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Azerbaijan: Human Rights

Volume 532: debated on Thursday 21 November 1991

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10.45 p.m.

rose to ask her Majesty's Government whether they will take any action about human rights violations in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Shaumyan region of Azerbaijan.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am most grateful to have this opportunity to raise the issue of the grave violations of human rights in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. I am also particularly indebted to noble Lords who will be speaking in this short debate, so very late at night, on a subject which is so remote and yet of immense human significance.

Perhaps I may first express my profound sympathy for the people of Azerbaijan in their grief over the tragedy of the helicopter crash in Nagorno-Karabakh last night, and also my personal sorrow as I believe that I may have had the privilege of knowing some of those on board.

It may be helpful if I set the scene in general terms, and then offer your Lordships an account of the current situation and conclude with a request to Her Majesty's Government to consider ways in which they may be able to assist in the alleviation of suffering and the termination of bloodshed.

Your Lordships will be aware that both man and nature seem to have conspired to inflict agony on the people of Armenia: from the genocide of 1915 to the atrocities of Sumgait and the earthquake in 1988, from which people are still suffering. But that suffering has been compounded in recent months as Armenians living in and around Nagorno-Karabakh have been subjected to brutal assaults and enforced deportations by the Azerbaijani authorities. The region is populated mainly by Armenians, but was transferred by Stalin to Azerbaijan in the early 1920s.

The area has a history of tragic deportations and of conflict. Sometimes the deportations have occurred, and are occurring, in circumstances of great cruelty, sometimes following natural tragedy such as after the earthquake. Conflict has involved both the Armenians and Azeris. I am not attempting to judge history, but as a representative of the Andrei Sakharov International Human Rights Congress, I and my colleagues followed in the footsteps of a man who was always on the side of the victim, and our concern now is for the victims suffering in that area today.

I have visited the area three times in the past six months —twice with the Andrei Sakharov Foundation and on the third occasion with Christian Solidarity International, a non-sectarian human rights and humanitarian organisation. I must emphasise that I and my colleagues went with no prejudice or preconceptions. We were determined to hear both the Armenian and Azerbaijani viewpoints.

I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I offer some details, because it has been so difficult for anyone to obtain the evidence we were able to obtain. Our first visit began in Armenia. We visited 15 different sites and received first-hand evidence from Armenians who had been recently forcibly and brutally deported from their homelands in Azerbaijan—from Getashen and Martunashen, and from the Berdadzor region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Those deportations were fearsome operations. The pattern was always the same. Vulnerable defenceless mountain villages were surrounded first by heavy military equipment —tanks, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters of the Soviet 4th Army—under the pretext of passport or weapons checks. Then the Azerbaijani Black Beret OMON troops would move in, attack, intimidate and forcibly remove the inhabitants, committing atrocities in the process. I shall never forget talking to an elderly woman whose husband had been paralysed for 10 years. When the OMON ordered him to leave and he could not move, they shot him in the legs, dragged her away, leaving him wounded. Or the young pregnant woman whose husband, when he tried to help her as she was being beaten by the OMON, was shot in the mouth by a machine gun in front of her. I could give many more examples.

We talked also to desperate Armenians whose relatives had been taken hostage by the Azeris and who were being tortured in prison. We saw the evidence of maltreatment on the bodies of two Armenian doctors who had been taken prisoner by the Azeris while trying to help in Getashen.

As we were committed also to hearing the Azeri viewpoint, we tried on that occasion in May to visit Azerbaijan. That was not made easy. We were refused permission to fly to Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh. The Azeri authorities said we could only come via Tbilisi; two of our colleagues tried to do so but could not reach Baku. Some of the rest of us in desperation walked across the border, despite the shelling, with a white flag and took evidence from the Azerbaijani OMON and local villagers.

Our conclusions were that there was clearly some two-way fighting, but there was great asymmetry in terms of arms and human rights violations. For example, at the place where I walked over the border —at Voskepar—on the Armenian side, there were no Soviet armed forces, no OMON equivalent and no militia. The Armenian militia had been assassinated or taken hostage in a cross-border attack by the Azeris. The village was completely vulnerable. On the Azeri side, we met well-armed OMON, bristling with machine guns, and saw a Soviet army headquarters and local militia. There is some armed retaliation by Armenians, largely in self-defence or in an attempt to regain lost villages and lost territory. Our unanimous conclusion after the visit in May was that, in terms of human rights violations, in the brutal deportations of innocent villagers from the lands of their ancestors, and in the maltreatment of hostages in prison, the Armenians were certainly the primary victims.

