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House of Lords

Thursday, 18th May 2000.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Bristol): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Chechnya

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been achieved in relations with Russia on the enhancement of human rights and the promotion of a political peace settlement in Chechnya.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, progress on a political peace settlement in Chechnya has been slow. We have consistently urged this on Russia as the only way to resolve the conflict. The Foreign Secretary reiterated our concern during official talks in Moscow yesterday. He also pressed for action on human rights in Chechnya, where international pressure has secured some progress. Russia has agreed to access for international organisations and has set up a national commission to investigate human rights abuses.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but does she not agree that the action which has so far been taken is simply to put pieces of machinery in place which could potentially deliver results but that results are so far conspicuous by their absence? Does she not therefore agree that while it is obviously vital to build good relations with Russia and to bring her into the centre of world affairs, the issue of human rights cannot be fudged? Does she not agree therefore that the overwhelming majority of the members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are absolutely right to say that, unless action and positive results can be seen, it is impossible to reconcile Russia's action in Chechnya with her continued membership of the Council of Europe?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I understand the concern that the noble Lord expresses, but I say straight away that the process is essential. Having a process which is transparent and upon which we can rely in order to ascertain precisely what has happened, and having an independent element in that process, is critical. Therefore we should not in any way dismiss the importance of the concessions that have already been made in relation to that process. The Council of Europe--the noble Lord is right to give voice to this matter--has considered this matter seriously. It proposed a suspension of Russia. This will be reconsidered in June. Russia has made various comments about offers she is making to address these

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issues. They will be seriously considered. Russia is very much being put on her mettle. We shall review this issue.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us a little about the tensions that the Chechnya question presents the Government with in their desire to support President elect Putin? Is it not at least possible that pursuing firmly the views that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, wants the Government to pursue could undermine the stability of President elect Putin within Russia itself? If the Government push the views of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, to the ultimate, how will the Government resolve that potential conflict?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, in relation to all such issues it is a question of balance and also a question of critical engagement. There are many levels on which we are working well with President Putin. He understands the agenda that Britain wishes to push. He also understands that we shall be robust on the matter of human rights. Getting that relationship right so that we can move forward, giving encouragement and enabling the new president to do that which is essential for Russia to be a true partner, must be our focus. At the moment we believe that that balance is being carefully handled by Her Majesty's Government and it is working as well as one can reasonably expect it to.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, following the Minister's reply to my noble friend, what representations have Her Majesty's Government made to the Government of Russia regarding the attack on the Media Most headquarters in Moscow and on NTV Television and the detention of the Radio Liberty journalist, Andrei Babitsky, by the Russian security forces?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the situation regarding the journalist has been raised with our Russian colleagues. As I said in my initial Answer, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke yesterday to his opposite number, Mr Ivanov. The issues in relation to Chechnya and human rights were raised. We shall continue to raise these issues with them.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, does the Minister recall that the problems in Chechnya partly grew out of Russian-armed Chechens supporting the separatists in Abkhazia as a means of destabilising Georgia? Is the Minister aware that the Abkhazia situation remains unresolved? Are the British Government bringing any pressure to bear on the Russians to resolve the problems of Abkhazia and thus help to stabilise the Government of Georgia?

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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am not able to tell the noble Lord whether that precise dimension of the problem has been raised. However, I can reassure him that issues in relation to regional stability have been a matter of constant concern, both on the part of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers within Her Majesty's Government, together with our officials. The issue of stability in the area remains critical and is very much on the agenda.

Nuclear Disarmament

3.7 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider that the banning of all nuclear weapons can only be achieved by the adoption of a plan by the nuclear powers along the lines proposed by the Canberra Commission, and whether they will now propose such a plan.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am puzzled by this Question from my noble friend. The Canberra Commission did indeed consider the merits of proposing a precise timeframe for the elimination of nuclear weapons, but, after careful thought, decided not to do so. We believe that it was right to reach that conclusion. We remain convinced that the best way to make progress towards nuclear disarmament is by pursuing achievable, incremental steps forward. Given the complexity and difficulty of the issues involved, we do not believe that the adoption of a timed plan would in practice be likely to hasten the achievement of this goal.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, my noble friend is right to say that the Canberra Commission decided in the end not to put forward its proposal for a convention. But, since that time, that matter has been reconsidered. A most remarkable document entitled Security and Survival, emanating originally from the United States although it represents also the views of several other countries, proposes a model for a convention. I suggest that that is sufficiently impressive for the Government seriously to reconsider the question of a convention. Am I wrong in thinking that the Government will agree that in the end a convention will have to take place in order to prevent the disaster which will occur if we have no such agreement among nations?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, as my noble friend knows, the Government have made it crystal clear--I hope--that our goal is the global elimination of nuclear weapons. That fundamental commitment has already been made. We also want to see faster progress in that direction. I shall, of course, note what is stated in the document to which my noble friend refers, but the Government feel that it is most

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important that we target our attention on achievable goals so that we make incremental improvements in the situation as quickly as we can manage that.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that unless the nuclear powers show some evidence of their intention to fulfil their obligations under the non-proliferation treaty, the non-nuclear powers will eventually renounce the treaty? Can she instil some sense of impending doom into our partners before we reach the point of no return?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is right to express his concern. However, there have been some glimmers of hope in the recent past. It is significant that in Russia the Duma has ratified Start II; it has also ratified the comprehensive test ban treaty. We are moving-- slowly, admittedly--in the right direction. I can reassure the House that all of those in Her Majesty's Government who have the privilege of dealing with this matter have their eyes clearly focused on our long-term goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons. We shall not be distracted from the path towards that long-term goal.

Lord Carver: My Lords, can the Minister say when we can expect to see some results from the review of NATO's nuclear weapon policy, which was set in hand in a council meeting at the summit last April?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I wish I was able to give your Lordships a specific timetable in relation to that matter. I do not have one. All I can say is that this matter is moving forward as quickly as it reasonably can. I wish that I could tell your Lordships more.


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