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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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 lengthy 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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”.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is happening in Kashmir not being reported here in Britain, and why is the international community not doing something about it?”
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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—
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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”
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 than 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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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—
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
May I first declare that I have an interest? I am the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka and I visited that country with the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) at the behest of the Sri Lankan Government to review the reparations resulting from the tsunami.
Sri Lanka is a country that is coming to terms with the consequences of considerable strife and conflict. It takes time to overcome the horrors of conflict. We should therefore tread carefully and be cautious of making judgments without very clear facts and evidence. We should be especially careful not to give fuel to the most blatant of propaganda, not least because we experienced that in a part of our nation and should understand a little more.
I think that the Channel 4 programme is open to question and that those questions have not been answered. However, the United Nations report is credible and we should be cognisant of that fact. The British Government have also recognised that, and it is right to call for an independent, thorough and credible investigation into the allegations of violations of human rights laws. I totally support such an investigation, but it should be into the violations on both sides of the conflict. I fear that point has been missed a little today.
The roots of the conflict run very deep. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought a separatist campaign for the best part of 30 years and we have heard some of the horrors of that campaign from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott). The Channel 4 documentary painted a truly horrendous picture, but we are not sure that it told the whole story. Images were brutal, horrific and degrading and if they were true that was totally unacceptable and intolerable, but nothing in the broadcast showed direct evidence of the Sri Lankan Government’s culpability and we must be sure of that before we start talking about it.
My hon. Friend is being most generous in giving way again. If he agrees that there should be an independent inquiry, as he has said, does he agree that the Sri Lankan Government should agree to such an inquiry? Obviously, it would show them to be innocent if they are.
I agree with my hon. Friend and I press the Sri Lankan Government to do so.
Contrary to what the broadcast stated, every effort was made by the Sri Lankan Government to extract civilians from the combat zone during the conflict. Local journalists were given access to the front line and members of the Sri Lankan armed forces sacrificed their lives to save about 300,000 civilians trapped by Tamil Tigers. Those are not my words but those of Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, who has written:
“It remains a credit to many of the front line SLA (Sri Lanka Army) soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, they so often seem to have made the effort to draw civilians out from the morass of fighting ahead of them in an attempt to save lives”—
that from a hostile witness against Sri Lanka.
On many issues, my hon. Friend and I are at one, but on this one I think we take a very different view. He has quoted one United Nations individual, so may I quote the former President of Finland who is an international mediator? He has said:
“Countries operating outside international norms watch each other carefully. They will be taking courage from Sri Lanka’s apparent success at avoiding international reproach. This is a worry for all those who want to see more democracy, greater respect for human rights and less violence in the world.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being customarily generous in giving way, but I join some of his hon. Friends and many Opposition Members who share concerns about the way in which Sri Lanka has conducted itself, particularly since the end of the conflict. It is a matter of record as, surely, he will be generous enough to recognise, that the International Committee of the Red Cross was for far too long denied access to prisons in Sri Lanka, which held many of those whom the Sri Lankan Government had chosen to detain.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and I have made those concerns known to the Sri Lankan Government.
Sri Lanka needs a chance to heal, but that will not happen in an atmosphere of hiatus and emotive external interventions. We must all be careful because, as has been said, we share responsibility for the situation. That is clear, and we have to do all we can to help the Sri Lankan Government, who are trying to make considerable advances. They are trying to address the alleged crimes and human rights abuses and they are trying to provide a credible process for overcoming the issues facing internally displaced people. They are trying to achieve a sustainable political settlement, including on devolution, and those casting aspersions need to be careful about the statements that they make of what they say are facts but often are not.
As stated, one consequence of the conflict has been the significant numbers of internally displaced persons. I said that I had visited Puttalam, where I saw 160,000 people in the most terrible conditions, and that I talked to many of them. They said that they were displaced by shelling and demolition. Equally, though, some had been displaced by, and were scared of, the Tamil Tigers. That needs to be understood as well, if we are to be balanced in our judgment.
I cannot afford the time.
The process of reconstruction is taking longer than we would like, but Sri Lanka is a small country and we need to recognise that its resources are limited too. I believe that we should give Sri Lanka every opportunity and support to help them create a united country. I hope that that succeeds, as we must all do, but equally I hope that the independent inquiry will take place, because it will put to rest some of the propaganda that is actually hindering progress in that nation.
I want to mention two issues that have been raised with me by constituents. The first concerns India and the second Sri Lanka. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), I classify myself as a friend of India. I can do nothing else—I am married to a Goan and have only just come back from visiting my in-laws in Goa. I celebrate India’s success in recent years. I celebrate its politics. I witnessed the Anna Hazare campaign of Gandhian peaceful direct action to address corrupt politicians. I only wish that we had had such a thing here a few years ago—it might have helped when the Members’ expenses scandal was exposed. I also celebrate the nature of the way in which India is developing its economy. I wish that there was greater redistribution of wealth, but at least there is a dynamism in the economy itself.
In celebrating India’s progress, I feel that I have the right—as a friend of India—to draw attention to a continuing blemish on the Indian constitution. I am talking about the continued acceptance of the death penalty. There are currently 324 prisoners on death row in India, and although there has not been an execution for seven years, the political climate has changed, and there is a real fear of an imminent implementation of the death penalty. I want to use the Floor of the House to make an appeal on behalf of my constituents for the life of one person in particular, Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, whose case I have raised over the years with a number of colleagues. Unfortunately, he is at imminent risk of execution in New Delhi.
