rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the political situation in Pakistan.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it is my pleasure to invite Her Majesty's Government to give to this House tonight their position on the political situation in Pakistan.
My questions are quite simple. I ask the Government to give us knowledge of how closely the British Government are linked to the USA on Pakistan. Is there a greater role for the United Kingdom in Pakistan today, bilaterally or with our partners in the European Union, the USA and India? How realistic are the DfID goals, given the rapidly deteriorating situation of Pakistan? Turning to the elections, given that the UK Government’s requests and this House’s Statements for a modest wish list for the February elections were not fulfilled, what next steps do Her Majesty's Government foresee? Seeing that the empowerment of minorities and the achievement of fundamental freedoms are so far off, how do Her Majesty's Government intend to tackle the fundamental lack of freedoms in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan—freedom to worship, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, lack of capacity to vote and, indeed, lack of access to the key millennium development goals?
Having myself recently held meetings in Lahore, Islamabad and along the line of control in Azad Jammu-Kashmir, I speak tonight with the voice of the people, with the messages that they requested to be delivered to Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels. Their message is that the election in February this year was fatally flawed, that it was neither free, fair nor democratic and that the situation has drastically worsened for the people since the ruling coalition has fallen apart.
As an example, 20,000 Pakistanis recently fled to Afghanistan for shelter and protection, leaving 300,000 internally displaced persons on borders in recent weeks. Twenty per cent of the state budget is spent on the military and only 2 per cent on education. Of the $2 billion given by the United States annually for the war against terror, 90 per cent goes to the military and almost nothing goes on social education, health or developmental projects, or on enhancement of the fragmentary fundamental freedoms.
Surely Her Majesty's Government would agree that the war on terror, as with so many other wars, can be won only in the hearts and minds of the local population, of the people of Pakistan. But the advance of the Taliban and al-Qaeda is aided by the ISI of Pakistan— whether they be rogue or official elements makes no difference to the people. Most recently, the tragedies of the Indian embassy in Kabul, and the Marriott in Islamabad have demonstrated the involvement of the ISI. In Lahore, where I monitored the elections, there were huge blasts killing hundreds only a moment or two after the election itself. So far advanced have Taliban and al-Qaeda elements become that the first of those big blasts was right outside the military garrison in the centre of the city of Lahore.
Indeed, I think that it is correct to say that the country is currently in a complete political vacuum comparable in its sense of drift, instability and fragmentation to the break-up of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh. One can feel the same loss of identity as a nation, the lack of implementation of the law, the barriers rising to democratic solutions and the fundamental freedoms and rights of the people being progressively ignored.
As a member of the European Parliament and delegate on the European Union election observation mission to Pakistan, I gave my backing to our final report on the February 2008 national and provincial elections. I and my colleagues found that, although some improvements had been made since the 2002 poll in Pakistan, the overall standards fell short of a number of international standards for genuine democratic elections.
I visited more than 20 polling stations in Lahore on polling day on 18 February 2008 and took part in the delegation that met President Musharraf and the leaders of all the main political parties as well as with many other civil society groups. I and my colleagues concluded that the February election represented the will of the people in its achievement of political change but that unless, as a matter of urgency, the recommendations of the European Union and other international observers were taken forward, Pakistan’s democracy would find it hard to survive and develop beyond its current weak and unsustainable form.
For example, what is the justification in a democracy for limiting the pool of parliamentary candidates to only those who had bachelor degrees—2 per cent of the population—or who had qualified in madrassahs? That outlawed 95 per cent of the entire population of Pakistan from putting their name forward as candidates for election. That is clearly not democracy. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, were unable to vote. Many were constitutionally excluded, some—many hundreds of thousands—because they did not have the required national identification card. A system is now in operation that is strictly limiting, whereby the national identity card has to be of a certain type. If you cannot get it, you cannot vote.
Worse than that are the discriminatory practices against certain elements of society. Let me take the Ahmadi minority. They are not recognised as Muslims by the Pakistani Government. Although they are required to register on a separate voters’ register, they must declare that their faith is not a true faith. Naturally, the Ahmadi cannot bear to vote under those conditions nor, constitutionally, are they allowed to take jobs of merit and importance. The Kashmiris in Azad Jammu-Kashmir and the northern areas were also constitutionally excluded from voting, yet come 100 per cent under all Pakistani laws. That is indeed taxation without representation, which is not an acceptable state of affairs, especially in Balawaristan, where the people have been ruled by the military from Islamabad for nearly 60 years. There is no freedom of association in either place. For 50 to 60 years, not more than five people have been allowed to get together.
