Human Rights on the Indian Subcontinent
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Before I call Mr Steve Baker to move the motion, I remind Back Benchers that a large number of people wish to take part in this debate and that therefore Mr Speaker has put a five-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.
Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered the issue of Human Rights on the Indian Subcontinent.
I am extremely grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for making this debate possible. My predecessor, Paul Goodman, took this issue extremely seriously and I am sure that had this mechanism been available he would have called such a debate. I am also extremely grateful to the Members who turned out to support me at the Committee: my hon. Friends the Members for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) and for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) who spoke about Sri Lanka, the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin).
The origin of this debate was my request for a debate on human rights in Kashmir and the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North for a debate on Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, some commentators mistakenly thought that we sought to conflate the two issues. That is not the case. It suited the Backbench Business Committee to bring the issues together under the heading of “Human Rights on the Indian Subcontinent”.
I have a simple purpose: to give a voice to the thousands of British Kashmiri constituents who demand and are entitled to representation in this place, their Parliament. I am aware that many Members wish to speak about Sri Lanka, so for the sake of time I will rely on my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North to cover that issue. I will say only that I support my Tamil constituents’ demand for an independent international investigation.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): As my hon. Friend rightly said, I will speak more about the issues relating to the Tamil community later. Does he agree that what is needed is justice for the Tamil people?
Steve Baker: I do agree with my hon. Friend. When I come on to my later remarks, I think he will share my view that this issue is part of the legacy of the British empire and its withdrawal from the world.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the importance of this debate is that it will give a voice not only to parliamentarians, but to the people of the countries that are affected, such as those in the disputed region of Kashmir?
Steve Baker: Not for the first time, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is absolutely our reason for being here: to give a voice to those people.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): I genuinely congratulate all the Members who have got this matter on to the agenda of our Parliament this afternoon. There are many people in Stoke-on-Trent from Kashmir who feel strongly that the issue of civil rights and justice
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needs to be on the diplomatic agenda of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and that it must negotiate on this issue. We need to deal with the human rights abuses and it is important that this debate is followed through.
Steve Baker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I am pleased that there seems to be a cross-party consensus on the nature of this conversation, and I hope that will continue throughout the afternoon.
Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that seeking a judgment on behalf of one side is a bit pejorative and that what we really need is to create healing between two groups of people that have both been harmed by a very damaging terrorist war?
Steve Baker: My hon. Friend will find as I make progress with my remarks that I agree with the thrust of what he has said. I certainly do not wish to be divisive.
The status of Kashmir and the history of events leading to its division have long been contested and have led to at least three wars between India and Pakistan. India claims that the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir legally acceded to it in 1947. Pakistan claims that Kashmiris were denied their choice of which state to join and holds that the status of Kashmir can be decided only by a plebiscite in line with UN resolutions. Kashmir has been divided since 1948 by a ceasefire line, known as the line of control. It is not my intention to rehearse the whole history of events as time does not permit it.
The region remains one of the most militarised in the world, with thousands of troops on both sides of the line of control. Further to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley), I do not think that is in the interests of either country. Various peace negotiations have taken place, leading to a number of practical, confidence-building measures, but I am afraid that the Mumbai attacks interrupted them.
For me, the history of Kashmir emphasises an absolutely vital point—the importance of peace and comprehensive non-aggression, because when violence begins, despair is not far behind. There are those who say that we should not be discussing these matters today, but for me the ghosts of empire have left us with an inescapable paradox. On the one hand, India is entitled to make its way in the world; it is the largest democracy in the world and there should be no echoes of paternalistic colonialism. On the other hand British Kashmiris, for whom the Kashmir issue is of deep, abiding and passionate concern—for the world is a small place—demand and are entitled to a voice in this place on this issue.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): On that point, the British Kashmiris in my constituency are asking for justice for Kashmir—for investigation and action to stop human rights abuses. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a key thing to do?
Steve Baker: Absolutely, and I shall come to that point.
I do not intend any lazy demagoguery, as that would be too easy—no cheap condemnation of India and, I am afraid, no false hopes for Kashmiris.
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Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?
Steve Baker: No, I am sorry; I must make progress.
I wish to discuss Kashmiris’ rights to life, liberty and democratic self-determination, and to connect those issues. My Kashmiri constituents have brought to me allegations that I scarcely believed of killing, mass murder, rape, brutality and arbitrary detention. Having visited Mumbai and found India a mature country with a sophisticated democracy and institutions modelled after our own, I found those allegations hard to believe, yet the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights report of May 2011 confirmed that reports of human rights abuses on both sides of the line of control in Kashmir continued in 2010. Indian Prime Minister Singh has said that human rights violations by security forces in Kashmir will not be tolerated and he has instructed security forces to respect human rights. We must hope that his words are honoured by those in Kashmir.
Human Rights Watch this year called for a repeal of India’s Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. It says that soldiers found responsible for serious human rights violations remain unaccountable because of immunity provided under that law. There might be propaganda on both sides—indeed, I am sure there is—but no one should allow themselves to believe that allegations of human rights abuses in Kashmir are unfounded.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have just received a communication from an Indian paper called Daijiworld. The headline reads, “India reacts strongly to British parliamentary debate on Kashmir”. We have not even had the debate and already a parliamentary democracy is telling us that we should not be having it. That is not quite a point of order, but this really is an insult from the Indian journalists who say we should not even be debating this in our own House of Commons.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Thank you, Mr MacShane. Perhaps you have just introduced a new practice in which people stand up and say, “Nearly point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.” You are quite right: it was nearly a point of order but it certainly was not one for the Chair. However, it has been put on the record.
Steve Baker: I am most grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution.
As I was saying, we must not deceive ourselves. Moving on to issues of freedom of movement, of association, of speech and so on, I want to mention a report by Amnesty International entitled, “India: A ‘lawless law’: Detentions under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act,” which contains a number of allegations regarding the use of preventive, administrative detentions. The contents include:
“Violations of the principle of legality…Delayed and secret reasons for detention…No access to judicial authority…Restrictions on access to legal counsel…Indefinite detention of foreign nationals…Immunity of officials…Incommunicado detention …Torture…Detention without any legal basis”.
That Amnesty International report deserves an answer.
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Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the suffering of the people in Kashmir and the problems that they face daily. Does he share my concern that the international community has not put this issue high enough up the agenda by seeking to reach a resolution that brings peace to such a beautiful part of the world?
Steve Baker: The hon. Lady is right, and I am most grateful to her. Of course, I share that view, which is why we are here today.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman be characteristically even-handed and mention the Amnesty report, “As if Hell fell on Me: the Human Rights Crisis in North-west Pakistan,” given that this debate is about human rights issues on the subcontinent as a whole?
Steve Baker: I am most grateful—
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds to that intervention, I remind him of the guidelines about the length of his contribution.
