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Balochistan: Human Rights

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered human rights in Balochistan, Pakistan.

This debate is about the human rights abuses in Balochistan. We have had a discussion already, before the debate started, about the pronunciation, and I am sure that those constituents attending the debate will advise us. I apologise if we have, collectively, got the pronunciation wrong today.

I will briefly give some background for those who are listening or want to read the record of the debate later and are not familiar with the area. Balochistan is situated at the eastern extremity of the Iranian plateau and is currently divided nearly equally between Pakistan’s Balochistan province and Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. Additionally, certain parts of Afghanistan’s Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces historically belong to the Balochistan region.

The strategic significance of Balochistan, both geopolitically and geostrategically, has often placed it at the forefront of major global events, and its location offers the potential to provide access to the energy-rich regions of central Asia, making it vital to the whole south Asian area. I will briefly give its history. The name “Balochistan” is drawn from the Baloch people, who have been its inhabitants for centuries and who predominantly speak the Balochi and Brahui languages. In antiquity, the region found itself part of the Persian empire. The foundations of the modern Baloch state can be traced back to the 17th century when Mir Ahmed Khan established the khanate.

The Kalat state, characterised as a princely state, persisted until the British invaded in 1839. Kalat became an associated state of the British, and by 1877 the establishment of the Balochistan Agency signalled direct British rule over the northern half of Balochistan, including Quetta, the capital. With the British departure from the subcontinent, Balochistan was briefly declared an independent nation on 11 August 1947. Although Pakistan’s founding leader, Jinnah, had supported an independent Balochistan, he underwent a change of view and perspective, and the Pakistan army invaded and forced the accession of Balochistan into Pakistan.

Since then—we have debated this over a number of years—there has been a saga of struggles for independence, marked by persistent resistance and repeated insurgencies. The trigger for the renewed phase was the murder of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a prominent Baloch leader, in 2006. That event sparked widespread unrest, leading to growing momentum for the Baloch independence movement.

The campaign for self-determination has been fuelled, I have to say, by the suppression by the Pakistani state of Baloch culture and language. Balochistan’s rich cultural heritage is woven into the fabric of its society and reflects its history, traditions and way of life. The Baloch people, with their distinct cultural identity, have maintained their unique traditions and customs over centuries. However, the vitality of their culture faces significant challenges, due particularly to the suppression of their language. The Baloch people speak the Balochi and Brahui languages, both of which are integral to their cultural identity. Despite the importance of those languages in preserving Baloch culture, they have faced marginalisation and neglect by official institutions. In Pakistan-occupied Balochistan, the Balochi and Brahui languages are not recognised as official languages, despite being the mother tongues of the local population. Education in those languages is limited, and their use in the media and official communication is minimal. That undermines the Baloch people’s ability to express themselves and, yes, maintain their cultural identity.

There are also concerns about the hard facts of what is described as dispossession. Balochistan’s vast natural resources—natural gas and minerals—have made it a region of strategic importance, yet its inhabitants face significant economic challenges, including extensive poverty. The exploitation of the province’s resources has not translated into prosperity for the local population. Despite the abundance of those resources, Balochistan remains one of the poorest areas in the region, which feeds discontent and uncertainty about the future for many people.

In addition, in recent years, the imposition of major development projects without the consultation or consent of the Baloch people has led to widespread discontent and feelings of dispossession. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or the CPEC, is a flagship project that has raised concerns about the potential displacement of local communities and about the lack of transparency on the distribution of the benefits of these projects.

I thank the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for bringing us this debate; I congratulate him for always bringing us important issues. I would go a stage further than the right hon. Gentleman. We have all heard of the historic march of the Baloch women to demand an end to the practice of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial murders, military operations and state brutality against the Balochs in Balochistan by the Pakistan army. These shocking atrocities must immediately be stopped. Does the right hon. Member agree that we need to use every possible diplomatic tactic to highlight the fact that respect for women must be a priority right and that it should not dismissed as a western ideal?

I absolutely concur with the sentiment of that intervention and am grateful for it. Let me move on to that issue of human rights now that it has been raised. We must recognise that the situation in Balochistan is marked by severe human rights violations that demand the attention of this Parliament and the international community. Evidence of systematic abuses and disregard for human rights is mounting. A number of human rights organisations that all of us have worked with over the years, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented and condemned the widespread abuses taking place in the region. They have also highlighted the impunity enjoyed by the security forces responsible for these violations, and they have called for accountability.

