Russia and the Council of Europe — [Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 18th July 2018.

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Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 9:30 am, 18th July 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Russia and the Council of Europe.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the many members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who have joined me to discuss this issue. It is a great pleasure to see them, and I am grateful to them for turning up to speak.

I start the debate by making two declarations. Neither is required for financial reasons, but they will offer some context to the debate. First, I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. To set the scene a little, the Council was established to promote the rule of law, democracy and human rights throughout post-war Europe. It is no less relevant today than it was 70 years ago. It has become the premier human rights forum in Europe for its now 47 member states. That will be important when we discuss Russia.

The Council is a bicameral institution, with member countries from across the wider Europe—not just the European Union—including Turkey and countries from the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, some of which I will mention during my speech. It also includes a number of partners in democracy and other observers, including Japan, the US, Mexico, Canada, as well as other important countries, such as Israel, and the representatives of the Palestinians.

The Council also has a relationship with a number of other institutions, including the European Court of Human Rights. It is important to remember that the Assembly elects judges to the European Court of Human Rights, which gives the judges, and therefore the whole Court, significant democratic legitimacy. That will also be relevant when we discuss Russia.

If the United Kingdom is to be part of the wider Europe, the Council offers a tailor-made vehicle for doing so. Rather than seeking to reinvent the wheel, we need to strengthen and to maximise the UK’s unique status within the Council, including on matters relating to Russia.

The second thing I wish to declare is that, before entering Parliament, I was the principal private adviser on matters eastern European, including the former USSR, for successive UK Governments of both colours. In that role, I helped to set up and steer the technical assistance programmes that helped those countries to develop. We worked on a range of activities, including on privatisation throughout the region.

Russia is also a member of the Council, but it has chosen not to put its delegation forward to the Assembly for approval. That is worth repeating: Russia has chosen to absent itself from the Assembly by not allowing its delegation to be questioned and approved, presumably for fear of the reaction to its continued occupation of large parts of Ukraine—not only Crimea, but eastern Ukraine, including Donbass.

Russia subsequently chose not to pay the Council its annual dues, which, as a grand payeur, were originally set at €33 million, so the Council is running short by €33 million. The Council is now under tremendous pressure to readmit Russia so that it will start paying again. In other words, we are being asked to sacrifice principle for cash.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

To be absolutely fair, we took away Russia’s voting rights.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

The Council took away Russia’s voting rights because of the invasion of Ukraine. That was not the first time Russia had done something like that; we are dealing with a serial offender. It has now also lost its right to elect judges to the European Court of Human Rights, following its annexation of Crimea and its action in eastern Ukraine. The Russian ambassador to the Council wrote that it was the “free choice” of the people of Crimea to become part of Russia and that the Assembly had so restricted the rights of its representatives that they could not continue. The first part of that is, frankly, laughable.

It is possible to argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that when the USSR broke up, we should not simply have accepted the countries based on the former component states of the USSR. However, to do otherwise would have complicated an already complex situation and would have delayed the emergence of independent nation states. I remember discussing this issue at the time and passing it by.

Russian activity in the Donbass and in Crimea has badly affected the human rights of Ukrainians there, some of whom are held as political prisoners. Members may recall our opportunity to meet Nadiya Savchenko—an Assembly member and Ukrainian air force pilot who had been imprisoned by the Russians. She addressed the Council after her release. Whether one agrees with Nadiya Savchenko’s politics is irrelevant; the fact is that she gave a moving account of her imprisonment by the Russians.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that the invasion of Crimea was the tipping point? Russia’s taking of two enclaves in Georgia—South Ossetia and Abkhazia—was when the international community should have acted. The invasion of Crimea followed because of our supine response when Russia invaded those parts of Georgia: we refused to do anything.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

My hon. Friend anticipates what I will say in a moment. I agree that we are dealing with a serial offender, as I said in answer to the earlier intervention. We should have taken a strong stance when Russia attacked Georgia. It came as no surprise that it then attacked bits of Ukraine.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

My hon. Friend is indeed making a powerful speech. Does he welcome Georgia’s being at the forefront of some of the discussions at the recent NATO conference and of a report from the special committee? Does he also agree that we ought to get on with allowing Georgia into NATO?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I agree that Georgia is fit for NATO membership. I look forward—along with my right hon. Friend—to monitoring the elections there later in the year. I have no idea what I will find on the ground there, but Assembly members play an important role in monitoring elections in newly emerged democracies.

Many might also recall the motion at the last part-session of the Council of Europe, which took up the case of Ukrainian prisoners of war—as I said in the Parliamentary Assembly, the issue of political prisoners goes right to the heart of what the Council of Europe is about. However, like many resolutions that the Council of Europe has passed to condemn the actions of Russia, that motion will almost certainly be ignored. Indeed, the Council of Europe has passed so many resolutions about occupied Ukrainian territory, the rights of the people there and political prisoners, that Russia’s non-compliance can be seen only as a gesture of ill will towards the Council of Europe.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

Given that a British citizen has now died as a result of the Novichok incident, does the hon. Gentleman think that we should perhaps reconsider Russia’s position in the Council of Europe?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I will come on to that, but I wonder whether the hon. Lady means that we should consider admitting Russia or excluding it. I put the Novichok case to the Croatian Prime Minister during the last public session of the Assembly, and I asked whether he thought that his decision to send away a Russian member of the Foreign Office based there was justifiable. His response was that the evidence Britain had produced was so strong that he would do it again. That is important.

Crimea is not the only source of disagreement. The Council of Europe has passed a resolution about the serious, systematic and widespread persecution, discrimination and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Chechnya, which has caused more than 100 people to flee that country. The Council of Europe called on Russia to conduct an independent national investigation, and for the extreme discrimination to end, but Russia has done nothing.

We have already mentioned Georgia, and the Council of Europe has criticised Russia for the abuse of human rights in the occupied regions. That abuse effectively extends to the use of war in that country, Russia’s non-recognition of the borders of Georgia and its treatment of people who live there, whose human rights have been abused. As the Georgian ambassador to the UK recently wrote, after 10 years of Russian aggression, Russia continues its occupation of regions of Georgia, undermining international law and the rules-based system, with massive infringements of human rights.

