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Human Rights (Kashmir)

Volume 547: debated on Wednesday 27 June 2012

It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I welcome the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne).

This is a short debate on a very controversial and difficult issue that concerns an awful lot of British citizens who have links with Kashmir. One or two colleagues have asked whether they may make interventions and, as a courteous chap, obviously I say yes, but I want to get most of my points across first and the Minister must have his time to reply. I fear, however—I mean no disrespect, having sat in his chair—that the Government line on human rights in Kashmir is not likely to change as a result of anything I say today. To be fair to the Minister, that line has not much changed in recent years in any case.

To put some points on the record, I am not attacking India per se. I admire India, its democracy, its rule of law and its vibrant culture, and I wish it well, but precisely because I do like and admire India, where I think that there is grievous fault I have an obligation to point it out. I do not want to go into the long history of Kashmir and the original UN resolutions, which were violated when the Kashmiri people were not allowed a plebiscite—as the UN had instructed—or their independent say on their future status 60 or more years ago.

I strongly welcome the dialogue initiated a year ago between the Foreign Ministers of Pakistan and India, which has certainly led to a helpful increase in communication and trade between Kashmir on the Indian side and Kashmir on the Pakistan side. Unfortunately, because of continued violence in Indian-occupied Kashmir—35 people have been killed since January—that trade and the opening of bridges and bus communications have been placed under threat.

I do not intend to get into much discussion of the general problem of terrorism. India is absolutely right to lay charges against Pakistan and individuals and organisations in Pakistan in connection with the Mumbai massacre and other assaults on the integrity of India, just as Pakistan is right to express some generalised concern about the more than half a million soldiers directly on its border—a situation that is bound to increase military tension. If for any reason we had an army of half a million Europeans stretched between Ostend and La Rochelle and if all their manoeuvres were predicated on invading England, as all the Indian army manoeuvres are predicated on invading Pakistan, we might get a bit twitchier.

I do not want to go back into the history of the 1980s and what we can now see, historically, as the disastrous decision of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush to create the Islamist jihadis as part of the cold war campaign against the Soviet Union. We sowed dragon’s teeth when we gave them weapons to hit at the Soviets: the jihadis took those weapons home and have stayed in possession of them ever since, giving birth to al-Qaeda and successive waves of Islamist terrorism.

I do not want to go into the history of why, after the Russians left Afghanistan, there was no concrete western help, in particular to resettle the millions of refugees for whom Pakistan had to take some responsibility.

I shall make a bit more progress in my speech, even though my hon. Friend is one of my closest colleagues and friends.

Most estimates put the Indian army present in Jammu and Kashmir since democracy was suspended there in 1987 at between 500,000 and 600,000. The estimate of the number of people who have died largely if not exclusively as a result of the behaviour of the Indian army—there has also been terrorism on the side of Pakistani and Kashmir militants—is put at between 60,000 and 80,000. Indian soldiers and security forces operate under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act—one of the most iniquitous laws anywhere in the world—which prevents effective prosecution of actions undertaken in the name of Indian security in the region. Those 60,000 to 80,000 people killed—the equivalent of 10 Srebrenicas—represent far more Kashmiri Muslims dying at the hands of the Indian army than all the Palestinian Muslims who have been killed in the middle east conflicts of the past decade, and yet the world is silent.

The Foreign Secretary is always ready to lecture the Israelis on human rights abuses, as we have seen recently, or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, but on Kashmir there is complete silence. There are 32,000 widows in Kashmir, 10,000 unaccounted-for, disappeared people and 100,000 orphans as a result of Indian security forces’ handling of the problem in the past few years.

I will make some progress and then give way as much as possible. I am a courteous person but, please, let me make some of my points.

I am greatly concerned about the 10,000 disappeared people. In Latin America, there was great publicity about the disappeared victims of various military operations, in particular in the 1970s and ’80s, and yet the 10,000 Kashmiris who have disappeared after being taken away by the Indian authorities, never to return, get no publicity or world concern.

The Indian lobby in Britain, as we know, is one of the most influential, pervasive and well financed in the world. Pakistan also has its spokespersons, but the people of Kashmir are largely voiceless, save for some interventions, notably from my noble Friend Lord Ahmed of Rotherham. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) is another tireless champion of Kashmir. His early-day motion 2607, tabled earlier this year, draws attention to the horrible discovery of mass graves of some 6,000 men near the line of control, the border that separates the two Kashmirs. In Europe, we recall Katyn and Lidice with horror, but on the mass graves in Kashmir, we hear barely a word.

