Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the relationship between their aid programmes and human rights and the treatment of minorities in Pakistan, and in particular the case of Asia Bibi.
My Lords, Pakistan’s illustrious and enlightened founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, crafted a constitution which promised to uphold plurality, famously saying:
“You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State”
“Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed”.
Tragically, 70 years later, Pakistan’s Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and minorities, such as the last 4,000 remaining Kalash clinging to a precarious existence in three remote valleys, all face shocking persecution and discrimination.
Last week in Brussels, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, claimed that “individual incidents” of persecution were being whipped up by what he called “western interests”. He said they were comparable to knife crime in London. Try telling that to the two children forced to watch a lynch mob of 1,200 burn their parents alive. Pakistan fails the Jinnah test, not western interests, when no one is brought to justice for the murder of the Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti. It fails the Jinnah test when 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls are forcibly married and converted. It fails when, in Punjab, Sadaf Masih, a 13 year-old girl, is kidnapped, forcibly converted and married and when, in Sindh, the same thing happened to two Hindu girls. It fails when it ignores the National Action Plan’s requirement to stop anti-Ahmadi sectarian hate propaganda. It fails the Jinnah test when children from minorities are forced to work in brick kilns, workshops, and factories. It fails when Iqbal Masih, an incredibly brave 12 year-old Christian boy, is shot dead for rebelling against enslavement. It fails those minorities who are ghettoised into squalid colonies and forced to clean latrines and sweep streets and, notwithstanding Mr Qureshi’s assertion that “there is no truth” in stories of girls from minorities being sold in faith-led trafficking to Chinese gangs, saying that Pakistan “would never tolerate that”, we have evidence to the contrary.
I co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pakistan Minorities and last autumn, with the co-chair, Jim Shannon MP, and Marie Rimmer MP, we heard horrific accounts of abductions, child marriages, rape and forced conversions and saw first-hand the appalling conditions in the apartheid-style “colonies” where many from the minorities are forced to live. We saw families living in hovels with dirt floors, in shacks without running water or electricity, with little education or health provision and in squalid and primitive conditions, all completely off the DfID radar. Thousands upon thousands of people are condemned to lives of destitution and misery. This left-over from the caste system is graphically illustrated by the case of a boy beaten and excluded from school for touching a water tap. Untouchability remains a curse.
As I asked on Saturday in a letter to the Foreign Secretary, if Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge are to visit Pakistan, will they be visiting one of these colonies and meeting the minorities? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.
There is an old Punjabi saying that he who has not visited Lahore has not lived but, despite its Mogul glories, this is where, in 2016, 75 people, mainly women and children, were killed and more than 340 were injured while celebrating Easter in Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park.
Beyond the killings, everything is stacked against the minorities. Take the case of Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian woman who was incarcerated for nine years, sentenced to death for so-called blasphemy. In Islamabad, members of the Supreme Court promised our group that Asia Bibi’s case would finally go to appeal, and to their great credit they bravely defied rioters and lynch mobs. She was finally allowed to travel to Canada, although sadly the UK failed to take her. Do not underestimate the bravery of those judges. When Shahbaz Bhatti and his friend Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of the Punjab, spoke up for Asia Bibi and called for reforms to the blasphemy laws, both men were murdered. Conversely, Mumtaz Qadri, who murdered Taseer, has been lionised and idolised as a hero.
Asia’s case is only one of many. Asia’s cell in the prison at Multan is already occupied by Shagufta Kauser, another illiterate Christian woman. She and her disabled husband, both unable to read or write, face execution for allegedly sending blasphemous texts in English. By some estimates, more than 70 people are currently on death row for alleged blasphemy crimes. What recent representations have we made about Shagufta Kauser and the need to reform laws that frequently target minorities?
In 2016, after seeing fleeing Christians and Ahmadis caged like animals in detention centres, which my noble friend Lady Cox has also visited, I chaired an inquiry on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, who is here today. Our report catalogued systematic persecution and the failure of Home Office country guidance to recognise the nature of this persecution. We concluded that,
“we need to dispense with the fiction that the … minorities are treated fairly and justly. There is outright persecution and we should not hesitate in saying so”.
Following the Sri Lanka Easter bombings, some of those escapees now face even greater danger. In 2016 we recommended that Home Office interviewers, caseworkers and presenting officers needed better training in understanding that persecution. The report also urged DfID to ensure that overseas aid is provided in Pakistan only to recipients able to demonstrate their commitment to upholding Pakistan’s international human rights obligations, not least Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to believe, not to believe, or to change your belief.
