HL Deb 09 February 1998 vol 585 cc855-9

2.45 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking, as holders of the presidency of the European Union or otherwise, to assist in stopping the massacres in Algeria.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we believe that in order to achieve anything in Algeria we must keep the Algerians engaged in political dialogue, discuss our points of view with them and discuss their concerns and requirements. My honourable friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Derek Fatchett, led an EU troika mission to Algiers from 19th to 20th January 1998. The mission's report led to the conclusions that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary announced after the General Affairs Council on 26th January. These have given us a sound base on which to build. Future meetings of EU partners will discuss next steps which we hope will lead to a reduction in the conflict in Algeria.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that according to the Algerian ambassador, who was good enough to see me for over an hour on Friday afternoon, the reason that the troika was not successful in persuading the Algerian authorities to invite the rapporteurs on torture and extra-judicial executions was their belief that a resolution of the Commission of Human Rights was necessary before any such invitation was issued and that they would go to the commission this year with a statement, following which it would be possible to discuss the terms and conditions of such a visit? Further, will the Minister seek to persuade the Algerian authorities that that is the wrong way round and in order to arrive at a conclusion on these dreadful massacres that have taken place the commission first needs the advice of the rapporteurs, and if they cannot visit Algeria they should seek to report to the commission on such evidence as is available from such exiles, journalists, and any NGOs with an interest in the matter?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot accept that the troika mission was as great a failure as the noble Lord appears to suggest. We were able to express our concerns and sympathy with the suffering of the Algerian people. We also extended an invitation to the Algerian Foreign Minister, Mr. Attaf, to visit the United Kingdom during our presidency. He accepted that invitation in principle. As to the rapporteurs, as I informed the House when this matter was last discussed the Algerians' minds are not closed entirely. They wish to review the position at the meeting in Geneva on 16th March. We shall continue to press them in the intervening period and at that meeting to accept the presence of the special rapporteurs. I agree with the noble Lord that it is important to have an impartial view as to what is happening in Algeria.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is widespread hope that progress can be made on 16th March but that if progress is not made and the Algerian Government are not more forthcoming in their co-operation it may be necessary to consider conditionality in the context of economic and social relationships with Algeria in order to encourage them? Are such contingency plans being made? Can my noble friend assure the House that in the meantime because of the dreadful situation in that country particular care will be taken on the issue of Algerian asylum seekers in this country?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we take very great care on the question of asylum seekers given the appalling position in Algeria at the moment. We know that the violence continues. Historically, that violence seems to escalate during the period of Ramadan, and it is violence that we continue to deplore. The noble Lord asks about our hopes at the meeting on 16th March. We hope that that meeting will succeed in bringing forward a resolution of this issue, but there are other opportunities. EU parliamentarians are in Algiers at the moment and no doubt they seek to persuade the Algerians on this point. A number of noble Lords will be aware that a deputation of Algerian women parliamentarians is to visit me in your Lordships' House next week. We are able to put forward a number of points of persuasion before we need to address the further questions that the noble Lord has raised.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, in her Answer the Minister referred to the Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs who has stated that the scope for international action is limited and that this is an internal problem. Given the Government's ethical foreign policy, does the Minister agree with Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has said: I cannot and do not consider [the situation in Algeria] to be an internal situation", and that human rights have no borders when such violations occur and the international community has a responsibility to end such violence?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the actions of Her Majesty's Government show that we agree that this is a matter upon which all interested parties who wish for the good of Algeria must agree. That has been demonstrated not just by my honourable friend's visit when he led the troika last month but by my right honourable friend's statement after the GAC which made it clear that during our presidency we should continue to take this matter seriously, and to address it on every possible occasion, including the visits of parliamentarians of which I have already notified your Lordships.

Lord Wright or Richmond

My Lords, will my noble friend comment upon a story in yesterday's Observer, which claimed to carry an interview with a former Algerian security officer resident in London who claimed to have given the Observer details of torture facilities in Algiers? The article went on to invite the Foreign Office to contact the Observer if it wished to have further details of those claims.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government wish to know about all such allegations in detail. I hope that anyone who knows about anything approaching torture facilities in Algeria or indeed in any other part of the world will make it their business to ensure that that FCO is kept abreast of such appalling developments.

Lord Grenfell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the true value of these parliamentary exchanges is not so much that they are likely to produce solutions to the present problem, which I do not believe they will, but that in the longer term they will help foster the development of democratic institutions and practices in Algeria so that those who hold strongly differing views will find democratic rather than violent means of resolving their problems.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend's suggestion. I hope that all of us who meet the women parliamentarians from Algeria next week—I understand that Members of the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats are doing so—will take every opportunity to make those points to them.

The Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham

My Lords, I hope that the Government will ignore some of the articles that have appeared in some British newspapers, which, for some reason, seem to misrepresent and malign the position taken by the Algerian Government on some of the appalling atrocities that we have seen. They imply that in some way the Algerian Government condone or stand aside and let these things happen. Nothing could be further from the truth. They also accuse Algeria of being governed by a military junta. I think that Algeria—

Noble Lords


The Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham

My Lords, surely that is not true. It is an elected government.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are of course aware of the allegations that the Algerian Government are somehow implicated in the killings. There is no substantive, credible evidence to confirm those allegations. However the situation would have been helped if, when the troika visited Algeria last month, it had been allowed to visit the scene of the massacres so that it could have satisfied itself on some of those important points. We must wait to see what evidence emerges. I return to the original point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury: were we to see the UN rapporteurs in Algeria, we would at least have objective advice about the extent of anyone's alleged involvement.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, as the UN rapporteurs will not be allowed in, at least until after the commission has met on 16th March, and the time necessary to make the arrangements has elapsed, does the Minister agree that the rapporteurs should make an analysis of the evidence that is currently available? That includes the statements made by the former torturer who claims also to have witnessed mass murders. Could not all that evidence be brought together by the special rapporteurs so that it could be presented to the commission on 16th March to enable it better to make a decision?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

The question that the noble Lord asks is essentially a matter for the UN rapporteurs. Her Majesty's Government's position remains the same. We shall encourage the Algerian Government to accept the special rapporteurs. I hope that other governments will be doing the same in Geneva on 16th March.