The noble Lord said:
Large general principles are often best illustrated and brought to life by particular examples. The principle in question here concerns the western conception of the rule of law as the surest guarantee of security for every citizen's person and property. My Question amounts to asking whether Her Majesty's Government agree that a British citizen is entitled to expect equal protection of the law from another supposedly friendly government, especially a government seeking to enter the comity of western nations, and more especially one anxious to qualify for European Union membership, and, of course, for European Union subsidies.
The particular case, of which I have been given notice, concerns Dr. Ljubo Sirc, born in Slovenia, Yugoslavia, whose story can be briefly recounted. Having graduated in law and economics at the University of Ljubljana in 1943, he patriotically joined Tito's partisans and tramped the hills wearing the red button. After demobilisation he rejoiced to hear of the Churchill/Roosevelt declaration in favour of multi-party democracy in eastern Europe. In that spirit he joined in the efforts to organise a democratic opposition to the ruling communists and was on good terms with western diplomats, especially the British, whom he had met in his capacity as official interpreter. In addition to immaculate English, Dr. Sirc now speaks German, French, Italian and, most recently, Russian.
In the first flush of the post-war communist dictatorship, he was denounced for treason at a show trial. In 1947, along with others, he was sentenced to death and loss of all family property in Slovenia. Execution was commuted to 10 years' imprisonment and after seven years he was released. He promptly escaped -- this was in 1955 -- and made his way via Switzerland to England where I first met him in 1961. All these events are vividly documented in his autobiography Between Hitler and Tito. He took up an academic career starting in Bangladesh, became a British citizen in 1964 and eventually retired in 1985 from Glasgow University, in the very heartlands of New Labour, where he now lives with his British family when he is not back in Slovenia.
The first democratic government of the new Slovene Republic in 1990 lost no time quashing his sentence in January 1991 and passing an Act providing for the denationalisation and return of confiscated property to all who had been wrongly dispossessed. One aim was to restore capital into the hands of entrepreneurs who in the 1930s had remarkably raised Slovene output close to that of neighboring Austria.
Alas, in 1992 a new government took over under the nominal banner of social democracy and liberal democracy, mouthing the rhetoric of a market economy and entrepreneurship but predominantly controlled by former communists and their hardline supporters and, in that respect, unlike Poland which the noble Baroness Lady Cox, will be talking about shortly.
Under President Kucan and Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek there have been endless legal delays and administrative procrastination indicated a rooted reluctance to return property which would obviously strengthen the independent enterprise sector and reduce political control of the economy. Hence, here we are, seven years later, and Dr. Sirc still awaits restitution of most of his family's residential and productive property. Meanwhile, a campaign to emasculate the law on denationalisation and rehabilitation was orchestrated by Igor Bavcar who is -- believe it or not -- the Minister for Europe.
In January 1998 a new law was enacted retrospectively discriminating against the victims of communist terror whose claims were to be assessed under vague new general rules. This not only violated the constitution but was in clear conflict with the most solemn provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and, even more specifically, of Resolution 1096 drawn up in 1996 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. This resolution is a splendid declaration of the liberal temper of the West which is a million miles... or should I say 1.6 million kilometers -- from the opportunistic, even shifty, manoeuvres of fancy-named, so-called "democratic" parties still imprisoned in their communist past. I ask noble Lords to listen to the fine phrases of the resolution:"The heritage of former Communist totalitarian systems includes over centralisation, bureaucratisation, monopolisation and over-regulation."
It sounds almost like Mr. Blair or even Margaret Thatcher, lecturing those European corporalists. The resolution goes on to warn against, "Collectivism and conformism to blind obedience and other totalitarian thought patterns"
and specifies what it calls the "Dangers of a failed transition process"
which it goes on to describe as, "Oligarchy instead of democracy, corruption instead of the rule of law, and organised crime instead of human rights. At worst, the result would be the velvet restoration of a totalitarian regime".
The resolution is so good that one cannot have too much of it. It continues: "Material compensation should be awarded to (rehabilitated) victims of totalitarian justice, and should not be (much) lower than the compensation accorded to those unjustly sentenced for crimes under the standard penal code in force."
For the avoidance of doubt, as lawyers say, Article 10 of the resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe re-emphasises that, "Property illegally or unjustly seized by the state, nationalised, confiscated or otherwise expropriated during the reign of communist totalitarian systems in principle be restituted to its original owners".
Its concluding words are: "Claims and conflicts relating to individual cases of property restitution should be decided by the courts."
It is sad to report that the present communist-dominated government is now seeking to employ the abomination of retrospection -- in defiance of the Slovene constitution -- to amend the 1991 law on restitution and rehabilitation so as to discriminate against the victims of the earlier communist terror. Thus a government which aspires to join the European Union flouts its contempt for the civilised requirements of the Council of Europe resolution.
This retrospective law is now to be challenged and is before the constitutional court, which was mercifully established under the coalition government in 1991, but which is now being subject to the most deplorable intimidation from the state controlled television and press. Thus the national television first misrepresented the position of the constitutional court, then challenged the chief justice to respond and finally refused to publish his answer.
In a quite unprecedented press release the secretary of the constitutional court expressed,
"grave concern over the extremely immature and irresponsible conduct, not only of influential Slovenian politicians, but also of reputable lawyers and, not least, of national television, who show their contempt for what we could call the heritage of European civilisation."
Dr. Sirc and others await the verdict of the constitutional court. It is a test case since it will clearly take much courage for the judges to rule against the government's retrospective and discriminatory schemes to weaken the rights of the victims of earlier communist oppression. What is at stake is nothing less than Slovenia's fitness to be regarded as even an apprentice candidate for European Union membership.
I understand that Her Majesty's Government cannot intervene in another country's judicial proceedings even in the interests of protecting the property of a British citizen, but I urge the Minister to take note of these deplorable proceedings and to reaffirm Resolution 1096. Indeed, its final words specifically call on the West to give "aid and assistance" to these emerging democracies. The best aid and assistance we can give is gentle but firm advice on the need to uphold the rule of law in the defence of rights of all law-abiding citizens to the peaceful enjoyment of their freedom and lawful property. I understand that German citizens receive favourable treatment on restitution partly because the German Government have made their presence felt in eastern Europe. I now hope for a judicial word or two from the Minister on behalf of British citizens. A ringing reaffirmation of the Council of Europe's resolution would have the further advantage of guiding other governments in eastern Europe, even including Hungary and Poland, which are under constant domestic pressure to backslide into old communist ways.
In conclusion, as an economist, I would add that the scrupulous respect for property rights would have the further advantage of encouraging both domestic and international investment in the future economic prosperity of Slovenia and other eastern European countries which we all wish to flourish.