HL Deb 23 January 1996 vol 568 cc906-8

3 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their opinion of the best means of achieving a permanent ceasefire and peace settlement in Chechnya, in view of the loss of life, suffering and economic damage already caused.

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

My Lords, a negotiated settlement is the only way to bring lasting peace to Chechnya. We call on the Russians and the Chechens to end the fighting and to return to the negotiating table. We believe that the OSCE, through Switzerland, its chairman in office, and through its presence on the ground in Chechnya, can play a crucial role in efforts to restore confidence and to bring the sides together.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. Is it not the case that there is so much distrust between the parties to the conflict that it is not realistic to expect them to compose their differences? I welcome what the Minister said about the OSCE, but will it not require greater political will on the part of the members of that organisation to achieve demilitarisation and perhaps an interim international administration?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, from our debate last week, the noble Lord knows well the complexity of this issue. It is true that there is deep distrust between the parties. We also know that the OSCE's assistance group working in Chechnya has been successful, as it was last year, in helping the parties to reach a military agreement. However, that broke down after the assassination attempt on Mr. Lobov at the end of September and the terrible action against Mr. Romanov in October. I believe that the chairman in office is absolutely committed to finding a way, on a confidential basis, to bring about mediation between the two parties. We must give our full support to his continued efforts.

Lord Rea

My Lords, if we admit Russia to the Council of Europe on Thursday in Strasbourg, will we not be giving Boris Yeltsin a signal that he can carry on with his disastrous and unsuccessful attempt to achieve a military solution, an attempt which has grossly violated the Geneva Convention of 1949 on the conduct of warfare and the universal United Nations Declaration of Human Rights?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it is by no means certain what the decision of the members of the Council of Europe will be. However, we believe that having Russia under the influence of the other members of the Council of Europe may be what is needed to bring, about a change in its attitude. Obviously it is a matter of great concern that this apparently internal armed conflict, which has now gone over a certain threshold, may well mean that the principles of the Geneva Convention are being broken. However, I do not see any easy way of resolving the matter because there is a degree of uncertainty. We need to bring the influence of all countries to bear on the Russians and Chechens because both sides are fully engaged in this terrible battle.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what is the specific British interest in what she has just described as an essentially internal matter for the Russians?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it is beyond being an internal matter because the fighting in the area is obviously impeding economic progress in neighbouring areas and neighbouring countries. However, I do believe that it is an internal matter—and that is where there is a great deal of difficulty in relation to the Security Council, as my noble friend well knows. The principles of international humanitarian law seem to be being broken in this case and it may be a matter for the Security Council.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords—

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned—

Noble Lords


The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I hesitate to intervene when we are running short of time, but if the House feels able to allow the noble Lord, Lord Dean, to ask his question first, I am sure that the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches will then be able to get in reasonably quickly.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, although one could criticise the actions of Russia in some respects, is it not to be deplored that once again we see innocent civilians being taken as hostages to try to force a conclusion to a military operation? Should we not always condemn that out of hand?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dean, will know that in our debate last week I condemned the actions of both sides, as I did a few moments ago. The conflict is an absolute tragedy. It has claimed thousands of civilian lives. All those who use hostage-taking, wherever they are, are doing a real disservice even to their cause. There are some very real difficulties here, but I believe that having made clear to the Russian Government that the use of excessive force will not resolve this issue, we have to leave it to the OSCE and give it as much backing and assistance as possible.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is it not difficult to see how one can save hostages' lives by raining thousands of tonnes of bombs on them? The Minister mentioned the role of the OSCE. What remedy is there within the OSCE's mechanisms for the repeated violations by the Russians of their obligations under the Budapest declaration not to use excessive military force in an internal security situation and to take due care not to harm civilians or their property? Does the noble Baroness have anything to say to the House about the meeting of the CIS Heads of State on the 19th of this month? Does she not consider that it is counterproductive for those heads of state to discuss internal security questions which are properly the concern of the OSCE?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, having heard what I said to the noble Lord. Lord Dean, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will have noted that I spoke about the uselessness of excessive force in remedying the total situation. However, the Russian Government, who are clearly responsible for finding an effective way to enable the Chechen people to express their identity within the constitution of the Russian Federation, are not undertaking that responsibility. If that had been discussed by the CIS Heads of State it may have brought them a little nearer to deciding the path ahead. All that I can say to the noble Lord is that it does not help to take sides in this matter. That is why the efforts of the OSCE are so important.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, in replying to the Unstarred Question on Chechnya last week, the Minister suggested that the Tatarstan solution should be pursued. Can the noble Baroness tell the House what evidence there is that either the Russian or the Chechen sides would accept that? In the debate last week the noble Baroness also hinted that that might be used as a bargaining counter with respect to Russian membership of the Council of Europe. Is that in fact so?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness has misinterpreted the HansardL record of the debate in respect of her second point. In respect of her first point, I suggested that that may be one of the options that might be investigated.