I am very grateful indeed for the opportunity to have this debate. I hope that Iain Stewart and a number of others may be able to participate, given the time at which we are starting. I am also grateful that the Minister is in his place to respond on what is obviously a busy day for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, given the visit of President Hamid Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari. That visit makes this a timely debate—I will return to that point in a few moments.
On the Wednesday before last, I and a number of colleagues from across the House helped to organise a lobby of Parliament by members of the British Hazara community. That was the week in which many right hon. and hon. Members were signing the memorial book for Holocaust memorial day. That event asks us all each year to be aware that genocidal persecution on religious and ethnic grounds is not simply an appalling past event but an ever-present danger that we have to be aware of. The persecution of the Hazara community, in Quetta and other parts of Balochistan, is undoubtedly persecution for religious and ethnic reasons—it bears those strong hallmarks—and that is the issue I want to raise today.
The last time this matter was raised on the Adjournment was in a debate led by my right hon. Friend Alan Johnson on
I do not want to pretend that I have long been aware of the history and plight of Hazaras; the truth is that I was not. Beyond some references to the community in novels such as “The Kite Runner” and an awareness of the small—about 150—but distinctive community in Southampton, of whom I had met a few, I had relatively little knowledge of the Hazara community. As a group, the Hazaras are physically quite distinctive, with somewhat Mongolian looks, and that distinctive appearance has helped to contribute to their vulnerability in Pakistan.
I did not know a great deal about the history and the plight of the Hazara community until a group of my constituents came to see me earlier this year. The story they told me truly appalled me. Theirs is a long history, and I will not attempt to rehearse it here tonight. Suffice it to say that the community originated in central Asia, in the Afghan central highlands. The Hazaras converted to Shi’a Islam in the 13th century, and while the majority remain Shi’a, there are now Sunnis, Ismailis and secular members of the community.
Persecution of the Hazara community by Afghan rulers started, I am afraid, under the British Empire, and it has been a consistent problem in Afghanistan ever since. Many Hazaras have left Afghanistan, and over 100 years ago many settled in and around Quetta, which in due course became part of Pakistan. We are all familiar with the recent waves of refugees from Afghanistan to Pakistan, some of whom have eventually made their way here, where they have sought and been granted asylum.
However, the Hazaras that I am talking about today are part of that much longer-established community in Quetta who are not refugees but Pakistani citizens. For a long time, they lived free from persecution in Quetta, thriving educationally and economically. As citizens, they are entitled to full support from the Pakistani state. Since the late 1990s, however, their situation has changed dramatically. The killings started in 1999. Since then, more than 1,000 Hazaras have been killed in Quetta, 3,000 or more have been injured, and 55,000 or so have been forced to flee to Europe or Australia. All of those came from a population of between 500,000 and 600,000.
The perpetrators are a banned Sunni militant al-Qaeda-affiliated group called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi—the LEJ. The Taliban and the LEJ have both issued fatwas against the Hazaras. After the recent violence, an LEJ spokesman was reported as saying that the Hazaras had been warned in 2012 that they should leave Balochistan, the province in which Quetta sits, and that as many had not done so, the LEJ will not allow Shi’as to leave alive in 2013.
That is the background to the dreadful bombing in Quetta on
One such myth is that the persecution is a manifestation of some generalised Sunni-Shi’a conflict that has manifested itself from time to time in regional tensions in other parts of the middle east. I do not believe that that is the case. It is clear from the targets of the violence and from the death toll that the violence is directed at just one distinctive community within the wider Shi’a community. I understand that the Hazaras of Quetta are 33 times more likely to be killed by political violence than members of the wider Shi’a community in Pakistan. That constitutes a focus on a particular religious and ethnic group.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case. As he has said, this constitutes not only religious but ethnic cleansing, and the figures that he has given the House are stark. Is he aware that, despite the 1,000 deaths, the local government in Pakistan—which, fortunately, has now been disbarred by the Pakistani Government—has not brought a single charge against anyone for the offences, and that not one member of that government has ever condemned any of the atrocities?
One of the most serious problems is that there has been no acceptance of responsibility by the Pakistani authorities of the kind that we would expect in a serious situation such as this. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what representations Her Majesty’s Government have been able to make to the Pakistani authorities on this matter.