Of course there were some positive points about the election. The people came out to vote but, given that the electoral register had been manipulated, with an additional 25 million names put on at short notice with no one able to check because the electoral register was not published, by the time that lunch had arrived and I had visited 15 or 20 polling stations, perhaps a dozen people had voted in each, because the people had no idea whether they were on the electoral register.
Before the election, Her Majesty's Government asked the Pakistani Government to be clear about where the polling booths would be. Far from it. The Government chose to alter the places of many of the polling stations and did not signpost where they were. Literally millions of people were struggling to find out where the new polling stations were with no messages, no signposts, nothing. When they got there, they did not know whether they were on the list.
There were shortcomings in the voter registration process, unreliability in the electoral roll and significant numbers of people who could not vote because they did not hold the required national identification card. There are also credible reports of the police harassment of opposition party workers and agents and of the public broadcasters who could not live up to their responsibility of maintaining balance.
I also draw your Lordships’ attention to the underlying problems of the constitution. The constitution is profoundly undemocratic. It is punitive against those who are outside specified religious or ethnic boundaries. There is an Islamic court overruling, and a blasphemy law that states that whoever defiles a copy of the Holy Koran, or an extract thereof, uses derogatory remarks, and by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defies the holy name, shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life.
This constitution is therefore exceedingly difficult for even the best of the judiciary to support. In a democracy, institutions are strengthened. I leave Her Majesty’s Government with this thought and this challenge; in Pakistan, democratic institutions are being progressively weakened, and while we are doubling our aid, making Pakistan the second largest recipient of our aid, how and where can we tell that we are going to make any difference at all? What do Her Majesty’s Government propose to do?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, for providing us with this opportunity to discuss the political situation in Pakistan. Some of her comments make me wonder whether I know Pakistan well, because I am very much connected with it. I was born there and have a school with 350 children. We also have an organisation that builds schools and helps Pakistan. More than 1 million British citizens are of Pakistani origin.
Pakistan is a young nation; it is not a Westminster democracy. I saw from the Pakistani newspapers that the elections were not fair as they are in the United Kingdom, but all political parties have said that they were probably the fairest because General Musharraf’s party—the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party—was in charge but lost the elections. The Pakistan People’s Party got the highest vote, and Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N came second, followed by other nationalists. It is therefore probably not fair to say that the elections were totally unfair and ridiculous.
Pakistan, as we know, has a population of 166 million and the highest population growth rate in the world. Its population is expected almost to double within 20 years. Pakistan ranks at almost the lowest level of the Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index—144th out of 158—along with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Tajikistan. Although the Government report an overall literacy rate of 48.7 per cent, many NGOs estimate it to be closer to 20 per cent of the total population. Both sources agree that literacy among women is half that among men. Thirty-two per cent of Pakistanis live below the official poverty line. Access to basic services such as primary healthcare and safe drinking water is denied to nearly half the population. About 38 per cent of children under five are malnourished.
In the past five years, the Government’s initiatives to improve health, education and the economy—the three major sectors for assessing the development or progress of a nation—have not worked. Youngsters in Pakistan are very bright and aware of their surroundings, but they have no guidance and no jobs and hate the West. This makes the grounds of Pakistan worse than Palestine and Chechnya. They perceive their Government as in bed with the West and a beneficiary of it, and see no advantage for themselves. They see American and NATO forces attacking Afghanistan and South Waziristan as an attack on their very survival.
The billions of dollars that have been given to the Pakistan Government over the past seven years have not really changed the lives of ordinary citizens; they have made no real improvement to education or their socio-economic status. What do the people of Pakistan see? They see more arms coming into the area and killing their own people, whether in Waziristan, Baluchistan or Afghanistan. I thank Her Majesty’s Government for the hundreds of millions of pounds that they have given for development in Pakistan, but has that made any difference to ordinary people in villages and in schools? Has it made a difference to building the institutions?
There are bigger questions, such as the national reconciliation order, which was passed by the Pakistan Parliament but was seen as being more for the rich, for those who had corruption charges against them and for those who are leaving presidential palaces and government buildings rather than as genuine reconciliation in Pakistan. What is needed is a genuine truth and reconciliation commission—a genuine centre for peace and dialogue where the Bughtis, the Mengals, the Murees, the Maulanas and the Khans can sit and where every citizen of Pakistan can feel respected and equal citizens of Pakistan. Izzat is a concept of honour; you will get results if you give it to the Pathans and the Baluchis.
