HL Deb 17 March 1999 vol 598 cc796-820

7.45 p.m.

Viscount Waverley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe solutions to the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I have initiated this debate in an effort to achieve balance on the complex issues which underlie the dispute. A clash between the principles of territorial integrity and self determination has created the longest inter-ethnic dispute in the former Soviet Union, unleashing suppressed hostility between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The dispute began in 1988 when local Armenians in the mountainous part of Karabakh in Azerbaijan asked Moscow to attach their autonomous district to Armenia. Since then the conflict has escalated into one generally characterised by violence, expulsion of rival nationals, allegations and counter allegations. Azerbaijan seeks to preserve its national integrity but Karabakhs of Armenian origin now comprise 100 per cent, of Karabakh. Since the war, 20 per cent, of Azerbaijan is occupied territory.

Intractable issues include Armenian withdrawal from Azeri territory outside Nagorno-Karabakh, peacekeepers and security guarantees, and most of all the status of Karabakh itself. Demands for action by the OSCE and the United Nations led Russia to negotiate a ceasefire in May 1994 that has held despite violations— approximately 400 people were killed on the ceasefire line last year. The situation is tense.

The position of the various co-chairs of the Minsk group—United States, Russia and France—is fraught with difficulty and contradiction. The US State Department attempts to be neutral although Congress favours Armenia. In 1992, it passed Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, a ban on direct US aid to Azerbaijan to pressure Baku to lift its so-called blockade of Armenia. I shall return to that point.

The Administration supports repeal, rightly contending that the ban negatively affects its ability to mediate the conflict. Armenian Americans oppose repeal, advocating that that would serve only to harden Azeri positions. Armenia meanwhile receives the second highest per capita aid from Washington of any country in the world—number one being Israel.

Interestingly, Jews and Azeris are now lobbying together in Washington's foreign policy arena to take on the influential Armenian lobby groups and thus remove the stigma of Azerbaijan being the sole aggressor in the Karabakh conflict and to clear Azerbaijan's name in Congress. Although many can identify a dominant Russian agenda, there are those who believe that the United States has been dilatory in seeking solutions. That is somewhat borne out by Strobe Talbot who, in testimony before Congress last March, referred to Nagorno-Karabakh as one of the most vexing challenges of the post-Cold War world, observing that the United States is "patient" regarding the issue.

Russia is widely criticised for its decision to station S300 surface-to-air missiles and MiG 29 fighter aircraft in Armenia where Russia has two military bases. This compromises their impartiality and undermines regional security. There is also the accusation that Russia has been covertly supplying arms to Armenia, and so by extension to Karabakh, between 1994–97 which would violate its obligations under the conventional forces in Europe treaty.

Azerbaijan regards the military co-operation between Russia and Armenia as a threat to Azeri security and has determined to develop relations with the NATO Partnership for Peace in addition to examining an Azeri-Turkish military alliance to counter the Armenia-Russia axis. France also has a sizeable Armenian Diaspora.

I shall briefly summarise where we are today. An annex to the statement of the chairman of the OSCE at the Lisbon Summit, endorsed by all 53 members except Armenia, referred to Azeri territorial integrity as a basis of settlement. The Armenian Foreign Minister told a meeting this afternoon in this House that the process had been hijacked with the current Prime Minister rejecting those proposals.

Last November, Russia floated a new proposal centred around a concept of "common state", thereby taking Armenian views into account more than previously. The Azeris rejected the proposal. Could the Minister please confirm the current status of solution proposals?

I had not wanted to enter the rights and wrongs of the past or stir ingrained sensitivities—far better to concentrate on resolution. However, an NGO has sent me a briefing note highlighting a number of emotive issues. I feel with regret compelled to comment, drawing on my experience in other conflict arenas.

A continuous one-sided message of ethnic cleansing, blockade, suffering, the systematic bombardment of civilians, and saying that anything other than support for Armenians and Karabakhs would be akin to supporting the Nazis over the Jews, undermine the interests of the very people that organisation is trying to help. Such extremist views serve only to exacerbate tensions.

Evidence points to both sides being perpetrators of acts of attrition, atrocities and unilateral deportation. It is also important to distinguish between a blockade and an economic embargo which, for example, is exactly what the United States is inflicting on Cuba and Iran.

NGOs must differentiate the role of humanitarian good works and that of conflict resolution. This failure makes the work of peace-makers more difficult. The situation on the ground was and is not as clear-cut as many would have us believe. A newly published definitive account of the war and its aftermath suggests that distant commentators should carefully consider, before furthering the promotion of facts based on repetitive errors". With all that said, an intractable conflict is a disservice to all. The clocks cannot be turned back. It is for the participants to achieve peace through compromise and reconciliation—not an imposed peace, but a lasting one. Our job as outsiders is to encourage that process, not to be one-sided and to convince them that to win the peace is infinitely more important than winning the war.

The immediate inability to find a solution for Karabakh and an Armenian-Azeri compromise, however, is complicated by other regional issues which will also have to be addressed. Individual relations between Russia and the states of Armenia and Azerbaijan, relations between Trans-Caucasian republics and Georgia, issues within CIS including oil pipeline routes, and the complex long overdue Iran/United States rapprochement.

In addition, any siting of American air bases in Azerbaijan would be akin to waving a red rag at a bull for Iran and Russia. That, however, is considered a potential insurance policy option against Russia/Armenian geo-strategic designs.

So what can and should Britain do to help? The United Kingdom is highly regarded and we should capitalise on that reputation. As is well-known, we do have oil interests in the region and while those interests need to be protected it should be remembered that we have interests throughout the region. Working towards a pluralistic regional stability with our fair, even-handed approach, must single us out to play a part beyond commercial consideration. I would always opt for constructive engagement, as that is the best evidence of friendship.

I believe that one of Britain's most helpful contributions would be to offer guidance on the apparent conflict between the OSCE principles of self-determination, on the one hand, and territorial integrity on the other. It would seem to me that an internationally accepted right to self-determination can only be accepted after recognition of territorial integrity, which in turn would require the acquiescence of the two states.

How else can this issue be reconciled? Continued failure to establish guidelines allows minorities to grasp at straws and prolongs disputes. I do believe that OSCE is doing as good a job as it can. Certainly it has the expertise, but it lacks the tools. It is severely under-resourced and it may be that the Minister will look again at a long-standing Foreign Office request for an additional Russian-speaking monitor.

A raft of military, economic, political and humanitarian confidence-building measures could usefully be introduced to help massage the negotiation process ranging from the need for more people-to-people diplomacy to generally extending discussion beyond official circles.

Other areas of common ground are the environment, particularly river pollution projects; strengthening local NGO activity; de-mining; media exchange; prisoner information and direct contact between local commanders in joint military commissions to clarify mistaken troop movements and so make resumption of hostilities less likely; co-operation in oil and gas sectors; and the important development of transport infrastructure such as the TRACECA project, which would link Baku with Yerevan.

