have learnt and can speak Hebrew and know a great deal about their common heritage and culture. This leads very many of them to wish to go, after 2,000 years in the wilderness, to their national home. But, alas! the price they have paid for learning about their homeland and ancient and distinguished cultural history is very high.

I would give one example. The eminent scientist, Dr. Josif Begun, was another Jew to lose his very important job after he had applied for an exit visa to go to Israel. He got at first a menial job. Quite shortly after he had been given that menial job, he was imprisoned for 15 days for no given reason. As a result of his being in prison, when he came out he was dismissed from his job because of his absenteeism. He was then told that there was no job suitable for him. He was first of all sacked from his main job; then given a menial job; then put in prison for no good reason, and then sacked from the menial job because he had gone absent. He was thus placed in what I think is best summed up as a Catch 22 situation.

He was brought for trial and sentenced to two years' internal exile. His only offence was that he applied for an exit visa to go to live in Israel. I should add that possibly in the Soviet's view he had committed another offence in that with great courage and boldness he applied to be a registered teacher of Hebrew. This application was also turned down, because although in Soviet Russia today, so far as I can ascertain, almost any language under the sun is permitted to be taught, whether it be Swahili, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French, English or whatever it may be, no one is allowed to teach Hebrew. The fact that he applied with courage and openness to be a registered teacher of Hebrew may have been an additional reason for his many misfortunes. What has happened to Dr. Begun is a terrifying precedent for the likes of Vladimir Prestin. This threat of being arrested and tried for non-existent crimes and given sentences of years in domestic exile must make their lives even more hideous than they are already.

Before I close I should like to give one final quotation from the Helsinki Treaty. In the section on "Co-operation and exchanges in the field of culture ", in the Final Act of the Helsinki Treaty, the following provision is made: National minorities or regional cultures of participating States, recognising the contribution that national minorities or regional cultures can make to co-operation among them in various fields of culture, intend, when such minorities or cultures exist within the territory, to facilitate this contribution, taking into account the legitimate interest of their members".

As a final example of the hollowness of Russia's signed word to a Treaty, I would draw your Lordships' attention to the unfortunately abortive seminar that a number of distinguished Jewish scientists and academics tried to organise in December last year. They made no secret that they were going to hold this seminar and they were perfectly open in all their actions. The agenda was issued and many distinguished Jewish people from all over the world were asked to attend. Indeed, they issued an invitation to their own Minister of Culture. There were many from the Western World who wished to attend this seminar, which was to be a unique occasion. All had their visas returned except for one, and that was a most distinguished rabbi from this country, the head of the Jewish school in London, who was allowed to attend. Yet on the day he announced that he would be attending this seminar, the organising committee were all picked up by the police and taken for questioning, as well as many other Russian Jews who were going to attend and contribute to the seminar. They were all questioned and harassed. Among those picked up on this occasion was again Vladimir Prestin. Two days after the conference had been aborted in a most brutal way by the Russian authorities, the rabbi went to try to see Vladimir Prestin. He found him under house arrest surrounded by the military, and was told there was no question of seeing Mr. Prestin, and told in fairly rough and brutal terms that the sooner he left Russia and got out of the place, the better for him and all others concerned.

I have perhaps gone on too long and not been as coherent as I might have been. I hope that what I have said gives some idea of the harassment that is being faced by Soviet Jewry who wish to exert their basic right of emigrating and going to Israel. In two days' time Belgrade will start, and I hope I can ask Her Majesty's Government and their distinguished representatives at that conference to use all their influence on the Russians to relent on this deeply inhumane conduct. I have only picked up some of the evidence and expressed it badly, but it is overwhelming. Anybody who wishes to know can get a mine of information on countless similar examples to those I have given. I hope they will press the Russians to really ease things so that it is made possible for people to exercise this basic right.

If I may sum up, I should like Her Majesty's Government to put it to the Russians that in view of their conduct to Russian Jewry since their signing of Helsinki, in future they will be judged by their deeds rather than by their words, and by their actions rather than their paper constitutions, however new those constitutions may be. It is deeds that count, and paper constitutions mean nothing. Let us see those constitutions properly implemented, and let us see this persecution of Soviet Jewry by the Russian Government come to an end at the earliest possible moment.

8.38 p.m.

The Earl of DUNDEE

My Lords, I certainly do not intend at this late hour in the evening to talk for more than two or three minutes. I should like to congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Devonshire, on raising this subject and on the admirable way in which he has done it. This is a subject of great importance to human freedom in every part of the world. If human freedom is to grow, or even continue to exist, it must be supported by the principle nations and Governments of this world. I hope that it will be made plain by the noble Lord the Minister of State who is replying to the debate that the growth of human freedom will be supported and encouraged by this present Government in every reasonable way.

I should be glad if the noble Lord would correct me if I am wrong, but I think possibly a statement made in another place by the Foreign Secretary a month or two ago on this subject may have been a little misunderstood. If I have it right, what the Foreign Secretary said was that he had no evidence to show that the present ill-treatment of the Jews by Soviet Russia was comparable to the murderous persecution of the Jews by the Nazis in the 1930s, which ultimately led to the murder of about 6 million of these unhappy human beings. It would of course be an exaggeration to say that the present Russian treatment of the Jews is quite as bad as that, but it is bad enough.

