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Council of Europe: Reykjavik Summit

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 18 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what proposals they will be putting to the Fourth Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe in Reykjavik on 16-17 May.

My Lords, the United Kingdom attaches great importance to the Council of Europe summit in Reykjavik. We see the event as an important opportunity for member states to renew their commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the continent. We will play a full part in the proceedings, including ensuring strong support for Ukraine, a united response to Russia’s aggression, strengthening multilateralism in Europe and ensuring reform and efficiencies in the institution.

My Lords, I am really grateful for the positive response from the Minister, which we always get from him in relation to the Council of Europe, because he recognises that it is now the one organisation in which we can co-operate with the countries of the European Union and other European countries on human rights, democracy and the rule of law, as he said. Will he pass a message back to the Home Secretary? By constantly speculating on withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the cornerstone of the Council of Europe, she is giving us a bad reputation throughout the world.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has been historically a supporter of the Council of Europe—indeed, we can go back to the times of the great Winston Churchill in our support for it and, indeed, as architects of it and of the fundamental principles of standing up for the human rights of all. The United Kingdom is and will remain a key part of the Council of Europe. On the noble Lord’s question, I can do no better than to quote my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who said during a parliamentary debate on this very issue:

“The UK is and will remain a member of the ECHR”.—[Official Report, 27/2/23; col. 594.]

My Lords, in light of the human rights abuses in Ukraine, it is absolutely right that the summit will put the strengthening of the European Court of Human Rights at the centre of its agenda. Is it not jarring, therefore, that the UK Government are planning, in Clause 51 of their Illegal Migration Bill, powers to set aside interim measures of the European Court of Human Rights on safety and security? Why is the UK’s response to calls to strengthen the court legislation to ignore it?

My Lords, I am sure there will be an opportunity, when the Bill passes through the other place and comes to the House of Lords, to debate it extensively. It is important that we stand up for our obligations, including those we have made to conventions we signed up to, and for the role that the ECHR has played historically and continues to play. The United Kingdom agrees that, when we look at certain issues, including the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the ECHR and indeed the Council of Europe are playing a very important role.

My Lords, I will follow on from that question on interim measures. The Minister will be aware that last summer the European Court of Human Rights, in an interim measure, spared two British citizens from being executed by Russia. In the case of Ukraine versus Russia, President Zelensky presently holds an interim measure against Russia to constrain the use of military force against civilians. Given our history of seeking and supporting interim measures, and their importance for people facing imminent risk of irreparable harm, does the Minister agree that the Council of Europe in Reykjavik would be an appropriate forum for the Government to reaffirm their commitment to legally binding interim measures which a number of our citizens hold?

My Lords, the noble Lord has mentioned a number of cases of interim measures, and of course I recognise the important role that the Council of Europe has played. On our priorities for the summit, which he also alluded to, we will ensure the strengthening of the Council of Europe. It will see representation at high levels of government, but reiterate our important role—he mentioned our support for Ukraine in Russia’s illegal war.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I have the enormous privilege of being a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I gather, through what one might call unusual channels, that our Prime Minister will not be able to go to the Heads of State meeting in Reykjavik. My understanding is that the Deputy Prime Minister will go in his stead. Can the Minister reassure me that his department has a plan B in place in case the findings of Mr Adam Tolley’s inquiry into the Deputy Prime Minister mean that he is unable to go to Reykjavik?

My Lords, I am not going to speculate in any shape or form. The United Kingdom attaches great importance to this summit and at the moment the invitation is being considered by the Prime Minister’s office.

My Lords, it is absolutely right that Russia is excluded from the Council of Europe, but that exclusion does have consequences, and my noble friend alluded to them. Of course, Russian citizens will no longer be able to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Therefore, while rightly stopping the Government of Russia, what are the Government doing to defend the people of Russia and their human rights? How will we hold the Russian Government to account at the summit for their breaches of human rights and their crimes, including war crimes?

My Lords, the noble Lord asked quite a wide-ranging question. We will work with all the other member states in the Council of Europe to ensure that Russia abides by all the conventions, even beyond the obligations that it has in its former membership of the Council of Europe—that it abides by those other international protocols that it has signed up to. Of course, he is right about the avenue for Russian citizens, and later this week we will discuss yet another case of the appalling abuse by Russia of its own citizens and opposition figures. I remind the noble Lord, as he will be aware, that we are working closely with other institutions, including the ICC, to ensure that those very much at the heart of decision-making, no less than Mr Putin himself, are held accountable for the abuse of their position and their continued violations against the Ukrainian people.

My Lords, is it not very important at the Council of Europe that we stress the cross-party, all-party support for that institution? In that context, as a general election moves ever closer, should we all not be very careful about indulging in snide, personal attacks? Remember Dean Swift:

“He lash’d the Vice but spar’d the Name.”

Some of the adverts currently appearing completely ignore that dictum.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend but I add, as someone who served —it seems a long time ago—as a member of the team assembled from across this House and the other place at the Council of Europe, that I have always found that every member, irrespective of party affiliation, has acquit themselves in the finest traditions of our democracy. On a lighter note, when it comes to diplomacy, I always say that one thing many notice on the international stage is that we travel well irrespective of our party affiliations.

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware of the determination of a Russian court just yesterday in relation to Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has been put into a penal colony in Siberia for 25 years. We have heard, rightly, noble Lords raising the issues of Russian citizens, but this man is a dual passport holder—he is also a British citizen—and I wonder what the Minister has to tell the House about his current position.

My noble friend raises a very important point. In one of my earlier responses, I alluded to an Urgent Question which will be repeated in your Lordships’ House later this week, but she is right to raise the issue. We summoned the Russian ambassador yesterday, and our own ambassador attended the court proceedings and issued a joint statement with a number of key partners. We want to ensure that we have access. Vladimir Kara-Murza is, as my noble friend says, a dual citizen. Equally, we want Russia to abide by the conventions it signed up to, including the Vienna conventions and their accords that allow for consular access.

My Lords, I think the whole House is grateful to the noble Lord for the very clear message that he gave as his personal commitment when he quoted the Prime Minister’s words from the other place concerning the European Convention on Human Rights. However, that message is not getting through to member states, other than this country perhaps, in the Council of Europe. Particularly as the Prime Minister is not, it appears, going to attend the Reykjavik summit next month, can we make sure that whoever leads the British delegation will give that clear commitment that the noble Lord has given, so that the lingering doubts among many states in the Council of Europe concerning our commitment to the European convention are eliminated and no longer persist?