Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(John Penrose.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I think this is the first time I have had that privilege and I fear that it might be the last, because of your impending retirement.
This is a great opportunity to discuss the importance of the Council of Europe and of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I am delighted to see a number of my colleagues from the Parliamentary Assembly here today, along with the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock), who was a long-serving member of the Assembly until he retired at the beginning of this year after some 18 years’ service.
The statute of the Council of Europe was agreed in London on 5 May 1949. There were 10 founding members. Today, 47 countries belong to it, and Russia is one of those, having joined in 1996. All have signed up to the aims of the Council as set out in chapter I, article 1(a), which provides:
“The aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals… which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.”
Article 3 of the statute provides:
“Every member of the Council of Europe must accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and collaborate sincerely and effectively in the realisation of the aim of the Council as specified in Chapter I.”
If one recites the text of article 3 and sets that against the recent actions of the Russian Federation, the question immediately arises of what sanctions there are against members that are in breach or violation of article 3. The answer is contained in article 8:
“Any member of the Council of Europe which has seriously violated Article 3 may be suspended from its rights of representation and requested by the Committee of Ministers to withdraw under Article 7. If such member does not comply with this request, the Committee may decide that it has ceased to be a member of the Council as from such date as the Committee may determine.”
My first question for my right hon. Friend the Minister, whom I am delighted to see is responding to the debate, is, has the Russian Federation seriously violated article 3 of the statute? My view is that it certainly has, which I think is a view shared by all 18 members of the UK delegation and the 18 substitute members.
What the hon. Gentleman is describing could have been the case on at least five previous occasions, but it would appear that this is the straw that broke the camel’s back, certainly as far as the UK delegation is concerned. We could have had this over South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, the human rights issues relating to the death penalty and so on. All those have come up one time after another, so why now?
I will go on to explain exactly why. It is not just the view of all the UK delegation’s members that the Russian Federation has seriously violated article 3; it is also the view of a substantial majority of the Parliamentary Assembly, as evidenced by the decision in January this year to impose sanctions against representatives of Russia, and of the European Conservatives group in the Assembly, which I have the privilege of chairing. It also must be the opinion of the Committee of Ministers, which has made various declarations calling on the Russian Federation to do this, that and the other, all of which have been ignored.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record. I know that within the Socialist group, strong, differing views have been expressed, but the UK delegation in the Socialist group has been solidly supporting the notion that we must have application of the rules of law to the Russian Federation’s membership of the Council of Europe.
What has the Russian Federation done to put itself in fundamental breach of its obligations? First, it has illegally annexed the territory of another member country of the Council of Europe through the use of armed aggression. To make that worse, its President this week finally admitted that he ordered that annexation, and that there was no free will involved on the part of those living in Crimea. However, as recently as January this year, Mr Putin’s poodles in the Russian state Duma were trying to equate Crimea’s referendum with that the one that took place in Scotland last year and to say that the annexation was equivalent to the Federal Republic of Germany’s annexation of East Germany in 1989.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South asked what is new, and I have here an article from a Russian newspaper, dated 28 January 2015, with the headline “Russian lawmakers to consider declaration on 1989 ‘annexation of East Germany’”. It states:
“Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, has asked the parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs to look into the possibility of adopting a declaration which denounces the reunification of Germany in 1989”.
He goes on to say that the Parliamentary Assembly’s reference to the events in Crimea was unlawful and that
“‘97% of Crimean residents voted for reunification with their motherland’”.
The article continues:
“Following the logic of those who call this historical event an annexation, the Federal Republic of Germany annexed East Germany, Naryshkin stated.”
We now know, from Putin’s words a year later, that he ordered that, so all the subsequent bluff and bluster were lies, as we knew they were at the time, and as most of us on the Parliamentary Assembly realised.
The second thing that I hold against the Russian Federation is that it has deployed Russian troops across the border in eastern Ukraine who have used and continued to use heavy weapons against the Ukrainian people. I ask the hon. Gentleman, is that not enough?
Thirdly, Russia has brazenly defied the rule of law by harbouring Andrei Lugovoy, one of its own MPs, who was involved in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. As has become clear at the public inquiry currently taking place, Lugovoy achieved a score of minus 2 when asked during a polygraph test in Moscow in April 2012 whether he had handled polonium, yet at the time Russia claimed that the test had emphatically established his innocence. To add insult to injury, on Monday this week, President Putin awarded a state honour to Mr Lugovoy for what was described as “services to the fatherland”. That is putting the proverbial two fingers up to all the other members of the Council of Europe. What are those members doing in response?
The fourth charge that I levy against the Russian Federation is that it has refused to honour its obligations under international law to release from custody Nadiya Savchenko, who was an elected Member of the Ukrainian Parliament and a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. She was illegally abducted from Ukraine last July.
Then there is the Magnitsky case. That is a case of the Russians exercising impunity in relation to the killers of Sergei Magnitsky. A recently published book by Bill Browder, “Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy”, is, according to the inside cover,
“a searing exposé of the wholesale whitewash by Russian authorities of Magnitsky’s imprisonment and murder, slicing deep into the shadowy heart of the Kremlin to uncover its sordid truths… With fraud, bribery, corruption and torture exposed at every turn, Red Notice is a shocking but true political roller-coaster that plays out in the highest echelons of Western power.”
On the back of the book, which, not surprisingly, has been banned in Russia, there is a quote from Bill Browder:
“I have to assume that there is a very real chance that Putin or members of his regime will have me killed some day… If I’m killed, you will know who did it.”
That is, sadly, rather reminiscent of what Boris Nemtsov’s mother said before his assassination in Russia last month.
In addition to all that, there have been multiple breaches of the accession document that Russia signed when it joined the Council of Europe. As Russia is still in deliberate breach of its obligations under article 3, why is nothing being done by the United Kingdom Government to trigger action against Russia under article 8? Indeed, one might ask what the purpose is of belonging to an organisation that manifestly shows so little respect for the values espoused in its founding statute.
There are precedents for suspension or expulsion from international organisations, and I want to touch on what happens in the Commonwealth. On Monday, Her Majesty the Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, attended the annual service at Westminster abbey, and her message for Commonwealth day was that the organisation’s values are
“more important and worthy of protection than perhaps at any other time in the Commonwealth’s existence.”