On our visit in July, we began in Azerbaijan, in a determined attempt to do justice to the Azeri viewpoint. We were received by President Mutalibov and given assistance in reaching Stepanakert, for which we are grateful. But we were denied access to the areas we most wanted to visit. My noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a member of this delegation, will describe our experiences and conclusions from that visit.

I undertook a third visit in October. This was particularly useful, as I was due the following week to give evidence to a Congressional CSCE human rights hearing in Washington and to the Canadian Government's External Affairs Committee, in Ottawa. On that third visit we especially wished to visit Nagorno Karabakh and the neighbouring Shaumyan region of Azerbaijan to assess human rights violations since the communiqué signed by the presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia on 23rd September.

On 16th October we flew from Yerevan to Shaumyan by helicopter to visit the villages of Karachinar, Buzluk and Verishen. Karachinar is a village under repeated attacks. Some 36 people have been killed there in the past month; four died in one truck on 3rd October. There is daily shelling. The numbers of shells range from two to 280 a day. Many houses are damaged or destroyed. Just four to five days before our visit, an OMON helicopter landed. Two people were killed and three wounded, including a child. Buzluk is a village which had suffered deportation on 13th to 15th July. The village is now virtually a ghost village. In the graveyard tombs have been desecrated, with marble slabs removed and/or defaced. Three reasons were suggested for this: the theft of marble for building materials; the removal of evidence of an Armenian presence and to insult and humiliate the Armenians.

One grave of a newly buried man, killed on the first night of the attack by the Azeris, had been exhumed by the Azeris who removed the new clothes in which the body was dressed and his gold teeth. We spoke to his father who showed us his home which had been stripped of belongings. Virtually all he had left to face the winter was a pile of walnuts and a few apples. He insisted on giving us three of those apples.

The village was retaken by Armenians on 14th September. One family was seen returning, but life will be very difficult for deportees as they have lost virtually everything and have been unable to harvest crops due to constant sniping. They will therefore need a great deal of aid. Verishen is a village attacked by Azeris on 14th July. It was retaken by Armenians on 14th September and is now being rebuilt. In this district, five Armenian villages have suffered brutal deportations. Two have since been retaken by Armenians.

We spent the night in Karachinar, with the sound of constant machine-gun fire. In the morning we visited more homes damaged by artillery shelling from the Azeri area of Shefek, including one house devastated on 10th October. On that night four people died from shelling.

We then flew by helicopter to Stepanakert. We visited the hospital and saw wounded civilians. There were two men both aged 27, who had been stopped by Azeri OMON while driving a tractor and shot; one in the spine, the other in the thigh. Both wounds could have been fatal. We saw an 18 year-old woman from Mardakert region, who, on the night of 1st and 2nd October, when the OMON attacked her village—killing six men and burning houses and wounding many people—fled to the forest and hid for three days. She became very ill and was admitted to hospital. Her baby was dead. She developed brain damage and needed brain surgery but it was impossible to bring in a neurosurgeon from Armenia because Stepanakert airport was closed by the Azeris to flights from Armenia. We also saw a 12 year-old boy, shot through the chest at school in Stepanakert on 9th October.

On 19th October we visited the adjacent Azeri/Armenian villages at Kirkejan, which suffer from frequent sniping. On the Azeri side, a militia major talked about Azeris' love of peace; he gave no evidence of specific attacks by Armenians. On the Armenian side, we met an elderly man who pointed to a tree 80 yards away where two boys had been shot at by Azeris in the past 24 hours. In that village the 12 year-old boy we saw in hospital had also been shot The Azeris had cut off the water supply so villagers have to go down to the river to collect water, which is dirty. We also talked to the Soviet MVD colonel who seemed sincere about his peace-keeping role, in the last two days he had arrested four armed Azeris and he claims that if fighting starts from either side they counter-attack immediately.

Finally, some of the delegation visited Tuk in the Gadrut region for the tragic funeral of five members of one family, including a 5 year-old child, who had been shot and mutilated with knives in their own home on the night of 16th and 17th October.