Since the terrible events in the Red Mosque in Islamabad just over a year and a half ago, more than 1,200 have died in more than 90 tragic suicide attacks. I pay tribute to Benazir Bhutto, who was a victim of one of them. The Government of Pakistan should not have raided the mosque and madrassah, killed some people, thrown others into jail and then sent them back to their villages. They should have taken them out of that place and run a deradicalisation programme from which those young people could have gone into the communities and other madrassahs, recited from the Koran and the hadiths, said that what they were taught in the Red Mosque was wrong and said what they needed to do as citizens of Pakistan and as Muslims.
We missed opportunities. In Swat, for example, we saw radicalisation and Mullah Fazlullah and his people taking over the running of the area. However, do we really understand the difference between the Pathans, the Taliban and al-Qaeda? Everyone with a beard and a turban is classed as the probable terrorist who will attack us. Do we really understand the tribal code, the Pashtun code? Do we really understand the type of tribal system that they have always had? If we expect Pakistan or other countries in Africa or Asia, to have Westminster-style democracies, we are expecting a bit too much. We need to ensure that those Governments deal with poverty, inflation and extremism. They should deal with education, health, the economy and representing people.
More importantly, we need to make sure that Pakistan is not destabilised further. We have to ask the Americans not to continue bombing inside Pakistan, which will increase radicalisation. If they continue with this policy—and we have difficulty in controlling 20 million Afghans—what about the 160 million Pakistanis? Even sending the Pakistan Army is difficult.
On a point made by the noble Baroness in relation to the attacks on the Indian embassy and the Marriott hotel involving the ISI, I should like her to give some evidence in her final reply.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Nicholson for initiating this debate. As someone else in this Chamber from Pakistani origin, I recognised the picture that she painted, gloomy though it was. I congratulate her on bringing some of those serious issues to the attention of this House. I declare an interest as UK patron of the Pakistan Human Development Commission, which concerns itself with educational and health outcomes in the poorest rural areas of Pakistan, about which I shall say a thing or two.
There is no doubt that Pakistan is a troubled country. It is failing its population of 160 million in several ways. The extreme poverty in which people find themselves is bound to be exacerbated in the coming years by the rises in world commodity prices. Its human capital is lost through illiteracy and lack of education. At partition, it was estimated to have a literacy rate of 50 per cent. Let me remind the House that partition was 60 years ago, so there has been a good, long time. As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said, the estimate in Pakistan now is that it is between 20 per cent and 30 per cent. That figure will continue to fall because of the demographic population explosion and young people not having access to education. For its entire history, Pakistan has had a broken political system with the Government vacillating between military rule and extremely weak civilian rule. Finally, its ability to threaten the security of its neighbours and further beyond are evidenced in its record of nuclear proliferation and its export, willingly or not, of terrorism abroad.
Against that backdrop, I have some sympathy with the Government in their difficult task in determining a strategy for what to do. I shall restrict my remarks to where our interests lie in that country and what I therefore believe we should be doing to assist it in fulfilling the potential of its own people as well as being a partner in the region. For the very brief period that one can speak in this debate, it may be wise to stick to what might happen in the future, rather than to go over what has happened in the past.
First and foremost, we must recognise that Pakistan's progress back to stability must be seen as a transition rather than a transformation. Too many politicians in the United Kingdom have urged for the restoration of democracy as if the process of elections themselves were all; that is, the panacea that would fix everything. Democracy does not come through a vote alone. It is a slow process of building institutional structures; of educating the electorate to the choices that have to be made; and of cultivating a responsible media and political class. They are all lacking in Pakistan today. It has not had success in building these vital transitional structures, even where there has been greater stability during civilian rule. The idea that we look back to the halcyon days when an election had provided stability, peace and the flowering of democracy is historical inaccuracy.
Secondly, we in the West must be clear about the kind of government we wish to see there. I am all for pragmatism in difficult situations, but the number of conflicting signals the UK has sent since 9/11 has left our public, as well as the Pakistanis, confused about where we stand. In large part, that confusion has been caused by our conflating our legitimate concerns about Pakistan’s inability to contain international terrorism with the other equally important strategic interest, which is to help it develop institutions and deliver human development, in order that that as a goal will build up resilience against terrorists.
