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Helsinki Final Act

Volume 931: debated on Wednesday 4 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent discussions have been held between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the British Government representatives on the operation of the Helsinki Agreement as applicable to Soviet Jews.

There have been frequent discussions between representatives of the Soviet Government and of Her Majesty's Government at various levels in which views have been exchanged on all aspects of the Helsinki Final Act. In the course of these discussions the Soviet representatives were left in no doubt about the concern of the British people about human rights and the Government's commitment to seeking full implementation of all provisions of the Final Act by signatory countries.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a great deal of concern among members of all parties in the House about the failure of the Soviet Government to implement the right of freedom of exit and entry as it applies to Soviet Jews? Will the Government put on more pressure on this matter? On a specific case, will the Government discuss with the USSR the question of Anatoly Shcharansky, who, having been harassed for about four years and having served 12 prison sentences, has now been arrested and is, we understand, likely to be charged with treason, which carries the supreme penalty, although the charge has not yet been levelled against him?

I share the hon. Lady's concern, as I think the whole House does, about reports of the kind that she mentioned. As she knows, under the Helsinki agreement the Soviet Union has undertaken to facilitate freer movement and contacts, individually and collectively, whether privately or officially. She can take it that the British Government will continue to remind the Soviet Government of their obligations in that respect, in the Belgrade conference and in the preparations for that conference.

Is the Minister aware that the British parliamentary delegation found that the Supreme Soviet were willing to discuss the matter of human rights and of Jewish emigration at considerable length last week? Will he ensure that the Soviet Union knows that this concern for Jewish emigrants is not part of a major campaign to undermine the stability of the Soviet Union but is part of a deep feeling for human rights, expressed by many thousands of individuals in this country?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to make clear to the Soviet Government that when Western Governments express concern about these matters it is not part of a great attempt to subvert the whole Soviet system. We are attempting to express the views that are very widely held among our people of concern about the human rights questions involved, and we shall continue to try to make that point clear.

I remind the Minister that the Opposition have often pressed the Government to arrange a full debate on human rights before the Belgrade conference. There has been an enormous growth of interest in and concern about that matter both here and in other countries. Will the Minister do his best to persuade the Leader of the House to ensure that we have a proper debate before our representatives go to Belgrade?

We are well aware of the concern that has been expressed more than once in the House to have a debate before the Belgrade conference. It is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I shall report what the hon. Gentleman said, and hope that it will be possible to have such a debate.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a number of hon. Members feel that there is little point in going to Belgrade while the Soviet Union behave as they are behaving towards the Jews and other minorities who wish only to exercise their religious and other beliefs within that country? The Russians have made a mockery of the Helsinki agreement, and there is little point in taking it further unless they show their real intention.

I think that it is an extraordinary view that, because of accusations of that kind, it is not worth going to the Belgrade conference. One of the main purposes of that conference is precisely to discuss the implementation of the Helsinki agreement. Therefore, it provides us with an exceptionally good opportunity to express the point of view expressed today in the House on matters of this kind.

Following upon that, would the Minister care to comment on the apparent contradiction in the Helsinki agreement between that part of it which swears that no member will interfere in the internal affairs of another nation and, a few pages later, quite properly, obligates all members to pay special regard towards human rights within their own territories? When in Helsinki, will the Foreign Secretary make sure that the latter prevails over the former?

Perhaps I can correct one or two points in the final part of the hon. and learned Member's remarks. The forthcoming conference will be held in Belgrade, not in Helsinki, and the Foreign Secretary will not attend. The conference will be attended by representatives to be appointed by the Foreign Secretary.

On the main point made by the hon. and learned Gentleman, there is, of course, an inherent contradiction, which affects not only the Helsinki agreement but all discussions on human rights in, for example, the United Nations.

As hon. Members know, Article 2(7) of the United Nations Charter reserves to the member States matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of those States and points out that they are outside international jurisdiction. On the other hand, there are provisions and undertakings concerning human rights.

I should say that the trend in the world today is for us to pay less regard to the old-fashioned rules concerning national sovereignty and to accept that there are certain international obligations in this respect which give us the right to express strongly-held views on such matters.


asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what plans he has to publish progress on Helsinki CSCE agreement prior to the review in Belgrade.

It is certainly the Government's intention to continue to provide Parliament and the public with information on developments as the date of the Belgrade follow-up meetings approaches. My right hon. and noble Friend and officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have recently given evidence before the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee on the implementation of the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act. I understand that the Sub-Committee's report will be published in the near future.

In view of the widespread desire in this country to see practical evidence that the signatories to the Helsinki agreement fulfil their obligations, particularly in respect of human rights and the exchange of information and people, will the Minister ensure that the evidence available about the progress of the Helsinki Treaty should be published fully? Does he agree that a debate in this House is essential before the Belgrade review?

We have from time to time published, in answers to Questions and in other ways, information about the extent of implementation at the present time. I understand that that matter was also discussed in the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee, which will, I believe, shortly issue a report. In addition, as I think the House knows, a committee under the chairmanship of Lord Thomson is discussing precisely the question of the degree of implementation of the Helsinki agreement so far. I have already commented on the request for a debate and I will record the hon. Member's concern.

Does my hon. Friend agree that publication of progress—or, indeed, of lack of progress—on Basket III of the Final Act is of immense value to human rights campaigners in all the signatory countries? Does he also agree that we should close our minds to those who say that we should not go to Belgrade or collaborate further in the follow-up conference?

I certainly agree on the latter point, on which I have already expressed my view. The Belgrade conference is in itself a most important event, which gives us a very good opportunity for raising the matters that are of concern to us. I am sure that we shall attend and take no notice of those who say anything different. I agree also that the publication of information is valuable. It must be authoritative information, and we shall consider what can and should be done in that respect.

The House welcomes the Minister's statement that the Government continue to attach importance to human rights, especially in view of President Carter's statement this week that he does not propose to back down on his stand on this issue. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government are not waiting for the Belgrade conference before making representations to the Soviet Union about breaches of the Helsinki Final Act? What, for example, have the Government said to the Soviet Union about the detention without trial of Mr.Shcharansky and six other members of the Helsinki agreement monitoring group?

I have already expressed my views on the hon. Gentleman's first point. As I have said, we have had continuing discussions at a number of levels with representatives of the Soviet Government about a number of these points. We shall continue that process, and we hope that the Soviet Government will be in no doubt about the strength of feeling that exists on these points.