When we won the war most people who loved freedom in every country vainly believed that the victorious allies would all help each other to establish freedom in those countries which they had liberated from Nazi domination. The United States, the countries of the British Commonwealth, the French, the Belgians, the Dutch, have all done this wherever possible, but in those parts of Central and Eastern Europe which have since been occupied by Soviet Russia, merciless tyrannies have everywhere been set up.

As for the right of a free human being to choose where he shall live, a democratic country which may perhaps be afraid of over-population has the right to make immigration laws controlling the numbers and nationalities of the immigrants whom it will admit. The United States, Canada and Australia have had such laws for a very long time and, more recently, Britain has been obliged to make similar laws. But no Government in any country has a moral right to prevent the inhabitants of its own country—those who wish to emigrate and who know that they will be accepted—from going elsewhere. If that should be done, they are nothing more than serfs bound by law to the soil, and if a large number of Jews in Russia desire to leave their present surroundings, knowing that they will be welcomed by fellow Jews either in Palestine or elsewhere, we should not be afraid or reluctant to tell the Russian Government that they are violating the laws of freedom and humanity.

8.43 p.m.

The Earl of LYTTON

My Lords, the noble Duke, the Duke of Devonshire, has done one of the most difficult things it is possible to do: he has taken up the cause of a citizen of another country, representing him at a very remote distance, by proxy, asking the authorities in his own country to examine the ill-treatment he has received at the hands of the giant and to shake a fist, or at least to wag a warning finger, in the face of the giant. That is a very difficult thing to ask anybody to do. However, the Duke of Devonshire has done it so gracefully in asking the Minister the simple Question whether he is aware of these difficulties, that I am sure the Minister could simply answer, "Yes, we are "and sit down; in the terms of the Question, the noble Duke has not pressed for more.

I cannot join in supporting the noble Duke's application for this one particular person, and that for the simple reason that I know nothing about him; I come in on the general matter of the treatment of Jews first and then citizens in this particular context. As I think we all know, Jews are of many races and many nationalities. I have come across black Jews, Ethiopians; I think I met them first in Jerusalem, but only a few of them are there and most of them want to stay in Jerusalem. They are negroid and they are black. Similarly, I saw for the first time, in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, Arab Jews from Yemen. That particular colony had been there for a couple of centuries; they inhabited Yemen and for the great part they did not wish to leave. At the same time there were Spanish Jews and much the same applies to them. I have just been attending a party with Jews in California. I have Jewish friends in this country and the great majority of those friends have no wish to go to Israel.

Of the 14 million Jews in the world, I imagine that the great majority are content where they are, and that probably includes a proportion of the 3 million Russian Jews. They are, however, Russian citizens; they are not Israeli citizens. The basic rights are conferred on them not by Israel but by some other statutes, whether by the Helsinki Agreement alone or by some others I would not argue about.

Surely the Russians are difficult about letting anybody leave their country. If not, what is the meaning of the Berlin Wall? They are difficult about everyone and, about Jews, they have been in the last six or seven years rather less difficult than they have been about others. That is my impression. Is it not a fact that, owing to the efforts of world Jewry outside the country—the most laudable efforts which are highly commendable—the Russians have come to feel that they must let some Jews out? About 134,000 have gone out since 1971–72. Previously, a few who could escape left. They have allowed these people to go out.

Therefore, the Jewish position is not quite so bad as the position of some of the Gentiles in Russia who might wish to leave, too. They have no means of getting out and I imagine that the Russians, by a bit of casuistry, have accepted that because Israel is a State, they can be allowed to go for that reason alone. But why should not Jews—and they will be increasingly wishing to do so—get a visa for somewhere else? Many of them would prefer to go to New York, and why not?


My Lords, what the noble Earl just said might well be true so far as the Gentiles in Russia are concerned, but surely they are not persecuted because of their wish.

The Earl of LYTTON

My Lords, I am confining myself to the question of allowing people to emigrate and my impression is that anybody who persistently demands to leave is promptly persecuted, whether he is a Jew or not. All I am suggesting is that the Jewish pressure and courage to insist on emigration has brought them into collision with the authorities, but there is many another Russian citizen who would like to leave simply because he prefers a different sort of life somewhere else. I wonder whether the Minister will indicate that he has sympathy for the Jews and for everybody else who has these basic rights; I do not think Jews have more basic rights in this matter than anybody else. Before I resume my seat I must remind the noble Duke, the Duke of Devonshire, of the friendly association we had over some Somali about 14 years ago when he was a Minister, and I hope I have not thrown a spanner in his works by what I have said.

8.50 p.m.


My Lords, may I first apologise for my gravelly voice? I am recovering from laryngitis, but I hope that I shall be able to last out for the words that I want to say. May I say how pleased I am to support my noble friend the Duke of Devonshire on the issue that he has raised. Also, I was particularly asked by the noble Lord, Lord Janner, who takes such an interest and is so active in this issue, to express his regret that he was unable to stay to participate in the debate. I understand that he has gone home with an acute attack of sciatica; otherwise, I am sure that he would have been to the forefront in this debate.