Steve Baker: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have taken my last intervention. The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) makes a good point, although I have not read that report. I am seeking to be even-handed, but even so, I have to enter this into the record for the sake of discussion. The “lawless law” report states that by using the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act
“to incarcerate suspects without adequate evidence, India has not only gravely violated their human rights but also failed in its duty to charge and try such individuals and to punish them if found guilty in a fair trial.”
I wish to express considerable humility on this point, because the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act is very much in line with the principle at least of our own control orders and terrorism prevention and investigation measures. The House should therefore not be too quick to condemn the principle of what India is doing. It is very much in line with what we have done. In my Second Reading speech on TPIMs, I condemned administrative detention outright and then withheld my vote from it, so I hope that I will escape the accusation of hypocrisy.
We need to consider how these measures arise. Why do democracies turn to such measures? I suggest that when democracy is denied, people turn away from it and end up seeking violence. I am proposing, for the people of Kashmir, a comprehensive policy of non-aggression, peace and democratic self-determination under the terms of the UN resolutions. I accept that the situation in Kashmir can only, and must, be resolved by Kashmiris, India and Pakistan, but we must acknowledge in this place the absolute moral, legal and political equality of the Kashmiri people and take whatever steps are appropriate to secure demilitarisation, democratic self-determination and a prosperous and secure future for Kashmir. I hope that the Government are listening and will take whatever steps they can.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I remind Members that there is a five-minute limit on speeches.
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Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): I am grateful to be called to contribute to this important debate and I congratulate the hon. Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing it. I am pleased that it has proved so popular with parliamentary colleagues, although the unfortunate flip-side is that we have a strict time limit on our contributions.
Like the hon. Member for Wycombe, I wish to focus my comments on the situation in Kashmir. This topic is important to me because my constituency, and Birmingham as a whole, has a large British-Kashmiri population, some of whose members are here for the debate and many of whom have written to me asking me to voice their concerns in the House. The subject is also important to me personally, because I am of Kashmiri origin: my family originated from the Mirpur district of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, both my parents were born there and I still have family and friends there. Consequently, the plight of Kashmiris and the necessity of finding a peaceful resolution to the Kashmir dispute have loomed large in my life.
For too long the beautiful region of Kashmir, often described as paradise on earth, has been caught in one of the world’s most dangerous conflicts, but it is a conflict that is little reported and often does not get the media and global political attention that it needs and deserves. I am grateful, therefore, that this debate has given us an opportunity to focus on the issue. I know, too, that many British Kashmiris are grateful to the all-party group on Kashmir and Sultan Mehmood Chaudhry, a former Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, for their efforts to raise the profile of this dispute and to secure political debate and action.
The failure to resolve the Kashmir dispute, and particularly the failure to give effect to UN resolutions from the 1940s urging a plebiscite in Kashmir so that the Kashmiri people can determine their own future, has resulted in an uprising in Indian-administered Kashmir, the suppression of which, according to Amnesty International’s “lawless law” report, has led to grave human rights violations. The report highlights disturbing and unacceptable cases of abuse, with the application of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act 1978, in particular, undermining efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution. Amnesty International found that many cases in which the Public Safety Act had been applied involved length periods of illegal detention of political activists seeking Kashmiri independence, in violation of Indian national law as well as international law. Many cases featured allegations of torture and other forms of ill treatment being used to coerce people into making confessions.
One of the most offensive features of the Public Safety Act is that it provides for immunity from prosecution for officials operating under it, thereby granting impunity for human rights violations under the law. The application of the Act, together with the discovery of mass graves in Kashmir, the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and Kashmir’s bloody summer of 2010, have undermined the prospects for a resolution of the dispute.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a passionate speech, and I am proud to be sitting here listening to her. Does she agree that India should accept the findings of the commission on the mass graves in Kashmir?
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Shabana Mahmood: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I endorse her contribution. I know that she, too, is a passionate advocate of human rights on the Indian subcontinent.
A resolution is needed, desperately and urgently. The world, and especially the people of Kashmir, cannot afford for India and Pakistan to be engaged in perpetual dispute over the region. The human cost is too great. The partition of the two countries in 1947 resulted in hundreds of thousands dead. In the three wars that have been fought between the two states more than 15,000 people have died, and the estimates of the number of dead following the uprisings in Kashmir range from 40,000 to 100,000. Both countries spend too much of their budgets on defence; that money should be channelled into eradicating poverty and promoting health, education and human rights. India and Pakistan have both acquired nuclear weapons, and the fear that the hostility between the two countries, which springs from a mix of religion, history and territory, might change quickly into armed conflict is very real and never too far away. Meanwhile the people of Kashmir continue to suffer, so a resolution of the dispute deserves and demands our attention, and talks must be pursued with vigour on all sides.
John Hemming: Does the hon. Lady agree that this debate shows that we are not forgetting Kashmir? The treatment of the people of Kashmir is key, and we will not ignore that.
Shabana Mahmood: I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments. As I have said, I am grateful that we are having this debate today.
I said that all sides needed to pursue a solution with vigour, because too often the rest of the world sees only India and Pakistan as the main contestants in the dispute. It is my contention, however, that the Kashmiri people themselves are the central party and should be treated as such, as it is their future that is at the heart of the dispute.
I also think that the British Government have a vital role to play, not only because of our history but because our country is home to large diaspora communities from India, Pakistan and Kashmir. We therefore have a unique insight into the intricacies of the dispute, and an important role to play in achieving its resolution. We should be a critical friend to both India and Pakistan, and a strong advocate of the rights of Kashmiris. They are a strong, resilient, proud, generous and passionate people, and their land is a place of great natural beauty and potential. Their plight demands our attention, and they deserve our efforts to bring the injustice that they have suffered to an end.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and the others who have secured this joint debate. I also assure my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) that I intend to ask for justice for all in Sri Lanka.
Mr Binley: I am delighted.
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Mr Scott: I knew that he would be pleased to hear that.
As we have heard from the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), it seems that we are not allowed to debate in our House of Commons issues that affect our constituents. Well I can assure the authorities in India and Sri Lanka that we are perfectly at liberty to discuss items that affect our constituents, their lives and their families.
I want to focus today on Sri Lanka. We have seen reports from the United Nations that 40,000 innocent women and children were massacred at the end of the conflict. When I raised the matter with the Sri Lankan authorities, I was told that I was wrong and that the Channel 4 programme “Sri Lanka’s Killing Field”, for which I pay tribute to Channel 4, was also wrong. I have said that there should be an independent international inquiry—if I am wrong, such an inquiry would surely show that the Sri Lankan authorities were innocent and I would apologise—but that has been turned down. There must be justice for all in Sri Lanka—I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South about that—but that must include justice for the Tamil people, who must receive answers to some important questions.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for his powerful speech and for co-authoring today’s motion. Does he recognise that as well as the thousands and thousands of Tamils who were killed by the Sri Lankan regime, 17,000 Tamils are still caged behind barbed wire and another nearly 200,000 in transit camps have been refused permission to return to their homes?
