Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gavin Barwell.)
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise in Parliament the horrific, evil and brutal attack on the army public school in Peshawar last month, and the UK’s support for Pakistan in the war on terror.
While the official 40 days of mourning—chehlum—have now passed, the people of Pakistan still weep for the tragic loss of innocent lives that day. The attack claimed the lives of 134 children, as well as the many teachers who lost their lives trying to save their children. Pakistan is a courageous nation that has had to face many challenges in its short history. It worked with the international community in defeating the Russian communist threat in Afghanistan, and stood with the international community after 9/11 in the fight against global terrorism. Its citizens and armed forces continue to face the daily threat from terrorist organisations operating across the border in Afghanistan.
Given the challenges that Pakistan has faced from national and international catastrophes, such as flooding and earthquakes, does my hon. Friend agree that it is incumbent on the UK, given our relationship with Pakistan, to do all we can to support it through yet another difficult time?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of our two great countries’ relationship. As vice-chairman of the all-party group on Pakistan and chairman of the all-party group on Kashmir, and having visited the country and being a passionate and strong friend to Pakistan, he recognises the importance of that relationship and knows that the UK has always stood shoulder to shoulder with Pakistan, and will continue to do so. Pakistan is fortunate to have such people as friends and advocates here in Parliament.
Pakistan lost its courageous and talented former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to an act of terror. I had the privilege of working with Ms Bhutto as an adviser from 1999 to 2007. Natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. No one can question the resilience of this brave and courageous nation. The horrific and evil act in Peshawar has united the country and its political parties to come together in the national interest to defeat these evil organisations, with the country’s brave armed forces taking the fight to the terrorists.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I know that, like me, he went to the Pakistani high commission soon after this dreadful attack to sign the book of condolence and express our sorrow at this tragedy. Will he join me in paying tribute to organisations across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom that organised their own books of condolence, vigils and fund-raising events for the victims—including the Burnley and Pendle friends league that organised an event I attended at the people’s centre in Brierfield?
Yes, it is a privilege and a pleasure to do that. I know that my hon. Friend, as chairman of the all-party group on Pakistan, has done everything he possibly can to build the relationship between our two great countries. I know that the former high commissioner, who I see in the Public Gallery, will remember his many meetings with my hon. Friend. It is right that people across the UK came together to show solidarity with the people of Pakistan at this difficult hour.
This was a cowardly terrorist attack by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan which struck at the youngest and most vulnerable, and it is a reminder that Pakistan remains on the front line against terrorism. God forbid if Pakistan should fall as a front line in fighting terrorism, as the world will become a dark and unsafe place, with suffering affecting each and every part of it.
It is important to clarify one thing. The TTP, like many other terrorists, has often been described as “Islamist extremists” or “Islamist terrorists”, thereby linking Islam to them, which is what they want. We should be clear and refer to them and any other terrorists who want to link their evil acts to Islam simply as “terrorists” and “extremists”. That is it. They are terrorists and extremists, and we should not give them the credibility of linking this great religion with their evil acts.
May I gently suggest that my hon. Friend might want to go one step further? These extremists never hesitate to call other Muslims with whom they disagree “unIslamic”. Although I see the point of my hon. Friend’s argument that these people are not Islamist and not Islamic, just calling them terrorists and extremists is not quite enough. We need some context, so may I suggest “unIslamic extremists” as a possible denomination for them?
My hon. Friend is an expert on defence matters, and I have great admiration and respect for him. I take on board the point he makes. Everyone around the world wants to make it clear that these individuals are terrorists and extremists. When I comment on these matters on television, I often get e-mails saying I am a non-Muslim myself for calling them terrorists. We know who the terrorists and extremists are in this context.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The events in Peshawar were very salient and pertinent when they hit the news headlines. Is it not imperative, when it comes to discourse on this issue, that people should always remember globally—not just in the UK—that regardless of their background, whether people be Sunni, Shi’a or of whatever denomination, many of these organisations kill people of an Islamic faith? That is the crucial point.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall pick up that point in due course. It is one made by the former Foreign Secretary, our right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), who said in 2013 that the people who have suffered the most as a result of terrorism are Muslims. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) is absolutely right, and I would like to congratulate him on the work he does in strengthening our two countries’ great relationship.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when people commit these atrocities in the name of Islam, they also betray—sometimes catastrophically—the vast majority of law-abiding decent Muslims in this country, who then have to defend themselves? Does he agree that that is a double betrayal for those Muslims?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When individuals carry out these evil atrocities in the name of Islam or of religion, they undermine the wonderful, peaceful, tolerant Muslim community around the world and in our great country. I know that he does a brilliant job in building the great relationship between our two countries, and I know how much importance he ascribes to it. When I was in Pakistan in 2012, walking through Karachi, I was surprised to see that he was there at the same time.
