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Jammu and Kashmir

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend Mr Mark Field in response to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“I understand that the Prime Minister made reference to this earlier during the course of Prime Minister’s Question Time. The UK is and remains deeply concerned about rising tensions between India and Pakistan. Understandably, there has been huge interest in this rapidly developing situation. This House will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail on reportage at this time as the situation evolves.

However, what we do understand is that, on 14 February, at least 40 paramilitary Indian police officers were killed in a suicide attack in India-administered Kashmir. The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, or JeM, claimed responsibility for that attack. India-Pakistan tensions, already at a high level, rose significantly following that attack, and both countries publicly exchanged heated rhetoric.

On Tuesday 26 February, Indian and Pakistan news reported that Indian jets had crossed the line of control between India and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. There have been further reports of ceasefire violations across the line of control overnight and the situation remains unclear but fast developing.

The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Indian and Pakistani counterparts on Monday to discuss the situation and we are in regular contact with both countries at senior levels to encourage restraint and to avoid escalating tensions further. We are monitoring developments closely and considering the implications for British nationals. I shall be speaking to both the Indian and Pakistani high commissioners this afternoon and I will continue to press the importance of restraint.

We urge both sides to engage in dialogue and to find diplomatic solutions to ensure regional stability. We are working closely with international partners, including through the United Nations Security Council, to de-escalate tensions.

India and Pakistan are both long-standing and important friends of the United Kingdom. We have many and significant links to both countries through sizeable diaspora communities. As a consequence, we enjoy strong bilateral relations with both nations. The UK Government’s position on Kashmir remains that it is, and must be, for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to the situation, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe, intervene or interfere with a solution or to act as mediator.

I know that the House has previously raised concerns about the humanitarian and human rights situation in both India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We continue to monitor the situation and encourage all states to ensure that their domestic standards are in line with international standards”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the response and for the Government’s efforts with Pakistan and India to cease all action that risks escalating the conflict. Mark Field said that we would work closely with international partners, including through the UN Security Council, to de-escalate tensions. Surely one action would be for the UN Security Council to formally designate Masood Azhar—the head of the group responsible for this terrorist atrocity—so that he can face the resulting sanctions and restrictions. Therefore, will she urge the Foreign Secretary to speak to his Chinese counterparts about lifting their inexplicable veto on that designation?

Our thoughts today must also be with the innocent people of Kashmir, who are literally caught in the middle of this crossfire and have been for the last 70 years. Can the Minister tell us how we are working with international partners to ensure that the UN is on the ground and able to investigate all human rights abuses?

I thank the noble Lord. I will turn to his last point first, if I may. Yes, we totally share his concern about the plight of the citizens within Kashmir. Our thoughts particularly are with the victims of the terrorist attack in Pulwama and their families.

The United Kingdom is conscious of the importance of the United Nations as a forum for influence and action. The UK continues to support the listing of Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1267. That organisation is already listed by the UN and has been proscribed in the UK since 2001. To our knowledge, Azhar remains the head of JeM. The noble Lord makes a very important point. We will continue to work closely with global partners, as we work closely on our bilateral relationships with the two countries to exercise restraint and to try to ensure that a safer environment can be created in Kashmir.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question on this extremely challenging development in the region. Did she hear a commentator on the “Today” programme this morning regretting a lack of leadership in the world when conflicts such as this arise? He said that that was, from the Americans, because of Trump and, from the UK, because of Brexit. Does she agree? If not, what specific action is the UK taking in the UN and elsewhere to seek a peaceful resolution to this conflict, especially to its underlying causes?

Sadly, the conflict in Kashmir long predates Brexit. The noble Baroness will be aware that the United Kingdom has, with global partners, been working tirelessly and doing everything it can to urge restraint and to encourage both sides to avoid escalation and discuss constructively a political resolution to this situation. The United Kingdom has demonstrated, both in its diplomatic activity and in the high-level contact between the Foreign Secretary and his counter- parts in India and Pakistan, that it is an influential bilateral partner. As I said in the initial response, Pakistan and India are good friends of the United Kingdom. We are deeply concerned about the escalating situation in Kashmir and are using all the influence we can, both bilaterally and in global fora, to try to improve it.