Mr Scott: I agree with my hon. Friend that it surely cannot take two years—it is now some two years since the conflict ended—to decide whether somebody is a terrorist or whether they should stand trial; nor should it take two years for those trials to take place. That certainly should have happened by now. I would add that there are still children in some of the camps who are four or five years old, and I have yet to meet an 18-month-old terrorist.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for the passion that he brings to this issue. Does he agree that our constituents have a right to know who was responsible for the deaths of their family members in Sri Lanka and that the record of the Sri Lankan Government to date suggests that they will not get that answer from the Sri Lankan authorities?
Mr Scott: My hon. Friend is perfectly correct: there should be answers to those questions.
Mr Binley: As ever, my hon. Friend is most generous in giving way. I have visited the Puttalam camp on the west coast of Sri Lanka, which holds 160,000 Tamils who were driven out from the north mainly through fear of the actions of the Tamil Tigers, and I know that because I talked to those people without any regard to the Sri Lankan authorities and that is what they told me. Does my hon. Friend accept that?
Mr Scott: I obviously accept what my hon. Friend says; equally, however, we saw on our TV screens only
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recently that people in Libya said one thing when they were interviewed at first and something quite separate a few weeks later.
Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way. I have listened to the recent exchanges, but does he not agree that the most important thing that should come out of today’s debate is the need not to lose sight of justice for all?
Mr Scott: I totally agree and reiterate that there must be justice for all. I would never say that there should not be.
In the short time left to me—that is, in this debate, not beyond that—I would like to raise a number of issues. I have said in the past that, when the conflict ended, a number of babies and children below the age of 12 were not accounted for. I have asked the Sri Lankan high commission to share with me what happened to those babies and young children. To this day I have not received an answer. I will continue to follow that up, but I would also ask the Minister to look into the matter, just as I have asked our high commissioner in Colombo.
We are also getting sad reports of what are called “grease devils”. These are men who attack people after applying grease to their bodies so as not to be captured by the authorities. They then run into military camps or police stations, having attacked their victims—normally women—in their homes. I am not casting any aspersions against anyone as to who they might be, but I would like to see the practice stopped and the perpetrators caught. I would also like to ask what has happened to the elderly and disabled people who were left behind at the end of the conflict, on 18 May 2009, because they are still unaccounted for.
I have here a list of various things I could run through, but I shall not do that because of the time. What I want to say, to everyone in the House, is that we have a duty. We have a duty to represent not only our constituents, but those who have no voice, wherever they are in the world. We have a duty to stand up for innocent people, whether they be Tamil or Sinhalese, and to get justice.
Barry Gardiner: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Amnesty International’s country report on Sri Lanka this year will be of equal concern to both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities? The report says that in the immediate aftermath of the elections, the Rajapaksa family,
“which controlled five key ministries and more than 90 state institutions,”
introduced a constitutional amendment in September that
“removed the two-term limit on the presidency”.
Mr Scott: Yes, that is a great concern. Again, individual action is needed on all these items.
Today, however, we are here to speak about human rights on the Indian subcontinent. We have to speak about human rights in Sri Lanka; we have to get justice for the Tamil people. If we do not get it, we will all have let those people down. I, for one, will continue to do
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everything in my power—whoever I upset, whether they be colleagues or not—to continue to try to get that justice for the Tamil people. We have said that we will look at the situation in November to see whether the Sri Lanka Government have failed to take action. It is now mid-September, so it is not long till November. I hope that, for everyone’s benefit, the Sri Lanka Government will allow an independent international investigation into what happened. I believe that that is what we must go for. I know that the Minister stands up for the rights of all in this area, so I hope that will happen.
Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): It is a privilege to follow such a passionate and well-informed speech by the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott). In common with other Members, I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) for making the arrangements to enable it to take place.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) said, there are significant numbers of people of Kashmiri origin across the UK. The vast majority of my constituents from the Indian subcontinent are of Kashmiri origin, so this debate has provoked great interest not just in Ladywood, but in Dudley, too. I want to pay tribute to this community’s contribution to life in Dudley—to its economic, social, cultural and political life—since the ’60s when people from Kashmir first came to the town. I want to place on the record my thanks and gratitude for their support and friendship and for their wise advice—not just on the issue we are discussing today, but on so many other issues, as well. They believe that the people of both Pakistan and India deserve peace and prosperity and that this ongoing dispute is hindering the progress that can be achieved towards both.
Prosperity and peace in the long term requires a resolution between these two nuclear forces, because the stability of the region as a whole depends on a just solution. Given the amount of bloodshed that has arisen from this issue—bin Laden used the Kashmir issue as one of the reasons for al-Qaeda’s attacks on the west—surely the only route to long-lasting peace is through the democratic route. I believe we have to be absolutely clear that the future of Kashmir must be decided by the people of Kashmir, because the only way in which we will see justice for the Kashmiri people is through the right to self-determination, agreed by India in the UN and supported by the UK Government. That is the basic democratic principle—a principle that the west has supported in other countries, and one that we should support in relation to Kashmir.
I would like to see our Government urge India and Pakistan to progress the talks that have recently started again, albeit in a low-level way. Our historic role in the region places on Britain a responsibility to do all it can to help bring about a speedy resolution to the dispute. We should stand ready to assist in the process—by encouraging economic development, by improving education and health care systems, and particularly by supporting peaceful elements in civil society.
I believe that the UK must also take a number of other steps. We condemn terrorist attacks wherever they occur—and quite right, too—but the Indian military
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has committed human rights atrocities against Kashmiris since the last India-Pakistan war in 1999, so we should be very clear about condemning those attacks and calling for an immediate stop to human rights violations. Human rights abuses have also been carried out by some terrorist groups against Indian targets. We need to see the enforcement and implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and UN monitoring of the situation. Crucially, people in Kashmir have as much of a right to a free press as we take for granted in the UK.
Finally, the Government could exploit much more effectively the expertise and experience in communities such as mine here in the UK, so I invite the Minister to come to Dudley to hear directly from my constituents their views on achieving a peaceful solution based on self-determination for the Kashmiri people.
Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): My constituency has a large Kashmiri community, many of whom worship together at the Shah Jahan mosque, which is the UK’s oldest purpose-built mosque. Not all members of the Muslim community in Woking have roots and family in Kashmir, but a significant portion do, some of whom are in the Gallery today. The community is well established and contributes greatly to many areas of life in Woking, including local politics. I am pleased that last year we had our first Muslim mayor, and first Kashmiri mayor, Mohammed Iqbal, who was a wonderful civic ambassador for our town. I welcome the chance to speak in the House about the human rights situation in the subcontinent and especially in Kashmir, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on his part in securing the debate.
The Foreign Office reports that human rights abuses continue each year on both sides of the line of control. Last year, violent clashes in Indian-controlled Kashmir saw about 100 civilians killed, and Amnesty’s recent report concluded that the state of Jammu and Kashmir is holding hundreds of people each year without charge or trial. Any such human rights abuses should be condemned, no matter what the political or historical background. But when the problem is political and historical, the violence and abuse is likely finally to come to an end in the region only when a diplomatic solution is found.
