HL Deb 13 March 2003 vol 645 cc1476-9

3.4 p.m.

Lord Judd

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they have had with the Russian Government on the implications for the global alliance against terrorism of the referendum planned for 23rd March in the Chechen Republic on a new constitution.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we discussed the planned constitutional referendum in Chechnya within the framework of our dialogue with the Russian Government on human rights. In that context we also discussed terrorism. We have made it clear that we recognise the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and the right of the Russian Government to defend their citizens from terrorism. We do not believe that the conflict in Chechnya can be resolved by military means alone and therefore have urged the Russian authorities to seek a political solution.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply. Does she agree that one of the difficulties about the conflict in Chechnya is that while there are fighters who are close to Al'Qaeda and who have no interest in what any of us would recognise as a political settlement, there are others who, however misguided, have turned to fighting for recognisable political objectives? Such people have to be won back into a political process. By impatiently steaming ahead with a referendum on 23rd March on a proposed constitution that has been forged without a political process, there is a danger of counterproductivity and of people unnecessarily being driven into the arms of the extremists. Does she agree that in the end the battle against terrorism has to be won by hearts and minds and that we must persuade the Russians that that has to become a priority?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that part of the battle against terrorism has to be won by hearts and minds, but I am afraid that there are times when the use of force is also necessary, as we sadly know. This is a volatile and highly explosive situation. The conflict is now in its fourth year. My noble friend is right to refer to the Al'Qaeda links that some of the militant groups appear to have. It is worth remembering that some of the groups have struck at the Moscow-appointed civil administration. The latest attack was in December last year when 80 were killed and 150 were injured. My noble friend is right to imply that sometimes Russian troops use violence and brutality in the spiral of violence that he has identified. Since the theatre siege, the Russians have realised that it is important to try to find a means by which to resolve the conflict other than violence, hence consideration of the new constitution. The constitutional referendum is on 23rd March and I am sure that we all hope for a peaceful outcome.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, the whole House will want to recognise the perseverance of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on behalf of the Council of Europe in this difficult matter. Do the Government agree that daily murder and repression continue? Is it considered that the constitution is sufficiently well known to the potential electors to have a meaningful answer? Does she also accept that some members of the Russian Duma have argued for a postponement?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the work that my noble friend has done on this issue. Of course, the cycle of violence is on both sides. I have attempted to illustrate to your Lordships that there have been some appalling suicide attacks that have injured innocent civilians, and in those circumstances naturally the Russian authorities respond.

The Russian authorities have said that the referendum will take place on 23rd March. Six months after that there is due to be a presidential election and parliamentary elections three months after that. The process is about establishing a new constitution in Chechnya and a knowledge of that will lie at the heart of the referendum.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is not the noble Lord, Lord Judd, right in telling us that this tragedy involves separatism as well as terrorism? If, as the noble Lord advises—and he should certainly know—this referendum is premature, can the Minister at least assure us that when President Putin actively seeks close co-operation with international organisations and his friends, including this country, on how to handle this appalling matter, we will respond very positively?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we respond very positively. The noble Lord is right that it is not just about terrorism; it is about separatism. But I hope that the noble Lord heard my Answer that we have made clear that we recognise the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. The constitutional reforms do not involve a separate state for Chechnya but a degree of autonomy within Chechnya itself.

Of course we shall try to give what help we can. I regret that the OSCE Assistance Group to Chechnya has been unable to extend its mandate; however, the OSCE presidency is currently exploring with the Russian Government how the work can be continued. We are hopeful of a positive outcome on that.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, it is clear that the conflict in Chechnya has spilled out over national boundaries. It has contributed to the continuing destabilisation of Georgia. What action are the British Government and their colleagues in the European Union now taking to help to stabilise Georgia and to protect Georgians from cross-border, often Russian-supported, destabilisation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord any specific information about Georgia. I shall research that further and write to him. The European Union hopes to agree a balanced consensus statement on the situation in Chechnya at this year's United Nations Commission on Human Rights. So the European Union is taking a forward position on the matter. But I shall write to the noble Lord on the specific issue of Georgia.

Lord Rea

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the proposed referendum is likely to be a travesty of democracy in view of the fact that a large proportion of the citizens of Chechnya are refugees outside the country, and members of the Russian armed forces will be allowed to vote in this election? Surely that is hardly the way towards a political solution rather than a military one. Will Her Majesty's Government press the Russians to start a dialogue with the elected President of Chechnya, Asian Maskhadov, who is no terrorist?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot agree that it is a travesty of democracy. I think that the noble Lord is over-stating his case. But I agree that it is a difficult situation and that there are many imperfections. The United Kingdom Government have consistently stressed that a political solution to the conflict in Chechnya is essential. I believe that we are in a better position than we were when there was resort only to the use of violence. We welcome the plans to establish a new constitution. We have welcomed the plans for elections in Chechnya, so I cannot agree that it is a travesty of democracy. But we hope that the constitutional referendum will be the beginning of a long-term political process in which all parties will be able to renounce violence. Its success will depend on the thorough, consistent implementation of political and civil rights as set out in the new constitution.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Baroness not agree that Chechnya is not historically part of Russia, as the Russian Government claim, but was conquered by force less than 150 years ago, wholly against the wishes of the inhabitants?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that, historically speaking, the noble Lord, Lord Monson, must be right. If he is inviting me by implication therefore to retreat from the position of Her Majesty's Government on the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, I cannot go that far. To use the analogy of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, many states would break up on that basis. The noble Lord would be in some difficulty in pursuing his analogy.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, will the Minister say something about abuses of human rights, particularly those perpetrated by the Russian forces and Chechen fighters? Are the excesses more by the Chechen fighters or by the Russian forces? Will Her Majesty's Government encourage the Russian Government to sign up to the International Criminal Court so that soldiers responsible for human rights abuses can be brought to justice?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government encourage all governments—the noble Lord mentioned the Russian Federation; let me also mention the United States of America—to sign up to the International Court. The noble Lord asks me to adjudicate on which violence is worse. I believe that there is violence on both sides, as I have illustrated. I have said that we believe there is violence on the part of the Russian authorities. I stressed that there is violence by the militant groups. We have also stressed that the Russian authorities must respect their obligations under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and that all movements of internally displaced persons must be strictly voluntary. We last did so during our human rights discussions with the Russian MFA only last week.