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Orders of the Day — Soviet Jewry (Government Policy)

– in the House of Commons at 2:04 am on 28th November 1984.

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Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lang.]

Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton 2:06 am, 28th November 1984

I begin by saying how pleased I am that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to reply to the debate, as I know that this issue is dear to his heart as well as to the hearts of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government. I also welcome the presence at this late hour of the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), the distinguished chairman of the all-party parliamentary committee for the release of Soviet jewry.

The past few weeks have brought a most interesting and welcome improvement in East-West relations. There are signs of reducing confrontation and the hint of the beginning of a period of detente. We are being invited to believe that we in the West can live happily with the Soviet Union and its friends in eastern Europe. The Soviet leaders are seeking to persuade us that if we will trust them sufficiently to scale down our armaments they will respond by scaling down theirs and peace will become enduring. They invite us to believe that they will honour their international undertakings and ask us to trust their declarations of good intentions. They wish us to think only well of them.

Let us look, therefore, not into the crystal ball but at the Soviet Union's record in one area of international undertakings and declarations of good intentions so that we may judge more safely whether the time is ripe to accept that invitation to trust. Let us consider the Soviet Union's record of human rights and focus for a moment on its treatment of its Jews to see whether the Government's policy towards the USSR is unduly harsh and unjustified and ought to be changed.

The Soviet Union's international undertakings on human rights are substantial and impressive. It has ratified nearly all major international conventions on human rights and has associated itself with the principal international declarations. I shall refer to three such obligations.

The first is the right to emigrate. The Soviet Union is a party to the international covenant on civil and political rights, article 12(2) of which states that everyone has the tight to leave any country, including his own. Article 5(d) of the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination—of which the Soviet Union is a signatory—accords the same right, as does basket 3 of the Helsinki final act, which, in addition, stipulates that favourable consideration shall especially be given to the reunification of families. The USSR is, of course, a signatory of the final act.

How are those solemn international undertakings on the right to emigration being honoured? In 1979, 51,000 Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. In 1980 the figure was 21,000, in 1981 it was 9,500, in 1982 it was 2,700, in 1983 it was 1,300. In October 1979, 4,000 Jews were allowed to leave, but only 29 exit visas were granted in October 1984.

The Soviet Government tell the world that no more Jews want to leave mother Russia. The fact is that 400,000 Jews still in the USSR have asked to leave and have received notarised invitations from relatives in Israel but have not received exit permits. Official estimates based on past experience suggest that there may well be a further half a million who would request the right to emigrate if, following application and refusal, they would not become outcasts.

The pattern is as follows. Application by Jews to leave is followed by dismissal from their jobs because they are considered no longer trustworthy. They are then forced either to take menial work or to become unemployed and risk prosecution as parasites—a process which is itself a breach of convention 29 of the International Labour Organisation's convention against forced or compulsory labour which the USSR has, of course, signed.

There are about 10,000 refuseniks—those who have received over a number of years official notices of refusal to leave and who are willing to confront the Soviet authorities on the issue. They are victimised. Their children are expelled from colleges of higher education. They are subjected to insulting attacks in the media. They are selectively conscripted into the army and often stopped, searched and arrested. They can seek in vain for an effective recourse to the courts for protection. So much for that international undertaking.

Secondly, there is the universal human right to enjoy cultural freedom. The USSR is a signatory of the international covenant on civil and political rights, article 27 of which gives its Jewish minority the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion or to use their own language. Article 18 also requires that everyone shall have the right to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, observance, practice and teaching". Articles 34, 36 and 45 of the Soviet constitution itself prohibit any form of discrimination on the basis of nationality and, together with article 74 of the Russian Republic criminal code, guarantee the use of national languages to the peoples of the USSR. In addition, article 52 of the USSR constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, as does the Soviet ratification of the United Nations declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of dicrimination based on religion or belief.

How does the USSR honour those solemn national and international undertakings on the right to freedom of culture? The study of Hebrew, alone among the minority languages, is banned. Hebrew teachers, when discovered, are threatened with severe punishment if they continue. No Hebrew books are published in the USSR. Virtually no books are published in any language on Jewish history and culture. Today there are fewer than 60 synagogues in the whole USSR, and only five ordained rabbis. Jews are denied the opportunity to train their clergy or issue religious bulletins or periodicals. No Hebrew bible has been published for half a century. Prayer shawls and other religious articles are unobtainable.