The Helsinki Agreement was welcomed with euphoric enthusiasm as a great breakthrough in the field of human rights and, indeed, as evidence of the more humanitarian face of the Soviet Union. Those of us who were perhaps more cautious and who felt that actions spoke louder than words hoped sincerely that this new agreement would herald freer communication between East and West and greater freedom for all Soviet citizens. One must remember that in relation to that agreement there was a specific item regarding emigration, that the presentation of an application concerning family reunification would not modify the rights of applicants or their families. Yet daily we hear that those applying and wishing to leave the Soviet Union and particularly those seeking to go to territories where they may freely observe their own faith, whether Jewish or Christian, can expect to be deprived of any worthwhile job they may hold immediately they have had the audacity to apply for an exit permit.

We have had examples of this from the noble Duke. These people may be denied any employment, however menial; they are then laid open to charges under Soviet law that they are behaving like parasites because they are not in employment. They are laid open to harassment by officials, defensive isolation from their friends, the interception of postal and telephonic communications—in short, they are treated as if they were potential criminals.

Then, having made it extremely difficult if not impossible to earn a living, the Soviet Union allows a few applicants out and callously says that they must pay sometimes as much as four years' salary for their exit permit and that they must pay to give up their Soviet citizenship. The authorities make it even more difficult and prolong the agony for years playing cat and mouse as to whether the applicants may eventually be allowed out. I am old enough to remember the uproar and the outburst in this country which followed the withdrawal for a comparatively short period by the United States Government of the passport of the late Paul Robeson. There were demonstrations, meetings, questions in Parliament, but how often do those who are always ready to shriek at the Western Powers ever count the tens of thousands of people within the Russian bloc who not only cannot travel abroad freely and cannot emigrate, but cannot even cross the border between the two Germanys to spend the weekend with kith and kin and cannot go three miles across the border for lunch? Even within Russia, quite responsible and loyal Soviet members, unless they are very high up, must get a permit to visit even their own relatives if they want to travel more than 30 miles from their registered home.

I had read about it but, until last autumn, I had not seen the Berlin Wall. Having gone to a conference with the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, who I see is present, we both saw for ourselves that grisly example of suppression. To me, it was the most barbaric and chilling denial of human freedom and communication since Hitler's extermination camps. It is surrounded by barren acres where a man who seeks to come West may be shot on sight, electrocuted by an electronic device or ripped to pieces by savage hounds which are constantly available in that deserted area. Had the Russians meant what they signed at Helsinki that wall of shame should have been ripped down. There could have been no greater example of their willingness to allow the freedom of communication, the freedom of a citizen to travel abroad if lie so desires. We in this country should be ashamed that so many in the West have ceased to protest and now take the Wall for granted.

The Soviet attack on religion has been going on for 60 years since the Revolution, and those of us who are old enough can remember the pornographic exhibitions of anti-religious propaganda with which Russia "educated" her people. We are proud when one of our right reverend Prelates visits Russia, when the congregation fills the great church in Moscow and the Red Army is for once ordered to keep its distance, and the KGB becomes even more unobtrusive. But, with the exception of the most valuable brains, one still cannot hold a worthwhile job in the Soviet Union and openly practise one's religion, whether it be Jewish, Christian or Baptist. Nor can one be a member of the Communist Party and aspire to local or central political office if one is practising religion. It is difficult, in this Chamber, where noble Lords of different religions join together, to realise that the majority of us would be debarred from serving in any capacity in the constitutional framework in Russia because we pursue our selected religions.

The 2½ million Jews in Russia and the even greater number of Christians are denied the basic requirements essential to their religion. Since this debate deals specifically with the issue of those of the Jewish faith, let us consider the means by which the Jews are victimised and why they are seeking to emigrate in considerable numbers. There are no Jewish schools, so for hours their children are educated in an atmosphere which consciously denies the existence of God and derides and condemns all forms of religious practice. Then, as my noble friend mentioned, there is the increasing denial of the essentials of learning Hebrew and of having the volumes of scholarship and the Old Testament, as well as of having the opportunity fully to understand religious observance of their faith. The rigid censorship of publications and the denial of the importation of books of the latest scholarship is parallelled by the great difficulty experienced by the Bible Society in sending bibles to Christians in the USSR and other countries in the Iron Curtain bloc.

It is no news to those of us who have followed history since the Revolution that Communism has never concealed its dislike and fear of religion—Marx's opium of the masses—mainly because all the great religions are founded on a sense of family as the basic unit of civilisation and upon the idea of the authority, the duty, responsibility and love which flow from good family life. To win and subdue men's minds to a central, overriding control, the bonds of family and the ties of religion must be eliminated. That after years of persecution and martyrdom Jews and Christians remain true to their faith, constitutes to me an epic of courage and resistance in the Soviet Union which we should not only salute, but support, or we fail to honour our frequently professed championship of human rights. We should not only support the victims, but we should be ready to stand up and challenge their oppressors.

