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Persecution and Detention of LGBT Citizens: Chechnya

Volume 624: debated on Thursday 20 April 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on allegations of persecution and detention of LGBT citizens in Chechnya, Russia, and on what discussions the Government have had with their counterparts on the issue.

The arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of over 100 men in Chechnya because of their sexual orientation is of deep concern to the UK. Credible reports suggesting that at least four people have been killed and many have been tortured are particularly shocking. Statements by the regional Government in Chechnya that appear to condone and incite violence against LGBT people are despicable.

We condemn any and all persecution, and call on the authorities promptly to investigate and ensure that perpetrators of human rights abuses are brought to justice. That would be in accordance with international human rights commitments adopted by the Russian Government to respect the human rights of all individuals.

The Minister of State, my noble Friend Baroness Anelay of St Johns, released a statement on 7 April outlining the Government’s concern at the reports and called upon the Russian authorities promptly to investigate and ensure that perpetrators of human rights abuses are indeed brought to justice.

The Foreign Secretary has expressed his serious concerns through social media. Officials from the British embassy in Moscow reiterated those concerns directly to the Russian Government on 13 April, and we are working with international partners in Russia as part of wider lobbying efforts. The EU made a statement on behalf of member states at the Permanent Council of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on 6 April, and the UK permanent representative to the Council of Europe delivered a statement on behalf of the UK in the Committee of Ministers on 19 April.

Thank you for granting this urgent question this morning, Mr Speaker.

I praise the Minister for his sincerity on this issue, which he takes very seriously, and for his comments. This is truly a shocking anti-gay campaign, involving over 100, and possibly several hundred, men. I praise the non-governmental organisations and journalists in Russia, the UK and elsewhere who have brought this issue to public attention. We are talking about detention, beatings, abuse and electric shock treatments, and—I do not say this lightly—some have talked about gay concentration camps. We have also heard of at least four killings.

The LGBT community in Cardiff South and Penarth has repeatedly raised this issue with me, and PinkNews tells me that its petition on it is its most signed ever. LGBT Labour wrote to the Prime Minister on this issue last week; sadly, it did not get a reply, and the matter was just passed on to the Foreign Office. There have also been representations from MEPs from all parties.

President Putin already has a record of persecuting the LGBT community. He also takes a keen interest in Chechnya, so is he turning a blind eye, or is he complicit in the actions of President Kadyrov? Let us remember that President Kadyrov’s spokesman said that you cannot detain people who simply do not exist.

Shaun Walker of The Guardian expressed the horrors we are seeing. He described the situation of an individual who, at least once a day, had metal clamps attached to him that

“sent powerful electric shocks through his body. If he managed not to scream, others would join in, beating him with wooden sticks or metal rods”

and demanding

“to know the names of other gay men he knew in Chechnya.”

If we had any doubts about the brutality of this regime towards the LGBT community, we need not have them any longer.

I praise the Minister’s sincerity on this issue, but I have to ask why it has taken the Foreign Secretary so long to speak out—a tweet simply is not enough. We have also not heard clear condemnation from the Prime Minister. Has she or the Foreign Secretary spoken directly to the Russian or Chechen Governments? Have they called in the Russian ambassador? Does the Foreign Secretary now regret his cancelled trip to Moscow, where he could have raised these atrocities in Chechnya, not to mention those in Syria? Was the issue raised in the G7 discussion about sanctions on Russia? Will the Minister say more about what is being done to co-ordinate with EU colleagues and the United States on this issue?

The Foreign Secretary tweeted that the situation was outrageous, but the Foreign Office has referred questions on whether we will provide refuge to people fleeing this horrendous persecution in Chechnya to the Home Office. As yet, there is no clarity, and I hope the Minister can provide some.

Let me say at the outset that I applaud the hon. Gentleman for raising this topic, and I hope it is one around which the House can unite without any party politics, because the strong, united message he is calling for is exactly the one we should be sending.

The actions in these reports are utterly barbaric. One of the most disgusting things I have seen is a Chechen security source stating that these arrests are part of what he called a preventative clean-up. That followed a request by an LGBT group called Gay Russia simply for licences for gay pride parades in the North Caucasus—the group had not yet even applied for a permit in Chechnya.

