Alexei Navalny - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 28th January 2021.

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The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 27 January.

“The UK is appalled by the politically motivated detention of Alexei Navalny on arbitrary charges. As the Foreign Secretary made clear, Mr Navalny is the victim of a despicable crime, and we call for his immediate and unconditional release.

The Foreign Secretary has also condemned the Russian authorities’ unacceptable use of violence against peaceful protesters and journalists last weekend, and we have called on the Russian Government to respect their international commitments and to release those detained during peaceful demonstrations.

The UK has galvanised the international community in condemnation of these deplorable detentions. As G7 president, the UK issued a G7 Foreign Ministers’ statement on 26 January, emphasising our deep concern at these developments and calling on Russia to adhere to its national and international obligations.

The UK has led international efforts in response to Mr Navalny’s poisoning in August. We have worked closely with our international partners at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to urge Russia to uphold its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Last December, the UK led a joint statement in the OPCW, supported by 58 states parties, calling for Russia to be held to account.

We have also taken robust, bilateral action. In October, the UK enforced asset freezes and travel bans on six individuals responsible for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, as well on one Russian organisation. We keep further sanctions designations under constant review. However, it would not be appropriate to comment at this stage on possible future designations, as that could undermine their impact. We carefully consider all options under the relevant sanctions regimes.

The UK has been clear in condemning in the strongest possible terms the chemical weapons attack against Mr Navalny last year. He was the victim of a nerve agent attack, and the UK has called repeatedly for the Russian authorities to investigate and explain the use of a chemical weapon on Russian soil and to declare its Novichok programme to the OPCW.

The confirmed use of chemical weapons against opposition figures further undermines democracy and political plurality in Russia. More broadly, Mr Navalny’s detention is a further demonstration of the concerning deterioration in the human rights situation in Russia. We raise that regularly with the Russian Government, making it clear that Russia must uphold its international human rights responsibilities. I raised the issue myself during my visit to Moscow in November 2020, and our ambassador to Moscow raised Mr Navalny’s case immediately prior to his return to Russia, to underline that the UK was closely monitoring Russia’s actions.

We condemn the detention of thousands of peaceful protestors and journalists on 23 January and the Russian Government’s continued disregard for the fundamental rights of their people to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The UK has also urged Russia to fulfil its commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and all the relevant instruments of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and to guarantee those rights, including the right to freedom of expression, to its citizens.

The UK’s policy towards Russia is clear: we want a different relationship, but Russia must stop its destabilising behaviour towards the UK and its partners. Russia’s pattern of aggressive behaviour undermines its claim that it is a responsible international partner upholding the rules-based international system.”

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 1:01 pm, 28th January 2021

My Lords, first I pay tribute to the courage of the protesters in Russia standing up against corruption. Fifteen months ago, the Government’s response to the Russia report said that

“driving dirty money and money launderers out of the UK is a priority.”

It confirmed legislation to strengthen Companies House, make limited partnerships less open to money laundering and establish a register of beneficial ownership of foreign companies owning UK property. Is this still a priority, and when will we see the promised legislation? What is the timetable for broadening the scope of the Magnitsky sanctions to include corruption?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords when I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in commending the courage of what we have seen, not just in Moscow but around Russia, in support of Mr Navalny and his early and immediate release from detention. In response to the noble Lord’s question, the Russia report remains a key priority, as I said in your Lordships’ House last week. Our response was issued on the day. In addition to what the noble Lord mentioned, legislation will also enable security services and law enforcement agencies, for example, to tackle early threats of hostile activity. The National Crime Agency offences to criminalise harmful activity will be strengthened. As I said last week, we are reviewing visas in tier 1 issued before 2015. We will be working on the legislative timetable through the usual channels.

On sanctions, the noble Lord will be aware that we have already sanctioned one organisation and six individuals on the issue of the poisoning of Mr Navalny. On the issue of future designations, we will look at egregious abuses of human rights. As the noble Lord is aware, we are currently looking at corruption. We will be looking to see how we can broaden the scope of the sanctions regime in the near future.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I too pay tribute to Mr Navalny and the other courageous protesters. The noble Lord rightly said that sanctions are most effective when a number of countries jointly implement them. What joint action are they taking with the EU on sanctions in this appalling case, especially given that Mr Navalny was diagnosed in Germany as having been poisoned with Novichok? Does the Minister agree that it would help such joint working with the whole of the EU if the Government recognised the EU envoy as an ambassador?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second point, I believe that I have already informed the House that that is currently in discussion with the EU. On the substantive issue of sanctions, I have said that it works in tandem; we are working closely with the EU, not just on the sanctions regime and co-ordination with other allies. On the question about close working with the EU, the noble Baroness will have noted the G7 statement that just went out, which included the High Commissioner from the European Union, underlining the importance we are attaching, within the context of the G7, to the role of the European Union.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Independent Labour

My Lords, does the Minister agree with Mr Navalny that only if we sanction what he calls “the people with the money”, not those operatives who are obeying orders, will there be any impact at all on the Russian authorities?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I agree with the noble Baroness. That is why it is a priority for my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary to look at the issues of corruption and illicit finance in the broadening of the global human rights sanctions regime.