I now turn to four conclusions and to a few recommendations. First, the conclusions. The policy of systematic deportations of whole Armenian villages, in combined operations of Soviet Army and Azeri OMON troops, appear recently to have been suspended. There also appears to be a tendency toward s greater neutrality by the Soviet troops, which is to be welcomed. Those are both positive findings. However, there are reports of increased shootings and kidnappings by both sides.

Several hundred Armenians are still in detention in Azeri prisons, where they are denied basic legal rights and subjected to maltreatment, including torture. Families of prisoners are often given no information concerning their whereabouts or health and they are not allowed legal defence. Many of those arrested have disappeared.

Our final conclusion was that Stepanakert airport remained under the control of Azeri troops, reportedly the previous OMON troops renamed "transport police". I understand that it is still closed to flights from Yerevan. The implications are immensely serious in terms of supplies of food and medicine, as well as the free flow of civilian travel.

The first recommendations put forward by our delegation relate to those agreed by the four presidents in their communiqué on 23rd September. We argue that they need to be fulfilled as a matter of great urgency. I refer particularly to the return of deportees to their villages, with suitable protection and assistance to re-establish life in the face of problems associated with the destruction of their homes and the loss of belongings, crops and livestock.

As regards the cease-fire, the activities of all paramilitary groups should cease and the troops of the Soviet Interior Ministry should enforce peace. The third recommendation of the agreed communiqué was that all remaining hostages must be freed and all prisoners must be accorded the full protection of legal rights. Finally, normal functioning of transport and communication systems must be restored as a matter of urgency, especially the reopening of Stepanakert airport to flights from Yerevan and of the road from Goris to Stepanakert.

Our delegation had one or two further recommendations, President Gorbachev should issue a decree to re-establish democratic local government and civil administration in Nagorno-Karabakh. That must come from him because it was President Gorbachev who issued the earlier decree to dissolve the previous democratic administration.

We also recommend that there should he free access to prisons by governmental and independent human rights organisations. We recommend that Western aid should be directed to the republics direct and made conditional on the fulfilment of human rights criteria and that those conditions should be monitored by independent bodies.

We recommend that an international peace-keeping force—for example, a United Nations force—should be deployed. It is worth noting that the President of Armenia himself, whom we had the privilege of meeting, as well as local people, specifically requested this.

Finally, we recommend that aid should be made available directly to Nagorno-Karabakh for both Armenian and Azeri communities.

I conclude by highlighting the fact that the situation in the region is extremely serious, with widespread suffering resulting from human rights violations. While some improvements can be welcomed, other developments are a cause for increasing concern. There is a fear that the situation could deteriorate to wholesale war, which would have repercussions far beyond the region. The need for a constructive initiative is therefore urgent and imperative.

Perhaps I may therefore ask my noble friend the Minister whether the Government can give an assurance that no aid will be given without a clear understanding that the receiving government will protect human rights. Perhaps I may also ask him whether our Government can use their influence to ensure that international recognition, for example in the form of acceptance by the United Nations, is also conditional on fulfilment of fundamental human rights criteria.

With regard to the issues that we are considering here tonight, President Mutalibov should be encouraged to fulfil the recommendations of the communiqué that he has signed. That would help to bring about a cessation of bloodshed of innocent civilians. If Armenia were to engage in military activity beyond that justified by self-defence, similar considerations should apply. However, as I indicated at the outset, and conclude by emphasising, our perception is that at present the Armenians are the major victims. Urgent measures need to be taken to bring about a cessation of human rights violations currently causing incalculable suffering to innocent inhabitants, both Armenian and Azeri, of a beautiful but tragic land.

11 p.m.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Cox mentioned, I was privileged to accompany the second international Sakharov memorial delegation to Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia which was led by my noble friend.

The timing of our visit was perhaps fortunate because we asked for visas to visit Nagorno-Karabakh from July 13th to 16th this year when President Gorbachev was in London. It may have been his hopeful presence at the G7 talks here that encouraged our Soviet and Azerbaijani hosts to let us go into areas of Nagorno-Karabakh where no foreigner had been for 70 years.

