HL Deb 08 December 1999 vol 607 cc1281-4

3.11 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, as there is to be a Private Notice Question, it may be helpful if I remind your Lordships of the procedure. The Companion states: Private notice questions are taken immediately after starred questions, and should not be made the occasion for immediate debate. Proceedings on private notice questions follow the rules for starred questions … In particular, supplementary questions should be short and confined to not more than two points. Comment should be avoided".

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, namely: what action are Her Majesty's Government taking to ensure the safety of Chechen civilians in view of the threatened Russian bombardment of Grozny on Saturday 11th December.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have left the Russian Government in no doubt that we deplore the threat to Grozny. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised our concerns with the Russian Foreign Minister this afternoon. My honourable friend the Minister of State, Mr Vas, summoned the Russian Ambassador yesterday to ask him to convey to Moscow the alarm and dismay of Britain and its partners at recent events. If Russia proceeds with its threat to Grozny, we expect the Helsinki European Council to consider the future of European Union assistance to Russia.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, there are many thousands of men, women and children who may be too sick, too old or simply too terrified to leave Grozny. The Minister will be aware that in the case of Kosovo, the Foreign Secretary said: Not to have acted, when we knew the atrocities that were being committed, would have been to make ourselves complicit in their repression".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/3/99; col. 538.] In the context of the Government's ethical dimension to foreign policy, and using the Foreign Secretary's own criteria, what specific clear-cut assurance can the Government give that they will not be complicit in the repression of innocent Chechen civilians on Saturday?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have no hesitation in giving the noble Lord the assurance that he seeks. Her Majesty's Government are working energetically in relation to this issue. We take the same stance in response to the Chechen position as we take in relation to any humanitarian difficulty.

The Russian military action in Chechnya is leading to a humanitarian crisis on an appalling scale. The ultimatum to "quit or die", given to the citizens of Grozny, is, indeed, horrifying. However, we have taken some comfort. We have seen very recent reports from Moscow that the ultimatum may not have been issued by the Russian Government but by a Russian commander acting on his own initiative. It is clear that the Russian authorities responded with vigour to the concern expressed by ourselves and our partners. There is now a clear distancing between the statement contained in the leaflet and the professed Russian policy. We hope that the leaflets were part of a psychological warfare campaign and not a firm declaration of military intent.

We continue to seek urgent clarification. The strength of the reaction of the Russian leadership shows that it is determined to keep full control of its policy in Chechnya. Our complaints are having some effect and are being responded to.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, in view of the recent reports that Mr Rusheilo, the Interior Minister, stated that no deadline was intended, and the statement by the local commander, General Kazantsev, that civilians are not intended to be targeted, can the Minister say whether she believes there to be conflicting commands from the Russian Government? Can she validate the statement that the corridor is still open? Finally, can she say whether there is a possibility that the UNHCR could arrange the evacuation of civilians by negotiating a stand-off for several days in the light of the Russian assurances that refugees are to be protected?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are seeking urgent clarification on many of the issues raised by the noble Baroness. The leaflet contained a horrifying threat which we have taken seriously and responded to robustly. I refer to both the conversation between Mr Vaz and the ambassador and that which my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary had with his counterpart in Russia.

Clarification is obviously needed. However, we are stating clearly to the Russians that the stance taken in the leaflet was wholly unacceptable and deplorable; and that at the very least, these matters will be urgently addressed in Helsinki and, obviously, in conversations before then.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for facilitating the taking in your Lordships' House of this Private Notice Question today. Secondly, is the Minister aware that the Russian Embassy has known for some weeks of the visit to London by a Chechen terrorist leader who was received in Whitehall at the highest level? Chatting with terrorists may be a common pastime, but in the present crisis, will it not weaken the hand of Her Majesty's Government in doing all they can to protect innocent people from Russian barbarism?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, perhaps I may say straight away that I am not clear as to which Chechen terrorist the noble Lord referred. We are making it clear to our partners and, indeed, to the Russians, that we will vigorously pursue with them a proper response to the Chechen position. The Russians said at Istanbul that they accept that a political resolution of this issue is the only real way forward. They have now started to engage with the OSCE. There will soon be a visit by the chairman. These issues cause us great concern and worry. However, perhaps I may respectfully suggest that this is a time when we need to have a cool eye and a steady hand on the tiller in order to chart a safe route through these choppy and troubled waters.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the Minister wish to reconsider her answer in which she stated that we take the same stance on all these issues? Surely, we do not. Does she not agree that our stance on Kosovo, East Timor and Iraq was military intervention? Is not the blunt fact of the matter that we will not take the same stance in this regard because Russia is far too big? Perhaps I may make one suggestion. If it is to be a war of words, why do we not say that we will remove Russia from the Council of Europe immediately if it does not stop its actions in Chechnya?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, perhaps I can clarify straight away what I meant by the "same stance". The noble Lord will know well that in relation to each of the issues he mentioned, we used every diplomatic and other means to pressurise change before looking at the military option. A military option is an option of last resort. It would be extremely dangerous for us to make opportunistic comments at this stage which would endanger our security. I say straight away that all options will be considered at Helsinki. We and our partners take this threat extremely seriously and our response will be robust and focused so that Russia is left in no doubt whatever that we find its actions unacceptable.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I want to follow up the question in relation to the measures which will be robustly pursued. Does the Minister agree that the Russian economy is sustained to some extent by the assistance received from the International Monetary Fund and other aid agencies? Is it within her armoury of a "robust response" to use that power to exercise some influence over the terrible events in Chechnya?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, noble Lords will know that the criteria used in relation to the IMF loan are economic ones. But it is right to say that the IMF management decided not to recommend disbursement of the next £400 million as Russia has not made sufficient progress against the economic conditions of its programme. We shall look together at Helsinki at aid issues. Those discussions will be extremely well focused and much depends on how Russia behaves in the interim.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, while I accept wholeheartedly the concern for the suffering of Chechnyan civilians and Russia's attempts to terrify them, is the Minister aware of a recent United States State Department report that Bin Laden and associated groups are active in Chechnya? They intend to continue their fighting in Russia, and extend to Georgia and Azerbaijan. There is therefore a serious threat to Russian security. When the immediate crisis for the civilians is over, will the Government give an assurance that this broader threat to Russia will be dealt with sensitively and that this complex problem is dealt with in a way that takes all these factors into account?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right to raise the issue of the internal security of the Russian Federation. We understand the challenges that Russia faces at this time. But we say that this response, which threatens civilians, is not an appropriate way to deal with complex, internal difficulties which must be resolved on a political, and not a military, basis. A military basis will not suffice.