I have tried on several occasions, both since he has been in government and when he was the Conservative foreign affairs spokesman in opposition, to get merely a single word of concern from the Foreign Secretary. Frankly, I had more chance of getting England’s footballers to score from the penalty spot than I had of getting the Foreign Secretary to speak out for the human rights of Kashmiris. The official Government position is clear. The long-standing position of the UK and what spokesmen say is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution to the situation in Kashmir, one that takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or to mediate in finding one—

Let me finish telling hon. Members what the spokesmen say—that we welcome the positive steps taken by Pakistan and India to build trust and confidence.

Frankly, that is not good enough. In relation to many other areas of the world, we have a position and we are prepared to speak out, but on Kashmir we are utterly silent. Kashmir is the far away place in the world of which we would prefer to know nothing and of which the Government certainly say nothing. Let me be clear that the same admonition applies to the previous Government. I remember my right hon. Friend, the late Robin Cook, early in his days as Foreign Secretary, thinking that Kashmir was an issue of some concern. When he tried to raise it, however, he was abused in New Delhi and some ugly pieces were spun by Indian media and propaganda.

I shall give way in a moment. He was traduced to the point that he effectively shut up on that issue—[Interruption.] There are 21 minutes to go, so I hope that there is time for everyone to speak.

I am making a point about the present Government but, believe me, it applies also to the last Government. I see Kashmir as one of the great issues of concern for the Muslim community around the world. That is certainly true in my constituency where the problems in Kashmir are constantly reflected in the Pakistani papers printed here in Britain—the Jang, The Nation, the Dawn—and on PTV, which many of my constituents watch. British citizens hear daily reports of the unpleasant behaviour, and sometimes much worse, by the Indian security forces. The issue is of great concern to British-born citizens, and we do ourselves no good as a Parliament by pretending that it is simply something that can be solved by a little exchange of words between Islamabad and New Delhi.

Human Rights Watch has a number of recommendations. It wants to initiate

“an impartial investigation into reports that the Eighth Rashtriya Rifles Battalion in Doda has been responsible for summary executions…rape, and other assaults on villagers”,

including the disappearances to which I referred. I do not want to go into details of the rape allegations, which are particularly distressing, but it is very clear that if any of that had happened in territories near Europe or in the Balkans back in the 1990s, the International Criminal Court would have been involved. People have been sent to the court accused of far lesser crimes than those committed by the people responsible for what has happened in Kashmir on the Indian side.

Human Rights Watch says that

“all reports of extrajudicial executions, ‘disappearances’, deaths in custody, torture, and rape by security forces and unofficial parliamentary forces in Kashmir are investigated promptly by a judicial authority and those responsible should be prosecuted in civilian courts.”

It says that the Indian Government should disarm

“and disband all state-sponsored militias not established and regulated by law and prosecute members of such groups who have been responsible for extrajudicial killings, “disappearances”, assaults, and other abuses.”

It also says that the Indian Government should establish

“a centralized register of detainees accessible to lawyers and family members (something promised since 1993 but not delivered)”,

and provide much better

“police training, perhaps after consultation with international experts, on gathering adequate evidence for rape prosecutions. Medical workers who have examined and treated rape victims should be protected from abuse.”

Those recommendations all come from Human Rights Watch. Britain could play a part in that, as could the European Union.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate. I will be brief. As hon. Members will know, the EU and India are five years into negotiating a complex free trade agreement in which the issue of human rights will soon rear its head. Given that the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister for Europe in the previous Government, where does he stand on inclusion of an essential elements clause mandating protection of human rights in any eventual agreement? The previous Government made a particular exception for India, allowing the Commission to continue to negotiate with a view to not having an essential elements clause, one that appears in 120 other agreements around the world. Would the right hon. Gentleman recommend that the EU includes one going forward?

I certainly would. Alas, I was not Minister for Europe during the period to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Governments occasionally make mistakes, and that did not come under my purview. However, he makes a powerful point, and I hope that the EU authorities who are listening, including Baroness Ashton, will take it on board. I will send her a copy of the debate, and perhaps the Minister will write to her underlining the cross-party agreement on the point.

Will my right hon. Friend tell us where he obtained the information that 80,000 people were killed in Kashmir?

The information has been readily available on the websites of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for a number of years. The figure is an estimate. Let us say it is 70,000 or 60,000. Even if one person is subject to disappearance, rape or torture, that is one too many, so quibbling about the numbers does the cause of justice no good.