The same is true of the values of the Council of Europe. The principles of the Commonwealth were set out in the Singapore declaration of 1971 and restated in the Harare declaration of 1991. In essence, they talk about peace, democracy, liberty and the rule of law.
Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth in 1995 for breaching the Commonwealth principles. It was reinstated in 1999, when it had a democratically elected President. Fiji was suspended in September 2009 for being in breach of the principles and is still suspended. Indeed, I think it has now left the organisation. Zimbabwe was suspended in March 2002. That resulted in its leaving the Commonwealth in December 2003. There are well established precedents for exercising the power of suspension from an international organisation when a member of that organisation is manifestly in breach of the principles.
I have a word of caution for my hon. Friend, who is making a very powerful and correct point. I am a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and one problem that we have had is that we are losing countries from the CPA because of the problems that we are facing. Australia is an obvious one. The problem in this case is that we may split the Council of Europe if we are not careful. The idea that my hon. Friend is putting forward is absolutely right—we have to have sanctions—but we do not want a polarised Council of Europe, in which countries feel that they are so bullied by Russia that they cannot continue to be within the Council of Europe. Does he see that that may be a problem, rather like what the Commonwealth has been facing over the last 20 years with the countries that we have had to suspend?
There may be parallels. I defer to my hon. Friend’s superior knowledge of what happens in the Commonwealth. However, if we and the other founding members of the Council of Europe do not stand up for our belief in the principles of the Council of Europe, we make things much more difficult for other countries, particularly those that were formerly in eastern Europe and part of the Soviet bloc. It is much more difficult for them to try to comply with the principles of the Council of Europe if they can see that the bully boy next-door to them is being treated with impunity, which is exactly what is happening with Russia at the moment. We could send a very strong message if we took effective action and used sanctions against Russia. We would be sending a message to those other countries that we were on their side and would help them to stand up against their bully-boy neighbour.
The answer to that is that the abuses that I have been describing have not been going on for the last 18 years or so. What has happened is that things have got very much worse within the last year. That is why the European Democrat group, as it then was, decided to take sanctions against the Russians, as members of that group, for being in manifest breach of the Council of Europe. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back in that respect? It was the motion, passed in the Russian Duma by elected members of the Parliamentary Assembly from Russia, supporting the illegal annexation of Crimea. It was not a situation, as sometimes happens in the Parliamentary Assembly—this has happened with the hon. Gentleman and to an extent with myself—in which we as elected members say that we are not necessarily four-square supporting our Government but are standing up for the values of the Council of Europe against our Government. What happened in that case was that the members of the Russian Federation delegation and members in the European Democrat group were actively undermining the principles of the Council of Europe and actively engaged in supporting the illegal annexation of Crimea and were thereby breaching the principle that the Council of Europe stands for the territorial integrity of all its member countries. That is the short history.
The hon. Gentleman takes us back to what happened in relation to Georgia. He may recall that at that time there was a Labour Government in this country and one of the first international statesmen who spoke out in support of Georgia was none other than our present Prime Minister, so I do not think that we can be criticised for being slopy-shouldered in relation to what happened in Georgia. That was part of a continuing scenario. When it comes down to it, we have to face the fact that in Mr Putin we are dealing with a dictator and a tyrant. That is the scenario. In the same way, we have been dealing with a dictator and a tyrant in Zimbabwe. Eventually, patience ran out and Zimbabwe was expelled from the Commonwealth. It was not expelled immediately, because everyone was using the same arguments as are now being used in relation to Russia: “Isn’t jaw-jaw better than any alternative?” However, there comes a time when, if someone continues to be in complete defiance of the principles, we need to take, in my view, the only sanction that is available under the rules.
We are already in danger of being accused of double standards. When my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) chaired the Joint Committee on the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, wrote to him on 10 October 2013:
“Thus, my message is clear: the Court’s judgments”—
Mr Muiznieks was referring to the European Court of Human Rights—
“have to be executed and the automatic and indiscriminate ban on voting rights for prisoners should be repealed. If the Court system is to continue to provide protection, there is no alternative to this for member states, other than leaving the system itself.”
He goes on to say:
“I think that any member state should withdraw from the Council of Europe rather than defy the Court by not executing judgments.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that, until recently, the committee on legal affairs and human rights of the Council of Europe had for some time seen Russia engaging more, explaining its views about judgments and following up on some of them? That seemed quite encouraging, so it is a great pity that we have got into the current situation. Would it not be best for the Russians to follow the ceasefire agreement and find an honourable peace in Ukraine, so that the progress that has been made could resume?
Of course it would be, but the point that I am making, and the reason why I have secured the debate, is that everything suggests that the reverse is true. In relation to the Court judgments, on 13 December 2013 President Putin praised the Russian Constitutional Court for upholding the Russian constitution by effectively stating that the Constitutional Court’s authority was superior to that of the European Court of Human Rights. As a result of that, did the Commissioner for Human Rights tell Russia that it should withdraw from the Council of Europe, as he told my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that the UK should do? No, he did not. Has the commissioner said anything similar about the various actions that Russia has taken in defiance of its obligations under the statute? No, he has not, and that is where the double standards come in.
We are being told that, because of our failure to implement an interpretation of the European convention on human rights which is in breach of the original terms of the convention—originally, it was clear that they did not apply to prisoner voting, but the interpretation has been extended—the United Kingdom should expel itself from the Council of Europe. Meanwhile, the commissioner has not said anything to the Russians about their membership.
I am very much in favour of engagement, but only with those who want to engage on the same page, if I may put it in such a way. My concern is that the Russians are not showing any willingness to do so. If we believe that there has been a fundamental breach of the statute, as I have set out, and if that is allowed to happen with impunity, it brings into question the whole purpose of this international organisation. What is the point of belonging to it? That is the question to which I hope we will get an answer from the Minister.
