Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the future role of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in the light of the continued conflict in the east of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation.
My Lords, I declare at the outset that I have the privilege of leading the UK delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and am a vice-president of that Assembly. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, and 10 other colleagues from the other place are members of the delegation.
In 2012, in Questions for Short Debate about Her Majesty’s Government’s view of the role of the OSCE and, in November 2013, about their hopes and priorities for the Helsinki+40 process, I raised the whole question of the OSCE. I ask this further question as circumstances have changed and because there is, even in Parliament, a lack of awareness of the OSCE, what it does and the complex and varied issues with which it is concerned in some of the most troubled parts of its region.
It is difficult to get attention. I failed abysmally with even our own The House magazine, and in two long debates in your Lordships’ House on the UK’s international relations post-Brexit and our future engagement with the UN and US, I could not find a single reference to the OSCE. I know that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, who as a Minister had the misfortune to reply to my two previous Questions, are well aware of the activities of the OSCE. For the record, though, I would like to state that the OSCE region comprises 57 states stretching from the United States and Canada in the west to Mongolia in the East. The chairmanship rotates among the participating states, currently Austria, and the meetings are chaired by that country’s Foreign Minister. There are also relationships with other Asian and Mediterranean partners not within the organisation itself.
The Permanent Council, comprising the ambassadors of the participating states, meets weekly in Vienna, as does the Forum for Security Co-operation. There are three major institutions: the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Representative on Freedom of the Media. The annual report of 2015—the 2016 report is not yet available—listed 17 field missions or operations including four in the western Balkans, one in Ukraine with a special monitoring mission alongside the observer mission at Russian checkpoints, and another seven in the Caucasus and Eurasia. All these missions or project offices deal with a wide variety of issues: anti-terrorism, anti-trafficking of people measures, building democratic institutions, training police and judiciary, human rights and much more. Within the secretariat, the conflict prevention centre is the link with the field missions charged with early warning of potential conflicts in any participating state.
At the Dublin ministerial in December 2012, there was much optimism. The then chairman-in-office from Ireland spoke of setting out a clear path from then until 2015 for work that would significantly strengthen the organisation. That enthusiasm was shared by the then UK Foreign Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond, when he said that a key outcome of the 2012 Ministerial Council was an,
“agreement on a new initiative designed to inject a fresh dynamic into the OSCE as we approach the 40th anniversary”.
In 2015 the OSCE did indeed mark 40 years of the Helsinki accord, which was drawn up to establish a new security order for the region and agreed standards governing not only relations between states but the treatment of states by their own people. Sadly, by then those agreed standards, which had already been weakened by events in Georgia, were shattered by the Russian annexation of Crimea and support for separatist movements in east Ukraine. Moreover, there is no sign that the Russian Federation is going to change its approach to Ukraine despite the sanctions, and the situation is in danger of joining the other frozen conflicts in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova and Transnistria. In all these cases the Russian Federation is an essential part of any solution.
The need for consensus in OSCE severely restricts the organisation’s ability to act. In the very short term it could find four major posts falling vacant. The Secretary-General is retiring, as is the director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. There is no High Commissioner for National Minorities, in that there has been no agreement on either appointment or replacement. The mandate for the Representative on the Freedom of the Media expires this month. There are problems with extending the mandate for the mission in Armenia, and the mandate for the mission in Tajikistan expires in June. Further, there is no budget for 2017. In the light of President Trump’s remarks about “America first” and the funding of the UN, does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have confirmation that the United States, which is the largest contributor followed by the United Kingdom, is going to continue its support for the organisation? In our new global future outside the European Union, are we prepared to make sure that the OSCE has the resources to operate?
The organisation experiences practical difficulties due to its lack of legal personality. How do Her Majesty’s Government see these issues developing in the situation in Ukraine? Are there further steps that we as the United Kingdom could take, especially given the importance of the City to the Russian Federation? Questions remain unanswered about the extension of the special monitoring mission in Ukraine and the possibility of a much-discussed police mission. Do we acknowledge that our zero-increase policy towards the budget may have to be revised? While we all favour money being spent on the ground and not on administration, the missions in Ukraine alone have created additional needs.