I am very willing to condemn, and have regularly publicly condemned, terrorism emanating from Pakistan and the blind eye that Inter-Services Intelligence and the Pakistani Government, in different shapes, and the Pakistani Parliament have turned to Pakistan-generated terrorism. I have said that to leading Ministers and to General Kayani face to face in Islamabad, so my record, I hope, is reasonable on this issue. I believe that it is right that on behalf certainly of British citizens I make this point. This is not an intellectual human rights conference. I make this point on behalf of very many people in my constituency who are very concerned that we are not getting justice for the Kashmiri people.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. This issue is of great concern to a large number of my constituents as well. May I underline the point that he made? We do stand accused of double standards if we give prominence—rightly—to human rights abuses in so many other places in the world, but appear silent on the vital issue of Kashmir.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I raised the question of Yulia Tymoshenko, and the Prime Minister told me last October in the House that unless she was properly treated and released from prison, it would be an issue of grave concern to the UK. Then finally it was announced that Ministers would not go to Ukraine for the football. This Minister pointed out, quite rightly, that it was unlikely that attending the final would need to be on the agenda.

Frankly, if we make such a statement about a woman who should not be ill treated but who is alive and seeing doctors, why are we silent on Kashmir? Why are we silent on Kashmir? Why are we silent on Kashmir? That is what my constituents are saying, and I hope the Minister will address that.

I have said to all the colleagues who have written to me that I have no problem with hon. Members intervening. It is up to the Minister, because it is his time, whether he wants to allow other colleagues to come in, but certainly I acknowledge that my hon. Friend did contact me with a request to intervene.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an excellent contribution on this important issue. I have visited Kashmir. There is always a lot of emphasis on discussions and talks between India and Pakistan, but does my right hon. Friend agree that what is missing is the fact that we rarely listen to the people of Kashmir themselves?

I am grateful for the chance to conclude this short debate and it is a pleasure to do so under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) on giving us this opportunity. It is a slightly unsatisfactory version—sort of a Twenty20 version—of a parliamentary debate, in which the finer points are not developed as much as we would like. But it is better than having no opportunity at all.

The promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy, so I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman on that central point. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made absolutely clear our determination to pursue every opportunity open to us to promote human rights and political and economic freedom around the world.

As the Foreign Office Minister responsible for human rights, I can state with complete confidence that we do not shy away from raising human rights issues with countries where we have genuine concerns about what is happening. The Government have made a commitment to promote human rights consistently. I recommend to all right hon. and hon. Members the Government’s fairly recently published annual human rights report, an extremely comprehensive document that records the type of work that we are doing.

Does the Minister not accept that, ultimately, human rights violations can be resolved and solved only by a political agreement and that even the most frozen conflict—that is the appropriate word for the area around Kargil—can be thawed? We have on the table the Simla agreement, signed by the leaders of both India and Pakistan in 1972. Is the policy of the Foreign Office to support the implementation of the Simla agreement, which provides a way forward for both peace and human rights in this troubled area?

I am grateful for the intervention. Having put on the record the Government’s unequivocal commitment to a human rights policy on a global scale, let me get to how we see the India-Pakistan relationship and the nub of this question. I will take on board the intervention that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Will the Minister clarify where Britain stands with respect to the EU Council decision of 1995, reaffirmed in 2008, that all trade agreements and co-operation agreements should include an essential elements clause?

I thank the Minister for giving way. Other Members raised the point that there is no dialogue between the Indian Government and the Jammu and Kashmir people. I hope the Minister agrees that there is a democratically elected Government of Jammu and Kashmir, who work closely with the Indian Government. I believe that the Government recognise that. Does he agree?

I was pleased to visit Azad Jammu and Kashmir on a private visit—Mirpur and Dadyal. I met the press club of Mirpur. Does the Minister agree that it is important that the free press of Azad Jammu and Kashmir should be able to report freely any human rights abuses, so that we get accurate reporting and information? That is what is keeping Syria on the news agenda. We need more such good-quality journalism from Kashmir.

I thank the Minister for giving way yet another time. I look forward to the answers to the interventions.

Does the Minister agree that there is a massive difference between what is going on in Jammu and Kashmir and in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir? In Jammu and Kashmir, there is free access for the press, Amnesty International and every other international body that wants access to see what is going on. In Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, what is almost a lawlessness still prevails. The human rights issues that the right hon. Member for Rotherham raised seem to be one-sided. The problems of the region as a whole should be looked at.

Thank you, Mr Howarth, for allowing me to pioneer a new format for debates. I am conscious that a lot of Members want to put their core points on the record, and I was keen to give them the opportunity to do so. A number of points were raised, some of which were assertions of fact; whether those points were on England’s likelihood of progressing or something else, I am happy to stand by them.