Photo of Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne Conservative

Can the Minister confirm that, while our Government rightly use sanctions as a weapon against the loss of Mr Navalny’s freedom, the many other links that our cultural heritage shares with Russia will not be harmed? I refer, of course, to our shared music, creative writing, sculpture, university links, and the many other creative ways whereby our citizens and professionals share common bonds and deep enduring friendships. Can the Minister assure the House that sanctions will avoid harming those important channels of mutual growth?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I reassure my noble friend that I agree with her. I am sure I speak for all noble Lords when I say that our challenge and dispute is not with the Russian people. We are standing on their side on their right to representation, and in the protests that we have seen in support of Mr Navalny. There are quite strict criteria for how the sanctions are applied: they are for egregious abuse of human rights.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench

My Lords, any abuse of human rights and corruption must be condemned and be in the best interests of the Kremlin and the people of Russia. I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in calling for a robust debate on policy towards Russia. Will the call for sanctions be expected to bring the desired results, or is it the requisite reaction? Are there any areas of trust in which a workable relationship with the Kremlin can be hammered out with evidence that we, with like-minded partners, have the ear of decision-makers in this regard?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point: wherever sanctions have been applied since we introduced them last year, we have seen that people take notice—Administrations and regimes take notice. But there is an important distinction that we, in using that sanctions regime on human rights, pinpoint individuals and organisations specifically, so it is not about standing against a country in its collective form.

On the issue of relations with Russia: of course, we continue to engage directly with Russia. As I have said before, it is a P5 member of the UN Security Council, and there are many issues around the world on security and conflict in which Russia has an important role to play.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour

My Lords, I, too, salute the courage of Alexei Navalny. Nobody is questioning the Minister’s commitment to this issue, but the sanctions have not worked. Sanctioning the people with the money is not necessarily sanctioning the people who have committed the human rights offences. It is Putin’s mates in London receiving the dirty money who we need to go for. The connection to Putin is the thing that will hit them, because while that money is allowed into London in the way it is at the moment—and, outside Europe, London is the centre—Putin can act as he wishes. If we fail to do this, it will start to look like the UK Government are compromised in some way. I do not believe they are, but it will look as though they are.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

As someone who worked in the City of London for 20 years, the integrity and robustness of the structures of the City of London are of paramount importance to me, as they are to the UK Government. Therefore, I share the noble Lord’s view that it is important we take constructive steps to stop the use of illicit financing and stop money flowing through London in the manner he suggests.

Photo of Lord Walney Lord Walney Non-affiliated

President Putin’s abhorrent disregard for international law has turned his great nation into a pariah on the global stage. I accept what the Minister said about keeping specific measures under review, but do the Government at least accept that the current suite of measures from the UK and our partners is not, thus far, proving sufficient to rein in this behaviour?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

While I note what the noble Lord has said, the steps we have taken within the context of the OPCW and with the G7 partners does, I believe, demonstrate to the Russians a strong international response. It is important we continue to strengthen our alliances in this respect so Russia does take notice and, more importantly, does so with regard to courageous individuals such as Alexei Navalny, who is being held without detention. Just to update your Lordships’ House: as I was coming in, I was informed that in his hearing, his appeal was not upheld, so he remains in detention. I will, of course, update the House as we get more details. We hope Russia will take note of these international actions, and I believe in certain quarters it is doing just that.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I thank the Minister for updating the House with that news, disappointing though it is. In preparation for this Question, I checked the 2019 Conservative election manifesto, which speaks of the UK being a champion of the rule of law, human rights and anti-corruption efforts. Does the Minister agree that we need to work consistently to have clear, consistent rules dealing with Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and, indeed, the UK Overseas Territories, with Magnitsky-style sanctions and other actions, setting up plans for reaction, if and when standards are breached? I should probably declare my position on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the noble Baroness poses a wide-ranging question about different countries and jurisdictions—she also mentioned the British Overseas Territories. Without generalising, it is important that we look at the specifics of each case, but I understand what she puts forward. We need to have measures to hand, and the human rights sanctions regime is one with which we can act specifically and, importantly, with key partners and allies to ensure individuals or groups who abuse human rights are held to account for their actions. I hope that, in time, as we have discussed today, the broadening of any scope of those sanctions, on the issue of illicit finance, in particular, will also be to the satisfaction of Members of your Lordships’ House.