The problem with the ill-informed, shallow or sweeping reporting that we have seen is that it tends to obscure the real causes of the violence and to obscure the responsibilities. It allows the incidents to be shrugged off as though that is “just the way things are”. Since 1990, the violence has included ride-by and drive-by shootings, personal attacks, suicide bombings, rocket attacks and car bombs, as well as the ambushing of buses and taxis and the subsequent selection of Hazara passengers for execution.
This is not the first time that my constituents have alerted me to what has happened to their relatives. Under the last Government, I took constituents who had family in the Swat valley in Pakistan to meet Lord Malloch-Brown, then a Foreign Office Minister, to alert him to the violence being carried out by the Pakistan Taliban. My constituents had come to me with stark examples of what had happened to members of their families in the recent past. I shall not give the House details of names, as family members might suffer as a result, but I have received clear documentation of constituents who had seen family members—male breadwinners—singled out for murder in three separate incidents over the past three years. The effects of that are devastating for the entire family. In a country with little in the way of a social security system, the loss of a male breadwinner has an impact on every member of the extended family.
There are wider consequences too. The Hazaras in Quetta have to live in isolation from other Pakistani citizens, not least because those other citizens fear being caught up in the violence. They suffer travel restrictions, and virtually all the Hazara students in Quetta have dropped out of university, following attacks on student transport. Hazara people have also faced difficulty in accessing civil service jobs. As has already been pointed out, however, not a single terrorist has yet been prosecuted. On the rare occasions when individuals have been arrested, they have been released. The provincial governor has been replaced, but little action seems to have been taken as yet.
The failure of the Pakistan authorities to safeguard the Hazara community is surely beyond doubt, but concerns remain about a much more sinister involvement. It is alleged that the intelligence services, the Inter-Services Intelligence, sections of which have a history of involvement with extremist forces, have links in some ways to the LEJ. I want to put it on record that I do not know whether such links are documented or what the strength of the evidence is, but the concerns about those potential connections are widely shared among those I have spoken to.
There are complicated provincial politics in Balochistan, involving not only the movements I have mentioned. The province is also tied up in the wider regional conflict, and there have been separatist movements and movements calling for autonomy. Many Hazaras believe that they have been caught up as innocent victims in the wider geo-politics.
My right hon. Friend is describing the confusion and rumours that are spreading about this issue. There seems to be a real case for a proper judicial inquiry to expose what is happening and to call the Government of Pakistan to account. The chief justice of Pakistan has expressed his willingness to do that, and I believe that he is the right person to conduct such an inquiry. Will my right hon. Friend urge the Minister to make representations to the Government of Pakistan to convince them that that might be a way forward that has not yet been tried?
My hon. Friend has put forward an interesting proposal. I am about to put my specific points to the Minister on the action that could be taken, and I invite him to respond to my hon. Friend’s proposal about the chief justice as well.
The points I wish to put to the Minister are these. First, will he tell us whether the position of the Hazaras been raised with either the President of Pakistan or members of his delegation over the past two days when he was in this country on other matters? If not, when were these issues last raised by Ministers from Her Majesty’s Government with the Pakistani authorities, and what was the response?
Secondly, there are, of course, huge issues in this region that are currently under discussion—not least today between our own Prime Minister and the Presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Does the Minister agree that while these supra-regional questions are being settled, the position of those such as the Hazaras must not be overlooked, left on one side or seen as too small, too trivial or too local to be taken into account? Will the Minister give me an assurance about the Government’s efforts to ensure that the Hazara community—in Quetta, of course, but also in Afghanistan—are not left on one side?
Thirdly, will the Minister give us an undertaking that the plight of the Hazaras in Quetta will be an explicit issue to be raised when the conditions of aid to Pakistan are discussed? Fourthly, what has the British high commissioner—and, indeed, Ministers—done to raise the profile of this persecution within Pakistan itself? Have Ministers or high commission officials visited Quetta to see the conditions faced by the Hazaras?