Another issue is the Smolensk plane crash, which killed the Polish President, Lech Kaczyński, and the Russian refusal to return the wreckage. The Russians claim that the return of the wreckage will simply fuel Polish conspiracy theories. They may be right, but returning the wreckage would also prove beyond doubt what happened in that plane crash, so the Russians should do it.

Ukraine has become the cause célèbre of this debate. A paper produced at the last meeting of the Council of Europe stated that 64 Ukrainians have received politically motivated convictions and are effectively prisoners of war whose human rights have been killed off.

The secretary-general of the Council of Europe said that the continued absence of Russia from the Council affects the rights of ordinary people in Russia to access the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps that statement can be believed, but I think it is so far from the truth that it is difficult to justify in terms of what can occur. The number of cases involving Russia that have been brought before the European Court of Human Rights is large, but is also worth considering Russia’s total disregard for the ECHR’s judgments, and the claim by the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation that Russia should not be bound by those judgments. We know from the judgment in the Yukos oil company case that following the rules of the ECHR and putting right a case on which it has already opined will be expensive. I am afraid, however, that I regard that as a fair price to pay for the wild west nature of Russia that we helped to create after the fall of communism.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

No one doubts that Russia’s human rights record is egregious, and one can go on listing its faults forever—it has as many faults as countries such as Azerbaijan, which is in the Council of Europe. Surely, however, my hon. Friend is not suggesting that the Foreign Office should stop talking to or engaging with Russia. Similarly, in the Inter-Parliamentary Union, if one engages with the Russians, despite their faults, one might at least have some chance of persuading them or informing them of our point of view.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but we are not simply engaging with Russia as a third party. We are talking about Russia’s inclusion in, or readmission into, the very body of which we are part, and for which we were, in 1949, an inspiration. Those are completely different circumstances to the description that my hon. Friend gives, whereby we should talk continually to Russia. This is about admitting Russia into our family home, as it were, and about it being part of that. In that situation, I think different rules apply.

I was speaking about our role in the fall of communism. We got it right in Poland and in the Czech Republic, but I fully acknowledge my part in getting it wrong in Russia. We await with bated breath the promise to amend the Russian constitution to allow judgments to be implemented.

So what do we do? The first thing that is not going to happen is the lifting of sanctions that we imposed against Russia’s voting rights at the Council of Europe or the restoration of those voting rights. The second thing that I do not believe will happen is the sudden withdrawal of Russia from the Donbass or Crimea.

Can it be right for a member of the Council of Europe to invade another’s territory, to conduct hateful campaigns elsewhere in the region, to have a casual attitude to human rights and to suffer no consequences? Are we simply to roll over and readmit Russia to the Council of Europe without any effects? Is the cost of keeping Russia out of the Council of Europe completely out of kilter with the benefits of bringing it back in? I think the answer to all these questions is no. Is it true that the Council of Europe cannot survive without the presence of Russia? Again, the answer is no.

The Russian Ambassador to the Council of Europe said:

“in seeking to ‘punish’ the delegation of the Russian parliament in 2014-2015 for the free choice by the people of Crimea to become part of Russia, the Assembly restricted the rights of Russian parliamentarians to such an extent that it made it impossible for them to continue their work in PACE.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Russians have chosen to exclude themselves. The ambassador goes on to describe the actions of the Parliamentary Assembly as “thoughtless”, but they were not. Those actions were a deliberate reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which the Council of Europe can hopefully help to reverse.

Depriving the Council of Europe of €33 million is a serious matter, but it should not stand in the way of the wholesale reform for which many of us have argued. It cannot be right to simply sit and plan for nothing to happen at the end of next year—that is not a realistic option, and neither is it realistic for the Council of Europe to have no contingency plan for what will happen if the Russians continue in this way.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

My hon Friend is making a powerful point. At the moment, it looks as though the Council of Europe is being held hostage by means of a concerted effort by the Russians, through friends in the Council of Europe, to get themselves back into the Council. That is happening, as far as I can see, under the secretary-general, because he feels that the money is more important than the political will to say no. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I agree. The point I would make is that the Council of Europe is all about political will. It was set up with that background. If we give in to that political will, we have nowhere to go. What is required is a proper plan to reduce the waste and inefficiency of the Council. I am sure we can take out enough expenditure to replace the Russian contribution. I believe, overall, that we are right to maintain our position of principle and to reject this choice of cash.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Labour, Penistone and Stocksbridge 9:50 am, 18th July 2018

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. I thank John Howell for securing the debate; it is important that we discuss in this House the situation in the Council of Europe as it relates to Russia.

As the leader of the Labour delegation to the Council of Europe and someone who has seen at first hand the turbulence that Russia is causing there, I believe this debate is critical. Russia’s relationship with the Council of Europe is fraught with difficulty. How we approach it over the coming months and years will have a profound effect—not only on the Council, but on the integrity of UK foreign policy and the security of the UK and other member states.

I begin by reminding hon. Members of Russia’s accession to the Council, as the points made in the debate at that time are being replayed to some extent today. Russian membership was given in 1996—a decision based on pragmatism and democratic hope. Its human rights record was a long way from spotless—indeed, its initial membership bid was suspended because of its actions in Chechnya. On balance, it was agreed that Russia and the Council would mutually benefit from Russia’s membership. Over time, it was hoped, Russia’s record of human rights under the rule of law would improve. The Moscow Times said that the Council and Russian citizens would get

“some small degree of leverage over Moscow and its justice system.”

To an extent, Russia’s record did improve. It ratified the European convention on human rights, acceded to various Council conventions and made reforms to its judicial and penal system. However, the list of human rights abuses and the occasions on which it has flown in the face of Council of Europe conventions is so long that it would be impossible to fully recount them within the constraints of this debate. Its record in Chechnya is horrific, as is its aggression in Transnistria. At home, its treatment of minority religious groups and LGBT people—particularly in Chechnya, as the hon. Member for Henley mentioned so eloquently—and the restrictions it imposes on journalists clearly deride the principles the Council of Europe was founded on.

Human Rights Watch says that under Putin, human rights standards have fallen, and Amnesty International’s report on human rights in Russia over the past year records that there were,

“further restrictions to the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and independent NGOs continued... Religious minorities continued to face harassment and persecution. The right to a fair trial was frequently violated. Torture and other ill-treatment persisted”.