Where we say that we want to see a democratic, stable Pakistan we must back it with development assistance. I know that the Minister is bound to tell us that the UK, through DfID, will provide another £450 million in aid over the next three years. That amounts to less than £1 per person per year in Pakistan. I see that only as a drop in the ocean and I wonder whether the Government might be prevailed upon to engage more fully in supporting Pakistan through these more peaceable development measures.
Finally, on the kind of government that the United Kingdom and the West might wish to see in Pakistan, the Minister will no doubt be constrained by the niceties of public diplomacy to be as candid as I will be. There is much woolly thinking in pro-democracy circles; namely, that if you have democracy—that is, if you have an election—it does not matter what kind of government are elected. The thinking goes that, therefore, if Islamists are elected, that is tough luck and rather a shame, but that we will have to live with that because it is the will of the people. That is wrong thinking. Islamist parties do not deliver the freedoms, the accountability and the minimum fundamental human rights that are so essential to transitions in democracy and the continuation of democracy. We know that from the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, from Hamas and from countless examples where Islamists have taken power, not least the Taliban, although that was not through democratic measures. We see retrenchment from democracy, complete lack of accountability and egregious assaults on fundamental human rights.
Let us be clear that our preference in countries like Pakistan is to back secular-minded, rule-of-law respecting, genuine democrats in parties which belong to that kind of thinking. Those parties prepared to eschew the politics of sectarianism and religious fundamentalism are the partners we want to have. We are not happy with the outcome of any old election delivering any old kind of democracy that will be retrenched within months as we sit here and watch what happens.
My noble friend Lady Nicholson has commented on some of the events after the election and the lack of stability. The one point that I should like to make—I am looking at the clock—is that several proscribed terrorist groups have now set up office again. In my knowledge the leader of one of those groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba, openly said, “Let us come and get them. We may be proscribed, but now that the military has gone, we are going to set up shop”, and it is recruiting happily.
As far as our interests are concerned, religious fundamentalism is not what we are prepared to live with. Pakistan needs the support of the West and our own peace and security is predicated on its success in becoming a moderate, democratic partner with the region and beyond. That is what should be in the Government’s mind when they look at their strategy there.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Nicholson warmly on getting this important subject on the Order Paper on the first day after the Summer Recess. I very much welcome the opportunity to drag up some of the enormous problems she has identified that confront Pakistan. I shall not go into the election. It is a fact that we have to live with. I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, that democratic elections are not everything. As my noble friend Lady Falkner said, democracy is a gradual process to build step by step towards organisations which can support a fully democratic system. Although my noble friend identified many of the defects in the elections—I shall turn to one or two of them later—we have to live with it and do our best to help the people of Pakistan to confront their problems.
As my noble friend rightly emphasised, probably the most extreme problem is the growing menace of violence, not only in the tribal areas where Islamabad has exercised a light touch that gives the jihadists a free rein, but increasingly in the cities, from the assassination a year ago of Benazir Bhutto through to the killing last month of dozens of people in the Marriott hotel, and a pitched battle between the security forces and terrorists at a hideout in Karachi where it was discovered that they had stored tons of sophisticated weapons and explosives. President Zardari has pledged to free Pakistan of violent militants, and this is a welcome sign of an intention to change. The replacement of 14 top generals, including the head of the ISI which has been accused of collaborating with terrorists in the past, indicates that he does mean business.
The existence of safe areas for Afghan terrorists across the border in the tribal areas and the North-West Frontier Province has been a growing concern over the years since the Taliban were thought to have been dealt with in the 2001 war. The conflict with jihadis in the north has led to the displacement of an estimated 700,000 people, some of whom now have to be looked after by the United Nations in camps originally designed for Afghan refugees. But have the Americans lost patience at just the wrong moment when, left to itself, Pakistan would have made a determined effort to root out the foreign terrorists who are also violating its sovereignty? If that was part of the President’s agenda, the use of missiles against the cells in Pakistan may have been premature. Every time there is an American air strike on Pakistani territories, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said, it erodes any public support that might have existed otherwise for international co-operation in fighting terrorism. Have the Government a view on the strategy that should be adopted so that terrorists do not find a safe haven in the federally administered tribal areas, from which they and other extremists can also plan attacks on Islamabad or Karachi? Further, do they agree that the American air strikes may have been counterproductive in the sense described by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed?