The region has suffered greatly in the past few years, not just from the ongoing instability, but from the devastating earthquake in 2005 and the floods in 2010. I hope that the next couple of years will see more positive developments and a return to diplomatic talks that will pave the way to security and the right to self-determination.
It should be recognised that the UK not only has strong historic links to the region but plays a major aid role. UK taxpayers’ money has repaired 450,000 properties and built 16 new schools and 40 new bridges in Azad Kashmir as part of the earthquake reconstruction and rehabilitation programme. Additional money was raised through the generosity of British citizens, as I witnessed at countless local fundraising events and street stalls hosted and led by our Muslim community in Woking. Further, more than £1 million has been spent by UK taxpayers in the past five years via the conflict pool that goes towards support for human rights, conflict prevention and peace-building efforts. Projects such as educational
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programmes in schools that are vulnerable to militant influence, and the promotion of civil society exchanges across the line of control, are highly worth while, and I hope that the funding of such programmes will continue.
Everyone knows that progress will be slow and that resolutions to disputes such as that affecting Kashmir will not be found overnight, but every long journey starts with just one step. There is now some sort of dialogue between India and Pakistan about Kashmir. There has been talk of the possibility of a new era of diplomacy; the new Pakistan Foreign Minister’s recent visit to India showed signs of progress, with additional agreements about trade over the border. Sustained and composite dialogue, however, is not yet forthcoming. [Interruption.] On such an important issue, we could do with less backchat from some Members on the Labour Benches, because everyone in the Chamber deserves to be listened to.
The Government’s long-standing position is that it is not the UK’s role to be initiating talks or identifying mediators for such talks, and I understand the reasons for that. With the Minister, I spoke back in 1997 to a group of Oldham Kashmiris about this very issue, but I fear that we are not much further on. However, I welcome the Government’s recognition of the people of Kashmir’s desire for self-determination. The Government must know that the prospect of achieving long-term stability in the region, and an end to the kind of violence and human rights abuse that occurred last year, will take a major step forward only when India and Pakistan return to composite and regular dialogue.
In the quiet, measured yet determined way that our Foreign Office is capable of, I hope that it will do everything appropriate that it can to encourage India and Pakistan themselves to initiate proper dialogue and talks. This country must always stand up for the proud Kashmiri people who have been the real victims for so long—for too long—in this terrible historic dispute.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): The civil war in Sri Lanka was one of the region’s most dreadful conflicts of recent times. In its last five months alone, 100,000 people were killed, 40,000 of them civilians. War crimes took place. The United Nations found serious violations of international humanitarian law, and the European Commission described
“Unlawful killings perpetrated by soldiers, police and…groups with ties to the Government”.
Earlier this year, Channel 4 screened a devastating documentary using video film from victims and perpetrators that proved, according to the UN rapporteur, “definitive war crimes”. It showed hospitals and so-called safe zones being targeted for bombing, people executed in cold blood and at point-blank range, and soldiers joking about women who had been sexually assaulted and shot dead as they piled their naked bodies on the backs of lorries. I commend Channel 4, and reporters such as Jonathan Miller, for continuing to investigate the harrowing story.
Even after the war, more than 300,000 Tamils were held in camps, and although most have been released, the International Crisis Group says that they were sent to places that were
“devoid of the most basic amenities.”
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Many still live under canvas, and 3,000 are still in “rehabilitation” camps, held without charge and without any access to legal help. Sri Lanka’s military continue to control civilian life in Tamil areas, including aid, and routinely steal Tamil property for use by military personnel and their families.
The President of Sri Lanka, a probable war crimes suspect, has taken on enormous powers over the judiciary and policing, limiting the courts’ ability to prevent abuses of civil rights. The Elders, an international group, has condemned Sri Lanka for
“persecution, intimidation, assassination and disappearance of government critics, political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders.”
Independent overseas reporters are not permitted. As the International Crisis Group says,
“Reconciliation after long periods of conflict never happens quickly. But in Sri Lanka there is a serious risk it may not happen at all.”
Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission consists of people who supported the Sri Lankan Government’s actions during the civil war. The Government say of the LLRC’s job that
“what happened in the past must be relegated to history”,
although, as the UN stresses,
“not to hold accountable those who committed serious crimes…is a clear violation of Sri Lanka’s international obligations and is not a permissible transitional justice option.”
Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka, has said:
“This is Sri Lanka’s Srebrenica moment. In fact, it’s a Srebrenica moment for the rest of the world.”
I agree. The world must say to other Governments that there is nothing to be gained from taking the Sri Lankan option of brutal repression and war crimes.
The last UK Government, thanks—to be fair—to the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), brought an end to GSP plus, the generalised system of preferences that led to a preferential trading agreement between Europe and Sri Lanka, voted against the International Monetary Fund’s $2.5 billion deal with Sri Lanka, and prevented it from hosting a Commonwealth summit. Britain must not lose that lead. Elsewhere, Switzerland and Germany have just forced Sri Lanka to recall a senior diplomat after accusations that he made troops fire on civilians and took part in torture and summary executions. However, another man implicated in similar crimes, Major-General Prasanna Silva, has just been appointed a military attaché to the UK. I call on the Minister to reassure the House that he will not permit Major-General Silva to serve here. I want Britain to prove its place at the head of the international community, and I hope that the Minister can enable it to do so by removing this man’s diplomatic privileges.
Britain must take a brave and principled lead—just as we did in Kosovo and, with France, in Libya—and do all that it can to ensure that a full independent international investigation of war crimes takes place. Those of us who believe in justice want the people responsible to be held to account, just as all of us would agree about Colonel Gaddafi, Radovan Karadzic and Charles Taylor. We cannot allow the international community to slip
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back to the cosy days of 2009, when the UN disgracefully ignored calls for a war crimes investigation, or when the Secretary-General spoke of Sri Lanka’s “tremendous efforts”. Sri Lanka still wants to host the Commonwealth summit in 2013. We should be clearly saying “No, not until there is a fully independent, UN-led international inquiry.” I hope that if one thing comes out of today’s debate, it will be that commitment.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): May I join other Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott), who helped to secure the debate? I also pay tribute to the previous Member for Wycombe, who did a lot of work on Kashmir. He came to my constituency to speak to my Kashmiri community on a number of occasions, and he continues to help and offer assistance. I also pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee. In holding this debate, it has sent a clear message to both the Kashmiri and the Tamil and Sri Lankan communities that this Parliament is listening, and that Members are prepared to debate the issues that are of greatest concern to our constituents.
Steve Baker: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great things about the Backbench Business Committee is that it chooses issues for debate thoroughly independently of Government policy, as has been shown today?
Andrew Griffiths: I could not agree more. I was initially sceptical about the Backbench Business Committee and what it could achieve, but I only have to look up at the full Public Gallery and consider the number of e-mails and letters I have received over the past few days, to be reminded that the subjects it chooses for discussion are highly relevant to our constituents.
