Kashmir

– in the House of Commons at 12:37 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State 12:37 pm, 7th March 2019

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to update the House on the current situation between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, as promised after the urgent question was tabled last Wednesday. On 14 February, a terrorist attack against a convoy near Pulwama in India-administered Kashmir killed more than 40 members of the Indian central reserve police force and injured many others. The individual who claimed responsibility for the attack associated himself with the group Jaish-e-Mohammed. This suicide attack drew international condemnation, including from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and increased tensions between India and Pakistan.

Exactly what happened after the attack remains contested, but it is our understanding that on 26 February Indian aircraft crossed the line of control between India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir and carried out airstrikes into Pakistani territory. The following day, Pakistan launched missile strikes into India-administered Kashmir and there was an aerial exchange between Indian and Pakistani fighter jets. An Indian air force plane was shot down by Pakistan and its pilot was captured. At this point there was a serious risk that a mishap could lead to a fully-fledged war between the two nations, with both regional and international implications.

On 28 February, the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, announced that he would hand over the captured Indian pilot. The next day, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returned to India. This, together with public and private indications that Pakistan was prepared to tackle the terrorist groups that threaten India, has seen a welcome pause in the escalating tensions between the two countries. Nevertheless, the UK Government remain deeply concerned by the raised tensions between the two countries and the underlying issues that have led to this situation.

We welcome the fact that India and Pakistan have both stated publicly that they do not want to escalate tensions further. The situation remains fragile, however, and both militaries remain on heightened alert. There accordingly remains a high risk of some further incident, and the situation could move quickly back into crisis. Just this morning, media reports have come in of a deadly grenade attack in Jammu.

India and Pakistan are close and long-standing friends of the United Kingdom. Our bilateral ties with both countries are long and deep, and they are bolstered by the UK’s large Indian and Pakistani diaspora communities, which are also deeply concerned by the situation. We encourage both countries, and our friends on these shores, to find diplomatic solutions to the underlying causes of conflict.

Members should be assured that the UK has worked and continues to work tirelessly through all diplomatic channels to encourage further de-escalation and to ensure long-term regional stability. We do this alongside our international partners and with a wide range of counterparts in India and Pakistan. I visited India last weekend, between 1 and 3 March, and I was able to reiterate to those whom I met that the UK unequivocally condemns all forms of terrorism, including the appalling terrorist attack in Pulwama that sparked the current crisis. In New Delhi, I discussed with Foreign Secretary Gokhale steps to decrease tension and improve regional stability, including vital efforts to tackle terrorism.

Since I last updated the House, the Indian wing commander has been reunited with his family. We saw that as an important and welcome step by Pakistan to reduce tensions. Our Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan on 3 March, and they discussed the need to address the causes of this conflict. Our Prime Minister emphasised the importance of Pakistan’s taking action against all terrorist groups, in support of global efforts to counter terrorism.

We remain firmly committed to working closely with Pakistan to combat the terrorist threat and the extremism that sustains it. We recognise the steps that Pakistan has already taken against groups such as the Pakistani Taliban, but we continue to highlight the importance of effective and demonstrable action against all terrorist groups in Pakistan. That is something that Pakistan has committed to undertaking. We have been clear that that action needs to be urgent, sustained, credible and transparent. Alongside others in the international community, we encourage Pakistan to meet the requirements of its Financial Action Task Force action plan, which includes taking specific action to address terrorist financing.

For our part, we ensure that UK aid to Pakistan continues to address the conditions that could allow radicalisation and violent extremism to grow. A more prosperous and stable Pakistan is vital for regional and global security, and it is very much in the UK’s national interest. Our programmes on the ground aim to reduce overall poverty, promote inclusion, increase economic opportunities and meet basic needs, including girls’ education.

The UK and India also have a close working relationship on counter-terrorism, which includes regular dialogue. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United Kingdom last April, the two Prime Ministers agreed to strengthen co-operation to take decisive and concerted action against globally proscribed terrorists and terror entities to protect our citizens. They agreed that terrorist and extremist organisations must be denied space to radicalise, recruit and conduct attacks on innocent people. We will continue to work closely with and support India, but the matter goes well beyond the bilateral India-UK relationship.

