Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)
This debate is about the persecution of the Hazara community in Quetta city in the Pakistan province of Balochistan and its aim is to draw attention to their plight. The ultimate objective is to put pressure on the Pakistan authorities to do more to capture those who are responsible.
I sought this debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), who cannot be here this evening because of an engagement in his constituency, and the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) who, with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, will make a contribution. I know that others who have members of the Hazara community in their constituencies wish to intervene and with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am perfectly happy for that to happen.
Like many other right hon. and hon. Members, we have constituents who are part of the Hazara community in the UK. The constituent who drew this matter to my attention, Muhammad Younas, is a typical Hazara: passionate about education, law-abiding and committed to public service. He works for a social enterprise, teaching and assisting those who need his help and making an important contribution to community relations in Hull.
We are extremely grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet us last December to discuss the issue and for being here for the debate today. As we discussed it, there was consensus that it needed to be aired on the Floor of the House of Commons, which is why I am so pleased that the debate was granted today.
There are about 600,000 Hazaras living in Quetta city and many fled there from Afghanistan, where they were a specific target for the Taliban. Hazaras in Quetta are being killed practically on a daily basis and it has been estimated that about 600 have been killed so far, yet not a single perpetrator has been captured and brought to justice.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing the debate. His point is so powerful that it deserves underlining. Does he share my concern that while that statistic of more than 600 deaths and not a single conviction remains, it is very hard to take seriously the Pakistan Government’s claim that they are tackling this matter?
The hon. Gentleman is right. I have huge respect for the country—I went to Pakistan when I was a Minister—and for the high commissioner, but I believe that that is the key point about the Hazara community: there is no sign of any of the perpetrators being brought to justice, and it is not simply the case that they are being held but the prosecuting authorities are not being successful. That is one of the major issues in this debate and the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to it.
The response of the authorities in Balochistan has been to restrict the movement of the Hazaras themselves—to forbid them entering certain districts and to apply travel restrictions—and to treat the murders with a mixture of complacency and complicity. Last September/October almost 50 Hazaras were taken from buses and wagons in separate incidents, lined up and killed. The Chief Minister of Balochistan responded with levity, saying in a television interview that he would send a truckload of tissue paper to the bereaved families. That is the kind of atmosphere in which the Hazaras are living. The authorities know that the Hazaras are a target for terrorist groups and that an al-Qaeda affiliate is seeking to make Pakistan, in their words, Hazaras' graveyard. They state that their mission is to eliminate “this impure sect” and people
“from every city, every village…and corner of Pakistan.”
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. By way of declaration, Mr Deputy Speaker, I worked with Benazir Bhutto from 1999 to 2007. On the point about the Hazara community being affected, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is not the only community being affected? The Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities are also suffering as a result of Pakistan’s having been a front-line state in the war against Russia and then in the war against al-Qaeda after 9/11. As a result, radicalisation and sectarian violence have spread from Afghanistan to Pakistan, leading to the murders of Benazir Bhutto and Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian Minister. Of course I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern, but everyone has suffered as a result of the sectarian ethnic violence spreading from Afghanistan to Pakistan, not just the Hazara people.
I do accept that point; indeed, the high commissioner for Pakistan made the same point when he contacted me today about this debate. I shall say some things later about the difficulties that Pakistan is facing, but that must not detract from the fact that these killings are taking place on a daily basis. The authorities seem remarkably complacent about it and not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice.
While the movement of Hazaras is restricted, their pursuers walk freely in the city despite the heavy presence of the police, the army and the frontier corps who all have checkpoints in and around Quetta. The reason for that persecution is not just the Hazaras’ religion—they are predominantly Shi'a Muslims—but their genetic link to the Mongol people, which allows them to be recognised by their physical appearance. Hazaras are also persecuted because have pursued higher education, enrolled in the army and occupied senior positions in government, the civil service and civic society more generally. They are the kind of law-abiding citizen who would play an important role in a free, democratic Afghanistan and a peaceful and prosperous Pakistan. Thus, they are the enemies of a whole range of terrorist groups.
The persecution—some would say genocide—carried out against the Hazaras has been well documented by the United Nations, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and organisations such as the New York-based monitoring body Human Rights Watch. However, there is insufficient awareness nationally and internationally about what the Hazaras are going through, despite the best efforts of the Hazara community and organisations such as the Hazara Organisation for Progress and Equality, or HOPE, which seeks to raise these issues in Parliaments around the world.