Human rights groups report that these anti-gay campaigns and killings are orchestrated by the head of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. He has carried out other violent campaigns in the past, and this time he is directing his efforts at the LGBT community. Sources have said that he wants the community eliminated by the start of Ramadan. Such comments, attitudes and actions are absolutely beyond contemptible.

I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government fully condemn this action. We do use all engagement with Russia to make our voice clear, and I did so, personally, with the deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, Vladimir Titov. I met him two or three weeks ago, and we spoke about general human rights matters, but also about Chechnya. I hope the House will be fully united in giving the strongest possible siren message to Russia, and to Chechnya in particular, that this kind of activity is beyond contempt and not acceptable in the world in which we live.

May I pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, for the support that you have given to the LGBT community ever since you have occupied the Chair and prior to that?

It is absolutely right that this issue should be raised here, as it has been determined that we have more openly gay Members of Parliament in this Parliament than anywhere else in the world. I was asked in 2010 why I came out. It was partly to send a signal to other people who were troubled about their own sexuality to give them hope and confidence—to say that if people like us can be open about our gayness, then hopefully they will be able to take from that some form of moral support that may help them to do likewise.

We have made fundamental changes around the rest of the world in looking at climate change, for example. We made massive advances when we brought countries together on that issue. Can we not do the same on LGBT issues so that we can have LGBT change throughout the world? May I suggest to the Minister that one area that might be worth a lot of attention is the Commonwealth, where some of the countries that are part of our family of nations have slid back on LGBT rights? Will he place some concentration on that and show that the British Government are going to lead the way on LGBT change throughout the world?

Indeed. One of the other strong messages as we approach a general election is that candidates in any party will be able to stand and be openly gay without being in any way ostracised by their own party, or indeed, we hope, any part of the electorate. That in itself sends a strong message to the world. It is a great tribute to the House and our democracy that over the past 15 years or so we have seen all parties have gays sitting on these green leather Benches. Whatever the outcome of the election, long may that continue. I also hope that that will be reflected in the Commonwealth in the years to come, as my hon. Friend suggests. We must campaign within Commonwealth countries to make sure that they do not fail to reflect the standards that we in the House reflect with regard to the LGBT community.

May I add my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question today? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for bringing such an important matter to the House and speaking so eloquently. I also thank the Minister for his response and pay tribute to his long and proud record of standing up for LGBT rights: he is a brave and much-needed pioneer in that regard within his party. I well recall an article by Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail in 2002—I am sure that the Minister does as well—entitled, “I’m sorry, Mr Duncan, if you’re gay, you’re not a Tory”. Thank goodness that in this country that kind of reprehensible prejudice has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

However, there is no room for complacency. This appalling and disgusting prejudice still represents official policy in some parts of Europe, and we must do something about it. In recent days and weeks, we have heard reports from Russian LGBT organisations and human rights NGOs documenting the most terrible abuse, and we have all read them with great distress. This is nothing short of officially sanctioned policy from the Chechen authorities, but the Russian Government, who bear ultimate responsibility for their citizens’ safety, appear to be looking the other way, and that is scarcely any better.

A week ago, LGBT Labour wrote a letter to the Prime Minister in which it asked particularly that she

“meet with the Russian Ambassador as a matter of urgency to demand answers; and to ensure that the Foreign Office is doing all it can with the Russian Government, and our European and international partners, to free those who have been detained and to shut the camps down.”

We are speaking today with a strong and unified voice. However, while I applaud, of course, the right hon. Gentleman’s raising the matter as deputy Foreign Secretary, it needs to be escalated. I hope that as a result of this urgent question we get an undertaking from the Government that it will be raised at a much higher political level. This is a matter that Prime Minister should take an initiative on—she should call in the Russian ambassador and demand some answers.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her tone. I had actually forgotten about the Hitchens article—I am not sure that I want to be reminded of it—but at least I can take pleasure in the fact that now I am but one of many on the Tory Benches. I hope that my statement can be seen as reflecting the Prime Minister and the entire Government’s personal condemnation of the situation. I note the right hon. Lady’s wish to see the issue raised to a higher level of political comment.