Small wonder that tens of thousands of Jews seek freedom abroad and apply to emigrate. Once they have taken this courageous step they know full well the penalties which will follow, and having had their applications refused, they join the sad band of refuseniks. My noble friend the Duke of Devonshire has already mentioned some of them and today Mrs. Jane Moonman outlined three that the noble Lord mentioned and others. There is the young man Gregory Chudnovsky, bedridden for 16 of the 25 years of his life, hoping and praying that he can go to Israel where he might get the best treatment, or even from there be sent to California for the specialised treatment he needs to become a normal, whole young man. There is also Ida Nudel, and Anatoly Shcharansky, whom my noble friend mentioned, and others, all of them refuseniks. They have been harangued to repent and withdraw, and then sacked from their jobs. Their children have been attacked by organised hooligans and mocked at school. They have probably been challenged and then blamed for starting the fracas, and found themselves in prison or in corrective detention.

Cynically, the USSR, having signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits racial or religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence, has not only victimised the Jews, but over the past two years has launched a campaign of vilification and slander against their race which at times descends into pornographic blasphemy, which is blatently anti-racist. The only parallel to some of the propaganda they put out is that which Hitler and his lieutenants carried out in their campaign against the Jews in Germany.

It is one of the tragedies of the history of human rights that no qualifications were required to sign the Charter. Willingness to sign was taken for willingness to observe. No greater hoax has ever been perpetrated on the Free World. Where the denial of human rights in a country is rare and unusual the incident is immediately world news. It is instantly condemned both in the country of origin by virtue of a free Press and the democratic process, and it is much publicised abroad, not least by those seeking to divert attention from their own dark record.

On the other hand, where human rights are consistently denied we get bored by the repetition. We get wearied by the permanence of the persecution. How instantly freedom lovers recall Sharpeville when condemning South Africa—and I am not denying that they rightly do so—but that, with all its horrors, pales beside the vast number of people held in detention in Russia as political prisoners, not even charged without trial, in mental asylums. Many of them are distinguished Jews—some less heroic than others—who know that they are steadily and ruthlessly going to have their minds broken. I can think of no greater torture of mind and body than to know, as these intelligent victims well know, what those persistent hypodermic needles will do. Who can blame them when, unbalanced in mind, they sign the cooked-up confession, the forced repentance, because at that time they know not what they do?

As a nation we have gone to great lengths to secure human rights in our own country and to maintain freedom of speech, communication, and religion. We must not let fear or favour make us falter in condemning the denial of human rights, however mighty or persistent the oppressor; and for those reasons, my Lords, I support the stand that my noble friend has taken tonight.

9.7 p.m.

Viscount DE L'ISLE

My Lords, I rise to support the remarks made by my noble friend the Duke of Devonshire, and to support the noble Baroness who has just spoken in a very elegant declaration. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that the infringement of human rights against a whole range of citizens in the Soviet Union is an offence to the human conscience. Indeed, not so very long ago with some of my friends I took part in a vigil as near as we could approach to the Soviet Embassy in support of the Baptists of the Soviet Union, who are being and have been persecuted by that Government. I add, in parenthesis, that, although we invited each of the diocesan bishops of this country, and a great many other clergy, we were represented only by a member of a Church of Eastern Europe.

It is, however, true that the history of Jewry, and their place in European and civilised society in the last 2,000 years, places them in a position which is unique. When I was a small boy, just able to read, I asked my father the meaning of the word "pogrom", and he told me, and I am sure that in the same way another child, a generation later, might have asked his father, "Father, what's the meaning of a gas oven?". Then, after the war, as has been pointed out already by my noble friend Lord Dundee, we suffered that euphoria. We had the Four Freedoms declared in the war. We boasted of our victory of civilisation over barbarism. We indulged in the Declaration of Human Rights. Yet in the 977th year of the Christian calendar we are still debating the persecution of the Jews. I am glad that this Question has given us the opportunity to express, on behalf of this House, our abhorrence of this continuing persecution by Soviet Russia of the Jewish people in their country. My noble friend who has just spoken has shown how hollow are the pretensions of Communist Russia when she represents herself as the protector of anti-colonialist and anti-racialist forces; and, I may add, how hollow are some of our condemnations of the appeasement of Nazi Germany when Western nations today approach Russia with cheap loans and offers of technical help, I fear just on the basis of "eat me last".

Of all the manifestations of human depravity and of the degradation of civilisation throughout the history of Western and Christian Europe, the vilest has been the persecution of the Jews, because it has been, and is, a perversion of the ideals of Christianity. There have been many other persecuted peoples, races and religions in history, but no other people or religion has had to endure such savage repression so frequently or for so long. The motives of all persecutions are hate and fear. Tyrants fear—all fear—indefeasible independence. They fear the gifts of mind and spirit. They fear that cohesion which comes from long-cherished beliefs, customs and traditions: and they hate what they fear. Because the Jews are people of exceptional energy and exceptional talent who have found themselves, after Diaspora, over so many parts of the world; because they have that enduring quality which makes them resistant to persecutions, which makes them feel one people wherever they are, from the days of Babylon to the days of the refilseniks; that is why they are both hated and feared by those who have a totalitarian ideology, whether it be Hitler or whether it be Marx.