One hopes that Mr Zardari’s rhetoric extends beyond those who perpetrate the atrocities to those who incite them and spread the heretical belief, as I think it is, that it is right to kill indiscriminately in the name of Islam. If that is the case, he would have the full support at least of Pakistan’s third largest political party, the MQM, which forthrightly condemns those who exploit hatred and prejudice against minorities, whether they be Shia, Ahmadi or Christian.
Some of the thousands of unregulated madrassas funded partly by oil money from the Gulf are spreading pernicious doctrines of hatred. If the president really means what he says, the Pakistan Government should enact a law for the registration of madrassas prohibiting the teaching of violence and sectarianism and the sale, which now goes on, of jihadi videos and literature. Mr Zardari needs to confront the religious right, the JUI, which only mustered 2.2 per cent of the vote in the 2008 elections but which had wielded a wholly disproportionate influence under Musharraf. That party controls the thousands of madrassas that are spreading the Deobandi variety of Islam which inspired the Taliban and holds that Muslims have a sacred right and obligation to go to any country and fight to protect Muslims under threat.
There is no law prohibiting incitement to religious hatred in Pakistan and extremists can say whatever they like about the Shia, Christians and particularly the Ahmadiyya Muslims mentioned by my noble friend. The Ahmadis are subject to repressive laws that disenfranchise them, making it impossible for them to get identity cards which are needed for access to public services, and encourage frequent prosecutions of their members, as in the case of the notorious blasphemy laws. They suffer regular discriminatory action, as in the case of 23 students who were arbitrarily expelled from the Punjabi medical college in Lahore shortly before they were due to take their exams. The Ahmadis suffer the brunt of attacks by extremist mullahs and others in an organisation known as Khatme-Nabuwwat. In an Urdu language programme broadcast on 7 September by Geo TV and distributed worldwide, including in the United Kingdom, offensive and derogatory remarks were made about the Ahmadis, and viewers were incited to kill them. One of the participants said that there was a need to “eliminate” the Ahmadis, while another two used the Arabic phrase “Wajib-ul-Qatl”, meaning “worthy of death”. Within the next 48 hours, two Ahmadi district presidents in the province of Sindh were assassinated.
The programme I have mentioned has been the subject of a complaint to Ofcom following an earlier one this year when it was ruled that Geo TV had breached the guidelines by airing a programme calling for Salman Rushdie to be murdered. As the Independent online says today, it raises the whole question of how much control Ofcom has over the content of foreign language broadcasts receivable here in Britain.
Turning to the question of aid, President Zardari has asked for a big increase in non-military aid to Pakistan, and it would be useful to know whether the Government are sympathetic to that request. I know that we have already announced an increase in aid, and indeed the noble Lord nodded his head when my noble friend mentioned it. However, would it be possible to say that we are prepared to help on the condition that, for example, Pakistan should repeal the blasphemy law and comply with other recommendations of substance made by the working group of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, which the Pakistani delegation wrongly said were not considered internationally accepted human rights?
One of the reasons violent extremism does well in Pakistan is the lack of education that has been mentioned by all noble Lords who have spoken, and particularly that of women. As Ahmed Rashid points out in his book, Descent into Chaos, which I hope very much that the Minister has read, the number of illiterates has doubled over the past half century. Only just over half of the population can read, and less than a third of women. Yet, as has been said, all the billions of dollars that Pakistan has received from the Americans since 9/11 has been squandered on the military. Now Mr Zardari has appealed to the international community to fund economic and social development, including education, a programme which according to Ahmed Rashid would have to extend to central Asia if it is not merely to shift the centre of gravity of the jihadists to Uzbekistan.
Mr Zardari regularly invokes the memory of his late wife, who had a great many friends in this country. One of the best tributes to her life and work would be to promote genuine as well as legal equality for women and to eliminate the inhuman practices of honour killing and the forcible marriage of underage girls, particularly those from religious minorities.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, for giving the House the opportunity to debate this very important issue so early in the Session. As my right honourable friend William Hague said last week in Birmingham, we on these Benches consider our progress in Afghanistan, which is intrinsically tied to our relations with Pakistan, the single most urgent focus in foreign affairs. I hope the Minister would agree with that. As one would expect, both the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, spoke with great authority about Pakistan. It is clear that they both love the country and know it very well. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to their important questions, as well as to those put by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.