In another of the most contemptible elements of this whole issue, a representative of Chechnya’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, Kheda Saratova, who is supposedly charged with the task of upholding human rights in the republic, has said that she would not accept an application for help from a gay person, because the persecution of gay people should not be condemned in Chechen society, even if a person is killed by their own family. The LGBT community in Chechnya is at risk not just of persecution by the Chechen authorities, but of falling victim to so-called honour killings by their own family members. They are not safe inside Chechnya and, as I said earlier, what is happening in that republic is beyond contemptible.

I agree entirely with the Minister’s condemnation of this terrible occurrence. Building on the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that, although many Members, including me, will be unable to attend next week’s plenary part-session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, because of the general election, some of our colleagues will be there? Will he have a word with Ambassador Christopher Yvon to see whether the matter could be raised, for example, in the free debate during next week’s plenary part-session? It is important that the matter is raised continually in an international environment, to put more pressure on Russia and the Chechen authorities.

The Council of Europe is a very important voice for the expression of wider continental opinion. I will certainly convey to our ambassador my right hon. Friend’s wishes, which I sense are also the wishes of the entire House.

The scenes and stories emanating from Chechnya are beyond comprehension and utterly sickening, and we share the sentiments expressed by others. Although we may still have many challenges on LGBTI equality in the UK, we are fortunate that we have come a very long way and, in having that greater freedom, we absolutely must use our voices, whether we are members of the LGBT community or not. We must say, loudly and clearly, that we condemn this horrific brutality.

For the Chechen authorities not only to deny the attacks, but to claim, incredibly, that no gay people exist in their province is at best extraordinary and at worst deceitful. We fully endorse Amnesty International’s call to action to protect those at risk in the region, and the UK Government can do more to protect LGBTI people around the world. The Scottish National party manifesto called on the UK Government to establish the position of a special envoy to promote the rights of LGBTI people around the world as an integral part of UK policy. Will the Minister consider that for his party’s forthcoming manifesto? May I also appeal to him and his colleagues to act on our proposals and put all the pressure he can on Chechnya and Russia to stop these abhorrent abuses and the persecution of gay men and the wider LGBT community? We cannot stand idly by and let this happen. Those facing abuse must know that we care and that we are standing up for them.

I am pleased to say that I broadly agree with the hon. Lady and that all that she wishes to see us do is enshrined across the board in our Government policy, including through the Department for International Development, the Home Office and our foreign policy, and so it will remain. In that sense, I think we should all be envoys in what we do internationally. Indeed, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials in Russia regularly meet LGBT activists and attend LGBT events, such as QueerFest and the Side by Side film festival in St Petersburg, so that we can provide visible support. We have also provided support to organisations such as Stonewall and helped to facilitate Sir Ian McKellen’s visit to Russia last year, during which he met LGBT activists in Moscow, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. I think that his powerful messages about UK values resonated, at least with Russia’s next generation.

Is there an element of reversion to type here, in that it was always a feature of totalitarian regimes to vilify minorities as a matter of routine political management? Equally, it was typical of the former Soviet Union to identify any person who posed a political threat, to brand them as gay and to detain them in a mental institution.

Chechnya does, indeed, seem to be the worst of the lot. In that sense, as part of Russia, I urge President Putin to make his views clear by condemning what is going on in Chechnya.

This reminds us that those of us who are gay are phenomenally lucky in this country. I remember meeting an 83-year-old lesbian activist in Russia in 2009. I asked her how she got away with it, and she said, “I think President Putin thinks that women don’t have sex after the age of 80. How wrong can you be?”

The serious point is that we should pay tribute to those who are standing up at the risk of their own lives, and I am glad that the Government are acting on that, but is this not all part of a piece? President Putin appointed Kadyrov as President in Chechnya, and he was elected with 98% of the vote—that does not seem at all bizarre, does it? He and Putin have both repeatedly abused human rights. They have used violence to excess, and they have always resorted to violence, even when they have had the opportunity to use a peaceful means to provide a solution. Will the Government make sure that people who engage in such activity, and those who are involved in the murder of British people working in Russia, do not enter this country?

I think that an 80-year-old activist gives us all a bit of hope in this world. Having just turned 60—

Oh yes, I did—[Interruption]—and I know I do not look it.