Therefore I hope that Her Majesty's Government, in reply today, will be able to assure us that in the field of human rights it is not fear of power but love of liberty which actuates them; because there is nothing easier than to pick out one or two countries which are subject to the universal obloquy, generally coming from the Left, while leaving out the greatest practiser of anti-libertarian and tyrannical habits, done on the basis of a pervasive ideology occupying the whole of the Eastern part of Europe; and that country, we must acknowledge on behalf of all persecuted people but tonight on behalf of Jewry, is Soviet Russia. Unless the people of this country declare themselves absolutely and undeniably in favour of human rights, including the human rights of Jewry, all the protestations of détente, all the understandings which people love to think they are just about to have, all the declarations of intention which are never fulfilled, will be in vain. This debate, so late and not very well attended, is part of a protest by all freedom-loving people against the persecution of minorities, and particularly the persecution of the Jewish people.

9.13 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for detaining you at this late hour. I shall be only a few minutes. I wish to thank sincerely the noble Duke, the Duke of Devonshire, for raising this matter. I know the man to whom the noble Duke referred, Vladimir Prestin, personally. I met him in 1968 when I was in Moscow. The noble Duke has eloquently and movingly described Prestin's predicament; and there are very many like him. From my own experience, I know how fierce is the wish to live in freedom. I spent three years in the Soviet Union under Stalin. I also know how much help the concern of the West can be as expressed so well today by the noble Duke, by noble Lords and by the noble Baroness.

The importance of this help is tremendous. The proceedings of this House will, I hope, be reported on the Overseas Service of the BBC. The BBC has a larger audience in the Soviet Union and behind the Iron Curtain than it has in this country. Your Lordships will have had confirmation of this on "Panorama" yesterday when viewing the programme on Czechoslovakia and Charter 77. One prominent member of Charter 77, when asked how one can help from the West, replied: "Keep public interest alive. Keep referring to us". This is their wish. We hope to have an assurance from my noble friend the Minister of State of the continuing concern of Her Majesty's Government for people in this plight who maintain the torch of freedom in such difficulties.

9.15 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, apologise for not having put my name down on the list of speakers. I, too, should like to thank the noble Duke for having raised this matter and for the admirable manner in which he raised it. He stuck to a particular point. That particular point is the point of the Jewish citizens in Russia who wish to leave Russia. It is a real point and, as my noble friend says, pressure on a point from the West is highly effective in Russia. General abuse of Russia is not. I was particularly glad that the noble Duke refrained from general abuse of Russia. To deal with this, we should look at particular things that we want and do it with an understanding of the Russian situation.

Of course, Russia is not a free community, but it is arrogance on our part to assume that freedom is necessarily best or that which everybody wants. The whole history of civilisation has not been a choice of freedom but an avoidance of freedom. People constantly throughout the great struggle of evolving societies have rejected taking the choice themselves and have looked for a revelation, a book, a central authority, somebody with all the answers, somebody who will relieve them of the responsibility of having to decide or to choose. This has been the reaction of mankind over and over again.

My Lords, Russia has adored her monsters: Dimitri, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin—gods in Russia, adored. And when they went, pretenders who pretended to be their bastards could raise support against the decent people who tried to succeed them. My Lords, do not let us assume that, because it is not a society which suits us, Russia has not got a society that suits her people. But she is also a society in the world and, if she is to fit into the world, she must try to fit in on specific issues with what the rest of the world requires of her. The Jews provide an example of this. They are a people who through two millenniums of oppression have maintained their identity through a faith. Now, they again have a nation.

A very great Jewish friend of mine has said: "The time has come for Jews to decide whether they wish to be Englishmen, American or Jews. When they say at our great feast, Next year in Jerusalem', there is nothing to prevent us from going there". But they must have that choice and the Russians are denying them that choice. That is why the position of the Jew here is different from that of anybody else. He is somebody who traditionally has kept that choice. He has not chosen the autocracy of the Russians. He is not a mere dissident Russian. Heaven knows! we have dissidents in our society, too. He is something quite different. He is a right and a right which the Russians must recognise. That is why they are sensitive to our criticism on that particular point. So let us concentrate on the point and not wander off into general abuse of a system which, even though we do not like it, all the evidence is that they like very much indeed.

9.20 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for being late, but I had to attend a meeting. I had hoped that this debate would take place earlier. I will not deliver the speech that I wrote before I went to my meeting because it is now too late. But I want to stand up and be counted with the other speakers for the Unstarred Question which the noble Duke has asked. I apologise to him for not being able to hear his speech.

The Government have an opportunity today which they may not find recurring again, and that is the review of the Helsinki Agreement. If the noble Lord feels as strongly as I do that the Helsinki Agreement is something on which we can challenge the Russians, then we have an opportunity now. In the Helsinki Agreement is written the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. In another quotation it says that the participating States—of which I think there were 32—make it their aim to facilitate freer movement and contact among persons and to contribute to the solution of the humanitarian problems that arise in that connection.

