HL Deb 29 March 2000 vol 611 cc807-9

3.1 p.m.

Baroness Young asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have made to the incoming Russian President, Mr Putin, about human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the Government have made frequent representations to the Russian Government since the outbreak of hostilities in Chechnya, as has the EU. Most recently, the Prime Minister raised Chechnya with Mr Putin on 27th March in a telephone conversation following his victory in the Russian presidential election. Prior to that, representations were made during the Prime Minister's visit to St Petersburg on 11th March and the Foreign Secretary's visit to Moscow on 22nd and 23rd February.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Does she agree it is important that, given the recent Russian presidential election, if an ethical foreign policy is to be pursued by the British Government, that policy should be made abundantly plain to the new President?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I respectfully agree with the noble Baroness. We have repeatedly set out our concerns in our contacts with the Russians while supporting humanitarian efforts to relieve the suffering. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have also urged Russia to involve the international community, especially the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, OSCE and the Council of Europe. Russia has agreed the attachment of experts from the Council of Europe to the Russian Ombudsman for Human Rights. The terms have now been agreed and that should happen soon. That will give us an important opportunity to see what is happening on the ground.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that this tragic war in Chechnya was partly in response to a state of anarchy in Chechnya in which many thousands of Russian civilians, and also three British telecommunications experts, suffered gross violations of human rights, including abduction, torture and murder, and also partly in response to a request from peaceable Muslims in Dagestan for protection against incursions from Islamist terrorists from Chechnya? Can the noble Baroness, therefore, confirm that the British Government will reassure the newly-elected Russian President that they will respond in a balanced way, not just in a very partial way as appears to have happened so far, and offer help to all who suffer as a result of the war in Chechnya?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I commend the history which the noble Baroness recites. We are very much aware of the internal challenges that the Russian authorities face. But we have made it plain to the Russians that we believe they should respond in a proportionate way. While we have taken a balanced view, that does not prevent us from pressing the Russians very hard to address the issues that we see so painfully exposed on the ground in Chechnya.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that there is abundant evidence from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable international human rights organisations of the scale of the atrocities committed against the people of Chechnya by the Russian occupying forces and that, notwithstanding all the representations made by Britain and the European Union, those acts have not been mitigated? Does the noble Baroness also agree with the recommendation of Amnesty International that there should be an international investigation of human rights violations in Chechnya; and, if so, can that be put to President Putin so that he can discuss it with Mrs Mary Robinson during her visit, which I believe begins tomorrow?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are aware of the reports of which the noble Lord speaks. We have raised those matters with the Russians and asked them to investigate the reports. We believe that a very useful contribution will be made by the efforts of the Council of Europe, whose representatives are now present on the ground and will have a continuing ability to obtain information. This is a matter which we are pursuing with the Russians, but before we make an informed judgment we need to know the facts as opposed to supposition and rumour.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, in any future discussions with the Russian Government, will Her Majesty's Government emphasise the importance of strengthening both the civil and criminal systems of justice? Would that not help to stem the flight of capital and encourage inward investment?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand the sentiment behind the noble Lord's question. We have made clear to our Russian partners the most appropriate way to support the democratic process and have urged them to do all that they can to address these issues.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, is the Minister aware that last week Human Rights Watch reported grave abuses by Russian forces in their campaign against Chechnya, including torture, beatings and, on occasion, rape at a filtration camp inside Chechnya? Given that Mr Putin was the architect of Russia's current campaign in Chechnya, can the noble Baroness explain how the Prime Minister could travel to Russia—one of his main aims being, to renew and strengthen Britain's ties with R ussia"— while last week his effort to avoid even speaking to the Austrian Chancellor, who to my knowledge is involved in no wars which indiscriminately harm civilians in his own country, was widely reported?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, of the 90 minutes that the Prime Minister spent with Mr Putin during his visit, 50 were devoted to Chechnya. That discussion had to take place in order to air our serious concerns in relation to Chechnya. We believe that at this delicate time it is of crucial importance that we engage fully with the new President of the Russian Federation to try to encourage Russia to behave in a manner which we can condone as opposed to criticise.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that, in line with the Government's ethical foreign policy, in those 50 minutes during his visit to President-elect Putin the Prime Minister stressed the importance of preserving the sovereignty of the other 20 republics in the Russian Federation, such as Dagestan, Sakha and Tatarstan, so that they would not be traumatised by the same treatment received by Chechnya—severe human rights violations and war crimes—should they, in turn, step out of line; and, if not, why not?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Baroness and the House that as to Russia's relations, particularly those with Chechnya, the Prime Minister had an extensive conversation with the new President of the Russian Federation.