Having put a stop to almost all emigration, the Soviet authorities are now attempting to destroy the Jewish community by arresting its leaders and teachers. Yosif Begun, the outstanding campaigner for the right to study Hebrew, received in 1982 a brutal sentence of seven years' imprisonment and five years' internal exile. During 1984, Moshe Abramov, who had been trained as a Rabbi but who refused to accept his rabbinic office because it required him to work for the KGB, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment. Zakhar Zunshain, a Hebrew teacher of Riga, received a three-year sentence in June of this year. Yakov Levin, also a Hebrew teacher, of Odessa, received a similar sentence earlier this month. Alexander Kholmiansky, Yakov Nesh, Yuli Edelshtein, Hebrew teachers of Moscow, and Mark Nepomniashy, a Hebrew teacher of Odessa, are all being held incommunicado in prison awaiting trial on charges of alleged serious crimes. These policies are clearly intended to obliterate the historical memory of Soviet Jewry, to destroy its ethnic identity and to force assimilation. So much for that international undertaking.

Thirdly, there is the right to protection against downright racial discrimination—against anti-semitism. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the USSR is a signatory, prohibits any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence as do most of the other human rights conventions and constitutions to which the USSR is a party. How is that solemn undertaking being honoured? Under the thin disguise of anti-Zionism there have been an increasing number of scurrilous attacks on individual Jews, the Jewish people, Judaism and on the state of Israel. An orchestrated series of newspaper articles in several Soviet republics refer to Hebrew teachers and cultural activists as spies, criminals and traitors. Jewish money, it is said, finances the military arms race in the Western world, Zionists brought Hitler to power and supported Nazism and the state of Israel and Nazi Germany are to be equated. As the Bishop of Birmingham said at a meeting that was recently held in the Palace of Westminster, the Russians have a long and miserable history of anti-semitism and it seems to be getting worse.

The list of the victims of anti-semitic persecution in the past few years alone is long and ugly. Anatoly Shcharansky received 13 years' imprisonment in horrific conditions, Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel were sent to Siberia, refused exit visas and harrassed, Victor Brailovsky, Boris Chernobilsky and Dmitry Shchiglik of Moscow, Gregory Geishis, Boris Kalendarev and Yevgeny Lein of Leningrad, Lev Elbert, Kim Fridman, Vladimir Kislik and Valery Pilnikov of Kiev, Osip Lokshin and Vladimir Tsukerman of Kishinev, Aleksander Paritsky of Kharkov, Moisei Tonkonogy of Odessa, Iosif Zisels of Chernovitsy, Aleksander Panaryev of Sukhumi and Aleksander Magidovich of Tula are just some of those who have served terms of imprisonment or exile and are now living under the constant surveillance of the KGB and are still refused permission to leave. These are the Jews in labour camps and psychiatric hospitals and the Jews who are suffering harassment and persecution throughout the USSR.

Refuseniks have told us that if the rehabilitation of Stalin takes place in time for the 40th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, the anti-semitic campaign could be revitalised and that his plan to transport all Jews to the main centres of Siberia could be put into effect.—"Do not treat this as a fantasy", they implore us, "it is a definite threat to our future safety."

If those are the solemn international undertakings and if that is how the Soviet Union honours those undertakings, the future is indeed grim for the Jews of Russia and for the chances of lasting and genuine detente based on trust of the Soviet Union. The Government's policy of speaking up at every opportunity for the Jews of the Soviet Union has been beyond reproach. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend for his valiant efforts and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and the rest of the Government in that regard.

That activity and concern seems to have had little effect on the Soviet Government, however. Must it always be thus? Next month, Mr. Gorbachev will be an honoured guest of this country and the Government. Presumably he is coming to reassure us of his Government's good intentions and to engender trust. Let us hope that he realises that the best way in which his Government can convince us of their good intentions is to show that they are prepared to honour their obligations toward human rights in general and the tragic plight of the Jews in particular.

Will my hon. Friend assure me that this Government will not cease to remind Mr. Gorbachev of the very great importance which we in Britain and the West attach to this matter? If we cannot trust the Soviet Union to honour its promises to the weak in its own land, could we ever trust it to honour its promises to the nations of the world which have made themselves weak in the forlorn hope of enduring peace.

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West 2:21 am, 28th November 1984

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) for sacrificing some of the limited time available to him to permit me this brief intervention. I congratulate him on securing an opportunity to raise these matters.

We in this House are jealous of the privileges that protect our right to speak freely, without fear and constraint. It is appropriate that on occasion we should use that right to speak for those who are not so fortunate and who are not free to speak for themselves. It is right that national Governments should sometimes be invited to hear views that reflect the voice of the whole international community.