Our delegation consisted of members from the United States, Japan, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, all of whom were experienced in human rights matters. We concluded unanimously that grave violations of human rights were occurring, particularly through forced deportations of entire Armenian villages in Nagorno-Karabakh, and through the brutal detention of Armenians in Azerbaijani-controlled prisons. We also concluded unanimously that in this terrible work the Azerbaijanis were supported and often led by Soviet troops whose actions appeared to be at least condoned by the Kremlin itself. Indeed, when my noble friend Lady Cox and I saw Chairman Lukianov of the Supreme Soviet on 17th July, he did not attempt to deny that.

Despite the fact that our Azerbaijani hosts prevented us from seeing the villages that we most wanted to see, we were certainly able to see massive Soviet and Azerbaijani forces ranged against the wretched Armenian villages. By contrast, our Armenian hosts went out of their way to show us everything that we asked to see and clearly answered our questions as honestly as they could.

In case anyone should accuse us of Christian bias towards the Armenian cause in this tragic affair, as the Azerbaijanis have in their national press, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that in a recent debate in the House I strongly supported the case for Moslem schools to be given equal status with Christian and other schools in our state system of education. For many other reasons with which I need not trouble your Lordships at this late hour, I really cannot be accused of any pro-Christian or anti-Moslem bias.

Things have changed in the Soviet Union since I was last in Nagorno-Karabakh and it is good to hear my noble friend Lady Cox say that Soviet involvement there is now more even-handed than it was in July. Nevertheless, a large preponderance of Azerbaijani over Armenian armed forces must remain and we must do what we can to ensure that the situation does not escalate to the point where a final solution is imposed on Nagorno-Karabakh by its much stronger neighbour. In that, we are perhaps not as powerless as we may fear. After all, President Mutalibov of Azerbaijan signed a joint communiqué on 23rd September which, among other things, guaranteed human rights in the region. President Mutalibov wants two things from the international community. He wants recognition and he wants aid.

Perhaps I may therefore join my noble friend Lady Cox in suggesting to Her Majesty's Government that our recognition of and aid to Azerbaijan should be dependent upon full respect for human rights in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and in the Shaumyan district of Azerbaijan. They should also be conditional upon Azerbaijan re-opening the lines of communication and supply to the enclave, particularly of medical supplies, so that foreign observers may enter more easily than we could and so that the fast deteriorating standard of life of the villagers may be somewhat alleviated.

I also venture to suggest to the Government that this is an important test case for our aid to other emerging republics in what used to be the Soviet Union, where many other ethnic difficulties are escalating. If they can apply the kind of pressures that we are suggesting, not only will the extraordinary courage shown by my noble friend Lady Cox in leading these dangerous missions not go to waste but the long suffering Armenian people may at least receive some of the justice which they so richly deserve.

11.6 p.m.

My Lords, I wish very briefly to support my noble friend Lady Cox. I honour her and my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch for their courageous investigation of the situation on the ground. She has spoken so eloquently and movingly and from such unique first-hand experience that I shall not attempt to enlarge on the iniquity of what is going on but confine myself to her recommendations for action.

In Africa and the developing world it is already accepted that development aid is indeed linked in the minds of the donor countries with evidence that the client country is working towards good standards for its citizens in terms on the one hand of sound economic practices and on the other of a good record in human rights. It seems to me that those are proper criteria to apply to Azerbaijan also if it wants aid. However, I believe that Azerbaijan, when it applied for international recognition in the shape of membership of the UN, was told that it must secure nomination by a UN country and the support of several others before its entry could be considered.

In my view we should do nothing to encourage any further fissiparous tendencies in the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan is a signatory to the economic treaty. Despite its approaches to Turkey and Iran for recognition and its efforts to secure control over all the armed forces and equipment on its territory, it still remains an integral and important part of the central state. The mission which Boris Yeltsin and the president of Kazakhstan led to Baku in late September to reconcile the two republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan, was a serious attempt to settle a very serious internal border dispute, one of the many deep rooted conflicts which Stalin's policies left behind, to say nothing of the religious confrontation.

I hate and reject the excesses which the central government earlier allowed the Omon and Speznast troops to perpetrate, but I believe that there is a serious effort now on the part of both Bakatin, the new head of the KGB, and Shaposhnikov, the Minister of Defence, to curb the activities of these units and for the army proper to act as a genuine peacekeeper in frontier disputes. We must remember that this is not a familiar role for them.