In short, all activities should be directed towards creating formulae for direct negotiations and creating economic co-operation and regional investor confidence. The vexing issue of the refugees is a powder keg and I can only hope that they are not used as a pawn for creating social upheaval.

Two points are categorically not helpful. First, ill-advisedly to promote this dispute as a Christian/Moslem divide; and, secondly, that Armenia could possibly be admitted to the Council of Europe before Azerbaijan. Inter-parliamentary dialogue has a real role, so I was delighted that MPs in Yerevan share the perception that admittance should be simultaneous and accelerated.

In conclusion, there will be much for the Government to consider, but are they minded to become a Minsk co-chair? If so, I have little doubt that that decision would have the full support of this House. The grim reality is that the Karabakh question really is one of the world's more desperate situations involving both principle and pride. All three camps have positions which are deemed essential and non-negotiable. But I would urge them all to realise that the benefits of peaceful resolution would be immediate not only to the participants but to the world at large.

7.55 p.m.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, while I share the noble Viscount's commitment to balance, there are situations which are inherently asymmetrical.

Having visited Karabakh 41 times, many of them during the bitter war, I believe it is essential that the OSCE takes historical and current asymmetries into account. Since Stalin gave this piece of ancient Armenia to Azerbaijan, the Armenians have suffered threats to their survival.

In the 1980s, Azerbaijan changed the ethnic composition of Karabakh, moving in large numbers of Azeris. In 1991, the famous "Operation Ring" brought brutal deportations of Armenian villages: civilians rounded up, possessions looted; many tortured and killed; survivors driven off their land.

In 1991, Azerbaijan also said that it would annul Karabakh's autonomous status and re-name Stepanakert with a Turkish name. Karabakh would become like Nackichevan, another part of historic Armenia, where Azeris had driven out every Armenian and where now they are systematically destroying ancient Armenian churches.

In January 1992, Azerbaijan launched full-scale military offensives. Throughout the 1990s, successive Azeri presidents declared explicit policies of ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Karabakh. Cease-fires were repeatedly broken by Azerbaijan. For example, in June 1993, I was in Stepanakert just after a cease-fire agreement. Bombs started to pound in from Azeri positions. Azeris denied any offensive. We brought back fresh shrapnel.

Azerbaijan's continuing violations of cease-fires forced the Armenians to create a buffer zone, capturing towns in Azerbaijan, inevitably displacing thousands of Azeris. Armenians were denounced as aggressors, but what could they do given continuing Azeri assaults on their civilians from these bases?

In war, violations of human rights occur on both sides. But evidence proves that Azerbaijan was the primary aggressor in at least six ways. First, Azerbaijan undertook the systematic, unilateral deportation of Armenians in that infamous Operation Ring. Secondly, Azerbaijan first used Grad multiple missile rocket launchers against civilians. In 1992, 1 counted 400 Grad missiles pounding daily onto civilians in Stepanakert and other towns. Thirdly, only Azerbaijan used aerial bombardment of civilians. Fourthly, only Azerbaijan used ground-to-air missiles, detonated to explode over civilian targets. Fifthly, Azerbaijan and Turkey are still maintaining their blockade of Armenia. Even after the earthquake of 1988, Azerbaijan would not allow the passage of humanitarian aid. Sixthly, a report by Physicians for Human Rights documents recent torture of Armenian hostages by Azeris, even during this cease-fire.

The Armenians of Karabakh achieved military victory, through immense courage and sacrifice. But they now face threats to their security from interventions by the international community, including the OSCE. Of course Azeris suffered too. I helped with aid to them, also. But major aid organisations such as UNHCR and UNICEF, which have given them aid and advocacy, have not even been present in Karabakh. Also, Azerbaijan, with massive oil reserves, has many other advocates promoting the Azeri cause.

I turn to two current issues. First, those displaced by war. Many visitors to Azerbaijan are taken to see Azeri refugees still kept in camps in harsh conditions. But Armenia has found accommodation for comparable numbers of people displaced by war, by Azeri massacres in Sumgait and Baku and by earthquake, in spite of economic hardship from the blockade. Therefore, will the Government ask Azerbaijan why it is still keeping so many people in camps; what it has done with the money from UNHCR and other organisations; and why it has not been as successful as Armenia in providing for displaced people?

Secondly, I turn to the OSCE proposals. Given all that the Armenians have suffered at the hands of Azeris, they can never again accept Azeri sovereignty. Until recently, the OSCE has put territorial integrity before self-determination and threatened the Armenians with proposals they could never accept. But the most recent proposals, which imply less threat of subjugation, have been rejected by Azerbaijan. There are now indications that Azerbaijan may start another war. Possibly in order to legitimate further aggression, the Azeri Embassy recently distributed a mendacious and inflammatory statement concerning a so-called "massacre" at Khodaly. There was a tragedy in which Azeri civilians died, but independent reports confirmed that the Armenians gave repeated advance warnings of their offensive, urging civilians to leave. They tried to negotiate safe evacuation. Civilians were tragically killed in the cross-fire as Azeri soldiers escaped, intermingled with women and children. The Armenians allowed the Azeris to return to collect their dead and the Azeris used the tragedy for massive propaganda, falsifying numbers and mutilating bodies postmortem. I shall place an analysis in your Lordships' Library.

It is a matter for concern that the western media flocked to the staged scene in Azerbaijan but never went to Karabakh. Soon afterwards, Azeris perpetrated a massacre in the Armenian village of Maraghar, sawing off the heads of 45 villagers, burning others and carrying out numerous atrocities. I was there within hours and witnessed the decapitated and burnt corpses and burning homes. I returned with incontrovertible evidence, yet no western media reported that massacre of Armenians by Azeris.

The Armenians have therefore had to contend with asymmetries of many kinds—military resources, aid and advocacy. They now face the possible prospect of another war. Azerbaijan has been buying huge stocks of long-range missiles and fighter aircraft. The Karabakhis have also developed a strong defensive and retaliatory capacity, able to inflict damage on Baku. If Azerbaijan again attempts ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Karabakh, Armenia could not stand passively by. If Armenia engaged, that would trigger a regional war with incalculable suffering and would destabilise the entire region militarily, politically and economically.

I finish by asking the Minister three questions. First, is she aware that there is deep concern over Azerbaijan's request for a NATO base? During the recent war, Azeris used NATO weapons, presumably supplied by Turkey. What assurances can the Minister give that such a NATO base would not support Azerbaijan if it renews hostilities; and what safeguards could ensure end-user accountability of NATO weapons?

Secondly, will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will not support any OSCE proposals which do not take adequately into account the need of the Armenian people for security against further threats to their survival?

Concern has been expressed in some quarters over Armenia's links with Russia and Iran. But what alternatives were available to it? With the economic blockade imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan and with the west looking the other way or even supporting Azerbaijan during that bitter war, where else could Armenia go for support?