That is the analysis of Amnesty International. In 2017, Russia had 370 registered cases at the European Court of Human Rights—almost triple the number for Turkey. If I am honest, we have allowed Russia to get away with a lot up to now—too much—but we must draw a line somewhere. If the invasion of another member state’s sovereign territory does not represent that line, what on earth does?

It is absolutely right that the Council of Europe should have condemned and sanctioned the Russian Federation for its actions in Crimea and the Donbass. The hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend, in this context—was absolutely right to say that Russia excluded itself from the Assembly. I will say this: Russia may suspend its contributions to the Council, it may threaten not to resume them and it may risk its position on the Committee of Ministers, but we cannot allow ourselves to be blackmailed into accepting such brazen disregard for the common principles on which the Council was founded.

The Council of Europe’s job is to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law. In that context, we must ask ourselves why Russia is so keen to reinstate its membership on its own terms. Does its membership enable the Council’s mission? Does it help us to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law, or does its role complement its approach elsewhere on the international stage? In other words, is the Russian Federation’s membership primarily related to an attempt simply to disrupt and to divide western democracy?

I acknowledge Secretary-General Jagland’s position on all of this. He argues:

“It would be a big step back for Europe” if Russia withdrew its participation in the Council. In my view, however, Jagland’s position is also deeply worrying. A report in the Financial Times in November made it clear that Jagland was,

“touring European capitals warning of a serious risk that Moscow could withdraw or crash out of the 47-member body unless its demands are met.”

He said:

“It would really be very, very bad if Russia was to leave…because the convention and court has been so important for Russian citizens…It will be a negative development for Europe, because we will have a Europe without Russia. It would be a big step back for Europe.”

I do not accept that. Two days ago, Jagland tweeted:

President Trump is right, ‘The World wants a better relationship between USA and Russia’. The first step has been taken, hopefully”.

Then again, a few hours later, he tweeted:

“Good that Presidents Trump and Putin meet. Better than the opposite. Congratulations to the Finnish Government…an outstanding statesman”— referring to the President of Finland.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

The hon. Lady has made a very powerful point about Mr Jagland, and I think she needs to go a little further. I suggest this: he wants a legacy from what has been a failure of his tenure. This is his legacy. He wants the Russians back. The hon. Lady is right that we are being blackmailed in a very simple way by the secretary-general to allow him to have some kudos. Her point is absolutely forthright, and she is right.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Labour, Penistone and Stocksbridge

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, it is quite clear that the secretary-general is more than sympathetic to the Russian cause. Those tweets about the meeting between Trump and Putin earlier this week showed a lack of real judgment. For someone who is leading an important, international European body that defends human rights, I found those tweets astonishingly disturbing.

I do not think either that the argument that Russian citizens need to maintain access to the European Court of Human Rights is correct. My understanding is that, if Russia is suspended from the Committee of Ministers, it is exactly that—suspended. It is not expelled from the Council of Europe; its membership is suspended. On that basis, Russian citizens would still have access to the European Court.

The issue needs to be bottomed out, because the view being propagated around the Council of Europe and among the delegates to the Assembly is exactly that we cannot afford to let Russian citizens lose access to the European Court. In any case, my response to that is, “What about the human rights of the Ukrainians, the Crimeans and the Crimean Tatars, which have been deeply compromised by the actions of the Russian Federation?” Jagland does not seem to want to acknowledge that.

I genuinely look forward to a time when we can welcome Russia back to the Council of Europe on the right terms, but so far Russia has done nothing to reverse its annexation of Crimea. It continues in a “totally unacceptable” manner—those are the words of Secretary-General Jagland—to block the Council’s human rights commissioner from visiting the region. It continues to undermine the most fundamental pillars of the European convention.

In recent years, Russia has ramped up its aggression on the global stage. It defends President Assad and his use of chemical weapons, meddled in the US election and is now under investigation for its ties to the Brexit campaign. Let us not forget that it was responsible for poisoning a former intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, right here in the UK. While we fight among ourselves in the west, Russia is of course busy building out its strategic capacity and its influence in the Black sea and the eastern Mediterranean.

A careful balancing act was being played out when Russia was given membership of the Council of Europe. At that time, there was genuine hope. There was a belief that Russian membership would help Russia and Europe to integrate and move towards a shared moral code. But to lift sanctions now, based on the same assumption, would be wrong. In the words of one Ukrainian official:

“It would be the first hole in the wall.”

This is a matter of principle over expediency, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said. We cannot permit a member state to behave aggressively and hold the Council to ransom over its membership. What message does that give to Russia, Ukraine and the people of Crimea? What does it say about the standards that we apply to other countries or to future applicants? It is blackmail, and it cannot be tolerated.

I make it clear that my feelings do not come from a place of dislike for the Russian people or the Russian state. They come from an honest and sincere belief in the work of the Council of Europe. The principles on which it was founded we must all, as citizens of a liberal democracy, hold dear. We need only to reflect on the grounds on which the Council was founded to be reminded that we must never take those values for granted, and at a time of increasing instability at home, in Europe and beyond, we must robustly defend that which keeps us safe and at liberty.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham 10:01 am, 18th July 2018

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. It is also a great pleasure to follow Angela Smith, who leads the Labour delegation in the Council of Europe in an exemplary fashion. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on obtaining this timely debate. I am looking forward to hearing what my right hon. Friend the Minister from the Foreign Office has to say about this subject, because he is an accomplished Minister, but he must realise that this is a very difficult situation. My speech will be in accordance with the two speeches that went before; I have a similar perspective.

I serve on the Council of Europe alongside many of my colleagues in this Chamber. It is very ably led by Sir Roger Gale, and my political group is led by my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger. However, I can honestly say that the group of Members of Parliament and Members of the other place who go there to represent the United Kingdom work together as a team—a very comprehensive team and one whose members complement one another. Very little politics is played in the UK delegation to the Council of Europe; we see ourselves representing the United Kingdom, rather than our independent political positions, which gives us great strength as a delegation.

As a former colleague of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, I, too, worked behind what was then the iron curtain. We suffered similar deprivations when we went into that territory in the name of capitalism and bringing private companies into the newly emerging markets after glasnost and perestroika. I commend him for the sterling work that he did and the advice that he gave to successive UK Governments.

I think that it is useful to remind those listening in to the debate that the Council of Europe is Europe’s oldest political body. It emerged from the ashes of world war two and has been described as the

“democratic conscience of Greater Europe”.