The attacks are intensifying. Hazaras are murdered when they stay in Quetta and killed when they try to leave. Fifty five young Hazaras were drowned in the waters of Indonesia on 20 December when trying to escape their perilous existence. The Hazaras believe that the religious militant groups carrying out these killings are state sponsored, and there is evidence for that assertion. The Asian Human Rights Commission reported on 6 January that the Pakistan army had created a militant organisation to kill intellectuals, activists and Hazaras in Balochistan. I have seen a copy of an official letter from the Government of Balochistan informing the military authorities and the police in Quetta about the presence of a man called Sabir Mehsood, whose stated aim was to murder Hazaras, but no action was taken to apprehend him. Thus, more than 80 Hazaras were killed in Quetta by this man and his fellow operatives last year.
The international community cannot allow this persecution to continue. There are significant Hazara populations in countries around the world, particularly in Australia, and these countries should co-ordinate and intensify their efforts. I know that the Minister is fully engaged in trying to pressurise the Pakistani authorities to protect the Hazara community in Quetta, and I know that the Foreign Secretary is equally committed.
Pakistan is an old, valued and trusted ally of the United Kingdom and is seeking to renew its democratic credentials after years of military rule. It is a country beset by problems, and its citizens have suffered at the hands of terrorists more than any other country in the world, as the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) pointed out. However, the Pakistani Government must do more to root out state-supported terrorism wherever it exists. It undoubtedly exists in Quetta city, and the Hazaras are its principal victims. It is a good place to begin this process.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) on securing it. I am happy to endorse all his points, which, in the interests of brevity, I will not repeat.
My interest in this issue, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), stems from our having a large Hazara population in Milton Keynes. The headquarters of the Hazara Community of Great Britain charity are located in Bletchley in my constituency. It is a close-knit, progressive community, and it certainly makes a valuable contribution to the local community and wider civic life of Milton Keynes.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) on securing this debate. Like others, I have a Hazara community in my constituency in north-east London. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we can play an important role in supporting the Hazara community in Britain to come forward and raise concerns, and in engaging with the Foreign Office in making progress in Pakistan on some of these issues?
I am happy to endorse that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North has already met a delegation from the community and the Minister. They are deeply concerned, as the hon. Lady implied, about the plight of their relatives and the broader community in Pakistan, amid what are daily reports of killings and persecution.
As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said, there are concerns that these attacks are not being dealt with appropriately by the authorities in Pakistan. I join him in imploring the Minister to do all he can to influence the situation. Just a few weeks ago, we all commemorated world holocaust memorial day. The campaign this year was, “Speak up, Speak out”, and was aimed at challenging persecution and hatred wherever it existed in the world. This we must do for the Hazara people. I look forward to hearing what steps the Government are taking to address the situation.
Linked to the Hazara community, the other community that has suffered a lot as a result of radicalisation is the Christian community in Pakistan. We must do everything that we can to ensure that it gets its full rights as well. Will he join me in paying tribute to Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, who is from Pakistan and has done a lot on community cohesion and dialogue between all faiths?
I thank the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) for securing this debate and for his usual courtesy in forwarding to me a copy of his remarks earlier this afternoon. I also thank other colleagues who have taken part and expressed their concerns—the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). We all share a passion for Pakistan and supporting human rights across a difficult and complex region. I have met and corresponded with several colleagues in the House on a number of human rights issues in Pakistan and welcome the opportunity to discuss them in a public forum.
Last December I spoke with the right hon. Gentleman and his Hazara constituent and was told about the day-to-day living conditions of the Hazara community in Quetta. I had previously met the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, who raised similar concerns. I expressed my serious concerns about the discrimination of minorities in Pakistan and joined the right hon. Gentleman in condemning September’s appalling attacks in Balochistan, which left so many innocent people dead.
Before talking about the Hazara community in more detail, I will take the opportunity to set some of the issues in context, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham suggested. Sadly, sectarian violence is not isolated to Balochistan. Tragically, across the country the Pakistani people have suffered from the scourge of sectarian violence. Sunni and Shi’a alike have endured terrible violence, as have other minority communities. I join the Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, in condemning this week’s disgraceful attacks in Kohistan, which killed at least 18 Shi’a Muslims. It is vital that the perpetrators of all sectarian violence, including this week’s vicious attack, are brought to justice.