Thirdly, is the Minister aware that the agreement to hold the forthcoming OSCE summit in Istanbul has caused deep offence to many who are worried about Turkey's abysmal human rights record? Will she give an assurance that Turkey will be brought to account for its continuing violations of human rights against its political opponents and against the Kurds and the Assyrian Christians; and that Turkey and Azerbaijan will be required to end their blockade of Armenia?

Armenia has survived earthquakes, war and many assaults on its people. Despite those threats to survival, its economy is developing and it has created perhaps the most stable democracy in the former USSR. It must be in the interests of all concerned with peace, justice and political stability not to allow oil interest to tilt policy in favour of Azerbaijan, jeopardising the security of Armenia and peace in the region.

It is clear that I am an unashamed advocate of the Armenian cause in Karabakh. That is born of direct experience and grounded in evidence. In Christian Solidarity Worldwide, we try to emulate Andrei Sakharov, who was always on the side of the victim. Evidence shows that the Armenians have been the primary victims. Would the principle of "balance" have applied to the Nazi genocide of the Jews? We should not forget Hitler's infamous question, before embarking on his assaults on Poland: Who speaks today about the Armenians? We speak of the Armenians today and shall continue to do so. I hope that the Government will behave more honourably towards them than has been the case historically and that this Government, committed to human rights and an ethical foreign policy, will remember Gladstone's dictum: To serve Armenia is to serve civilisation".

8.3 p.m.

The Earl of Shannon

My Lords, first, I should start by declaring my interest both as a member of the British-Armenian Parliamentary Group and the British-Azerbaijan Parliamentary Group. Here we are dealing with an extremely intractable problem, as your Lordships have just heard. I shall leave the matter of the horrors to others who have more detailed and recent experience than I have.

I wish to concentrate on the differences in culture arising from the history. Since the dawn of history, the history of that area has been based on invasion, conquest and subjugation. Drawing attention to the differences which have arisen from such historical occurrences may help to resolve the situation.

We would laugh today if anybody were to say that France claims to have control of England because, after all, let us face it, it was a Norman Frenchman who conquered it in 1066. What about the fact that the Black Prince conquered most of France in the time of Edward I? We do not worry about such matters, but we must remember that in the Caucasus their history is still very real to them and carries a great deal of bitterness which we should not consider to be appropriate today.

It is no wonder that there is such a total and utter lack of confidence and trust among the people there, both in the outside world and among themselves. So however well-intentioned the wise gentlemen who met at Lisbon and Minsk and from the OSCE, it is no wonder that they hit a brick wall straight on as soon as they started to define the eventual political status of the Karabakh. Any subsequent talks and confidence-building stages would immediately be a non-starter.

We must also bear in mind something to which we do not attach great importance here but to which they attach great importance there; that is, the importance of saving face. Also in this day and age we should consider it utterly inconceivable that talks should be held to decide the fate of a country and its people when one of the major players insists that the very people whom they are talking about should not be allowed to participate in the talks because of their "face".

We have had a slightly potted history of the Karabakh but I should like to go over it again. At the whim of a despot in the 1920s, Karabakh was given as an autonomous—and that is rather interesting—oblast within Azerbaijan. On the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Karabakh declared its independence under the existing Soviet constitution of the time and held a referendum and decided upon self-determination. Azerbaijan only did so very much later.

The West wrings its hands over the sanctity of Helsinki. We may wish to consider the sanctity of the existing Karabakh at the time, before Helsinki. Perhaps that is a matter for the lawyers to consider. In any event, the net result was the invasion of the Karabakh by Azerbaijan, helped greatly by the armaments provided by the Soviet Fourth Army, which had quietly demobilised itself at Baku, leaving all its kit behind.

Hence the theoretically overwhelming might of Azerbaijan; its large population; Turkish officers in uniform commanding troops; and Mujahideen, whom I interviewed through interpreters, being paid 500 dollars per month to come to fight for the Azeris. The infinitely smaller Karabakh population threw out that overwhelming might and drew a cordon sanitaire around its country to stop it being shelled over the border. The reason is quite simply that the Karabakh Armenians are front-line soldiers and I am afraid that the Azeris do not measure up to the same quality. Therefore, the Karabakh Armenians won and there is no military solution.

Azerbaijan only wants the Karabakh because of loss of face and it is extremely important that that is taken into account on the part of Azerbaijan. Also, I suspect that there is a certain amount of disquiet in Azerbaijan. It had the most enormous international clout because it could say, "We've got the oil". Oh dear, just recently, some of those exploration contracts have had to be handed back because the oil that was prospected to be there was not there. So the Azeris do not have the clout that they used to have and that is worrying them.

I suggest that the only way to break that deadlock is by somehow giving a cast-iron guarantee for the security of the Karabakh Armenians. That is not an unreasonable request. That guarantee must be achieved first and the admirable proposals which have been made from time to time must come later. You cannot expect the victors in the war, as they are, to make concessions when they can clearly see that that will mean an early resumption of the butchery through which they have been before. Two heads of state of Azerbaijan have made well known public statements. President Elchibey said that his people could hang him in the square at Baku if there were any Armenians left in the Karabakh by the month of October. President Aliyev has said that the solution to the Karabakh problem is the elimination of Karabakh Armenians in the Karabakh.

Such statements of national policy of ethnic cleansing were almost unheard of since Genghis Khan. International negotiators please get real. Unless the Karabakh Armenians are convinced that they are no longer under a sentence of death, you can hardly expect them to agree to a lengthy process of talks, eventually leading to their execution being carried out. That must be the prime role before going any further with talks.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Newall

My Lords, anyone who has looked into the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh knows that it is not an easy situation to solve. It is a classic example of every coin having two sides.

When Russia allowed the region to be autonomous, it had previously belonged to Azerbaijan, which at that time had about 59 per cent. of the population. As noble Lords have already heard, by 1989 the Soviets wanted to join Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in fighting. In 1991 the Armenian population voted for independence. That independence has never been recognised by the international community.

Nagorno-Karabakh remains autonomous, but part of Azerbaijan. After 1991 the battles continued and many Azeris were massacred by Armenians. I have no doubt that the reverse happened as well. I respect the first-hand knowledge of my noble friend Lady Cox.

The area is backward in many ways, despite the oil and it has always had quarrels and fighting, but several times the United Nations Security Council has called upon the Armenians to stop the fighting. That has virtually been ignored and the Armenian fighters have refused to implement the OSCE Minsk Group's solution, set up in Lisbon in 1996. Having listened to the Foreign Minister of Armenia today, I understand that some progress may be possible on that score. We shall have to wait and see. Currently it is believed by some that Russia is sending arms to the Armenians and even joining in the fighting, but, of course, the arms are not in Armenia itself, but in Nagorno-Karabakh.

