HC Deb 17 June 2003 vol 407 cc34-52WH

2 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I am glad to have secured this debate, as it gives me the opportunity to raise a number of issues. I shall concentrate on minority rights in Kosovo, but I shall refer also to other parts of former Yugoslavia. Hon. Members will have seen some of the recent reports: Amnesty International produced one in April, and in May we saw the latest reports of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's mission in Kosovo and of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, both of which discussed minority rights. Those reports acknowledge that progress has been made over the past four years—the situation has improved since 1999—while accepting that substantial ongoing problems remain.

I do not think that any of us underestimates the difficulties and problems of the region, given its history and the ethnically based conflicts that have happened there in recent years. We do not expect everything suddenly to be resolved, or to find that the problems caused by fighting over ethnic divisions have disappeared. However, we should remember that there are international responsibilities. When the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK, was established in 1999, through Security Council resolution 1244, it was given responsibility for protecting and promoting human rights. That resolution referred also to the establishment of an environment in which refugees and displaced persons could return home in safety. A legal framework was created by the UN, and that imposed responsibilities on the international community.

In 2001, the constitutional framework created by the UN Secretary-General's special representative referred specifically to the rights of all communities in Kosovo, including minorities. It spoke about the right of people to use their own language before courts and public bodies, to receive education and to have equal opportunities in employment—specifically employment by public bodies—and about the need for legislation to protect the rights of minority groups. As I said, although Amnesty International, the OSCE and the UNHCR acknowledged that improvements have been made over the past four years, they point to ongoing and systematic discrimination—and worse—against minority groups.

The minority groups in Kosovo cover a huge range of people, including Serbs, Roma, Ashkaelia and Egyptians. In certain parts of Kosovo, especially to the north, Albanians are an ethnic minority. Depending on where they happen to be, virtually every part of the population is a minority. Although there has been a decline in the number of what appear to be ethnically motivated attacks over the past three or four years, they are still happening, but very little has been done to bring anyone to justice for many of the attacks, which often go unreported as a result of failures in and the lack of a justice system.

In the first six months after the entry of KFOR and UNMIK in 2002, the number of ethnically motivated killings declined from more than 400 to fewer than 100, according to UNMIK. That is certainly an improvement. There is no question but that returnees are particularly vulnerable to attack, especially in areas where they are in a minority. A virtual system of apartheid has developed in Kosovo. Minorities have been driven into enclaves. Those outside the enclaves are at risk, and even those within them very often remain protected by static or mobile KFOR troops. Children still have to be escorted to school by troops, and people cannot travel freely outside the town or village where they are living without KFOR's protection.

The reduction in the number of ethnically motivated killings may reflect the fact that people have withdrawn into enclaves where they feel safer, rather than their being able to travel and mix freely. In many cases, people have left their homes to live somewhere where they feel more secure. Last year, according to Amnesty International, UNMIK could not supply figures for the number of recorded crimes that were believed to be ethnically motivated and that had led to arrests. Those figures refer not only to the killings that I mentioned. I will not list the incidents that are detailed in the Amnesty or OSCE reports, but they cite reports of attacks on property, churches and cemeteries, and a continuing problem of access to justice. Many see the judiciary as biased and unable to act, so that attacks are carried out with impunity.

There are problems of access even to basic health care—allegations have been made that doctors refuse to see patients from minority groups—and to education. I was struck by Amnesty's reporting of some of the problems that children experience. Schools have problems recruiting qualified teachers because of security concerns, and problems with the provision of escorts. Amnesty cited the example of a Serbian elementary school teacher teaching in a small Serbian village about 16 km from where she lives. On Monday mornings, she has to be collected from her house by a KFOR armoured personnel carrier and taken to the village where she stays until Friday evening when KFOR returns her to her home. Such conditions still exist.

Employment is clearly a major problem throughout Kosovo. Three years ago, I and two other Members of Parliament went there with the Refugee Council. We went to see what had happened to people who had been to this country through the humanitarian evacuation programme and had returned to Kosovo. It was clear then that anyone who went back had enormous difficulty in finding work. The position was distorted—and I expect that it still is—by the presence of the international organisations. It was striking that, of the people we met who had gone back, the one who was best off was doing the laundry for KFOR. Others who had much better developed skills had been unable to find any useful work. All the jobs had been taken by people who had never left or had returned sooner.

The latest statistics that I have seen suggest that, across Kosovo, unemployment is running at about 50 per cent. That applies to the entire working population, but among minority groups, especially among Serb and Roma communities, that figure rises to more than 90 per cent. If one is a member of a minority community, the chances of finding any work are minimal.

The Home Office provided me with an answer to a recent parliamentary question that made it clear that British policy was not to enforce the return of people from minority communities to Kosovo. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily true of other western European Governments. There are certainly worrying trends developing of forced returns. None of us would be against the idea of people returning—indeed, there is a right of return for refugees—but any return must be to conditions that are safe. So far, the vast majority of the displaced Serb and Roma refugees are not showing any signs of being able or willing to return.

We ought to look again at what UNMIK is able to do, and what support we are giving it. We must examine what resources it has to investigate human rights abuses, to help and protect witnesses, to develop the right of the freedom of movement, and to start to break down the enclaves that still exist. It is a difficult issue, because the withdrawal of KFOR protection around an enclave may be seen in a very negative light by people who feel that they need that protection.