Fifthly, would the Minister be willing to facilitate a visit to Quetta by Members of this House? And sixthly, at UN level, will the Government ask the conflict prevention unit within the Bureau for Crisis Prevention of the UN Development Programme to assess whether the situation in Quetta is, or is tending towards, genocide, and in general to push for the engagement of the conflict prevention unit in this particular situation?
I have two further points. The Minister has in the past rightly expressed the truth that a range of minority groups have suffered and do suffer oppression and discrimination in Pakistan. In part, though, the Pakistan Government have tended to respond on the Hazara issue by questioning why a single group should be highlighted for attention. Does the Minister agree that although a number of groups face oppression, that is no good reason to lump them all together as part of a generalised concern for human rights, but makes it all the more essential to understand the history, the particularities and the nature of the oppressors in each case and to ensure appropriate action is taken in each case?
For the past two years, the position of the Hazaras has been referred to by name in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report. I welcome that, and I assume the same will happen again this year.
In the Minister’s response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle last March, he quite rightly stressed the importance of our relationship with Pakistan and our friendship with that country. My own experience has been one of positive engagement with the high commissioner on a range of issues. The importance of this relationship makes it all the more vital that we are consistent and insistent on raising these issues, particularly for my constituents in those cases that are so intimately linked by family and history to communities in this country.
I congratulate Mr Denham on securing this important debate, and I thank him for his courtesy in allowing me to say a few words. He has comprehensively and eloquently set out the plight of the Hazara community in Pakistan. I am happy to endorse the points he made.
Like Southampton, Milton Keynes is home to a sizeable Hazara community. My hon. Friend Mark Lancaster and I have spent a considerable amount of time meeting members of that community and working with them. Last year, we had the great honour of attending their annual school prize-giving day—a warm and jolly occasion that served to underline the warmth and depth of community spirit among them in Milton Keynes. That makes it even more galling to learn about the stories of their kinsmen and loved ones being persecuted, injured and killed in Pakistan.
The numbers involved are quite shocking. The right hon. Gentleman has given us a list. The impact of the killings and of the injuries sustained among the community as a whole has been absolutely shocking. Let me provide a few other examples. A decade ago, there were 300 students at the main university in Quetta. After all the death threats and the persecutions, there are not any today. About 80% of Hazara businesses have either had to be sold or closed down. There are 3,000 orphans or children living in poverty because the main breadwinner has been killed. As we have heard, there is no semblance of a social security system there. Then there are the thousands killed or maimed—yet not one arrest of the perpetrators. Those figures are shocking, but it is only when we hear personal examples that the true scale of the horror comes home.
I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating my right hon. Friend Mr Denham on securing this enormously important debate. I was pleased to join the big meeting that the hon. Gentleman sponsored in the House of Commons, for which I thank him. Was it not deeply moving both to hear the testimony of the people there and to experience their confidence that making their representations through this House to the Government might produce real change in the interest of justice for the Hazaras?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention and he is absolutely right. That recent meeting was one of the most powerful I have ever attended in this place. It was heart warming to encounter the strength of feeling and the optimism among members of the community that we might be able to effect some positive influence or change. I will certainly continue to do all I can, and I know that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will do the same.
In preparing for this debate, I spoke to some of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North to get their personal stories about what has happened. A gentleman by the name of Nasir Abbas was a relative of my constituents Mokhtar and Shalia Ali. He was 34 and he was the main breadwinner of the family; the rest of the family depended on him, yet he was killed in a suicide attack. The family is now living in squalor, with no real way of supporting themselves. The family then suffered again, when the father-in-law received a death threat and not long afterwards suffered a fatal heart attack—yet another tragedy for the family. That is just one of many similar examples that go on today.
As the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen mentioned, we have not long since marked holocaust memorial day. At the weekend, I attended a couple of plays in one of Milton Keynes’s theatres by a group called “voices of the holocaust”. The very powerful plays depicted the escalation of persecution in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It was an historical reminder of what went on and of the fact that that same kind of persecution happens today, which places on us a great duty to stand up and speak out against it. I have done a lot of work with the community across the country, and I am happy to endorse the resolutions they passed in the conference on genocide.