In replying to the debate in 2012, the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, referred to our funding of 48 national secondees and contracted staff. Can the Minister tell us what our present contribution to the organisation is in that area? The western Balkans, a region that the UK has historically backed for a future within the European Union, gives cause for concern. The alleged coup in Montenegro, political instability in other states, and the somewhat ambiguous position taken by Serbia towards Kosovo and its links with Russia are all matters of concern. Our decision to leave the European Union has been a disappointment not only to many of us but to those countries, and while the Prime Minister has assured us that we will continue with our involvement, important and specific work is being done by the OSCE, so an assurance of backing for this work, if necessary with resources, would be welcome.
Lastly, perhaps I may say a word about the Parliamentary Assembly. In January 2012, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said:
“We regret that there is on occasion a degree of rivalry between the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE’s secretariat as such and we would very much like to see the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE secretariat working more closely together”.—[Official Report, 16/1/12; col. 422.]
Since January 2016, when Mr Roberto Montella assumed the office of Secretary-General, there has been a dramatic and welcome change, not only in the relations between the Parliamentary Assembly and the secretariat but between the Assembly and the institutions of OSCE, particularly the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Members from different delegations pay tribute to Mr Montella in helping to bring about this change.
I thank the UK permanent representative, Sian MacLeod, who is also playing an important part not only as the chair of the Human Dimension Committee this year but in bringing members of the Permanent Council and the Parliamentary Assembly together. The Parliamentary Assembly is considering ways in which it can support—not, I emphasise, control—and remained informed about the work of the institutions and field missions, and build a long-term relationship with them, to the advantage of both. Members of the Assembly are committed to playing a role in trying to encourage dialogue and increase understanding. Immediately after the attempted coup, as a gesture of support, current President Muttonen took a small group to Turkey’s elected Government to stress the need to maintain all the democratic norms and rule of law in the face of such provocation.
Members from different delegations have had discussions with representatives of Uzbekistan to encourage them to renew participation in the Assembly and OSCE, which appears to have been successful, at least in regard to the Assembly. The Assembly is meeting in Belarus, which, despite some current problems, will present a further opportunity for contact and dialogue. I hope the Minister will feel able to give encouragement to this parliamentary diplomacy, which many in the Assembly believe is an important part of our role in addition to, not instead of, the important election-monitoring activity. In connection with that, I must pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, although she is not here this afternoon, for her record in undertaking so many of these monitoring missions over so many years.
I look forward to the contributions from other noble Lords and the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on securing this debate and introducing it so ably. It is pity that there seem to be as many chiefs as Indians speaking in it; I seem to be the only speaker who has no direct connection to the organisation. I speak mainly as someone who has worked a lot on Russia and its relationship with Ukraine.
The relationship between Russia and Ukraine is tangled and fraught wherever one looks. Even the Eurovision Song Contest has become embroiled. This year it is to be held in Ukraine. The Russian contestant, Yuliya Samoylova, has been banned from the country because she performed at a concert in Crimea in 2015. Each side is blaming the other and, so far, there is no resolution in sight. Samoylova sings from a wheelchair. One Ukrainian observer declared:
“are using this girl as a live bomb in the propagandistic hybrid war against Ukraine”.
The Russian view, of course, is diametrically opposed, as is their attitude towards Jamala, the Ukrainian singer who won the contest last year, with a song about the deportation of the Tatars from Crimea by the Soviet Government in 1944. Like the OSCE, the song contest, which involves 43 participating states, is based on inclusiveness and consensus.
The OSCE was created during the Cold War but got what seemed like a whole new life with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Paris charter of November 1990 spoke of the coming of,
“a new era of democracy, peace and unity”,
which the OSCE would play a fundamental role in preserving. The ideological backdrop to this was captured by the then-celebrated work of the American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, with his announcement of “the end of history”. History very soon reasserted itself in the failure of West and East to agree a new security architecture for the European continent.
I consider this to be the structural backdrop to the stresses and strains that we see at the moment. A market economy failed to materialise in Russia while democratic reform remains stunted. The OSCE was marginalised while the western states remain locked into NATO, from which Russia was excluded. The common security space that the Russians have advocated never saw the light of day. Its last gasp was the blunt rejection of the Medvedev plan, originally put forward in 2008. I remember asking a Starred Question about it, and the Minister at the time gave a really dismissive reply.