President Aliyev of Azerbaijan has started many good reform measures although he admits that he has further to go to stamp out corruption. The cost in lives is enormous and the refugee problem in Azerbaijan is vast, with hundreds of thousands of Azeris pushed out of their homes and now living in some squalor in dozens of camps in Azerbaijan.

That is the situation that exists today. Although there are many areas where conflict continues, it is very good that the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, has initiated this debate when so much of what is heard is either very one-sided or completely inaccurate.

I wonder whether the Government have taken more than a passing interest in the plight of the Azeri refugees and whether the Minister will be able to initiate assistance for them and alleviate some of their distress in the future. I know that the United Kingdom is not involved in the Minsk Group, but I hope that we may hear some encouraging news to help the people in that area, especially those who have been thrown out of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Let us hope that negotiation will take place and that the difficulties will be sorted out. I am hopeful, but I am not very confident.

8.13 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, do we still remember the moment when it seemed that so many people suffering under the Soviet tyranny were to achieve a measure of freedom? Do we remember Sakharov or Galina Starovoitova so recently murdered in St. Petersburg? I ask those questions because they were among the first to tell the world about the ethnic cleansing that was being carried out from 1988 to 1991 by the Azeris, the Soviet OMON and other special troops in Nagorno-Karabakh, a small enclave largely peopled by Armenian Christians. The area had been arbitrarily included in Islamic Azerbaijan.

I am sorry to go into detail but it is an important issue. Christians and people who are fervently Islamic find it difficult to live together. The area was then taken back by Soviet Russia in 1989 and handed back to Azerbaijan in the same year. It was treated throughout in typical Soviet fashion as a parcel. Sakharov wanted to take it back to Soviet jurisdiction only because he believed in those words "glasnost" and "perestroika", as did the people. Gorbachev found it easier to give it back to the Azeris who lost no time—like the Turks in Cyprus—in sending in Azeri settlers.

Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has suffered war, ethnic cleansing, inhuman treatment, blockade and privation. Most of all, it has suffered from being regarded as, to put it bluntly, a nuisance. We are spending time and precious resources actively trying to resolve the not dissimilar problems of Kosovo. But Nagorno-Karabakh's present and future has been left entirely to the Minsk Group in the OSCE. Who are they? They are Russia, France and the United States. Russia has a shifting, but constant range of interests in the area. There is a Caspian oil plant, a gas pipeline and, on the other hand, Russia has an important defence presence in Armenia. France has important oil interests and ties with Armenia.

When Britain signed a number of oil contracts with Azerbaijan in July last year, Aliyev, the Azeri leader, noted with satisfaction that the British supported the OSCE summit of December 1996. That advocated territorial integrity for Azerbaijan and Armenia and a legal status for Nagorno-Karabakh which would give it a multi-ethnic autonomous identity under Azerbaijani sovereignty, with the right to its own constitution, national anthem and flag. As a free economic zone, it would have a budget financed exclusively from its own resources and the right to its own national guard and military police.

The Lisbon summit talked of the highest degree of self-government within Azerbaijan for Nagorno-Karabakh and a guaranteed security for Nagorno-Karabakh and its whole population, including mutual agreement to abide by the settlement provisions. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in a debate on the subject in July 1997 (Official Report, 1/7/97; cols. 169 and 170) quoted the provisions that were agreed in the Lisbon agreement, but nothing happened.

It is 11 years since Nagorno-Karabakh's troubles began, yet we seem to content ourselves with only the most general pressure on Azerbaijan through the EU and to some extent through the UN to behave better. We have given some humanitarian aid for refugees and displaced people in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. But there is no UN presence in Nagorno-Karabakh, as there is in Bosnia and negotiations are left to the Minsk Group. As I said in the July 1997 debate, the OSCE plan for Nagorno-Karabakh in April 1997 was to recognise that entity—here we come back to what I was saying earlier—as multi-ethnic and autonomous.

The important point is that the OSCE also proposed to throw an OSCE cordon around the area, requiring first that the Karabakh armed forces be withdrawn to within the 1998 Soviet boundary. That would have removed the Armenian-occupied Lachin corridor which is Nagorno-Karabakh's only access to Armenia and to the outside world. It is, therefore, a lifeline. The OSCE proposed that the Lachin corridor should be "leased to Azerbaijan by the OSCE", which would set the borders and be responsible for the link between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. The Lachin district would come under Azerbaijan jurisdiction; Azerbaijani refugees would be returned to Armenian territory. One wonders how many years the OSCE would have to stay to enforce such a complicated and extraordinary set of proposals. It is not surprising that that plan was rejected therefore, but I wonder whether the details of the latest OSCE plans are any better.

We know that the OSCE wants the next set of proposals to be executed by stages whereas Nagorno-Karabakh wishes the issue to be settled as a package. Let us at least support the idea that the matter should be dealt with as a package. Under the OSCE plans, what it wants to happen by stages is, first, that Nagorno-Karabakh's forces would be withdrawn from all the six districts of Azerbaijan, presumably including the Lachin corridor, which they at present control. Only then would the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the political settlement, be considered.

Nagorno-Karabakh not unnaturally doubts whether there would be a satisfactory political settlement once the Azeris have all that they want. The Azeris and the OSCE have so far defined their future political status as "the highest degree of autonomy" which, according to Aliyev, means the model of the Russian autonomous regions. But he has also said that, under the settlement, occupied lands would be liberated, Azerbaijan territorial integrity would be restored and the Azerbaijan state would control its entire territory. Those words are not as fierce as some that have been quoted by other noble Lords, but they are still pretty frightening to Nagorno-Karabakhis. In the light of such intentions it is not surprising that they should insist on a package deal and not a stage-by-stage procedure.

The OSCE has talked in the recent past about bringing in a multi-national contingent of peace-keepers through Turkey and of setting up a headquarters for OSCE forces. Have we accepted any part of that proposal? I cannot help feeling that that would simply be impractical.

The Caspian is a potential tinderbox, with Iran, Russia and Turkey all confronting one another in a situation which could well become a serious problem for NATO's southern flank, for reasons which have already been described by other noble Lords. Surely we cannot afford to allow the dispute to continue and to smoulder in such a way in what could very easily be a powderkeg. Frankly, I do not believe that the Minsk Group is doing any good although I would strongly contend that it might be better if we were in it. The Kosovo commitment is important, but the Russian Foreign Minister has said that the military issues cannot be discussed until the political issues have been agreed. That is exactly the formula that the Nagorno-Karabakhis want. I hope very much that, as that is their position, we shall support them in arguing that they need a package. We have seen enough in Northern Ireland and Kosovo to know that packages are better than stage-by-stage proposals.

8.21 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I join in the thanks that have been expressed to my noble friend Lord Waverley for initiating this debate. It is both necessary and timely.