We believe that all countries need to work closely together to disrupt global terrorist networks, their financing and the movement of terrorists, including foreign terrorist fighters. As part of international efforts to tackle terrorism, the UK continues actively to support the listing of JEM leader Masood Azhar at the UN. The JEM is already listed by the UN and has been proscribed in the UK since 2001, and in Pakistan since 2002.

In parallel to the important fight against terrorism, we expect India and Pakistan to focus on securing longer-term regional stability and security. Dialogue is an important confidence-building mechanism, even though we recognise the complexities. We strongly encourage both countries to engage in that way. The UK will follow developments closely, and we stand ready to support should India and Pakistan both deem that to be constructive.

As hon. Members will be aware from our conversations both at the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group and in this House only eight days ago, our long-standing position is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or act as a mediator. In the meantime, I confirm to the House that we continue to monitor the situation closely. Naturally, we keep our travel advice under constant review.

I close by reiterating the Government’s wholehearted support for those who fight terrorism, and restating our sustained commitment to working with India and Pakistan to further de-escalate the current situation. Many Members of the House—a lot of them are here today—agree that a calming of these tensions is in our collective interests. I think we have an important part to play. When I went to New Delhi and Mumbai last weekend, I was struck by how many of my counterparts had watched last week’s urgent question. The message goes out loud and clear from this House that here there are many friends of India and Pakistan who wish to see a better future for all who live in Kashmir. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 12:45 pm, 7th March 2019

I thank the Minister of State for advance sight of his statement.

There is great concern across this House, and in many of our constituencies, about what is happening in Kashmir and the tension that that is creating between India and Pakistan—the biggest military confrontation between the two countries for 20 years. I applaud the Foreign Office team for keeping the House updated and for the sober and constructive tone of the statement.

It is important at the outset to go back to the immediate cause of this crisis, namely the vicious terror attack on a convoy of Indian troops travelling through Pulwama on 14 February, leaving more than 40 of them dead. India has been absolutely right to take action against the terror group responsible, known as the JEM, and to demand that Pakistan take action as well.

We welcome the fact that Pakistan has started to take the necessary action, with the detention of several members of the JEM and other proscribed organisations earlier this week. As the Indian Government have done, however, we urge Pakistan to go further by, first, prosecuting those individuals if there is evidence of their links to terror offences; and, secondly, arresting and prosecuting the head of the JEM, Masood Azhar. We welcome the latest moves to ensure that Masood Azhar is finally designated as a global terrorist by the UN Security Council. May I ask the Minister of State whether there are signs of movement on that issue by China, given its previous veto of such action?

Finally on the Pulwama attack, will the Minister join me in urging the Indian authorities, at national and regional levels, to follow the welcome instructions of the Indian Supreme Court to ensure the protection and safety of the innocent civilians of Kashmiri origin—men and women, from suited businesspeople to street traders—who have faced violent reprisals across India following the attack?

I turn to the recent military escalation around the line of control. In this age of doctored images and social media misinformation, it has been genuinely bewildering trying to work out what has actually happened, as opposed to what has been claimed. I think we can all say one thing with clarity: both sides have a responsibility to dial down the rhetoric, de-escalate the tension and avoid taking any further military action—in the air or on the ground—that could inflame the situation further and risk a descent into open conflict.

As the shadow Foreign Secretary said on this subject last week, the danger of this claim and counter-claim—the tit-for-tat attacks and what we are repeatedly told are airstrikes designed to send a message—is that amid the fog of war, mistakes will be made, and even without either side intending it, a major incident will occur from which there will be no going back. I know the Minister of State will agree that instead we urgently require the resumption of immediate talks between India and Pakistan, to de-escalate the crisis and avoid any further military action.

I would go further than that and say this should be the catalyst for the resumption of proper negotiations and a substantive dialogue between India and Pakistan on the future of Kashmir. The blueprint is there in the sadly short-lived plan worked out between the Singh and Musharraf Governments in the early 2000s. If such dialogue was possible back then, and if a workable, mutually agreed plan for Kashmir was possible back then, it can be possible today or, at the very least, after the Indian elections this spring.