My noble friend's own observation of the more rational behaviour of the USSR troops seems to support what I have said. I am sure that Mr. Shevardnadze will also use his influence for peace as far as he can. In those circumstances we should, first, in no way support any bid for international recognition by Azerbaijan on any conditions whatever; and, secondly, give no aid to the republic directly or indirectly without exacting an end to the inhuman behaviour which has characterised Azerbaijan's approach to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

I wish that I could argue, as does my noble friend, for a UN peacekeeping force, but I do not believe it to be feasible. The UN's resources are overstretched already and it seems doubtful whether it can even effectively discharge its responsibilities in Iraq. I see no prospect whatever for a UN presence in Azerbaijan, even in the unlikely event that the Russians would invite it. Were it ever to become a serious proposition, it would, I fear, only add one more intolerable straw to break the camel's back of our inadequate defence capability should we be required to contribute to the UN force.

I am in no doubt, however, that we should continue our longstanding and honourable policy of exerting all possible political pressure open to us with the Russian Government and with Mr Gorbachev, expeditiously to settle the serious internal dispute in such a way as to offer effective protection to the suffering population. The way in which they handle this will say much about their ability or otherwise to control internal strife and to provide viable and lasting political solutions to their problems. This was one of the issues which engaged Sakharov himself in his last days. That for me is a powerful argument for the need to use our own undoubted influence for the restoration of human rights in Nagorno-Karabakh.

11.10 p.m.

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for initiating this debate on a subject which has held our attention for some years, and for her well-informed speech based on her courageous travels throughout the area. She has been well supported by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth.

The clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan, mainly over Nagorno-Karabakh, is one of the consequences of the radical change in the policies and structure of the USSR, now to be called the Union of Sovereign States. The collapse of Communism released latent forces of nationalism in those so-called republics which had been ruled and controlled ruthlessly by Lenin and Stalin and later by Brezhnev for a period of over 70 years. The collapse of centralised power has uncovered the divisions and hostilities which have always existed between some of the old Soviet nations. The new USS has huge and daunting problems to solve and this conflict is not the least of them.

It would be easy to blame President Gorbachev for these dangerous developments, but I refrain from doing so. He is the product of the system which created this awful dilemma, but he introduced glasnost, the catalyst which gives Russia and eastern Europe the opportunity to create free and democratic countries. There are religious and cultural divisions between Armenia and Azerbaijan—as the two noble Baronesses and the noble Lord pointed out—and when the Communists redrew the boundaries of the old Tsarist empire they did so with total disregard for history, or for the feelings of the people.

Nagorno-Karabakh is the product of that monumental mess-up. The intermittent fighting which has gone on over the years has cost hundreds of lives and led to thousands of refugees seeking asylum. We remember the earthquake in Armenia in December 1988. One would have thought that the disaster would have brought the two peoples together, but sadly it left them as divided as ever and compounded the refugee problem.

The noble Baroness has set the scene and described the current position in some detail. I shall not weary the House at this hour by repeating what she said. The August coup has further complicated matters. Armenia has declared its independence; Azerbaijan's political position is highly explosive, while Nagorno-Karabakh has declared itself an Armenian Republic.

I have read Amnesty International's report about serious breaches of human rights in Azerbaijan over the past few days. The noble Baroness referred to those and has given us some harrowing examples. It calls for an enquiry into the ill-treatment of civilians by law enforcement officers, although they report that criminal proceedings have been instigated against about 64 people. The evidence collected by Amnesty International to support the charges of ill-treatment is impressive and it calls for action to be taken by the authorities.

However, things are moving so rapidly in the former Soviet territories that it is difficult to keep up with events. Furthermore, it appears that President Gorbachev and his Government are no longer in effective control of developments in this area and elsewhere. We know that President Yeltsin and Mr Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan have arranged a meeting between the community leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh. This initiative is to be welcomed as it seems that these are the first direct talks ever held involving the two republics. A peace plan was agreed with a ceasefire, referred to by the noble Baroness, the disarmament of all local militia and their removal from Nagorno by January. There was also a commitment to hold further talks. Unhappily, the fighting has continued unabated. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us about the possibility of further talks. What seems to be essential as a first step is the protection of the Armenian majority in Nagorno and a guarantee of their full civil rights.