I also want to thank the Minister. In our dealings on the Kashmir issue, he has always been helpful, and his door has always been open. He has also laid at our disposal the help of his officials, who have done a great job in providing us with information and assistance. I am grateful for that.
I speak on this subject as vice-chairman of the all-party groups on both Pakistan and Kashmir, and, most importantly, as an MP who represents more than 4,500 Kashmiri constituents. When I first became the parliamentary candidate for Burton, I went along to the local community centres and mosques to talk to the Kashmiris in my constituency. Although we addressed all the issues that matter to them, such as education and policing, time and again they would return to the burning issue of Kashmir and ask for our help. It was with that experience in mind that I pledged to be the first MP for Burton ever to visit Kashmir.
Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his powerful speech. Does he share the Kashmiris’ frustration about this dispute being one of the longest in our history? It involves two countries that have nuclear weapons and it has caused three wars to take place, yet the international community does not appear to be taking it seriously enough.
Andrew Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman articulates the views of so many of my constituents. They ask, “Why isn’t it on television or in the newspapers? Why is what
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is happening in Kashmir not being reported here in Britain, and why is the international community not doing something about it?”
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman sets out his points very well. Does he agree that today’s debate demonstrates that we are listening to the concerns of our constituents, and that we are keen to move the issue forward so that proper progress can be made on it internationally?
Andrew Griffiths: I agree, and I know that the hon. Gentleman does a great deal in this House on these issues. I congratulate him on that.
Barry Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman asked why the world was not doing something about Kashmir. Does he agree that that may have something to do with the Simla agreement, under which Pakistan and India agreed that they would settle the issue bilaterally without outside interference, and in a completely peaceful way?
Andrew Griffiths: I am afraid that I would agree more if we had seen more proactive responses from both Pakistan and India. Having been to the Pakistan-administered side of Kashmir and spoken to many people, I found it frustrating to see that many politicians there are inhibiting the efforts to find a solution.
Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Andrew Griffiths: I will make some progress, if I may, as time is short and I have given way on a number of occasions.
I am reminded very much of what happens in respect of the Falkland Islands: every time there is a general election in Argentina, the issue of the Malvinas is brought up as a way of sabre rattling and winning votes, and a similar thing happens in both Pakistan and India. That is why it is incumbent on the UK to use any influence it has to move the situation forward.
I have been to the Falkland Islands as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I visited Gibraltar last year on holiday. I have spoken to Gibraltarians and Falkland Islanders, so I know that the thing they have in common is their right to self-determination. They have the right to choose how they are governed and who governs them. That is at the heart of the Kashmir issue: it is about the fact that the people of Kashmir should have a right to self-determination and to choose their own path forward. I have seen the Pakistan-administered side of Kashmir for myself, and it is clear that that area has been devastated, not just because of the earthquake and the flood, but because of the way in which this trouble has held that region back. It is time that the United Kingdom—a Commonwealth country—used its best efforts to move this situation forward.
Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not our colonial past that is important in resolving this issue, but our recent experience in trouble spots such as Northern Ireland?
Andrew Griffiths: I do. I also think that this is about our relationship with the area. We have a strong Pakistani diaspora in the UK and we have strong trading ties with
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India. We have a unique relationship with both those countries, which may allow us to get them around the table and move things forward.
The situation in Kashmir matters for a number of reasons. First, because it is about self-determination and the right of the Kashmiris to choose. Secondly, because the two countries involved have nuclear weapons, so this potential flashpoint could have devastating consequences. Most importantly, it matters because the lives of too many Kashmiris are being devastated, on both sides of the line. I have spoken to too many families where grandparents have never seen their grandchildren or where children have not been able to return to see the grave of their mother or father. It is for those types of people that we have a responsibility to use our best efforts to help to move towards a solution. I know that the Minister has a heartfelt interest in this matter, and I know that, for the sake of all my Kashmiri constituents, he will do his best.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): First, may I apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be able to be here for the wind-ups, as I was already committed to chairing a meeting at 6 o’clock? I am grateful to the hon. Members who sponsored the proposal of this debate to the Backbench Business Committee, because we are debating this issue on the fourth international day of democracy, as nominated by the UN and celebrated by Parliaments throughout the world.
This is the right day for us to be debating this subject of human rights in the Indian subcontinent, because human rights are a precursor to democracy; without basic human rights and the full protection of human rights, there is no prospect of genuine democracy. When representatives of regimes that are denying human rights complain, as they do sometimes, that, as a British parliamentarian, I should not be interfering in their internal matters, I am confident that I can reply that there are international standards of democracy and human rights. It is the duty of every democrat, particularly every democratically elected parliamentarian, to uphold those standards throughout the world, without fear or favour. That was put rather more poetically by constituents of mine, some of whom are in the Gallery, who signed a petition stating:
“Human beings are like parts of a body, created from the same essence. When one part is hurt and in pain, the others cannot remain in peace and be quiet”.
I will therefore focus on human rights in Kashmir, although my Sri Lankan constituents, who come from both Sinhala and Tamil communities, are well aware of my passionate commitment to human rights in that country. That was expressed when the former representative of the UK Government to Sri Lanka, Des Browne, came to address a meeting in Slough just 18 months ago.
At the outset, I ought to say that I am a friend of both India and Pakistan, even at times when there are tensions between those two countries. I am also a friend of Kashmir, however, and of its people, who have not enjoyed full democratic and human rights since Britain left behind this bit of unfinished colonial business when we ceded control of India and Pakistan nearly 65 years ago.
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I was at Labour’s conference in 1995 when it resolved that Britain was under an obligation to seek a solution of the Kashmir issue. I am proud that Labour Foreign Secretaries from Robin Cook to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) have been willing, as they have worked to develop our relationship with that great democracy and growing economic power, India, to raise the uncomfortable issue of Kashmir. I am disappointed that the current Government do not feel the same duty, at least when they are in the territory of India. Whatever one’s view of the future of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, there can be no doubt—
Andrew Griffiths rose—
Fiona Mactaggart: I will certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Andrew Griffiths: The hon. Lady makes a party political point about this Government and our commitment to Kashmir. Can she tell us just one thing her Government did to move the issue of Kashmir forward?
Fiona Mactaggart: As I have been saying, for some 65 years, this has been an issue—[ Interruption. ] If my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) wants to intervene to question my historical knowledge, he is welcome.
For a long time, this subject has limped forward. British Foreign Secretaries have been prepared to raise the issue in Pakistan and India, even when it has been very unpopular. That is one thing that needs to happen—what we need is not silence about the issue, but a preparedness to stand up for human rights in public even when it is unpopular.
At the moment, it is not possible in Kashmir for journalists to report basic protests such as those that followed the death of a boy who was hit by a police tear gas canister just this June. Only when the press is free to publish reports of protests and when voters feel safe as they walk to the ballot box will there be any chance of resolving this bitter dispute. To that end, I echo the call from the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for the repeal of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act and of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. If we succeed in making Kashmir a society where human rights are protected, what then? That goes to the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s question.
