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Bangladesh (Escalation of Violence)

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Mrs Riordan. I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, which will focus on the recent escalation of violence in Bangladesh and which I know hon. Members from all parties are concerned about. First, I want to take this opportunity to express my deepest condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives in the violence that has taken place over recent weeks, particularly following the International Crimes Tribunal—a domestic court that tries people for alleged international crimes, including the genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed during the 1971 war of independence. The war, as many people will be aware, lasted nine months and cost the lives of some 3 million people.

I deplore the escalation of violence and the recent attacks on places of worship and private property in Bangladesh. Recent developments are of great concern not only to people in Bangladesh, but to the British Bangladeshi community and of course to those who have friends in Bangladesh.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. As she knows, I am chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh. I have been contacted by numerous Members of Parliament, as well as British Bangladeshis, asking for an emergency debate. Sadly, although the high commissioner is here today, we will not be able to facilitate such a debate with him present, so I am glad he is here to listen to the hon. Lady’s comments today.

I thank the hon. Lady and commend her for her work as the chair of the all-party group. I agree that there should be more focus on what is happening. We must ensure that we in the British Parliament play our part in supporting countries such as Bangladesh, so that early action can be taken. We can apply the appropriate pressure as friends of Bangladesh to try to make sure such situations do not escalate and become more grave. I hope that after the Minister has heard today’s discussions he will make the appropriate representations. I have a series of questions that I will come on to.

Many British Bangladeshis have raised concerns about the escalation of violence. A third of my constituents are of British Bangladeshi origin and 500,000 people here in the UK have Bangladeshi heritage. Many have made representations to me, particularly regarding consular issues. For instance, constituents have contacted me about the safety and security of family members who visit Bangladesh. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who is unable to join us today owing to a family funeral, asked me to raise the issue of her constituent. She has been working hard to support her constituent, Sheikh Noor-e-Alom Hamidi—a British national of Bangladeshi origin who unfortunately got caught up in the violence, while attending Friday prayers. He sustained injuries during his arrest and was subsequently taken into custody. There have been particular concerns as Mr Hamidi, the director of a charity, suffers from ill health. Will the Minister update us on the advice and support that his consular department is offering to my hon. Friend’s constituent? There is grave concern across the board for his safety. I want to thank the Minister in advance for any assistance that his officials are providing.

On business and investment, many in the UK Bangladeshi community have business interests. Britain is the top investor in Bangladesh; our economic connections are very strong. If the unrest and instability continues, it will damage business and investment in that country. Many business leaders in my constituency have already made representations to the UK Government and to their counterparts in Bangladesh to convey their concerns and to try to bring the major leaders of the parties towards dialogue, so that they take responsibility and action to bring an end to the unrest.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a debate on the escalation of violence in Bangladesh. Does she agree that more needs to be done to protect the minorities in Bangladesh—the Hindu and Buddhist communities—who have been affected most by the unrest?

I am coming on to that. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There have been reports of attacks on Hindu temples and other minority groups, including Buddhists, and on businesses and homes. That is completely unacceptable. I will come on to that in a moment and refer to discussions in the other place.

Following the International Crimes Tribunal’s recent rulings, there has been violence, as we are all aware. According to Odhikar—a Bangladeshi human rights watchdog—more than 100 people died between 5 February and 7 March; 67 people were killed after the court delivered its third sentence on 28 February. As the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned, there have also been attacks on minority groups, and they have been highlighted by Lord Avebury in the other place. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide an update on any representations that the UK Government have made about these issues and what action the Bangladesh Government are taking to provide protection to those who feel vulnerable, particularly those in minority communities.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. There was a demonstration outside the Palace of Westminster last Wednesday on behalf of minority groups—Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and others—who put responsibility for the attacks on minority communities directly at the door of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. They claim that it organised the violence as a response to the war crimes tribunal judgments. Has my hon. Friend received similar complaints about Jamaat, and how does she see the role that it is playing in all this? I am sure that the Minister will respond to that in due course.