I appreciate that this area is a dangerous and difficult part of the world, but that does not absolve us from taking action. I know that the Minister has taken a keen interest in the matter. I urge him, in addition to answering the specific questions raised by the right hon. Gentleman, to do all he can to work bilaterally with the Pakistani authorities, but also multilaterally through the United Nations. I think that it, too, has a significant role to play.
Of all the points made by the right hon. Gentleman, the one I would particularly emphasise concerned the need to use the lever of British aid to bring about some positive action. As the conference has demonstrated during the past couple of days, we are not without influence in that part of the world. I owe it to my constituents to stand up and highlight the plight of their kinsmen, and this country owes it to those people to stand up for them, to speak out, and to use what influence we have to improve this dreadful situation.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Mr Denham for allowing me to trespass on his debate for what I hope will be only a couple of moments.
Hazaras do not stand out from the rest of the population of Hammersmith. I was not well acquainted with them until I was introduced to the local Hazara community, and before that I would not have distinguished them from the Afghanistan, Mongolian and south Asian minorities in my constituency. Sadly for them, however, they do stand out in Pakistan, and they have been victimised to an extent that cannot be overemphasised.
I want to make two points to the Minister. First, what is intended by the alliance between the LEJ, sections of the Taliban and, possibly, sections of the security services is nothing short of genocide. A threatening letter issued last year told Hazaras in Quetta:
“Just as our fighters have waged a successful jihad against the Shia-Hazaras in Afghanistan, our mission”
“is the abolition of this impure sect and people”.
Last August, a report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan stated:
“Hazaras have been…uprooted from Machh, Loralai and Zhob. It seems a campaign has been launched to terrorize the Hazara community so that they leave Quetta by selling their businesses and property at throwaway prices. Pamphlets have been left at their homes telling them to sell their houses and leave.”
That sustained and organised campaign of murder and aggression led to the appalling snooker hall bombings of
Yes, there is effective military rule at present, and yes—thank God—there have been no more atrocities; but no one believes that the security situation has been resolved. Military rule is not the solution in the longer term. The Hazaras do not want that any more than anyone else. They simply want to live in peace in their own country, with their neighbours, as they did for so many decades. That is an obligation for the Pakistani Government, and it is an obligation that I hope the Minister will address in his response to my right hon. Friend’s points. I hope the Minister will tell us how the British Government can help the Hazara population—the diaspora in this country and elsewhere, but principally those in Pakistan—to secure what they want, which is simply the ability to live in peace and security in their own homes.
I congratulate Mr Denham on securing the debate, and thank him for—with his usual courtesy—giving me his text in advance this afternoon. I thank other Members for attending and intervening, and I also thank my hon. Friend Iain Stewart and Mr Slaughter for their speeches.
This has been a sobering half hour or so. Although it is a year since we last debated the issue, it remains as important and relevant as it was then, and probably more so. It is an issue in which I had an opportunity to take a personal interest when I met some of the constituents of my hon. Friend Mark Lancaster, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss it again.
Since our last debate, my responsibilities in the Department have changed to some extent. I no longer have territorial responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are now the responsibility of my noble Friend Baroness Warsi. However, I still answer for those issues in the House of Commons, and one of the first things I will do is bring the debate and the comments of colleagues to the attention of my noble Friend.
I appreciate that there has been a reshuffle of responsibilities in the Department, but would my hon. Friend be able to arrange a meeting with Baroness Warsi and interested Members so that we can explore the issues with her directly?
That is a good idea. If my hon. Friend had asked me for such a meeting, I should have been able to say yes straight away. I can say, however— without committing my noble Friend—that I am sure I shall be able to convey to her both my hon. Friend’s comment and the general feeling of the House that a meeting with a group of colleagues who understand the issue well would be particularly welcome to them, and, no doubt, welcome to those whom they represent. I shall make that point very clearly.
Since our last debate, the position of the Hazara community in Pakistan has remained extremely difficult. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 320 members of the Shia community were killed in targeted attacks in 2012, including many from the Hazara community. As has was mentioned earlier, only last month—on
Those horrendous acts of sectarian violence showed an appalling contempt for human life. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Baroness Warsi publicly expressed the UK’s strong condemnation of the attacks, and their concern about the persecution that had been suffered. My right hon. Friend said:
“I was extremely saddened to hear of the brutal terrorist and sectarian attacks in Quetta and Swat yesterday.”