I think Mr Hameed, the gravedigger at the martyrs’ graveyard in Indian-administered Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, made the point very powerfully: “The solution to the problem will only be arrived at when India, Pakistan and Kashmiri people meet at the same table. Our kids pelt stones. The security services fire a bullet. What kind of democracy do we live in?” We need to ensure that the people of Kashmir live in a democracy and can determine their future. Until we protect their human rights, the possibility of a democratic resolution to the troubles that have divided that beautiful country for so long is lacking. I think the whole House agrees that democracy is the best way to resolve these issues and the whole House knows that without human rights, democracy cannot exist.
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Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I start by paying tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), a fellow former Royal Air Force officer. I joined him and many other Members from both sides of the House in helping to secure the debate from the Backbench Business Committee, to which we are very grateful.
I shall focus on Kashmir. I have spoken in Westminster Hall debates on Kashmir and at meetings of the all-party group for Kashmir, but this is the first time I have had the opportunity to speak on human rights in Kashmir in this Chamber, and I am very grateful for it. My constituency in west Yorkshire has thousands of Kashmiris living in Thornton Lodge, Crosland Moor and Lockwood. They raise the situation in their homeland with me weekly, so I am proud to be speaking on their behalf.
I fully understand that international issues are never straightforward, so to try to understand the dynamic of the region I undertook a private visit to Azad Jammu and Kashmir last November. I flew into Islamabad in Pakistan, and after delivering blankets, clothing and tents donated by the good folk of Huddersfield and Colne Valley to some of the flood-hit villages in the area of Nowshera in Pakistan, we crossed the border into AJK. I was based in the vibrant city of Mirpur—a fantastic place, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) rightly said—on the beautiful Mangla Dam lake. I was honoured to be invited for tea at the homes of families with loved ones who live in my constituency, but their love of tea is not the only close cultural link that the Kashmiris have with the UK. When I was invited to meet the Prime Minister of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Sardar Attique Khan, in Dadyal, I was welcomed by their military band, complete with bagpipes and kilts.
I saw a beautiful and peaceful Pakistan-administered region of Kashmir, but time and again I have been told of human rights abuses in Indian-controlled Kashmir, some of which we have heard about in this Chamber in the past hour, so I fully appreciate that this is a region where terrorism and security concerns are rife. Of course our own previous Government have been accused of being implicated in activities such as rendition in the wider region. The position is not always black and white.
An hour ago in Central Lobby, I bumped into a Kashmir-based journalist I met over there. As a former journalist, while I was in Kashmir I addressed a group of 50 Kashmiri journalists at the Press Club in Mirpur, and I stressed to them the importance of factual reporting. Wild accusations and the emotionally charged inflating of casualty figures do not help the cause of those campaigning for peace in the region. For example, yesterday I received an e-mail telling me of hundreds of unidentified graves, with the accusation that they contain the bodies of victims of unlawful killings and torture. I have no idea whether that is true; we must be wary of propaganda and deal in facts.
Fiona Mactaggart: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many Kashmiri journalists simply cannot report facts, because they cannot get press accreditation that will enable them to go into areas where the police are in control?
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Jason McCartney: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. I made that point myself, but journalists must not over-compensate for their inability to go to those areas by wildly inflating reports; they must stick to the facts. As a journalist I was sometimes frustrated by similar situations, which can be very difficult.
Lyn Brown: Mass graves should be investigated. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if India agreed to a commission, we could see the truth of the claims that are being made and end the torturous anxieties of many people in Kashmir, who are worried that their relatives may be languishing in such places and that they have no rest?
Jason McCartney: The hon. Lady must have had a sneaky peek at my speech because I will come to that in about 20 seconds.
I welcome Amnesty International’s report on Kashmir, “A Lawless Law”, and want to highlight some of its conclusions, which I fully support. I call for a repeal of the Public Safety Act, which results in the long-term detention of people in cases where there is insufficient evidence for trial. I call on Indian-administered Kashmir to allow peaceful protests and exercise proper crowd control, and to carry out an independent, impartial and comprehensive investigation into all allegations of abuses, including the unmarked graves and allegations of torture. I call on the UK Government to keep Kashmir on their agenda and raise these issues with the Governments of Pakistan and India whenever they meet.
Andrew Griffiths: My hon. Friend makes a powerful and well informed speech. Does he agree that we must seek as a matter of urgency to improve the lives of Kashmiris by improving cross-border trade between Pakistan and India and into Kashmir and by allowing travel, particularly to enable family and loved ones to visit?
Jason McCartney: My hon. Friend makes a good point. There already have been some cross-border relations on opening up the border for trade. I was impressed by Prime Minister Khan’s attitude towards commerce, jobs and green technologies—he talked about wind turbines, which massively impressed me.
Mr Virendra Sharma: Does the hon. Gentleman support and appreciate initiatives taken by the Pakistan and Indian Governments, with meetings at ministerial level, to find a peaceful formula to resolve the issue of Kashmir and related issues?
Jason McCartney: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. His office is on my corridor, so we will probably bump into each other and talk about this many more times. Yes, we want a peaceful solution and the best way to end war-war is to jaw-jaw and talk about these things, and I hope that the UK Government can be part of that.
Some eagle-eyed Members might have noticed the little green badge that I am wearing—[ Interruption. ] I thank the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane). It was given to me by the Prime Minister of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and it says, “Kashmir Seeks Attention”. Today, Kashmir has our attention, and all hon. Members in the Chamber should be very proud of that.
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Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Kashmir is the forgotten tragedy of the contemporary world. No other people has suffered such pain, such loss, such despair, and, worst of all, such a sense that their demands for justice are being ignored by the rest of the world. Here in the House of Commons we need to face up to our failures.
The first failure was the disastrous handling of the end of British imperialism in India. The second was the refusal of both India and Pakistan to abide by UN resolution 47, which stated:
“the final disposition of the State of Jammu and Kashmir will be made in accordance with the will of the people expressed through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite conducted under the auspices of the United Nations.”
That resolution was adopted in 1948; 63 years later, it has still not been implemented. The third failure is the refusal of successive British Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries of all parties to accept that Britain has an historical duty to work to allow the Kashmiri people to be free of the oppression under which they live.
Kashmir is not a faraway country of which we know nothing. The British Kashmiri community is now nearly 1 million strong and is part of the warp and weft of today’s Britain, just as in the past Huguenots, Jews, Poles and Irish people came with their culture, faith, languages and ways of life and became part of our island nation. I think of many dear friends in Rotherham, such as Councillor Jahangir Akhtar, Councillor Shaukat Ali, Councillor Mahroof Hussain, Mrs Parveen Quereshi, and Lord Nazir Ahmed in the other place, as well as friends in Tinsley and Sheffield, who have educated me on the problem of Kashmir.