I welcomed recent articles by Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, the former Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom and head of the Saudi intelligence service, who has suggested that we call ISIL—or Daesh, as it is called in Syria and Iraq—Fawash, which means “obscenity”. The organisation proclaims itself to be an “Islamic State” because it wants to be linked to Islam, but there is no such thing as an Islamic state. Let us not give those people any legitimacy. Let us call them what they are: terrorists and extremists who believe in an obscene ideology.
Pakistan is not alone in facing such horrific, brutal, evil atrocities carried out by terrorists, as we saw only a few weeks ago when gunmen attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris. In Belgium, police have foiled a plot to attack police, and in 2013 there was a brutal attack on a shopping mall in Kenya. Since 2003, more than 40,000 civilians and more than 6,000 security forces in Pakistan have been killed in the continual war on terror.
The former Foreign Secretary said in a speech in 2013:
“Muslim communities are bearing the brunt of terrorism worldwide, at the hands of people who espouse a distorted and violent extremist interpretation of a great and peaceful religion.”
Terrorist groups such as the Taliban claim to be Islamic, but that interpretation bears no resemblance to Islam, and is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world. The Koran teaches us to be tolerant of others and to live in peace. Chapter 5, verse 32 says that
“if any one killed a person, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind”.
Recent events have shown us that our freedom of speech can never be threatened or destroyed through violence, and that there can be no justification for the causing of death or the use of violence. However, we also need to be tolerant and respectful of other people’s religious beliefs, whatever they may be. Faiths such as Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baha’ism and Islam—to name just a few—are cherished by billions of people around the world. Rights come with responsibilities, and we need to be careful not to mock other people’s religions. Doing so can lead to intolerance, which feeds into the terrorist extremist agenda of wanting to divide communities and societies, and makes our society a less safe place for all.
Those are not my assertions, but the assertions of a great man with great intellect, wisdom and a passionate desire to serve humanity, which are there for all to see. I refer to Pope Francis, for whom I have great admiration and respect. He spoke about this very issue recently, saying that the right to liberty of expression came with the “obligation” to speak for “the common good”.
The United Kingdom has continued to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are affected by terrorism, and has always been a strong friend and ally of Pakistan. The Prime Minister summed up our close relationship when he said
“in this battle the friends of Pakistan are friends of Britain; the enemies of Pakistan are enemies of Britain.”
After the Peshawar attack, the UK offered its assistance, and I know that the Department for International Development has collaborated in the provision of counselling for those who have been affected.
Many people in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have become displaced and we should consider how best the UK and DFID can help in that region, in particular with the temporarily displaced persons. Pakistan has played a part in helping the international community tackle the threat of terrorism. There are many examples, including the capture of Ramzi Yousef, one of the perpetrators of the World Trade Centre bombing, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of al-Qaeda’s most senior operatives, who was the mastermind behind 9/11 and the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing as well as the failed Bojinka and shoebomber plots.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important ways in which the UK Government, through DFID, can work together with the Government of Pakistan is through support for the education system, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, where there is tremendous UK support for Pakistani schools?
My hon. Friend is right, and as a member of the International Development Committee, he well knows that the UK has always supported Pakistan at difficult moments. On education and health, Pakistan is the largest recipient in terms of education, and he is right: if we want to give somebody hope, opportunity, aspiration and a life without being sucked into extremism or radicalisation, we must give them education. The UK has always supported that and will continue to support Pakistan in that respect.