Over the past decade, £2.6 billion of British aid has poured into Pakistan—on average, that is £383,000 every single day—but failure to differentiate how and where we spend that money leads DfID to say that it has no idea how much of the aid reaches these destitute, desperate minorities. Disturbingly, last week the National Audit Office, after highlighting an example from Pakistan, said that,
“overall government is not in a position to be confident that the portfolio in its totality is securing value for money”.
I welcome the decision last week of the International Development Committee of the House of Commons to conduct an inquiry into British aid to Pakistan. It should also look at the work of Professor Brian Grim on 173 countries, which found that where minorities are respected and religious freedom upheld, that,
“contributes to better economic and business outcomes”,
“successful and sustainable enterprises that benefit societies and individuals”.
I hope that new Ministers in the department will reassess how DfID spends UK money, why it does not target beleaguered minorities and why it is not made conditional on the removal of hate material from school textbooks and discriminatory adverts reserving menial jobs for minorities. I hope they will insist that the provision of an affirmative action programme, endorsed by the constitution, is implemented.
Pakistan must challenge forced conversions, forced marriage and the prevailing culture of impunity. I took evidence from a man who had escaped from Pakistan who had seen another man and his family burned alive. That man went to the police, who in turn informed the assailants, having told him that he would be next. He and his young family fled the country.
Our all-party group has also been told of widespread and systematic police brutality and torture. We were told about the beatings of victims who were hung by their arms or feet for hours on end, forced to witness the torture of others and, in some cases, stripped naked and paraded in public. Such brutal treatment needs to be investigated by an independent, autonomous national commission for minorities such as that proposed by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2014 and established in accordance with the Paris principles.
When the Minister replies to our welcome debate, I hope that we will hear how our Government will work to make these things happen and to create the kind of society envisaged by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, where Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities are at last treated with respect as equals and fellow citizens. I thank all noble Lords who are participating in today’s short but welcome debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for bringing this important debate before us today and for his dedication to bringing injustices across the world before your Lordships’ House.
At the heart of all we do as part of our important role as an international aid superpower must be constant self-evaluation to ensure that our aid programmes are achieving results in the context of each state that we help. At the same time, we must be aware of the important soft power that international aid allows us in improving lives for everyone in any state we help, including minorities. How to ensure that aid is concentrated on those who really need it in any state is a significant debate within the international aid community. This applies especially to minorities, who are often among the most marginalised in any society.
I do not want to repeat in this short contribution the powerful evidence that we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and, as has been identified by the Foreign Office, that Pakistan is currently woeful in its treatment of minorities. From state-sponsored blasphemy laws to the death penalty, we see how a state creates an easy mechanism for the persecution of religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus.
In Pakistan, most of these minorities are among the third of the population who live in poverty and who should be the very people benefiting from our aid programmes. At the same time, Pakistan is of course an important strategic partner for the UK and a state that receives significant support in aid—more than £300 million in 2019-20. The reassurances that I seek from the Minister are around the direction of that aid.
I applaud the focusing of UK international development on education, especially for girls in Pakistan, to ensure they have as many opportunities as possible. I hope that an educated population would by its nature become more pluralistic and less susceptible to the persecution of minorities in these difficult times. I want to ask the Minister about three specific issues.
First, is my noble friend confident that aid in Pakistan is reaching those minorities within the bottom third who live in poverty? It is essential that any aid be focused on need and not on ethnicity or religion. Secondly, can she reassure me that educational programmes that the UK supports in Pakistan are assessed to ensure that they do not allow bigotry or sectarianism to be taught in any UK-funded educational programme? Thirdly, will she impress on her colleagues in the Foreign Office the need to ensure that we make all possible representations against the misuse of blasphemy laws and the retention of the death penalty?
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to whom I pay great tribute for securing this debate, I believe that there was a strong case for Asia Bibi and her household to have been offered asylum by Her Majesty's Government. In my contact with the family spokesperson, he was clear that the UK was their preferred destination.
I am troubled by how parliamentarians can hold the Government to account in cases such as this when we are told that live cases are not open to discussion. That sense of dis-ease is reinforced by the absence of evidence of diplomatic activity in the Asia Bibi case before it became an international news story.
Last week, I was speaking to a bishop from south Punjab, who said, “There are many Asia Bibis here”. There are many, too, in interior Sindh who suffer similar plights but do so hidden from the world’s media and Governments, their cases not reported. He described the spectre of blasphemy charges hanging over Hindu and Christian families who speak out against injustice or crime. He spoke of Christian girls being abducted into sexual slavery—in a way which we have already heard about—and then forced to convert, their families powerless to defend them because of the threat of the abuse of blasphemy laws.