Would my hon. Friend comment on the fact that when I was looking through my annual report, I discovered that the issue on which I had the biggest postbag from my constituents was Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar’s threatened execution by the Indian Government?
There is real consternation among the community in this country and across the world. This case has been taken up by Amnesty International as one of its urgent appeals across the world. As I said, I want to use this platform to appeal to the Indian Government and the Indian President to address the case of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar and to consider the abolition of the death penalty itself.
Devinder’s mercy petition was rejected in May and his case is now moving towards the execution process. He was sentenced to death in August 2001 after being found guilty of involvement in a bomb attack in 1993 that tragically killed nine people. He was found guilty solely on the basis of an unsubstantiated confession that he made to the police and which he later retracted. He thought that it had been made under duress from the police. He was subsequently arrested under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act at New Delhi airport in January 1995. That Act has now been repealed and was criticised internationally and inside India for being incompatible with international standards for fair trials and fair arrests.
In March 2002, the death sentence against Devinder was upheld by the Supreme Court, but the opinion was divided, with two judges in favour and the senior judge coming down in favour of acquittal. In December 2002, a review was made of the judges’ decision, again resulting in a split decision. Usually, in such circumstances, a recommendation is made that the President accept the mercy petition, but unfortunately the petition was rejected in May this year, as I have said. Now, Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar faces the death penalty.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I must declare an interest, in that I was born in India. I am therefore familiar with its constitutional system and traditions. My hon. Friend talked about the changes in the country, but does he also acknowledge that India’s main party and the Government have undertaken to reconsider Mr Bhullar’s case as a result of pressure from the international community? Does he agree that the Indian authorities responded to that pressure?
That is exactly right. As a result of the campaign in India and the support that we and Amnesty International are giving it, there could be a breakthrough in this case that could lead to the abolition of the death penalty. There are clear concerns about the fairness of the trial, as well as about the eight-year delay in implementing a decision, which I believe constitutes cruel, degrading and inhuman punishment. As a friend of India—as many of us here are—I therefore appeal to the Indian Government to think again, to allow the mercy petition to go ahead and to allow this person’s death sentence to be commuted, but also to consider the issue of the death penalty itself, which I see as a continuing blemish on the Indian constitution and political system.
I was most concerned to hear my hon. Friend say that the only evidence against Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar was the confession that he had made in police custody. The Amnesty report, “A lawless law”, describing another case, records that
“the trial court dismissed two of the three outstanding charges against Sheikh noting that the only evidence against him was a confession made by him while in police custody which was inadmissible in court (in India, confessions made to the police are inadmissible as evidence because of fears that they may be coerced).”
Would my hon. Friend care to comment on that?
Yes, that is common practice, and it is usually taken into account when considering the mercy petition. That did not happen in this instance, however. There have been four recent cases in which mercy petitions have been rejected by the President. That is a change in practice that we have witnessed over the past seven or eight years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) suggested. There is a change of political climate on this issue in India at the moment, and I think that it is to the detriment of India. On that basis, pressure needs to be mounted in India and internationally, to address not only this individual case but the whole question of the abolition of the death penalty.
The issue of Sri Lanka and the treatment of the Tamils has also been raised with me. I want to associate myself with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) in this regard. A key issue is that, although the commission took place and various recommendations were made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, a number of them have not been implemented. For example, the simple recommendation that a list of names of those in detention should be published still has not been implemented. As a result, a number of my constituents are still anxious to find out what has happened to their families and where they are in detention.
When people are released from detention, despite reassurances that they will be assisted with resettlement, that is not happening in every case. Some are living in very distressing circumstances, but they are getting no assistance. Furthermore, there is a continuing problem of land having been taken over, particularly by the military, and reallocated to the majority community. In that way, members of the Tamil community are being displaced yet again as a result of the Government’s actions. I would welcome our own Minister putting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to address those issues and to get back into negotiations with the Tamil National Alliance, which has withdrawn from the current negotiations because of the Government’s intransigence. In that way, we might be able achieve an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation again.
Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this debate. I also want to thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating some of the precious time at its disposal for this afternoon’s debate.
I want to restrict my remarks to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Having previously represented Bury North, my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that thousands of my constituents have a personal concern about the human rights abuses taking place in Jammu and Kashmir. Many have personal knowledge of the problems in that part of the world, while many have families still living there who regularly witness the human rights abuses that are taking place. However, it is not possible in the brief time available to do more than highlight the main points of what we all know is a long-running issue.
The seeds of the current conflict were sown more than half a century ago in 1947, when the partition of India took place. The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which had a Hindu ruler but a predominately Muslim population, was divided between Pakistan and India. The people of the state of Kashmir were denied any say in whether they would join Pakistan or India. They wanted what those in so many areas of the world still want today: to determine their future themselves, in a vote of all Kashmiri people. The United Nations passed resolutions to that effect in 1948, but to this day the situation continues. Kashmir remains divided by the line of control, with thousands of troops ranged against each other on both sides of that line.