The United Kingdom and Pakistan have a long history and a strong relationship founded on mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual benefit. Our respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is absolute, so we must be clear that the security of Balochistan, as with all provinces of Pakistan, is a matter for the people and Government of Pakistan. The improvement to regional security to which the international community is committed requires all countries to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their neighbours.
Although sectarian violence across Pakistan is a growing concern, it is important to note the progress being made in a range of human rights areas, including removing reservations to human rights treaties. It is vital that Pakistan now works to ensure that it effectively implements the international human rights treaties to which it is a signatory. None of the communities of which we have spoken in the debate will truly be secure unless these advances are made.
At the dawn of Pakistan’s independence, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in his presidential address to the first Constituent Assembly, outlined his belief that in Pakistan there should be
“no discrimination between one caste or creed and another”,
for Pakistan is founded with the
“fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state”.
I have met many Pakistanis who are working tirelessly to realise that vision today, and none was more courageous than Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, whose work towards peaceful, moderate change was met with such brutal violence. Since his assassination I have twice met his brother, Dr Paul Bhatti, and underlined the UK Government’s support for human rights in Pakistan.
Human rights are intertwined with a wide range of issues, including education, stability and development. The UK’s engagement with Pakistan is therefore broad and strategic, covering education, economic stability, security, and cultural co-operation. The Pakistani Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, had a successful visit to the UK last week, during which I discussed security and economic development with her and raised my concerns over the rights of religious minorities, including the Hazara community.
We work with international partners and the Pakistani Government to tackle the shared challenge of extremism and to increase Pakistan’s stability and prosperity. It is worth reminding all Members that Pakistan is on the front line of terrorism and makes bigger sacrifices in fighting it than any other country. In the 10 years since 9/11, more than 30,000 Pakistanis have been killed. The people of Pakistan will always have our sympathy, understanding and robust support in addressing terror.
The Pakistani Foreign Minister’s visit to the UK reflects the depth of our partnership and friendship. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary held wide-ranging discussions with her, within the framework of our enhanced strategic dialogue, which strengthens practical co-operation between our two countries. They discussed the progress being made to create between the UK and Pakistan a deeper and broader dialogue, including on human rights, which will strengthen our friendship and promote mutual prosperity and security.
The many links between the UK and Pakistan mean that we can engage honestly and directly with each other on many subjects: counter-terrorism, security policy, immigration, trade, development, education and the rule of law. The theme that underlines all that, and the focus of our attention this evening, is human rights.
As the constitution of Pakistan lays down, all Pakistani citizens should be able to live their lives without fear of discrimination or persecution, regardless of their religious beliefs or their ethnic group. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we regularly reinforce to our colleagues in the Government of Pakistan at all levels the importance of upholding those fundamental rights, and our strategic dialogue enables Ministers such as myself and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to do so on behalf of all minority communities in Pakistan.
The Government of Pakistan have taken positive action: they have reserved quotas in the public sector and in Parliament for minorities; they have set up complaints procedures for those encountering discrimination; and they have removed reservations to international human rights treaties. We will continue to support those who wish to see reform in Pakistan, and to raise human rights with the Pakistani Government. As I said, I raised my concerns about human rights with Foreign Minister Khar last week.
In 2011 I twice held constructive discussions with the Pakistani Prime Minister’s adviser on inter-faith harmony and minority affairs, Dr Paul Bhatti. Tomorrow, as some will know, marks the first anniversary of his brother’s assassination, serving as a poignant reminder not only of the need to tackle terrorism in order to support Pakistani progress on human rights, but of the losses that they have suffered. There is a process in place to ensure that inter-faith committees meet in the various provinces. I have seen it in action, and we are keen to continue to support it.
The plight of the Hazara community is connected to the wider regional dynamic. Hazara people fleeing repression in 19th century Afghanistan formed the beginnings of Pakistan’s Hazara. More refugees from Afghanistan followed throughout the 20th century, and Quetta’s population is now estimated to be made up of one third Hazara, with 600,000 in total in Pakistan.
The presence of the Afghan Taliban in Quetta has amplified the repression of Pakistani Shi’a, including Hazara, in the region. We welcome the progress made by the Hazaras of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. It has seen high-profile Hazaras occupy key positions in the Afghan Government. In Kabul, UK officials engage with a range of Hazara interlocutors and continue to promote an inclusive political process. The Hazara community in Iran has also complained of mistreatment, and we will continue to appeal to Iran, including through the United Nations and the European Union, to respect human rights. Those details give Members a sense of how the Hazara community is treated throughout the whole region.