What we must remember about the Singh-Musharraf plan is that it had at its heart not just military disengagement on both sides but a genuine regard for the political and economic rights of the Kashmiri people that, along with their human rights and humanitarian needs, have been so tragically overlooked for the past 70 years.

Let me repeat what my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said last week: our thoughts must first and foremost be with the innocent people of Kashmir, over whom this battle is being fought. Their human rights have been serially abused, their humanitarian needs have been neglected and their wishes for their own future have been treated as unimportant.

Generation after generation of Kashmiri children face growing up trapped in the same cycle of instability, violence and fear. It is time to break that cycle. Only peaceful dialogue and a negotiated settlement can achieve that, and I hope the Minister of State will continue urging both sides not just to de-escalate the current tensions, and not just to take effective action against the terror groups that helped create that tension, but to commit to resuming constructive dialogue to eliminate those tensions for good and finally bring peace and stability to the people of Kashmir.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I thank the hon. Lady for her thoughtful and wise words. She is absolutely right in many ways about one of the depressing things for all of us as parliamentarians in recent months. Despite all the attention on the battles being fought on Brexit, a huge amount of work is going on on this issue. We all feel strongly about this, and I have spent a lot of time, either on the phone, in video conferences or in person, with our excellent ambassadors, Sir Dominic Asquith in New Delhi and Tom Drew in Pakistan. I realise just how much work has gone on behind the scenes as we try to play our part in bringing about the dialogue to which the hon. Lady refers. Where I entirely agree with her, and I think the whole House would agree, is that it is time to break the cycle, which can happen only through dialogue. She is quite right to recognise that, after the desperately tragic events of 14 February, making substantive steps forward in the next five or six weeks, during the Indian elections, is not entirely realistic. However, once the dust has settled on those elections—obviously in Imran Khan we have a relatively new Pakistani Prime Minister, too—one hopes that sense will prevail and there can be ongoing dialogue. Obviously, the UK stands ready to keep lines of communication open, as we have over the difficult past fortnight or so. We will play our part in that regard.

The hon. Lady asked some specific questions, one of which was about the hoped-for movement by China. Clearly a lot of discussions are taking place at the UN Security Council, and we hope that any veto on proscribing and listing Masood Azhar will not come about. The situation is clearly fluid. As soon as I am in a position to say more, I will naturally do so.

The hon. Lady is right to say that the Indian Supreme Court has made judgments to which we should all pay close attention in relation to the duties and responsibilities of the Kashmiri public.

The hon. Lady referenced the idea that what has happened is still open to some dispute, and I read a rather perceptive piece in The Guardian yesterday that said, rather skilfully, that both sides have an interest in keeping the narrative malleable. That gives both India and Pakistan room to claim victory but also, more importantly, to refrain from further strikes. There is a sense of each side perhaps being able to get the last word because there is that sense of ambiguity, and such ambiguity can at times assist de-escalatory sentiment. It is therefore all the more important for us to maintain elements of that ambiguity, rather than trying to ramp up the pressure.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words, which add so much to our diplomacy. There will always be differences of nuance, and perhaps even more fundamental differences, on Foreign Office-related affairs, but it adds so much more to our voice in diplomatic quarters if we are, at times, able to speak as one, particularly during such a tragic era.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I thank the Minister for updating the House, and I thank him and the shadow Minister for their tone in trying to de-escalate the current crisis between India and Pakistan. I read with interest the read-out from the conversation between our Prime Minister and Prime Minister Imran Khan, in which our Prime Minister made it clear that the responsibility for Pakistan is to remove and dismantle the terrorist camps and to make sure that terrorism is not encouraged in Pakistan. What is not clear is the response from Prime Minister Imran Khan to actually make that happen. If it happens, it could lead to dialogue and could prevent terrorism.

Will my right hon. Friend the Minister update the House on what the reaction has been from the Pakistani Government to achieve the peace and stability we all want to see?