The Council of Europe is different from the United Nations, and the statute spells out that it is separate from the United Nations. The Council of Europe covers only Europe—European values and principles. I would be concerned if the right hon. Gentleman wanted to be an apologist for the Russian Federation, although I do not believe that he does. Until now, cross-party concern has been expressed in the House about the behaviour of the Russian Federation. If we are prepared to take economic sanctions against the Russian Federation, why should we not take the sanctions that are available to us under the Council of Europe statute? The answer may be because certain other members of the Council of Europe are too frightened to want to join in, but my answer to them is that the United Kingdom has traditionally taken a lead in such things. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister, in his response to the debate, will say that we are taking a lead and explain what we will do.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He talks about engaging with people. Does he agree that we should encourage engagement with the sections of Russian society that have taken a stand against Putin, and that we should ensure that they have a voice not only in the Council of Europe but across the globe?
I agree, but how best can we do that? That is a question of judgment. I have heard it said, for example, that we must keep Russia in the Council of Europe because if we do not, it will reinstate the death penalty. In fact, however, we can see from recent events that the Russian Government exercise an extrajudicial death penalty by murdering enemies of the state in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Do we tolerate such behaviour because we are fearful that Russia might reintroduce a judicial death penalty instead of the extrajudicial death penalty that is currently handed out by the President?
The extent to which we should impose sanctions is an eternal dilemma. Just as public opinion in this country is influenced by international events, if we took a firmer line against Russia on its human rights record and its breaches of the rules of the Council of Europe, we would support those in Russia who are trying to fight against the system. I know from having had the privilege of talking to Bill Browder that he also believes that it is better to try to sanction the regime in Russia than to continue to indulge it.
We owe a debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for securing the debate, because it encourages a useful exchange of views. He is the most distinguished leader of the European Conservatives Group on the Council of Europe. He has devoted himself body and soul to working on the Council in an often unsung role, and we are grateful to him. We all understand the depth of his feeling, and we can understand why he advances the argument that we should now expel Russia from the Council of Europe. I am sorry to say that I disagree with that argument. So far, Russia has behaved in an utterly lamentable fashion, and the Council of Europe has decided effectively to suspend it. In theory, Russia can turn up, but in practice it does not. It does not vote or speak.
Taking the next dramatic step of expelling Russia would be a mistake because, although my hon. Friend will not agree, as long as Russia is involved in the Council of Europe, whether on the death penalty, human rights or its position with regard to other countries, there is some sort of link and encouragement for it to make progress along the road of human rights.
Why was the Council of Europe set up? It is a very different organisation from the European Union. As my hon. Friend said, we are one of the creators of the Council of Europe. He referred to the famous remark of Winston Churchill in 1954:
“To jaw-jaw is…better than to war-war.”
That is what the Council of Europe is all about. I view it not as an executive body like the European Union; I view it as an inter-parliamentary assembly. I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and one of the Council of Europe’s values is that we recognise that our powers are extremely limited—in fact, they are virtually non-existent, with the exception of voting for judges on the European Court of Human Rights—but it is an opportunity to meet Members of Parliaments from across Europe to exchange views. That is what the Council of Europe is: it is an inter-parliamentary assembly.
Article 1 of the statute of the Council of Europe states that its purpose is
“to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.”
As long as Russia is, albeit suspended, a member of the Council of Europe, we can hope to press it to mend its ways. Expelling Russia would be a considerable step. My hon. Friend mentioned suspended members of the Commonwealth, but it has been a rare step to expel countries from the Commonwealth—South Africa might have been expelled, and it might even have expelled itself in the early years of apartheid—and expelling a member of the Council of Europe would be a dangerous precedent, particularly in our vulnerable situation, as has already been mentioned.
As I understand it, in our Conservative party manifesto, we will proclaim the supremacy of Parliament. We will proclaim that, if our Parliament votes for a particular position, such as on prisoner voting rights, the Court cannot gainsay it. If there is a Conservative Government and if we pass such an Act of Parliament, there will undoubtedly be a move from some of our friends in Europe to expel us, but I am pretty sure that we will not be expelled. It is pretty foolish for us to set a precedent by now expelling Russia.
What Russia is doing by invading a sovereign country, its neighbour, is infinitely more egregious, more damaging to human rights and more lamentable in every respect than our will and desire to proclaim the supremacy of Parliament—I recognise that—but we have a problem, have we not? As some people will articulate, we have signed various conventions and, in a very real sense, the European Court of Human Rights is a supreme court, an ultimate authority of laws. Although we will undoubtedly want to stay in the Council of Europe—my right hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that—despite proclaiming the supremacy of Parliament, we will be in some difficulty. It is not entirely useful for us to set a precedent.
Article 8 outlines a two-stage process. The first stage states:
“Any member of the Council of Europe which has seriously violated Article 3 may be suspended from its rights of representation”.
That is what I am suggesting as a first stage. Article 8 goes on to say what can happen afterwards. My hon. Friend says that expulsion would be a very strong sanction, but my suggestion is that we should start off with suspension, using the powers under article 8.
I apologise if I misunderstood my hon. Friend. I argue with the position that we effectively have at the moment. Russia might not be formally suspended, but it is effectively suspended, which is a sort of halfway house. We are rapping its knuckles. If he is now saying that under no circumstances does he wish to expel Russia and that he does not view this as a process towards expelling Russia, I am sorry that I misunderstood his arguments. I am in favour of giving a message to Russia, but I am not in favour of expelling Russia. If he wants to make it clear that he is also not in favour of expelling Russia, I will happily give way.
There are two separate issues: the Russian delegation’s membership of the Parliamentary Assembly and Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe as a country. I am saying that article 8 should be applied on that latter point. I am not talking about the situation within the Parliamentary Assembly, which has already been well rehearsed. I am talking about the Government’s responsibility to do something under article 8.
We now understand each other perfectly. I tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. We have taken the right, measured steps within the Parliamentary Assembly. The process of suspension may result in expulsion, and there should be no route towards suspending or expelling Russia from the Council of Europe. I think we have done the right thing.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one thing to bear in mind is that the European Court of Human Rights is extensively used by citizens of Russia and human rights defenders who want justice? They find justice in the Court when they do not necessarily find it in Russia itself. Equally, Russia benefits from bodies such as the Group of States against Corruption, which is trying to improve standards across Europe. Pulling the rug from under Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe as a whole, or putting its membership at risk, would have damaging effects.