According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—irreproachable international organisations—as many as 100,000 Kashmiri Muslims have died since the end of the 1980s. That is a far higher death toll of Muslims than all of those killed in middle east conflicts in recent decades. Whereas the middle east conflict gets limitless geopolitical Government and media attention, the much great death toll in Kashmir is ignored. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights reports that 1.5 million refugees have been forced over the years to seek asylum across the border in Pakistan or Azad Kashmir.
In December last year, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary after receiving a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Its officials interviewed under private conditions 1,296 people held by India. Among them 498 had suffered torture from electricity; 381 had been suspended from the ceiling; 294 had muscles crushed in their legs by prison personnel sitting on a bar placed across their thighs; 181 had their legs stretched by being “split 180 degrees”; and 302 “sexual” cases were reported involving rape or sexual assault. The ICRC stated:
“The abuse always takes place in the presence of officers”
Fiona Mactaggart: As a former journalist, would my right hon. Friend like to speculate on why those horrible tortures have failed to reach our media?
Mr MacShane: There is a serious problem in that this is the first debate dedicated to this subject in my 17 years in the House. I very much respect the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the
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hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), but Ministers have not raised this issue at a sufficiently high level. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the Foreign Secretary will raise that recent Red Cross report with India at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference next month.
A few years ago the world was shocked at the death of 8,000 European Muslims in Srebrenica and the sight of 250,000 Kosovan Muslims fleeing from Serb troops. Why has there been silence on 1.5 million Kashmiris being forced out of their homes or up to 100,000 Muslims killed by Indian forces?
Just before he was elected, President Obama made the correct connection, noting that there would be no solution in Afghanistan without change in Pakistan, but he added that Pakistan needed help from India to resolve the Kashmir question. Afghanistan, Pakistan, India—the API triangle that lies at the heart of any future for this vital world region. Sadly, once in office President Obama dropped India, out of his desire to see movement and, as a result, got no movement at all, despite the best efforts of the late Richard Holbrooke. India is part of the problem, as is Pakistan. India must be part of the solution, as must Pakistan. Until the global community faces down India’s refusal to accept responsibility for its actions in Kashmir, there will be no peace in the region. It is time to break the silence that grips British Ministers.
Lilian Greenwood: I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that members of the British Kashmiri community, many of whom are watching from the Gallery and elsewhere, will be delighted that we are having this debate, but it will not be worthwhile if it does not result in action by our Government to try to secure peace in that part of the world.
Mr MacShane: My hon. Friend is right. We do not want a curtain of silence to fall at 6 o’clock, when the Minister sits down at the end of his winding-up speech. This debate must be the beginning, not the end, of Britain finally accepting our responsibilities on behalf of our fellow British citizens for the great wrongs that have been done in Kashmir.
Britain might feel that it has no locus standi on Kashmir—as a former Minister I remember those discussions in the Foreign Office, and on this issue I have only respect for the current Foreign Office team—in which case, let the Government ask the European Union to set up a fact-finding mission to report on human rights abuses in Kashmir. Perhaps we could we ask respected world leaders, such as the former US President, Jimmy Carter, or the former Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari, both Nobel peace prize winners, to mediate between Pakistan and India on Kashmir, while fully respecting the rights of the people of Kashmir, because this question must not be settled above their heads between New Delhi and Islamabad. Senator Mitchell’s intervention in Northern Ireland was extremely important in helping to bring peace there. Peace in Kashmir would be a Nobel peace prize worth striving for.
Direct British rule in the Indian subcontinent lasted a mere 89 years, from 1858 to 1947. The denial of the
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rights of the people of Kashmir has so far lasted 63 years. Britain should do more to help find a solution and tell truth to power in both India and Pakistan.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): We have already heard much discussion today of the value of human rights. Human rights are indivisible, self-evidently of great value and internationally applicable, as the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) explained rather more eloquently that I will attempt. Human rights must also be understood in context—the context of where a country has been and where it is trying to go. That does not devalue the human right itself or the right to the individuals there. When we comment on other nations, their actions or the actions of those within them, we must have a full understanding of the historical context and of what has happened there to lead to the situation today. It is against that background that I would like to talk about Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has only recently emerged from three decades of horrendous civil war, a civil war that claimed countless thousands of lives, both in the north among the Tamil community and in the south among the Sinhalese majority, with Government Ministers, ordinary people and Ministers and representatives of foreign Government being killed throughout that time of great conflict. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the breakaway group in the north and east of the country, waged a war using terrorist tactics including assassinations, suicide attacks, vehicle bombs, attacks on trains and buses, and even attacks from the air, in order to try to force the Sri Lankan Government to accede to demands for a breakaway state within what they perceived to be the boundaries of their own nation. Years of negotiations on ceasefires and attempts to bring an end to the hostilities failed or made no real progress, with neither side sufficiently trusting the other.
Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend talks about history and human rights, and that is important. Before British colonisation of Sri Lanka the Tamils had their own kingdom in the north. Does he not agree that one of the problems that we face today arises from the effects of colonisation?
James Wharton: I agree that we, as the inheritors of the legacy of the British empire, have a duty to acknowledge our role in many of the problems that were created throughout the world by the way in which the empire ceased to be and by the legacies that we left behind. That is one reason why it is perfectly valid and right for this House to debate these issues today and for us as a nation to do what we can to set others on the right path by applying pressure and giving assistance where we can, so that where there are troubles and problems in the world we can make a small but, I hope, significant contribution to resolving them. In Sri Lanka, that legacy is part of its history, but its more recent history is that terrible civil war, which after years of negotiations had not been brought to an end and was continuing to hold back and drag down a country that has so much potential and could do so much for its own people and on the international stage.
In 2006, the Sri Lankan Government launched a campaign to bring the civil war to an end. It was an effective but ruthless military campaign of the sort
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necessary to put down an organisation such as the LTTE using military means. We have heard much discussion of some of the atrocities that are alleged to have been committed during that campaign, but in the context in which it happened we must all understand that the LTTE was one of the worst oppressors of the Tamil people during and before the conflict. That context must be understood and appreciated: the LTTE fought using civilian clothes, used civilians as human shields and had thousands of child soldiers in the field.
Mr Scott: Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever might have happened during what was a terrible conflict, which nobody can deny, it still does not change the fact that civilians were massacred after the event?
James Wharton: My hon. Friend is of course right, and that is why I started my speech by talking about the value of human rights and their importance objectively, but that does not mean that the context in which we comment on other countries is not important, and that is what I want to discuss in my closing remarks.
That campaign having ended, we must acknowledge where Sri Lanka is and where it is going; where it is today and where it is going tomorrow. It is all too easy to be consistently critical of others who fall short of the standards that we may choose to set for them ourselves, but we should not do so without acknowledging where progress is being made. The end of the campaign has brought great benefits to Sri Lanka. We have seen the eradication of terrorism on the island, and elections are taking place in the north and east, as those areas join what is becoming a mature democracy throughout the rest of Sri Lanka.
Siobhain McDonagh: Does the hon. Gentleman think that democratically elected Governments should be held to a higher standard than any other group or institution in society? Does he think that it is legitimate for a democratically elected Government to drop cluster bombs on hospitals?