There is no question but that the position of the Roma people is desperate, not just in Kosovo but in the whole of the former Yugoslavia. When I was in Kosovo in 2000, I visited a Roma village. It was one of the most depressing experiences of my life. I have never seen people living in worse conditions within Europe. In 1999, Roma people became targets for attack. They were viewed by the Kosovo Liberation Army as having collaborated with the Serbs in ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars. Some may well have been involved in that, perhaps under duress. However, many were targeted simply for working for a Serb employer. They are now reduced to living in enclaves and many have not returned to Kosovo. It is estimated that up to 45,000 Roma people are still in Serbia and Montenegro and Macedonia. Those now in Serbia and Montenegro are living in the most appalling conditions. They cannot return and they are not accepted where they are. The conditions for Roma people who have always lived in Serbia and Montenegro are bad, and for those who have been displaced there, it is probably even worse. They live in settlements without even the most basic infra structure. There is segregation in education where the children can get into schools. There are forced evictions and there is physical abuse by the police and other public authorities.

There are specific problems in Macedonia. In mid-May, a group of roughly 700 Roma refugees in Macedonia attempted to travel to Greece to seek asylum because of the conditions in Macedonia. However, they are still on the Macedonia-Greece border in a makeshift camp with no proper shelter and no food, water or medical care. According to people who visited the camp, the conditions are dreadful. People are suffering from serious infections. Life-threatening conditions are developing, particularly for young children. The UNHCR has distributed some food, although it was the UNHCR that closed the camp where those people were living in Skopje. They are now on the Greek border, but Greece refuses to allow them to cross into Greece and apply for asylum. No one seems to be doing anything about those very vulnerable people.

Let us recall what we did in 1999, when Albanian Kosovars crossed into Macedonia. We established the humanitarian evacuation programme, which in many ways worked quite successfully. We should be thinking about what we can do for the group to which I have been referring. We are not talking about huge numbers of people, but they are in the most dreadful position, stuck on the border and unable to go anywhere. They cannot return to Kosovo, where they came from, are not accepted in Macedonia, and cannot cross into Greece to apply for asylum.

We should be considering what we can do, through the EU in particular and UNMIK, to provide the support necessary for minorities. We must develop better structures. A recent report from the International Crisis Group made a number of suggestions about what could be done throughout the former Yugoslavia, including trying to persuade Belgrade to co-operate more with UNMIK and to stop actions that may destabilise conditions. The suggestions also included things that could be done by the Kosovan Albanian leaders, the Kosovo Serb leaders, the United States and the EU.

When we went into Kosovo, set up UNMIK and were party to KFOR being set up there, we accepted some duties and responsibilities. There is an international dimension, of which we are part. However, there is a danger that what is happening there now is being forgotten. The feeling is that the trouble in Kosovo was four years ago, it is all over and everything is improving there. In fact, there are still extremely serious problems for all the populations, particularly those, wherever they happen to be, that are in a minority in the region.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can tell us something about actions that our Government might be able to take to exert pressure in the right places and to try to ensure that some of the conditions change.

2.19 pm
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who has done the House a service by raising this subject. He is well known for his work with refugees and asylum seekers. Much of what is going on is not only a local problem but has a knock-on effect, as asylum seekers and refugees try to escape to western Europe and elsewhere from the misery that they suffer in various countries in the region.

The whole area, not just the former Yugoslavia, is rich in minorities. That is a result, I imagine, of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires having been in control of the Balkan region and up into Hungary. Throughout the region, there are significant minorities stuck in enclaves. It is not like places that have clear boundaries; there are whole villages in Slovakia or Romania, for example, that are exclusively Hungarian—or the other way round. It is not at all simple.

Today, we are confining ourselves to the boundaries of former Yugoslavia, whose former territories, with the possible exception of Slovenia, all have sizeable minorities. Some of the things that have gone on have been heartbreaking. Many hon. Members know, because I find myself repeating it, that I studied out there at a time when Yugoslavia was something of a model country and people in the west hoped that it would be an example of how central and eastern European countries would be freed from the tyranny of communism. When was in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the area provided an example of how people could live happily together. How sadly that has all changed.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I shall restrict myself mainly to discussing Kosovo, because that is where the situation has been polarised. I shall also mention Macedonia. However, it is important to make the point that in Croatia there is a severe problem with the Serbian minority—those who are left—in the district known as Krajina, around the town of Knin, and surrounding areas, where the whole population was, effectively, ethnically cleansed. Returns to the area have been singularly unsuccessful. It is very sad that such problems exist in countries that aspire to be members of the European Union.

Let us not kid ourselves that the problem is exclusively in the Balkans area. There are minority problems throughout central and eastern Europe. Some of them have been somewhat subsumed, but there are border disputes quietly fizzing along. Not long ago, I was in Slovakia with an Hungarian group. Every time we went into a Slovak town, they insisted on calling it by the old Hungarian name, not the Slovak one. That is common throughout the region.

I would like to start with Macedonia, because in some ways it had more of a chance, and happily it has still not suffered the major problems that occurred elsewhere. However, there are Potential problems there. It had a census last year, with international observers present during the collection of the data. To date, so far as I am aware, no official results have been produced. The thought, backed up by some western diplomats in Skopje, is that the census showed that ethnic Albanians accounted for less than 20 per cent. of the population. In an area in which populations and ethnicity are an important part of politics, that seems unacceptable to many of the Albanian minority. Even the Democratic party of Albanians, which is now part of the Government, says that any number that amounts to less than 25 per cent. is unacceptable. It may seem incredible to us that any party could say what result is acceptable and what is not. The Conservative party might sometimes say that the result of a Division was unacceptable, but we know that we must face facts. However, when official censuses are conducted in the region with western observers, it would be helpful if the results were accepted.