I agree entirely. I was thinking of intervening on my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch when he introduced this debate. Has he been in touch with non-governmental organisations across Russia? Has he been in touch with people who are appealing to the Court, as my hon. and learned Friend said? My understanding—the Minister can confirm this or otherwise—is that the Council of Europe is valued by some people in Russia. They still have the right to go to the Court, and starting a process to expel Russia from the Council of Europe and denying those people the right to appeal to the Court would be dangerous.
Time is running by, and we do not want to get bogged down on the invasion of Ukraine. I am not pro-Ukrainian or pro-Russian. All I seek is to understand the mentality of the Russian people and the Russian Government, and that is part of the importance of sitting on a body such as the Council of Europe. Seeking to understand our opponent’s position does not necessarily mean that we agree with that position. It belittles and over-simplifies the debate to say that, because the current President of Russia, Mr Putin, is a tyrant—he may well be a tyrant and an extremely unpleasant person—this is somehow all his doing and that, if we in Britain were to apply certain pressures on him such as starting the process of expelling his country from the Council of Europe, we would somehow influence him.
We have to understand the attitude of many people in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Russia. Thirty-four of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states have recognised the forcible division of Serbia after Kosovo proclaimed its independence. That is often cited, and it was directly cited by the Crimean Parliament when it voted to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. It blames us for double standards on Serbia, and it asks us, “Where were you, Britain, and what debates were there in the House of Commons, when Khrushchev forcibly, by diktat, removed Crimea from Russia and gave it to Ukraine in the 1950s?”
I do not want to comment on whether this is right or wrong, but there is a substantial body of opinion—a majority opinion—in Crimea and Russia that thinks that the people of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, who are ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, have a right to self-determination. We can have as many debates as we like, we can pose as many sanctions as we want and we can criticise Mr Putin as often as we like, but we are up against the absolute, convinced opinion of an overwhelming majority of Russian people, who think that the people of eastern Ukraine have a right to self-determination.
I am simply seeking to understand the Russian point of view. There is a difficulty with Latvia, because there are 300,000 ethnic Russian speakers in that country who are effectively denied their human rights. I am not going to get involved in a debate about whether that is bad or good, but my hon. Friend is right to say that it is often talked about in Russia. It is a real problem. However, there is a difference, because Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are members of NATO. We decided to draw them into NATO, so we are bound by article 5 to defend them.
I must end in a moment, because I do not want to weary the House by speaking for too long. I believe—I have said this before and I will say it again—that Great Britain has an historic role. There is no history between us and Russia, so we are natural arbiters. We were allies in the two greatest conflicts of the 20th century, and in many ways we are natural allies. There is a way out of this impasse.
I spent an hour with the Russian ambassador recently, and I asked his opinion. Hon. Members may say that he is just another diplomat sent abroad to lie for his country. I did not believe everything that he told me, but he said that Russia’s position—take it or leave it, but it is not completely unreasonable, and it is the basis for some sort of negotiated peace—is that Ukraine should not join NATO. Apparently, we have no desire for Ukraine to join NATO. The Russians claim that they are reasonably relaxed about Ukraine’s moving further towards the European Union, but they would like that to be balanced with corresponding trade agreements with Russia, which is a perfectly reasonable position. They recognise that eastern Ukraine should remain part of the sovereign state of Ukraine, which should have self-determination. Those three points of view are not completely unreasonable; they are the basis for peace.
I believe strongly that we should keep Russia in the Council of Europe and that we should go on talking to it. We should seek a solution based on peace; otherwise, we will be in a situation of war without end. The Russian people, who suffered terribly during the 20th century, will not give up on this issue. It is not of massive strategic concern to the British people, although we have an interest and a role to play as an arbiter. I believe that we should go on playing the role of arbiter and be a proponent of peace in the Council of Europe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on bringing this challenge, which we have to face up to, to the House today. We should all be mindful of his words, but, like the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), I think there is another side to the issue.
We ought to look at what the Council of Europe is about. We know that its main three pillars—its raison d’être—are human rights, the rule of law and democratic processes. However, all of us who have been in the Council of Europe for any length of time know that it also has two negative pillars, which it embraces with great enthusiasm: double standards and the lowest common denominator when it comes to getting something through the Council of Europe. Often, it is not the best argument that wins, but the one that the political bosses of the various parties decide they can carry in the Chamber.
A good example of the Council of Europe’s double standards is the situation in Ukraine. When was the last time we had a debate in the Council of Europe about the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus? I cannot remember one in my 18 years there. When did we have a debate in the Council of Europe about the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, which is an idea I support? When was the last time we criticised Armenia for occupying a third of the land mass of Azerbaijan? We have not had those debates. Why not? Because we would have to take positive action against those countries. Do we really want to say that to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia? I think not. We know that will not happen.
The Library produced a very interesting document, which states:
“A group of Conservative MPs led by”
the then leader
“led a charge to suspend Russia fully from the assembly. His amendment was defeated”.
It was defeated because those people were taking a step too far, as far as the Assembly was concerned. I have long held the view that we have to have a debate on whether we want Russia in or out. There cannot be any half measures. Suspending the voting rights of the delegation is totally irrelevant. It causes a bit of panic in the Hemicycle for the hour or so after the vote is taken, when the Russian press are there and the media are trying to get a quote from everyone and anyone. I am sure I have seen some of the cameramen giving quotes about the issue to other television stations because there were no politicians around to do it.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe had the pleasure of having Boris Nemtsov at its meetings on several occasions. I had the pleasure of meeting him, having dinner with him and talking to him. The question I asked him at our group meeting was, “Do you think we should expel Russia from the Council of Europe?” His words were, “Most definitely not.” He then spoke for about half an hour about why he thought that was not the case. During his half-hour response, he made a number of points that a lot of us thought gave conclusive evidence that Russia should not be in the Council of Europe. Nevertheless, he said no.
Over the years, the biggest problem has been the way we have looked at Russia since it joined in 1996. I joined the Council of Europe in 1997. Since then, the Council of Europe has not taken action against Russia on at least five occasions. One was when we had the long, drawn-out debates over Chechnya, which went on for the best part of four years. I went to Chechnya twice. One of our former members, Lord Judd, was one of the leading players on that issue. He came close to recommending that Russia be suspended and then expelled, but he drew back from that. He would say that he drew back because he was put under pressure.