I have recently been a member of the Study Group organised by the David Davis Memorial Institute on the Helsinki Agreement, and nothing can show up better than the failure of the USSR as a signatory of this agreement to fulfill their obligations. That is shown up—and I will not repeat all that has been said—in the treatment of the Jews. This is a tragic matter which has been going on for far too long. Those who are deeply concerned about Israel, the good of the Jews and helping the Jews, feel very passionately about the way in which all the things which have been already said by my noble friend Lady Hornsby-Smith, and many others—which are absolutely true, which anyone who understands about Jewish people knows all too well—are happening today in Russia. At the end of the last war we had hoped that perhaps we had managed to defeat this appalling type of persecution which Hitler started. Apparently that still exists.

Something like the Helsinki Agreement is an opportunity to draw to our attention these double standards which we all dislike so much and which, in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Paget of Northampton, says on the subject of the Soviet Union, nobody can deny. They are double standards. They will sign a paper one day and do something different another day. This is what we all desperately care about in the West.

I will not say more, my Lords, because it is too late, but I hope that our Government, who I know feel as we do on this matter, will have the courage to stand up when the talks start in Belgrade and show us that the Russians are not carrying out what they agreed when they signed that Agreement some years ago.

9.24 p.m.


My Lords, it is getting late and I too will try to be as brief as I can. I must start by thanking my noble friend the Duke of Devonshire for asking this Unstarred Question tonight and giving us the opportunity to remind the Government—if they need reminding —of the situation as we all know it to be in Soviet Russia, particularly tonight, the eve of the resumed Conference in Belgrade.

May I say at the outset, however, that I do not think we should initially place too many hopes on what will happen in Belgrade in the next week or so. As I understand it—and the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, will be able to clarify this—they are not within the next few days reviewing progress on the Helsinki Agreement as such, but only preparing the way for such a review later in the year. Let us therefore not be too disappointed if within the next few days nothing of any great consequence comes out of Belgrade.

Of course, we all recognise the problems. Despite the Agreement which was reached at Helsinki, despite the signature which the Russians placed on that Agreement, the harassment (if that is the right word) of these unfortunate people still continues. Those Jews who apply to leave the Soviet Union, as we have heard, lose their jobs and are victimised in all manner of ways. Having lost their jobs, many of them have great difficulty in bringing funds or resources in from other countries—for example, from their relatives who are already in Israel—because the Russians place all sorts of difficulties in the way of outsiders bringing goods into the country.

Just recently, the Soviets have tightened their rules on cash gifts and remittances from abroad. That came into force recently, and they have also brought into effect new regulations which increase duties on gifts from abroad and impose stricter limits on the number of items which may be sent in a single package. The regulations also have an adverse effect on some prospective emigrants, since Western supporters must pay much more to send the same merchandise. However, it should be noted that this type of action, while certainly inconsistent with the Final Act of the Helsinki Agreement, was not specifically referred to in that document.

However, not everything is bad. The Russians have made some improvements in the arrangements since the signature of the Helsinki Agreement. For example, the fee referred to by my noble friend Lady Hornsby-Smith in what I thought was a particularly eloquent speech—that is, for a Soviet exit visa—has been reduced from 400 roubles, which I am told is equivalent to 540 dollars, and is now only the equivalent of 400 dollars, although, as my noble friend also mentioned, emigrants to Israel must still pay a special fee amounting to the equivalent of some 600 dollars for renunciation of Soviet citizenship. I should have thought that that particular item must rankle, especially in the minds of those who seek to leave; and if the Russians are listening to our debate tonight, I hope that that matter in particular will come first to their attention.

However, in their favour one must also say that the application fee for travel documents now need be paid only if the application is refused and not, as in the past, each time an application is made. They have also reduced the number of character references that prospective emigrants are required to obtain from their employment supervisors and local trade union or party leaders from the number previously required. Furthermore, the review period for rejected applications has now been reduced from one year to six months. Finally, the children below the age of 16 are now apparently entered on family passports without additional charge. All those are improvements, my Lords, but I do not want to pretend that they represent a radical change in the situation, because of course they do not. However, the Russians have taken some cognisance of the Agreement they entered into at Helsinki, and I believe it is the duty of us in the West to try to persuade them rather than bludgeon them to make further improvements.

I have recited some of the improvements which the Russians have effected in their arrangements, but one has to confess, on the other side of the coin, that the number of Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union has dramatically dropped in recent years. I have the figures in front of me. I see that in 1973 34,000 were allowed to leave; in 1974 the figure was 20,000; in 1975 it was 13,000, and in 1976, up until October, it was only 11,000. So that the numbers are dropping. I fancy that this drop is caused not by a reduction in the number of applicants, but by a reduction in the number of permits issued. Thus all the improvements that the Russians rightly claim to have made have to be set against the truth of the situation, which is that the numbers being allowed to leave have been significantly reduced.

