Skip to main content

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 548: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2012

Once again I wish to raise the issue of human rights and the death penalty in India. I pay tribute to four organisations—Kesri Lehar, Liberation, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—that have continued to expose the Indian Government’s failure to address human rights abuses effectively. Kesri Lehar launched the “Wave for Justice” campaign, along with a petition, which has now been signed by more than 100,000 people, to seek a full debate in Parliament on the issue, which I hope we can secure later in the year.

I want to raise three issues of concern. The first issue is the historic failure of the Indian Government to bring to justice those who perpetrated the massacre of the Sikhs in Operation Blue Star in 1984, which started with the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar and resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Sikhs in the following decade, and was described as Indian’s hidden genocide. Despite various commissions of inquiry into abductions, disappearances, extra-judicial executions and secret cremations, Amnesty’s latest report confirms that the Indian Government have failed to hold the perpetrators to account. In 2004, on the 20th anniversary of the massacre, I launched a report in this House called “1984: Sikhs’ Kristallnacht”. We called for an independent commission of truth and justice, under the auspices of the United Nations, to investigate the slaughter. Since then there has been no progress and the Sikhs still await justice.

What is even more galling, however, is that two individuals—Jagdish Tytler and KPS Gill, who are both accused of playing leading roles in the human rights violations in 1984 to 1995—may well seek to visit Britain for the Olympics in their capacity as Olympic officials for India. It would be a travesty of justice and cause deep offence to the whole of the Sikh community in the United Kingdom if these brutes were allowed to enjoy this country’s hospitality.

The human rights abuses go on. Human rights NGOs have confirmed that human rights violations against minorities continue today, including against the Sikhs. Human Rights Watch’s latest report dealt with custodial killings and police abuses, including torture. On average, 1,500 people a year are dying in custody in Indian prisons and police stations, while rape is used as a form or torture. For 18 years the Indian Government have denied the UN rapporteur on torture access to India. Amnesty now reports that over the past two years 30 human rights defenders have been targeted for abuse by state and non-state organisations, with eight people being killed as a result. Meanwhile, the Indian Government have failed to repeal the laws that afford state impunity to human rights abusers. Indeed, impunity seems to be common for the perpetrators of human rights abuses in India. That is not acceptable by any standards.

The ultimate violation of human rights, however, is to take a person’s life. That is why there was such shock and anger at the Indian Government’s threat—made only months ago, after an eight-year hiatus—to implement the death penalty against people such as Professor Davinder Singh Bhullar and Balwant Singh Rajoana. Professor Bhullar was convicted only on a confession that was obtained by torture and later retracted. Balwant Singh Rajoana has already served 17 years on death row and has suffered enough. The threat of capital punishment for those individuals has been lifted for the time being, but now two thirds of the world has renounced the death penalty. I say as a friend of India that it is time India did so too.

I appreciate what both the last Government and this Government have done in making representations to the Indian Government over the years. I also pay tribute to the work that the Minister has done in pressing the Indian Government on these issues. However, I once again urge the Government to use our bilateral talks, and the EU-India human rights dialogue, to call on India to take decisive action to protect human rights and, in particular, to abolish the death penalty. It is time India addressed this issue. India is the largest democracy on the globe, yet it stands alone in the developing world in still supporting the death penalty. India should adhere to human rights and, at the same time, ensure that capital punishment is no longer a stain on the country.

The professionalism, valour and courage of our soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and those serving there now are as distinguished as any in our long military history. Some of our allies have already decided to withdraw their troops. They are not the nations that were not enthusiastic about the war, but those that have paid huge costs in blood and treasure. Canada withdrew its combat troops after a debate in its Parliament that was supported by every party. The Netherlands has also done so, and we now know that Australia and France intend to bring their troops home early.

The United Kingdom has lost 422 troops, and we have spent £20 billion, but that is only part of the cost. We must also take into account the number of troops who return from Afghanistan broken in body and in mind. Figures from America show that more of its veterans from Afghanistan take their lives after combat than die in combat. The same applied to our figures from the Falklands war. We know that the dying will continue.