From time to time over the past 64 years the conflict has flared up and hit the world’s headlines. There have been several attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement, but for the majority of the time the conflict has simmered away beyond the public’s gaze and attention. Sadly for the people of Kashmir, the killings and torture continue. The latest figures supplied by the Jammu Kashmir Self-Determination Movement show that there have been more than 93,000 killings since January 1989, resulting in some 22,000 women left widowed and 107,000 children orphaned. I commend the work of the Jammu Kashmir Self-Determination Movement, under its chairman Raja Najabat Hussain, for ensuring that the problems of that troubled territory are not allowed to be completely forgotten.
As we have heard this afternoon, many of the current human rights abuses are taking place under the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act of 1978. Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, has said of that Act:
“The Jammu and Kashmir authorities are using PSA detentions as a revolving door to keep people they can’t or won’t convict through proper legal channels locked up and out of the way. Hundreds of people are being held each year on spurious grounds, with many exposed to higher risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment.”
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also expressed concerns about human rights abuses on both sides of the line of control in its human rights report, issued in May this year.
The people of Jammu and Kashmir are long suffering and patient. It seems that there is always another problem in the world that takes precedence over theirs. All they want is to be given the right to determine their future by themselves. Everyone appreciates the huge challenges facing the Foreign Office, particularly in the middle east and Afghanistan. However, I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will use every opportunity to advance the cause of peace in the troubled region of Jammu and Kashmir. We are fortunate to have a Minister who understands the issue, has tremendous knowledge of it and has a general personal interest in the plight of the Kashmiri people. I know that he will do all he can to ensure that one of the longest-running conflicts in the world is resolved.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak and I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate. May I say that I agreed with everything he said in his excellent speech? Given the shortage of time, I shall focus my remarks on the conflict in Kashmir. My primary concern is to press the Government, above all, to use their good offices to the maximum to help bring about a just settlement in Kashmir—one that is acceptable to the people of Kashmir. I say this directly to the Minister—a man representing my local county for whom I genuinely have the greatest affection and respect. I think that he will listen to today’s debate and do his very best to move things forward.
Thanks to the many thousands of my constituents from Kashmir, many of whom are close personal friends—some are here today, listening to our debate with great interest—I have long been familiar with the terrible sufferings of the people of Kashmir. Time and again, the appalling things happening in Kashmir have been brought to my attention. One hon. Member spoke of possibly exaggerated figures, while others have mentioned figures that, even if only half true, would be appalling. My suspicion is that the figures are accurate and that the reality might even be rather worse than has been said.
Some 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Azad Kashmir—Pakistan Kashmir. By way of Mirpur and Kotli, I visited a refugee camp. I saw how some people had suffered in Indian Kashmir: they had escaped, but having been displaced from their homes, they were still living in refugee camps. While I was a member of the all-party group on Kashmir, I visited the Foreign Office with other colleagues to press the previous Government to do all they could, first, to stop the human rights abuses and, secondly, to try to bring about movement towards a peaceful and just settlement. I say peaceful and just because a peaceful settlement is not enough; it has to be just as well. It is possible to have a peace that is a peace only because of force majeure, which would not be right. The peace must be acceptable to the people of Kashmir.
It has been said many times by many colleagues that Britain has a special responsibility in this part of the world. It was once part of the British empire; we ruled and governed that part of the world for centuries. When we left, partition took place and a lot of blood was shed. Mistakes were made, and this might be one of the most serious of those mistakes, which lingers on as a legacy of empire in a strange way.
As so often, I am surprised at the degree to which I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree, however, that one of the problems of the legacy of empire is that, although it gives us a special responsibility, it is also in many ways a curse because that very legacy is often what makes our word so very unwelcome in various countries, including in India?
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although we must do everything we can to condemn human rights violations on either side of the line of control, we must also look to whatever means we can to ensure that we support self-determination and a lasting resolution for the people of Kashmir?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and thank her for her intervention. Wherever suffering occurs, we must always support human rights; we have a record in doing so. More than one of my hon. Friends has mentioned that India is a great democracy. Indeed it is, but great democracies can also commit sins and have blood on their hands. In Britain, we consider ourselves to be a great democracy, but recent revelations about the Hola camp and what we did in Kenya, as well as about what we did to certain prisoners in Iraq suggest that even a democracy like ours can have blood on its hands. We must not excuse terrible things just because a country is a democracy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that no democracy—whether it be the world’s largest or not—should be afraid of a debate, either in the House, like today’s debate, or anywhere else, if that debate helps to shed some light on what is going on in another part of the world?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.
I was about to make an important point about Robin Cook’s reference to an ethical foreign policy. It did not make him popular with America, but Robin Cook stood by his position and resigned over the Iraq war. That contrasts with what I believe Palmerston once said, and here I paraphrase—that in politics, there are no such things as rights and wrongs, only interests. We must raise ethics above interests sometimes in politics, as I am sure all Members do. In time, I hope that we will ensure that Pakistan and India come to a moral and ethical solution, allowing Kashmir and the Kashmiri people to determine their own future.
This is a hugely important debate. As we hope that the Arab spring heralds a new dawn, we must be clear that freedom is a right for people in other continents too. I want to focus on the regime that calls itself the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, because I believe it is neither democratic nor—I am sure that Labour Members would agree—socialist.