The OSCE became increasingly seen by the Russians as driven by the aim to create regime change, while its civil rights missions were interpreted as attempts to infringe on Russian sovereignty. The Russian leadership also felt betrayed by NATO’s role in Libya, as it went well beyond the stated aims of the UN resolution that Russia had reluctantly, under pressure, endorsed.
The OSCE looked to be going nowhere, but it has been propelled back to the forefront precisely by the Ukraine crisis. The current chair, Austria, has inevitably made defusing that crisis one of its main priorities. Its capabilities to do so are self-evidently limited because of the need for consensus and the lack of legal personality, thus the Minsk 2 agreement—or a version of it—was implemented by members of the Normandy format, the Government in Kiev and representatives of separatist groups plus the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine. The OSCE is part of that latter group and was important in its overall monitoring role. Nevertheless, it is a collaborative organisation in a world seemingly once again becoming disturbingly geopolitical.
There are new challenges for President Putin inside Russia with the recent surge of street demonstrations. The response so far from the authorities has been straightforward repression and the arrest of its most prominent figure, Alexei Navalny. As the noble Lord said, President Trump’s likely policies with regard to NATO are, to put it mildly, still unclear, as is the real meaning of the friendly overtures that he made towards Russia in his campaign. He has virtually no experience of international politics. Russian hackers almost certainly intervened in the American election, and Russia is both cultivating populist leaders in Europe and being cultivated by them. The stand-off between Russia and Ukraine is a frozen conflict that could become very dangerous. This is a period of world history that could become deeply unstable.
In the past, the OSCE has been variously described as a toothless tiger, a sleeping beauty or a wining and dining club for diplomats. However, its role in the current conflict has been crucial, so I have two questions for the Minister. Does she agree that lessons learned from the experience of the special monitoring mission to Ukraine could potentially open up a new role for OSCE in other conflicts? Does she also agree that this is a time when, as a country, we must actively seek to defend and sustain multilateralism? This is, after all, by far the most interdependent world ever.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, who has long experience of the OSCE. I accompanied him during a 2011 IPU visit to Kosovo, where the OSCE still has a major presence. I returned to Kosovo with the IPU a month ago to find that most of the current Balkan gloom is not about Russia, but about Brexit.
We think again of the troubles of Ukraine and Crimea, but the wider context is the humiliation felt by most Russians since the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Putin has been able to conjure up old Russia with all its conservatism and Orthodox Christianity, and we have to remember that both medieval Rus and the industrial heartland of the Donbas were and are firmly set in Ukraine. None of that can excuse the illegal annexations or the outright aggression and dirty tricks performed by Putin’s agents and the military in recent years, but it helps to explain why many Russians feel a little more national pride today, while still putting up with corruption and appalling human rights violations, as Russians always have. It explains why we have to work harder towards dialogue through organisations such as the OSCE.
The OSCE is a superb example of soft power. It is an obscure organisation, but that may not matter unless we have high political ambitions for it, which I think would be a mistake. I know that some used to see it as a might-have-been alternative to NATO. The European Leadership Network advocates better use of its conflict prevention centre, and there have been many attempts at reform, not least those described in the short debate led by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, which was fascinating for facts such as that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, trained Kazakh officials preparing for the OSCE presidency, which I did not know.
In February 2015, 11 months after Crimea was annexed, our EU External Affairs Sub-Committee, of which I was a member, published its report The EU and Russia: Before and Beyond the Crisis in Ukraine. One finding of the report was that neither the EU nor its members had adequate understanding of Russia or the necessary analytical skills to interpret what was happening there. Georgia’s then ambassador, Dr Gachechiladze, said that there was,
“not a good understanding of Russia in the West”,
and our then Europe Minister, David Lidington, said that by 2014,
“there were very few officials in any government department”,
with expertise from the old Soviet era.
Other witnesses confirmed that relations between Russia and the EU had suffered from political neglect.
Yet Russia and Europe, historically and economically, have always had to come to terms. We have only to look at the map of natural gas entering Europe from Russia to realise that there is already a degree of interdependence with several EU states. Meanwhile, the war around Donetsk and Luhansk rages on, almost unreported in this country. Detailed bulletins from the OSCE’s special monitoring mission provide evidence of fighting and breaches of ceasefire on a daily basis.