Its commitment to upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law across, now, 47 member states and 820 million people is remarkable.

I think my colleagues would agree that we sometimes see the dead hand of the European Union trying to take over and dominate the Council of Europe, but fortunately it fights and maintains its independence, which is absolutely right. I think that it is in many ways a more important body than the European Union, because the people who go to the Council to represent their countries are directly elected Members of the Assemblies in their countries. Also, it has a very proud history, which includes eliminating the death penalty across the 47 countries. We should all be proud of that.

As I have said before in this Chamber, I think that we should have an annual debate on the Floor of the House in Government time on the work of the Council of Europe. I hope that by reiterating the proposal—I know I have cross-party support for it—we could achieve that. At the end of every year, to be able to do a summary of what the Council has been up to would be very important.

On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House of Commons that we needed to be

“clear and unwavering about where Russia needs to change its behaviour, and for as long as Russia persists in its efforts to undermine our interests and values, we must continue to deter…them.”—[Official Report, 16 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 24.]

That is exactly what we have been seeing in the Council of Europe. As hon. Members have said, following the annexation of Crimea, the Council enforced sanctions on the Russian Federation. Six years on from the military aggression that we witnessed from Russia in Georgia, it continues illegally to occupy territory there.

We ought to be clear: there has been some confusion about this, but the Russian Federation has not been suspended from participating in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. It has taken the decision to remove its delegation from representing its credentials on the floor of the Hemicycle, following our unwavering support for the sovereignty of Ukraine, which is to the credit of all our colleagues in the Council of Europe—those from other countries as well as our own delegation.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

My right hon. Friend is completely correct to put it on the record that the Russians suspended themselves, but they are, irritatingly, still coming to the ad hoc committee, which my hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale and I attend as well. They are coming back to the Council of Europe regularly in that guise.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

That is one of the confusions that has arisen, because the rules and regulations about what happens to a country that is in Russia’s position are unclear. I think that Secretary-General Jagland has a great deal of work to do to clarify the position, because the Russians coming back to the ad hoc committee has caused a great deal of consternation among many of our colleagues and not least to myself, because we cannot understand why they still have the right to sit at the table when we are in this hiatus where the money has been withheld and they have removed the rest of their delegation from participation in any of our committees and activities.

It is widely agreed that the violation of the sovereignty of states arose from an illegal referendum. I want to dwell on that for a moment, because I serve as the vice-president of the committee on political affairs and democracy and am also the rapporteur for the new rules on referendums. We have just completed a large report in this country, under the auspices of the constitution unit at University College London, looking at the rules in the United Kingdom on referendums. The independent commission on which I have served for the past nine months has come up with a series of recommendations for changes to legislation in this country. I am working with Dr Alan Renwick, who is now the international adviser to the Council of Europe’s political affairs committee on this matter, and I am working with the Venice Commission as it updates its rules on referendums, which is badly needed after 10 years, to try to bring more clarity to the situation.

That we have Russia in the Council of Europe at all is one of the key achievements of the post-cold war period. When it ratified its membership of the European convention on human rights in 1998, there was a real welcome for its inclusion, but in December 2015 it passed a law to allow Russian courts to overrule the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, because it disliked those decisions. Russia was particularly exercised, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley mentioned, by being told to pay $2 billion to shareholders of Yukos, but there have been many judgments that have irked both President Putin and the ruling party, and some of their behaviour has resulted from that. More than one third of the cases that come before the European Court concern Russia. To put that in perspective, in 2017 the Court dealt with 8,042 applications concerning Russia. Even though 6,886 of those were declared inadmissible, it delivered 305 judgments concerning 1,156 applications, and in 293 of those there was a finding of at least one violation of the European convention on human rights. Before I arrived in the Chamber I looked up the figures for 2018, and already 5,975 applications have been allocated to a judicial formation, of which 579 have been decided by judgment. There are currently a further 9,191 applications pending a judicial formation. That is a heavy workload, and is a reflection of the human rights situation.

The Council of Europe is no stranger to the practice of bringing together representatives of countries that have political and diplomatic tensions, and it acts as an important partner in the soft diplomacy required to bring resolution to intractable problems. What we are discussing is probably one such problem. We need to seek a remedy for the situation because at the moment 140 million Russians will be denied access to the European Court of Human Rights, and that is not something to be taken lightly. We should not capitulate and accept an unconditional deal, as that would set a precedent for those countries that are often accused of backsliding on democracy. It is important that the founding principles of the Council of Europe should not be held to ransom as it faces complicated financial issues.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. However imperfect the Russian Government’s attitude towards the Court, at least there is a chance that the 144 million Russians will continue to have access to a genuinely independent human rights court. That is why Russia must maintain its place on the Committee of Ministers—so that at least there is a chance of ordinary Russians getting access to the Court.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

The unilateral withdrawal of the funds that are important for running the Council of Europe and the Court is to be deprecated, and I should like those funds to come back, but I do not believe we should give in to the current blackmail. We need to stiffen the resolve of the Council of Europe and of Secretary-General Jagland. Money should not be more important than the democratic principles by which we all want to live. I hope for a resolution to the problem that does not involve rolling over and giving in to the Russians.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. I am not going to impose a time limit, but there are four Members remaining to speak, and I have to call the Front Benchers at 10.30. If Members can confine their remarks to between four and five minutes, we should be able to get everyone in.

Photo of Phil Wilson Phil Wilson Labour, Sedgefield 10:14 am, 18th July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank John Howell for securing this timely debate. It is important that the subject is being discussed in the House.

Our argument is not with the Russian people, but with the Russian Government and—dare I say it—the elite. It will be the Russian people who end up suffering—in fact, they are suffering—because of Russia’s self-imposed suspension from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Let us not forget that it is the Russians who do not present their credentials at the Council on an annual basis. Russia has also suspended its €33 million payment to the Council and has threatened to withdraw from it entirely. If it did that, access to the European Court of Human Rights would be denied to Russian citizens, whose cases take up a disproportionate amount of its time: about one third of the cases brought concern Russia.

Sir Edward Leigh said that we could go on forever listing the types of cases, but there are a few that we need to mention: the imprisonment of children, phone tapping of journalists, holding prisoners in cages, failing to investigate high-profile murders, torture and detaining lawyers and judges. The Russian Constitutional Court has ruled that Russia should not be bound by all international human rights obligations. In June 2016 the Venice Commission for democracy—a body of the Council of Europe—issued a final opinion on the legal changes in Russia. The commission stressed that the

“execution of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights is unequivocal and an imperative legal obligation.”