My Lords, I welcome the fact that my noble friend has set out so carefully the work that is being carried out by the international community to defuse the situation, with the UK playing a leading part, because the security situation there will be of great concern to the wider region. However, can the UK work through the Human Rights Council on a longer-term basis to help those who clearly find life extremely difficult in both parts of administered Kashmir? I understand that the Human Rights Council is sitting this week and it may be an appropriate time for it to consider the matter.

My noble friend makes a very pertinent comment. We recognise that there are deep human rights concerns in both India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Any allegations of human rights abuses are deeply concerning and must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. I am sure that her observation will be heard clearly.

Kashmir is a large and beautiful state, which in normal circumstances could get by and do well on tourism alone. Unfortunately, as has been mentioned, it has been caught in this crossfire between India and Pakistan. Should we not encourage both states—Pakistan and India—to move towards recognising near autonomy for Kashmir, with important trading and cultural links between both countries?

That is an important observation. Both countries have much to gain from a more peaceful environment in Kashmir and both have much to lose if that peace is disrupted. As a Government, we have made it clear that we regard it to be the responsibility of both India and Pakistan to resolve this situation politically and, in doing so, to take into account the wishes of the people of Kashmir. However, both countries will recognise that there are gains to be made if peace can be achieved.

My Lords, some 20 years ago, India and Pakistan came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear weapon exchange. As the CDI at the time, I was shocked to discover that a lot of opinion-makers and decision-makers on both sides felt that it was quite practical to have a nuclear war and to use nuclear weapons for war fighting. There was no understanding of nuclear deterrent theory and absolutely no understanding of the fallout patterns for the targets that both sides had selected, and we embarked on a major programme of trying to teach those things. Has that continued and have we resolved those issues within both countries? There is absolutely no doubt that nuclear weapons are not war-fighting weapons.

I cannot answer that specific question, as I do not have that information in my brief. However, I undertake to investigate and shall write to the noble Lord. He refers to 20 years ago, since when I think that there has been a far greater global awareness of the huge significance of nuclear weapons. Although this country and others, as participators, support multilateral nuclear disarmament, there is clearly still a place for a nuclear deterrent in current times. However, he makes an interesting point and I shall investigate it.

My Lords, I welcome the comments of the Foreign Secretary this morning asking for both sides to de-escalate. I would like to put two matters on record and ask my noble friend to comment on them. Are the Government familiar with the comments made by Prime Minister Imran Khan, with his clear and unequivocal condemnation of the attack in Pulwama; his open and unconditional offer to assist India in every way in relation to that investigation; and his consistent hand of friendship and diplomacy in this matter? I am sure that the House is familiar with the fact that there was a 10-year boycott of Narendra Modi because of his association with religious violence—violence that took the lives of British citizens who lived in Dewsbury and Batley, where I was born and raised. Therefore I encourage the Government to speak to Prime Minister Modi and ask him to put the interests of the Indian people—most significantly, personnel within the Indian Air Force—over and above his personal political interest, given the forthcoming elections.

What I would say to my noble friend is that this will require wisdom and reflection by both countries. We have India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Any gestures by statesmen in either country that facilitate dialogue, investigation and exploration of how life can be made more peaceful and the risk of escalation of violence can be avoided is to be commended.

My Lords, the Minister says that the dialogue between India and Pakistan is the way to resolve this conflict. How would she suggest that India is brought to the table, in the absence of international pressure?

Speaking for the United Kingdom Government, they have been very proactive in engaging with both India and Pakistan. As I said, on Monday the Foreign Secretary communicated by telephone with both his counterparts. On a bilateral level, we are certainly deploying every diplomatic measure available to us to encourage both countries to speak to each other and try to investigate, explore and—it is hoped—bring to fruition the necessary political resolution that is the only way to deal with this situation.