The hon. Gentleman made reference to this: one of the most alarming aspects of the situation is the frequency of abductions and enforced disappearances. Activists, intellectuals, students, lawyers, journalists and other individuals have been subjected to what can only be described as horrific practices, which are often carried out by the Pakistani security forces. These individuals are often taken without any due process, held incommunicado and subjected to torture. Tragically, many of the victims that have been forcibly disappeared are later found dead, their bodies bearing signs of torture. This brutality—what is described as the “kill and dump” policy—has left families shattered and communities traumatised. It has created an atmosphere of fear and silence in many areas.

The other aspect of human rights is freedom of expression and assembly, and they have also been severely curtailed. Journalists face violence, censorship and threats, which inhibits their ability to report on issues affecting the province. People are denied the space to peacefully assemble and express their grievances. Recently, a historic and powerful long march was led from the capital of Quetta to Islamabad by Baloch women, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. That purpose of that march was to demand an end to the practice of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial murders and the state brutality of the Pakistan army. The marchers faced violence by the state authorities and were abused and arrested after reaching Islamabad. During a 32-day sit-in to demand that those who had been forcibly abducted were produced in courts, the marchers, mainly women and children, faced threats, intimidation and harassment on a daily basis. They were forced to return to Quetta after this level of intimidation and harassment from state agencies, and now the families who participated in the march are receiving threats and cases are being registered against them. Dr Mahrang Baloch, who led the march, is receiving serious death threats and her life is in danger. There has been a recent increase in enforced disappearances—in fact, the tragedy is that enforced disappearances of Baloch political activists, students and teachers has almost become the norm now. Dead bodies of the forcibly abducted are constantly being found as a result of these extrajudicial murders.

I would like to echo my right hon. Friend’s admiration for the courage of the women leading the long march to Islamabad from across Balochistan, raising awareness of human rights abuses in the region. Does he also share my grave concerns about Pakistan’s treatment of Afghan refugees who have fled to the country? There are reports that Pakistani authorities have subjected them to arbitrary arrest, detention, harassment and ill-treatment. Will he join in calling on our Government to not just end the cruel treatment of refugees who come to Britain, but urge Pakistani authorities to end their inhumane treatment of Afghan refugees?

A pattern of impunity seems to have developed with regard to the Pakistan security and state forces, which is reflected in what is happening in Balochistan and what is happening to Afghan refugees in particular. Many of us have constituents whose families are still facing severe intimidation in Pakistan, although they have fled from Afghanistan, and are now being forced back across the border, putting their lives at risk. There is a real issue here. I know the Government have taken up these issues, and we need to ensure that we maintain those representations on the Pakistan authority. The political instability within Pakistan over the recent elections does not help. The point made by my hon. Friend is extremely valid.

As I said, it is now a regular occurrence for the dead bodies of those forcibly abducted to be dumped as part of the “kill and dump” policy. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary to raise my concerns about the wave of recent human rights abuses, and I am grateful to Lord Ahmad, the Minister of State, for his positive response expressing the Government’s concerns and the serious representations the Government have made to the Pakistan authorities. His letter was extremely helpful and deserves wider publicity. He has made it absolutely clear that he has discussed the need to uphold human rights in meetings with the caretaker Foreign Minister in Pakistan, and he has raised the issue of the enforced disappearances directly as well. We hope that the Pakistan authorities are listening, but unfortunately, to date, despite the strength of our representations, the pattern of behaviour goes on.

The Baloch diaspora, human rights organisations and activists across the globe in many countries have called for independent investigations into the human rights abuses and the holding to account of those found responsible. Despite the challenges and risks, Baloch activists have taken to various platforms to raise awareness of their cause. They have used social media, international conferences, and dialogue with human rights organisations, and worked assiduously to shed light on the situation as it now is. The goal is to garner international attention, support and solidarity to press for their demands. That is what this debate is about.

The demands are straightforward: an end to the military operations, emphasising the need for a peaceful resolution of disputes as they now are; human rights protection and an end to human rights abuses, particularly enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings; resource rights for the Baloch people to gain the benefits from their natural resources of natural gas, minerals and their strategic location; and cultural preservation and the protection of culture, language and heritage, which are integral to the Baloch identity. The demand for freedom has also risen again—the movement that seeks complete independence of Balochistan from all occupying powers. The Baloch people aspire to participate in governance and policymaking and determination of their own destiny. The vision for Balochistan’s future that many hold to is one of a community that is empowered, prosperous and resilient, but founded on the principles of justice, human rights and the realisation of the Baloch people’s long-awaited aspirations for self-determination.

However, those are the objectives. The immediate issue is the deterioration of the situation in Balochistan, which demands immediate attention from our Government and other Governments across the globe. The plight of the Baloch people cannot be overlooked any longer. We therefore need concerted efforts to address their grievances.

