HL Deb 25 July 1985 vol 466 cc1366-8

3.11 p.m.

Lord Chelwood

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many Soviet citizens are known to have been involved in trying to monitor their government's compliance with their promises under the human rights headings of the Helsinki Final Act and what in summary has been their fate.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, reliable figures are hard to obtain. We believe that at least 75 Soviet citizens have joined groups established to monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki Final Act. Some 40 of these are reported to have been sent to prison, labour camps or psychiatric institutions after joining groups: fifteen have emigrated.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, does not that reply speak for itself? As my noble friend no doubt knows, some 20 members of the National Union of Mineworkers are due to go in the autumn to the Soviet Union for what is described as ideological tuition under the auspices of the Higher Trade Union School of Moscow? May I ask my noble friend whether, if the British Ambassador were asked, he would use his good offices to facilitate visits by these people to the gulags and psychiatric hospitals where these unhappy people are incarcerated, and perhaps even visits to Mr. Klebanov and Mr. Volkov, whose only crimes appear to have been to try to establish elementary trades union rights?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am aware of the visit to which my noble friend has referred. The programme of the National Union of Mineworkers' representatives in Moscow is of course their affair. It is not a matter for Her Majesty's Ambassador in Moscow. However, we should hope that the visitors to the Soviet Union might draw appropriate conclusions about the extreme difficulties confronting Soviet citizens who seek to exercise their basic human rights, rights which we in Britian have learned to take for granted.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, would not the noble Baroness agree that, despite the somewhat subdued optimism expressed in the course of a debate in your Lordships' House some time ago, there is very little hope of Soviet citizens creating any kind of opposition to the leadership in the Soviet Union for the purpose of claiming human rights as we interpret them? In the circumstances, are we not wise to accept the situation for what it is worth and understand that the leadership has not the remotest intention of agreeing to what we would desire? In those circumstances, we have to make the best of a very distressing situation.

Baroness Young

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, was really given in my original Answer to the Question. The plight of those who have been trying to monitor the Helsinki Act is indeed terrible. However, I think it would be quite wrong for Her Majesty's Government not to continue to press the Soviet Government to do all that it can to fulfil its obligations under the Helsinki Final Act.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, am I right in thinking that the conclusions of the Helsinki Final Act, although morally binding on the signatories, are not legally binding on the governments?

Baroness Young

My Lords, we should hope that the Soviet Union, having signed the Helsinki Final Act, would fulfil its obligations, and there is no doubt at all that my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, when he visits Helsinki to mark the 10th anniversary, will raise this matter again.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Baroness be kind enough to comment on what is very relevant to these exchanges, namely the recent Ottawa talks? Would she not agree that they were, unhappily, a failure? If she agrees that they were a failure, can she say why they were a failure? Specifically on Russian cases about which we are concerned, can she give us any news of Dr. Sakharov? Is there a possibility that he might now be allowed to emigrate?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I set out the final conclusions of the Ottawa Conference in a Written Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Brockway in the course of which I said it was not possible to reach agreement at the meeting on any final document. Nevertheless, the implementation review provided a valuable opportunity to make clear our concerns on a range of issues and to call the East to account. In the course of doing that, individual cases such as the one to which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, has referred, could be raised. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to go further in this particular forum, but I can assure the noble Lord and the House that we are very conscious of the number of individual cases and continue to raise them.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, can the Minister say what reply the Government gave to the plea by Mrs. Avital Shcharansky who recently visited Britain to ask for our help in obtaining the release of her husband, the distinguished computer scientist, Anatoly Shcharansky, from prison in the Soviet Union? In general, can she say what practical steps the Government are taking to persuade the Soviet Union to desist from anti-Semitic propaganda, to allow Jews in the Soviet Union to practise their religion, to learn Hebrew and to emigrate if they wish?

Baroness Young

My Lords, these are all matters that the Government would like to see implemented in the Soviet Union because they are all the kinds of human rights referred to in the Helsinki Final Act. As I have indicated, and I repeat again today, we have taken every opportunity to press the Soviet Government whenever opportunities arise, and we shall continue to do so.

Lord Renton

My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, if I have properly understood him, will my noble friend give an assurance that we in this country will never lose hope of helping the Soviet Government to understand the world opinion which speaks for humanity?

Baroness Young

Yes, my Lords, we shall continue to make this point quite clear. As I have just indicated, my right honourable and learned friend will undoubtedly refer in his speech in Helsinki to failures by some countries to honour their Helsinki commitments on human rights and other aspects of the Helsinki Final Act.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not desirable that when the miners go to the Soviet Union they should request the Soviet authorities not to emulate such practices in the free world as those which were recently complained of by Amnesty International, in Turkey, where torture is being described as indigenous and practised throughout the country? Is it not desirable that we should not entirely ignore the motes in our own eyes?

Baroness Young

My Lords, if I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, that is quite outside the terms of this Question. However, I should make it clear that the United Kingdom Government have condemned violations against human rights wherever they occur.