The bishop’s deepest concerns—and it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord McInnes—were about the effective denial of education for many children from religious minorities, causing them to descend deeper into permanent spirals of poverty and depression. His account was a graphic illustration of the findings of the 2018 CSW report, which tells of bias, discrimination and abuse undermining the constitutional commitments of the Pakistani Government regardless of religion or caste.
DfID is doing much good work in supporting the general aspirations of the Pakistani Government, but I am not yet persuaded that mechanisms are in place to ensure that our aid is addressing the concerns of the bishop and his people and the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, and the needs of other minority people in south Punjab. The ePact evaluation of phase 2 of the Punjab education sector programme deems:
“Inequities in educational access and attainment are persisting”.
It recommends both that equity of access, including socioeconomic status, disability and gender, are mainstreamed and that systems are devised for assessing the success in doing so. Will this advice be applied to future DfID programmes? Does the Minister agree that that task cannot be done without building in some element of minority community criteria? Is the current programme hitting the spot?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate. Pakistan is a big country with a population of 200 million people. Minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others constitute about 3.5% of the total population of the country. There are several hundred places of worship across Pakistan that belong to various religious minorities. Various articles in the constitution of Pakistan, such as Articles 20, 21, 22, 26, 27 and 28, accord rights to minorities as equal citizens of the country, free to profess their religions and visit their places of worship.
Minorities have visible representation in the parliamentary set-up of Pakistan. There are special reserved seats for minorities in all houses of representatives: four seats in the Pakistan Senate, 10 in the National Assembly, and eight in the Punjab, nine in the Sindh and three each in the Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies. On top of that, minorities are free to stand in any elections as citizens of Pakistan, and they do get elected.
It is important to mention here that there is a 5% jobs quota in the public sector in Pakistan allocated to the minority communities, which constitute only 3.5% of the total population of the country. Furthermore, 11 August is observed as Minorities Day. There is a special ministry at the federal level, called the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony, which looks after minorities’ rights in the country.
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan. It arouses sentiments among the general populace that have led to death and destruction in Pakistan, sadly. Many in Pakistan believe that their country’s blasphemy law is misunderstood, as if it protects only Muslims. In reality, however, it protects all Pakistanis equally. According to the official figures, the majority, 95%, of those accused under the blasphemy law are Muslims. The maximum penalty under the blasphemy law is death but, as I understand, no one has ever been executed by a court of law under this section. I stand to be corrected.
While I very much appreciate DfID’s support in education, reducing poverty, building resilience and many other important sectors in the poorest areas of Pakistan, will the Minister say what Her Majesty’s Government can do to help the democratic Government in Pakistan and support their endeavours to make the country more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for securing this important debate. As he emphasised, the brutal application of sharia law, in conjunction with the failure of the authorities to ensure due legal process, has resulted in horrendous violence. Blasphemy laws have been used by extremists as a pretext for murder. Young girls have been abducted and forced to change their religion or have been forced into marriage. Others are in prison or have been sentenced to death for apostasy.
Countless families have been forced to leave their homeland. For example, as my noble friend said, thousands of Christians have sought asylum in Thailand. They arrive in Bangkok on cheap tourist visas, but as soon as their visa expires they are technically classified as illegal aliens and are subject to arrest and detention in horrendous conditions. Given the plight of Pakistani refugees in Thailand, have Her Majesty’s Government raised concerns with UNHCR about the failure to resettle them in safe countries?
I had the painful privilege of meeting some of the families who had escaped to Bangkok. I sat and wept with those who have endured horrendous suffering. One man, called Cale, was accused of blasphemy in Pakistan. He described how he was arrested by the police and taken to a remote location where he was tortured, hanged upside down, shackled and beaten for seven days. After a month in prison he was cleared of the charges, yet the local mob wanted to kill him. He told me, “They want to punish me with a very painful death such as no one has ever seen before. They want to kill me in a way that the Christian community will always remember”.
I also met a courageous man called Hosea. He was kidnapped by a mob in Pakistan for being an apostate. The mob shackled him with metal chains and attempted to amputate his leg. He eventually escaped with his wife to Thailand, but his relatives in Pakistan are still in danger. He told me, weeping: “Even last week my brother and my 16 month-old nephew were taken captive. They grabbed the baby, repeatedly smashed him into a wall and demanded to know my whereabouts”.