The specific issues of Hazara rights and of sectarian violence in Balochistan were raised with the Balochi authorities and with parliamentarians by British officials in October. Local discussion of those issues has continued since, with our officials engaging with, among others, Balochi members of the National Assembly.
The plight of Pakistan’s Hazara community, highlighted in this evening’s debate, will be recognised in the 2011 Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report, which is due to be published this month. Media reports claim that almost 700 Hazaras have been killed in Pakistan since 2004. In 2011, the Hazara in Balochistan suffered a number of major attacks, including on 19 September when gunmen killed 26 Hazara pilgrims returning from Iran. Lashkar-e Jhangvi claimed responsibility for that attack and has waged a sustained campaign of violence against the community. On 4 October attackers killed 13 passengers, mostly Hazara, travelling on a bus in Quetta. A major attack during the Shi’a processions marking Ashura was anticipated but did not occur.
Nawab Aslam Raisani, Chief Minister of Balochistan, formulated a committee on September 22 to probe the killing of 29 pilgrims in Mastung. I remain concerned about the low-key response of Pakistan’s authorities to September and October’s violent attacks. It is vital that those responsible are brought to justice. In the long term we should like to see improvements in Pakistani citizens’ access to justice throughout the country. The House may be assured that we will continue to press on these issues, in relation to that community and to others.
Enhancing the rule of law in Pakistan is vital to improving the plight of the Hazara community. A range of Government work is developing that is helping to improve the rule of law in Pakistan. For instance, we are developing a programme with Pakistan to enhance its ability to prosecute violent extremists, including working to enhance investigations, prosecutions, detentions, and legislation. The Department for International Development’s transformational work to address poverty and education will help to enhance Pakistan’s commitment to the rule of law. The UK is working with our European Union partners and the Government of Pakistan to look at ways of supporting reform and capacity building of Pakistan’s rule of law.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham raised, in particular, the Christian community. That gives me the opportunity to say how we try to deal with human rights more generally across the region. Our experience is that picking out one community rather than another is not always the most helpful way to address the issue. Because human rights is an important issue right across the board, we find that many minorities are subject to these problems. Ensuring that the rule of law runs across all communities and that Governments are devoted to improving access to the rule of law and the rights of minorities across the board means that no minority can be picked out against another and that where there are those who would like to claim that favourable treatment is offered by those outside, that is not the case.
All are made more secure by attention to the rule of law, and all are weakened, including any minority community, by a Government’s failure to address the rule of law and human rights. That is why our policy is so determinedly aimed at the rights of communities across the board, whether it be those under pressure in Pakistan, Christian communities across the middle east, or individual communities such as the Hazara in Balochistan.
I am pleased that the plight of the Hazara will—for the first time, I believe—be covered in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights document. I understand what the Minister is saying about the persecution of other religions. However, does he agree, that if no one raises the persecution of a specific group, we will never discuss any terrorist targets? Does he agree that it is very difficult to find another religion or ethnic group in Pakistan that has quite the same level of apparent compliance in these murders, with absolutely none of the perpetrators brought to justice? If there are other groups—although this is not a contest to see who has been treated worst—I would be very surprised. There is a specific issue about the Hazara that needs to be addressed.
I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s second point. He has referred to terrifying statistics about the absence of justice. As I said, we remain very concerned about the response of the Pakistani authorities to those statistics, and we will apply pressure in relation to them.
In response to the right hon. Gentleman’s first point: absolutely. Hon. Members are bound to raise the issues of individual communities. The point of our approach is to set those cases in context so that we are not pitting one community against another by indicating that one is treated worse than another, and recognising that the absence of the rule of law and human rights can affect so many people. I think that we are all doing this in exactly the right way. The right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members are absolutely right to raise certain different communities, as they have today. We are right in putting that into context and demanding justice for all, because unless there is justice for all, justice is denied for those who are outside that embrace.
The United Kingdom will continue to work with the leaders of Pakistan and its people—people who deserve to experience a stable and prosperous future, to enjoy vibrant democratic debate without fear of intimidation, and to live in a country where freedom of religion is not undermined by sectarian violence. We have a distinctive role to play in supporting that sort of Pakistan. I am grateful for the work of many Members of the House as we continue to work with Pakistan towards that vision.
Question put and agreed to.