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Central Asia

Volume 746: debated on Monday 24 June 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential for instability in Central Asia.

My Lords, in drawing attention to my non-conflicting interests as listed in the register, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the UK is keen to work with the Governments of central Asia to promote a stable region. We do, however, assess that there are a number of challenges to stability in central Asia, in particular transnational threats, including those from Afghanistan, inter-regional issues such as ethnic tensions, and bilateral disputes. We are working with central Asian Governments on a number of initiatives funded by the tri-departmental Conflict Pool to help them meet these challenges, and we continue to monitor progress.

My Lords, I thank the Minister. She appears to agree that security and stability in the strategic geopolitical priority region of central Asia, including Afghanistan, are paramount. However, trans-boundary upstream/downstream water issues and disputes, industrial pollution, population demographics, drawing on limited resources, the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, an underlying trend of extremism, and hard drug transit along the northern routes supplying the northern and western markets, all compounded by areas of poverty and human rights concerns, are challenges and troubling indicators in this region of high potential—

I know that the noble Viscount comes to these matters with great expertise and knows the region incredibly well. The Government believe that to help the central Asian states, the best thing we can do is help to strengthen their political institutions to improve governance, increase accountability and support the rule of law. The noble Viscount has asked a wide-ranging question and I shall probably have to write to him in some detail in order to answer it fully. However, I can assure him that in opening our embassy in Bishkek in 2012, for example, we are now one of only three EU member states with embassies in all five of the central Asian states, and therefore we have the reach that will enable us to deal with some of these incredibly difficult issues.

My Lords, was not the message sent out by my noble friend during her tour of the region that we want to do business with them, and if that is what they are offering, we will not give them a hard time on human rights? Considering that both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are countries of concern to the FCO and that human rights abuses in all the central Asian republics are a prime cause of instability, could we address this imbalance? Will the Prime Minister take up human rights during his forthcoming visit to Kazakhstan?

The noble Lord raises an important point. As the Minister with responsibility for central Asia and human rights, I do not think it is a question of either/or. It is important that the economic foundations of these countries are strengthened. It is important that issues around poverty are dealt with and that civil society too is empowered to raise these challenges. In every country that I visited in central Asia, of course we discussed the potential opportunities for them and for us, but in every country human rights was right at the top of the agenda. As the noble Lord said, both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are countries of concern in our annual human rights report.

My Lords, to what extent does the Minister feel that the people of central Asia have benefited from our involvement there?

Central Asia is a wide region and I would have to take it country by country. A lot of the work that we have been doing in Kyrgyzstan on support for civil society means that there is an incredibly vibrant NGO sector there, and many in Turkmenistan are feeling the benefits of the work that we are doing on Turkmenistan’s economy. I have no doubt that the work we are doing in central Asia has a positive impact.

My Lords, the Minister obviously recognises that these countries of central Asia have great potential to do each other harm, but also potential to do each other good. Should the Government not encourage some form of sub-regional co-operation of the countries around Afghanistan, in which undertakings against interference were given and economic co-operation was given a boost?

The noble Lord may be aware that the Istanbul process, which involves the regions as well as other countries, deals with a number of confidence-building measures that are all about securing regional stability and involving central Asian states. The latest meeting took place in Almaty. We are involved in both the counternarcotics and counterterrorism parts of those confidence-building measures. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord that it is important that countries in the region work together on regional stability, but it is important that they work on other issues as well.

My Lords, probably the main country of concern in this region to the general public is Afghanistan and the withdrawal. Could my noble friend the Minister please outline how Her Majesty’s Government’s strategy across the whole region is going to assist stability in Afghanistan?

My noble friend asks a very important question. These countries are going to be the first to suffer any consequences of what might happen in Afghanistan in the coming years. They are already feeling the effects, for example, of extremism. We are working with a number of countries, both on cross-border support so that they can secure their borders and in wider work on extremism. A number of these countries have also played a vital role in our securing a northern line of communication and a drawdown route when our combat troops return at the end of 2014.

My Lords, can the Minister elaborate on what is being done and what assistance is required to curb the transit of drugs from Afghanistan through central Asian corridors into overseas markets?

As well as being the northern line of communication, it is also the northern route, tragically, for drug trafficking and crime. A large amount of those drugs end up in Russia, but we feel the consequences of these drugs on our own streets. We are working with a number of the central Asian countries to improve border security through training, and there are Conflict Pool-funded projects, for example to train Uzbek customs officers to secure borders in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. As I said earlier, we are specifically involved in the counternarcotics element of the Istanbul process. We also have representatives from SOCA who are in the region supporting our work.

My Lords, as a sailor, I see their greatest deprivation of course as not being adjacent to a lovely ocean. Clearly there are a huge number of weapons now in that region, particularly because of what has happened in Afghanistan. Are the Government content that we, as well as NATO, have taken the requisite actions to ensure that we do not add to the huge amount of weaponry within that region?

We are incredibly cautious. The noble Lord will be aware that we have to overcome a number of hurdles before we are comfortable with supplying any sort of arms to any country. I am confident, from the work that I have been involved in with specific countries, that the items that have been given, gifted or sold absolutely will not add to the instability and security situation in those countries.