While the return of civilian government in Pakistan is to be welcomed, the instability, the violence and the increasing influence of religious extremists that has accompanied it is of deep concern. The bombing of the Marriott hotel on 20 September is an indication of just how vulnerable the current Government are to violent pressure. With such an uncertain footing in much of the country, any support that we can give the Pakistani Government will be critical to their success not only in establishing a secure democracy, but also in fighting terrorism both within Pakistan and its neighbours.
Last month, David Cameron went to Pakistan to make clear how important the relationship between the United Kingdom and Pakistan is to the Conservative Party. What meetings have Her Majesty’s Government had with their Pakistani counterparts on our two countries’ relationship in the recent weeks? With recent events causing some friction between Pakistan and the United States, it is more important than ever that our Government do not take their eye off the ball.
The support that the West offered former President Musharraf in return for his assistance against the Taliban is apparently to be doubled to £480 million by 2011. To give our allies aid to help fight our common enemies is, of course, a sensible course of action, but this aid must be used as promised by Pakistan. I understand £250 million is to go on education. Do Her Majesty’s Government have an intention to monitor this disbursement? We must ensure that this money does not find its way into the unregulated madrassahs, to become the breeding culture for religious fundamentalists devoted to destroying not only us and our allies in Pakistan but democracy in Pakistan.
What systems have the Government set up to track the aid given to Pakistan? There is not only the danger of funds being diverted to those who support terrorism but also the possibility that the money is contributing to the growing problem of corruption. There is no shortage of case studies from all over the world showing the damage that endemic corruption does to the reputation and effectiveness of national Governments. It would be very short-sighted for the Government to wink at the misallocation of funding, either from a lack of political will or from the misplaced hope that such corruption can be an effective method of bribing potentially disruptive elements into half-hearted compliance.
British aid could, if used correctly, be of enormous benefit to Pakistan. In the light of their assistance to India for its civil nuclear facilities, do Her Majesty’s Government have any plans to give similar support to Pakistan?
Does the Minister have real concerns about the financial position of the Pakistan Government given the enormous difficulties they must overcome in tackling militants on the Afghani border? Can he give the House any information on what we are doing to help President Zardari extend state control into those areas? The extremists finding safe havens in the autonomous tribal agencies are not only a thorn in the side of President Karzai’s Government in Kabul but prominent in the suicide attacks taking place in Pakistan.
Finally, I highlight the importance of helping Pakistan’s Government through action here on UK soil. We must do everything we can to prevent terrorism activity in this country hurting our allies abroad, just as we expect them to do the same there. Government policies that have damaged community cohesion—such as their extraordinary insistence, in the face of passionate opposition both inside and outside Parliament, on extending pre-charge detention to 42 days—are no way to promote the values and freedoms of a liberal democracy.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and hope that we will soon hear much more positive reports coming out of Pakistan.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, for raising the issue of Pakistan. I note clearly her sense of foreboding and doubt about the conduct of the elections and the future of that country. As both the Prime Minister and, indeed, all of us in the UK Government recognise, Pakistan is a vital partner for the UK and fundamental to our own security. The personal ties that bind nearly 1 million British people to Pakistan mean that we must be committed and bound to Pakistan’s success and stability.
Let me immediately address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, when he cited William Hague as having said that Pakistan was a primary—if not the primary—concern of going forward. Frankly, policy-makers on both sides of the aisle, here and internationally, would broadly share that assessment. There is no more alarming situation than the prospect of Pakistan descending and deteriorating into the status of a failed state.
But it is important to recognise the resilience that the Pakistani people have shown over an extraordinarily turbulent 12-month period. They have seen a state of emergency, the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a deteriorating security situation, most recently the shocking attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, and equally things that make the heart beat faster, such as the transfer to civilian rule through democratic national and provincial elections in February and the appointment of a newly elected President in September. So despite completely acknowledging the noble Baroness’s points about the limits in practice of the franchise, the limits to the pool of candidates, the religious limitations and the constitutional limitations, I share with my noble friend Lord Ahmed the sense that we should think of how bleak things were before those elections. We should weigh those very proper criticisms of the elections—which certainly all have agreed would not get the seal of good housekeeping of being a Westminster-standard election—but nevertheless we need to bear in mind that those who were in charge of the country during the period of the elections allowed themselves to lose badly, and that those who had been banned, exiled and prosecuted won despite the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
So something worked—imperfectly, crudely and certainly not up to the impeccable standards that one might hope for over the long term, but going through some kind of democratic electoral process, even if a flawed one, allowed Pakistan to look forward and address the critical issues of the economy and security. It also gives the country an opportunity to build on that democratic transition and, we hope, to deliver the long-term peace and prosperity that the people of Pakistan, as well as all of us who are their friends, want to see. It means, though, that we must not lose our focus on building strong democratic institutions. We cannot but know that Pakistan is at a pivotal point and that its future could go either way.