My hon. Friend will be aware that any attempt to try to understand the deeply complex nature of the politics and political parties of Bangladesh is beyond me. I am concerned that all parties behave responsibly and within the law, whether they are here or in Bangladesh. My job as a constituency MP is to make sure that people behave responsibly and that, whatever their political leanings towards parties in another country, they act peacefully and within the law, whether there or here.

I appeal to those who demonstrate in one of the major parks—Altab Ali park—in my constituency every weekend and every Friday to do so peacefully and to relay their concerns peacefully. In the end, they will be doing no favours to their fellow countrymen and women in Bangladesh if they act irresponsibly. I would say that to all the political parties and to all those who have political leanings, whether towards Jamaat, the Awami League or the Bangladesh Nationalist party. Sadly, too often people get into polarised positions and insist that we, as British parliamentarians, should take sides. I do not think that is the responsible thing to do. What is important is that those people themselves exercise responsibility.

The hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), in her capacity as chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh, has also raised concerns about political violence in Bangladesh, particularly among the youth wings of parties. Political leaders—our appeal is to all the political leaders—should take responsibility and ensure that they set the tone, so that the young, impressionable people who are involved in the youth wings of political parties act in a non-violent, peaceful way to highlight their concerns and their unhappiness about whatever may be happening. In the end, that will be the true test of the maturity of where people in Bangladesh and the British Bangladeshi community have got to. We have a responsibility to ensure that we encourage dialogue across the board in all the parties.

First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. My constituency has the largest number of Bangladeshis in Northern Ireland and therefore this issue is very close to my heart. The attacks on religious organisations and religious beliefs—those of Hindu and Christian people in Bangladesh—have resulted in some 89 people being killed in the past year. Does the hon. Lady feel that perhaps more needs to be done to address the issue of the Hindu and Christian people who have been attacked and murdered because of their beliefs?

Bangladesh is a country that was founded on the idea of standing up for the rights of minorities. The majority Muslim population in Bangladesh is all too aware of what it is like to face persecution; they fought a war of independence for that reason. I am a British Bangladeshi, but I was born in Bangladesh, and it is absolutely right that people are constantly reminded of the values and principles on which Bangladesh was founded. In fact, the nation was founded by Muslims and Hindus, by those with faith and those without faith—by people across the board. That is Bangladesh’s great strength as a country. Where there is rising intolerance, that intolerance must be dealt with.

I would emphasise, however, that there are concerns about religious freedoms across the board. Within a liberal framework—I believe that Bangladesh has a strong liberal tradition—the rights of people to peacefully practise their religious beliefs, whatever religion they practise, should be observed, along with their other civil rights. So I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, but we need to ensure that we encourage the Government of Bangladesh and other political leaders in the country to set the tone and to try to ensure that they stand up not only against any kind of oppression towards any minority group, but for religious freedoms within a peaceful context. The concern is that violence is increasing—some of it sadly through the prism of religion—and that is deeply unhelpful.

I want to make a bit more progress.

There have been reports of police officers losing their lives. However, people have raised their concerns about reports of the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. Frequent nationwide strikes have caused considerable volatility and led to businesses suffering and to ordinary people being unable to go about their daily lives in safety, or at least without having concerns about their safety even if they are not directly affected by violence. Of course, the country risks reputational damage in the eyes of the international community, not to mention damage to its economy.

As we look forward to the elections that are set to take place in Bangladesh in 2014, there are of course grave concerns about political violence and unrest ahead of them. So I hope that the Minister will be able to provide an update on what assurances the British Government are seeking from the Bangladesh Government, on what representations they are making ahead of the 2014 elections and on any dialogue that he and his Department are having with the main opposition party in Bangladesh, to ensure that the country can move towards, first, security and safety and then free and fair elections next year.

I remind Members of the progress that Bangladesh has made in its 42 years of history. The country started off facing huge challenges, but the growth rate in Bangladesh is now at 6%, according to the World Bank. According to Goldman Sachs, Bangladesh is projected to be one of the next 11 countries that could reach middle-income status. Bangladesh has made considerable attempts to address poverty, to improve girls’ education and to achieve many of the millennium development goals, particularly those on girls’ education.