There was the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Once again, are we really saying that it was okay for Georgia’s land to be occupied and for two free states to emerge in a Council of Europe country? What action did we take on that issue? We are still having a debate. We have rapporteurs looking at the Russia-Georgia issue, but we have not made a decision, although it occurred in 2008. Six years on, the Council of Europe has done nothing. Why? Because, once again, it aims for the lowest common denominator to keep everyone in the tent.
Human rights in Russia was another issue on which the Russians flatly refused, until 2012, to agree to the very principles that they had signed up for. The abolition of the death penalty—
I am following what the hon. Gentleman is saying very carefully. Does he not agree that in diplomacy it is important to have some messages that can be sent and some sanctions that can be imposed, in an escalating fashion, to make one’s point? Taking away voting rights in the Council of Europe, which annoys the Russians a good deal, is a measure that one can use, and it is wrong to say that it is all or nothing. Those escalating sanctions are useful.
But there comes a time when the credibility of the Council of Europe is at stake. That is the issue, is it not? Sooner or later, we come to a line in the sand and say, “Is it really worth belonging to this organisation?”
I do not want Russia to leave the Council of Europe, but I want to call the bluff of those who agitate time and again to nitpick—not “nitpick”, as that is the wrong expression—and to take voting rights away. Who gets cheesed off about having their voting rights taken away? Probably the wives of the Duma Members, who can no longer go to Paris and Strasbourg for sittings. I do not believe the politicians are particularly bothered that they do not have their voting rights. They know that in January next year there will be a vote and they will have their voting rights back. I am sure of that.
How can that be the case? The hon. Members who intervened on the hon. Member for Christchurch—the hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) and the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger)—raised a point about Russia, saying, “Oh, well, if they agree to a certain line in the sand over Ukraine, that is okay.” Is it okay? Russia will never give up Crimea now, so where does the Council of Europe stand on the issue of Crimea? Forget eastern Ukraine; where does the Council of Europe stand on the issue of Crimea? I have friends who live in Crimea. They are Russian by ethnicity, have absolute faith that they are now back where they belong and are committed to staying there, and will fight very hard to do so.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that people can be in a parliamentary assembly and have their rights suspended while they still remain members of the Council of Europe itself, because if someone’s country is still in the Council of Europe there is an argument for saying that their parliamentarians should be in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. That is why I am arguing that Russia should be suspended from the Council of Europe itself.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and he presented his case extraordinarily well. I have no doubt about the merits of that case, but there is this other argument, which other Members have alluded to, that it is better to have people inside the organisation.
Would the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe have the same facilities offered to them in Russia if Russia was out of the Assembly? I think not. Would people in Russia, who make up nearly two thirds of all the applicants to the European Court of Human Rights, have any access to redress if Russia was out of the Assembly? I think not. If the £24 million that the Russians put in, as a grand payer along with the UK, was removed from the Council of Europe, what would that do for the Court in Strasbourg?
The hon. Gentleman said that the members of the Russian delegation to the Assembly do not really care whether they have voting rights, so why do they continually campaign to get the votes back and why do they threaten in discussions in the Duma that, if they do not get their votes back, they will seek to leave the Council of Europe? Surely, voting rights are important and, as the hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) said, the strength of the push towards getting the negotiation to the Council of Ministers, or to the UN or wherever, is the important factor here.
The simple answer to that is that the Council of Europe needs Russia more than Russia needs the Council of Europe. That is the real issue for the Russian Duma Members and I have read with interest some of the comments they have made in the Russian press since the issue in January; they make interesting reading. Those Duma Members genuinely believe that the threat to suspend Russia is a bluff, because they know that the track record of the Council of Europe on taking forceful action is pretty abysmal and they have a lot of evidence to support that line.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) raised the issue of Latvia. Interestingly, the 300,000 ethnic Russians in Latvia are classed as non-citizens. If the Council of Europe believes in anything to do with human rights, how can it allow that situation to persist? It is ridiculous.
It is pretty intolerable that a country that is a member of the EU and the Council of Europe is effectively denying citizenship to people, and the right for them to sit in Parliament and all the rest of it, unless they learn Latvian. Imagine if the boot was on the other foot and there were large numbers of people here who could not speak English, or they were Urdu speakers or whatever, and we said, “You can’t stand for Parliament and all that sort of stuff because you have to vote in English.” There is a real problem here. I am not defending the Russian position, but we have to recognise that that is what the Russians think.
Some people might suggest that we are getting pretty close to that in the UK regarding the ability of people to speak English, but how can people be classed as non-citizens in an EU state—or, more importantly from our point of view, in a member state of the Council of Europe—and nothing is done or said about it, except by those of us who believe passionately that everyone living in a country should be classed as a citizen of that country?
What do we do? We have a debate here. I am not sure whether the suspension of voting rights for the Russians will do much at all. Expelling Russia from the Council of Europe would undoubtedly harm the organisation; it would diminish the Council of Europe’s credibility for being able to speak on behalf of the 700 million people who inhabit the 46 member states in the Council of Europe, so it would be a mistake to do it.
We must continue to work with Russia. It is quite interesting to see who the rapporteurs on Russia have been over the years. In most instances, they have been leaders of the political groups, or senior members of those groups who have taken on that responsibility. None of them has ever recommended anything like the suspension or removal of Russia from the Council of Europe. Why? Because they believed that their efforts brought some reward for the citizens in Russia.
The best message we can send out today is that we do not like what the Russians are doing and that we will do everything we can to achieve a peaceful settlement to the issues of eastern Ukraine, but that situation will not be solved and the people involved will not be saved from further harm by expelling Russia from the Council of Europe. We should take a positive step today to say that we hope to see in January a different attitude from the Russian side and from the Council of Europe side.
More importantly, however, for those Members who are lucky enough to be on the delegation to the Council of Europe after the general election, I suggest that they need to get rid of the two things that undermine the Council of Europe time and again: double standards and the continual striving to find the lowest common denominator, instead of finding the right answer.
Thank you, Mrs Brooke, for calling me to speak.