We fully support the Government in their call that all parties should refrain from intimidation and violence and to act in accordance with the principles of CSCE. The noble Baroness has made a number of recommendations which the Government will need to consider carefully. There is a limit to what Britain can do alone but there are lessons to be learnt from this and other areas of violence and conflict. The most important lesson is that NATO should be retained as the guarantor and protector of peace in Europe, and further that CSCE should be strengthened as a mechanism for drawing the countries of Eastern Europe step by step into the European security structure. Does not the Minister agree that the longstanding dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is one problem which should be referred to the CSCE's Conflict Resolution Centre?

Furthermore, this is a move which should be discussed forthwith with the two presidents; President Gorbachev and President Yeltsin. Whether this is a case for reference to the UN is another matter for consideration in due course. However, it is encouraging to know that the attitude of the USS is more even-handed than it has been for some time.

Finally, I commend the interest shown by the noble Baroness in a number of humanitarian relief programmes to different countries. She has visited this region three times in six months. We are grateful to her for drawing our attention to this particularly sad and intransigent conflict in which so many people have died and suffered. The terrible tragedies that she has described continue. We hope that her appeal tonight will help to ameliorate this grim and unhappy situation.

11.17 p.m.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Cox for bringing this important issue before the House. I also thank other noble Lords who even at this late hour have participated in the debate. My noble friends Lady Cox and Lord Pearson have described the situation clearly and poignantly. There is, indeed, serious cause for concern over the continuing human rights violations in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Shaumyan region of Azerbaijan.

The roots of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh are deep. The position on the ground today is complicated. Given the remoteness of the area and poor lines of communication, it is difficult to get a full picture of exactly what is happening.

We are, therefore, particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Cox for briefing us on the results of her three fact-finding missions to the area over the past seven months. These have proved invaluable in focusing public attention on one of the world's lesser-known flashpoints. That is an important service. I express my admiration of her courage in pursuing such missions. All were undertaken at not inconsiderable personal risk. My noble friend Lord Pearson shared those risks on one expedition.

I am sure your Lordships will understand that our room for manoeuvre and our influence over events in this area are extremely limited. Nevertheless, we have been making our concerns known about human rights violations in Nagorno-Karabakh for some time. We have urged repeatedly the Soviet authorities to preserve law and order in an evenhanded way. We have urged both central and republican authorities to refrain from policies of intimidation and violence, to respect the rights of ethnic minorities and to act in accordance with CSCE principles.

We have urged all to resolve the dispute through serious and peaceful negotiations. We shall continue to do so. Nor have we been idle when suitable opportunities for raising these concerns have presented themselves. In recent months we have taken a number of specific initiatives to draw attention to human rights violations in the region. In July, we and our EC partners activated the CSCE "human dimension mechanism" on the situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan, expressing our anxieties and asking the Soviet authorities for detailed information.

In September at the CSCE Conference on the Human Dimension in Moscow, the leader of the British delegation raised in plenary session the issue of human rights violations in the Transcaucasus. He called for CSCE principles to be upheld, and for the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh to be resolved through dialogue, not violence.

In his speech at the opening of the conference, the Foreign Secretary went out of his way to make clear that the West's dealings with each Soviet republic would depend heavily on their respect for human rights and the rule of law. He referred to the need to ensure the rights of minorities in accordance with the Paris Charter. He spoke very bluntly. He said in so many words that republics which used violence to suppress dissent would find the West's reaction ungenerous and unwelcome.

At short notice, the Armenian President Mr. Ter Petrosian transited at Heathrow last Saturday. He held talks with a senior Foreign Office official at the airport. We used that opportunity to stress our support for the present negotiations, and urged that the Armenians do all they can to facilitate an end to the bloodshed and bring about a peaceful solution.

As my noble friend Lady Cox has reported, violence is continuing in the region. We are encouraged by her observation that Soviet troops, isolated incidents excepted, are now adopting a neutral peace-keeping role, and that apparently the systematic Azerbaijani policy of deportation has ended. We are also encouraged by the decision of the presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan to mediate in this dispute.