A case in Pembrokeshire involved a soldier who had suffered grievously in Afghanistan. His death is not counted among the 422 casualties, however. In Afghanistan, he was shot twice and involved in two separate incidents involving improvised explosive devices, but his loved ones explained that the experience that haunted him was holding his best friend, who had lost a number of limbs in an explosion, and watching as the life retreated from his eyes. It was that experience that drove him to take his own life.

There are powerful reasons for saying that we are continuing to order soldiers to risk their lives for the cause in Afghanistan, but I do not believe that a case can be made for doing so any more. A recent briefing said that we needed to get all our equipment out of Afghanistan at enormous cost, because we did not want to see the Taliban riding round in British tanks in five years’ time. However, having gone into Afghanistan when it was ruled by the Taliban and engaged in a civil war, the likelihood is that, by the time we leave, there will be another civil war and that it will be ruled by the Taliban once again.

For 10 years, we have heard optimism being expressed by all Governments, along with exaggerations of success and dismissals of the failures that mounted up, year after year. It was not necessarily a mistake to go there, although no British interests were threatened in 2001. It was, however, a terrible mistake to go into Helmand province. In our first five years in Afghanistan, only two of our soldiers died. Then, we provocatively stirred up the hornets’ nest in Helmand, in the foolish and mistaken belief that not a shot would be fired. Our operations in Helmand were described in the House at the time as being as futile as the charge of the Light Brigade, but we have now lost three times as many troops in Helmand as were lost in that charge.

It is a dereliction of duty for the House not to debate the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. We know that the people of this country are strongly in favour of such a withdrawal. In a recent by-election, a candidate from a minority party with only one policy—withdrawal from Afghanistan—gained 56% of the votes and humiliated all the other parties. We also know that 80% of the public want our troops to withdraw now, yet we are being distracted by the bread and circuses of all the events taking place this year, and we cannot find a moment in our parliamentary diary to discuss whether we should bring our troops home before we reach the point that Senator Kerry described when he was an officer in Vietnam in the final days of that war. He spoke of asking the agonising question: who will be the last soldier that I will order to die for a politician’s mistake?

I had hoped that, after the election of President Hadi in Yemen, I would no longer need to raise the situation in that country. Sadly, however, the situation has deteriorated even further since the election. Only last week, 22 people died in a suicide bomb attack in Sana’a. That attack followed a number of others perpetrated by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I remain deeply concerned that, even though the old regime has gone and President Hadi has been elected, there is still a major security problem in this beautiful but troubled country.

As the House knows, I was born in Yemen, and I spent the first nine years of my life there. I have the pleasure and privilege of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen. I have not been able to visit the country over the past two years because of the security situation; so if it is bad for someone such as me and other Members, it is very bad for people in Yemen.

I am delighted to see at the Dispatch Box the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and I want to pay tribute both to the Foreign Secretary and to him for all the good work they have done in ensuring they keep a dialogue going with the Yemeni Government and the Yemeni authorities. The Minister met last Thursday, as did I, Dr Abu Bakr al-Kurbi, the long-standing Foreign Minister of Yemen, and I know that useful discussions were held about the situation.

I am very pleased that Nicholas Hopton has taken over as our ambassador in Sana’a, although the difficulty of having an embassy there is recognised by the fact that this is truly a hardship post, and it is time limited, which is something we do not do to many of our embassies all over the world. The first issue, then, is security. What does the Minister have to say about the security situation in Yemen? What can we do to help the new Government? What can we do to ensure that they have the equipment and support they need?

A few years ago, I spoke of the need for one scanner at Sana’a airport, and I recently tabled a question asking whether the scanner had arrived, two years later, and was told that the information could not be released because it was not in the public interest to do so. I then put in a freedom of information request. I do not think it is a big deal to tell an MP whether a scanner that was promised two years ago has arrived at Sana’a airport. I hope that the Minister can provide that information in his reply.

The second limb of any discussion about Yemen is the humanitarian situation, and I want to pay tribute to my near constituency neighbour the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan) for all the work he has done. He has attended a number of the Friends of Yemen conferences, and £2.5 billion has been pledged over the last few years. I know that our Government have given £31.7 million in humanitarian aid. It remains the case that 500,000 people are displaced as a result of the situation in Yemen, and it remains the case that 50% of the Yemeni population do not have access to clean water and sanitation. It remains the case, too, that the vast majority of Yemenis live on less than £1.29 a day. This situation can only help to feed the ambitions of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.