It is easy for any Government to institutionalise repressive practices until they become immunised against them and no longer believe it possible that they may be wrong. That is particularly so of a Government who are not prepared to hear criticism at home. Despite the lateness of the hour, I am grateful for this opportunity of associating myself with what the hon. and learned Gentleman said.

The fact that the subject has been discussed in the House will, I hope, give some of the more compassionate among those who take decisions in the Soviet Union cause to reflect on what is happening to decent people whose only crime is their wish to make their home where their heart is. I hope that this will serve further to offer them the assurance that they are not alone or forgotten.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 2:22 am, 28th November 1984

The subject that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has chosen for this debate is important, and I am grateful to him for raising it. I pay tribute to both my hon. and learned Friend and the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) for the major contribution which, over a number of years, they have made to this very subject.

Since I first became a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I have had special responsibility for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. It has therefore fallen to me on many occasions in my contacts with Ministers from Warsaw Pact countries to raise human rights issues. Naturally enough, when I am speaking to my Soviet opposite numbers, the subject of Soviet Jewry is raised. When I speak on human rights issues, I feel that I can do so with particular authority for three separate reasons.

First, I can do so confident that I am reflecting the views of all sides of this House. There may be many issues on which we are divided, but seeking better observance of human rights in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is not one of them.

Secondly, I know from my own constituency mail, and from the many letters that hon. Members pass to me, that these human rights issues are the subject of a deep and genuine concern among ordinary people. Whether from churches, synagogues or human rights groups, or on occasion simply off their own bat, individuals from all walks of life write to express their concern about the many instances of human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, which are recorded in the press and elsewhere.

Thirdly, I am conscious that by raising these issues I am not unjustifiably interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. The great achievement of the Helsinki Final Act was to put human rights issues firmly on the international agenda. Principle VII of the opening section of the Helsinki Final Act is clear, and says: participating states will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion". For all that, my Soviet interlocutors claim that raising these issues is unwarranted interference. Their very defensiveness shows that they are aware that, much as they may wish it, it is not possible to go back on the commitments that they made at Helsinki.

It is impossible not to be shocked by the many reported instances of inhumane Soviet behaviour. Yosif Begun was imprisoned last year for teaching Hebrew. Anatoly Shcharansky has been rotting in gaol for more than seven years for getting together with a few like-minded Russians to monitor Soviet observance of the Helsinki Final Act. Many thousands of Soviet Jewish citizens have been deprived of their rights, their jobs and on occasion their freedom merely because they have applied to emigrate. It is not possible not to feel a sense of involvement in the rate of these fellow Europeans.

There are too many examples of draconian administrative acts by the Soviet authorities which are completely disproportionate to the so-called offences for one to embark on a systematic account. The fact is that the reports make it difficult not to conclude that the Soviet authorities are operating a systematic policy of discrimination that verges on oppression and is directed particularly against minority religious groups. It is directed against others apart from the Jewish community but it is that community which is the subject of the debate.

The Jewish community has probably been subject: to more consistent harassment than others, partly because it occupied a more important place in Soviet intellectual and political life. The harassment also applies to Baptists, Catholics and even to Orthodox Christians. Of course, there is carefully sanctioned religious observance in the Soviet Union, and Soviet representatives are not slow to point this out. There are semi-official figures for the numbers of regular worshippers, for the number of "registered" congregations and of the number of Bibles and prayer books published by the state, for example. But the line is drawn at any religious observance which is not officially sanctioned and, of course, at any challenge to the state's monopoly of power in every detail of Soviet life.

What can we do realistically to show our concern and to encourage more humane practices in the Soviet Union? First, the Government will ensure that the issue of human rights and the Soviet Union's Helsinki and Madrid commitments are kept firmly on the agenda of our ministerial contacts with the Russians. These matters must figure, but that will not be to the exclusion of the many other important matters that we have to discuss with them. We must show that these questions have not been, and will not be, forgotten.

Secondly, as well as mentioning the wider issues, we should on occasion mention individual names of those we are trying to help. At times—and recent years have been such times—this may be without apparent result, but that does not make it worthless. Anatoly Shcharansky may be lying in an inhospitable camp in the Urals, but a telegram has just got through to his wife to let her know where he is and that he is alive. Would this have happened 40 years ago? Certainly it did not happen in the case of Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian Jewish poet of the 1920s and 1930s. Would it have happened if it had not been for the efforts of Mrs. Shcharansky, which have made the name of her husband a household name in the West? To mention someone who is not Jewish, would we have seen the strangely concocted films of Dr. Sakharov and his wife in Gorky if it had not been for the constant mention of his name by Western representatives.