The relatively normal relations Sri Lanka enjoys with the west, with little condemnation of its thin democratic credentials or genocide of Tamil civilians, have always mystified me. It is worth looking at the evidence. If we judge a democracy by its rule of law, property rights and religious tolerance, the Sri Lankan Government fails on all three. First, the Sri Lankan military is above the rule of law. As Members have said, 17,000 Tamils are still caged in barbaric camps. We still hear reports of Tamil civilians being summarily executed or disappearing, and that follows the genocide of 40,000 Tamils in the past decade. Secondly, property rights do not exist. Large areas of Tamil land and housing are still occupied by the Sri Lankan military.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. The evidence that he has seen shows, as I am pointing out, that Sri Lanka is not a proper democracy.
Thirdly, there is no tolerance of minorities. An estimated 180,000 Tamils are still displaced, either in transit camps or sheltering, and the names of prisoners have still not been published, so families cannot find out if their relatives are alive.
There is a saying that one judges a man by the friends he keeps. In the same way, one can judge a Government by the allies they keep. In the past decade, Sri Lanka’s key allies have been Iran, North Korea and Colonel Gaddafi. Colonel Gaddafi gave Sri Lanka £500 million in financial assistance for so-called development projects. In return, Sri Lanka strongly opposed the no-fly zone in Libya and offered him sanctuary. Even after Gaddafi was threatening Benghazi, Sri Lanka organised mass rallies in his support, protesting against NATO intervention. We all know the story of North Korea, yet Sri Lanka was happy to sign a major weapons contract with it in 2009. We also know the story about Iran, yet Sri Lanka signed business and oil contracts with that country in defiance of international sanctions. Despite that, Sri Lanka continues to be a member of the Commonwealth and the United Nations.
In the light of all the reports, television coverage and films shown on Channel 4, and the international condemnation, does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is the right time to demand that the Sri Lanka Government be expelled from the Commonwealth until they accept the international court?
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. As I will say in my concluding remarks, we should also boycott the Commonwealth leaders summit in Sri Lanka in 2013.
As has been highlighted, the genocide of 40,000 Tamils has brought the civil war death toll to 70,000. We must make a distinction between murder and genocide—genocide is scientific, organised killing. Having taught the Sinhalese to hate the Tamil minority, the Sri Lankan Government used the Tamil Tigers, who are opposed by moderate Tamils, and whose systematic killing of civilians we all condemn, as the excuse for a litany of horrific events and actions. Let us take a couple of examples.
In 2008, according to Human Rights Watch, the Sri Lankans used rockets to obliterate entire refugee camps full of women and children. In 2009, the Sri Lankan Government’s tactics evolved again. They declared a 35 sq km “safe zone” for Tamil civilians, and dropped leaflets appealing to civilians to move into the safe zone as soon as possible. Immediately after several thousand people had gathered there, near a United Nations food distribution plant, the Sri Lankan military shelled the area heavily, killing thousands of people in a few hours.
The United Kingdom has financial leverage. We have millions of pounds’ worth of business and tourism with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka needs the west. But we have seen what happened in “The Killing Fields”, and we must press for a UN resolution and tough economic sanctions to pressurise the Sri Lankan Government to change their ways. As I said a moment ago, we must boycott the leaders’ summit in Sri Lanka in 2013. I welcome the Canadian Prime Minister’s call for a boycott, because symbolism is incredibly important in politics.
There are very few Tamils in my constituency, so many people may ask why I am here today, but I believe that because of my background, it is my duty to try to support nations that have suffered from genocide. That is why I have been involved in Rwanda and have been there, why I have been very involved in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and why I am supporting the Tamils.
I will not, because there is very little time. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me.
We must be clear about the fact that Sri Lanka is a rogue nation. It has carried out genocide against the Tamil people, and we must do all that we can to stop the persecution of the Tamils once and for all.
I commend the Backbench Business Committee for choosing this topic for debate. I am delighted that we have discussed mainly Kashmir and Sri Lanka. I do not want to detract from what anyone said about those subjects, and I agree with the thrust of the arguments that have been presented. I want to raise a rather different issue.
There are 260 million people worldwide who suffer from massive human rights abuses. Such abuses have continued for centuries, indeed millennia, often unacknowledged and unchallenged. It was only with great difficulty that the issue of caste discrimination, or discrimination based on caste and descent, was raised at the Durban millennium summit, but it massively affects the people of south Asia, particularly India.
I am the chair of the trustees of the Dalit Solidarity Network, and also an officer of the all-party parliamentary group for Dalits. The hierarchical division of a society, ascribing inherent privileges to birth, runs contrary to the United Nations’ universal declaration of human rights, article 1 of which states:
“All human beings are… free and equal in dignity and rights.”
The caste discrimination system divides people on the basis of their background, parents and work, and results in the greatest degree of poverty and discrimination in the case of India. The sadness is that the Indian constitution specifically outlaws caste discrimination, and, moreover, was written by the great Dr Ambedkar, who was himself a Dalit person. He tried to prevent the discrimination, and indeed every law in India prevents it from taking place, but it does still take place. Dalits represent one third of the world’s poor. Caste discrimination affects jobs, education, medical care and international aid, and also results in the violent subjugation of communities. Dalits have little access to public health or sanitation facilities.