He sent his sincere condolences to the bereaved families, and added:
“I wish all those injured in the attacks a swift recovery. The United Kingdom strongly condemns these senseless attacks and the persecution of the Shia population. It was a tragic day for Pakistan. We will continue to stand with the people of Pakistan in their fight against terror and violent extremism.”
The latest bombings, described as one of the worst attacks on the Shia community, resulted in nationwide protests. The families of the bomb victims refused to bury their dead until they were given assurances that the Army would take administrative control of the province. As the House will know, late in the evening on
Baluchistan’s problems are deep-rooted and require long-term solutions, which was well understood by those who spoke this evening. Although some members of the Hazara community have called for military rule to protect their rights, the position of the United Kingdom Government is that it is in Pakistan’s long-term interests for all groups to enjoy meaningful political representation to ensure effective political engagement and a peaceful means of protecting their interests. Any solution must stay within the parameters of Pakistan’s constitution.
We remain deeply concerned about the violent persecution faced by all minority groups in Pakistan. We raise their plight with the Government of Pakistan regularly. My noble Friend Baroness Warsi spoke about it with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar at the UN General Assembly in September, and, most recently, during her visit to Pakistan in November, when she urged Pakistani Ministers to protect and guarantee the fundamental rights of all Pakistani citizens.
Additionally, at Pakistan’s recent universal periodic review at the UN in October, the UK raised the importance of ensuring the ability of all minorities groups to vote freely in the upcoming elections. We also encouraged Pakistan to implement the international covenant on civil and political rights to ensure the equal and absolute rights of all its citizens.
The UK and Pakistan have a long history and a strong relationship founded on mutual respect, mutual trust and mutual benefit. Our respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is absolute. I must make it clear to the House that the security of Baluchistan is, as with all provinces of Pakistan, a matter for the people and Government of Pakistan. Persecution of the Shi’a Hazaras is not limited to Baluchistan; across Pakistan, Sunni and Shi’a alike have suffered from the scourge of sectarian violence. In the past year, Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and financial nerve centre, has seen an increase in sectarianism, which has led to a 28% rise in violence-related deaths.
Before I make any more general remarks, let me deal with the specific questions that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen put, as he was good enough to give me some notice of them. The new question, however, was the one raised by Fiona Mactaggart relating to the chief justice and the possibility of a judicial inquiry, and I will draw Baroness Warsi’s attention to that as a potential idea. At the end of his remarks, the right hon. Gentleman raised a point about recognising the importance of dealing with all groups that suffer persecution in Pakistan and elsewhere in a generic manner. That does not, however, mean that their individual histories or problems are not recognised as singular issues in the overall context of the importance of the rule of law being enforced everywhere, which is the best way of protecting everyone. Even within that, we should recognise that particular circumstances should be prominent and I will return to that important point in a moment.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the position of the Hazaras has been raised with the President of Pakistan or with members of the delegation over the past couple of days. It did not form part of the general conversation in the past couple of days in relation to the regional issue, but it is very much a part of a recognition of the overall settlement in Afghanistan that the rights of minorities, including those of the Hazara, need to be taken into account.
As we have been generously gifted a little more time by the time fairies of the Commons doing their work earlier today—I could name my hon. Friends, but I shall not on this occasion—let me say a bit about the position of Hazaras in Afghanistan. The UK Government are very aware of the challenging circumstances faced by the Hazaras in Afghanistan. Article 22 of the Afghan constitution makes clear provision for the equal rights of all Afghan citizens, and we will continue to remind the Afghan Government of the need to ensure those rights. We have also made it clear that a political settlement should be inclusive and should address the needs of all Afghan citizens.