Obviously we have to be selective about names. The names which are chosen must be in some sense representative of categories of human rights abuse. When my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary met Mr. Gromyko in July, he mentioned Father Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest, Dr. Koryagin, a Soviet psychiatrist, Anatoly Shcharansky, whom I have already mentioned, and the Sakharovs. In March this year, I drew the attention of the First Deputy Foreign Minister, Mr. Kornienko, to the cases of Yosif Begun, Ida Nudel, Anatoly Shcharansky and Raoul Wallenberg.

Thirdly, with respect to what can be done, I think that hon. Members themselves can join in this process. The Russians are more in evidence in social and political circles in London these days, which is something that we welcome. This gives hon. Members the opportunity to mention particular cases that have been brought to their attention by constituents when they meet Soviet diplomats. The point can be put over in moderate and reasonable terms. This would help to show that concern about human rights is something which not only the Government are concerned about. This would show that it is the concern of all hon. Members.

A question that is often raised is whether these approaches should be publicised or remain confidential? My experience leads me to believe that what is required is a carefully judged mixture of both. If these matters remain confidential, there will be little public pressure on the Russians for visible improvements. If everything is done in a blaze of publicity, the Soviet reaction will tend to be not to respond, out of pride and stubbornness. I think that it is right that Ministers should make clear to the House and the press that they have raised human rights issues with Soviet Ministers, but there will be occasions when the specific names mentioned will not be made public. And when we do make names public, we assure ourselves via those most closely connected with the persons concerned that the public mention of their names will not do them harm.

There will always have to be a strong element of coaxing on our approaches. The power we have in our hand is the potent one of example and of persuasion, but it does not go much beyond that. Occasionally, those who are impatient for results and anxious for early progress suggest that some way should be found to force the Russians to behave better—that we should not speak to them until there is a major inprovement in their observance of human rights, or that we should not trade with them. Experience, however, shows that rigid linkage of that kind is an ineffective and unrealistic way of proceeding either in terms of our own interests or in the interests of those we are trying to help.

The successes that have been notched up, and I am thinking for instance of the major increase in the rate of permitted Jewish emigration in the 1970s, have coincided with periods of reduced international tension. We are now experiencing the lowest level of permitted Jewish emigration since the early 1970s. When the Soviet Union feels itself isolated, it has tended to treat its own citizens worse, not better. We should, therefore welcome recent signs of greater willingness on the part of the Russians at least to talk, because it is only through the process of increasing contact and a fuller mutual understanding that we can achieve the sort of East-West confidence that is likely to lead to better relationships and reduced tension. I believe that human rights will, in the long term, be the beneficiary of that.

Meanwhile, over human rights as much as any other part of the East-West agenda, we must show patience and persistence. We must not allow the subject to slip out of sight as relations with the East improve. It is not part of the Government's policy of pursuing better East-West relations to avoid the awkward issues. The Soviet Union's CSCE commitments remain, and we shall continue to remind it that we expect it it live up to these in their entirety. We shall continue to insist that progress must be made on all fronts, not simply selective ones. Advances on security or trade matters must not be at the expense of the human rights commitments. The fact that attention in the CSCE process this year has largely been on the conference on disarmament in Europe in Stockholm will be balanced next year by the undoubted considerable interest in this House and elsewhere in the human rights meeting in Ottawa. The latter will give the West good opportunity to make that principle clear in practice as well as theory.

My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the visit of Mr. Gorbachev to the United Kingdom. We look forward to that, as it is important in our relations with the Soviet Union. He asked me for an assurance that we would raise human rights issues during the visit. It is not our practice to indicate in advance the agenda for such visits. We shall bear in mind the issues that my hon. and learned Friend has raised.

Meanwhile, the Government will continue to plug away at this issue, to press for improvements in Soviet treatment of its Jewish community, and the other minority communities that suffer discrimination of one kind or another. We will do that not only because it is a most important part of the CSCE process that we should do so, and not only because common humanity compels us to do it. We shall continue to explain that the way that the Soviet authorities treat their citizens creates in itself a wider and real problem of trust and understanding in this country. if they wish us to accept the genuineness of their desire for peace and security, there would be no better earnest of their intentions than to show in the way that they treat their own citizens and especially those who wish to travel or to emigrate that their motives vis-a-vis their neighbours and the West are indeed peaceful and friendly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to three o'clock.