I am pleased with the Government’s actions so far, and I would like to briefly raise a number of other issues with the Minister. On bilateral aid and development projects, how is the UK’s foreign aid to Pakistan being utilised, especially in the promotion of human rights and democracy? Can we make sure that safeguards are in place to ensure that aid does not indirectly support or enable human rights abuses? Given the recent marches and protests against the disappearances in Balochistan, what further steps can the UK Government and Parliament take to ensure the safety and rights of the protesters and march participants? Could the Government exert further pressure on the Pakistani authorities to respect the rights to peacefully assemble and to expression, and to respond to the demands of the marchers with dialogue rather than crackdowns?

On international collaboration for human rights monitoring, will the UK Government work with international partners and organisations to monitor human rights in Pakistan more effectively? Maybe the UK Government could take a role in co-ordinating the application of international pressure to ensure accountability for human rights violations. What measures can the UK Government take to support civil society organisations and human rights defenders in Pakistan, and how can their safety and freedom of operation be ensured?

How do UK-Pakistan trade policies consider human rights issues? Should trade agreements include clauses that promote human rights and require regular assessments of the human rights situation, particularly when we have seen perpetrators like Pakistan ignore many of the basic foundations of international law? How can we support international human rights bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Council, to investigate and address human rights abuses in Balochistan? Could the UK advocate for a special session or resolution focusing on Balochistan?

Finally, on the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, could we look at how asylum policies are being applied to those coming from Balochistan, who are in fear of their lives? On that basis, can we also look at the ways in which we can co-operate with others on security matters with regard to the protection of human rights, particularly of those people fleeing to come here?

I hope the debate will be the start of an ongoing dialogue to secure the human rights of the people of Balochistan. I thank the Government for their work so far. I think the concerns I have raised are shared by the Government and by all political parties across the House. The issue for us now is how we move forward to have effective influence on the Pakistani Government to ensure that the freedoms of the Balochi people are protected.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for this important debate and his focus on raising awareness of the challenges faced by the people of Balochistan. As he said, the Minister of State for South Asia, Lord Ahmad, is unable to take part in the debate, so I am happy to respond on behalf of the Government, noting the right hon. Member’s questions. There are some to which I may not be able to provide a detailed answer today, but I will ensure that Lord Ahmad does so.

Specifically on the question of aid, we have a rolling programme—the AAWAZ II programme—that brings together influential community and faith leaders and minority representatives to work on resolving local issues and to change behaviours. The programme works with the Government to try to improve protection and justice services for victims of gender-based violence. In particular, the focus on women and girls’ rights and gender equality in Pakistan is at the centre of that ongoing programme, which has so far reached over 24 million people.

I will start with a few words on Pakistan. Of course, the UK and Pakistan enjoy a close and long-standing relationship, underpinned by strong links between our people. Less than two weeks ago, the people of Pakistan voted in long-awaited elections for both their national and provincial assemblies. The following day, on 9 February, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement in which he highlighted serious concerns about the fairness and the lack of inclusivity of those elections. He urged the authorities in Pakistan to uphold fundamental human rights, including free access to information and the rule of law. That includes the right to a fair trial, and to an independent and transparent judicial system.

Members will be aware that Pakistan is one of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s human rights priority countries due to our concerns over the challenges facing many of its citizens. As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington highlighted, disturbing practices, such as enforced disappearances, torture while in custody and extrajudicial killings, are reported across Pakistan. Many of those credible reports of human rights abuses come from Balochistan, which is the subject of this debate.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest and most sparsely populated province. While it is rich in natural resources, it also has the highest levels of illiteracy, malnutrition and infant mortality in Pakistan. The security situation is particularly challenging, and the FCDO advises against all travel to the province except for its southern coast, where we advise against all but essential travel. There are significant levels of instability and violence, including from separatist militia groups conducting terrorist acts, some in the name of Baloch independence from the Pakistani state.

The heightened terrorist threat was demonstrated recently when dozens of people were killed in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, in attacks the day before the elections that I mentioned. On election day itself, more than 20 explosions and rocket attacks were reported outside polling stations in the province, killing four and injuring over a dozen people. Many members of Pakistan’s armed forces and police have also lost their lives in Balochistan; my thoughts are with all those affected by those acts of violence. The reality is that that fragile security situation has hampered the UK’s diplomatic and development work in the region. I will try to address that in a little more detail.