The census might have produced the result that it did because persons who are absent from the country for one year or longer are not counted. However, the Macedonian Government cannot be blamed for that condition, because the UN insisted on it. Ethnic Albanians are the largest minority group in Macedonia, and they participate in the Government. There are times when even those in the coalition are not as co-operative as they might be, perhaps owing to the nature of the political system, although some would say that things go beyond that. A couple of years ago, I was asking questions about Macedonia to the then Minister and was lucky enough to be able to go and have a look at what was going on with the Government party. The aim was partly also to try to persuade the Macedonian politicians that the Ohrid agreement was a good thing. Some of the answers that some politicians gave us showed that there was still a long way to go. In particular, I remember discussing the removal of weapons and the fact that people were disarming. Eventually, I was told, "Well, it doesn't really matter, because there's plenty more where they came from." That shows the sort of commitment that certain parties were making.

Unfortunately, it is not one ethnic group that is causing problems, as is the case in a lot of other areas too. In the pre-11 September world the word "terrorism" probably did not have quite the same connotations as it does now—there was no war on terrorism—yet that was how Lord Robertson described much of the activities of some separatist Albanians. Such people do not terrorise only the majority—they terrorise their own people too. We saw that in Kosovo when the KLA terrorised its own Albanian population.

I mention that in particular, because—as I am sure the Minister, a capable man, knows—the Home Office cannot send some Kosovan Albanians back to Kosovo, as it is not safe for them return, which shows the problem that exists. The hon. Member for Walthamstow mentioned that minorities such as Serbs and Roma cannot return to Kosovo. However, there are people in my constituency who feel that they would rather go back to Albania than to Kosovo because they feel that it is an unsafe place to be It is therefore worth remembering, when we congratulate ourselves on our great achievements in 1999, that things are far from what we hope them to be.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Roma who came from Kosovo who are now trying to leave Macedonia. Throughout the area the Roma people have suffered greatly for a long time. It is not just within the Balkan regions, either. The Roma in some of the accession countries that will soon be coming into the EU have had a rough deal, as we know from those who have come here. We only have to go back to the 1940s to realise that the Roma, who in those days were called gypsies, were persecuted then. They seem to get the rough end whoever is in charge.

The other minorities in Macedonia—the Turks, Vlachs, Serbs and the Roma—are allowed to have political parties and most are represented in Parliament. There are media in their languages and the third channel on Macedonian television broadcasts only in those minority languages. There are also private media in all the minority languages. Macedonia is trying its best, but the international community must not be blind to the problems caused, which are being exported because of some of the problems in today's Kosovo.

When we talk about minorities, the Minister should look at the Macedonian minority in Greece, which Greece is happily looking after in a far more civilised way—there was a time when their language was banned and they had a rough time.

We should really sort out the question of the name of the country. The Minister looks exasperated. I do not blame him for being exasperated—I would be exasperated. It seems incredible in today's world that a member of the EU has a problem with a country being called by a certain name, so that it has to be called the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It is a bit of a mouthful, and it will be a problem in September with the football scores, but it is a serious matter that must be addressed. The Macedonians have been doing an awful lot to try to help the international community achieve a multi-ethnic state, which we all want. We should do our little bit to give them some backing.

The situation in Kosovo, or Kosovo-Metohija, is not such a jolly picture. We intervened in 1999 to try to stop the persecution of a minority. I am not going to dwell on the rights and wrongs of that action—there is probably enough there for another day. Suffice it to say that in today's world as we look towards what evidence we had regarding Iraq we should be looking cleverly and intensely at the evidence that was presented at the time and at what subsequently proved to be accurate. There are many parallels. Interestingly, some of the people who today question the reports from Iraq and resigned from high-level positions are those who previously gave evidence.

The state of Kosovo is a disgrace to Europe. It can only be described as a gangster state. The Christian Albanians, the Montenegrins, the Albanians, the Turks, the Jews, the Roma, the Gorans, the Serbs and the Macedonians have been effectively ethnically cleansed from the province. One has only to go across the border to see such internally displaced persons. The hon. Gentleman talked about the conditions of the Roma in their camps. I visited a refugee or an IDP camp in southern Serbia. I found it appalling to see in today's Europe people still living in such conditions.

The hon. Gentleman effectively described the conditions and what happens: the very few children who are left are taken to school in armoured vehicles. The country, along with other members of NATO, the UN and the international community, did what it did to create a multi-ethnic society. It has failed miserably. What is more, it has stored up problems for years to come.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he is being a little harsh. We did what we did to prevent them from killing each other at the time. We obviously hope that we can build a multi-ethnic society, but given the bitterness, we can hardly expect quick results.

Mr. Randall

I do not doubt the sincerity of those who intervened: I always said that they did so for the best possible reasons. All I am saying is that the results of that intervention are far from what we hoped. Knowing the region as I do, I must say that any optimism that the situation will change dramatically is mistaken. Our evidence suggests that the Albanian Kosovars do not want any Serbs to return: indeed, they have set their minds against it.

On that note, it may be worth mentioning something that happened a few days ago. On 17 May, Zoran Mirkovic was killed. He was a Serbian professor of Russian from Vrbovac and the father of three small children. On 19 May, there was the attempted kidnap of Stanko Misic, who was on his way to tend his field. A family was also murdered recently. There is a constant catalogue of these crimes, and it is not by chance that they occur often when the authorities have been trying to persuade the local Albanians or Serbs to return.