But, my Lords, what are we to do? Are we to establish a system of horse-trading or deals, where we set off the right of some arbitrary number of Jews to leave the Soviet Union against some deal for the supply of technological equipment or something like that? I hope and believe not. I rather think that the attitude of President Carter in this matter is a better and sounder approach. At the same time, we must be careful not to allow the application of double standards. I am not the first person to mention that point here tonight, but I think that it ought to be emphasised. For example, we must be wary against condemning outright the persecution of Russian Jews in that country, without at the same time condemning the persecution in other countries of the world where it happens with equal vigour and is equally undesirable.

It is necessary to remind ourselves that there is another rule of international living, which is agreed as being essential in a peaceful world, and for that reason it was incorporated in the United Nations Charter by the authors of that document: that is, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. In the context of human rights, the traffic in accusation and condemnation cannot be only one way. We have to remember at this time that the one country before the International Court of Justice is, unhappily, ourselves, taken there by the republican Irish in the matter of the alleged cruelty committed by ourselves in Northern Ireland; so that we have to be ready to counter the retort which we shall no doubt receive when we address the Russians on the problem of the Jews in that unhappy country.

The hour is getting late and I shall curtail what I have to say, but I believe that we must approach this matter with a fair degree of moderation and diplomatic skill. I gather that the Government intend to be represented at the second phase of the Belgrade Conference by no less a person than the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, himself, and I believe that in the noble Lord we have an admirable person to represent the views of these unhappy people.

9.34 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Duke has once more rendered a service to this House and, I would say, to humanity, by the fact of raising this very important matter and by the way in which he did so, in so effective and so balanced a manner that the impact of what he said is all the more impressive.

The noble Duke has asked whether the Government are aware of the continuing difficulties of Soviet Jews who wish to exercise their basic right to emigrate. We are indeed fully aware of these difficulties. As my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary said in a debate in another place last month, we are paying very close attention to the position of Jews in the Soviet Union. We are not merely paying attention; we are taking the action that we consider most effective and most prudent to bring about improvements in the situation—improvements not only for Jews but for all who are campaigning by open and legitimate means for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which should be theirs, not just in the Soviet Union but in all countries.

As the noble Viscount reminded us in what I must say was a speech of great thoughtfulness and responsibility—I was glad to hear it coming from the Front Bench opposite—the Final Act does not mention "a basic act to emigrate". However, it does commit States to act in conformity with the Universal Declara- tion of Human Rights and the international covenants on human rights. These include provisions on the right to leave one's country and to return to it. These references are relevant in the case of Jews who have great difficulty in exercising this basic right, and we are deeply concerned about it.

Once more I should like to assure the noble Duke who raised the matter and the entire House that in both public statements and private meetings with Soviet representatives here and in Moscow, Ministers have reminded the Soviet Government of their obligations: obligations which they assumed under the Final Act at Helsinki, to which they, like us, and 33 other Governments were signatory. We wish to see these obligations fulfilled and we shall continue to press for their fulfilment. Some would like us to employ tactics and techniques which would, in our judgment, sometimes redound against the very people we are trying to help—tactics which might lead to the dismantling of the painfully constructed edifice of detente, under the roof of which genuine progress has been made in human rights questions and genuine progress in bringing about a slowly improving relationship between East and West has been achieved.

Here I join with the noble Viscount in a very important point that he made. To all of us who feel a fundamental repugnance for these practices, it is sometimes very tempting to consider the rejection of all contact with Governments or people who behave in this way, but I think that would be fundamentally wrong. We have a duty not only to respond emotionally but also to think hard how best to act to help these unfortunate people who suffer under these practices.

I am convinced from some fairly considerable experience of these matters that the more contacts that we, the democracies, have with the totalitarian countries, commercially, culturally, diplomatically and politically, the better. Without those contacts we shall be talking to ourselves. So long as we maintain those contacts, and expand them and use them, the case is not for breaking off contact with that other world of totalitarian repression; the case is to use every possible contact in order to build up, however gradually and slowly, a new mentality, a new view—it is really the old view, but a restoration of the fundamental view of the rights and duties of human beings. So we shall not react to these practices in an abrasive or abusive manner.

Here I should like to pay a tribute to the thoughtful speech made by my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Paget of Northampton. I think he put his finger on a fundamental truth. We of the West of course appreciate the virtues and the values of democracy and freedom as we know them. We have an equal duty to put ourselves in the place of other communities who have evolved, sometimes painfully, other systems. It is difficult to accept this, and indeed it is difficult for them to accept our system, and much of my time is spent in saying to our counterparts in Eastern Europe, "Have your system; we have our own. Let both be inviolate by the other". But human rights is not a system; it is a foundation for any worthwhile system. So while we may agree to disagree about Communism and capitalism and social democracy we cannot afford, as a race, to disagree too much about fundamental human rights.

This is not to say that after Helsinki, or indeed in the future, we would expect there to he a total change of practice internally in any one of the countries that are signatory to the Final Act. We have repeatedly said that we do not expect a total change overnight. We do not believe in revolutions. We are evolutionists and we see this process as a gradual one as we have experienced it in our own country, and because it is a gradual one it is a surer and a more durable one.