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. An even-handed assessment is that effective, visible and verifiable action against terrorist groups in the vicinity of Kashmir is an urgent necessity, so I welcome the reports of Pakistan’s intent in that regard. Obviously we recognise that verifying and sustaining those efforts will be vital.

It is also worth pointing out that much of the commentary in the immediate aftermath of 14 February was pessimistic, and both Prime Minister Modi of India and Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan have shown statesmanlike qualities that were perhaps not expected by many commentators. It is still early days, and one recognises that the potentially escalatory events in Jammu earlier today mean we cannot be complacent, but the international community can be relieved that some of the very worst predictions of only two or three weeks ago have not come to pass. I very much hope that the two Premiers will show statesmanlike behaviour in trying to ensure a verifiable change of heart on the ground.

Photo of Stephen Gethins Stephen Gethins Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I thank the Minister for early sight of his statement. I also thank him for his work and particularly for the work of Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials, which is often overlooked. I join colleagues on both sides of the House in our unequivocal condemnation of terror attacks.

We are dealing with two nuclear-armed states, which concerns us all and means this is a global problem, not just a regional problem. De-escalation is critical, and obviously we welcome the return of the Indian pilot. I welcome the Minister’s work on that de-escalation. There is a concern about the role of non-state actors that could not care less about the nuclear element—that concerns us, and obviously it concerns the Minister, too. It would be interesting to get his further thoughts on that.

India and Pakistan have good friends the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, and I welcome the Minister’s remarks about the UK’s readiness to support the peace process should India and Pakistan require and want that support. This role should not begin and end with the FCO. If we are looking at a long-term solution, we must look to our engagement with diaspora communities and to the fantastic ongoing work that some tremendous non-governmental organisations—many of them funded by the FCO—and others are doing. I highlight the groundbreaking work of some of the Scottish NGOs in providing a space in Scotland for peacebuilding activities, and I know the Minister has taken that on board, too.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is right to say that there is a role to be played by bodies other than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He will appreciate that a lot of work goes on, particularly in Pakistan, where the biggest Department for International Development budget goes. Some of that work is too sensitive to bring up on the Floor of the House, as he will understand. In addition, the Department for International Trade plays a role, and technology is becoming increasingly important to both India and Pakistan. I am well aware from my own speeches to diaspora communities from both the Pakistani and Indian side that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has an important role to play. Indeed, when I was in Mumbai, on a pre-arranged visit that ended up being at a fortuitous time in diplomatic terms, I had conversations about FinTech initiatives that take place between India and the UK. It is also worth pointing out that there is a fledgling but important technology industry in Pakistan, and we have tried to encourage our Pakistani diaspora to play an important role in that.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

I particularly welcome the proactive way in which the Minister has brought this statement to the House. I do so for two reasons, the first of which is that I thought I detected a slight evolution in the Government’s position and perhaps willingness to react to a demand from India and Pakistan to get involved. I do not particularly wish to press him on it, in case it proves to be a will-o’-the-wisp, but if I did correctly sense an evolution in the position, I am extremely grateful for that. The second reason is the one highlighted by the Opposition Front Bencher, which is that Kashmiri people in the UK and doubtless across the world have long felt neglected. They have felt that the international community has not paid attention to their human rights. If this is not the moment to escalate this issue in the minds of the international community, when will we ever do it? I welcome this statement but I ask the Minister to make sure the international community pays attention.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am well aware of the work he does with a significant Kashmiri population in his constituency, and I have had a chance to meet some of the main community leaders there. I would not wish him to think there has been too much of an evolution of the Government policy, but what I have seen, having spoken at great length to our high commissioners in Islamabad and New Delhi, is a recognition that one area where we can and will assist, as we have done, is through the breadth of our diplomatic knowledge on the ground. We are able to have lines of communication open with diplomats, politicians and the military on both sides, which we hope will enable us to assist. But it would be wrong to assume that we are in any way going to try to put our own template or mediate there. I would not want the House to be in any doubt that a huge amount of work does go on in our diplomatic community, which will continue.