It is a great pleasure to play a part in this thoughtful debate. It has been particularly interesting to be part of a debate in which a diversity of views has been expressed. Often, our relationship with Russia is seen in a monochrome way.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on bringing this matter to the House. As he pointed out, the Council of Europe was established in the embers of the second world war and inspired by the need at that juncture to rebuild our continent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) pointed out, it was Sir Winston Churchill himself who recognised that only shared standards and values on the law and human rights, alongside democratic development, would help to stitch Europe back together. However, I do not think there was any great naivety at that stage about those ideals. There was a recognition that the ideals would be perhaps honoured in part in their breach, but it was still important to be able to talk and to have some sort of relationship.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) made it clear that there are a number of glaring situations in our continent at the moment that do not pass muster, and that if we take this draconian step against Russia it would be very difficult to see that we would not do so against a number of other nations, given some long-standing issues. One that he did not mention that comes to mind is, as the Spanish would see it, the occupation of Gibraltar, which might also become an issue. However, perhaps it is better that we move on from that to something closer at hand.
The Council of Europe as currently constituted consists of 47 member nations, incorporating nearly all the European countries as well as the outliers in the Caucasus. It has, of course, become best known in this country for the European Court of Human Rights, which sits within its auspices. As hon. Members mentioned, it was almost 20 years ago, in 1996, that the Russian Federation was formally admitted as a Council of Europe member. Even then, its relatively dubious human rights record was overlooked, on the basis that it was making progress on implementing the rule of law alongside free and fair elections. That decision symbolised the west’s optimism, at that juncture, that Russia was on its way to a normalisation after the collapse of the Soviet Union only five years before. People were saying, “Give it time and patience. If Russia is brought into the international fold, it will eventually begin to act like an open, democratic state.” Or so we thought.
Since then, the relationship between the Council of Europe and Russia has at times been testy, particularly with regard to questions about legal supremacy. In 2014, the ECHR made more judgments against Russia than against any other country. The ECHR has been used by many enemies of the Kremlin, most notably the Yukos founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to bring cases against the Russian state.
After President Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, the Council of Europe deprived Moscow’s delegation of its right to vote, a move that has sparked wider discussion among Russia's ruling class—not just the wives of those in the Duma, I suspect—about whether Russia would wish to continue its membership of the Council. Many in Russia believe it has a negative influence on their nation and would like Russian sovereignty restored on matters such as the death penalty. If Russia withdrew from the Council, that would likely sound the death knell for some of the naive idealism that has guided western policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I had a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said in quite a brave contribution that was not something one necessarily hears on the Floor of the House. He is right: the simplistic way in which Putin is portrayed as a dictator and a tyrant in much of our press fails to understand some deep-seated issues in Russia.
I have long cautioned against assuming that Russia is on a steady path to becoming a functioning, multi-party democracy. We have always failed to understand that many Russians, to this day, see the Gorbachev and Yeltsin era as a time of chaos, uncertainty and utter humiliation. Putin has been able to maintain some domestic popularity by retelling a more traditional Russian story, filling the vast ideological vacuum left by the disintegration of the communist ideal with the notion of a Russian civilisation based upon patriotism, selflessness and deference to an all-powerful state. In doing so, he continues to tap into a pool of resentment that goes beyond Russian borders, to encapsulate many of those who dislike the global dominance of the USA over the past two decades. Specifically in relation to Georgia, there is no doubt that the Georgian leadership in that period, up to 2007-08, was little more than a CIA front. That was going on in Georgia and it is perhaps one reason why we have rapidly moved on from discussing that issue.
We are now faced with the Crimean crisis—let us be brutally honest: there is no going back from Crimea’s being returned as part of Russia—and the ongoing hostilities in eastern Ukraine. This continues to baffle many here in the west who fail to grasp why Vladimir Putin would wish to re-engineer an old-fashioned, imperialistic land-grab that risks western ire and Russian company balance sheets. The Russian President may well be a nasty piece of work—I am not in any way defending what he is doing—but he is a master at fashioning strength from weakness. From a position of fragile financial and geopolitical clout, Putin has boosted his profile with a domestic and global audience as a champion for the interests of Russia and, more worryingly, the Russian diaspora, which we have touched on in relation to Latvia and Estonia. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said: there is a fundamental difference between the way that we will look at Latvia and Estonia in years to come—they are members of NATO, and therefore protected under article 5, and members of the EU—and how we view Ukraine. The “one step forward, one step back” approach that has characterised western diplomacy in Ukraine in the past 18 months will endanger the countries beyond and give Putin a sense that we will not be serious about where a line is drawn to defend countries that are in NATO.
I should not be too surprised if Putin were now to engineer a similar victory by pushing for Russian withdrawal from the Council of Europe, making the case that continued membership is untenable now that the institution has become a vehicle through which western policy alone is exercised. Mr Putin has already suggested that neighbouring countries’ membership of the EU and NATO is equivalent to those nations existing in a “semi-occupied state”. He may also try to present an exit from the Council as a proud declaration of the supremacy of Russian sovereignty, as well as a defence of his nation’s distinct world view and political culture when it is under grave threat. In doing so, Putin will hope to sow the seeds of discord among remaining Council members, particularly when it comes to the ECHR, already a subject of hot debate on these shores. Why not try to fracture the consensus on human rights by suggesting that the ECHR has diminished national sovereignty, blunting members’ ability to tackle dangerous terrorists and the like? That argument is made on these shores and I suspect it may be made by Putin’s Russia as well.
For nearly two decades, the ECHR has enhanced Russia’s domestic legal system and provided an important outlet of dissent for those most at risk in Putin’s Russia. Without it—we should remember this in debates that we will, no doubt, have in this country on the ECHR in years to come—many opponents of the Kremlin would not have been able to gain the same level of publicity for their day-to-day plight. Naturally, if Russia withdrew from the Council of Europe, the repercussions for such individuals would be considerable. Many colleagues have spoken about those issues in detail this morning.
My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful contribution, but where does that leave us in relation to the enforcement of judgments? For example, it is clear that the Russian Federation is not going to comply with the Yukos judgment against it. What sanction will there be when it does not?
I accept that. That is, I am afraid, part of the frustrating battle of diplomacy, which we can look at from afar, but which my right hon. Friend the Minister has to deal with day to day. I think diplomacy within the Conservative party is bad enough, let alone having to deal with the other 46 members of the Council of Europe, but my hon. Friend will appreciate that that is the nature of the steadfast, patient way in which we approach these issues. We need to approach the issue of Putin in a steadfast and patient way.