Much more seriously, what the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely right. This is part of a wider picture across Russia, although I say again that Chechnya appears to be the worst example. Within the constraints of our ability to influence what happens in any country, we have to speak loudly and collectively, and we must be brave and courageous. At a diplomatic level within the country we will do our utmost to continue to put pressure on the regime and ensure that it understands that in the modern world, this kind of activity is barbaric, and that it can no longer be allowed to continue.

I start by thanking the Minister for his very forceful statement. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I have written to the Russian ambassador. I echo the calls made by other Members today for the UK Government to call in the Russian ambassador and ask him, in particular, what will be done to protect the journalists who were involved in leaking this story. Clearly they, as well as the LGBT community, are now at risk. Finally, have any lessons been learned since the G7, where our Government unfortunately failed to secure sanctions against Syria and Russia, about how to improve co-operation to ensure that action is taken against Chechnya at an international level?

I think the right hon. Gentleman has deviated slightly from the collective tone of the House. As I think he will appreciate, what happened at the G7 was in response to fast-moving events following the gassing of people in Syria.

As I said a moment ago, on the issue of gay rights in Chechnya or, indeed, anywhere else in the world, we need to speak with one voice not only in this House but by working together with other countries and NGOs. We must make sure that the world collectively homes in on the likes of Chechnya, and Russia more generally, and makes it clear that they are completely out of step with the rest of the world and that they will, over time, lose all credibility and become increasingly derided. It is high time for them to grow up and understand what the modern world is all about.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), on exposing the latest manifestation of the barbaric treatment by Russia of the people of Chechnya for over a decade. I pay tribute to Lord Judd, the Council of Europe rapporteur for many years, who reported fearlessly on the terrible things happening in that country. We entirely support the opposition, which should be worldwide, but we should reflect on the fact that this terrible activity is spreading. One reason for that is the fact that there is now less pressure on countries to improve their human rights, because they do not have the incentive of joining the European Union, which demands high standards. We are, sadly, going back to barbaric treatment not just in Chechnya but in many other countries, including Turkey.

I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the noble Lord Judd for all the efforts he has made over the years, but I say again that it is for all of us to work collectively across parties, across countries and across all organisations to ensure that the simple rights for people, which should never be denied them, are upheld in all countries across the world.

Considering how this may be misrepresented abroad, particularly in Russia, is it not important to emphasise that this is first and foremost a matter of human rights, and certainly not a matter confined only to those who happen to be gay? Is it not interesting that this is being discussed 50 years after the House of Commons changed the law on homosexuality? If there is a debate in July near the anniversary of the actual date when the legislation was passed, I would hope to be here—I will certainly do my utmost to be here—to explain why I was pleased to vote for the change in the law. I think I am the only Member who did so now remaining in the House.

The way the hon. Gentleman is going he will be here in another 50 years’ time. He makes a very valid point about the importance of promulgating the truth. When we hear absolute, blatant propaganda, we should not shy away from robustly countering such lies. For instance, Kadyrov’s spokesman has called reports of persecution and murder absolute lies themselves. Indeed, as we heard earlier, he added that “there are no gay men in Chechnya” and that

“You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist”.

Even worse, he went on to say that if they did exist, their own relatives

“would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

It is the use of language like that that appears to condone the outright murder of someone simply because of their sexual orientation. That is utterly unacceptable and condemns them in the eyes of the decent world.

I thank the Minister for his statement. I am delighted to be called to speak. My concern is not just as a member of the LGBTI community, but in the broader sense of the profound impact of social, economic and political impoverishment on all Chechen society. Whether we like it or not, Kadyrov has in some terms the fundamental support of his nation, as a region of the Russian Federation. How we undermine that is through investment in foreign aid to tackle human rights abuses across the world. Will the Minister commit now, on the Floor of the House, that in fighting for LGBTI rights and other human rights in places like Chechnya, his foreign aid budget will not change after the general election?

We should all commit to fighting prejudice wherever we find it. I hope that, in the election on 8 June, that will be one of the views we all hold as we present ourselves to the electorate. The hon. Gentleman raises a deeper point, which is that the House needs to understand foreign affairs, to take an interest and to debate countries such as Chechnya. I hope that early in the next Parliament the opportunity will present itself, so that the arguments we are beginning to hear today can be made even more loudly after 8 June.