All I ask from the Minister—as I said, Ministers have continued the good work of Ministers under the last Government—is that we continue our strategy and our plan to help the Government of Yemen, and that we give them whatever support they need. We must be cautious about one aspect: when we have international conferences, many countries—the Saudis, for example—pledge a lot of money, but I do not know whether it is actually paid. We must ensure that, having made a pledge, the donors ensure that the money reaches the people who matter—the people of Yemen.

I thank the three colleagues who have spoken briefly and succinctly, but equally powerfully, in each set of comments. I am not time limited, but I will do my best to be as brief as possible, fair in responding to what colleagues have said and fair to those who are waiting to speak. I shall deal with colleagues’ contributions in order.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised the issue of the death penalty in India and some particular cases. One of the advantages of having a deep and wide-ranging bilateral relationship with India is that it allows us to have frank and open conversations about all areas of interest and concern. Where we have concerns about human rights issues, we have made them clear to the Government of India. I know that the death penalty is of particular concern to Members and their constituents, as the hon. Gentleman made clear. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who has responsibility for matters relating to India, receive a significant amount of correspondence on the subject.

We have made our opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances clear to the Government of India on many occasions, urging them to formalise the now eight-year de facto moratorium with a view to eventual abolition. The decision earlier this year to proceed with the execution of Balwant Singh Rajoana was therefore deeply concerning. We took every opportunity to express that concern to the Government of India, and I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about our efforts. According to the note I have here, the issue of the death penalty and particular cases have been raised deliberately on 11 occasions in the past 12 months. We are obviously pleased that a stay of execution for Balwant Singh Rajoana was announced on 28 March so that the President could consider an appeal for clemency.

Much of the correspondence received by my ministerial colleagues refers specifically to that and a number of other cases relating to Sikhs, and to events in the state of Punjab in recent decades. Our principled opposition to the death penalty is of course separate from the specifics of cases in which we must be careful to avoid interference in India’s judicial process, just as we would wish other Governments to respect our own. However, the UK is active in encouraging an improvement in the treatment of minority communities in India. The British high commission in New Delhi has discussed minority community issues with the Indian National Commission for Minorities and with various other state-level authorities, and I assure Members that those discussions will continue.

In addition to such bilateral exchanges, the main forum for discussing concerns such as those raised by the hon. Gentleman is the annual EU-India human rights dialogue, the next round of which will take place soon. It allows a frank exchange of views, and, crucially, it is a two-way process. The matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised today will certainly be raised again in the course of that dialogue.

During the United Nations Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review of India in May, we urged it to maintain its de facto moratorium on the death penalty. We asked about the Indian Government’s response to concern about India’s security legislation, and also noted concern about reports of a significant number of cases of torture by police and security authorities. We recommended that India expedite the ratification of the convention against torture and its optional protocol, and adopt robust domestic legislation to that effect.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the Olympic games, and asked specifically about accreditation. We do not routinely comment on individual cases, but our policy is clear: accreditation will be refused to any individual who may present a safety or security risk or whose presence at the games or in the UK would not be conducive to the public good, and it will be refused if there is independent, reliable and credible evidence that an individual has committed human rights abuses.

The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) made a familiar but none the less passionate and heartfelt plea in relation to those who are serving in Afghanistan, repeating concerns that he has raised regularly about what he believes to be their overlong presence there. There is no doubt that when he speaks about the circumstances affecting individual soldiers and what they have experienced, either personally or through what they have observed with others, he speaks movingly and with heartfelt compassion, and no one could deny the force of what he says. He constantly raises the questions “What has it been worth?” and “Is it ever worth it?” It would be wrong for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and not give a positive answer to those questions, or rebut, as gently as I can, some of the hon. Gentleman’s worst fears.