Since 2001, the situation has improved for Hazaras in Afghanistan, with Hazaras now in senior Afghan Government positions. They include the second vice-President, the acting higher education Minister and the governor of Bamiyan province—the first female provincial governor—Habiba Sarabi, whom I have met. We welcome that progress and we will continue to remind the Afghan Government of the need to ensure the equal rights of all citizens. In the regional context, any settlement in Afghanistan that makes sense will have to include proper attention being given to human rights. That was a key part of what the international community stressed in the agreements signed last year and it will be a key part of what happens post-2014. As we all know, the need for the closest relationship possible between Afghanistan and Pakistan in a future settlement is emphasised by the trilateral meetings taking place today. Again, I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that although the specific position of the Hazaras is unlikely to constitute a specific part of those conversations, there is a recognition that the future of both Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be assured unless serious attention is paid to the rule of law and ensuring the enforcement of human rights protection right across both states. Without that, neither state will have security and stability, which is going to be of prime importance.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would ensure that the plight of the Hazaras will be explicitly raised when the conditions of aid to Pakistan are discussed. Taking advice from the Department for International Development, I would say that all UK aid to any country is based on three shared commitments with partner Governments: poverty reduction and meeting the millennium development goals; respecting human rights and other international obligations; and strengthening financial management and accountability. We do not use those conditions to impose specific policy choices on countries. In Pakistan, our aid will support the Pakistan authorities in making progress in the relevant areas, including through concrete measures to improve the economy, reform education and devote proper attention to human rights. So although these things are an important part of the bargain made with any particular country, we do not make our aid conditional on specific issues.
I welcome the remarks the Minister has made so far, and the way in which Mr Denham and other hon. Members have educated me and the whole House about the plight of the Hazara community. Does the Minister agree that we should not extend that idea of conditionality too far in relation to British aid? Under both this Government and the previous Labour Government, aid has been focused on helping those in greatest need, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, including those in conflict-afflicted and fragile states such as Pakistan. It would be regrettable if we departed too far from that principle.
On balance, I share the view of my hon. Friend. The difficulty with making aid conditional is that the determination to withdraw aid is aimed at a Government, but there are many occasions when atrocities take place and the Government may not be totally in charge of a situation—equally, there are circumstances where Governments appear to be all too certain to be implicated. The process is difficult, but until now the situation has clearly been straightforward and aid has not been conditional. Despite that, it is important that countries receiving aid adhere to human rights.
Having worked in development before I entered this House, I, too, have some sympathy with the idea that imposing crude conditionality is not a good use of aid. The question really is: when the discussions take place between DFID Ministers and officials, and the Pakistan Government, is the second of the three challenges that the Minister set out—human rights—raised in a general way? Alternatively, as a way of illustrating what needs to change, is the position of the Hazaras, for example, specifically raised as the sort of test of, and the sort of thing that we would have in mind in deciding, whether human rights were being properly protected? Part of the challenge is simply to make sure that in wanting to include all the issues in a general way we do not lose the ability to say, “This is one of the ways in which we measure progress.”
I absolutely take the point and understand fully how the right hon. Gentleman expresses it, which is absolutely in line with his experience. As a result of the debate, I shall write to the Secretary of State for International Development and make that point directly to her. We use examples in our report on countries of concern, as the right hon. Gentleman has picked out, and by using specific issues relating to the Hazaras and their situation I am seeking to demonstrate that they are not lost in the generality. He makes the point that they could be used as a specific examples—I do not know whether DFID does that but I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his precise question.
On the question of the role of the British high commissioners and Ministers in raising the profile of the persecution in Pakistan, officials have not visited Quetta because of the security situation, although they have met Hazara representatives in the high commission in Islamabad. The same security situation that has made it impossible for us to visit in the past year would apply to facilitating visits for Members. Our travel advice is simply not to go because of the danger. It is never possible to prevent Members of Parliament from travelling wherever they wish, but my advice would be to recognise the travel advice offered by colleagues. As we advise all UK individuals not to go at this stage, I am not sure whether we could facilitate such a trip.
The right hon. Gentleman’s last question was to ask us to take matters up directly with the conflict prevention unit at the bureau of crisis prevention and recovery at the UNDP to assess whether the situation in Quetta is tending towards genocide. I do not know the answer to that question, so I shall write to him and put a copy of the letter in the Library to allow other interested colleagues to see it. I did not have enough time to deal with that question before the debate.
As I mentioned earlier, the problems faced by the Hazaras are not limited to that group. That brings me back to the issue facing Pakistan in general, but notwithstanding the difficulties of Hazaras in Pakistan it is important to set them in the overall context of how difficult it is and what hopes there are of settling the situation in the near and medium term.