At the forefront of the battle with terrorism, Pakistan faces several major challenges. With a porous border with Afghanistan, around 40,000 people make the crossing every day, putting pressure on security checks, especially at the two main crossings at Torkam and Chaman. I understand from discussions with Pakistan officials that they would appreciate assistance to enable them to monitor the border more effectively, including the provision of additional technology and intelligence gathering and sharing. Some other suggestions include technology such as biometric scanners, night goggles and GSM intelligence gathering. The UK currently provides a GSM tracking vehicle. I believe this vehicle was crucial in tracking those who were responsible for the terrorist attacks in Peshawar and is crucial in helping to destroy the terrorist networks and leaderships in Pakistan.
The UK has already assisted Pakistan in developing counter-terrorism capabilities through the counter- improvised explosive device programme, but IEDs continue to be a threat in the region. Only two weeks ago, an IED attack killed four security force personnel in Pakistan’s Lower Kurram.
Greater assistance is also required to help return the large number of refugees to Afghanistan. Since 2002, the UNHCR has facilitated the return of 3.8 million registered Afghans from Pakistan, but there are still almost 1.5 million registered refugees in the country, with unofficial figures suggesting the total could be more than 3.5 million—the largest protracted refugee population in the world.
Pakistan also needs international co-operation to tackle extremists groups who may operate from abroad. There are, for example, real concerns about some elements of the Balochistan Liberation Army—the BLA—who it is said are co-operating with extremists to enact violence in Pakistan. Hizb ut-Tahrir has openly attempted to recruit Pakistani military officers to revolt against the Pakistan army, and Pakistan needs assistance to tackle Hizb ut-Tahrir’s finances and supporters operating from outside the country.
The Peshawar attack on a school was also a direct assault on education and the country’s future generations. It was a reminder that there are still those who want to prevent children in Pakistan from learning. Seeking knowledge and education is, as many religious texts—Hadiths—make clear, an obligation on Muslims, both men and women. I know that the Government have continued to support Pakistan through aid, with 4 million primary school children benefiting and more than 20,000 classrooms being constructed.
Pakistan is still on the road to reform, and there is still much work to be done to improve its own institutions and create a more robust law and order system. This includes assistance with police capacity building, canine training in explosive detection, computer and mobile forensic labs, counter-IED jammers and body armour. The Peshawar attack was the worst terrorist attack Pakistan has suffered, and only through co-operation and collaboration, standing shoulder to shoulder with one of our key partners, with whom we share a long history, can terrorism be defeated.
With that, Mr Speaker, I thank you once again for giving me the chance to have this debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing this debate. I shall speak quickly as I have only a couple of minutes and the Minister will want to take his time.
I just wanted to outline a few facts. People forget that when Pakistan joined our war to deal with the Russian threat in Afghanistan and the invasion, one consequence, apart from the instability and violence, was that 10 million people who were left homeless in Afghanistan came to Pakistan, so Pakistan had to bear that burden. Also, in the war on terror, Pakistan has suffered economically—some £30 billion to £40 billion over the last 20-odd years. It has suffered more than 30,000 civilian casualties and tens of thousands of military casualties.
Of course, what happened recently in Peshawar was dreadful, but it is great to see that the Government—this one and the previous one—have always had a very good relationship with Pakistan. I hope the Government will continue to work with the people of Pakistan, and in particular with the people of Peshawar.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for bringing to the House this debate on our support for Pakistan since the terrible attack on the army public school in Peshawar on 16 December last year. It is right that this House debate developments in the 40 days since that attack on Pakistan, which is a key ally and close friend of the United Kingdom.
The attack robbed parents, families and friends of their children. As parliamentarians, we struggle for meaningful words in response to an attack of this scale. It offends our values as democratic politicians, and threatens our work for the rule of law and the peaceful development of nations. As parents, uncles, aunts or grandparents ourselves, we try to comprehend the staggering losses borne by so many families in Peshawar: the silence they face in place of the irrepressible noise of childhood, the empty spaces at so many family tables. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said at the time:
“Nothing can justify such an horrific attack on children going to school. The UK continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with the government and people of Pakistan in the fight against terrorism and extremism.”