President Zardari was elected on 6 September with some two-thirds of the combined legislative votes. That means that he now enjoys a strong mandate and leads a Government who came to power through the ballot box. He has committed himself and that Government to strengthening parliamentary democracy and to countering extremism, and we will give him and his Government full support in pursuit of those aims. With regard to the question from the noble Lord about the meetings we have had with the President, I assure him that since President Zardari’s election about a month ago, both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have met him. We have made it clear to him that engaging with his new Government is a priority for us. We have also recognised that the new Government will need international support to tackle the serious challenges they face.
I take the mildly stated rebuke that at times it may have seemed as though support to Pakistan was limited to a US-UK axis. That is one reason why we have worked in recent weeks to create a broader Friends of Pakistan group. It was launched in New York during the opening of the UN General Assembly on 26 September. It brought together countries and multilateral organisations that are committed to Pakistan’s long-term development and want to help the Government tackle the serious development, security and economic problems they face. That inaugural meeting was attended by the Foreign Ministers of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Turkey, along with the Chinese ambassador and representatives of the European Union and the United Nations, and was co-chaired by President Zardari and the Foreign Ministers of the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. We are trying to put in place broad support that can both deliver more balanced international community support to Pakistan and, we hope, mobilise resources to address the issues of poverty and the gaps in health and education that have been referred to.
We all recognise the formidable challenges that the Government face. Pakistan’s macroeconomic situation continues to deteriorate rapidly. It has been exacerbated by elevated world fuel and food prices, together with the political uncertainty that has led to growing balance-of-payments and fiscal deficits, along with rising inflation, the depreciation of the exchange rate and the downgrading of Pakistan’s credit rating. An intensive programme of economic reform supported by the IMF and other institutions is vital to avert a full economic crisis.
On the tribal belt, too, we applaud President Zardari’s recognition of the problems there and the recognition that the threat from extremism, reflected by the grim and tragic attack on the Marriott Hotel, needs to be tackled by a process that combines the extending of Pakistani military action into the tribal belt to deal with terrorist groups with an attention to political reconciliation and to development. It is that balanced approach, which the President has supported and promoted, that allows us to support him strongly in that.
With regard to the point about air strikes, there are obviously enormous security problems there, and it would be wrong to blame just the recent air strikes as somehow being the cause for terrorist attacks in Islamabad and elsewhere. The fact is that there have been some 30 terrorist attacks over the past month so. Tragically, this is not new—I wish I could say it were. That said, I think we all agree that it is much better that Pakistan itself, through its own military and its own democratic Government, takes responsibility for security, for development and for any actions within its own territory.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, and others raised the issue of development assistance. She is right that poverty in Pakistan remains substantial, with one in 10 children dying before their fifth birthday and more than half of the adult population still unable to read and write—indeed, the figure may be even higher, as the noble Baroness suggests. She has beaten me to it—we are doubling our development assistance over the next three years. We are focusing that on better health and education, to make government more effective and to make economic growth work for everybody. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Astor, that the controls are in place to make sure that those moneys are effectively spent and deliver the kind of reduction in poverty that we want to see.
There has already been a striking improvement in Pakistan’s development performance. It may surprise people to know that whatever the current difficulties, the number of people living in poverty has declined over the past five years from 35 per cent of the population to 22.5 per cent. The UK development assistance has helped save 200,000 children’s lives, stopped 800,000 children from becoming malnourished and increased from 53 per cent to 76 per cent the percentage of children being immunised. All this is because of something that is getting forgotten, given everything that has happened since. Whatever else one might criticise the previous Government for, they put in a sound economic management performance with a focus on poverty reduction under both the President and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.
As we have all agreed tonight, Pakistan is at a crossroads. It needs all our support, not just the UK, the US, this House and others, but the international community more broadly. Above all, we must build on this democratic opening to build a kind of strong, accountable, legitimate Government who can steer Pakistan through the difficult months and years ahead. That is something that Pakistanis can only do for themselves but, to the extent that friends can help, the UK will be there for them.