Could it be that we here are out of touch with the conflict in Ukraine? Despite its historic connections with Poland and Russia, Ukraine remains a vast blank in the minds even of those who know about Eastern Europe. While the loss of Crimea hit most of us, I am not sure how much the daily fighting in Ukraine really matters to British people. I was surprised that last week’s defence debate, which dealt considerably with our Armed Forces’ capability, barely touched on security in Europe or the situation in the Balkans or Ukraine.
Our sub-committee took evidence on the OSCE, especially from Dr Tom Casier of Kent University, who felt that it lacked legitimacy and had been ineffective as a security mechanism. Both he and Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the EU, said that there should be a new security architecture which included Russia and NATO and OSCE members. We recommended,
“a serious dialogue on issues of shared interest”,
building on a range of agreements, cultural exchanges and common spaces between the EU and Russia. The OSCE conference in Rome in March last year called for a much stronger, more strategic EU-OSCE partnership.
In the sub-committee, we recognised that Russian perceptions of NATO as a security threat had to be acknowledged, while also challenged. We have to try harder to understand Russian fears of EU and NATO expansion. EU enlargement may be on hold, post-Trump and post-Brexit, with Brussels talking more of multitrack solution, as already applied to Romania and Bulgaria, but hearts and minds are still being won, and western influence in Ukraine presents a problem for President Putin. NATO ensures that Russian military expansion has been contained although, unsurprisingly, OSCE members have been unable to implement the Minsk 2 agreement, and dirty tricks continue.
In Crimea, all opposition to Russia by Tatar leaders and Ukrainian activists has been cruelly put down. Direct political interference continues all over the Balkans. Serbia’s continuing claim to northern Kosovo is undoubtedly backed by Russia. I could see examples of this on the bridge at Mitrovica and the other business with the train plastered with slogans saying, “Kosovo is Serbian”. How can Serbia be allowed to continue on a path to EU membership if it behaves like this?
My forebear, Samuel Morton Peto, built the first-ever railway in battle from Sebastopol to the front line. Of course, as a European, I do not feel that I am on any front line or have any claims on Crimea, except to wish that its people will gain more freedom from the Russian torments that they have suffered over many years. I hope that, in future, we can hold a much fuller debate on relations with Russia, because discussion of the OSCE undoubtedly raises much wider questions, including our own future post-Brexit foreign policy in the region.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, on having secured this debate, and perhaps even more importantly, on the very positive role that he has taken as leader of the British delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. He and I have discussed on numerous occasions the work of the assembly and the OSCE in the wider sense. There are, of course, a number of issues on which reform is desirable, and I know that the noble Lord is battling hard to achieve those reforms, so I am delighted to be part of his delegation and I salute him on the work that he has been doing.
I have been a member of the parliamentary assembly for several years. Last year, we saw Roberto Montella become the new Secretary-General, which was desirable. We also have a brilliant British ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna, Ambassador Sian MacLeod. We had dinner with her in a restaurant in Vienna and an excellent briefing from her and her staff, and that was very positive and helpful.
One of the most useful things that the parliamentary assembly does is election monitoring. That is not because we uncover all sorts of scandals; it is because the countries that are having elections and know that we are coming take care not to do anything that we might pick up as being a breach of proper electoral behaviour. Of course, one occasionally sees administrative inefficiencies—I saw some myself—but we keep the system clean. People ask why the OSCE monitors British and American elections. The answer is that if we monitor elections in Russia and in some other countries that have more dubious democratic credentials, they will say that we cannot monitor just them; we have to monitor here as well. There have been monitoring missions to our elections—of course, we cannot take part in monitoring in our own country; but it is a positive part of the work.
I noticed that some countries attach great importance to the work of the parliamentary assembly. I cannot speak so much for the OSCE, but it is interesting that there was a resolution criticising one of the Stans—I cannot remember which one—and we immediately had the ambassador on our doorstep demanding to see us and demanding that we vote against the resolution. I pointed out to him that the only time we ever saw people from his country was when there was a resolution down for an OSCE plenary. Why did he not show more interest in us at other times? That fell on somewhat deaf ears; I had better not mention him.