Those are important achievements, but Bangladesh still faces grinding poverty and it is the second most vulnerable country to climate change. So I hope that we can work together with our friends in Bangladesh to ensure that people focus on the big challenges facing the country. Only when the governance of the country is genuinely focused on the future needs of its population and on the challenges that it faces will Bangladesh be truly able to meet its aspirations of reaching middle-income status and achieving economic and social prosperity.

We all have a vested interest in seeing countries such as Bangladesh progress, and there is no reason why Bangladesh should not progress if the issues that I have outlined are addressed and if we can encourage the major political parties in the country to work towards peace and stability. However, that requires political will and courage from all sides. I hope that the Minister will highlight what his Department is doing to try to encourage dialogue in Bangladesh.

I will end by asking the Minister a few questions; I will be very quick in doing so. First, can he provide an update on the representation that his Department has made about the rising violence in Bangladesh? What efforts are being made to try to bring an end to that rising violence? Can he update the House on whether he has had discussions with the main political parties in Bangladesh and, if so, what progress has been made? What representations have been made and what consular assistance has been provided to UK nationals in Bangladesh, such as Mr Hamidi, who have found themselves caught up in the current difficulties? Finally, has the Minister discussed with his international colleagues, including his European counterparts, what action we can take together to support Bangladesh in this very difficult period? I very much look forward to hearing his response to the debate, and I thank him for taking the time to respond to my questions.

Mrs Riordan, it is a very great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), whom I congratulate not only on securing this important and timely debate but on approaching what is a difficult matter in such a reasoned and balanced way.

I know that she and other hon. Members, together with their constituents, continue to take a close interest in the situation in Bangladesh. A number of important points have been raised this afternoon, and I hope that I will get round to responding to most of them in the time left to me.

I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), the chairman of the all-party group on Bangladesh, that there is clearly an appetite to debate this matter further, but alas allowing that is not in my gift. However, I am sure that she will make her representations in the usual places, and I hope she will secure a wider debate.

First, I want to make it clear that the United Kingdom and Bangladesh enjoy a strong and long-lasting relationship, which is important to both our countries. As Bangladesh prepares to mark 42 years of independence, we are proud that the UK was the first European country to recognise Bangladesh. Personal ties continue to connect our countries. Nearly 500,000 people of Bangladeshi heritage live in the UK, a good number of them in Bethnal Green and Bow. It is all the more important that we do not shirk our responsibility to highlight our concerns about human rights and respect for the rule of law. Those values are at the heart of British foreign policy, and they are particularly important at a time when Bangladesh is experiencing some of the worst violence it has witnessed in decades. According to human rights organisations, last year there were 15,101 incidents of political violence. That is lower than the 2001 figure of 26,426, but it shows the magnitude of the problem. Indeed, human rights organisations indicate that in January and February alone, there have been approximately 5,000 incidents of political violence.

Since January, the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh has found three men, including two leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, guilty of crimes committed during the 1971 war between Pakistan and Bangladesh. As a result of the verdicts and the ongoing political tensions, Opposition parties, mainly Jamaat-e-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist party, have called approximately 12 enforced strikes, or hartals, as they are known. The latest verdict issued in the case of Jamaat’s vice-president Delwar Hossain Sayeedi on 28 February led to mass protests across Bangladesh, with media reports of more than 70 deaths, many of which were reported to be the result of action by the law enforcement agencies.

We are also concerned about the media reports that 24 Hindu temples, 122 houses and dozens of shops have also been destroyed. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) raised similar concerns about attacks on religious minorities. We are concerned about the recent attacks, and in a statement on 13 March, my noble Friend Baroness Warsi said that she deplored the attacks and called on all parties to exercise restraint. The British high commission has met the Government of Bangladesh and Opposition parties, and senior officials in Dhaka have met officials from the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make clear the importance that we attach to ending the violence and making peaceful political progress. The British Government have been clear in their condemnation of the senseless attacks and their widespread and debilitating impact on families, communities, religious minorities and businesses—as the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow mentioned—in Bangladesh and the UK.