These testimonies are indicative of the wider context of Pakistan’s serious violations of human rights, yet our abject refusal to insist that minorities are prioritised only reinforces Pakistan’s culture of impunity because it gives the impression that the UK does not care when victims are subjected to unspeakable violence. Where is British aid money being spent? Will Her Majesty’s Government specifically tackle the plight of minorities? That includes support for adherents of different religious faiths who suffer at the hands of extremists, including Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists as well as Christians.
On a related point, which was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, did Her Majesty’s Government refuse asylum to Asia Bibi because of fear that that would prompt unrest in the UK and attacks on embassies? If that is so, does the Minister agree that such an appeasement of militant extremism indicates a serious threat to our democracy and a betrayal of the fundamental principle of providing asylum for refugees under threat of death?
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton on securing this important debate, and pay tribute to the wonderful work that he does in the field of human rights.
When India was partitioned in 1947, as we have heard, the founding father of the new state of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, then terminally ill, said that it would be a country that respected all its minorities. He did not live to see his hope tragically ignored. A rigid and intolerant form of Islam, Wahhabism, funded by Saudi dollars, now pervades the country.
Strict blasphemy laws are used to prevent open discussion of religion, and the death penalty can apply to Muslims who try to convert to a different faith. As we have heard, a convert to Christianity, Asia Bibi, sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy, spent nine years on death row before eventually being allowed to flee to Canada. Others have not been so fortunate. In one case, children were made to watch as their parents were burnt alive in a brick kiln. Minorities are frequently allocated menial tasks such as the cleaning of public latrines. Homes of minorities are frequently attacked and women and girls kidnapped and converted or sold into slavery.
I have at times questioned the appropriateness of Pakistan, with its ill treatment of minorities, still being a member of the Commonwealth, a club of countries with historic ties to Britain. Members are required to abide by the Commonwealth charter, with core values of opposition to,
“all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”.
By any measure, there is a clear case for expelling Pakistan from the Commonwealth, but this will not help its suffering minorities and could make their plight worse. The way forward is to look beyond charters and lofty declarations to clear targets and measures of performance for all erring members—Pakistan is by no means the only one—to nudge them to respect human rights. We must also target aid to specific projects geared to fight religious bigotry and prejudice.
Pakistan is a country revered by every Sikh as the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. He taught reconciliation and respect between different faiths. In this, the 550th year of the Guru’s birth, the Prime Minister Imran Khan, in welcoming Sikhs to visit the birthplace of their founder, stated his desire to move in this direction, and we owe it to Pakistan’s minorities to redouble our efforts to help him and nudge him to do so.
My Lords, I was talking recently to a distinguished Pakistan citizen, with businesses around the world. I asked him what life was like in Pakistan at the moment. “Just like here”, he said. “Really” I said, “what about the blasphemy law, and the people suffering under it”? “Oh”, he said, with a rather dismissive wave of the hand, “It’s the uneducated people in the villages”. I am afraid it is all too easy for the elites, whether in Pakistan or this country, to live in an environment divorced from the reality of life for so many. The fact is that the blasphemy law in Pakistan is blighting the lives of countless people, causing apprehension, anxiety and in some cases imprisonment and death. Too many, like the government Minister mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, live in a cocooned world of their own and have shut their eyes to what is happening in the countryside.
As we know, Pakistan is a country with a number of minority groups. Between 0.22 and 2.2 percent of the population are Ahmadiyya Muslims, although they are actually forbidden by law from even describing themselves as Muslims. Some 2.6 percent of the population are Christian, about 2.5 million in all.
Between 1987 and 2017, 1,500 people or more were charged with blasphemy: 730 were Muslims, 501 were Ahmadis, 205 were Christians and 26 were Hindus. Although, as the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, said, no judicial executions have yet taken place, at least 75 people involved in accusations of blasphemy were murdered before their trials were over, and as we have heard, prominent figures who opposed the blasphemy law have been assassinated. It is this mob violence, so vividly brought home by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, which is so frightening. It affects not just the accused and their family but anyone who stands up for them, especially any lawyer or judge.
We rejoice that Asia Bidi is now safe and in Canada with her family, but we cannot forget the suffering that she had in the years before. We cannot forget that the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, who spoke against the blasphemy law, was assassinated as a result. We know that the blasphemy law is being used to settle grievances and vendettas in villages. We look to the elite in Pakistan to open their eyes to what is happening. It is quite wrong for successive Governments to refuse to stand up to religious extremism and intimidation. In negotiations about aid, we look to the British Government to make it quite clear that this law causes untold suffering and is totally unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will take from this debate a clear message that aid needs to be directed towards minorities.