I know that my hon. Friend takes the Kashmiri issue very seriously and he is right to say that this is perhaps an important international wake-up call, when progress can be made. We are perhaps reluctant to make a comparison with what happened in Northern Ireland, but the single worst attack on civilians there, in Omagh, in 1998, finally became the moment when many, not only in Northern Ireland but in surrounding countries, thought that something fundamentally had to change. That was the path towards the Good Friday agreement.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

I value the Minister coming here to give us this statement and I thank him for that. However, I am struggling with the fact that although we rightly hear about terrorism and how Pakistan needs to get rid of all the terrorism, I do not hear—and I want to hear—about the Kashmiri people. We do not hear about the fact that we have illegally occupied territory, and people who have been persecuted for years and years. There is no end in sight for those people at the heart of all of this. We are not talking about that. We are not talking about the Indian armed forces doing what they are doing, and blinding people. We are not talking about the resurgence of all the terrors put upon these people. What really alarms me is that while we are talking about Pakistan playing its role, we have seen a Prime Minister in India who is using the conflict to electioneer and using it as a tool for his election purposes. What have our Government done? Have we made any representations to the Prime Minister of India about not using this conflict for electioneering purposes?

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I thank the hon. Lady for that. She will appreciate, and we have very much noted, the concerns across Kashmir raised in the report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in June 2018. It made firm recommendations for both India and Pakistan to consider. Even eight days ago, I was not quite aware of just how much work goes on. I alluded in my statement to the work on child education. When I was in Pakistan at the end of 2017, I went to Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which at that stage was the stronghold of Imran Khan’s party. I saw the terrific amount of work that was going on in trying to develop trust-based policing, similar to what we have here in the UK, rather than the police being a police “force”. There was also a real commitment to education, particularly girls’ education. These things go on throughout Pakistan. Some of them are quite sensitive and I cannot go into great detail here.

One very much hopes there will be an ongoing de-escalation and calming of passions, but later in the year we will have a leadership week at the Foreign Office, when our high commissioners in India and Pakistan will both be here, so it might be useful to have the all-party group on Kashmir come in. I hope that people will recognise that some of what will be said will be a little sensitive, so I cannot go into deep detail on this on the Floor of the House, but that might be a useful exercise for the all-party group and friends of India from both sides of the House—I am well aware that Barry Gardiner speaks in that regard. That might be useful, as it would give all Members a little more idea of just how much work goes on in Kashmir, some of which is difficult at this stage to avow.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

I very much welcome the tone of the Minister’s statement, and that of what was said by the shadow Minister and by the Scottish National party spokesperson. The sight of two nuclear-armed nations firing on each other was clearly frightening, and the de-escalation that has happened since is welcome. Can the Minister reassure ne about the work that will be done to maintain the communication, particularly between the two militaries that sit both sides of the line of control? In London, at the Royal College of Defence Studies, we can see members of both those nations’ armed forces working and participating together, and building up friendships and relationships. This should not be impossible and it is certainly something we could help to facilitate.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said, because he is right: our defence capability here involves a significant number of leading figures in both the Pakistani and Indian military having come out of Sandhurst and having been trained here. That is one aspect of UK soft power, as having these sorts of institutions allows alumni to maintain contact in the future. We will do all we can to keep as many lines of communication open as possible. One does not perhaps recognise until such incidents occur just how important developing the soft power of those connections is, both for the UK’s purpose and for countries caught in the sort of problems faced in Kashmir.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Independent, Ilford South

I welcome the tone and content of the Minister’s statement and of the remarks made by the Labour Front Bencher. That is very important at this time, when, as the Minister said, there has today been a terrorist attack on a bus stand in Jammu with a grenade. I understand that it has killed at least one person and left three more in a serious condition—apparently, 28 people were injured. This is the third attack on a bus stand in Jammu in the past year. Clearly, there are people in the region who wish to create tension, conflict and all-out war between India and Pakistan for their own reasons. This is a time for all voices in this country—in this Parliament and in diaspora communities—to come together to tone down the rhetoric and work for long-term, difficult political solutions.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said. He is absolutely right that it is incumbent on us all, as responsible Members of Parliament, to do all that we can to try to tone down the rhetoric, which was at a very high level at some points. He asked me last week about the Kargil war. I very much hope he will take up my offer and come to the Foreign Office. It would be useful to learn a little more because, as I say, one thing one learns quickly in Foreign Office and diplomatic affairs is that very few problems are entirely novel and we can always learn from perspectives on the past. The hon. Gentleman had an important role to play in the Foreign Affairs Committee at the beginning of the new Labour time, when Robin Cook was the Foreign Secretary.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