It is, however, clear that some countries attach more importance to their delegations to the assembly than perhaps we do, as evidenced by the fact that too many representatives at the parliamentary assembly seem to confine their speeches to government handouts. Perhaps our Government would like that: no, I am sure that they would not. We, in fact, are pretty free-thinking, and although we get briefings from Ministers here before we set out, and the Foreign Office gives us written briefing, we do our own thing as seems right. It is somewhat depressing that some countries feel that their only job there is to make political speeches on behalf of their Government. On one occasion, I said something that was slightly critical of the British Government—I am sure that Ministers would accept that—and somebody came up to me and asked for my speech. I said, “I haven’t got a speech; I have five words on a bit of paper, because that tends to be the way we do things, as opposed to these handouts”.
Having taken the tragic step of leaving the EU, we will need more international links in the future. Whatever criticisms we might therefore make of the OSCE, subject to the reforms which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, will achieve in the near future, it is still clear that we will need those international links. Whatever the weaknesses of the OSCE and the debates there, at the very least it gives us international context, the chance to have debates and, on the fringes of the conference, the chance to have chats with politicians from other countries. That is pretty positive.
A lot of time in the parliamentary assembly has been taken by specific discussions about Ukraine and the Crimea, and Russian action there. The parliamentary assembly has given us some chance to contrast the way in which the Russians went into the Crimea and had a quick referendum, as they called it, without any of the objective context which we, for example, had in Scotland for its referendum or indeed in Northern Ireland. I say to those people: just have a look at Scotland. We had several years of debate and there was an even-handed approach. There had to be even access to the media on both sides. There was no army there telling the people how to vote. At the end of that time, the people of Scotland decided they did not wish to leave the United Kingdom. Contrast that with what happened in the Crimea.
In the excellent Library briefing pack, I see that there is a letter dated 15 March and headed “Statement by the Delegation of the Russian Federation”. It says:
“The multi-ethnic population of Crimea took the corresponding decisions”
—to join Russia—
“by a huge majority in a free and fair expression of its will. The status of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol as constituent entities of the Russian Federation is not open to reconsideration or discussion. Crimea is and will remain Russian. This is a fact that our partners will have to come to terms with. This position is based on and fully complies with international law”.
Well, we know what we think about that stuff. It seems to be wrong in every respect. I say to the Russians: have a look at the way we decide things in the United Kingdom—for example in Scotland, where an important decision was done fairly and democratically.
Briefly, I am a member of the migration committee of the OSCE, which does some quite useful work in looking at refugees and other issues. I am also a member of the Moldova committee, which is more difficult these days.
There is a disconnect between the OSCE and the parliamentary assembly. I would like that assembly—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, would like this, too—to get closer to the day-to-day work of the OSCE. When visiting a country, I sometimes suddenly realise that there is an effective OSCE mission there. But the parliamentary assembly is not able, so far, to engage with that as fully as we would like. I know that changes are on the way. A final thought: as far as I know, no country of the 57 in the OSCE still has the death penalty, with two exceptions: the United States and Belarus. Our next plenary will be in Minsk in July and we will have to tell them a thing or two about the death penalty.
My Lords, it was very kind of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, to remind me of past speeches. I should declare a couple of interests: I am a member of the European Leadership Network and I am very sorry that the note from Ms Shetty came round so late today. Nevertheless, I hope your Lordships find it useful. I was also the British secretary of the British-Soviet Round Table from 1979 to 1989. When it was launched, it was a very difficult process. When I was there from Chatham House to provide the secretariat, we found ourselves talking to hard-nosed Russians who had a different view of what reality was, let alone truth. We were roundly attacked by the Sunday Times and others for being soft on communism but we persevered and found it useful to maintain a dialogue, even under difficult circumstances. It got easier over the years.
The CSCE, as it was then, was also set up to build a dialogue between the Soviet Union and the West, with the great advantage that the younger generation of reformers in the Soviet Union wanted to be recognised and accepted as part of a wider Europe. They were therefore willing to make concessions on things such as human rights in order to be accepted. After the Cold War, the West took its eye off the ball and we found that Russia was not evolving in quite the way that we had recommended. The aggressive enlargement of NATO, first in the late 1990s and then most disastrously with the insistence of the George W Bush Administration that we should offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine in Bucharest in 2008, made matters worse. However, one always has to remember that those countries wanted to join NATO. They applied pressure, because they wanted to get out from under Russian control.
