Kashmir (Human Rights)

– in the House of Commons at 10:32 pm on 9th December 1993.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , Cirencester and Tewkesbury 10:35 pm, 9th December 1993

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity of initiating this Adjournment debate. May I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for having the courtesy to be present to reply to this debate and his officials for being so helpful in supplying statistics.

I welcome to the debate my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) and for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), together with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), who has a constituency interest in this problem. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt). It is nice to see him here this evening.

With my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North, for Rutland and Melton and for Stroud, I recently had the opportunity of going to Pakistan to visit the refugee camps in the northern state of Azad Kashmir and to have direct discussions with the Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

There are few Kashmiris, Indians or Pakistanis in my constituency and I therefore believe that I will be able to take an impartial view on the subject. It is important that we maintain good relations with both India and Pakistan. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have detailed knowledge of both countries and we should not be partial to one country or another. The problem just needs to be resolved.

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Members he mentioned would be just as keen to visit India and Indian Kashmir as we were to visit Pakistan and Azad Kashmir, and to talk to the Indian Prime Minister about the problem? Does he also agree that the matter must, in the end, he resolved by the Indian and Pakistan Governments, in co-operation with the people of Kashmir, and that that must be what we press for?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I shall develop that subject later as it is extremely pertinent.

Kashmir is strategically placed in a valley below the roof of the world, in the Himalayan mountains. It adjoins China, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, and its border is only 20 miles from the southern part of the former Soviet Union. Due to its geographical position, Kashmir is one of the scenic gems of the world. The Kashmiri people are peaceful and merely want to be allowed to live their lives unmolested.

For the record, I shall briefly sketch the history of the problem. In 1947, the British Government partitioned the Indian sub-continent into India, West and East Pakistan—the latter is now Bangladesh. United Nations resolutions were tabled in 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1957. They are still current and should be acted upon. It is probable that in those early days the problem might have been resolved were it not for the fact that the first Indian Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, and his family came from Kashmir and he was determined that the status should not be altered. The Pakistan Army intervened in 1947 and eventually there was a United Nations-brokered ceasefire, following which the then Maharajah of Kashmir, Hari Singh, was obliged to sign an instrument of accession of Kashmir to India, with Jammu and the Vale remaining with India and Azad Kashmir forming part of an independent state, though for practical purposes it is now administered by Pakistan.

Twelve million people in Jammu and the Vale strongly identify with their kith and kin in Azad Kashmir. In addition, about 75 per cent. are Muslims, as are the people of Pakistan, which is why Pakistan was partitioned in the first place.

In the 1950s, under Nehru, India courted the former USSR while Pakistan allied with the United States of America. In the second Indo-Pakistani war in 1965, America imposed an arms embargo on both sides, whereupon Pakistan started to ally with China. That, basically, remains the position today, although Pakistan now has good relations with the west, and with the United Kingdom in particular. Since the break-up of the former Soviet Union, India has improved relations with the United Kingdom and the USA.

An important development in the history of the problem was the Simla agreement signed by both parties in 1972, under which they resolved to settle their differences through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed between them. The agreement looked forward to a final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir. As I understand it, our Government's position is that progress on the problem should be made on the basis of that agreement. Not much has been achieved, however, in the intervening 40 years. I therefore call on the international community to demand that the bilateral talks between the two foreign Ministers, due to take place in January, achieve progress.

The nub of the problem is that Kashmir is a divided state whose people have been denied the right of self-determination, which has led some independent observers to declare that Kashmir is still a disputed territory. I emphasise "some observers" because the phrase "disputed territory" is somewhat controversial.

India may be worried that, if the status of Jammu and the Vale were altered, the other 120 million Muslims in the remaining part of India might start to demand the right of self-determination, but their constitutional position is entirely different. Historically, they have always been part of India, so that cannot be the case.

For the past two years, mainly since the end of the Afghan war, a large number of arms and freedom fighters have been floating about and they have gravitated into the state of Kashmir. This is particularly sad because it has encouraged the more militant elements in the indigenous population of Jammu and the Vale to take up arms and fight the Indian army. The unfortunate reaction of the Indian army to that insurrection has been over-reaction. It has begun to round up civilians, shooting, torturing and raping them.