My Lords, I accept and respect everyone, irrespective of race, colour, creed or caste; I have been brought up in a multiracial community. I have been concerned about the persecution of Christians and other minority groups in different parts of the world, including Pakistan. I have met Muslim and non-Muslim leaders and spoken on this issue at several meetings. I am looking forward to the Bishop of Truro’s final report. I am in touch with the Pakistani high commissioner, who has taken numerous initiatives towards promoting interfaith harmony.
The rights of minorities are protected under the constitution of Pakistan. Articles 33, 36 and 37 provide legal protection to minorities. The Pakistani Government have established legislative measures that promote and protect minorities’ rights. There is political will on the part of Pakistan’s Government to improve the position regarding the rights of minorities. As far as Christians are concerned, Islam considers them as people of the Book, and the Books of Allah include the Holy Koran, the Torah, the Gospel of Jesus and the Psalms of David. It would therefore be wrong to subject Christians to any discrimination.
The problem unfortunately is with certain religious and community leaders who are insular and have their own agenda. It is necessary therefore to change the culture and attitude of these people, and we need to support Pakistan in this regard. I met Dr Shoaib Suddle in the House of Lords following his appointment as the chair of a commission for minority religious equalities. He personally reached out and briefed me and other partners in the UK, earning our support for his proposed activities. He has a long-term programme of work, which will include implementing reforms for the freedom and protection of minorities in Pakistan. This will be consistent with words spoken by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in his speech on 11 August 1947:
“You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan ... We are all … equal citizens”,
as a nation in the state of Pakistan. I very much hope that this vision is now achieved.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate. Pakistan has the opportunity to be a great country, but presently its development is limited by an overpowerful military interfering in democracy and a lack of respect for the rule of law and human rights. This is most obvious in its treatment of minorities. As we have heard, 95% of the people are Muslim, and Pakistan has recently created a sense of exclusionary nationalism focused on a definition of Muslimness which has had a dire effect on the status of minority groups, as declared by Minority Rights Group International in 2018.
We have heard that Pakistan was founded on religious tolerance, but recent years have seen the problems of extremism and of minorities being persecuted increase significantly. On human trafficking, the Government said recently:
“The UK Government’s approach to tackling modern slavery … in Pakistan is to reduce the permissive environment through community-based activities and to strengthen legislative and policy frameworks for more effective”,
protection of those affected.
A reasonable question for the Minister is: against a background of worsening religious persecution, what confidence do the Government have that their anti-trafficking programmes can deliver value for money when the structures of the state seem to be undermining them? The Government insist that their aid programmes are blind to religion and are determined by need and need alone. This is for entirely understandable reasons, not least wishing to avoid giving preferential treatment to people of a particular religion, which could easily be viewed as discrimination, but the “need not creed” approach is failing Pakistani minorities. The most marginalised and persecuted groups are most commonly defined by their religion. In Pakistan, blindness to religion is hindering our ability to help. Consider the case of the more than 1,000 Pakistani Christian girls trafficked to China since 2018. The traffickers are specifically targeting Christians, even waiting outside churches with signs promising Chinese Christian husbands. This an example of faith-targeted human trafficking. The UK’s anti-trafficking programme is well established in Pakistan, but if it remains blind to religion it will be less effective as a result. I serve as a trustee of an anti-human trafficking charity, the Arise Foundation. It summarised the problem, that,
“prevention work is most effective when it addresses why people are at-risk. If our aid programmes remain blind to the fact that the faith of these girls is putting them at risk, how can they possibly be effective?”
So I put that question to the Minister today: what steps are being taken to incorporate religion as an indicator of vulnerability in Pakistan? No one wants our aid programme to discriminate unjustly, but if a misplaced sense of political correctness is preventing us from reaching these girls and others like them, I would argue that we need to change our mentality, fast.
I wonder about the apparent blind eye that is being turned. The Pakistan Foreign Minister said last week that there was no truth to the reports that I have just outlined, but I have had a report from a senior official in Pakistan who told me directly that the reports were credible and that 65 Chinese and 16 Pakistani nationals have been arrested already within the ongoing investigations. Can the UK confirm whether it believes the reports or finds that there is evidence for them? I think there is good evidence, as has been said, that we need to target our aid wisely and reset the dial for the strategy of suspending it.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate. According to DfID’s development tracker, almost one-third of Pakistan’s population, about 60 million people, live in poverty, 22.6 million children do not go to school and half the population cannot read or write. Moreover, Pakistan carries a high risk of natural disasters—2010 saw the worst floods in its history, killing thousands and affecting 23 million people—and it is a little-known fact that the country copes with the second highest number of refugees in the world.