Minorities across Pakistan have at times endured terrible persecution and violence. There was the attack on Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old girl of whom we are all well aware from the pictures of her on the television today. I emphasise the joy we all feel at her recovery and the extraordinary bravery with which she faced those conditions and answered questions in the interviews today. The attack on Malala shocked everyone and was an example of the extraordinary and completely unjustified brutality of men against women in that part of the world. The UK Government strongly support the efforts of Malala and the Government of Pakistan to ensure that all children in Pakistan have access to education in a safe environment, free from the threat of terrorism. The only good thing that came out of that horror was the public demonstration in support of her and of education, with men and women in Pakistan saying that they had put up with enough. If only such demonstrations could also be seen on the streets of those places that have suffered the worst outbreaks of terrorism in Pakistan, more corners would be turned.
There is some light, occasionally, in these difficult situations, such as the case of Rimsha Masih, the young Christian girl who was arrested for blasphemy last August. The charges against her were dropped by the Supreme Court because of a lack of evidence and a certain amount of disquiet in the region about the charges brought against her. Again, she was a member of another minority suffering from persecution. There is hope in Pakistan that the case will be a catalyst for change and that future cases can be properly investigated and pursued.
In August, President Zardari publically acknowledged the problems faced by Pakistan’s minorities and emphasised his Government’s support for ending discrimination, which was a first step in the process of dealing with violence against minorities. Although Pakistan still has a long way to go in dealing with those issues, as a friend of Pakistan we offer our robust support in addressing the problems.
Sixty five years ago, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, shared his vision for the newly created nation with the first constituent assembly. He said there should be
“no discrimination between one caste or creed and another” for Pakistan is founded with the
“fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state”.
We know many statesmen and women from Pakistan who believe in and support his words. Although Pakistan has yet to fulfil Jinnah’s dream of a nation made up of
“equal citizens of one state”,
I have been encouraged and inspired by the many Pakistanis I have met who are working tirelessly to realise that—none more so than my friend the late Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister of National Harmony and Minority Affairs, whose work towards peaceful, moderate change was met with such brutal violence and his death. His brother Paul Bhatti has taken up that cause with energy and commitment.
I am also heartened by the work that we are doing in the UK to promote the right to freedom of religion and of belief worldwide. Last month, my right hon. Friend the noble Baroness Warsi convened a ministerial level meeting to secure political support for the UN Human Rights Council resolution 16/18 to tackle religious intolerance and foster religious freedom and pluralism. It was encouraging to see Pakistan represented at that meeting and to hear its commitment to the agenda.
As hon. Members know, the human rights situation in Pakistan remains complex. Although the past 24 months have seen some positive political and legal developments on human rights issues, successful and fair implementation remains a huge challenge. As I mentioned in my speech last year, enhancing the rule of law in Pakistan is crucial to improving the plight of the Hazaras and other minority groups. I am pleased to say that, since our last debate, this Government have launched a programme to help to improve Pakistan’s ability successfully to investigate, prosecute, convict and detain terrorists in a human rights compliant manner. We are working with Pakistan and the international community to deliver a range of programmes, such as training and mentoring, in support of that long-term goal.
Looking to the future, the upcoming elections later this year will be a crucial milestone in Pakistan’s democratic history. Helping Pakistan to deliver credible elections that lead to a peaceful transfer of power will be a top priority for the UK in 2013. We will also encourage Pakistan and its new Government to step up their actions and implementation of international obligations on human rights. Essential changes will happen only with the political support of the authorities. We will continue to focus on the rights of minorities through frank senior level discussions.
The UK is committed to an enduring relationship with Pakistan and we will continue to work with the leaders of Pakistan and its people. At the universal periodic review of Pakistan last October, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar spoke of Pakistan’s aspiration to be a society that is based on equality, the rule of law, respect for diversity and justice. As a friend of Pakistan we have a distinctive role to play in supporting that aspiration. As the House has made clear this evening, how the Hazara community and its issues are treated will form part of the judgment on how Pakistan is responding to the challenges it is rightly setting itself.
I am grateful for the support of colleagues and to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the matter.
Question put and agreed to.