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Helsinki Agreement: Madrid Conference

Volume 416: debated on Tuesday 20 January 1981

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My Lords, in asking the House for permission to ask this Question may I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, upon his promotion and also say how glad we are that he is still to answer Questions for a time on foreign and Commonwealth matters? My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement on progress at the Madrid Conference on the Helsinki Agreement, particularly on the proposal for a European Conference on disarmament; and whether they will state the attitude of the British delegation towards this proposal.

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for those kind words. The Government support the proposal for a conference on disarmament in Europe tabled at the Madrid meeting on 9th December by France. The proposal envisages initially the negotiation of militarily significant, verifiable and binding confidence-building measures applying to the whole of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals.

My Lords, while very deeply welcoming that reply, may I ask the Minister this: Does he not agree that the session which ended last year was one of criticism, and that the session which will begin next Tuesday will be one of construction? Are there not three proposals for European disarmament: the Warsaw Pact, the French and Yugoslavian? Is he aware of our deep appreciation of the fact that the British Government will support one of those proposals?

My Lords, I think that there were even more proposals along the lines that the noble Lord describes than the three that he referred to. Romania and Sweden also made certain proposals in this connection. As for his suggestion that the first half of the conference was one of criticism, it was hardly our fault if that is what took place. What really happened in Madrid was a review of the implementation of the Final Act by all the participating states, and I am afraid that it was necessary for us to criticise in fairly forthright terms the implementation of the Soviet Union.

My Lords, may I add my own congratulations to those of my noble friend to the noble Lord and hope that he will continue for some time to come to assuage the insatiable curiosity of your Lordships on foreign affairs questions? I have had a little experience of doing what he is doing, as he knows.

May I put these two queries to him? Is he aware that we greatly appreciate his reference to the Swedish and the Romanian proposals in addition to those mentioned by my noble friend? Secondly, is it clear that any move in this direction, which we are glad to see is supported by Her Majesty's Government, will not confuse or cut across the existing talks in Vienna and Geneva on multilateral force reductions and related matters?

My Lords, again may I thank the noble Lord for his kind words? The noble Lord is quite right, these proposals should not cut across initiatives being taken elsewhere. Of course, what were being discussed in Madrid were the measures flowing directly from the Helsinki final accord, and that is quite separate from the MBFR talks in Vienna and the disarmament talks in Geneva.

My Lords, I apologise to the House for intervening once more, but this is very important. May we take it that the Madrid initiative is more or less confined to confidence-building measures, while the extant discussions, which are continuing in Geneva, in Vienna and in the disarmament commission in New York, cover a much wider field?

My Lords, of course the Helsinki final accord deals with matters much wider than just disarmament. There are all sorts of provisions in relation to human rights and other matters, all of which are being considered in Madrid. The disarmament proposals that we are referring to now form just a small part of the total Helsinki package, if I can call it that. I have referred to the specific proposals of France and the other countries which we shall develop and pursue; but of course our main disarmament fora are elsewhere.

My Lords, may I add to the congratulations which have been expressed already to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and wish him well in his new appointment when he takes it up? May I ask him whether he is aware that today is the birthday of the distinguished computer scientist, Anatoly Shcharansky, who is incarcerated in the Perm labour camp, where he is prisoner No. 35? He has been prevented continuously from joining his wife Avital in Israel. Would the noble Lord say what progress has been made in the case of persons such as Anatoly Shcharansky in implementing the family unity provisions of the Helsinki final accord?

My Lords, we are somewhat selective in the specific cases which we raise with the Soviet Union of those people, such as Dr. Shcharansky, whose unfortunate plight is drawn to our attention. In general terms, we have most certainly drawn the Soviet's attention to the appalling decline in the number of Jews who have been granted exit permits from the Soviet Union in recent months. But, as I say, on specific cases we have to be a bit selective, because otherwise our representations would carry less weight.

My Lords, would not the best confidence-building measure be for the Soviet Union to clear out of Afghanistan? Would it not, indeed, be an essential one?

My Lords, it is true that d├ętente, as they say, is not divisible and it seems difficult to imagine how meaningful progress can be made on measures proposed, which relate, perhaps, specifically to Europe, while the Soviet Union remains encamped in Afghanistan.

My Lords, in circumstances of world slump, is not disarmament piling disaster on disaster? Is this not particularly unfair on a new Minister of Defence, whose sole qualification seems to be hope for his success as an abrasive arms salesman?

My Lords, I think that goes rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper. But it is certainly the case that we need to maintain a credible defence posture if we are to have any kind of success in disarmament negotiations.

My Lords, while associating myself completely with the protests about the treatment of dissidents in the Soviet Union, and about the invasion of Afghanistan, may I ask whether the Madrid Conference has not now passed to the position of considering constructive affairs? Will the noble Lord add to his already agreeable Answer by saying whether the Minister will be supporting Malta in its proposal for security in the Mediterranean?

My Lords, I do not have details of the Maltese proposal in front of me, but, like all other proposals, we shall wish to consider that one in the context of what is necessary to maintain our security. That does not mean that we will not look at the proposal with care and urgency. But it is also true, as the noble Lord said, that the next phase of the meeting in Madrid will be to consider the proposals that have been put forward, including in particular, of course, the French proposal which is referred to in the Question.