In April of last year, I had the privilege of visiting Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia in company with my friend and colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. She has a much longer and deeper experience of those countries than I, and I greatly admire what she has done to enable the local people to develop limb-fitting and rehabilitation for their war wounded.

When I returned here last year, I very soon went to see His Excellency the Azeri Ambassador in London and I listened to him at some length. I also put on paper 15 reasons why the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and, indeed, their cousins in Armenia cannot accept any form of rule or sovereignty from Azerbaijan. Those reasons, which some noble Lords may have seen, are rooted in history. They also concern the arbitrary and undemocratic nature of the internal boundaries that used to exist within the former Soviet Union. Self-determination was not a factor then taken into account, as can be clearly seen both north and south of the Caucasus mountains. Other reasons relate to the conduct of the war between 1991 and 1994 and to atrocities, particularly against civilians, committed during that war, together with planned attacks against Armenian religion and culture.

We were clearly told during our visit by the President of Nagorno-Karabakh that horizontal or contractual relations were the only possible ones with Azerbaijan. Statehood, he said, is not essential to us, provided that we enjoy its de facto attributes.

It seems to me that that is a case where the classic OSCE doctrines of "territorial integrity" and "national self-determination", which have been mentioned, notably by my noble friend Lord Waverley, are in fact quite incompatible. The wisest course may therefore be to count Nagorno-Karabakh within the very limited class of nations, such as Bangladesh and Eritrea, which have succeeded in establishing their claim to secession by force of arms.

At present, the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan is in urgent need of attention; of that there can be little doubt. It seems to me essential to prevent an arms race between those two countries which could lead to renewed fighting. Both countries have pressing needs for development and neither can reasonably afford large and heavily armed forces. Therefore, I ask Her Majesty's Government to use the Minsk Group of the OSCE, and any other available channels, to work for arms control and the greatest possible degree of transparency.

There may be another approach through NATO's Partnership for Peace, to which both countries belong. I trust that discreet confidence-building, conducted between military men, may help to defuse what might otherwise be politically controversial.

Western Europe, in the century ending in 1945, experienced at least three devastating major wars. That experience led to a revolution in attitudes, to a radical shift of paradigm. War and forceful conflict management are now universally seen in the region of western Europe as obsolete. The resolution of conflicts, so that all sides emerge as winners, is perceived as the desirable goal. Co-operative behaviour, rather than confrontation, is the only way towards civilised living.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey have huge potential. Through them, the resources of the Caspian sea and of central Asia need to pass en route to their natural markets. I was therefore greatly encouraged to hear only this afternoon the Foreign Minister of Armenia describe Nagorno-Karabakh as a potential "bridge for co-operation". As things are now, Christians and Moslems, Sunni and Shia, face each other across the frontiers. Can we in the West, who have already experienced a considerable paradigm shift, help these ancient traditions towards their own revolution in attitudes? The challenge is vast and daunting, but I hope and trust that it will be accepted.

8.27 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for introducing this debate, and, like the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, I declare an interest as a member of the British Azeri Group. I should add that my son represents President Aliyev, but I have no financial connection with that situation. Your Lordships will no doubt take that into account when hearing my remarks.

Like other noble Lords, I listened to Mr. Vartan Oakanian, the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Armenia. Although he appeared to be conciliatory, he was quite clear that there was no way in which the problem could be resolved by returning to the 1988 boundaries.

Nevertheless, the matter has been before the international community. The chairman of the OSCE at the time of the Lisbon Conference regretted that he could not show that any progress had been achieved in resolving the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh, which itself was the subject of previous UNSCRs in 1993. I refer to Nos. 822, 853, 874 and 884. The co-chairmen of the Minsk Group then, as I understand it, following majority approval, recommended supporting the territorial integrity of both parties to the dispute. However, only Armenia, among 53 other states, refused to ratify.

Mr. Oskanian told us this afternoon that the plan was unfair and that the other 53 states had been succoured by the Azeris. That must be listened to with the scepticism that it deserves. The situation led the Minsk Group to propose, in accordance with the UNSCRs, the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the six occupied Azerbaijani districts with the deployment of an international peace-keeping force and the rehabilitation of refugees, together with the re-opening of communications between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In addition, it required the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Lachin and Shusha and new negotiations over the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Incidentally, perhaps I may ask the Minister to suggest to the Secretary of State, as has already been mentioned in this evening's debate, that we propose ourselves as members of the Minsk Group. I believe that our influence in that body would be of benefit to all concerned, and I would be grateful for an assurance on that point. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, referred to our standing in the area. I agree with what he said in that respect.

The Minsk plan drew a gradually increasing acceptance from President Ter-Petrosyan who, unfortunately, was unseated by his colleague the self-styled President of Nagorno-Karabakh, Mr. Kocharian, before he had persuaded his colleagues to come to terms with the plan. As I understand it, Mr. Kocharian has since hardened the Armenian position and laid new accusations of desecration and atrocities to keep the pot boiling. There have been stories of atrocities in this area for many centuries, and there is no evidence of this ceasing immediately.

Mr. Oskanian gave his commitment to the OSCE and to UNSCRs this afternoon, but then went on to say that they were one-sided. That does not augur well for any agreement on that front. As we know only too well, the problems that arise from a combination of religious and racial factions within a disputed territory are difficult to control. Indeed, one has only to look at the map to perceive that the occupied territories of Nagorno and the neighbouring areas, situated as they are in the heart of Azerbaijan, make administration of that country practically impossible while there is a war situation going on in the middle.

Although there have been appalling atrocities on the part of both Azerbaijan and Armenia in the course of this dispute, it is a fact that there have recently been reasonably democratic elections in Azerbaijan resulting in the election of President Aliyev. I noticed that the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, views that with some disrespect. However, his administration needs support from all sides, while at the same time encouraging Armenia to come to terms with the will of the international community. It would seem that anything that can be done in the form of a concerted effort by the all-party groups would be most constructive. There are two groups in this House: the All-Party Azeri group and the All-Party Armenian group. If we cannot sit together and agree a programme for the future of this area, what possible hope can there be for them to do so? I recommend that those who are interested in this problem, together with the two groups, should unite into a single group to bring forward a separate plan, present it to the ambassadors and then move forward in that direction.

8.34 p.m.

Lord Fairfax of Cameron

My Lords, I, too, should like to begin by declaring an interest as regards my business involvement in the region, including Azerbaijan, and in membership of the British Azerbaijan Parliamentary Group. I should like to make a few short points. First, we have heard about big business, particularly the oil business, in the region. However, this is really a humanitarian problem. I would draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that there are almost I million Azeri refugees who are displaced. In particular, I have in mind the 20 per cent. of Azerbaijan territory which is currently occupied by Armenian associated forces and civilians.

Secondly, as has already been said, neither side has a monopoly on innocence in this matter regarding the unfortunate events in Nagorno-Karabakh. Similarly, there is no advantage to be had in trading atrocity stories; indeed, no doubt they exist on both sides. It would be highly unconstructive to dwell on such points.

