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Volume 670: debated on Thursday 3 March 2005

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they last discussed the conflict in the Chechen Republic with the Russian Government and what was the outcome.

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government most recently raised the issues facing Chechnya with the Russian Government during Bill Rammell's visit to Moscow on 21 and 22 February to announce the launch of the North Caucasus Education Initiative. As the incoming EU President, we also participated fully in the EU-Russia consultations which took place this week, at which human rights issues in Chechnya were discussed at length.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does she agree that at a time of great preoccupation about global terrorism, there is anxiety that the way in which the Russians are conducting the operation in Chechnya is driving young people and others into the arms of the extremists? The Russians' conduct is recruiting for the extremist cause. Is it not, therefore, crucial to make this a major issue at the most senior levels of government? Would it not be appropriate, as we take the presidency of the European Union and lead the G8 this summer, to ensure that this issue is high on the agenda with our allies and colleagues there so that they can join us in the pressure on the Russians?

Is my noble friend aware that Memorial, one of the most courageous and respected NGOs in Russia, has said that last year in Chechnya 397 people disappeared? They were abducted. In England, proportionately, that figure would be 14,000 to 15,000 people who disappeared in a year. Yet that is a country which claims to be a member of the Council of Europe and to share all its aspirations and objectives.

My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend's opening comments about the way in which ongoing problems in Chechnya to do with militants will have a knock-on effect when it comes to recruiting young people. However, the UK regularly underlines with our Russian partners our conviction that acknowledging and addressing the problem of human rights abuses is an important part of building confidence in a lasting settlement in Chechnya.

My noble friend mentioned the human rights group Memorial. It has suggested that the number of abductions in Chechnya has fallen this year. However, despite that, we believe that the continuing problem of abductions in the region is totally unacceptable.

My Lords, did not the UN Commission on Human Rights, when it looked at this appallingly difficult problem, recognise that there were atrocities on both sides? Would not the balanced view be that while the Chechen people want greater local autonomy, the Russians see this as a hotbed area of A1'Qaeda activity and Islamic extremism, with some evidence to support that, and that if it broke away altogether it would trigger the unravelling of the entire Russian Federation? So is not the right approach to applaud what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, expresses in his concern for human rights but also to recognise the Russian dilemmas and encourage the round-table talks which are proposed to be held in either Moscow or Grozny and support the aim of all sides, including the Russians, to try to resolve this eternally difficult problem in a less violent way?

My Lords, we strongly support the proposed round-table talks. There is evidence to link elements of the militants in Chechnya with parts of Al'Qaeda. The thrust of the noble Lord's contribution is absolutely right. We recognise Russia's genuine security concerns in the region. Terrible terrorist attacks have taken place across Russia and have claimed many lives.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the round table discussions will not be effective unless they genuinely include representatives of Aslan Maskhadov? Is it still the Government's policy to offer asylum to supporters of Maskhadov who seek it in this country?

My Lords, it is not for us to say to whom the Russians should talk. We believe that peace in Chechnya will be secured only through a successful political process that is truly representative of the Chechen people. That further underlines the need for early parliamentary elections in Chechnya. The Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the Chechen separatist government are currently claiming asylum in the UK.

My Lords, will my noble friend and Her Majesty's Government remind the Russian Government of their obligations as members of the Council of Europe? With particular regard to a recent case that was taken to the European Court of Human Rights which found against the Russian Government in six cases of human rights abuses, will Her Majesty's Government remind them that they should fulfil the terms of that court judgment and pay compensation to the Chechen families involved?

Yes, my Lords, we hope that the Russian Government will take this judgment very seriously and act on its findings.

My Lords, will the Government also make representations to the Russian Government that they should not use this as another excuse for further intervention in Georgia? I understand that the Russian Government think that the OSCE border monitoring force over the Pankisi Gorge should be withdrawn but also that the Pankisi Gorge is being used by Chechen separatists and therefore wish to have joint patrols with the Georgian Government on Georgian territory.

My Lords, we are continually concerned about the possibility of problems in Chechnya spilling over into the North Caucasus region. The noble Lord talked about Georgia, and, on the Caucasus region generally, it is important to have fair and transparent political processes as the ultimate goal because we do not believe that military intervention is the answer.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a meeting of the All-Party Group on Human Rights under the chairmanship of Ms Ann Clwyd, MP, heard on Tuesday from a group of Russian lawyers and NGOs about the extreme difficulty that they have in raising human rights violations in Chechnya? Will the Government urge the Russians to sign up to the UN Commission on Human Rights' remit of inviting all the Special Procedures to visit Russia at their discretion, particularly the Working Group on Disappearances?

My Lords, we continue to be committed to co-operating with the Russians to generate concrete solutions to the human rights and socio-economic issues facing Chechnya and the wider region.