It would seem that the relationship between the Russians and the Council of Europe is tense in any case, but it can be resolved over time. I am sure that if Russia remained a member of the Council of Europe, matters would have the opportunity to resolve themselves amicably in the years to come. However, although dialogue is important, so are the principles by which the Council of Europe is governed.

There are also the issues that the Parliamentary Assembly has criticised Russia for in the past, including the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Chechnya; the Smolensk plane crash in 2010, which killed the Polish President; the refusal to send back the wreckage of the plane, which raises more questions than it answers; the politically motivated conviction of Ukrainians; and the condemnation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organisation. The Russian Government say that their failure to implement the ECHR’s rulings is because of the fact that without Russian representation they do not have right to select ECHR judges and therefore they should not abide by the Court’s decisions.

The Russian people are the victims—but not the only victims. They are denied human rights protection at the highest level in Europe because their Government have taken the decision to invade another member state, so sanctions are imposed. Still, the Russian Government insist that it is not their fault that the Russian people are denied their human rights—those that any civilised society would want its people to enjoy. For the Russians, it is always someone else’s fault.

The sanctions on Russia should not be lifted. Countries cannot go around invading other member states of the Council of Europe and think they can get away with it. The financial hit on the Council of Europe must be endured, I suppose. This is about principle and we need to seek a way through that does not deny principles. We can consider the human rights issues of the Russian people but we should also consider the rights of the Ukrainians as well. Russia—a country prepared to flout international norms—cannot get away with it.

I do not believe that we can view Russia’s relationship with the Council of Europe in isolation. Russia’s relationship with the Council is disruptive, disconcerting and manipulative, and is part of a pattern that is intended to sow discontent and division on the European continent. That pattern includes the Council of Europe, Crimea, Ukraine, incursions into democratic institutions of other European states—and, indeed, in America—and the use of chemical weapons on the streets of Salisbury. It is part of a strategy to divide and rule—to disregard human rights, international rule-based order and the rule of law.

A populist nationalist Russian leadership believes it can make itself strong only by ensuring Europe is weak, and it will go to any length to secure that objective. Populist movements in Hungary, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, as well as Brexit itself, and President Trump in the White House all play into Putin’s hands. We must take that backdrop into consideration when we think about how we deal with Russia’s relationship with the Council of Europe.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 10:18 am, 18th July 2018

I understand the time constraint, Mr Howarth, but because I am the leader of the UK delegation there are certain things that I need to say. I shall do my best to stick to five minutes, as you asked.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell. I want immediately to express my appreciation for the collegiate attitude taken by the entire United Kingdom delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and for the cross-party basis on which we work in the interest of the United Kingdom.

I am particularly grateful for the support of my friend Angela Smith, who recently accompanied me to the Struthof concentration camp to lay a wreath. That was a stark reminder, in Alsace, of why the Council of Europe was founded and the principles on which it was founded by Winston Churchill and nine other countries after the war.

There is no doubt in my mind that Russia is in flagrant breach of the principles of the Council of Europe by its actions in Crimea, Ukraine and the Donbass; by shooting down a civilian passenger aircraft; by the invasion of Georgia and Moldova; by the poisoning of the Skripals; and, as has been mentioned by hon. Members, by its breaches of human rights across the piece. The list is almost endless.

I must underscore the fact that in 2014, following the annexation of Crimea, the Parliamentary Assembly suspended the voting rights of the Russian delegation, but they were not expelled. Aleksey Pushkov, the leader of the Russian delegation, stage-managed a press conference, walked out of the Hemicycle and led his delegation out of the Parliamentary Assembly. Since that time, it is the Russians who have declined to present their credentials. The idea that they have somehow been excluded is a myth. As has been said, the Council of Europe is a bicameral body and the Russians still attend and contribute to the Committee of Ministers. For reasons that none of us really understand, they have also been allowed to participate in Michele Nicoletti’s ad hoc committee.

My hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh indicated that we took away the Russian voting rights, which is apparently why they are allowed to suspend their payments. I suspect that if Spain were to annex Gibraltar, which is a fairly direct comparison, my hon. Friend might have something to say about it. If the Spanish then persecuted part of the population of the Rock and imprisoned some of them, he might have even more to say about it. That is precisely what has happened in Crimea. The Russian Federation is clearly in flagrant breach of the terms of the convention on human rights.

Another myth, which has been said by Secretary-General Jagland and propagated by others, is that if Russia were expelled from the Council of Europe, the Russian people would not have access to the European Court of Human Rights. That is, quite simply, wrong. The Committee of Ministers has no power to expel Russia; it can only suspend. If Russia does not pay next year, the Committee of Ministers will do precisely that. That suspension, however, will not deny the Russian people the right to take cases before the European Court of Human Rights.

We are facing a straightforward attempt at blackmail. The secretary-general of the Council of Europe has realised that money is more important to him than principle and that he is not prepared to make the necessary budget savings to accommodate the loss of funding from Russia. The delegation that I am proud to lead is united in saying that principle is more important than money, that the Council of Europe is not for sale and that we will fight the proposals to readmit Russia—on its own terms and nobody else’s—in the presidential committee, the bureau, the rules committee and the next plenary session. Unless and until the Russians acknowledge the transgressions and make concessions themselves, they will not, for our money, come back into the Parliamentary Assembly.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. I will call Sir Edward Leigh next. If he could bring his speech down to three minutes, I will be able to get in Jamie Stone, too.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 10:24 am, 18th July 2018

I fear I will be the grit in this debate, but maybe it will produce a pearl of a speech from the Minister—like him, small, but perfectly formed. I will see what I can do to put an alternative point of view, at least for the sake of debate. I am not one of Lenin’s useful idiots. I have no illusions about President Putin. Like everybody here, I could list all the appalling human rights abuses.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. The three Front-Bench spokespeople have indicated that they are prepared to take a little less time, so we should have enough time for people to complete their speeches, although they will still have to be fairly brief.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Thank you, Mr Howarth; I will try to make these points as quickly as I can. As I was saying, nobody doubts Russia’s abuses. We did suspend their voting rights because of Crimea.