My long-term belief is that, looking at what is happening geopolitically, including with the rise of China, for example—I know it pains many to even think in these terms—our relationship with Russia has to be part of our solution, not part of our problem in the longer term. Putin will not be there for ever. We need to recognise the importance of Russia as a place with which we have to have a working, workable relationship. That is in no way to justify what is going on. It is right that we should try to work with whoever is leading Russia to ensure that, if we cannot solve the real problems that we face, diplomatically, at least we are able to move steadfastly in the right direction.
My main concern with a Russian withdrawal is that President Putin will use it as a sparkling opportunity to stoke division and sow doubt among remaining members of the Council of Europe. No nation has ever resigned its membership, just as no country has ever left NATO, the eurozone or the European Union, and I hope that will continue for the foreseeable future, although one or two of my hon. Friends do not take a similar view. I fear that, by demonstrating that the post-cold war consensus on democracy, human rights and rule of law might be shattered, Putin could challenge at a stroke other international institutions that have so painstakingly been built to serve our best interests and foster freedom in our continent over the past 70 years.
I think this is also the first and last time I have served under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. We should record that it is 30 years to the day since Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. That set off, or was the catalyst for, momentous global change. Not all welcomed that change. Vladimir Putin and the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) lament the decline, demise and fall of the Soviet Union, but western Europe and the peoples of the freed countries of the Warsaw pact and the former Soviet Union do not—they welcomed that change. That is not, however, to proclaim the end of history, as was most unwisely done at the time. History has shown that she has a lot of resilience left in her yet.
Where are we now? The annexation of Crimea and conflict in Ukraine have undoubtedly focused attention, but they did not come out of a clear blue sky. Assisted by the previous escalation in oil prices, Russia had already embarked on a substantial programme of rearmament. I outlined that on Monday in the Chamber in the debate on the non-proliferation treaty:
“We need to be concerned about the expansion of Russian capability and a major modernisation of Russia’s strategic forces—involving the deployment of two new types of sea-launched ballistic missiles, a new class of ballistic missile submarines, a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile; and work on a new bomber and long-range cruise missiles.”
I also said that Sir John Sawers, the previous head of MI6, gave evidence that the Russians had indicated that they were
“prepared to use those weapons in certain circumstances.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 118.]
That rearmament has been accompanied by increasing activity and tension, especially but by no means exclusively on Russia’s western borders. The pressure on countries in the near abroad, especially the Baltic states, has already been mentioned. Cyber-attacks have hit Estonia in particular, and NATO is discussing its response to such attacks. There is increasing maritime activity, particularly from submarines—not only in the Baltic, but around our shores. We have seen numerous instances, as have other countries, of near incursions by aviation activity, which is very much about testing our defences and our responses. We have also seen wider diplomatic initiatives, with an evolving approach from Russia.
We do not have time to explore Russia’s involvement in the middle east, but her deepening engagement in Asia, whether multilaterally through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or bilaterally with the agreement with China, is interesting and of concern; it remains to be seen whether they will be allies or adversaries in the end. That engagement was aptly described, I think by The Economist, by the headline “Autocrats of the World, Unite”. The underlying question is whether Russia sees herself as a European power or whether she sees her future in Asia. In other words, this is about the comment from General de Gaulle that Russia was not left, but east. That evolving situation has implications, including for our discussions here.
The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) outlined at some length the position in the Council of Europe, but I was still slightly unclear at the end on whether he had answered Vladimir Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?”, particularly by Britain and our European allies. Lenin asked that question in one of his pamphlets. Clearly, the isolationism of the left or right is not a realistic option—certainly not for Britain. As a member of the P5, a leading member of the Commonwealth and a member of the G7 and the G20, we are engaged internationally. We dealt with the isolationism of the left and the belief in unilateralism on Monday in the debate on the non-proliferation treaty. Interestingly, many of those engaged with the debate on the unilateralist side held the same views in the cold war about the malign intentions—they did not see them as that—of the Soviet Union and the need to resist them.
We also have to resist the isolationism of the right, which seeks to detach us from the institutions of Europe and, in particular, the EU. The hon. Gentleman gave a vigorous documentation of recent actions by Russia, but Europe’s response is crucial. Interestingly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), whose portfolio this is, is addressing a conference on precisely that issue and our need for engagement. He will be saying that the EU has in recent months stood together to agree sanctions against Russia over its proxy war in Ukraine.
The security dimension of our membership of the EU is becoming more important. The hard edge of our security will continue to be provided by NATO, but the commitment to the common values represented by the EU is crucial. Eurosceptics seek sovereignty, but the security situation demands common action and resolve. If the EU was to splinter or split, no one would be more pleased than President Putin, which is presumably why he supports some of the populist parties of the right in Europe, financially and rhetorically. It is no accident that the political forces that he admires are anti-European, nor is it an accident that the Front National in France has received loans of millions of euros from a Russian bank. It is also possibly no accident that Mr Farage has singled out Mr Putin for admiration “as an operator”.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) used an unfortunate word—I do not blame him for it—when he talked about “understanding”. It has an unfortunate resonance. The Germans have a phrase—the Putinversteher—for those who understand Putin. Talking about being able to “comprehend” the argument might be better, because we have to understand the different landscape that is evolving. I would say that it is reverting to a previous era. In Ukraine, we are seeing the implementation of hybrid warfare, with irregular forces and a wide range of propaganda, which softens up the will to resist. All that is reminiscent of the cold war, when there was a wide cultural front that covered the arts, sport, non-governmental organisations and trade unions. The labour attachés of the Russian and American embassies were major players in the trade union movement in that period.
It is extraordinary that we are cutting defence expenditure at the same time as we are cutting expenditure for the World Service, but we need to look at how we respond across the wider complex and whether we stay engaged. That is the crucial point arising from today’s debate. The hon. Member for Christchurch wants to engage only with countries that are on the same page, but that is a policy for hermits. Russia is a fact and China is a fact. We therefore need to look at how we can engage, and we should not underestimate the impact of engagement and of channels of communication and dialogue.