As the hon. Member for Walthamstow rightly said, we have a severe problem in Kosovo. What has been done has been done, and if I had anything to do with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the diplomatic service, I would want to be well shot of the state of Kosovo and its future. It makes Northern Ireland look like a picnic. However, we owe it to the people in the refugee camps, whether they are from Kosovo or the Krajina, to offer real clout. We were prepared to intervene militarily, and we should now apply every diplomatic pressure to try to sort out the problems in that benighted area.

2.37 pm
Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing this vital debate on a subject that has fallen from the headlines in the past few years. We have turned our attention more to the problems afflicting the middle east—Palestine, Israel and Iraq. Many people may think that the problems that Kosovo experienced during the period of ethnic cleansing have suddenly disappeared, and that we are witnessing the emergence of a new state in which ethnic cleansing is no more. However, that belief is false, as my hon. Friend said. I know of his interest in the former Yugoslavia and that he studied there for a while.

Mistakes were made. I believe that the occupation of Kosovo is illegal, but the Serb minority would have been much more reassured if Russia had been allocated a zone. If, in the north of Kosovo, there had been a Russian contribution to UNMIK, many more Serbs would have felt able to go back to their homes. However, that did not happen, so presumably we still regard Kosovo as part of the sovereign territory of Serbia and Montenegro. If that is so, the future in Kosovo will be difficult for the Albanian majority who do not wish to belong to the state that they believe oppressed them in the past.

Kosovo is an interesting case, as before the second world war the majority of its people were Serbs. Largely because of their reproduction rate, the Albanian population are now in the majority in that part of former Yugoslavia. A similar situation could arise in Northern Ireland if the future reproduction rate of one religious group, now a minority, led to it becoming a majority.

How do the Serbs interpret the issue? Unfortunately, they need to be reassured that United Nations and NATO activity is not biased. Throughout the 1990s there was anti-Serb hysteria; as the Serbs see it, that was opposition not just to Milosevic but to the Serb nation. Those Serbs who have left Kosovo are suspicious about what would happen if they went back. They know about the attacks, which are catalogued in the Amnesty International report, and history tells them that if they go back to Kosovo they may not get the assistance of the international forces.

In answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister told me recently that it is estimated that 110 Orthodox churches have been demolished since KFOR came into the region. That does not suggest to Serbs—or to me—that the people of Kosovo, especially Serbs, are protected. Many Albanians, too, have been attacked. I have visited the representatives of Mr. Rugova, who is, I believe, the only Albanian to have been democratically elected to lead the Albanian people in Kosovo. Throughout the conflict, Rugova's supporters were under attack from the KLA, which many Serbs suspect run the police force. In Macedonia, many people believe that their troubles just after the end of the Kosovo conflict were generated by the KLA; twenty-five per cent. of the population of Macedonia are Albanian.

I was comforted this week when I met the Foreign Minister of Macedonia who assured me that the Albanian party is in coalition with her party. It is a sister party to the Labour party and is striving to enter Socialist International. I hope that it will be successful.

In Serbia, it is said that Kosovo needs to be partitioned. That suggestion has not come from extremists; Prime Minister Djindjic, who was assassinated a few months ago, said on 22 February that there should be a Serbian mini-state in Kosovo. He claimed that the transfer of sovereignty in Kosovo away from what was still called Yugoslavia had been planned, and the aim of the international community was an independent Kosovo, taking away Yugoslav sovereignty over that province. He suggested that 1,000, or even a few hundred, Serb troops should be deployed in Kosovo to help the Serb refugees to return. That would be a difficult task because, as my hon. Friend said, there are Albanian minorities within Serb enclaves.

We should be conscious that Prime Minister Djindjic advocated a northern Kosovo Serbian state rather like the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and there may be a possibility of such a development.

Mr. Randall

Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that however appealing that might seem, redrawing the boundaries in that area would be highly dangerous?

Mr. Wareing

I appreciate that, but it was true of Bosnia before the Dayton agreement; many areas contained substantial minorities.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Serbs were driven out of Krajina and areas around Vukovar where there were substantial Serb minorities. I will never forget the bias against the Serbs, not so much by the Government—for most of that period there was a Conservative Government—as by the international media. With my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), who is now Secretary of State for Health, I witnessed the mass graves of Serbs as a result of ethnic cleansing at Bosanski Brod early in 1993. The Scottish media refused to publish my right hon. Friend's statement when they heard that the victims were Serbs. They said, "We can't print that." When asked why not, they replied, "Because it would confuse people."

The Amnesty Inter national report calls for an inquiry into some of the atrocities committed since KFOR has been in Kosovo, especially into the Podjevo attack in a town in a remote area. A controlled bomb was set off; 11 Serbs were killed and more than 40 injured, despite the advance warning to KFOR. The report also stated that investigations into some of the crimes were frustrated by the conduct of United States KFOR personnel. I hope that if he has not already read the report, the Minister will take note of those points.

We can directly affect the matter of the 340,000 Hungarians in the former Yugoslavia, who are 25 per cent. of the population of Vojvodina. Hungarians who live in that northern province have been able to go backwards and forwards without visas. They buy much of their produce in Hungary, take it back to their farm markets and sell it. When Hungary comes into the European Union, they will need a visa. Will the Minister consider making a concession to the Hungarian population in the north of former Yugoslavia?