India has many troops in the Vale and Jammu and it admits that at least 2, 000 people have been killed in the past two years. Some elements in Pakistan believe that the figure could be up to 10 times as high.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

May I make a little more progress? I should like to give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

Some elements in Pakistan think that the figure might be as high as 20, 000, but I stress that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North said, it is not possible for international observers to observe what is going on, so it is difficult to obtain objective figures.

There is no doubt that many people have been gaoled but are still awaiting trial, which is quite unacceptable to the international community.

My hon. Friends and I were able to visit the refugee camps high up in the state of Azad Kashmir. There are 10, 000 people living in primitive tented conditions in a harsh climate. I was able to see some of the human misery in those camps. There were many atrocities—people who had had their legs cut off, people who had had acid poured over them, and others who had had a knife stuck in their hip joints so that they could never walk again. We have no means of verifying how the atrocities had taken place, but we do know that international observers are not allowed into Kashmir and that the border has been mined to stop the flow of refugees.

The camp numbers are swelling all the time. When some of my hon. Friends were there only a year ago, some of the camps did not exist. People are fleeing over the border from Jammu and the Vale into Pakistan and the numbers in the camps are increasing. That is extremely sad. Azad Kashmir and India are very poor states, and one of the poorest states in the world is having to find money to look after the people in the refugee camps. The refugees now flowing into the camps are in addition to the 1·5 million refugees who fled into Pakistan over the Afghan border.

The most important question that arises is why India will not allow international observers into the occupied part of Kashmir.

Photo of Mr John Watts Mr John Watts , Slough

They have too much to hide.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I have had some good news today from Jane Cooper of Amnesty International. She said that Amnesty International is having talks with the Indian Government about a possible visit. I welcome that. I hope that there will be no strings attached to the visit and that the visitors will be able to go where they like and talk to the Indian Government on a meaningful basis.

As I have already said, three of my hon. Friends and myself were given the privilege of visiting Azad Kashmir to see for ourselves what is going on in the refugee camps. I understand that repeated requests have been made to the Indian High Commissioner to allow Members of Parliament to visit the occupied part of Kashmir so that they can see for themselves and make an impartial judgment. I shall be sending a copy of this speech to the Indian High Commissioner.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman was obviously moved by what he saw on his brief visit to the area. I am surprised that he has not taken this opportunity to condemn the terrorism in that part of the sub-continent. The hon. Gentleman mentioned only one side. Terrorism has sought to undermine the basis of democracy in India. Why does not he take the advice of his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) and leave the sub-continent issues to be decided between India and Pakistan? I wonder what role the House of Commons has in this matter.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall move on to the subjects that he has mentioned.

I condemn all terrorism wherever it takes place in the world. It is totally unacceptable, whether it is in Northern Ireland or anywhere else.

My hon. Friends and I were privileged to be able to discuss the matter with the Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. There can be no doubt that she wishes to make progress on this issue. I welcome the fact that bilateral talks are to take place between the two Foreign Ministers at the beginning of January and I urge that progress be made.

Ultimately, the two countries must sort out the problem for themselves. But, as I have said, there are huge armed forces in India and Pakistan. They are highly trained. Both countries are spending a large part of their budgets on defence. India is spending about 8 per cent. of its budget on defence, and Pakistan about 25 per cent. The United Nations recognises that this is one of the flashpoints of the world because India has nuclear weapons and Pakistan will soon have the capability to build such weapons.

It is vital that the rest of the world calls for the two countries to make real and meaningful progress on this issue. India is supposed to be one of the greatest democracies of the world. It seeks a seat on the Security Council. Surely, now more than at any time in history, India should demonstrate those democratic credentials. On the basis of the Simla agreement, let us ask India and Pakistan to sit down together and negotiate a real and meaningful settlement.

It is time that the world woke up to this problem. Both countries are members of the Commonwealth; there are United Nations resolutions on the table; Britain has good relations with both countries. Surely, wherever atrocities are perpetrated—whether they are perpetrated by the Indian Government, the Pakistani Government or by freedom fighters—the united world community has the right to ask both countries to sit down and end this human tragedy, which could be a tragedy of immense proportions.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this debate. I very much look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say. As I have said, I am grateful to him for being present.