This attack reminded us of the one constant rule of terrorism: those who suffer the most are the citizens of countries blighted by extremism—the men, women and children kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria; the communities living in mortal fear of ISIL in Syria and Iraq; and the boys and girls in Pakistan living in the shadow of the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups, children for whom school should be a safe haven.
My hon. Friend asked me what the UK has offered Pakistan since the attack and what more we can achieve together. I can assure the House that we continue to work with the Pakistani Government across a range of issues—a multi-track approach—but we must help Pakistan to tackle the root causes of violent extremism. Part of that is our work on promoting inclusion, economic development, education and health services to lift Pakistan’s people out of poverty and fill the societal cracks in which extremism festers and grows. We are also encouraging Pakistan to reduce the space for extremist ideologies.It is fair to say that Pakistan cannot beat terrorism alone. The scale of the challenge is huge, and the UK is a key partner of Pakistan in that fight. Let me outline some of the ways in which are helping Pakistan.
We are supporting Pakistan’s economy. Part of my job is to show British businesses the opportunities that working and investing in Pakistan can offer. In my speech, I very much want to counter the impression that appalling incidents, such as the attack on the school, can generate. As my hon. Friend knows well, Pakistan and Pakistanis offer visitors a warm welcome. Their generosity and hospitality are legendary, and must transcend such violence. We already have solid business links and strong growth projections for our bilateral trade and investment, and we must not let that slip from our grasp.
This morning, I had the pleasure of making the opening remarks at the third annual UK-Pakistan trade and investment conference. We know that the majority of Pakistanis want the same things that people everywhere want: an education for them and their children; the chance to have a good job; and the chance to live in a peaceful and prosperous state. We have a trade and investment road map that sets out our joint targets for economic growth and for growth that will begin to address that need. Our Prime Ministers have set out a joint bilateral trade target of £3 billion annually by the end of this year. It is a challenging target, but we think it is achievable.
We must support the families of the victims caught up in such atrocities. The Department for International Development is working closely with the provincial government and the UK charity Merlin to provide psychological support services to the victims, families and wider community affected by the Peshawar school incident. That will enable up to seven psychological family centres to be opened, allow home visits to be made to affected families and establish a child psycho-trauma centre at Lady Reading hospital in Peshawar to treat the most serious cases.
We must support and strengthen the democratic process in Pakistan. That is critical not just for the future of millions of Pakistanis, but for the security of the region and our security in the UK. In 2013, millions of Pakistanis voted in a general election and, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, one full-term democratically elected Government passed power to another. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was the first Head of Government to visit Pakistan after that historic election in June 2013, emphasising the UK’s support for this process. It was a victory for democracy and welcome progress, and that is not what the terrorists want.
We must support Pakistan on education and health, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said in an intervention. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham knows that we are supporting education and health through our DFID-led aid programmes. The programmes help to give the poorest people in Pakistan access to public services, and they promote peace, stability and democracy, as well as macro-economic stability, growth and jobs.
We are supporting Pakistan’s national security, and my hon. Friend covered several areas in which we are providing support. However, time is against me. It is a shame that we do not have longer to debate this important matter, but I hope that the issue will be brought back to the House.
As my hon. Friend knows well, our countries share strong connections through our extensive diaspora links. There are more than 1.1 million people in the UK of Pakistani heritage, and more than 1 million trips are made annually between our two countries. The diaspora makes a significant contribution to British life, with many famous, successful and prominent people across sport, culture, business and, of course, Parliament. That familiarity between us is what makes so much of our family, Government, military and business relationships easy, and it is what makes the Peshawar school attack so painful for us.
We know that there is rarely, if ever, a purely military solution to terrorism. Many countries, including the UK and Pakistan, are engaged in a long-term effort to deny terrorist groups the space to operate, to help vulnerable countries to develop their law enforcement capabilities and to address the injustice and conflict that terrorists exploit.
Muslim communities often bear the brunt of terrorism, as has been said in the debate, at the hands of people who espouse a distorted and violent interpretation of a great and peaceful religion. My hon. Friend was right to point out that terrorism and Islam are not the same. We believe that our British values uphold the idea that people of different faiths and cultures can live together in peace. We know that the fight against terrorism will be protracted, but we know that by working together with our friends and our allies, we can win.
Question put and agreed to.