Given its obvious need and our joint history, there can be little argument about the legitimacy of the aid that Pakistan receives, so long as it is properly audited and adheres to the overarching principle of the UN sustainable development goals that no one is left behind, and that includes vulnerable minorities. I hope the Minister will address the issues raised today.
There is one point about the treatment of minorities that I do not think has been mentioned yet: the prevalence of the problem on a regional level. India’s record is worsening year on year, such that in the world watch list by Open Doors it now ranks in 10th place and the BJP-led Government promote the message that to be Indian one must be Hindu. Myanmar is another case in point, where national Buddhists see any non-Buddhists as unwelcome outsiders, and that includes Muslims, Christians and Hindus. Add to that list Nepal, Bhutan and Turkey, all of whose leaders have found that appealing to national religious identity is a way to boost their power, especially in rural regions. What work are our Government doing on a regional level to promote interfaith understanding and tolerance, particularly in rural areas?
I want to be absolutely clear: I abhor the use of the death penalty wherever it is employed, and utterly condemn the misuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. But is there hope that change is coming? As ever, to enact change, leadership is essential, and the courage of the judges in upholding the acquittal of Asia Bibi is commendable. That took real courage, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has pointed out, given the fate of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, two brave politicians who spoke up on Asia Bibi’s behalf and were consequently murdered. Does the Minister believe that the new Government in Pakistan are indicating that they want to change the direction of travel and move away from extremism? If so, that is the vision of Pakistan that we must help to promulgate. It is a geopolitical necessity for us.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate. He set out clear evidence of discrimination and human rights abuses in Pakistan.
As we have heard, humanitarian and development support for its people is evident. One-third of them live in poverty, half the population cannot read or write and one in 11 children die before their fifth birthday. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us, Pakistan is the largest recipient of direct UK aid. Part of that ODA is channelled through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund CAPRI project, the stated aim of which is to increase Pakistan’s capacity to “investigate, detain and prosecute” suspected terrorists. In her letter to me of 13 June regarding my questions on this subject, the Minister wrote that all such projects have robust measures in place to protect human rights and that she was confident that the CAPRI programme has been delivered in a way that is consistent with the UK’s opposition to the death penalty. What are those robust measures? Will the noble Baroness explain exactly what they are tonight?
Last month, the annual review summary for the UK-funded rule of law programme in Pakistan revealed that the full report, which remains undisclosed, accepts that “human rights risks” are,
“a concern which we continue to stress”.
The Government have consistently said that they want UK aid to be more transparent. Will they demonstrate their commitment to this by publishing the full report for scrutiny by Parliament?
I conclude by repeating some of the remarks made by other noble Lords, particularly about the Asia Bibi case. We are all pleased that she has now safely relocated with her family to Canada but, as we have been reminded, there are 17 other cases that do not get the same publicity. What representations have we made to the Government of Pakistan in respect of each of those cases?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for tabling this debate, and join the tributes made to him for his work on Pakistan and human rights more widely. I also thank all noble Lords for contributing to this short debate. There has been lots to say and not very long to say it in. I share the concerns that all have expressed about minorities in Pakistan. Nobody should face discrimination because of their religion, let alone the examples we have heard tonight of trafficking, forced marriage, forced conversion or threatened or actual violence. Freedom of religious belief is a high priority for the Government’s work in Pakistan. We raise it regularly at the highest levels of government and support grassroots campaigning with our programmes. We continue to urge the Government of Pakistan to guarantee the rights of all people in Pakistan, particularly the most vulnerable, as laid down in the constitution, highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his opening speech.
We have heard much distressing testimony and evidence tonight, but there is some hope. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked about the new Government and whether they wanted to change direction. Prime Minister Khan has stated his desire for a more tolerant and pluralistic Pakistan. We welcome his commitments to improve transparency and inclusion. Some progress has been made to date on the passing of a new Child Marriage Restraint Act and the issuing of 3,000 visas to allow Indian Sikhs to make pilgrimage to Pakistan, but there is clearly more to be done, and we continue to support the Government to implement other commitments, including the creation of a commission on minorities, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the Christian divorce bill.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord McInnes, the noble and right reverend Lord Harries and many other noble Lords raised the blasphemy laws. We remain deeply concerned by the misuse of those laws, and that religious minorities, including Christians, are disproportionately affected. The harsh penalties for blasphemy, including the death sentence, add to these concerns. The long-term objective is to overturn these draconian laws, which are used not just against minority communities but against Muslims, as the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, highlighted. My noble friend Lord Ahmad raised our concerns about freedom of religion or belief, the blasphemy laws and the protection of minority religious communities with Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister in February 2019. The Foreign Secretary raised those concerns with Foreign Minister Qureshi during his recent visit. We will continue to urge Pakistan to strengthen the protection of minorities, to explain the steps being taken to tackle the abuse of the blasphemy laws and to honour in practice its human rights obligations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and others asked where in Pakistan aid, DfID money, is being spent and whether we are specifically targeting minorities of all faiths. We have a number of programmes which directly target and benefit minorities. Our new AAWAZ II programme will address a range of modern slavery issues, including child labour and forced or early marriage. Our first AAWAZ programme saw great success, holding community forums and peace festivals and supporting a national anti-hate speech campaign. That programme developed early response mechanisms to try to pre-empt some of the violent conflict we have seen and really work on interfaith and intrafaith conflicts and community dialogue.