I am sure nobody in this House would expect me to go to Belgrade in September and thump the table and say, "These things must be done immediately, if not sooner". What I hope to say is that these things ought to be done and be seen to be done gradually but surely. This is an integral part of the foreign policy of Her Majesty's Government—indeed, I would say of this country, whichever Government is in power. We shall ensure that this assertion will be kept to the forefront of our policy, publicly and privately, with due thought as to how best to press these matters forward in the interests of those who will benefit most from their being pressed forward properly or who might suffer most if they were pressed forward thoughtlessly. That will be the centre of our continuing policy.

I would ask the House to agree with me that Government must take into consideration more than one aspect of a matter of this kind. Pressure groups, individuals with a mission, are entitled to their purpose and to concentrate on their single purpose. They are invaluable in so doing. Government, however—any Government, any democratic Government—must gather together the preoccupations of all individuals, all groups, all pressures, and balance them and try to forge an effective policy out of the various elements that they have to consider. So in promoting the concern of the people of this country for human rights we must take due account of their other interests, their safety and their wellbeing. That is reasonable; that is right. Government policy, therefore, should be balanced.

It must also be even-handed, and here I pick up a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. It is not for Government to favour one group over another, I entirely agree, or indeed one individual over another. The noble Duke's Question referred to the difficulties which one group had in emigrating, but not in exclusion of the difficulties experienced by comparable minorities in the Soviet Union and in some other countries. Indeed, members of the Jewish community and faith, to my knowledge and to the knowledge of everybody in this House, are among the first to remember other minorities, other individuals in the Soviet Union, in the countries of Eastern Europe, who have not been able to exercise their human rights, including the basic right of leaving their country and of returning to it on their legitimate purposes. There are, of course, other ethnic minorities, other would-be emigrants, divided families, other religious groups—we have heard more than one mentioned this evening—and those who are simply trying to build a more open and just society.

Wherever any such people are subject to discrimination or repression it is a matter of concern for us in this country, for everybody in every country that signed the Final Act at Helsinki. The noble Viscount, Lord De L'Isle, I thought put this point with particular force. He asked us to join in deploring the persecution of minorities and particularly the persecution of the Jewish minority. In that way, thought, he and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, came together and gave us the proper perspective to this matter.

This brings me to the last part of the noble Duke's Question. He asked me whether we were aware of the present harassment of a distinguished individual. It is not my purpose this evening to deal with individual cases, although I am very grateful to the noble Duke for going, into detail, as he did, about this particular case; because, although we are well aware of this case, thanks to the noble Duke we are now more informed. Names have been published of many who have been prevented from emigrating and there are certainly many more whose names have not been published. But, to this small extent, those whose cases are raised in the British Parliament are the lucky ones, but they have friends and relatives whose cases have not been published to the world. I know that we would wish to argue this matter specifically with regard to individuals whenever we can, but as often as we can on a basis of general human rights.

There has been reference this evening to the Symposium on Jewish Culture. Why there should be a restriction on seminars discussing religion and culture perhaps is not immediately understandable to members of a community like ours, but it happens. Somehow, we must keep at it to try to show that the security of systems is not enhanced by the imperilling of individuals but rather strengthened. Behind all repression there is fear and we have much work to do to create a new psychology of security in Europe where diverse systems have a new sense of security, so that they feel that freer to concede to their people the rights which they now confuse with dangers.

Grave accusations have been made against certain leaders of the Jewish movement and others in Soviet television programmes and newspaper articles. Many of these people are under arrest and have not been brought to trial. The charges against most of them have not even been made known. We shall raise these questions in the spirit of this debate and we shall ask for answers. I return to the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. We shall be prepared to have questions asked of us; indeed, one or two questions have been and are being asked of us in the European Court. It is to the resounding credit of this country and the human attitude it represents that it has not sought to avoid appearing in court and answering those questions and charges. I do not want to strike any attitude about a matter such as this, but when we go to Belgrade as a country we shall not be afraid to be asked certain questions about our own performance and we shall certainly not be afraid of answering. This country has at least as good a record as any in the observance of fundamental human rights.

My noble friend Lord Kagan made what we all felt was a short but decisive intervention in the debate. We are very grateful to him. He underlined the purpose of this debate by what he said, drawing on his experience as well as his intellect.

I close with a reference once more to the two major speeches in this debate: the excellent speech with which the debate was opened and the speech with which the official Opposition expressed its view through the noble Lord. Those two speeches together, certainly with the others, will represent the core of the feeling not only of our Parliament but also of our people in this matter. The noble Lord referred to the arrangements for the review conference in Belgrade, and he was quite right, and perhaps I might underline what he said.

What has started this week in Belgrade is a meeting of officials from the countries concerned to make the arrangements. The substantive discussion will follow the setting-up of the conference through these arrangements in September. Then the discussions will proceed, certainly at official level but also at what one might call ministerial level. I expect to be the Minister who will attend at the substantive meetings in September, and I hope that I have said enough tonight in response to this extremely important debate to indicate how the British view will he put in Belgrade when we all come together there in September.