2.50 pm
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

This is a timely debate, and one that must continue, whether it is in or out of the headlines. Unfortunately, as the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) perhaps knows better than anyone, the history of the Balkans is composed of 1,000 years of trouble, oppression, internal fighting and civil war. We could not expect to resolve that in the few short years after the collapse of Tito's Yugoslavia. However, if the ideals and ambitions that we are trying to build in Europe have any meaning, they would lead us to try to create a society in the Balkans that aspires to the values taken for granted by the rest of Europe—although sometimes I wonder about that when I read the populist right-wing press in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, most of us recognise that that is the case.

I am not being facetious when I say that within our own islands we have many ethnic minorities—indigenous as well as immigrant—and have our moments of racial tension. However, even in the long history of Northern Ireland, we do not have the record of appalling massacres of hundreds of thousands of people as in the Balkans—the scale is almost incomprehensible to people living in our society.

In Scotland, it is interesting that the mix of the population is changing rapidly: 25 per cent. of the population of the city of Edinburgh is English. I suspect that a similar percentage of my own constituency is English, and in some villages in the highlands 50 per cent. of the population is English. However, it is incomprehensible to us that people who have such differences would resort to the sheer frenzied brutality, mayhem and murder that have taken place in the Balkans. If we can engage with the people in the Balkans, we must try to work out how, together, we can make progress.

I did not take issue with the hon. Member for Uxbridge, but agreed with him. Everything I hear about Kosovo—I visited the neighbouring areas, but have not yet visited Kosovo—tells me that it is, as he described it, a hell-hole and a disaster area. I understand the argument of those who say that we should not have taken action in Kosovo—that the action was illegal. However, I would say that those of us who supported that action did so not because we thought that it was a long-term solution, but because we wanted to stop a short-term situation in which people were killing one another in their thousands on a daily basis. We thought that we had to act, and try to rebuild thereafter. I do not think that there is a difference of view about what we are trying to do. I did not believe that we would immediately solve Kosovo's problems. I hoped that people would stop being killed, and that there would then be time to address the issues.

The debate refers to the whole of former Yugoslavia, and so some comparisons can be made. Kosovo is the worst and most acute problem, and it is possible that Kosovo can begin to emerge from its nightmare only if we can demonstrate some progress in the surrounding area. That may be the way to make people recognise that there is hope and a positive way forward.

I remember encountering an Hungarian immigrant from the former Republic of Yugoslavia early in the period after the break-up of that country, who had already made up his mind to get out and come to the UK before the ethnic cleansing got under way. When it started he was watching the situation from the UK and saying, "I can't believe what's happening. My friends were Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks." He said that he had had a pop group with four members, one from each community, not by design, but because one was a good bassist, one a good drummer, one a good singer and the other a good rhythm guitarist. He said that they did not ask one another about their backgrounds, although they knew what they were. He had to stand by and watch those people kill one another. He said that he could not comprehend how that situation had come about. For me, as someone who has become involved in the problems in the Balkans only in the past few years, particularly as a member of the Council of Europe, and who has visited some of those wonderful areas, it is a matter of incomprehensibility that people can degenerate to such depths of violence and viciousness. As an optimist, I hope that we can create institutional frameworks that will give us a chance of moving forward.

Mr. Randall

Perhaps I ought to redress the balance. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are huge areas today—and were even during the bombing of Belgrade—where Albanians live very happily together?

Malcolm Bruce

I agree. I am trying to make the point that we must build on that practical success and create institutions that will work. We could then spread that attitude to some areas where conflicts are as intense as ever. Parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina—depending on one's point of view, and which commentator one listens to—are either moving towards making progress, or are on the verge of falling back into disintegration.

I turn to one or two personal experiences that I had when I was monitoring elections in and around Sarajevo. In one of the polling stations that I visited, which was high up in the hills, about 15 miles off the main road, I found myself in a Serbian hunting lodge. The people there felt relaxed as Serbians living a long way from everywhere else, but said that there was no real future for them in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I asked them what was wrong with their lives, and they said that they were absolutely fine. I asked who was interfering in their lives, and they answered that no one was. I asked what the problem was, and they had no answer that made any sense.

On the other hand, I had with me a Bosniak driver and interpreter. One of them related the most terrifying experience that he had had was when his car was stolen in the street in Sarajevo. He received a telephone call to say that his car would be available if he cared to venture into a small town in the Republika Srpska, about 10 miles from Sarajevo. When he did that, he was blindfolded, taken into the middle of a forest at gunpoint, asked whether he had a mobile phone, and told that if he wanted his car back, he would have to get someone from Sarajevo to arrive with $3,000 within an hour. If they arrived, he could have the car hack. If they did not arrive within an hour, they would find his body. That is not ethnic cleansing: it is crime and terrorism. When I asked what he did about it, he said he had done nothing. He said that the next time they took his car, they could keep it. He had no confidence in the law enforcement agencies.

Having said that, there are more than 300,000 returnees in Bosnia, including some who have returned to the Republika Srpska. Perhaps it is easier for Bosniaks to return to Sarajevo. I met a Serb who had previously been in Sarajevo who was not interested in reclaiming his property, at least not yet. I know that Paddy Ashdown, the UN high representative—the lord high executioner, as I sometimes call him—is very committed to that community. He is a perpetual optimist. I was interested to read in the Library brief that his analysis of the significance of the elections in Bosnia was echoed by others. On the face of it, it seemed to be a retrograde step, a return to the old nationalisms, but it is a more complicated and positive measure, and a greater recognition of the fact that the communities will succeed only if they work together. Paddy Ashdown makes the point incessantly that the international community will not come up with the necessary investment without sufficient confidence.