In the first AAWAZ programme, we specifically developed and disseminated key messages on non-violence and tolerance in communities. We have also funded a survey on women’s well-being in Punjab, including Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, and trained nearly 6,000 people from minority groups through the Punjab Skills Development Fund. As I said, the new AAWAZ II programme is currently under development, and we will ensure that it definitely reaches the people who need it.
Several noble Lords raised the issue of data collection. It is the case that for our bilateral programmes we do not currently have a breakdown by religion. That is not because we do not see the issue of treatment of minorities as important; it is due to the sensitive nature of collecting data. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, highlighted this. There are a number of reasons for this lack of reliable data—sadly, people are reluctant to declare—but we are working proactively to improve this. We recently had some success in collecting more and better-quality data on people with disabilities in Pakistan. We learned from that and will build on it to focus our energy on collecting data from other vulnerable and minority groups. It will be challenging, but we have learned lessons which can be applied to other groups.
We are working very closely with a number of NGOs to help to target minorities, and I agree with the right reverend Prelate that we must do more to focus our programming on minorities. I talked about our AWAAZ programme. That funded four NGOs that work specifically with religious minorities: the South Asia Partnership, Aurat Foundation, the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, and Strengthening Participatory Organization. This made a vital contribution to the programme’s work to raise the voice of poor and excluded people in Pakistan, increase their choices and give them control. As I said, as we develop our successive programme, AWAAZ II, we are looking to identify NGO delivery partners to continue this vital work on inclusion.
I reassure my noble friend Lord McInnes that our development assistance really targets the poor, regardless of race, religion, social background or nationality. We know that those affected by discrimination are likely to be among the poorest. We know, and our NGO partners have confirmed, that our focus on the poorest and most marginalised ensures that we benefit minority groups.
We should not forget, as many noble Lords have said, that being in the religious majority does not prevent many millions of Pakistanis from suffering poverty and its consequences. As has been highlighted, almost a third of Pakistan’s population live in poverty. It is therefore right, and indeed in keeping with Christian values, that we should provide support to people in need, whatever their religious background.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, asked about the result of our aid. Since 2011, we have seen real success. UK aid has supported primary education for 10 million children, skills training for almost 250,000 people and microfinance loans for 6.6 million people. We cast a wide net, and justifiably so, but within that net we ensure that minorities receive our help.
My noble friend Lord McInnes asked about education. We have a strong programme of work on education within Pakistan. We have helped provincial governments to review primary curricula and textbooks in English, Urdu, mathematics and science. This has included a reduction in religious content, removal of discriminatory content and the inclusion of new content to promote knowledge, understanding and respect. We have also helped governments to set and implement systems and standards to help remove that discriminatory content. We have trained nearly 100,000 teachers in equity and inclusion and worked with civil society organisations to champion issues of inclusion, but that is a work in progress, and we will continue on that project.
The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked about the asylum offer for Asia Bibi. The UK Government’s primary concern has always been the safety and well-being of Asia Bibi. We were in close and extensive contact with a range of international partners to ensure a positive outcome, and of course her acquittal and release were good news for all those who campaigned on her behalf.