Thirdly, I should like to refer to the Minsk Group Lisbon principles. The first concerns the territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The latter is a principle which, as we all know, is in general recognised in international law. It is only lightly encouraged to be upset. That is a principle by which all fair-minded people should abide. The second principle of the Lisbon declaration stated that Nagorno-Karabakh was to have the highest degree of self-rule, albeit within Azerbaijan sovereignty. We have heard about the need for Nagorno-Karabakh to have an autonomous status. I suggest that the highest degree of self-rule recommended by the Lisbon principles equates to this autonomous status. The third principle was that of the guaranteed security for Nagorno-Karabakh and its whole population. That point has rightly been emphasised by previous speakers. It is clearly an essential part of any settlement. Fourthly, I believe that Azerbaijan should continue to improve its record on human rights.

To sum up, as a previous speaker said, I believe that this country is very much respected in the region. I have travelled reasonably widely there, as well as in other parts of the former Soviet Union. We could definitely play a much stronger role, given the standing in which we are held. There is one message that I should like to leave with your Lordships: I hope that Her Majesty's Government will play a much more active role than they have hitherto in trying to resolve this extremely unfortunate dispute. I hope that they will do so on the basis of the Lisbon principles, or something close to them, for the benefit of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and, indeed, the whole of this very important region.

8.38 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I should declare an interest in that I have advised the Armenian Government on the future of their insurance industry, but I have no commercial interest in that country to declare. I have to congratulate the Azerbaijanis. I think that this is the seventh or eighth debate that we have had on the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh over the past nine years. However, I believe it is the first time that I have heard any Peer rise in your Lordships' House to suggest that the history is not entirely one-sided and entirely in favour of the Armenians.

I feel that I should say a word or two because I am one of the few in your Lordships' House who has visited Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Indeed, I was present on the second mission of my noble friend Lady Cox to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991. I saw with my own eyes the start of the aggression by Azerbaijan and the Soviet Fourth Army, the Soviet OMON and indeed Soviet Speznaz troops. I am in absolutely no doubt—because I have followed the story closely since then—that my noble friend Lady Cox, the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, my noble friend Lady Park and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, have it absolutely right. There is no room for manoeuvre for those who would try to say that the Azerbaijanis have suffered to anything like the degree of the Armenians in Karabakh, and indeed Armenia, in this unfortunate conflict.

I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, let us indeed look for the balance in this matter, but let us be in no doubt where the balance lies. I say to my noble friend Lord Newall that he may indeed have heard a very much one-sided version of events in this unfortunate area because those events are one-sided.

I noted that my noble friends Lord Clanwilliam and Lord Fairfax rightly declared interests in the area. I therefore take what they had to say with the caution which such interests might lead one to express. I say to my noble friend Lord Clanwilliam that if we in this House are indeed to unite into a single group to try to find some way forward which may be of service to those who are engaged in more official negotiations, there is no point in doing so unless we do so on the basis of the facts. Those facts are as stated by my noble friend Lady Cox and the other noble Lords I have mentioned.

8.41 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, it is a great temptation to follow almost every one of your Lordships who have spoken in this debate down the byways of history. But I shall resist that temptation and concentrate, if I may, on the proposals which have been developed under the Minsk Conference, and on what the British can do to support them.

As to the proposals of the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that we should put ourselves forward as an additional co-chair at the Minsk Conference, I remind him that it was only as recently as 1997 that the then chairman-in-office enlarged the co-chairmanship to three members: France, Russia and the United States. But Britain has neither been involved as a lead player so far in the process, nor as a member of the larger Minsk Conference. I was glad to note that we have assisted in the past by attaching a diplomat to the staff of the chairman-in-office, and have seconded officers to the High Level Planning Group. However, we are not directly involved in the formulation of proposals or in attempting to align the views of the parties with one another.

It seems to me that the resources of the Foreign Office are already fairly stretched in the tasks that it has undertaken and we should be wary of assuming additional responsibilities in relation to these difficult problems that we are discussing this evening, even if that could be done without cutting across the initiatives which are being taken under the Minsk Conference.

The previous chairman-in-office, Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, on a tour of the regional capitals in November secured the agreement of the parties that the conference is the most suitable framework for the continuation of the peace process. The two governments, and the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, expressed their firm support for the resumption of negotiations, and all parties agreed to an exchange of prisoners of war. The incoming chairman-in-office, who took up his post in December, Norwegian Foreign Minister Vollebak, said at the Oslo ministerial council meeting in December that he is committed to doing everything he can in the search for mutually acceptable political solutions. He said that given the necessary political will and courage, 1999 could be the year when the so-called frozen conflicts begin to thaw.

The current discussions are focused on the exploration of what autonomy would mean for Nagorno-Karabakh, and this new idea which has been mentioned of the common state, with both Armenia and Azerbaijan having some influence and involvement in its affairs. If I may say so en passant it seems to me that this proposal has overtaken the Lisbon principles which were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax, and others. We have to recognise that we are looking at a new set of proposals which have now been formulated and are in front of the parties. We do not have the exact details because we are not members of the Minsk Group, and it may be that the co-chairs have deliberately avoided filling in the blanks until they get the agreement of all the parties that the idea should form the basis for negotiations. So far, President Aliyev has stuck to the line that Baku is prepared to offer the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic broad autonomy after Armenian troops are withdrawn from occupied Azerbaijani territory and displaced persons have returned to their homes. As that means a return to the discredited system of government which operated in Soviet times, it is a non-starter.

The common state represents some movement, however, from the Armenian position that Nagorno-Karabakh should either have total independence or be unified with Armenia. Therefore, I hope that Azerbaijan will also take the small step necessary for substantive face-to-face negotiations based on this principle to get under way. Presumably the idea will be discussed when Minister Vollebak visits the region in mid-April, and it is now the only proposal on the table. The European Parliament has endorsed the common state as a basis for discussion to end the negotiating deadlock, and has proposed that EU aid to both countries be linked to tangible progress in the areas of human rights and democracy. The president of Nagorno-Karabakh said in New York recently that the proposal opens the way to peace and stability in the region. Nagorno-Karabakh itself has accepted the proposal, believing that for the sake of peace it was worth taking some risks. The Armenians have accepted it too but the Azerbaijanis are still hesitant.

What should we do, standing slightly outside this process? I think Britain and the European Union should throw their weight behind this common state proposal as the best and the only foundation on which any agreement could be forged. We should encourage both Armenia and Azerbaijan to distance themselves from their communist past, and create the institutions of freedom and democracy, because secure democracies tend to resolve their disputes by peaceful means. Armenia's human rights record is poor, but Azerbaijan's is abysmal according to Human Rights Watch, and progress in 1998 in both countries was patchy However, there are some things going for the situation. The ICRC has access to detention facilities run by the Ministry of the Interior in Armenia and it is able to visit any prisoner in prisons or local police stations. In Azerbaijan, however, the ICRC has access only to prisons where persons are held in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Various embassies have asked the Azerbaijani government for permission to visit all prisons. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate she can say whether we are one of those who has asked for this permission.