Economic development is part of the key. If people can see a material improvement in their lives, have more confidence in the institutions and start to relax about the future, it is a realistic possibility that they will recognise at last that the old battle lines are destructive in every sense. They are appallingly destructive not only of life and relations but of the purpose of life. What kind of life is it if people live in total fear, with no prospect of employment, no stake in the land, no confidence in the institutions of law and order—and no hope?

Ultimately, those working through international institutions, Governments, the European Union and the Council of Europe must keep saying that we are genuinely trying to give those people a vision of the future that is worth aspiring to, but that they will not achieve it unless they break out of that cycle. The hon. Member for Uxbridge, with all his experience, takes the view that nothing will change, but I hope that he is ultimately proved wrong, although I appreciate that history is so long and the turmoil so short and recent that even the most optimistic can hardly be overjoyed.

I hope that we can ask people to focus on the next 100 years rather than the last 1,000. If they recognise the benefits that will flow from a peaceful Europe, and the aspiration of membership of the EU and the euro, they will realise that what we are offering them will make a positive difference; however, they must realise also that they will have to work with us to make the necessary changes.

3.2 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing this debate. It has been interesting not least because the four hon. Members who have spoken did so with a profound understanding—their knowledge of the area came across powerfully. It has been an extremely useful and important debate because it goes to the heart of the horrific conflicts that occurred in the former Yugoslavia, particularly those of the 1990s. Indeed, some of those tensions continue today.

Hon. Members might recall an earlier debate when we touched on the broader topic of Serbia-Montenegro. The area covered by former Yugoslavia remains of considerable political and economic importance, and I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on that front. In that debate, I referred to the monitories within former Yugoslavia, albeit in the context of Serbia, including Kosovo and Montenegro, as dictated by the title of that debate. However, although our subject matter today is more restricted geographically, we are considering a broader area that includes all the former Yugoslav states—Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The ethnic patchwork of that part of the Balkans that was once Yugoslavia, with its inter-ethnic conflicts, is the main reason for the horrendous problems that engulfed Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and later Kosovo. As has been pointed out already, it is impossible to draw neat lines on a map to create a contiguous state made up entirely of Christian Serbs, Muslim Bosnians, Muslim Albanians or Roma. We have heard about the patchwork quilt that covers the area, sometimes in conflict and sometimes more hopefully, with people living peacefully side by side. The different ethnic and religious groups intermingle in communities throughout the former Yugoslav states, and as in this country, that means the existence of minority groups in areas all too frequently dominated by other groups.

As in this country, and countless others, the rights of those minority groups must be protected from infringement by the majority. In the early and mid-1990s, the opposite occurred in the former Yugoslavia, leading to conflict, the massive loss of life that we have heard about this afternoon, political implosions and a flood of tragic refugees from the minority groups into many different countries, including the UK.

Because of the nature of the region, it is tempting to examine the issue country by country, which I shall do in a moment. However, it is also important to view the region through a broader perspective and in terms of principles, as I have just tried to do. The issue of minority communities is closely linked to that of refugee returns, which has also been touched on this afternoon.

In Croatia, although we hear little of it, the idea of refugee return is still contentious. As in many areas of the former Yugoslavia, the ethnic Serb population there constitutes the minority and is currently suffering prejudice and even violence on ethnic grounds. The Croatian Government elected in 2000 inherited unfair and discriminatory laws that particularly penalised ethnic Serbs. Remaining obstacles to the return of those who were Croatian and who fled during or after the war must be removed by the Croatian Government, which must continue to demonstrate their determination to counter such discrimination.

It is regrettable that, as late as last December, temporary owners of what was previously Serb property effectively took precedence over returning Serb owners until they could be rehoused. Although I understand the difficult choices such a situation entails, it is fair to say that the rightful owners were unduly penalised. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made in that area?

Despite those problems, the situation in Croatia is assisted by a climate that is more conducive to law and order than in other areas. Sadly, a security climate conducive to the return of Serb refugees to Kosovo does not appear to exist. As in much of Yugoslavia, residual tensions and ethnic prejudices remain, bedevilling attempts to create a multi-ethnic state based on mutual respect. I remember visiting Sarajevo many years ago, when communities co-existed side by side with people without any practical sense of their neighbours' religious or ethnic origins. Attempts must be made through education, as well as by more proactive political, legal and economic means.

In Kosovo, the ethnic Serbs continue to feel deeply vulnerable to violence and prejudice from elements of the Albanian majority. The place is still scarred by intercommunity violence and the large number of missing persons still unaccounted for. As one of the nations that intervened, rightly, to bring the violence in Kosovo to an end, we have a duty to continue assisting in building peace. The very limited number of Serb refugees who to date have felt that Kosovo is safe enough to return to shows that there is much that we, and the Kosovans themselves, have to do.

If it was handled with care, the return of Serbian Kosovans could help to strengthen the position of minority Serb communities within Kosovo. The protection of minority communities within Kosovo and buildings such as churches must be a priority. We heard from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) of the terrible attacks on the wonderful religious heritage of the Christian communities. It is ironic that Kosovo is the one area in which real progress does not yet appear to have been made, but the one in which the international presence is greatest. Will the Minister enlarge on what specific steps the UK Government are taking to encourage refugee return and the commitments that he can make about the protection of the rights of such individuals as they return?