Without getting into all the history, I should say that the history of Crimea is complicated and somewhat different from that of Gibraltar. Nobody, as far as I know, in the Council of Europe, the House of Lords or the House of Commons objected when Khrushchev wrested Crimea from Russia in the 1950s and transferred it to Ukraine by decree, against the wishes of the people. I am just now repeating the common view among Russians—it is important that we understand it. No one doubts that the Russian community in Crimea is in the overwhelming majority. Despite all the doubts about the exactness of the referendum, nobody doubts, surely, that the people of Crimea, having been part of Russia for hundreds of years, wish to remain part of Russia. This history is complicated.

Were we right to suspend their voting rights? I do not know. The Russians are a proud people. Russia is not a developed democracy like France or Germany. We cannot expect instant success. As a proud people, it would surely be too much to expect them, having had their voting rights suspended, to say, “Fair enough. We will carry on turning up without voting rights.” None of us would do that here, would we? If we had our voting rights suspended, none of us would agree just to sit around. That is their point of view and we have to understand it.

What of the future? I believe it would be wrong to kick Russia out of the Council of Ministers. As has been said, it is a bicameral system. The delegation and our ambassador talk the whole time. He engages robustly with the Russians. He puts across our point of view. We engage robustly with the Russians through our Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary.

The Council of Europe is not the European Parliament, nor is it this Parliament; it does not have executive authority. It is primarily, in my view, an inter-parliamentary union. When we admit people to that union, we accept that we have to take them warts and all. We know, for instance, that Azerbaijan has a bad human rights record and, although it has been found to be corrupting the Council of Europe, it is still a member. Surely it is better to engage—to have jaw-jaw not war-war—and at least make some effort to influence them. It would be a dangerous development if those 144 million Russians had no access at all to the European Court of Human Rights. It may be imperfect access, as I have said. The record of the Russian Government in obeying its judgments may not be up to standard, but at least it is some way forward.

I hope that, in those terms, we can view this in a moderate, middle-of-the-road way. We should constantly attack the Russians, stand up to them and condemn all their human rights abuse, but at least engage with them. I would be grateful if the Minister said whether he thinks that our ambassador, in doing all this work in the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe, is fulfilling a useful role.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 10:29 am, 18th July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate John Howell on securing this debate. I am here as a bit of a fraud, really, because I am not an expert on the Council of Europe, although I am particularly interested in this subject. I am a history graduate and when I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I chaired the cross-party group on Russia. What Sir Edward Leigh has just said will be my theme as well.

As the hon. Member for Henley said, we got it wrong after the break-up of the Soviet Union when it came to Russia. We must remember two things about the Russians: first, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough said, their pride; and secondly, their respect for authority and deep fear of anarchy, which explain much of what Russia does. They have a tremendous fear of the great European plain, because Napoleon and Hitler swept in. We have to remember their defensive attitude and that of the Russian state; if we do not, we will make a big mistake. That is where the Russia of today comes from.

Equally, as other hon. Members have said, we should make no mistake about the fact that Russia is a serious issue for the UK—I am the defence spokesman for my party. The under-sea, covert warfare that is happening in the oceans, not least off the north coast of my constituency, is real and we have to be very careful. The Ministry of Defence must remember that. As we have heard again and again, there is also a cyber war. A former Member of this House is on Russian television for propaganda purposes—make no mistake.

This is a first-year essay compared with the very elegant tutorial that I have just heard—I have been learning a great deal—but surely it is correct to say that the UK must deal with Russia from a position of strength, because Russia respects strength in other countries. When we achieve that position of strength, however, we should seek to have a mature new relationship with Russia, because jaw-jaw is better than war-war, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough said. I, too, will listen with great interest to the Minister’s response.

Today’s debate has sparked my interest. I am sure that the House will return to the issue as the months and years go by, and I will keep track of it. One of the best things about this place is that we can have a thoughtful debate such as this one, from which a relatively new Member like me can learn something. It has got me thinking and taking a greater interest in what other hon. Members have said.

Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement & Nuclear Disarmament) 10:32 am, 18th July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I start by putting a few things that have happened in the past 48 hours in context, regarding President Trump’s visit and discussions with President Putin. I thought the whole point of playing golf on a quiet Scottish golf course was to clear the mind and think about other things, but President Trump has left us in a much more confused and incoherent position than we were in at the end of last week. Many Republican party members have denounced not just his comments but his whole demeanour during that visit. Either way, it has destabilised the rules-based order and left us ill-prepared for future challenges.

I support and welcome the debate secured by John Howell. The Scottish National party supports the pressure that the Council of Europe put on Russia following the annexation of Crimea. We are strongly committed to membership of the Council of Europe and recognise its pivotal place and role in strengthening human rights across the world since its formation in 1949. We are concerned, however, about the UK’s withdrawal from the European convention on human rights, which sends completely the wrong signal to Russia. We should try to enhance the recognition of human rights in Russia and abroad. I hope the Minister will comment on that.

On Ukraine, our defence team recently returned from a visit to Kiev and the Donbass region. Russia has absolutely no right to be in Crimea, by any measure of international recognition of the rule of law. It has created millions of displaced people. We spoke to many families on the frontline in the Donbass region who are subject to daily shelling—they can time it almost to the minute; the shelling starts at 7 o’clock. They cannot move from their houses or flats because there is nowhere for them to go. That affects millions. Russia is creating dreadful problems in that region.

In Kiev, it does not feel like the country is at war, but dealing with the incursions on the massive border that exists between Ukraine and the annexed area of Crimea takes up 90% of the Government’s time and energy. Many citizens are in prison in Crimea and others are under daily attack because of their beliefs and sexual orientation, or for organising political resistance.

On human rights, repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 would be a retrograde step. The European convention on human rights was a considerable achievement for the whole of Europe after the atrocities of world war two. It is effective in defining the common principles and standards agreed by almost all the countries across the continent. As I said, the UK’s withdrawal from the convention risks sending the wrong signal to Russia—that it could freely disregard international human rights norms at home and abroad—and undermines the work of human rights groups in Russia.

Many hon. Members present are hugely experienced in the politics, funding and fees of the Council of Europe, but I agree with those hon. Members who have said that retaining the principles of the Council should trump any issues around funding and maintaining as much dialogue with Russia as possible.