The ICRC says that cross-border hostage-laking is a problem. It has successfully assured a number of prisoner exchanges but has no access to undeclared hostages. Ceasefire violations continue to occur by both sides and they have resulted in deaths among combatants and civilians, and the taking of prisoners, including civilians. I hope that Mr. Vollebak will ask if the parties could refrain from all hostile acts across the de facto frontier, and see whether services can be offered in mediation where disputes arise on the boundary. Let us not exaggerate the contribution that Britain can make to the solution of this difficult problem, but let us back the OSCE in its latest initiatives.

8.48 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, on securing this balanced debate this evening. The speeches we have listened to have provided a valuable opportunity once again to draw attention to this running sore between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which continues to hinder and undermine economic and social development and prosperity in a region which has so much potential.

The long-standing unresolved dispute over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is not just a dangerous, potentially inflammatory conflict in its own right. It is also a symbol of one of the most difficult and intractable challenges of the post-cold war world, which has seen the eruption of ethnic and religious animosities dormant in the days of communist rule.

In the post-cold war decade we have witnessed for ourselves that, when self-determination is extended too far into separatism and nationalism, it can lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Likewise, territorial integrity, a nation's right to maintain its borders, which has a justified place in international law, can be taken too far until it becomes territorial encroachment. Bosnia, and now Kosovo, stand as a devastating testament to these evils.

My noble friend Lady Cox has already spoken eloquently on the rationale behind the decision of Christian Solidarity Worldwide to move from a position of impartiality to a position of advocacy on behalf of the Armenians. I would be very interested to hear the Minister's response to Christian Solidarity Worldwide's analysis that, unlike Azerbaijan, whose oil resources excite much international and commercial interest, the plight of the people of Karabakh is not seen at first hand by those who represent the international community and who make decisions affecting their future, so that, as a result, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are generally denied the opportunity to present their case that Azerbaijan is the primary aggressor.

But there have been some signs that it may be possible to break the impasse, and these fragile shoots of hope must be nurtured. The guns in Nagorno-Karabakh are for the moment silent, as both sides have generally observed a Russian mediated ceasefire in place since May 1994, although, as your Lordships have heard, regular violations do, regrettably, occur. Moreover, both sides have expressed their support for the OSCE-mediated peace process, now entering its seventh year. But, while this state of affairs is welcome, it alone is not enough. Without progress towards a durable settlement it could break down. In the absence of real peace and a permanent solution to the dispute, it is precarious and will continue to hurt both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Much more must be done to bring lasting peace and genuine regional co-operation.

As your Lordships have heard, there was some optimism just over a year ago that the Minsk Group could foster a political agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The French, Russian and United States co-chairmen drew up new proposals for an interim settlement, based on the premise that at present there is no status for Nagorno-Karabakh that would be acceptable to both sides and therefore that it would be constructive to concentrate on the security aspects of ending the armed conflict in the first place, with talks on status issues to follow.

Does the Minister agree with the Minsk Group's rationale in drawing up this proposal, that, short of imposing a solution on one side or the other—something the international community has vowed not to do— discussions on status could take many years, during which time the life of the region would be disrupted by the ever-present threat of war, while stunted economic development, particularly in Armenia, would continue to deprive the people of the Caucasus of the well-being and stability that they deserve? Does the Minister agree that concentrating on status first is likely to return the talks to the circular exchanges of maximalist positions that have characterised negotiations to date? Furthermore, what steps or suggestions do the Government have which may break this stalemate? Will they take a positive approach to build on this proposal in order to negotiate an early settlement?

Let me now turn briefly to the position of Her Majesty's Government. Although the United Kingdom is not a member of the Minsk Group, Ministers have always been willing to support its efforts. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in particular, pointed out, a diplomat has been attached to the Chairman in Office's staff, and officers have been seconded to the High Level Planning Group. As my noble friend Lady Park has pointed out, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said during the debate in your Lordships' House in July 1997 that the Government had not yet reviewed the position on the relationship between the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity in relation to the Caucasus developments in the context of the OSCE's principles guiding relations between participating states.

The second of these principles refers to the inviolability of internationally recognised frontiers, and the fourth refers to the territorial integrity of states. Have the Government yet reviewed the position and can the Minister give an assurance that the Government's policy remains that any change in the status of Nagorno-Karabakh has to be mutually agreed by the authorities of the countries concerned and that the right to self-determination does not equate automatically to a right to secession?

I should now like to turn to the important consideration put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax, on the question of human rights. I should like to ask the Minister about the Government's recent representations and discussions with the authorities in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh on issues of human rights and democracy, particularly in view of the Government's ethical dimension to foreign policy. Last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross visited 11 people held in relation to this conflict—six held by Azerbaijan and five held by the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities. In their most recent annual report, Amnesty International gave details of 20 possible prisoners of conscience who were reportedly held solely on grounds of their ethnic origin in connection with the Karabakh conflict, half of whom were subsequently released in prisoner exchanges.

I hope that the Government have offered to help the International Committee of the Red Cross in their repeated requests to the concerned parties to provide notification of any persons captured in relation to the conflict, to provide access to all places of detention connected with the conflict and to release all such prisoners, as well as to provide information on the fate of persons reported as missing in action. There is consensus in this House that the international community has not only a moral but a strategic imperative to seek a comprehensive negotiated settlement to end the destruction, suffering and uncertainty caused by the forces of separatism and nationalism, as clearly demonstrated by the dispute between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.

Stability in this strategically vital area—an area which may contain as much as 200 billion barrels of oil—is critical. Central Asia and, within it, the Transcaucasus, borders China, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan and has growing economic ties with Pakistan and India. Armenia and Azerbaijan are located on what has the potential to be a valuable trade and transport corridor along the old Silk Road which once linked Europe's trade with Asia.

So, in conclusion, it is incumbent on the international community to support reform, democracy, economic development and integration, to strengthen modern political and economic institutions and to assist in energy development. Much is at stake, and the United Kingdom has always been ready to play its part, with the international community, in the quest for a just and lasting resolution of such conflicts. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what initiatives the Government intend to take in this respect.

8.55 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I too thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for introducing the debate this evening. Indeed I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in it.

The House last debated Nagorno-Karabakh in July 1997 and I regret to tell your Lordships that there has been little progress in negotiations since then. The international community, in particular the OSCE Minsk Group, has been working for seven years to facilitate and negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Success is still some way off. However, there is a positive side. The ceasefire has held for nearly five years. We welcome the commitment of the parties to continue it until there is a political settlement. But the situation, as many noble Lords have described, remains very fragile. All parties need to exercise restraint in all actions and also in their rhetoric.