According to official Indian statistics, 13 Dalits are murdered every week, five Dalit homes or possessions are burnt every week, three Dalit women are raped every day, and a crime is committed against a Dalit person every 18 minutes. Dalits, who were formerly known as “untouchables”, are forced to do the most disgusting, dirty, dangerous, menial jobs, such as carrying human waste around in wicker baskets on their heads, picking up human faeces from the streets and railway lines, and cleaning out sewers—all the dirty jobs that no one else wants to do. When we walk around the glittering town centres of modern India, beneath them the most vile discrimination is taking place against the very poorest people, and the chances of those people’s children escaping from the system are very low indeed. They are discriminated against because of their background and their place within the identifiable Hindu caste system.
It is right to raise this issue in Parliament, and we must encourage the British Government to ensure that their aid system recognises this discrimination and the need to address it. At present there are protected jobs in the public sector for Dalit peoples, but that does not extend to the private sector, and this arrangement has only served to fossilise the levels of unemployment in the Dalit communities. The Department for International Development has recognised this discrimination and, so far as I am aware, ensures that no aid projects perpetuate it.
I want to draw the House’s attention to six key issues. The first two are that a significant proportion of Dalit women face verbal abuse, physical assault, sexual harassment and assault, domestic violence and rape, and that bonded labour is normal, even among Dalit children. The remaining issues are that there is forced prostitution, manual scavenging, limited political participation and non-implementation of relevant legislation.
Our job is to speak up for the UN declaration of human rights and to draw attention to this disgraceful discrimination against so many people.
Millions of British citizens have a family origin from the Indian subcontinent, so it is right for this mother of Parliaments to debate not only human rights there, but security on the Indian subcontinent as well. First, I should add my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott) for securing the debate, and to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place in the Chamber. It is, however, unfortunate that we are bracketing the bloody civil war that took place in Sri Lanka with the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Now that the civil war has ended, there must be reconciliation, peace and an inquiry into what happened in Sri Lanka.
I want to focus on Jammu and Kashmir. Having grown up with Indians over many years, I have debated and talked about this issue for some 25 to 30 years. We must recognise that India is the greatest democracy in the world, with 1 billion people having the opportunity to vote. It is often forgotten that there are more Muslims in India than in the whole of Pakistan and Bangladesh combined; it is a truly secular state, which offers equal opportunity to people of all religions. It has also been the subject of many terrorist atrocities, most of which, it is claimed, emanate from the state of Pakistan. Naturally therefore, the Indian Government are concerned about whether Pakistan can be trusted.
The seeds of this mistrust lie in the history of Jammu and Kashmir. We cannot forget the origin of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. As other Members have said, it was this House that made the decision to allow India and Pakistan to secede and set up their own states. Jammu and Kashmir had the opportunity of joining either India or Pakistan. While it deliberated, Pakistan invaded. There is an illegally occupied area of Kashmir, therefore: the area that is Pakistani-controlled. The area that is administered by India represents what was wanted by the people of Jammu and Kashmir at the time of secession. All the atrocities that have taken place on both sides of the dividing line should be investigated, and both sides should be held to account.
Let us compare the two states in their current forms, however. In Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, all political parties can debate and stand for elections. In fact, there was an 85% turnout for this year’s local elections in Jammu and Kashmir. All Members of this House would like to see such a turnout for a general election, let alone a local election. By contrast, in Pakistani-administered Kashmir political parties are allowed to form and agitate only provided they accept Pakistan’s right to rule Kashmir—that is not even-handed in any extreme. We must seek to even out the position and make sure that people understand that the current position is not even. We have heard far too often this afternoon about the position in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, and not enough about Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. We need to make sure that we have an even balance and that the people who are here get the opportunity to air their grievances.
I am delighted that this House is having the opportunity to debate the full array of issues in the short time available, and I know that we have to hear at least one other speech by a Back Bencher before the wind-ups. It is important that I have the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents who are here to press their strongly held belief that there is a need for greater exposure of the human rights issues, particularly in Indian-administered Kashmir, and for greater attention to be paid to them. I accept that there are all sorts of issues between Pakistan and India, and I am not going to try to take too many sides on these things. However, I have to say to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that it is predominantly in the Indian-administered side of Kashmir that the more severe human rights issues—about detentions, curfews and disappearances, and about many of the other aspects highlighted in Amnesty International’s “A ‘lawless law’: Detentions under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act” report, and by the Red Cross and others—arise time and again.
I greatly respect the Minister on these issues. I have been to see him in his office to discuss this matter, and I know that he listens carefully. He has to take a very balanced view on these questions, but I know that he would agree that it is important that the British Government try their best to raise the issue more vociferously and more passionately with Pakistan, but especially with India. What I find most distressing are the reports of this persistent abuse of the Public Safety Act on the Indian side of the Kashmir border, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, which is still in force in the region, and causes so many difficulties and human rights abuses. It is important that we see not only a dialling down of the tensions at the line of control, but a demilitarisation in the Kashmir region. Although the Indian Government have made some efforts, through the high-level committee and in other attempts to amend some of these awful pieces of draconian legislation, the process has been very slow and not strong enough. I therefore urge the Minister to raise these issues more vociferously and to consider the role of the European Commission and whether we can get these issues raised on an international stage. This issue is very important and I hope that he will listen to the very many voices that have been raised.
