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Volume 787: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they will take to support political stability and peaceful development in Nepal following the general election in that country.

My Lords, the completion of local, provincial and federal elections this year will be a landmark moment for Nepal, and it represents an important step in effective implementation of the constitution of 2015. I understand that turnout levels have been encouraging. The UK Government will work closely with the newly elected Nepali Government, as we have previously, to secure a lasting political settlement. This is a vital basis for future political stability and sustainable economic growth that will benefit the Nepali people.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her encouraging reply, especially regarding the election. She will know that Nepal is at last emerging from many years of conflict. It has had emergencies, political confusion and new Governments every year, for 26 out of 27 years. Will the Government therefore now stand by their 200 year-old friendship with Nepal and help that country towards national reconciliation, because many people have recent memories of the civil war? Will they help its people towards human rights, poverty eradication, political stability and the economic progress denied them for so long?

I think there will be agreement across the Chamber with the noble Earl’s sentiments. One of the constructive ways in which the UK Government are helping is of course through DfID. The DfID Nepal office invested £96 million during 2016-17 and will have a budget of £92 million for this year. As the noble Earl will perhaps be aware, that office works across three broad themes: harnessing opportunities for transformational change; delivering immediate benefits for poor people; and safeguarding Nepal from future shocks and stresses by helping with reconstruction and climate change issues. That goes a long way towards helping at grass-roots level with the very issues that rightly concern the noble Earl. He mentioned the important matter of reconciliation. There is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by the Government of Nepal, which we applaud. We support its objectives and hope that, when it finally reports, its report will be published.

My Lords, I very much welcome the noble Baroness’s response and her mentioning of DfID’s programmes. DfID’s programme for governance support has been critical in ensuring that the elections take place, or have taken place, relatively violence free. But there have been reports of violence, particularly in the Terai region, including pre-election violence and human rights violations. Can the noble Baroness tell us whether the Government are concerned about these reports, and whether she will step up the programme of governance support through DfID to ensure that there is a sustainable democracy in Nepal?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for raising a very important point. Yes, we are concerned at the continued election-related violence, including the use of improvised explosive devices. The UK has issued a statement condemning the attacks and calling on all parties to mutually respect the freedom of peaceful expression and assembly, as laid out in Nepal’s laws and constitution. We also call on the security forces to comply with existing national and international standards when carrying out their duties. On the broader issue of human rights, the United Kingdom Government have been very prominent in urging Nepal to respect the need for a properly managed regime of human rights, and for tangible evidence that those are not only respected but implemented.

My Lords, the 2015 constitution was welcome in every regard, except the provisions relating to freedom of religion or belief which, as my noble friend may be aware, were built upon in October by a law being passed that criminalises blasphemy in similar language to the laws in Pakistan and criminalises attempts to convert somebody. Will the Minister please outline what representations we have made to the Nepalese Government to ensure that religious minorities—Christians and Muslims, who are under increasing pressure—get to share in the development and prosperity that we are all hoping for for Nepal, particularly bearing in mind that the UK Government have invested £1 billion in a hydro-electric project in Nepal? I am sure our Christian and Muslim populations would be keen to see that everyone benefits from that investment.

I thank my noble friend for her question. She raises an important issue and one that has invited considerable comment. During the drafting of the Criminal Code Bill 2014, to which my noble friend referred, our officials in Nepal met the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs to discuss the Bill and raise the need for compliance with international human rights standards, which include ensuring the protection of the right to change religion. The Minister for Asia, my right honourable friend Mr Mark Field, raised this matter with the Nepalese ambassador to London on 9 October 2017, and the British ambassador to Nepal raised it with the Nepalese Prime Minister on 16 October 2017.

My Lords, more than 2 million Nepalese work outside the boundary of Nepal, maybe even more because of the porous boundary of the country. Many of these people send remittances home to alleviate their family’s poverty. The conditions under which these people are employed, particularly in Gulf countries, are very deplorable. What discussions have the Government had with those countries to ensure that the basic human rights of these workers are protected?

The noble Lord raises an important point. Nepal is an independent, modern, free-standing democracy, as manifest by the recent and ongoing elections, and it is for Nepal to determine what it wishes to do in relation to its citizens who may be resident in other countries. The UK has always been vocal in urging respect for human rights, and we have been vigilant in condemning breaches of human rights wherever we have thought them to be occurring. The other aspect of the question raised by the noble Lord is in relation to the economy of Nepal, which is greatly dependent on remittances from its citizens coming back to the country. There is a desire to see the indigenous economy in Nepal broaden and grow. My noble friend Lady Berridge referred to hydropower, and that is certainly one of the untapped potential areas for development. The recent Arun III mega hydro project, which is shortly to start construction, is a very welcome indication of what is possible.