There is good historical precedent for that. There was a lot of criticism by the Republican right of Republican officials in the Administration when they undertook the Helsinki accords in 1975, which were seen as legitimising Russia and its control over the near abroad. In fact, those officials provided the basis and the channels that started to trigger the break-up of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet Union. It is about widening those channels. As was rightly said by the hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), we should not underestimate the value to Russian citizens of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights.
We need to work to ensure that Russia meets its obligations if it wants to remain a member or active participant in international forums. That is why we support the steps taken so far by the Council of Europe to increase the pressure on President Putin to change course. Nevertheless, it is important that we maintain channels of communication, so that there is a possibility of moving forward through dialogue: ultimately, jaw-jaw is better than war-war.
I echo the comments of my colleagues who welcomed you to the Chair, Mrs Brooke, and I wish you well after you step down from the House of Commons at the forthcoming election. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing and leading what has been throughout an extremely serious-minded and thoughtful debate about not only Ukraine, but the more general relationship between the United Kingdom and the west and Russia and how we should address the challenges that we currently face.
I rather agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) when he said that there has been a tendency in the west to underestimate the extent to which people in Russia see the era of Gorbachev and Yeltsin as a national humiliation. Nevertheless, I do not believe that that suggests that the west has provoked President Putin and the current Russian Government in the way that he sometimes tries to claim. When looking back over the past 10 years or so, we see an effort by western countries to try to involve Russia in those international organisations that are the core of a rules-based international order. We have seen Russia brought into the G7, which became the G8; into the World Trade Organisation and the OECD; and into organisations such as the Council of Europe, which has been at the heart of today’s debate.
The right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) was correct to remind the House that we are looking not only at Ukraine, nor even only at Ukraine and Georgia, but at a number of areas where, in recent years, Russia has demonstrated a more aggressive pursuit of its national interests and posed a greater challenge to a rules-based international system—or at least, a system that we had hoped was rules-based. He mentioned cyber attacks and the increase in air and naval activity. I could add to that list the abduction of an Estonian official from Estonian soil. He is still in prison in Moscow, where he has been for six months without evidence being brought against him. I could also add the use of energy and strategic investments as a weapon of Russian power, the 2007 suspension of Russian participation in the conventional forces in Europe treaty and the fact that, only yesterday, Russia announced that it would suspend its participation in the Joint Consultative Group, the committee in Vienna that monitors the CFE treaty.
Perhaps the Minister could add to that list trade with Armenia. Recently, Armenia agreed to move closer to the European Union, resulting in a direct threat from Russia that if it continued to move away from the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia would instead trade with nearby partners.
The hon. Gentleman puts the point well, and one could add other items to that list.
We face not only a crisis over Ukraine, but an issue of principle. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the international community, including the Russian Federation, recognised the republics that then became independent states as sovereign and entitled to determine their own future. The question now is whether we believe that that is an important principle that should be upheld for both legal and political reasons, or that Russia is justified in trying to exert some kind of informal imperium over those countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
I am afraid I will not. I have just over five minutes left and want to respond to the points made in the debate.
Today, we mark the 25th anniversary of Lithuania’s recovery of its independence after half a century of occupation. We would be foolish if we thought that simply acquiescing in a breach of the principles of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states would have consequences that could be confined even to Europe. Countries throughout the world are watching the crisis in Ukraine and drawing conclusions about how the international community might or might not react in other circumstances.
We welcome the Minsk implementation plan for Ukraine. It is not perfect, but it is the best hope we have of turning a fragile and incomplete ceasefire into an effective truce and then, I hope, into a peacemaking process. I am advised that the latest situation is that the ceasefire has led to significant reductions in fighting, but there are still localised outbreaks of violence, especially around hot spots such as Donetsk airport and Debaltseve. Heavy weapons withdrawal has begun on both sides. On Monday, President Poroshenko said that Ukraine has withdrawn the lion’s share of its rocket and heavy artillery systems and that the Russian-backed fighters have also withdrawn a significant amount.
On verification, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is still not being granted full and unhindered access to the crisis zone. It seems to me that letting OSCE monitors through to see what is going on is a key test of Russia’s seriousness of purpose about whether it will try to turn the Minsk agreement into something meaningful on the ground.
As is clear from the debate, the issue is not only Ukraine. We must look at the full range of tools of international diplomacy to influence Russia’s behaviour and hold it to account for its actions. Organisations such as the Council of Europe offer opportunities for doing that. It is an organisation within which Russia itself has signed up to exacting standards in the field of human rights, the rule of law and democracy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch asked a straight question: do the Government think that Russia is in breach of article 3? During the debate, I reminded myself of the text of article 3; I am no lawyer, but my political judgment is that I would feel pretty hard-pressed to argue that Russia is currently compliant with it. Nevertheless, it is a separate political judgment to decide what, if anything, should be done after that. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government’s judgment is that, on balance, despite its actions, it is currently better to have Russia inside the Council of Europe, where it can be held to account, than either suspended or expelled.
The European Court of Human Rights is a crucial mechanism for the protection of human rights against the most egregious abuses. The cases of disappearances and other serious abuses in Chechnya are important examples of where the Court must focus its attention. The majority of human rights NGOs and defenders in Russia tell us that the Court is the only chance they have of receiving some form of redress, which is why they value Russia’s continued membership of the Council of Europe. My hon. Friend mentioned the plight of Nadiya Savchenko: the Government strongly support the Committee of Ministers’ call for her immediate release on humanitarian grounds.
The Council of Europe has an important role in supporting Ukraine, not least through the advice of the Venice Commission on constitutional reform issues. I agree that we should not allow Russia free passes; it should be held to account. Depending on what Russia does in practice, I do not rule out the need to review and reconsider the Government’s current position. We do see a sharply deteriorating situation in Russia in respect of human rights, the rule of law and democracy.
We will continue to work in the Council of Europe, the UN, the OSCE and other international organisations to uphold our rules and values, and we will strive to bind Russia more closely to them. However, we should not do that at any cost. If Russia continues to flout those rules and undermine our values, that will bring further isolation, economic damage and hardship for the Russian people themselves. I very much hope that Russia will not choose that path. It is in her own long-term interests to embed the high standards in the fields of human rights, democracy and the rule of law to which the Russian Government have committed themselves through their membership of the Council of Europe.