I have only two minutes left, so I am going to speak very fast. I wish to refer to an article written by Dr Angana Chatterji, the associate professor of social and cultural anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Along with her cameraman and a number of other people, she went to Jammu and occupied Kashmir. Her article states:
“Dirt, rubble, thick grass, hillside and flatland, crowded with graves. Signifiers of military and paramilitary terror, masked from the world. Constructed by institutions of state to conceal massacre. Placed next to homes, fields, schools, an army practice range. Unknown, unmarked. Over 940 graves in a segment of Baramulla district alone. Some containing more than one cadaver. Dug by locals, coerced by the police, on village land. Bodies dragged through the night, some tortured, burnt, desecrated. Circulating mythology claims these graves uniformly house ‘foreign militants’. Exhumation and identification have not occurred in most cases. When undertaken”—
I join other hon. Members in welcoming this important debate, and congratulate the hon. Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on sponsoring it and Members on both sides who have participated in it. In particular, I commend the Backbench Business Committee for providing this opportunity.
In recent meetings with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, I have discussed the role of promoting human rights in British foreign policy. There is a very clear message about the need for consistency on human rights and that is central to the debate. The other theme of the debate is the importance of engaging diaspora communities in our foreign policy. It is very encouraging to see a crowded Gallery on a Thursday afternoon, reflecting the concerns in the Kashmiri and Sri Lankan communities in this country as we debate these important issues.
We approach the subject in a year where we have seen momentous events in north Africa and the middle east. Those events have had at their hearts demands for freedom, democracy and human rights. We as a country have a responsibility to play a positive role both bilaterally and multilaterally in promoting human rights, using, for example, soft power through institutions such as the BBC World Service and the British Council. The British Council operates programmes in the Indian subcontinent, including in Sri Lanka. It is an important tool in our soft power armoury and tonight I want in particular to commend the courage of the personnel of the British Council, who are doing great work to promote human rights across the Indian subcontinent.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although good things are happening in those countries, the press here is very silent about both Kashmir and Sri Lanka and much more needs to be done not just by politicians but by the media to bring the issue up the world agenda?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
A number of hon. Members referred to the Channel 4 film, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, which was broadcast in June, bringing images of atrocities committed against civilians in Sri Lanka in the concluding months of the decades-long war. The footage was truly appalling and the 25-year conflict has left Sri Lanka scarred. The military conclusion of active hostilities between the Government and the LTTE was reached in 2009, but only after mass atrocities and alleged war crimes by both sides. This leaves Sri Lanka with dual tests of accountability and reconciliation. Civilians, be they Tamil, Sinhalese or Muslim, have paid the heaviest price. For them, justice must be realised.
Beyond the sphere of domestic Sri Lankan politics, the international community has a responsibility to secure justice. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), the former Foreign Secretary, visited Sri Lanka during the closing period of the war in 2009 to bear witness to the chaos and suffering that had been inflicted on civilians. Assessments made at that time of wrongdoing by people on both sides of the conflict have since been verified and Government forces are alleged to have been responsible for deaths by shelling the so-called safe zones, as described by a number of hon. Members. The LTTE belligerents had forced internally displaced persons to act as human shields, and those seeking to escape were simply killed.
Justice must be sought because that is the right thing to do, but it is also right that we should pursue justice as a means of deterrent. Writing recently in The Times, Lord Ashdown made a poignant observation:
“The point about law is that it exists not just to deliver justice after the event but also to govern behaviour beforehand”.
Restrictions on journalists in Sri Lanka meant that this was a war without witness. Testimony brought about through the mechanism of accountability will shed light on the dark events that have scarred Sri Lanka’s recent history—testimony that reveals the human rights atrocities that were committed in Sri Lanka and testimony that leads to justice.
Although the tactics of the LTTE, an organisation that has rightly been labelled as terrorist by the European Union and the United States, were abhorrent, the legitimate grievances of the Tamil people will not be resolved without a lasting and just political settlement. Can the Minister share with the House any recent discussions the Government have had with the Sri Lankan Government on their plans for reaching a political settlement and devolving power? Has the Minister made any representations about the number of people still being held in so-called rehabilitation centres? Is he satisfied that there is sufficient media freedom in Sri Lanka?
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised the very important issue of the death penalty and the case of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, which he has championed for many years. I echo what he said both about Mr Bhullar’s case and more broadly on the question of the death penalty. As a fellow friend of India, I press it to abolish the death penalty. Of course, as we are having a debate on south Asia, we should similarly press Pakistan to abolish its death penalty; there are 8,000 people on death row in Pakistan today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) made the point that we have had a very big contribution to our country from the Kashmiri community that lives here. We saw that reflected in the powerful and passionate speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood). Hon. Members in all parts of the House have reflected the concerns of their constituents.
In government we sought to urge both India and Pakistan to bring about a lasting resolution to the issue of Kashmir that takes into account the wishes of the people of Kashmir. I welcome some of the developments that have been referred to: the visit of the Pakistani Foreign Minister to India, improvements in cross-border trade, and talks between India and Pakistan. Will the Minister update the House on recent discussions with counterparts on the formation of a lasting political settlement that takes into account the wishes of the people of Kashmir?