The Russian system of government, meanwhile, has gone backwards towards crony capitalism, a corrupt elite and now the closing down of civil society. We face a Russian regime that has been there for some time and is becoming increasingly hostile to the West, including the European Union. We have the old frozen conflicts: Georgia is the one that I know best, and it has been deeply frustrating over the years. There have been attempts to interfere in the Baltic states, even though they are members of NATO and the EU. There is subversion—as already mentioned—in various states across south-eastern Europe. Russia Today is trying to produce its own versions of reality in our own national debates. We have Russian support—possibly including financial support—for hard-right parties across Europe, and perhaps even interference in American elections.
We have, therefore, a very difficult Russian regime to deal with. There is systemic corruption, continuing killings of journalists and prominent critics of the regime and an underlying weak economy—I learnt this morning that the oil price is expected to go down to $40 or even $30 in the next year or two, which will make the Russian situation even more difficult. In addition, we see cybercrime mixed with cyber interference, military adventurism and defence spending as a distraction from its domestic difficulties—including in the Middle East—and this extraordinary identification of the legitimacy of the Putin regime with tsarism, traditional Russia and orthodoxy, so that in remembering World War 1 they want to commemorate not the Russian revolution but the sacrifice of the honest Russian peasants and the role of the tsar in looking after them. Above all, Russia claims the status of a great power, alongside the USA and superior to the rest of Europe.
The OSCE is the only body we currently have for multilateral dialogue; it is ineffective but necessary. It is hard work—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, feels that it is in many ways deeply unrewarding—but we do need to keep talking and have conversations around the table. The younger generation that you occasionally meet are people through whom one can at least begin to convey messages and do business with for the future.
I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, will say that the British Government will maintain their strongest support for the OSCE and nominate strong candidates for the posts where those in office are stepping down. I stress that we need to know more about the British approach to this. I have read most of our new Foreign Secretary’s speeches. In his November speech at Chatham House, he said that it was the first of a series of strategic speeches on British foreign policy. I have not yet found anything strategic in what he has said on British foreign policy or about Russia, although I recognise that he was due to be in Russia this week and has been unable, for various reasons, to go.
FCO expertise on Russia was run down in the 1990s. Is it being rebuilt, given that we now realise that we again have a very difficult Russian regime with a very uncertain future? There is money laundering by Russians in London; there is a substantial population of Russian oligarchs in London. What response are we making to the extent to which influential Russians close to Putin use London as one of their vacation spots in the West? Lastly, how do the British Government see the need for continuing European co-operation in managing the Russian regime in all its uncertainties and in assisting the states in Russia’s neighbourhood—which is also Europe’s neighbourhood—given that we have now accepted, it seems, that Germany is the leader of the West on this and our future relationship with Germany and our other European partners seems unclear?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, for initiating this important debate. I also congratulate him on his role in the OSCE. The Minister and I have come straight from a debate on the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (Immunities and Privileges) (Amendment) Order 2017, so this makes a refreshing change. I have to make sure that I do not confuse all my notes. There were not too many volunteers for that debate. However, I am glad that we have an opportunity to hold a relatively short debate on this issue. It is important because we do not devote sufficient parliamentary time to this aspect of international relationships.
Other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Dubs, have said that the key role of diplomacy and multilateral dialogue is something that we need to focus on increasingly in the very fragile world that we are living in. A lot has happened since Helsinki, and of course our world view from here is clearly different from the world view in Russia. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for the email I received just before lunch and I have read the documentation, but one element that was missing was something about the world view we have compared with that of Russia. The Russian narrative is one of post-war grievance, fear of encirclement and regime change; that is what underpins its position. The serious point about that world view is not whether it is justified or true, it is the fact of whether the leadership in Russia holds it and whether that governs its reactions. I have no doubt that the view is held and therefore our response has got to take that into account, whatever it is. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I do not for a moment suggest that dialogue means that we do not raise concerns about human rights abuses or about the need for democratic action.
This comes to that point, and I hope that the noble Baroness will respond to the questions about how we can continue our support for the OSCE, in particular in its key working areas of diplomacy, multilateral dialogue and monitoring on the ground. Noble Lords have mentioned that important work and our focus today is of course on Crimea and Ukraine in the context of the work undertaken by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. That monitoring work across the 57 nations is particularly about how we can uphold democratic values. It is key to ensuring that those values are kept at the forefront of our activities.
