HL Deb 13 October 1999 vol 605 cc360-2

2.58 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to persuade the United States Government to repeal Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act as it is applied to Azerbaijan.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the repeal of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act is a matter for the United States authorities. We are aware that the US Administration has sought to have it repealed; we welcome its efforts. So far, the US Congress has refused to repeal the legislation, but the US Administration continues to pursue this.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply and fully understand the points that she makes. The US Congress voted recently by quite a small margin to retain this measure. Is the noble Baroness aware that some 200,000 Azeris were ethnically cleansed from Armenia at the beginning of the troubles and since then about 800,000 have been displaced from the areas occupied by the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh? In the light of those distressing facts, does the Minister agree that Her Majesty's Government should make every effort to impress upon the United States the importance of its position in this matter?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, both sides would press issues of the kind raised by the noble Earl. Her Majesty's Government have good relations with both sides in this dispute and a strong interest in the resolution of the conflict. One of the difficulties that has been prayed in aid of the Azeri position is that Section 907 has adversely affected their ability to restore their economic base. Surely, it is in our interests to enable security in Azerbaijan to be enhanced so that the peace process can be pursued with vigour. Although we have not exhorted the US Administration in their action we cannot but commend it.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, is the Minister aware of reports that Azerbaijan has been allowing the passage of troops and weapons through its territory to join Islamic terrorists who are now fighting in Dagestan, and that those terrorists have declared their next target to be Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh? In the light of such developments, does the Minister agree that it may be inappropriate to repeal Section 907 until Azerbaijan has proved its unequivocal refusal to be involved directly or indirectly in any further military offensives against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I reiterate that the United Kingdom has no locus in relation to this matter which is internal to the United States. However, we do not believe that the Azerbaijan Government are endorsing any activity of the kind referred to by the noble Baroness. The Russian Government have formed the same view. Both Prime Ministers are working very hard in conciliatory terms to resolve this issue. We exhort all those in this debate to be cautious about the language and tones that they use which do not necessarily inure to the benefit of peace. We are at a very sensitive stage in the negotiations, but there is some reason for optimism in terms of the approach that is currently being taken. We are pursuing with vigour the peaceful methods that are being adopted by both sides.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, what contribution does the Minister believe the TRACECA corridor initiative may make to the peace-making activity? Is there any possibility that Britain will become a Minsk member?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we endorse the initiative to which the noble Viscount refers. The three co-chairs are doing a splendid job in terms of the Minsk initiative. At present, we do not seek to add our name to that. We have been very active in giving as much support as we can to these initiatives. We shall continue to pursue that to the best of our ability.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh needs reassurance about its future security which has been so threatened in recent years by the conflict? Over two years ago in July 1997 the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. gave noble Lords an assurance that with their commitment to human rights the Government would ensure that the international community made this issue central to reaching an agreement. Can the Minister outline the specific ways, rather than general exhortations, in which the Government have sought to do so since then?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the Government have encouraged the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh matter. The noble Lord is aware that that is based on three key principles set out in the Lisbon Summit: first, the preservation of the territorial integrity of both the Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan; secondly, the security of legal status for Nagorno-Karabakh, which should be defined and based on self-determination to the highest possible degree; and, thirdly, that the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and its whole population should be guaranteed. That includes mutual obligations and the compliance of all parties. Her Majesty's Government have provided aid to both sides, engaged in visits and direct exhortations with those involved and given practical assistance in that process which is ongoing. This is a sensitive issue which, if I may say so, is being dealt with at the moment with commendable skill.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Government's concern with this issue is a matter for congratulation, but the Minister has said that negotiations are at a delicate stage and that we must be careful of the attitudes that we strike. Would not the removal of the restriction requested in the Question be a very partisan gesture in favour of Azerbaijan which last week shelled Armenian territory and which earlier this year was shown by Physicians for Human Rights to be engaged in the torture of Armenian prisoners and to this day is maintaining a blockade of Armenia? Surely, there needs to be some balance and if gestures are to be made in one direction they should be made in the other as well.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the balance with which Her Majesty's Government have acted has, if I may say so, been truly magnificent. We have exhorted both sides to be cautious and to use moderation. It is regrettable that when one focuses on one side of the argument the other side very quickly gives a robust riposte and lists all of the incursions made by its opponents. Her Majesty's Government have tried to introduce a balance. We have aided both sides in humanitarian terms and have tried to assist in the structure and maintenance of good governance and broker a rapprochement as best we can. To be the friend of both sides gives us an advantage. In my previous incarnation as a family lawyer I see all the benefits of Relate on the international stage.