The House rightly speaks with one voice in condemning the abhorrent acts in Chechnya, but this is not the first time the Russian Government have been found wanting when it comes to human rights. They need to be constantly reminded that they should honour their international human rights obligations. How can we ensure that other countries are similarly robust in explaining that to the Russian Government, not least because those members of the LGBT community in Chechnya must be feeling so insecure at the moment?

We work through all collective European and other organisations, and, of course, through the United Nations more widely. Because we speak frankly, we have had a rather scratchy relationship with the Russians recently, but we will not shy away from raising these issues both frankly and forcefully. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will maintain a policy of robust engagement with the Russians, and that it will include matters of this sort.

All Glasgow weeps at this news, and when I return there later this afternoon there will be a vigil in George Square at which politicians and ordinary people will express their horror at what is happening in Chechnya.

I must disagree with some of my colleagues, in that I see no need for this matter to be escalated to the Foreign Secretary. I think that the Minister is a very capable Minister, and a deeply thoughtful Minister.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). Is it not time for us to join countries such as Canada in having an envoy on LGBT rights who will report directly to the Prime Minister? I also echo what was said by my hon. Friend from Clydebank and—in the context of the Commonwealth—by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans): now is not the time to cut the foreign aid budget.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words—unusual, I have to say, during this particularly fervent political period, but deeply appreciated nevertheless. I am contemplating their inclusion, in quotation marks, in my election address.

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about an envoy. It is not for me to say what our policy will be on that, but my personal observation is that a dedicated envoy is not always as effective as action by all Ministers across the board, and, indeed, by all Members of Parliament. If that is in the hon. Gentleman’s manifesto, however, we will let the people decide.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on raising this important human rights issue. May I add a word of caution about complacency? We have a united voice in the House of Commons, but when I paid an official visit to part of the European Union, towards the east, I found disturbing evidence of the lingering influence of attitudes of this kind, so we should not be complacent. I was particularly worried when I saw examples of some pretty virulent propaganda in Austria. We should be on our guard wherever this kind of human rights rears its ugly head.

I think we should take those as serious words of wisdom from a senior Member of the House. We must always look at our own supposed allies to make sure that they have not got—let us call them diluted views. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out that Europe, for starters, must be united if we are to make our voice clear and resonant in the wider world.

Having tabled an early-day motion on this very subject earlier in the week, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing the urgent question and to you, Mr Speaker, for permitting it. Will the Government assure us that members of the LGBTI community in Chechnya will be granted asylum in the United Kingdom should they flee and seek refuge on our shores?

I have to tell the hon. Lady that that is primarily a Home Office matter, and a matter for the proper workings of asylum legislation.

In February, the Foreign Secretary announced the £700 million empowerment fund to come from the aid budget to project soft power and human rights. How is that fund being used to promote LGB rights and equal rights campaigners and to support civil society in Chechnya and elsewhere? May I echo the points of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) because the Minister has not yet confirmed the Government’s commitment to the 0.7% aid target? This is precisely a demonstration of why that target is so important.

The hon. Gentleman makes proper reference to the empowerment fund, for which, I understand, bids are currently in play. Given the election, I imagine that that process will be forestalled slightly, but I am confident that within many of those bids there will be programmes designed for the promotion of human rights in many of the countries at which the fund is directing its efforts.

I pay tribute to the amazing work of Yorkshire MESMAC, which is based in Leeds and first brought these appalling abuses to my attention. The abuses are chilling, horrific and evil, but also a clear breach of international law. What discussions has the Minister had not only with EU partners but with the United Nations to look at an initiative to stamp out this appalling persecution, wherever it may happen?

Those discussions take place regularly in all the forums in which we are represented. More often than not, it is the UK that is in the lead in designing initiatives and statements that echo exactly the opinions that the hon. Gentleman just stated.

The appalling treatment that LGBT people face in some countries makes it all the more important that officials here making decisions on sexual orientation-based asylum cases get them 100% correct. Will the Minister at least make representations to the Home Office that no asylum case should ever be refused solely on the basis that a person can return home and hide their sexuality?

I undertake to convey the comments of the hon. Gentleman, and indeed this entire exchange, to the Home Secretary.

Points of order should really be raised after the business question. Does it relate to the urgent question? No. The hon. Gentleman is such a patient fellow. We can always hear from him later. In fact, there will be a great sense of anticipation in the House as to what he is planning to raise.