Hon. Members who have followed the situation in Bangladesh over the years will recognise the many personal and historic events that influence the political climate. For Bangladesh to achieve its potential, its politics should be practised primarily in Parliament, not on the streets. The British Government are strong proponents of freedom of expression and the right of all citizens to hold Government to account, including through legitimate and peaceful protests. That is an essential element of any democracy. As my noble Friend Baroness Warsi said during her visit to Bangladesh last month, however, violence and vandalism have no place in legitimate protests. We hope, therefore, that all parties can resolve differences through dialogue and discussion, and that citizens will be able freely to raise their concerns or grievances through peaceful means, without fear of retaliation or attack.

I would also like to reassure the House and members of the British Bangladeshi diaspora community that the British Government have strongly condemned the recent violence, including the attacks on religious minorities. Those concerns were raised with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, and with the leader of the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party, Khaleda Zia, during my noble Friend Baroness Warsi’s visit to Bangladesh. Last week, she also issued a statement expressing sadness over the senseless loss of life and called on all parties to exercise restraint.

As part of our bilateral relations with Bangladesh, officials at our high commission in Dhaka meet regularly with the Government of Bangladesh and members of the Opposition alliance parties. During the last week, our high commissioner in Dhaka has met Foreign Minister Dipu Moni and other representatives of the main political parties. The high commissioner has urged

“all parties to exercise restraint, moderation and respect for the rule of law”.

We were encouraged by Dipu Moni’s statement that an investigation will be conducted into the recent violence, deaths and any use of excessive force by the police. We have urged the Bangladeshi Government to ensure that any investigation be conducted transparently and swiftly.

The United Kingdom remains committed to promoting human rights across the world and is steadfast in its opposition to the death penalty. As a fellow Commonwealth member, we look to Bangladesh to uphold Commonwealth values, which are clearly set out in the Commonwealth charter signed by Her Majesty the Queen on Commonwealth day, 11 March. Bangladesh is a country with more than 150 million people who are deeply passionate about their politics and political parties.

The Minister has been very reassuring about the role that the high commissioner in Dhaka has played in addressing the Government, the Bangladesh Nationalist party and other political parties. Can the Minister tell us what response the high commissioner received from the parties? Have they all issued statements calling for calm in Bangladesh?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. I am not certain what the parties in Bangladesh have done, but, for our part, we will continue to urge all parties to take part in the elections in a fair and transparent way. We believe that the dialogue belongs in Parliament rather than in protest on the street, which has been so unsettling. With parliamentary elections due by January 2014, the UK is committed to working with all parties in Bangladesh to support the development of a stable, prosperous and democratic society. To achieve that, Bangladesh needs to have strong, independent and accountable institutions and a functioning Parliament at the centre of political debate.

Through the Department for International Development, which the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow shadows, and international partners, our programmes focus not only on poverty reduction and achieving the millennium development goals, but on strengthening political participation and promoting democratic institutions. We are helping civil society to track election-related violence and mitigate it through community engagement. Our programmes aim further to strengthen the skills and systems of the election commission and to support the Parliament of Bangladesh to become more open and effective. I hope that all political parties, the election commission and civil society can work together towards credible elections that are inclusive and transparent.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow for securing the debate. The British Government are committed to Bangladesh’s development and to its ambition of achieving middle-income status within the next decade. We remain the largest bilateral aid donor in Bangladesh, with a programme of £1 billion over four years, which will directly help millions of the poorest people in the country. Of course, we are still as keen as ever on human rights, particularly those of British citizens who return to Bangladesh. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow raised the issue of Sheikh Noor-e-Alom Hamidi, who was arrested in Dhaka on 22 February, and I reassure her that we are providing consular assistance. Our consular officials visited Mr Hamidi this month, and we continue to monitor his detention closely.

To conclude, I want to send out a clear message that Bangladesh matters to the UK. As a long-standing friend, international partner and fellow Commonwealth member, we hope all political parties and civil society will engage in constructive dialogue. For all those reasons we will continue to monitor the situation in Bangladesh and continue to urge all parties to exercise restraint, moderation and respect for the rule of law.