I am bound to say that much of what we have heard this evening has been profoundly depressing in the description of the history of this conflict. I was forcibly struck by the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, about the difficulties of getting people together when on occasions we cannot even get some discussions in your Lordships' House. But the Government have been working—I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan—as did the previous government to encourage the states in the Transcaucasus to see that their common interests lie in an early resolution to all the conflicts in the region through dialogue. We are convinced that there can be no military solution to these problems. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, says, of course, that we are not members of the Minsk Group, but we do give full support to its efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh and we have given practical assistance such as seconding the official of whom the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, spoke to work as an adviser to the personal representative of the chairman-in-office of the Minsk Group.

The noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, asked me about the possibility of Her Majesty's Government joining the Minsk Group. We decided not to do so when it was set up in 1992, but we keep an open mind on possible future membership. We would wish to join only if we could be sure of making a positive contribution to the negotiating process and provided that the Minsk: Group and the parties were in favour.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, has referred to an outstanding request for additional assistance to the OSCE. The personal representative has asked whether we could appoint a successor to the official who worked with him in 1997. We have not yet identified a suitably qualified individual. But we supported the proposal at the December 1998 meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council to open OSCE offices in both Baku and Yerevan. I understand that the OSCE chairman-in-office is pursuing this matter at the moment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, alluded to the tensions between, on the one hand, territorial integrity and, on the other, self-determination. Indeed, many of your Lordships alluded to that striking of a balance, including the noble Lord. Lord Hylton, and the noble Viscount in his opening speech.

We want to see a solution in Nagorno-Karabakh based on the three key principles set out at nhe Lisbon Summit: the territorial integrity of the Republic of Armenia and the Azerbaijan Republic should be preserved; the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh should be defined in an agreement based on self-determination to the highest degree possible; and the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and its whole population should be guaranteed, including mutual obligations to ensure compliance by all parties with the provisions of a settlement. Fifty-three out of 54 member states of the OSCE supported these principles in Lisbon. Only Armenia objected.

A number of noble Lords have asked about the Minsk Group's "common state" proposals. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, rightly said, as non-members we are, rightly, not aware of the detail of the negotiations between the co-chairs and the parties to the conflict. We must recognise that, despite the best efforts of the Minsk Group, there can be progress only if the parties to the dispute negotiate in good faith. We have been encouraged by the meetings between the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, most recently in December last year. We urge them to resume this dialogue.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I welcome the plans of the chairman-in-office of the OSCE, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, to visit the region in April. We hope that his visit will help to achieve a resumption of regular talks between the parties, to which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred.

The noble Earl, Lord Shannon, described what I thought he thought of as an intractable conflict. But Her Majesty's Government strongly desire a sustainable peace in the transcaucasus region. As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said, it is a region with great potential for economic growth and prosperity, but with a tragic recent history of conflict. As the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax of Cameron, said, the United Kingdom enjoys good relations, respect and growing economic ties with all three countries in the region, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, the Foreign Minister of Armenia is visiting this week. Some noble Lords have obviously heard his address this afternoon in the Moses Room. He has met my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and for Defence, as well as representatives of British business and academe. Noble Lords may also recall the successful visit of President Aliyev of Azerbaijan in July last year. We have tried to use these visits to encourage both countries to engage seriously in the search for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

We have an interest in stability in the region, not least because our economic stake in it is growing. The engagement of British companies in developing the very significant energy reserves of the Caspian Sea is well known. Despite the current depressed conditions in the oil market, the signs are that British companies wish to remain engaged for the long term. But that is not the whole story. We have a diverse and growing trade with Georgia and Armenia. Official Armenian figures show that their imports from the United Kingdom in 1998 were around six-and-a-half times those of the previous year, an exponential growth.

Noble Lords may be aware that as part of our long-term commitment to relations with the Caspian region, Her Majesty's Government are increasing our diplomatic effort in the region to a level closer to that of our main competitors. We know that more peace in the region would mean more prosperity for its peoples and—I am not ashamed to say—more opportunities for the United Kingdom. But unresolved conflict puts a brake on the development of infrastructure, slows economic development and threatens investment.

I believe very strongly that we must not despair. I agree with the points that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, made about the importance of nurturing what I think he described as the "shoots of hope for the future", fragile though I agree they are Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are involved in a European Union project, with our support, to revive the silk road by improving transport infrastructure and policies throughout the whole region—the TRACECA Project, as it is called. This should help the Transcaucasus once again to benefit from its position astride major trade routes, and both countries can see the advantages to them of co-operation in it. The development of Caspian oil and its export to world markets should provide an economic stimulus to the whole region.

We will continue to encourage economic development through trade and investment. But we shall not neglect the importance of integrating the states into the international community in other ways. We shall continue to urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to address the human rights concerns which so many noble Lords have raised this evening and which, together with the failure to find a resolution to the conflict, are hindering their entry into the Council of Europe. I am pleased to note that the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly has recommended that Georgia be invited to become a full member of the organisation, with the requirement that Georgia meets certain commitments. I hope that this will act as a spur to her two neighbours.

We have also done what we can to alleviate the suffering of the refugees and internally displaced people in the region, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred. Since fighting began in 1992 we have given more than £10 million in bilateral humanitarian aid to Armenia and Azerbaijan, channelled mainly through reputable relief agencies, to assist the displaced populations. The United Kingdom has also given more than £2.5 million to appeals for the Transcaucasus region. There has been some concern expressed about care being taken in the ways in which we do this. I can assure your Lordships that we are very careful on those points.

I also welcome the point of the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley—similar points were made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—about confidence-building measures for the future. I commend to your Lordships the suggestion of the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that inter-parliamentary dialogue may help foster peace. I hope that this House and another place may be able to play a role in that. For their part, the Government have already urged both Armenia and Azerbaijan to sign the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel landmines. We will continue to look for creative contributions in the future.

A number of detailed questions were asked. The noble Baroness asked me about prisoners; the noble Lord, Lord Newall, asked about Azeri refugees; and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked a specific question about prisoners. I should like to reply to those points in writing as I see that the clock has beaten me. However, I hope that some of the points I have been trying to make to your Lordships across the board answered a number of the points that have arisen in the debate.

"What are we going to do?", asked the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. We are going to continue to do everything we can to encourage our friends and partners on both sides of this bitter and fruitless conflict to work for a fair and sustainable peace so that the region can at last begin to realise its potential. In recent years other conflicts—in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere—have had more attention from the international community. That is of course true. But the OSCE Minsk Group and its three co-chairs have continued to work patiently to narrow the gaps between the parties. We very much hope that their efforts will bear fruit; and, for our part, we shall do all that we can to support those efforts.

House adjourned at eight minutes past nine o'clock.