I started with President Trump, and I will end with him. It was important that during his visit he sat in Churchill’s chair at Chartwell. Many hon. Members have said that there should be jaw-jaw instead of war-war, and we should consider that way forward more fully, even after Salisbury and Ukraine. I hope that hon. Members who are involved in the Council of Europe can involve Russia in future discussions to ensure that we can rely on it as a valuable partner in the future and that relations are cemented rather than broken.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) (Europe) 10:37 am, 18th July 2018

It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Howarth. This important debate, secured by John Howell, has roused strong passions and concerns about the significant issues of human rights and civil liberties.

The background is that, after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Council imposed sanctions on Russia, and Russian delegates’ voting rights to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe were suspended. That suspension has been renewed since. In summer 2017, Russia suspended its annual payments of €33 million to the Council of Europe, as has been said. The Council of Europe rules state that member states that do not pay their contributions will also be denied representation in the selection of judges for the European Court of Human Rights.

In November 2017, Council of Europe Secretary-General Jagland toured European capitals warning of the risk that Moscow could withdraw completely from the organisation unless the sanctions were lifted. He argued that that would be a blow to Russian citizens, as they would lose access to the European Court of Human Rights. It has been mentioned that they would not necessarily lose their right to use the Court, but they would lose the ability to implement its decisions.

Russian cases take up a disproportionate amount of the time of the European Court of Human Rights, and that has been highlighted today by Dame Cheryl Gillan. In relation to what she said, the figures are quite significant, and we have to consider how we can try to influence that situation. Many aggressive stances have been taken over what Russia is doing, as there should be when it comes to human rights and civil liberties. Equally, however, a number of Members have said that we need to have more jaw-jaw rather than just war-war. So there is an issue here that we have to try to address in order to move forward. However, supporters of Ukraine and others argued against such a move, saying it would be a signal to other organisations, particularly the EU, that it was time to soften the position regarding the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s backing of the Crimean rebels in the Donbass against the Ukraine Government.

In March 2018, Russia announced that it was again withholding its payment to the Council of Europe. Many Russian citizens have taken their cases to the ECHR, and the number of applications to the Court has increased recently, as has been mentioned. In 2017, Russia was the country with the highest number of cases registered at the Court, with 370 cases, which put it some way ahead of Turkey, which had 138 cases registered, and Romania, which had 110. Also, Russia has the highest number of awards by the Court against it. Notable cases can be found in the Court’s Russia press country profile, which was updated in June 2018. However, despite what the Council of Europe regards as Russia’s legally binding commitments, Russia has not complied with some judgments of the Court. All these issues are very important in terms of human rights, and we have to consider how we can get those judgments implemented.

A number of Members have mentioned that the principles are more important than the money, and I wholly agree. However, we also have to consider what Russia is currently doing to work with the European Union, and particularly with Germany, on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will bring in about 70% of the Russian gas exports that go to Germany. Currently, the Nord Stream 2 deal is not being negotiated, because of Denmark’s refusal to give Russia permission to lay the pipeline through its territory.

There are significant issues we can negotiate with Russia about to support the Russian people, who suffer huge human rights abuses. That is the important issue here: how do we support them? A number of cases have been highlighted, including the Polish plane crash and a number of other issues relating to the LGBT community, particularly in Chechnya, where members of that community are completely ignored as a group of people and do not have a status. The only way that we can support such people is if we have some sort of discussion and ability to negotiate with Russia.

As far as I am concerned, that is the key here, and isolating Russia is not going to be a mechanism for moving forward. We have such a mechanism because of Russia’s desire to trade with Germany; we have to look at that. That trade can also help Ukraine, even though there is an issue with Russia’s Brotherhood pipeline, which comes through Ukraine. Actually, that pipeline earns Ukraine more than 2% of its GDP.

So there are significant issues that we can try to negotiate with Russia about in order to move forward and get Russia to honour its human rights obligations, its obligations to the Council of Europe and its obligations to the ECHR. Those are the significant issues we want to handle, and if we do not handle them and just completely isolate Russia, we will leave the Russian people completely to their own devices and without any international representation.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

The hon. Gentleman is making incredibly powerful points. However, having been a member of the Council of Europe for eight years, I gently say to him that Russia is determined to come in by the back door. It cannot come in through the front door because we, as western democracies, are saying, “No. We do not accept what you have been doing in Crimea and elsewhere.” I also gently say to him that one of the things we are trying to do—through our ambassador, the Foreign Office and other routes—is to make sure that Russia lives up to its responsibilities. We want Russia back, but it has to understand that what has happened is not the way to do things. I gently say that to the hon. Gentleman and no more.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) (Europe)

I think the hon. Member for Henley, who secured this excellent debate, made the point—and it is the essential point that I am trying to make as well—that if we completely isolate Russia, we will not achieve some of those objectives.

So I leave this to the talents of the Minister, who is more than able to negotiate. He should particularly take into account the relationship Germany has with Russia at the moment, our continued support for Ukraine over Russia’s Brotherhood pipeline, which goes through Ukraine, and the position that Denmark has taken in relation to pipelines. Those are the real issues that we should try to push Russia on, to get it to come to its senses and return to the table to negotiate an agreement with us.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Before I call the Minister, let me say that I know he will need no reminding that it is customary to leave a short time for the Member who secured the debate to sum up. I call Sir Alan Duncan.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Minister of State 10:45 am, 18th July 2018

Thank you, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak and for your chairmanship of this debate.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend John Howell for securing this debate, because I genuinely welcome this opportunity to put on the record my appreciation and the Government’s appreciation of his contribution and that of all other hon. Members who are active members of the UK’s delegation to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, many of whom are here today. As a rapporteur, my hon. Friend has been at the forefront of the Parliamentary Assembly’s work on press freedom, and I know he was particularly active during the last session in highlighting Russia’s failure to honour its human rights obligations, notably in illegally annexed Crimea. I am also grateful for the contributions from all the hon. Members of all parties who have spoken today, in what is a very cross-party and enlightened endeavour in relation to the Council of Europe.

The defence and promotion of human rights is a fundamental part of our foreign policy. That is why the Council of Europe is important, as a pan-European institution working to advance human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the whole of Europe.

