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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 6:18 pm on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 6:18 pm, 13th October 2008

I wholeheartedly endorse what my right hon. Friend says, and in fact I was about to talk about Afghanistan. The position of women under the Taliban was well documented. They had no access to education, they were treated like second-class citizens and there were draconian controls on their movement and freedoms. As an aside, I wholeheartedly recommend to the House "A Thousand Splendid Suns", a novel based on fact, which I read over the summer. It is about the position of women in Afghanistan and demonstrates how terrible the situation had become.

One might have expected the situation to be much improved since the fall of the Taliban. Some girls in Afghanistan do have access to education now, but the situation is still dire. I was intrigued by the list that the Minister read out towards the end of her speech, of individuals who have made a particular contribution to fighting for human rights. I have another to add to the list: Malalai Joya, who is the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament.

Malalai Joya was in London last Monday to be awarded the Anna Politkovskaya award for her courage and dedication in trying to protect human rights in her country. Afterwards, Malalai came to Westminster and I was fortunate enough to meet her and interview her for Women's Parliamentary Radio. Her bravery was inspirational, and the experience was humbling. What she faces on a day-to-day basis makes what we do as MPs in this country pale into insignificance. For the crime of speaking up and suggesting that crimes against women should be punished, that those who are now in positions of power but used to be warlords on the rampage, raping and killing, should be brought to justice, and that the Parliament is not being strong enough on the matter, she has been suspended from Parliament. Where is the freedom of speech in that?

When Malalai Joya was in Parliament, she had bottles thrown at her and abuse and death threats hurled at her. There have been four assassination attempts against her, and she has to sleep in a different house every night. She is continually at risk. Such individuals are a fabulous inspiration, but it is sad that there are not enough people such as her speaking up, and that it is still necessary to do so in a country in which we are investing so much. We ought to have more influence, so that we can prevent such things from happening. She showed me a video in which a 12-year-old girl who had been gang-raped was spoken to. Of course, the perpetrators had not been punished. That is not a one-off horrific situation, it is what happens day in, day out.

It is not just women who are suffering in Afghanistan. The whole country is on a knife edge, and if we fail to secure lasting peace and security there it will have major implications for our ability to promote democracy and human rights worldwide. There are well-documented claims that our military are overstretched by fighting on both fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Recently, the Iraqi Prime Minister has said that it is time for the UK troops to go, and I hope that the Government will do what Liberal Democrat Members have argued for for some time, and withdraw the troops from Iraq so that there can be more focus on Afghanistan. It is vital that we succeed in our objectives there.

Our experience in Iraq has been disastrous for our credibility in promoting democracy and human rights abroad. When I visited the UN earlier this year and spoke to various diplomats, the feeling was that it undermines what we are trying to do elsewhere. It is ironic in some ways that improving the humanitarian situation in Iraq was often quoted, albeit after the event, as one reason for our intervention there. The lack of planning for rebuilding the Iraqi state after the military action was entirely unforgivable. It was a great mistake, and it has been responsible for some of the appalling violations of human rights in Iraq since 2003. The figures speak volumes: since 2003, we have spent £6.6 billion in Iraq on the war and £125 million on humanitarian assistance. That shows where the priorities lie, and they need to change.

I have one further point on Iraq. It is nearly 18 months since five British men were seized at the Finance Ministry in Iraq and taken hostage. One can only begin to imagine the agony that their families have faced in the past year and a half, and I hope that the Minister can assure us that every effort is being made in the ongoing negotiations to secure the release of those men as soon as possible.