I visited Bangladesh, India and Pakistan on 22-29 November 2006. The purpose of the visit was primarily to promote greater bilateral trade between the UK and South Asia, but other foreign affairs objectives were included, particularly in the area of human rights, which fall particularly in my portfolio.
In Bangladesh my programme included calls on the President/Chief Adviser of the Caretaker government and the leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist party and Awami League. I also met human rights representatives, civil society leaders, political leaders from other parties and key UK investors in the energy and power sectors. I delivered a keynote speech attended by leading figures from the business community, local officials, and diplomats.
I delivered all our messages for free, fair and peaceful elections, asked for responsible leadership from the main parties, and urged both leaders to address human rights concerns in their election manifestos. In particular, I raised extra-judicial killings by law enforcement agencies, specifically the Rapid Action Battalion, with the main party leaders.
I also presided over a round table discussion. At the discussion, leading human rights advocates outlined a range of issues of concern in Bangladesh, including levels of political and societal violence and the abuse of rights of vulnerable groups: ethnic and religious minorities, women and children. Participants identified examples of required political, legal and attitudinal changes and stressed the importance of the international community in applying pressure on the Government of Bangladesh to achieve these. International business had a role to play through ethical investment; human rights advocates needed to make the business case for corporate social responsibility.
In Delhi I met the Cabinet Ministers of Commerce and Industry, and Petroleum; Ministers of State in the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (Kumar) and the Ministry of External Affairs; and the Chief Minister of Delhi. I also spoke at the World Economic Forum and met business leaders and British investors in India. I was joined by a delegation of six UK infrastructure companies.
My meeting with Anand Sharma, Minister of State for External Affairs, covered a range of issues: regional (Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma); thematic (co-operation on security and counter-terrorism); and UN specific (Human Rights Commission and UN reform). The visit also provided an opportunity to reinforce some of our broader messages on the investment environment.
In Kolkatta I inaugurated two income generation projects supported by the Deputy High Commission and gave a keynote address at the Women’s Interlink Foundation, which looks after trafficked girls and the children of sex workers. I also had the opportunity to meet many of the children involved in the programme during my visit to the non-governmental organisations. I also met with the West Bengal Chief Minister, and discussed major infrastructure projects (a second airport, a new deep water port, urban and river regeneration) and other key areas for British companies to consider—chemicals, petro-chemicals, agri-retail, healthcare and IT.
In Pakistan I had separate meetings in Islamabad with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, and the Ministers for Privatisation and Investment and for Commerce. I was accompanied by a high-level business delegation from Standard Chartered Bank, HSBC, London Stock Exchange (LSE) and HCA (Healthcare). I also gave a media briefing in Karachi, and met UK businesses and the visiting Manchester trade mission.
I stressed, to Prime Minister Aziz and Akhtar Khan, the UK’s commitment to an ambitious, pro-development outcome to the Doha Round negotiations, and ensuring that the impact on neighbouring countries was taken into account in any negotiations. With the Prime Minister, I raised UK concerns on Intellectual Property Rights issues in Pakistan, particularly in pharmaceuticals and publishing. With Akhtar Khan, I spoke of our outreach to stakeholders in the UK. I invited the Minister to visit a range of cities e.g. Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Bradford to see first hand the contribution they were making to UK society and the UK economy. I emphasised the need for continued improvement in the levels of maintenance and safety of Pakistan International Airlines. I thanked Prime Minister Aziz for his help with the release of Tahir Hussain and congratulated him on the recent Women’s Protection Bill, there will be a follow-up on a number of other human rights issues.