Address to the Standing Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on Saturday 24th March 2018 by the leader of the United Kingdom Delegation, Richard Benyon MP
I’m grateful to our President Paolo Alli for his permission to include this important matter on our agenda.
On Sunday 4th March, in the historic town of Salisbury, a naturalised British subject Sergei Skripal and his daughter, a Russian citizen, were poisoned with a military grade nerve agent called Novichok. This nerve agent has been developed and manufactured in Russia. Based on this capability, combined with Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations—including against former intelligence officers whom it regards as legitimate targets—the United Kingdom Government has concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act. There are only two plausible explanations: either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or, conceivably, the Russian Government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.
The British Government gave Russia the opportunity to provide an explanation, but its response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events. The Russian Government have provided no credible explanation that could suggest that they lost control of their nerve agent, no explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom, and no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law. Instead it has treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.
This remains an on-going investigation but there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter, and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including a police officer who attended the Skripals at the scene.
This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom. It has taken place against the backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression across Europe and beyond. As the Prime Minister said last week, it must therefore be met with a full and robust response beyond the actions already taken since the murder in London in 2006 by poisoning with the highly radioactive substance polonium-210 of Alexander Litvinenko and to counter this pattern of Russian aggression elsewhere.
It is essential that we now come together with our allies to defend our security, to stand up for our values and to send a clear message to those who would seek to undermine them. As UK delegates to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly we come from different political parties but are united in our condemnation of these attacks. We are grateful for the quick and uncompromising support we received from the NATO Secretary General, from the Presidents of the United States, of France, the German Chancellor and many other leaders. We now seek the support of Parliamentarians across the Alliance for the actions the United Kingdom is taking to counter a very real and present danger to our citizens across the countries represented here in this room.
Let me be clear, what happened in the sleepy historic town of Salisbury could have happened, and very possibly has happened, in your capital cities or any provincial town in any country in the Alliance.
The British Government has taken a number of actions since the attack. Firstly it has taken steps to dismantle the Russian espionage network in the UK. It is undertaking urgent work to develop new powers to tackle all forms of hostile state activity and to ensure that those seeking to carry out such activity cannot enter the UK. The Government has also taken additional steps to suspend all planned high-level contacts between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation.
Following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the UK expelled four diplomats. Under the Vienna convention, the United Kingdom has now expelled 23 Russian diplomats who have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers. This is the single biggest expulsion for over 30 years and it reflects the fact that this is not the first time that the Russian state has acted against our country. Through these expulsions, we have degraded the Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come, and if Russia seeks to rebuild it, actions will be taken to prevent it from doing so.
In our Parliament we will also urgently develop proposals for new legislative powers to harden our defences against all forms of hostile state activity. This will include the addition of a targeted power to detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the UK border. This power is currently only permitted in relation to those suspected of terrorism. We feel that the actions of the Russian Government are close to or similar to that of a well-financed terrorist organisation or organised crime syndicates. We are looking at the introduction of new counter-espionage powers to clamp down on the full spectrum of hostile activities of foreign agents in our country.
Here in Lithuania you understand more than ever the ability of Russia to attack its enemies and indulge in malign acts against your citizens. That is why you recently passed a so-called Magnitsky Act. This is named after a courageous lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was investigating a serous tax fraud in Russia by people close to the regime. He was arrested, tortured and murdered in prison. Similar legislation has also been passed in the Estonian and Latvian parliaments. As indeed they have in the United States and Canada. In the United Kingdom we passed an amendment last year which goes much of the way to achieve the effects of a Magnitsky Act but there is a resolve across our Parliament, now backed by the Government, to have the full Magnitsky measures in place as soon as possible. This is serious message to those at the top of the Russian state that the UK will no longer be a destination for illegally acquired wealth. Having consistency across different jurisdictions is the best way to attack those who have indulged in gross human rights abuse but still wish to use our economies and institutions to invest ill-gotten gains.
Our Government is also making full use of existing powers to enhance our efforts to monitor and track the intentions of those travelling to the UK who could be engaged in activity that threatens the security of the UK and of our allies. Increased checks on private flights, customs and freight have already been implemented. Curbs will also be further made on Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents. Led by our National Crime Agency, UK law enforcement agencies will continue to bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites.
The United Kingdom has also notified the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons about Russia’s use of this nerve agent, and we are working with the UK investigating authorities to enable the OPCW to independently verify our analysis. The strict adherence to international law and engaging with international bodies like the OPCW, will be a theme of the United Kingdom’s response.
While our response must be robust, it must also remain true to our values as a liberal democracy that believes in the rule of law. Many Russians have made the United Kingdom their home, abide by our laws, and make an important contribution to our country which we must continue to welcome.
Last week our Prime Minister said, “We have no disagreement with the people of Russia, who have been responsible for so many great achievements throughout their history. Many of us looked at a post-Soviet Russia with hope. We wanted a better relationship, and it is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way. But we will not tolerate the threat to the life of British people and others on British soil from the Russian Government. Nor will we tolerate such a flagrant breach of Russia’s international obligations.”
Continued international resolve is vital. We are grateful for the strong condemnation heard in the UN Security Council and the United Kingdom will do all it can to engage with friends and allies in international fora and the Government and it’s agencies stand ready to explain what has happened and to justify our measured response. NATO and the NATO PA are vital partners in that endeavour.
If necessary I will seek our President’s permission to update the Parliamentary Assembly at our meeting in Warsaw but I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter with the Standing Committee.
But let’s be clear. This was not just an act of attempted murder in Salisbury, nor just an act against the UK. It is an affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and it is an affront to the rules-based system on which we and our international partners depend.