A number of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, have voiced very serious concerns about the human rights situation in both parts of Kashmir. For example, the limits to media freedom in Indian-administered Kashmir have been described by a number of hon. Members. Have the Government raised that matter with the Indian Government?
My hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) highlighted Amnesty’s recent and very disturbing report about unmarked graves and the need for an investigation by the Indian authorities. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) raised the issue of irregularities and a lack of openness in elections in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, and that, too, is an important question which I encourage the Minister to raise with Pakistan in our bilateral relationship. We must continue to work both bilaterally and multilaterally with India and Pakistan, and urge all sides to seek a lasting resolution to the issue of Kashmir, which takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
If I may finish where I started, the Arab spring has reminded us that the thirst for freedom, democracy and human rights is not western but universal. It also reminds us that in many parts of the world there are real concerns about double standards in the policies of the major powers. It is vital that we take a consistent approach to human rights, and the desire for that consistency has been reflected in this debate.
I thank all colleagues for their participation in the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for his thanks to the British Council, which does such excellent work for us abroad, and for his reminding us of the increasing importance of the diaspora in British politics and the contribution that they can make, not only to debate here but, in many instances, to reconciliation and support in the communities from which they originally came.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott) for securing the debate and to the Backbench Business Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe spoke in measured tones on a difficult subject, plainly putting to the House the views and anxieties of his constituents. I shall of course deal with Kashmir during the next few minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North spoke with passion in support of his Tamil constituents and reminded the House, as did one or two others, why we have such an obligation to speak here, without fear or favour, on the matters that concern us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), in describing his colourful arrival in Pakistan and Kashmir, reminded us of how we are seen in many parts of the world—an honour to this House that we respect by the way in which we conduct ourselves here by dealing with difficult subjects in moderation, sometimes in tricky areas.
The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) reminded us that, before we get too moralistic and righteous in what we say here about other countries, we should acknowledge our own human rights failings, both past and present. The fact that the House listened with respect to voices that challenged some of the more popular sentiments represented by many who are watching the debate shows that the House can listen to both sides of a complex debate. That should reassure any Government looking at the work of the House of Commons that they should not fear our debates, if transparency, accountability and justice are as close to their hearts as they are to the hearts of parliamentarians here today.
The Government have been clear since they took office that the protection of human rights is crucial to both the values and the interests of the UK. When the Foreign Secretary set out his vision for the future of our foreign policy in a series of speeches last year, he said that those values were part of our national DNA and that they would be woven into our foreign policy decision making. We cannot achieve long-term security and prosperity for the UK unless we uphold them.
Few parts of the world are as important to the promotion of our values and our interests as south Asia. The region's giant, India, is the world's largest democracy— vibrant, pluralistic, secular and multi-ethnic—but it has faced significant problems with domestic insurgency, communal violence and caste discrimination. Some of the toughest human rights challenges in the region are exacerbated by the dispute between India and Pakistan. The latter country, which has only recently come under civilian rule, is facing arguably the greatest existential threat from terrorism of any nation in the world. To the north and south, Nepal and Sri Lanka continue to grapple with the legacies of decades of destructive insurgency. Bangladesh is affected more than almost anywhere else by the pressures of population, poverty and climate change. The smallest country in the region, the Maldives, is the world's newest democracy.
Despite that challenging context the UK does not shy away from engaging frankly with our partners in the region, holding Governments to account when human rights standards slip. The UK is all too familiar with the challenges of balancing personal freedoms and the rule of law, with the first duty of Government to protect their citizens. Our approach is idealism tempered with realism. We are absolutely clear about what is right and wrong and what foundations are required for truly free societies, but we also recognise the limitations on our ability to enforce change anywhere in the world. Societies progress at their own pace and the UK will continue to work with them, utilising our strengths but without arrogance, on what can be a long and difficult road to freedom, security and prosperity for all.
Let me make a few remarks about the two main issues that have come up today—Kashmir and Sri Lanka. I fully understand the sense of frustration felt by many people in the UK about the situation in Kashmir. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) reminds me, the context of that is the years I spent both growing up and living in Bury North and representing many Kashmiri citizens and friends there.
I have answered a number of questions tabled in the House asking for the UK to take a more active role in resolving the dispute. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) accurately described the cost over the years of the long-running problem to the communities in that area. The position of successive British Governments has consistently been that any resolution must be for India and Pakistan to agree, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. As India and Pakistan are currently making efforts to build confidence in all aspects of their relationship, I believe it is important that they be given space to determine the scope and pace of that dialogue. No matter how well intentioned, any attempts by the UK or other third parties to mediate or prescribe solutions would hinder progress.
We continue to monitor developments In Kashmir closely, especially as reports of human rights abuses on both sides of the line of control continue. We are all aware of the violent protests that occurred in Indian-administered Kashmir during the summer of 2010. More than 100 civilians were killed and a number of security forces personnel were injured. During the unrest there were allegations of excessive use of force by security forces against protesters and allegations that protesters themselves had used violence. We are also aware of the large number of detentions that have since been the subject of an Amnesty International report. However, we welcome the renewed engagement by the leaders of India and Pakistan to grope towards, perhaps for the first time in a long time on a personal basis, answers to this issue. We also note that the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that human rights abuses by security forces in Kashmir would not be tolerated, and we welcomed his appointment of three interlocutors to engage with a wide range of interested parties to help to resolve the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir. We understand that those interlocutors will publish their recommendations soon.