We welcome the signing of a joint communiqué between them and the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Zheleznovodsk on 23rd September. In brief, the sides agreed the following: an immediate ceasefire; before 1st January 1992 the repeal of all unconstitutional enactments concerning Nagorno-Karabakh, the restoration of constitutional bodies and the withdrawal of all armed forces except Soviet troops; the return of deportees; the release of hostages; bilateral talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan; and a working group of observers including Russian and Kazakh representatives to co-ordinate action and prepare proposals for subsequent stages of conflict settlement.

Some illegal local armed forces have not respected the ceasefire. However, talks have begun, and Russian and Kazakh observers are in place.

At the last meeting on 7th November, there were practical results on paper at least. The two sides signed a seven point protocol identifying the major issues to be resolved. Those included questions of border security, gas supplies and air traffic. It was also agreed to exchange lists of hostages and missing persons. Delegation leaders assured journalists afterwards that they believe the situation in the conflict zone could be normalised.

Given the emotions involved, we cannot expect the negotiating process to be smooth. However, we do not doubt the commitment of the Russian, Kazakh and Armenian authorities to search for a peaceful settlement to the dispute. It offers a ray of hope for basic human rights and freedoms in this troubled area.

We shall watch closely the progress made towards implementation of the Zheleznovodsk communiqué. In particular we shall pay attention to the recommendations for future action being prepared by the Russian and Kazakh observers. We wish them well in this difficult and important task.

My noble friends Lady Cox, Lord Pearson and Lady Park raised specific questions on whether recognition and aid are dependent on human rights performance. Recognition of the independence of republics depends on whether they meet well-established criteria for recognition. We will consider recognition on a case-by-case basis. However, it would be premature to recognise either Armenia or Azerbaijan as independent while they are still discussing with the centre and other republics the form of their future relationships.

Not to recognise a republic's independence solely on the grounds of its human rights record would deny us an opportunity to press for improvements. But republics should be in no doubt that our relations will depend on their respect for democratic principles, including their human rights performance: independence does not give them a blank cheque.

Our willingness to give political and economic support to republics is naturally influenced by their human rights record. But humanitarian and medical aid may be needed over the winter in all the republics. It would not be in the interests of the needy to delay its provision.

The question of a United Nations peacekeeping force was brought up. I confirm what my noble friend Lady Park said, that the establishment of a UN peacekeeping force is a matter for the UN Security Council. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh a request would have to come from the Soviet Union, of which the two republics concerned are constituent parts. The Security Council may consider that it should not involve itself in what is essentially at present a domestic matter.

In the light of the report of my noble friend Lady Cox and the Zheleznovodsk communiqué we have asked our embassy to express to the Azerbaijani and Armenian missions in Moscow our support for the present attempts at resolving the dispute and our continuing concern over human rights violations. Any embassy representatives visiting the region in forthcoming months will take similar action.

With the kind agreement of my noble friend Lady Cox we are sending copies of her excellent report to EC and NATO allies, informing them of the action Britain is taking and encouraging them to do likewise.

There are up to 120 different ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. The potential scope for ethnic rivalry and communal violence across a vast area of the world is immense. The consequences beyond the Soviet Union's borders of spreading conflict within and between Soviet republics would be very serious, to say the least.

At this point I should mention what the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition brought up. He asked about CSCE involvement. The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe is concerned with human rights issues. The participating states have undertaken to respect the rights of their citizens. As far as the Trans-Caucasus is concerned this commitment has been made by the central Soviet authorities in Moscow. We have already invoked the human dimension mechanism with them, as I have said. Unfortunately the mechanism does not allow us to apply direct pressure on republican authorities.

The recent CSCE decision on the human dimension agreed procedures for states to call on impartial experts to observe respect for human rights and, if need be, to offer advice or good offices in resolving the situation. These procedures are not yet in force. The international panel is still being nominated, and the Soviet Union will be able to invite CSCE observers to Nagorno-Karabakh once the new procedure is up and running.

I must agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, that President Gorbachev cannot be fully blamed for the troubles in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is indeed a problem brought about by historical border delineations. He also read Amnesty International's report on human rights in the area, and we are concerned at the abuses detailed therein.

The disintegration of the old order in the Soviet Union, perhaps the end of the union itself, has so far been achieved with astonishingly little bloodshed. The one really serious exception is the violence in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is setting an entirely undesirable precedent. We intend to do what we can to see this very difficult and worrying problem solved peacefully.