I turn to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where some progress has certainly been made. That slightly belated success in attracting the return of refugees is welcome and shows that linear progress should not always be expected, but is indicative of a restoration of the rule of law affording protection for all communities. The authors of Dayton placed great emphasis on returns of refugees and internally displaced persons, and although there was no immediate progress, we have subsequently seen an ever increasing number of people feeling safe enough to return to their original homes, which is hugely welcome.

Despite recent perceived setbacks, the trend has continued, and the fact that nearly 400,000 Bosnians have shown a willingness to live as minorities in areas governed by other groups shows how far Bosnia and Herzegovina has come. There is, of course, never room for complacency, but the determination to create the social, economic and political conditions in which that is possible shows that, with a similar determination, such progress could be mirrored in provinces such as Kosovo, despite all its difficulties. What is needed is the will, and a willingness on all sides to forgive. I recognise what a tall order that is.

I have focused on the refugee issue because it is inextricably intertwined with the question of minorities in the former Yugoslavia, and with feelings of security and being an equal part of the community. The treatment of minority communities in the region and the willingness of refugees to return are indicative of the political stability and economic prosperity of the lands to which they are returning and the extent to which they have made progress on the path to securing the rule of law. I hope that the welcome moves towards economic liberalisation and the improvements in the economic base will continue.

It is also worth noting that, aside from regional stability, what goes on in the former Yugoslavia has a real and direct knock-on effect in the UK. That, alongside our humanitarian obligations, constitutes a compelling argument for us to continue to be engaged in protecting the minority communities in the former Yugoslavia and to create a safe and welcoming environment for the return of refugees. Many of those who sought asylum here at the time of the conflict will have an incentive to return to their homes.

Important progress has been made after the tragedies of the 1990s. I look forward to hearing the Minister explain what steps the British Government are taking to help remedy the situation—particularly that which I have described in Kosovo—and establish truly multicultural communities in the former Yugoslavia, with no individual or group living in fear of its neighbours.

This has been one of the most horrific episodes in European history for many decades. Of course, there are many factors that will give people hope, but I agree with the hon. Member for Gordon: the hope of some sort of process of enhanced democracy leading, ultimately, to relationships with the European Union, with all the incentive that that provides, will be a powerful motor to try to resolve some of the terrible problems that have blighted the landscape of Europe for too long.

3.13 pm
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane)

This has been a good debate and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) for having initiated it. He sketched out the broad picture very well and we benefited from the expert knowledge that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) always brings to our debates on the former Yugoslavia. As he pointed out, there are minorities everywhere. Last year, I was in the regional parliament of Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina, where six language booths were needed just for interpretation among representatives of that small but multi-cultural part of the region.

It is important to break away, as we have done in this debate, from the notion that one community, ethnic or national group is somehow intrinsically better or worse than another. That is an attitude of mind. It is about terrorism and exploiting fears, often for criminal purposes. We have to deal with that. The ultimate criminal was Slobodan Milosevic. He took a country that 13 or 14 years ago was a model for communist states anywhere in the world—it had a high standard of living and thriving cultural life in its cities, and its people could travel visa-free anywhere in Europe—and turned it into what we saw at the end of the last decade.

There are new attitudes of mind now. I know from my work, which involves travelling to the region as often as I can and receiving its representatives in London, that a distinct and new approach is being taken. As the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) said, it is by turning firmly towards the European Union and using Europe to provide a set of benchmarks by which to raise standards and do what needs to be done so that the region can make progress. The road out of the past 10 or 15 years is the road to Europe.

That is why it is important that when parliamentarians, Ministers and party representatives travel to the region, we should speak positively about Europe and explain to our friends in the different Governments and capital cities of the region that the anti-European isolationist hostility that we get, alas, from some members of our press does not represent the broad mass of the British people and certainly not the future interests of Britain.

I shall try to deal with the specific questions that I was asked. I was struck by what the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said when he asked rhetorically whether we were making progress or going backwards. On the basis of two years of duties and responsibilities as a Minister, I can report progress in every area, so the picture that was painted of Kosovo, which may have been true in the first year or two after the conflict, is not a picture that many would recognise today. The Pristina that I travel to these days is a livelier, busier and more bustling city than it was a year ago and much livelier, busier and more bustling than it was two years ago. The indomitable human will to get on with life once murderers and torturers such as Milosevic have been removed from the scene is asserting itself in Kosovo.

I have read the excellent report by Amnesty International, whose work I greatly admire, but it reflects the position circa 2001. The atrocity to which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) referred, in which 11 Serbs were killed, was the famous explosion of the Nis express. That disgusting crime was committed two years ago. Now, in many parts of Kosovo, Serbs can travel freely. In fact, the Nis express has been discontinued because it is no longer needed. There is now a railway link to Gracanica, that beautiful Serb city with a beautiful monastery that I am sure many of us have visited. I have certainly had the pleasure of doing so. Two years ago, the area was a fortress, with armoured personnel carriers, barbed wire and KFOR soldiers patrolling with machine guns; now, there is at least a normal railway link.

I do not for a second deny the fear, concerns and tensions that exist, but I think that when I was in Pristina a couple of months ago—I may have to refresh my memory—I was told that just six Serbs had been killed in violent incidents in the past 12 months and three of the incidents were believed to be the result of feuds or disputes within families or communities.

Mr. Randall

The Minister has an advantage over me: I have not been back to Kosovo for some time, although I hope to go shortly. I am not sure that the picture looks all that rosy. On the night between 3 and 4 June, a family of three Serbs were killed in Obilic. The UN administrator for Kosovo, Michael Steiner, said: This is a heinous act and perfidious crime which was directed against multi-ethnicity in Kosovo". They may say in Pristina that there is no problem, but they would say that.

