HL Deb 04 March 1982 vol 427 cc1371-4

3.9 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that Anatoly Shcharansky has for the past 15 months been undernourished, tortured and frequently placed in punishment cells, and in October 1981 had his prison sentence increased by 3 years for his refusal to plead guilty to a charge of which he has always maintained his innocence; and whether they will request the Soviet Government to state whether they intend to keep him in those uncivilised conditions until he relents or dies.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government remain gravely concerned about the plight of Anatoly Shcharansky and are disturbed by recent reports of his ill-treatment. We have raised this case with the Soviet authorities on many occasions, both in direct bilateral contact and at the Madrid review meeting. We shall continue to take a close interest in Mr. Shcharansky's case, and to make representations as suitable opportunities arise.

Lord Renton

My Lords, may I thank my noble friend not only for that Answer but for the action which he and the Foreign Office have been and are taking with regard to Shcharansky's plight? May I ask my noble friend whether or not the Soviet Government's failure, as shown by the treatment of Shcharansky and others, to honour their Helsinki undertakings diminishes their credibility in relation to all other matters in which they say they are seeking agreement and on which they would like to be believed?

Lord Trefgarne

If I may say so, my Lords, my noble friend has put his finger on the nub of the problem. How can we believe what they say in negotiations such as the IMF negotiations, the MBFR negotiations as they are called in Vienna, or in any other forum for that matter, when they do not do what they said they would do at Helsinki in 1976?

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, in view of the rumours, which are probably well founded, that Mr. Brezhnev is about to retire, could a message from your Lordships' House be sent to him through the Soviet Embassy wishing him for the remainder of his life—and we hope he has many years left yet—peace and contentment and asking whether, as a gracious act upon his retirement, he will ensure that Mr. Shcharansky is treated as a civilised person?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I would certainly be willing to send another message to the Soviet Union about Mr. Shcharansky if I thought it would have any effect. As to the future of Mr. Brezhnev, I believe that that is a matter for them to decide for themselves.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, would it not help if the western nations ceased providing wheat to the Soviet Union, at a time when they are finding themselves short, until they cease to carry out such inhuman activities against individuals and sovereign States?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the failure of the Soviet agricultural industry is now plain for all to see, but I am not sure that the interests of the West are served by starving them out.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, in view of the fact that the treatment of Shcharansky seems to be a serious violation of human rights, has the matter been raised before the sub-commission on human rights at the United Nations?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not certain that the matter has been raised before that particular body but certainly it has been raised before all the others I mentioned. There could be a good opportunity for doing as the noble and learned Lord suggests.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Mr. Shcharansky is a very distinguished computer scientist? Will he therefore consider a reduction in the contacts between Great Britain and the Soviet Union of a professional character to do with computing and the discouragement of exchange visits between Soviet and British computer experts?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, exchanges of this sort are all under review at the present time following, first, Afghanistan, and, more recently, Soviet interference in Polish affairs. I would like to consider these matters in the light of what I think will have the best effect for the person concerned.

Lord Gore-Booth

My Lords, would the Minister agree that we should not be too much bound by expectations of success or failure in our approaches to the Soviet Government? Surely the important thing is to keep on at them, which is what they would do with us if matters were the other way around?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I certainly intend to keep up representations to the Soviet Union on these and related matters. As the noble Lord rightly points out. so far we do not have much to show for our efforts.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, my noble friend raised the question of wheat exports to the Soviet Union, and as their harvest shortfall this year is estimated to be something like 42 million tonnes out of a forecast 260—in other words, 25 per cent.—surely we must bear in mind the use of this weapon whenever we want to apply pressure on the Soviet Union? Is my noble friend the Minister not aware that it is no good our American allies saying that the Germans should not import gas if they will not use the same weapon of the grain embargo?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, with respect to my noble friend, his question goes a little wide of what is on the Order Paper. Our views on trade sanctions are fairly well known. The question of grain sales is principally one for nations other than the United Kingdom, but we do want to be careful, in the immortal words of Mr. Haig, not to shoot ourselves in the foot.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, while welcoming both the Question and the action which the Government have taken, may I ask whether the Government cannot take the initiative suggested by our Front Bench of bringing this matter before the United Nations' human rights commission?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am sorry to say that I am not certain whether the matter has been so raised or not. I will look into the matter to see whether a further move in that direction would be appropriate.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that, while the action which the Government have taken in this matter is widely welcomed, the Soviet Union is not at the top of Amnesty International's list of Governments who are inhuman to their own nationals? I believe it is some way down the list. Some Governments are equally or even more inhuman to their own nationals; and will the Government show some concern to those?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I certainly agree that abuses of human rights extend more widely than just the Eastern bloc. This Government have taken the lead in condemning those abuses wherever they may occur. As for the batting order or league table of beastliness, I do not quite know where the Soviet Union stands, but it may well be that there is a large number of cases in the Soviet Union which we never hear about.