Let me put the Foreign Office’s position on the record, and people can draw conclusions from what I say. The United Kingdom enjoys close relations with India and Pakistan; they are both long-standing and important friends of the UK. The Foreign Secretary visited Pakistan earlier this month to underline Britain’s commitment to a deep, long-term strategic relationship with Pakistan. He held wide-ranging discussions on the strength of the bilateral relationship, the importance that the UK attaches to upcoming elections in Pakistan and the UK and Pakistan’s mutual interests in promoting stability in the region. Of course, the UK enjoys a warm, forward-looking strategic relationship with India, the world’s largest democracy. We have regular contact, including when the Prime Ministers of the UK and India met at the G20 summit in Mexico last week.

We recognise the importance of a strong relationship between India and Pakistan, which is why the Government welcome the renewed engagement in recent months between India and Pakistan. We have seen a series of high-level talks this year, including a visit by President Zardari to India in April, when he met Prime Minister Singh, and we welcome new Pakistani Prime Minister Ashraf’s pledge to continue to seek better ties with India. The commitment of both leaders from both sides to improving bilateral relations is laudable, and we support it.

Substantive progress has been made in the relationship, in particular in recent steps taken by both countries to liberalise trade. We hope that both sides will take further positive steps to develop their engagement. Ultimately, however, we recognise that the relationship between India and Pakistan is one that they themselves will need to build and the pace of dialogue is for them to set.

On Kashmir, the nub of the debate, the Foreign Secretary has stated previously in the House the position of successive British Governments on Kashmir. That has been consistent—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, it is important that they be given space to determine the scope and pace of that dialogue.

I fully understand the strength of feeling about the issue among many people in Britain, including those in the House. However, no matter how well intentioned, any attempts by the United Kingdom or other third parties to mediate or prescribe solutions would, we believe, hinder rather than advance the progress that many people wish to see.

The Government continue to monitor closely developments in Kashmir, particularly with regard to the human rights situation on both sides of the line of control. As the House knows, Kashmir has been plagued by militancy in recent years, which has undermined the security and prosperity of the Kashmiri people. We continue to call for an end to external support for violence.

It is encouraging to have seen a significant reduction in violence in Kashmir over previous years. We all recall the violent protests that occurred in Indian-administered Kashmir during the summer of 2010, when 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 sincerely hope that the cycle of violence is now coming to an end.

We recognise that there are human rights concerns in both Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We are aware of reports from organisations such as Amnesty International on the large number of detentions in Indian-administered Kashmir, and we have been following, too, the work of the State Human Rights Commission on reports of unknown and unmarked mass graves. Prime Minister Singh has made it clear that human rights abuses by security forces in Kashmir will not be tolerated. We welcome the decision by the Indian Government to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, to pay a fact-finding visit to Kashmir in March. I understand that the State Human Rights Commission is considering how to pursue the findings.

Prime Minister Singh’s appointment of three interlocutors to engage with a wide range of interested parties to help resolve the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir was a welcome initiative. The Indian Government have recently published the interlocutors’ report, which sets out a range of confidence-building measures, including addressing some of the human rights concerns that we have discussed today. I understand that the Indian Government will take a decision on how to implement the report after a period of consultation.

As for action by the United Kingdom specifically, the officials in our high commissions discuss and raise issues in Kashmir regularly, both with the Indian and Pakistani Governments and with contacts on both sides of the line of control. Our resources from the so-called conflict pool also support work promoting human rights, conflict prevention and peace-building efforts.

Highlights of activity under the conflict pool include support for Track II dialogue to help build confidence and create a constituency for peace as well as support to strengthen civil society networks and media development to support peace initiatives. As part of UK bilateral aid to Pakistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir also benefits from support to promote economic growth, health and education.

Returning to a more general tack on the same theme, does the Minister agree that human rights observance should be a condition in principle of all EU trade agreements?

Sorry; the hon. Gentleman did raise that important specific point. Over the past few weeks, we have seen greater co-operation at European Union level on human rights policy and big advances in how we project the consensus view from across the European Union on advancing human rights around the world. That has been an important component of EU agreements. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the specific details with regards to the free trade agreement that has been negotiated with India. Obviously, we also want to see that agreement take effect.

I will put a copy in the Library of the House of Commons.

In conclusion, it is clear that a resolution of the dispute over Kashmir must be for India and Pakistan to find, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is for that reason that we should welcome the progress made of late to build confidence between the two sides, but we recognise, too, that there remains much to be done. Through our bilateral contacts with both India and Pakistan, we will continue to encourage the steps they are both taking in strengthening their relationship which, as both sides have themselves agreed, will enable discussion on long-standing bilateral issues such as Kashmir.

Sitting suspended.