Mr. MacShane

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and the British Government condemned the Obilic attack, in which three people were killed. It now transpires—I am giving hon. Members the news agency reports—that it may have been an internal Serbian family feud, rather than ethnically or politically motivated violence, which is what we thought happened at the time. The hon. Gentleman was right to refer to the British Government reaction, but intensive investigations are taking place and they suggest that it may not have been an ethnic or political crime.

Indeed, Kosovan leaders were at the forefront in condemning the crime and visiting Obilic, which was a sensitive and difficult thing to do. Mr. Thaci, who was recently on a private visit to London, was also outspoken in his condemnation of the crime. I put those points to the House, not to be Panglossian, but to make it clear that, on the question of whether people can return safely after seeking refuge in the UK from Kosovo, the answer is yes. All ethnic Albanians can be safely returned. If they come from areas where they are in a minority, they might be expected to relocate to a majority area.

Mr. Gerrard

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of the incidents covered in the reports were not recent? I want to draw his attention to the report that was just released by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It covers a more recent period and recognises that the situation has changed. However, it says: Notwithstanding the stabilisation of the security situation, the fear of harassment, intimidation and provocation remains part of everyday experience for members of minority communities throughout Kosovo. The report acknowledges improvement but by no means says that everything is fine.

Mr. MacShane

I completely agree with that and one has to spend only a short time in any part of the region to sense the tension and fear. That is why I made a point of visiting an association of displaced Serb families, which now has its offices in Belgrade. It is important to maintain a dialogue, but we should acknowledge that more than 775,000 refugees and displaced people who fled in 1998 and 1999 have returned to Kosovo. We should not forget that Kosovans who fled for their lives under the tyranny and terrorism of Milosevic have been able to return home.

In Pristina, I had the recent pleasure of talking to elected Serb representatives who travel freely from different parts of Kosovo, including Mitrovica. They came to a party with Albanians and talked openly. Again, I am not trying to paint a rosy picture, but the situation is different from two years ago.

The picture is problematic in other parts of the region. Reference was made to Macedonia and the hard work of Javier Solana, the European Union's high representative and Lord Robertson of NATO two years ago in securing the Ohrid agreement has helped to stabilise the situation. Again, there is a constructive relationship between the current coalition parties, one of which represents the Albanian community while the other represents the Macedonian community.

The situation is far from perfect, though, and I want to give the House a quick anecdote. On seeing the visiting card of elected members of the Macedonian Parliament, I was surprised to see that the Albanian political leaders had on one side of their card their name and titles in English and on the other side their name and titles in Cyrillic. I asked why they did not have one in Albanian, and I was told that it was not in the Ohrid agreement; in other words, if it is not stipulated in the Ohrid agreement then it is not going to happen.

The British Government are making a small contribution to help to provide interpretation equipment for the national Parliament so that people can speak in their own language—a point of fundamental principle in bilingual nations such as Canada and Switzerland. It had not happened before. That is a way in which we can collectively help people to have some sense of not being under threat because they come from a minority community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby, asked me about Hungarian communities travelling across what will now be the EU border into Hungary. That is a problem all around the new frontiers of the EU. I was in south-eastern Poland recently. The Ukraine has many Polish villages and there will now be an EU frontier there. I think that local arrangements can be made, but it was always the case as the EU expanded and had a common frontiers policy that—whether it was in relation to Switzerland or wherever—local arrangements would have to be made. We will have to edge these things through but not make them into a major issue of difference.

The challenges today are the same as two years ago. We need the whole of the region to establish the rule of law. Without that, nothing works and citizens have no protection. The Milosevic era was the disintegration of the rule of law. One cannot have democracy or prosperity in those circumstances. The rule of law requires effective and honest law enforcement agencies. We also need efficient and impartial courts. It means fighting organised crime, and highlighting the need to combat organised crime has been a focal point of Foreign Office work in the region. It will be discussed at the summit meeting of all western Balkan leaders at Thessaloniki this Saturday. It also means respecting the international rule of law, in particular the authority of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. I congratulate in front of the House the determination of the Belgrade authorities in arresting Veselin Sljivancanin last week in Belgrade, from where he was transferred up to the Hague, despite resistance. We are still waiting to get Mladic and Karadzic and we are still waiting in Croatia to get Gotovina. We need the ICTY to be fully complied with.

As a second challenge we need to reform the economies. As the hon. Member for Gordon pointed out—I believe he was quoting Lord Ashdown, who is doing an outstanding job in Bosnia and Herzegovina—investment does not go where it senses insecurity. Money in a sense is a coward. Until we sort out some of the organised crime, corruption and law and order problems, the region will not attract the investment it needs.

The third challenge is to strengthen democracy, not via elections—I think Lord Ashdown pointed out that if anything, there may be too many politicians and elections in the region—but the idea of democracy in terms of a free and responsible media, and constitutional checks and balances. The British Government are actively engaged in trying to meet those challenges. I was grateful 18 months ago when the hon. Member for Uxbridge was able to visit Macedonia. As the Minister responsible for the region I am happy to make every effort to encourage parliamentarians to visit to obtain the most up-to-date reports on the situation on the ground.

We now have an opportunity to move away from the past and the settling of historical accounts into arguing for a clear new perspective for the entire region. That perspective is called Europe. It will take time; how long it will take depends entirely on the determination of the regions—the future lies in their hands. If they search with us to be good partners in the new European Union, the western Balkans can have a much better future.