James Wharton: No, I do not. The hon. Lady will be unsurprised to hear that I do not believe that it is legitimate for a Government, whether democratically elected or not, to drop cluster bombs on hospitals. As I conclude my comments, however, I shall turn to the issue of reconciliation—what is being done, what must be done, what should be done and what we all would like to be done—in Sri Lanka.
First, I shall comment on some of the positive results of the conclusion to a three-decade-long civil war that claimed so many lives. The right to dissent and to freedom of expression in the north and east is now stronger than it had been for the preceding 30 years. De-mining operations are starting to make real progress in clearing up the hundreds of thousands of landmines and unexploded ordnance that litter the Sri Lankan countryside. The British Government are making a contribution to that work through DFID, the Mines Advisory Group and the HALO Trust, clearing up about 100,000 landmines and unexploded ordnance throughout the country.
The rehabilitation and re-homing of former LTTE combatants and of displaced people is well under way. Some 300,000 were displaced by the conflict, but only about 6,000 are now left in the welfare camps, because
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they have been given the opportunity, facilitated by the work of the Sri Lankan Government, to go home. The reconciliation and accountability that is such an important part of Sri Lanka moving forward has begun. The LLRC, although it has come in for some criticism today, has not yet given its final recommendations, and we should reserve judgment until it reports. Only recently, the Sri Lankan Government have approved a national action plan for the development of human rights that will, I hope, be implemented over the coming years, so that we are able to judge them on its success.
A lot of progress still needs to be made. We must not be an uncritical friend of Sri Lanka’s, but we must be a friend of Sri Lanka and of the Sri Lankan people. I hope that the House will support that.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Today a delegation from Conservative Friends of India heads off to the subcontinent. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) has ensured that when they land in Delhi they will walk into a major media storm. The UK Parliament should be very wary of intervening in the dispute over Kashmir.
Members have talked about the UN resolution and the plebiscite, but the resolution had a condition—
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) rose on a point of order as a result of a tweet that he had received, I attempted to intervene on him, but so powerful was his flow that I could not. Will my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) confirm that when a newspaper makes a statement through social media, it does not speak for the Government of the Republic of India, and these are two very separate matters?
Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend is right, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend knew precisely that when he made his “nearly a point of order”, as Mr Deputy Speaker called it.
The UN resolution attached a condition to the holding of the plebiscite—the withdrawal of the Pakistani forces that had invaded that part of Kashmir in 1949 when the maharajah of the state of Jammu and Kashmir had vacillated over whether to become part of India or part of Pakistan. The invasion precipitated the maharajah to jump towards India, with the consequences that we have seen since.
Of course, it is absolutely right that this House should always take a keen interest in the protection of human rights around the world, but hon. Members and members of the public watching this debate must think there is a certain irony in the fact that although the hon. Member for Wycombe sought to raise his concern about human rights issues in India, it is not India but five of India’s closest border neighbours, including Pakistan, that the 2011 “Failed States Index” lists among the 50 most failed states in the world.
Steve Baker: I tried to approach this with considerable caution. I am not sorry if the Indian media pick up on this issue, as I would like our constituents’ concerns to be given the widest publicity. I paid tribute to India as
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the world’s largest democracy and a country with institutions based on our own which seek to reinforce the rule of law, and noted that Indian Government institutions have recognised many of these human rights abuses. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, on the whole, the House has sought to be balanced.
Barry Gardiner: I accept the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman says that he has contributed to the debate, and I would not wish to challenge that. However, if one looks at the immediate neighbours surrounding India, one will often find that there is far greater cause for concern in those jurisdictions than in India.
Fiona Mactaggart rose—
Shabana Mahmood: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Barry Gardiner: No, I will not.
Some of the worst human rights abuses of recent memory have occurred in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, in a part of the world where, frankly, India stands out as a beacon of democracy on the subcontinent. The relations between India and the UK, at both a trade and a strategic level, are excellent. They reached new levels of cordiality after Tony Blair’s visit in 2005, when the two Prime Ministers signed the New Delhi declaration, and they have been further strengthened by the current Prime Minister’s visit last year. Economically and culturally, as well as strategically, it would be a retrograde step should a debate such as this sour those excellent relations.
I first visited Kashmir in 2000, when I took a delegation of MPs on a fact-finding visit. We visited at a particularly important time: two years previously, both India and Pakistan had declared themselves nuclear weapon states. Pakistan had announced that it would adopt a doctrine of first use in certain circumstances. India had stated to the international community that it would never use nuclear weapons first. It was a time of great tension.
In 1999, Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan to meet Nawaz Sharif. It had been hoped that that might reduce the tension between the two states and all seemed well. Three months later, however, Pakistan-based militants invaded across the border at Kargil on the line of control into India. A bloody border conflict started in what became known as the phoney war. That invasion directly violated the Simla agreement of 1972, in which both nations agreed to resolve the issue of Kashmir by exclusively peaceful means.
President Clinton summoned Nawaz Sharif to the White House and persuaded him to withdraw Pakistani forces from Kargil. The confrontation de-escalated until Nawaz Sharif was overthrown by General Musharraf, who had been the key architect of the Kargil incursion. In 2000, Musharraf proclaimed himself the new President of Pakistan, without the benefit of a general election. In the following months, India was subjected to some of the most vile and well-orchestrated state-sponsored terrorist attacks ever seen, including the hijacking of an Air India flight, the attack on the temple at Gandhinagar and, of course, the attack on the Indian Parliament.
Despite the constant threat to India’s citizens from hostile parties at home and abroad claiming thousands of lives every year, India has continued to stand for
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tolerance and human rights in that part of the world. Terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed have continued to bombard India with state-sponsored terrorism supported by Inter-Services Intelligence.
It is against that background that we must consider today’s Amnesty International report. The report documents detentions under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act and makes some specific allegations. It is right that this House should consider them, albeit in the context of public safety that I have outlined. The report relates to more than 600 individuals detained under the Public Safety Act between 2003 and May 2010 when the research was conducted. That is fewer than 90 people each year for seven years. Amnesty states:
“The research shows that instead of using the institutions, procedures and human rights safeguards of ordinary criminal justice, the authorities are using the PSA to secure the long-term detention of political activists, suspected members or supporters of armed groups and a range of other individuals against whom there is insufficient evidence for a trial or conviction”.
That sounds remarkably similar, as the hon. Member for Wycombe admitted, to this country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. On 14 July last year, he voted to keep detention at 28 days and I think I voted to bring it down to 14 days.
At this year’s Reith lectures, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, talking about security, said that
“not all intelligence can be turned into evidence. It can fall well short. As I have said before, of evidential standards, hearsay at third hand, things said, things overheard, things seen and open to varying interpretation, rarely clear-cut even with the benefit of hindsight…and which any judge would unhesitatingly kick out even if the prosecution thought them useable. That requires us to accept that not everyone who presents a threat can be prosecuted.”
It is in that light that we need to consider these allegations.