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale 10:50 pm, 9th December 1993

I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown). I congratulate him on bringing the subject of Kashmir before the House again. Tonight's attendance demonstrates that the subject elicits the greatest possible interest and concern in the House of Commons, and I believe that the debate will receive wide attention outside the House.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

Does the Minister accept the view of the hon. Members for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) and for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester)—and, I know, of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) and all of us in the Indo-British parliamentary group—that the best job that the British Government could do now is to promote the peace talks that are under way to produce peace in that beautiful valley? Should not we, of all nations, understand the vast difficulty experienced by the Indian authorities in promoting peace and human rights when there is such vast terrorism there? Apparently, 6, 000 people have been killed in the past four years, and 1, 500 have been killed lately. Will the Minister do all that he can to convince the authorities—particularly those outside Kashmir—that terrorism must cease if peace is to prevail?

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale

We are certainly pleased that the talks are to be resumed in January. As for the other aspects of the matter, I am dealing with the whole question comprehensively; I shall say something relevant to the other matters raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman a little later.

My hon. Friend has spoken about the situation in Kashmir, and described some of its history. I endorse some, but not all, of what he has said. I gave my view of the historical background at some length during a debate in the House on 14 February 1991. I do not think that I shall have time to go over all the ground again, because it is important to deal with contemporary issues, but I know that my hon. Friend will have a chance to read that speech in depth.

It may be helpful if I begin by briefly setting out our overall policy on Kashmir. The policy has not changed. We believe that the best way forward on Kashmir involves simultaneous progress on dialogue between India and Pakistan, as provided for under the 1972 Simla agreement; an improvement in human rights in Kashmir; a genuine political progress; and a clear cessation of external support for violence in Kashmir. I believe that this continues to represent a coherent and constructive approach to the complex problem that has bedevilled relations between two countries with which we have close and friendly ties.

I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) is present. Like any other Front Bencher, he cannot contribute to the debate as other hon. Members can.

It is clear that no solution on Kashmir will be possible without the active agreement of India and Pakistan. Accordingly, Foreign Office Ministers and officials have taken every opportunity to encourage the Governments of both countries to resume the bilateral dialogue of which we have had mention.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister put the issue high on the agenda when he met the Indian Prime Minister in January and the then Pakistani Prime Minister in March. He also took the earliest possible opportunity to discuss the problems with the new Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, when they met at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Cyprus in October.

Most recently, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs met the Indian Prime Minister in Delhi on 15 November, he welcomed the positive message that Mr. Narasimha Rao had passed Benazir Bhutto on her election, and expressed the hope that bilateral talks would soon begin. Equally, I encouraged Ms Bhutto to begin such talks when I met her in Islamabad on 15 November.

The above list of exchanges is far from exhaustive, but it clearly demonstrates the importance that the Government attach to an early resolution of the Kashmir problem.

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale

I shall give way once, but I cannot give way more than that.

Photo of Mr Max Madden Mr Max Madden , Bradford West

I am listening carefully to the Minister and, reflecting what the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said about the importance of self-determination, is it the Government's policy to encourage the Governments of India and Pakistan to invite the widest possible representation of the Kashmiri people to the talks which I hope will start soon? If there is to be a lasting peace, surely it cannot be imposed; it must be acceptable to the majority of the Kashmiri people.

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale

; Clearly, the participants in talks between the Governments of India and Pakistan must be decided by the two Governments, but, as I have already said, it is part of the British Government's policy that there should be a political process.

For the reasons that I have already given, we welcomed strongly the announcement on 24 November that talks between India and Pakistan will commence early in the new year. We hope that that will mark the beginning of a constructive dialogue to resolve the differences between the two countries which are focused on the Kashmir dispute.

My hon. Friend referred to the United Nations resolutions of 1948 and 1949. Those resolutions, which both India and Pakistan agreed, and which Britain supported, set out the basis for a possible settlement on Kashmir. Regrettably, neither side fully implemented those resolutions and they have, to some extent, been overtaken by events.