The Pakistani military maintains a strong presence in Balochistan. The Government claim that they are taking necessary action against those using violence, but local and international human rights organisations, as set out by the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, allege that the Pakistani authorities are responsible for abuses, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. As colleagues have mentioned, the long march by an extraordinary group of Baloch women in December to Islamabad, where they participated in a sit-in protest seeking to draw attention to the situation in Balochistan, demanding justice and calling for the UN to deploy a fact-finding investigation into the region, was an extraordinary demonstration of the power of peaceful protest at its finest.

Of course, the issue is long standing. The delegation of the UN working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances visited Pakistan back in 2012. The report from that delegation of UN experts welcomed the Government’s will to tackle the issue, but noted that serious challenges remained. The UN working group at the time received over 1,000 allegations of enforced disappearances from within Pakistan between 1980 and 2019, with more than 700 people still missing. Pakistan has made some efforts to deal with enforced disappearances. In 2010, Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior set up a committee to investigate the reports, and the following year its supreme court launched a commission of inquiry into those cases so that law enforcement agencies could listen to the concerns of the families involved. Those were of course welcome steps, but we recognise that more than a decade has passed since the introduction of those initiatives and considerable issues still remain unresolved.

Let me be clear: the UK absolutely and strongly condemns any instances of extrajudicial killings or enforced disappearances, which have such a damaging and destructive impact on families, communities and the rule of law. We cannot allow those practices to continue unchecked, and we urge Pakistan to investigate fully allegations, prosecute those responsible and provide justice to victims. The UK regularly raises our human rights concerns with the Government of Pakistan, including in support of freedom of expression, the rights of minorities and women, and the importance of an independent and transparent judicial system.

Our high commissioner is in regular touch with the caretaker Minister for Human Rights, and our political counsellor recently met senior officials in the Ministry of Human Rights to discuss the issue of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Balochistan. The British high commission in Pakistan engages routinely with Baloch politicians based in Karachi and Islamabad to gain insights on the politics of the region and to help us to assess the security situation, and hopes to visit Quetta when the security situation allows.

Lord Ahmad raised the issue of enforced disappearances with the then Minister for Human Rights in June 2023, and he looks forward to meeting Pakistan’s new Minister in that role once the new Government are fully formed. In the meantime, we are continuing to work with our international partners, civil society and human rights defenders to raise those human rights issues with the Government of Pakistan. The security challenges and safety situation in Balochistan make supporting developing programmes there more difficult than in other parts of Pakistan, but of course some of our most important international development programmes in Pakistan support positive outcomes in Balochistan and elsewhere across the country.

Our educational initiatives in particular are helping to provide more robust data on education to improve the quality of schooling across Pakistan, including in Balochistan. In 2022, the UK Government provided humanitarian assistance in the form of emergency shelter, hygiene items and nutritional support in the province during the devastating floods.

I am grateful to the Minister for what she has said so far. Can I raise two points with her? One is the issue regarding the current safety of those who have protested, particularly Dr Mahrang Baloch, whose life, I believe, is under severe threat. What representations can we make to the Pakistan authorities to ensure her safety? It is too easy for the Pakistan authorities to accuse civil society organisations of being linked with, or of supporting, terrorists. The Pakistan Government do not seem to recognise civil society organisations as being able to peacefully express their views, and therefore, unfortunately, at times they react in the way they do—by branding every organisation with the same tag.

Secondly, Lord Ahmad has done good work, and I would very grateful if a number of us could meet him to talk through some of these issues, so that we can have an ongoing dialogue—particularly on monitoring what is happening at the moment, and the threat to individuals and organisations. That is ongoing, particularly because of instability within Pakistan itself.

I absolutely take the right hon. Gentleman’s important point on the question of Dr Mahrang Baloch’s current safety; I will pick that up with the team at the high commission and make sure he is updated. Sadly, it is not only with the Pakistani authorities that we see the inability to understand and respect the voices of civil society, their peaceful protests, and their willingness to share its concerns through peaceful means—and the constraining of those voices. I think we are all agreed that those countries that sit under the areas of concern that we highlight are often the ones that are simply not willing to understand or separate the two.

I have no doubt that I can commit Lord Ahmad to a meeting with the right hon. Gentleman and others in due course. Together they can discuss what we all agree is a continuing deep concern about the human rights abuses in Balochistan that have been highlighted today— in particular, the extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. I know that if Lord Ahmad were here, he would say the same. He is looking forward, as are the team in the high commission, to working with the new Government, as they take up their posts, across a range of shared interests, and to continuing to focus and engage on those human rights issues specifically.

To finish, I echo the Foreign Secretary’s recent statement where he set out his hope that the next Government of Pakistan will understand that they must be accountable to all the people that they serve, and indeed

“work to represent the interests of all Pakistan’s citizens and communities with equity and justice.”

Question put and agreed to.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.