Russia has signed up to Council of Europe standards relating to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, but the Russian Government routinely disregard them. The Council of Europe provides a means to hold Russia to account, both in the Committee of Ministers and in the Parliamentary Assembly. I should just put on the record, to clarify matters so that anyone watching our proceedings understands the situation, that Russia continues to play an active role in decision making in the Committee of Ministers—it is properly called the Committee of Ministers and not the Council of Ministers—including on the Council of Europe’s budget, albeit that Russia is not paying towards that budget, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe did not suspend Russia’s rights to participate in debates, just its voting rights, as has been already explained.

I and ministerial colleagues regularly instruct the UK’s permanent representative at the Council of Europe to condemn the Russian abuse of human rights and to do so in the Committee of Ministers, and our permanent representative has worked hard to secure language in Committee decisions that binds Russia to those decisions.

The Committee of Ministers also requires Russia to execute judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, yet Russia continues to have a woeful record, both in front of the Court and in terms of executing the Court’s judgments. Most recently, the Committee of Ministers reaffirmed its stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex discrimination—a decision that binds the Russian Government to combat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Establishing and upholding internationally accepted standards in multilateral organisations is the absolutely fundamental starting point to improving the lives of the repressed and those who are discriminated against in countries where human rights are not routinely respected. Their failure to do so completely undermines the rules-based international order.

Europe’s parliamentarians play a key role in the Council of Europe in upholding European values. In April 2014, in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Parliamentary Assembly decided to restrict the Russian delegation’s participation in the Assembly by suspending their voting rights. Ever since, the Russian delegation has chosen not to participate in the Parliamentary Assembly.

My predecessor at the Foreign Office welcomed that action by the Parliamentary Assembly and the strong stance taken by the UK delegation at the time. I am grateful to UK parliamentarians for their efforts to maintain sanctions on the Russian delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly and for their continued work to shine a spotlight on Russia’s transgressions.

The Russian Federation’s decision in July 2017 to withhold its budget contribution to the Council of Europe was particularly egregious. The figure mentioned earlier today was €33 million, but I am advised that the figure is now higher, because Russia has missed three payments. The amount that Russia now owes is about €54 million. Its absence from the Parliamentary Assembly is entirely self-imposed, and its failure to meet its financial obligations also undermines the rules-based international system.

I have made it clear to Secretary-General Jagland that the UK wants Russia to address the reasons that led to the suspension of its voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in the first place before its delegation can enjoy all the rights that other delegations enjoy. Regardless of the sanctions applied in the Parliamentary Assembly, Russia must make all outstanding payments, including interest, in line with its obligations. If it does not, it will face further sanctions in the Committee of Ministers in July 2019 under the Council of Europe statute.

The international community has shown increasing resolve in dealing with Russian aggression and belligerence, and to reward Russia’s blackmail tactics in the Council of Europe would undermine that institution and the wider purpose of global foreign policy. Of course, the Council of Europe is not alone when it comes to being subjected to Russian pressure. We have all seen the actions that Russia has taken to undermine countries and other international institutions—institutions that have kept us safe since the end of the second world war. Russia flouts international law—most egregiously in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Georgia. It interferes in other countries, whether that is the botched coup in Montenegro, the repeated cyber-attacks on other states or seeking in a malign way to influence others’ democratic processes.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Those are warm words, which is absolutely fine, but what is the substance? Is it the view of Her Majesty’s Government that Russia should be expelled from the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe?

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Minister of State

It is not for me to make a judgment of that sort, and if I might say so, the words I have been uttering have not been—and should not be—particularly warm. We see it as the intention of Russia to exploit instability wherever it sees it. Whenever it sees a problem, instead of trying to solve it—as we would in our foreign policy—it tries to make it worse in order to divide. It seems to be the widespread policy of Russia to try to drive a wedge between the core alliances that protect the UK and our partners.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Will the Minister now reply to my question, please?

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Minister of State

I consider that I have replied to that question. It is not for me to dictate to the Council of Europe exactly what it should do, and that is why we are having today’s debate. I work with representatives in this room; I do not stand here to instruct them.

As we have heard, the sanctions against the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe were in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea, and Russia continues to take actions to destabilise its neighbourhood. At the Council of Europe ministerial meeting in May, my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon called on Russia to support regional stability by recognising the independence and territorial integrity of its neighbours Ukraine and Georgia. Crimea is Ukrainian territory; the UK Government remain fully committed to upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders. If Russia hopes that, sooner or later, the world will forgive or forget about what it did in Crimea and that Crimea-related sanctions will be lifted, it is wrong. The UK will not allow Crimea to be forgotten.

We have used our membership of other multilateral institutions to demonstrate our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as I myself did last December at the Vienna ministerial meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In June 2017, the UK supported a UN resolution on human rights violations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and at the UN Third Committee, the UK was in the core group supporting a resolution tabled by Ukraine on human rights in Crimea. Those resolutions continue to hold Russia to account for its illegal annexation.

I reiterate the UK’s commitment to the Council of Europe. We will continue to engage actively and help to find solutions to the challenges that the Council of Europe faces. In that light, I reiterate the UK Government’s firm commitment to ensuring the territorial integrity of Ukraine: Crimea is Ukraine, and Russia must be held accountable for its actions. Her Majesty’s Government look forward to continuing their strong working relationship with all right hon. and hon. Members who work so dutifully on the Council of Europe.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 10:54 am, 18th July 2018

I thank the Minister for his excellent reply. Can I make one point on behalf of all of us who serve on the Council of Europe? We not only enjoy it, but play an important part in what we think is a very important organisation, and it is a shame that the UK seems to be the only place in Europe that does not take it as seriously as others do. If there were one change that I would advocate, it would be for the UK to start to take the organisation seriously.

We have raised an important issue, but more important than that has been the quality of the debate that we have had. A number of people have already commented that we operate across parties, and this is a brilliant example of how we do so. I am so grateful for the contributions that others have made to the debate.

This issue is not going to go away; this issue is important to us. My reason for bringing the debate was that we had an opportunity here in Parliament to collectively make a statement about what is happening in relation to Russia before the next part-session of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where we will have to fight for this cause—we will have to fight for it again and again. If there is one thing that the debate shows, it is that we are united in what we want. We are united in our stand to make sure that human rights continue to be upheld in Russia by the Russian Government, and I look forward to our continued involvement in fighting that fight.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered Russia and the Council of Europe.

Sitting suspended.