As I have said to the hon. Gentleman before, I believe that there are genuine signs of progress. We know that there are still difficult days to come, but let me offer an answer to those who feel that absolutely nothing has been achieved. The number of district governors has risen from five in 2008 to 12. Eight of Helmand’s 13 districts, and the municipality of Lashkar Gah, are now either in transition or about to embark on it. That means that their security will be no longer the responsibility of UK or international forces but that of Afghan forces, which are gradually taking more and more responsibility for their own areas. Tranche 3 of the transition will see some 75% of the population of Afghanistan covered by their own forces, which have been trained by the international forces in order to meet the security needs of the people in the future. That will allow the UK and international forces to retreat from their international obligations in 2014, as has long been planned. I also say to the hon. Gentleman that we have no sense that we are not going to stick to that timetable, which truly matters for the future security of those in Afghanistan.

Some 145 schools are open, an increase of 79% since 2008. There are 89,000 male students in Helmand province and 29,000 female students. There are women teachers, too. All these things did not happen before, which is why the people of Afghanistan are so concerned that the progress must be maintained. We can ensure that only by sticking to the timetable.

The series of international conferences in the past year or so—Bonn, Chicago, Tokyo, Istanbul—have all been designed to demonstrate that, although combat troops will be leaving in 2014, the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan will continue. Chicago was about how the future security will be guaranteed. Tokyo was about international development support; we are committing to give the same level of support as now until 2017, after which time the situation will be reviewed. All these assurances are absolutely essential for Afghanistan’s people as they take more responsibility for their own future.

That future will have been bought by the sacrifices of the people to whom the hon. Gentleman referred so movingly. I disagree with his view that it has not been worth it, however. Each individual life lost, and each individual life ruined by wounding or pain, is a tragedy, but it has not been for nothing, and there are plenty of people in Afghanistan who recognise that and know that what they will have in the future will have been dearly bought for them by others. They are determined to make something of that.

No one pretends there will not be difficult days to come, but if we consider the protection of women, and their situation, their human rights and their opportunities for the future, we can see that they are better now than they would have been had international forces not been involved, and had UK forces not made the sacrifices they have made.

Finally, let me turn to the comments on Yemen of my friend, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). I would have begun by painting a slightly brighter picture. The security situation is not easy, but since the election of President Hadi there have been positive signs in a number of areas. The national dialogue—the essential political process that needs to go forward—is being engaged upon, and the President has been adept in handling the armed forces, who have sometimes been at odds with authority and each other.

Although the security situation is difficult, there are positive signs on where Yemen is going, and the degree of confidence displayed in President Hadi, not least by the Friends of Yemen, has been striking. I would therefore maintain that things are better than they were—and the right hon. Gentleman would certainly find that the ambassador would say that, too.

Let me briefly run through the major areas the right hon. Gentleman discussed. A clear priority for the President has been removing the malign threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and re-establishing security throughout the country. In his inauguration speech, the President was clear about his determination to address the instability. Since then, we have witnessed great achievements by his security forces in the south, with the retaking of towns across Abyan province from AQAP, but those successes have not come without sacrifices, including those resulting from the appalling attack in Sana’a on 21 May, the assassination of the southern military commander on 18 June, and, only last week, an attack on young police cadets at the police academy in Sana’a.

AQAP is on the back foot, but it retains the capability to conduct attacks both inside and outside Yemen. Restoring security and tackling the threat of violent extremism emanating from Yemen is a top priority for this Government, and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are committed to the stability of Yemen. That commitment is undiminished, and we will continue to work with the Yemeni Government in their fight against AQAP.

I am aware of the issues to do with the scanning equipment at Sana’a airport. It is in place, but because of the security situation it has not been easy to get the people there to connect it and fix it up. That is a priority for us, however. As the situation eases, it will be an important thing for us to do.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to my colleague, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), who is doing an excellent job, such as in addressing humanitarian issues and in respect of the Friends of Yemen donor conference to come. He takes a particular interest in how the money is spent, and in reassuring those who have promised to be donors that the money will get where it needs to go. That addresses one reason why in the past donors have been hesitant to deliver on their commitments. So, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is a matter of importance for us that we will continue to deliver on. We think there will be further meetings in New York later on in the summer, and possibly one in Riyadh. However, the Friends of Yemen have recognised the President’s abilities. He was not particularly well known before he took the position, but he is delivering in many different ways in Yemen. Although the security situation is difficult and will remain so, there are some good signs in a difficult area, and I hope to be able to report on those more often in the next 12 to 18 months.