Something I want to focus on is the reports we have had from Crimea. On Tuesday there were reports from lawyers and human rights activists saying that the Russian authorities in Crimea are increasingly imprisoning human rights activists in psychiatric hospitals. They are no longer denying them in an overt way, rather they are using other means to deny people their human rights. Reports have been made of some 43 Tatar activists having been abducted since the annexation by Russia. What have the Government done in terms of these reports? How are they being taken forward and are we engaging with the Russian authorities and international bodies to address this issue? Of course there have been specific incidents in both Crimea and Ukraine, in particular that involving armed men intervening in the activities of the special monitoring mission and the use of armed force in relation to the use of what I suppose we should call a drone to conduct monitoring. Does the Minister share the view of the chief monitor of the SMM on the firing on unarmed civilian monitors? Have the Government taken account of that and what steps are we taking within the OSCE to ensure that those responsible are held to account?
In the brief time that we have, I conclude by saying a little about what the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said. With those two competing world views, how do we use multilateral organisations—I am not necessarily saying that the OSCE is enough—to take the temperature down? How do we ensure that we manage to avoid incidents that could escalate? Clearly, there is a role for the OSCE in this regard, particularly in terms of an investigative function. That is not only to examine the details of specific incidents but, most importantly—and again the noble Lord introducing this debate referred to this—to enable a learning process whereby incidents can be avoided. We learn from them so that we can better manage them and avoid them in the future. I am particularly keen to hear from the Minister how she sees that might be taken forward in the OSCE’s toolbox for the future.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to today’s debate. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Bowness, who has a distinguished reputation in relation to the OSCE, for raising the important issue of the future role of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I also welcome the work of my noble friend and other Members of this House in the UK delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
As many have indicated, the OSCE is a pillar of international co-operation. It has both a uniquely comprehensive approach to security and an important geographical spread, with participating states stretching from Canada to central Asia—a fact that my noble friend Lord Bowness rightly highlighted. The autonomous institutions of the OSCE are an essential element of its early warning and conflict prevention apparatus. The strength of these institutions means that, with the will of all the participating states, the organisation can contribute significantly to the promotion of security, stability, democracy and the rule of law across its region. That point was made very powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who eloquently advocated the attributes of the OSCE in these important and vital matters.
The OSCE oversees a body of commitments that include human rights and democracy, conflict prevention and conventional arms control. These commitments bind all 57 participating states at a political level to a set of principles. The OSCE’s institutions hold participating states to account and support them in their efforts to uphold these principles and commitments. The United Kingdom is a long-standing supporter of the OSCE. We fully support, and where necessary defend, the work of the autonomous institutions and their mandates. This includes supporting a senior adviser in the office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the nomination of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, for the role of High Commissioner on National Minorities. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, of the UK’s belief in and commitment to the OSCE.
The OSCE carries out valuable work right across its region. As contributors have indicated, it has maintained a long-standing presence in the western Balkans, South Caucasus and Central Asia, where it provides support and expertise on a range of key issues, from institutional reform to media freedom. Its role in supporting future reform in these areas will continue to be crucial.
Today, nowhere is the importance of the OSCE clearer than in Ukraine, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. The crisis in the east of the country continues to have a devastating effect on millions of people on both sides of the so-called line of contact. Civilian casualties and ceasefire violations this year have already reached record levels. The sensitivities are widespread and acute, and have been eloquently described by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. The OSCE has been active throughout Ukraine since the crisis began in 2014. It provides crucial information to the international community and is a platform for dialogue aimed at bringing about a de-escalation of the crisis.
The United Kingdom has strongly supported the special monitoring mission in Ukraine since its establishment in 2014. We are one of the largest contributors to the mission’s budget. We have provided specialist training and support, and we have one of the largest contingents in the mission, second only to the United States. In the face of escalating violence, this civilian mission is bravely monitoring the line of contact. We must pay tribute to that courage and determination as it is not a safe or easy job. The monitors are providing balanced, factual reporting, which is a vital component of what is happening in Ukraine. We are deeply concerned by the continuing violence against monitors, including recent incidents where Russian-backed separatists have aggressively denied them access to certain areas of the country. Quite simply, this violence must end. The mission must have unrestricted access to all parts of Ukraine, including Crimea, as mandated by all 57 participating states.