Our officials in our high commissions regularly discuss and regularly raise difficult issues in Kashmir with both the Indian and Pakistani Governments and with contacts in those areas. Our resources from the conflict pool also support work promoting human rights, conflict prevention and peace-building efforts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) reminded us.
I thank hon. Friends for raising various issues relating to Sri Lanka. I assure the House that I have a regular and very frank relationship with Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris. We discuss all the significant issues that have been raised today. The allegations of war crimes and other human rights violations committed by both sides in the military conflict are of great concern to us. The UK has consistently made its position clear: Sri Lanka needs to address accountability through an independent, thorough and credible process that meets international standards and allows the people of Sri Lanka to move towards reconciliation and lasting peace and security.
Sri Lanka has faced enormous challenges during the many years of war and its aftermath. Its Government have made important progress in some areas. We hope that all those displaced by the conflict who have returned to their home areas will be resettled in permanent accommodation in the near future. De-mining and reconstruction of key infrastructure in the north is progressing. However, just as it is fair to note progress, so it is fair to note that it has not been complete everywhere and that serious challenges remain, as I saw when I visited Jaffna earlier this year.
No. My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to speak in a moment.
We believe that further action is required to make peace sustainable. In particular, minority political grievances need to be resolved, the mechanisms for protecting and promoting human rights need strengthening, and Sri Lanka’s communities must collectively deal with the legacy of such a long conflict. Sri Lanka has begun to address some of these issues. We hope that the Government will set out their view of a political solution to the causes of the conflict and rapidly demonstrate their commitment to resolving minority concerns sustainably. The LLRC report, which will be published in November, must set out clear steps towards accountability in respect of allegations of war crimes.
Under international law it is the primary responsibility of the state concerned to investigate and, where necessary, prosecute credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Experience has shown that countries that take concrete action to address conflict issues through a process of truth, justice and reconciliation are more likely to achieve long-term peace. By corollary, those that do not take such action will not achieve peace. We want to see Sri Lanka take those actions. While we share international concerns about the credibility of the LLRC, it is a Sri Lankan-led process and we want the Sri Lankan Government to use it to address allegations effectively and allow their communities to live and work together.
The international community can also provide support to Sri Lanka. The comprehensive report of the UN panel of experts is most welcome, and we welcome the UN Human Rights Council’s consideration of those recommendations. We understand that this, and the disturbing Channel 4 footage, on which I made some fairly straightforward comments at the time, will be considered by the LLRC before it produces its report in November. It is a step in the right direction that we wish to encourage.
The passion and commitment of Members who have spoken in today’s debate and the balance achieved through different Members speaking their truth on difficult areas should, I hope, persuade any constituent that we care about these issues, that they matter to the UK Government and that foreign Governments have nothing to fear from our honest inquiry springing from the values that we know they profess to share.
It is an incredible honour and privilege to open and close the debate today. It has been a debate on the most exquisitely sensitive of subjects, and I think that Members on both sides of the House have at least sought to be even-handed. I know that some Members perhaps felt that the balance swung one way or another, but I think today we can all be proud of Parliament. As happens so often, I found myself agreeing with the hon. Members for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Luton South (Gavin Shuker). I find myself recognising that although we in this House often disagree on means, we so often agree on ends. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) made a passionate call for action—a call that I confess I did not have the courage to make. I congratulate him on making it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) reflected powerfully on his visit to Kashmir, and my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), in talking about his long involvement, demonstrated his passionate commitment to the issue. The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) mounted a passionate and even-handed defence of India. The hon. Member for Brent North was absolutely right to talk about the structure of the resolution. In the end, in this House and elsewhere we need to move away from fault and look at how prosperity, peace and progress can be delivered for people, wherever they may be. I am proud of Parliament today because we have represented all our constituents in the best possible way.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order to ask you, sir, to pay a tribute on our behalf to Sir Malcolm Jack, as he rises for the last time in the chair as chief Clerk of this our House of Commons? That funny triangle of you, Sir Malcolm and his colleagues is one that the public do not know much about, but I certainly pay tribute to the fact that Sir Malcolm has been a constant source of advice, friendly help and courteous consideration. I am sure that his successor will be every bit as good.
Sir Malcolm is an expert on Portugal and has written a very fine book on it, which I can recommend to everybody who wants to understand mediaeval and renaissance Portuguese history—undoubtedly very helpful as he tries to steer his way through our Standing Orders and “Erskine May”. I invite you, Mr Speaker, as one of the last acts of this two-week session, to say just a word of thanks to him on behalf of all of us.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I endorse every word that he has just uttered, and I am delighted indeed to volunteer on behalf of the House the tribute sought by him.
Malcolm Jack has served this House with dedication, passion and intellectual flair for 44 years. His is a quite outstanding track record of selfless public service in the interest of Parliament and of the country. It has been a superb record. Malcolm is a brilliant man, not given to issuing press releases to advertise the fact. He rejoices in helping the House, he has exceptional interpersonal skills and he commands the loyalty, respect and affection of literally thousands of people who work in the House and who observe the House from outside. As he retires, he will do so with the affection and goodwill of everyone who works here, and we hope that he has a long, healthy, happy and, I suspect, very industrious and enterprising retirement.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).