The noble Lords, Lord Hussain and Lord Sheikh, asked what we are doing specifically to support the Government of Pakistan in this area. We are working with that Government to support projects to tackle child abuse and modern slavery by empowering communities to realise their rights, helping to increase citizens’ awareness of their fundamental rights as enshrined in the constitution and lobbying to reduce the scope and scale of the death penalty. We also supported a national human rights conference in October 2018 to commemorate the late human rights activist Asma Jahangir. That is on top of the wider profile of HMG programmes that seek to counter violent extremism, strengthen the rule of law, improve government services, reduce poverty and deliver education.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, raised the issue of refugees in Thailand. We have raised our concerns with the Government of Thailand about the detention of foreign nationals seeking refugee status, including of course the nationals of Pakistan. We have repeatedly urged Thailand to sign the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and have closely followed the detention of around 100 people, mainly from Pakistan, in October last year. We do not believe that those actions were aimed at a specific group or groups but apply to anyone deemed an illegal visa overstayer. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is working very closely with the Royal Thai Government on asylum and resettlement issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Singh, raised the issue of the importance of the Commonwealth. That is an organisation where we have a strong voice, and we should continue to take action on freedom of religion and belief. DfID works closely with the FCO to raise concerns on freedom of religion or belief with partner Commonwealth Governments. Heads of the Commonwealth have recognised that freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association and freedom of religion or belief are cornerstones of democratic societies and are fundamental to achieving the sustainable development goals. The UK funds the Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy, which is promoting freedom of religion and belief in the Commonwealth during our Chair-in-Office period.
The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, asked about trafficking and modern slavery. We are deeply concerned about the reports of trafficking, and we continue to urge Pakistani authorities to investigate and take action as needed. As the noble Lord highlighted, our approach is to reduce the permissive environment through community-based activities, but we are also providing support to the Government of Pakistan to tackle modern slavery, including trafficking, more effectively. We recently provided support and advice to enable the recent passage of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act 2018 and the Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants Act 2018, which provide a stronger legislative framework for the effective prevention of trafficking. The AAWAZ II programme that I mentioned earlier will address a range of modern slavery issues, including child labour and forced and early marriage. As the noble Lord highlights, there is some deeply concerning evidence that we have seen on that. We will continue to work with the Government of Pakistan on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, highlighted the report by the Bishop of Truro that was commissioned by the Foreign Secretary, and we look forward to its publication. We have seen the interim report, and I think it is going to be a really important piece of work that looks at how we as a Government target our activity on freedom of religion or belief. We very much look forward to that report, which will be released shortly.
There is also the International Development Committee’s inquiry on aid to Pakistan. We look forward to the hard questions that it is going to ask. That will be welcome scrutiny. We work hard to ensure that our aid is targeted properly, but the more conversations such as this and the more scrutiny that we can have, the better, because that will help us to improve.
We actively make the case whenever we can that the most stable societies are those that uphold the right of freedom of religious belief. Our substantial aid programme has helped us to position ourselves as a partner of choice for the Government of Pakistan. That allows us the access to raise these issues at the highest level and to provide advice and assistance to support the implementation of reforms. We have promoted, and will continue to promote, the rights of all Pakistanis as part of our effort to make the best use of every penny of aid to work towards a prosperous, stable and inclusive Pakistan. We should also welcome the royal visit to Pakistan, which will highlight the relationship between our two countries. I am afraid that I do not yet have details of the programme but I know the Foreign Secretary will respond to the noble Lord’s letter in due course.
I understand the frustration that we are not doing more and that we are not moving more quickly; the message tonight has been clear. However, through our programmes, our partnerships and our diplomatic relationships, we target minorities where we can and continue to build the data picture so that we can do so more effectively. I agree with my noble friend Lord McInnes that we must keep our programmes under constant review, and we do so.
I think we are making progress with DfID in Pakistan. We are seeing some positive outcomes. I speak to the team there on a regular basis, and their commitment and diligence on this is clear. We are working hard to identify and reach those most in need in what is a very complex and challenging environment, from both a data and an operating perspective. I know there is more to do on that, but I hope the Committee will recognise the work of the DfID team in Pakistan as we continue to make progress. As I say, it is slow going, but the commitment will continue from both DfID staff and myself to ensure that our aid programmes in Pakistan and indeed elsewhere really reach the people who are in desperate need of our help.
I think I am out of time. I hope I have answered the majority of the questions.
Not yours; I apologise. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, raised the issue of the regional picture and what we are doing in rural areas. I will probably follow that up in writing, if that is okay. On the noble Lord’s question, we work to assess and analyse before we start programmes. I will see if I have anything further to add to the letter that I wrote to provide him with more reassurance, but I will have to do that in writing as well, I am afraid.
Again, I thank noble Lords. There has been a lot of interest in this debate as it is an incredibly important issue. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who provides the very helpful service of keeping me updated on the deeply concerning evidence and testimonies on this issue. I hope I have provided some assurance of the work that we are doing and will continue to do. I will continue to work very closely with my noble friend Lord Ahmad, who is the PM’s special envoy on this issue, the Foreign Office and the DfID teams in Pakistan to ensure that with all our programming we help the one-third of Pakistanis who need our help, but also ensure that it gets to the minorities who need it.
Committee adjourned at 7.27 pm.