The 1972 Simla agreement between India and Pakistan represents the most recent formal agreement of both sides on the handling of their dispute over Kashmir. It envisaged a "final settlement" of the dispute through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed between them". As my hon. Friend has said, now is the time for India to enter into meaningful bilateral discussion with Pakistan.

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale

I shall give way to my hon. Friend, but then no more.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I have heard my hon. Friend say before and I have read in his speech that events have passed by those United Nations resolutions. But does he agree that one of the vital elements in those United Nations resolutions is that Kashmir should become a demilitarised zone? Is not one of the most important things that the tension in that area should be reduced and that we should be asking India and Pakistan to move troops well away from the area?

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale

The parties will wish to discuss many matters when they resume discussions in January. What my hon. Friend refers to is no doubt one of them.

I have noted what my hon. Friend said about human rights in Kashmir. I am aware that his concern is shared by others here and outside the House. I am also aware of the reports of the situation in Kashmir which have been published by independent human rights organisations, such as Asia Watch and Amnesty International, and reports that have been produced by Indian human rights groups and the Indian press. There can be no doubt that serious human rights abuses have taken place. We have repeatedly impressed on the Indian Government our concern about abuses by the Indian security forces in Kashmir. We have emphasised the need to respect human rights and the rule of law in confronting terrorism, and the importance of bringing those responsible for wrongdoing to justice.

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale

I am sorry, but I cannot give way again. I must make progress. I have already given way once to each side of the House.

I urge the House not to forget, however, that many abuses in Kashmir are committed by the militants who are fighting against the security forces. Abuse of human rights by terrorists is as unacceptable as by the security forces.

During his visit to India in January, the Prime Minister raised the concerns in Britain about human rights with the Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Narasimha Rao. Mr. Rao assured the Prime Minister that he attached importance to respect for human rights, that allegations of abuses were fully investigated, and that those responsible for wrongdoing were punished. More recently, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs discussed the situation in Kashmir and human rights with Mr. Rao and the Indian Home Minister, Mr. Chavan, during his visit to India last month. I assure the House that we shall continue to press those concerns with the Indian authorities.

In looking at human rights in India, it is important not to lose sight of the sort of country that we are talking about. India has a long and proven democratic tradition, an independent judiciary, and a free and vociferous press. It has its own human rights groups and does not restrict their access to areas of concern. That democratic tradition is India's strength and why we expect it to address the matters of which I have spoken.

India has set standards for itself. Since the beginning of this year, the Indian Government have already taken significant steps to address the problem of human rights abuses. A Human Rights Commission was established by presidential ordinance on 29 September. It has already started its work, although the full extent of its powers and responsibilities will not be settled until it receives retrospective parliamentary approval. We have, however, welcomed that development and hope that the commission will come to play an important role in investigating allegations of abuse.

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale

I am sorry but I really must get on.

The commission's credibility will depend on building a reputation for thorough and genuinely independent investigation. It is encouraging that the commission has chosen, as one of its first tasks, the investigation of an important incident involving the security forces at Bijbehara in Kashmir in October. We hope that that is a sign that it will treat allegations of abuse in Kashmir as a priority among its tasks.

We have been urging the Indian Government for some time to allow access to independent human rights groups. The Indian authorities announced in July that certain international human rights organisations would be permitted to visit India. Since then, a delegation of the International Commission of Jurists visited Kashmir in August. Its report is expected to be published in January. We understand that the Indian Government has also been in discussion with Amnesty International and it has been agreed that Amnesty will visit India early next year. Those are welcome developments, which illustrate the Indian Government's intention to adopt an approach of openness in accordance with India's democratic tradition.

We were also encouraged by the peaceful ending of the siege by the Indian security forces of the Mosque at Hazratbal. I congratulate the Indian authorities on their calm handling of a most difficult situation. The Indian Government have told us that they are committed to the development of a political process in Kashmir. I hope that the peaceful resolution of the siege may pave the way to the beginning of that process.

The House can be assured that we shall continue to watch the situation in Kashmir closely and to encourage all concerned to resolve the problems there peacefully. Constructive negotiation offers the only way to bring an end to the violence.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.