It is three years since Russia illegally annexed Crimea. The United Kingdom does not recognise this illegal annexation. Russia’s disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and its continued support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are at the root of this crisis. Continued Russian denials of responsibility distort the facts. The United Kingdom believes that to achieve a lasting resolution to the crisis, Russia must end its destabilising activities in the region, comply with its commitments under the Minsk agreements and return Crimea to its rightful place under Ukrainian Government control.
A number of very interesting points were raised, and I will try to address them as best I can. My noble friend Lord Bowness raised the consensus principle. The consensus rule can be a hindrance to progress and delay effective, meaningful decisions, including on areas of work which are a priority for the UK, such as on human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, there is another side to it. The consensus nature is a fundamental characteristic and is key to ensuring the continuing participation of those states with which we have fundamental differences of opinion. Ongoing dialogue is preferable to alienating them by challenging the way business is done in the OSCE.
My noble friend Lord Bowness also raised the position of the United States of America. Our understanding is that the United States continues to be active in the OSCE and we see no evidence of a lessening of interest by the United States. He also asked about UK secondees to the OSCE. That is an important area. I understand that we have 57 secondees in Ukraine and two in organisational activities outside Ukraine, one in Moldova and one in the media freedom office. We are looking to fund more, especially in head of mission posts.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, raised the important issue of the special monitoring missions and posed the interesting question of whether this exercise by the OSCE and the SMM in Ukraine demonstrates a role that perhaps could be used elsewhere. That is a good question to ask. Given the unusual and, indeed, unique work of the OSCE, it is a point worth reflecting on. The noble Lord also raised the issue of multilateralism, suggesting that we should be both pursuing and defending multilateralism in these difficult times. Let me be clear that I think that this is a desirable objective. I have not ever been and will never be a unilateralist supporter, but I think that multilateralism is an important objective.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, rightly identified the complex and difficult history of the Balkans, and raised the question of engagement with Russia, which was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Managing tensions with Russia will be a long-term challenge for the UK and our allies. There will be no return to business as usual while the situation in Ukraine remains unresolved. We will not ignore the fact that Russia-backed and directed separatists have effectively tried to redraw the boundaries of Europe. At the same time, it is important that we continue to engage with Russia; to avoid misunderstandings, we should push for change when we disagree and we should co-operate when it is in the UK’s national interests to do so.
The noble Earl also raised the question of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, to which I referred briefly. I reiterate that we do not and will not recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, whose intervention in eastern Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea is a flagrant violation of a number of its international commitments, including under the United Nations charter, the OSCE Helsinki final act and the 1997 Russia-Ukraine treaty of friendship, co-operation and partnership.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in a characteristically colourful, entertaining—if that is the correct adjective—and certainly well-informed contribution made an important point, praising the precautionary effect of the electoral monitoring. I was very struck by that; there is no doubt about it that if people know that others are coming to look at their activities, they will possibly try to put their house in order before that point arrives. The noble Lord also raised the issue of the Parliamentary Assembly relying on government press hand-outs, to which I have written down in response, “Old habits die hard”. If I may say so, the noble Lord is testament to original speech and original thought. The noble Lord also made an interesting point in relation to the Scottish independence referendum —and I think that this is important. That was a fine example of a free election process; it was a good process and, in my opinion, it was a good result. If I have any regret, it is that certain parties are paying no attention to the result, but that is another aspect of the debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised a number of points which I have tried to cover in my responses to other noble Lords. If I have managed to overlook anything, I shall check Hansard and undertake to write to him. I think that we are both slightly fatigued by our engagement with the southern hemisphere.
It is clear that there will continue to be an important role for the OSCE into the future. We welcome the decision reached at the OSCE ministerial council last December to begin a structured dialogue on the current and future challenges and risks to security in the OSCE area. That could be a useful forum to help to reduce risk and build confidence, trust and security among the participating states. The OSCE’s vision of common security and close co-operation is one that we wholeheartedly support. The crisis in Ukraine not only highlights the continuing threats faced by countries in the OSCE area and the rules-based system, it highlights once again how relevant the OSCE is and reinforces the need for international co-operation more broadly. We must continue to strengthen the OSCE and the international rules-based system. I assure noble Lords that the UK will continue to play a leading role in this vital work.