I thank the Minister for coming back to the House to update us on this situation. He will recall that in his comments to me last Wednesday he made a pledge to the people of Walthamstow and, indeed, to the people of this country, that in his conversations with both the Pakistani and Indian representatives he would raise explicitly the question of UN investigations into human rights in Kashmir. Will he update us on the conversations he has had on human rights and whether he has been able to use Britain’s influence to persuade them to co-operate with those investigations so that the people of Kashmir can finally have some justice?

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

We are working together on this. There have been a lot of other priorities, but I very much took on board the concerns expressed. As I mentioned earlier in answer to a previous question, we obviously feel that, given the pretty robust report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with its own recommendations, we want both India and Pakistan to ensure that they adapt their domestic laws in line with the international standards. It is clear that a lot of work will continue at the UN; I do not think there is any sense of complacency or of thinking we are by any means out of the woods in respect of these tensions.

The current mandate of the UN military observer group in India and Pakistan authorises it to observe developments relating to the observance of the 1971 ceasefire and to report to the Secretary-General. Obviously, any allegations of human rights abuses or violations are therefore a matter of deep concern under that mandate. We expect all countries to comply with the international obligations. We will continue to do a lot more on this issue at the UN. We are well aware, as the hon. Lady will be, that several countries, including Germany and Indonesia, that have strong interests in this issue, either for regional reasons or because of their trade and diaspora connections, are on the UN Security Council this year, and we will be working together with all those countries. It will take a little time. I am sorry that I do not have too much more to report from the past eight days, but a lot more will be going on in the months to come.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The Minister has been most assiduous and thorough in his replies to questions, but—

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I think I know where this is going.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The Minister knows what is coming next. We have a lot of business to get through today, so I think the House would now appreciate rather shorter answers.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

I join the unanimous condemnation of these callous terrorist attacks and underline, as I think the Minister would, that the matter of Kashmir will be resolved only when India and Pakistan put the interests of Kashmiris centre stage.

I was hoping the Minister would clarify one point in relation to his statement. He referred to the fact that Pakistan’s actions need to be

“urgent, sustained, credible and transparent”,

but it is not clear to me whether he believes that to be the case, so will he confirm that? Will he also confirm what further action the UK Government may be able to take with Pakistan in future on tackling terrorism?

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. There is a clear intent from the Pakistani authorities to ensure that things are going to be verifiable and transparent, as I have pointed out. That will obviously be tested in time, but we have felt that Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken a positive stance, recognising our concerns about terrorist-related organisations on the ground in Pakistan. Again, we stand ready to work with the international community to try to ensure that any terrorist organisations on either side of the divide that would do harm to Kashmir’s interests and to Kashmiri people are kept at bay.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

I thank the Government for the steps they have taken to de-escalate the tension between Pakistan and India. The world cannot afford for these two nuclear countries to go to war. We all want to ensure the safety and human rights of the people of Kashmir. It is disappointing that the Minister did not say a single word on human rights in his three-page statement. Does he agree that there is a role for the United Nations and the other independent parties to monitor and report on alleged human rights abuses? The Indian Government have locked up hundreds of Kashmiri leaders. Does the Minister agree that India must remove restrictions on the Hurriyat leadership and accept that Kashmiris are the third party in this conflict?

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot go as far as to satisfy him on what he said about the idea of Kashmir being a third party. We do not recognise the notional government of Kashmir, for the obvious reasons we have pointed out. On human rights, I referred in my response to Stella Creasy to what we are doing at the UN level. It is important to recognise that we will continue to make representations, as we have in the past, to try to ensure that there is a proper, verifiable process for concerns about human rights, wherever they come from, and I accept that they come predominantly from the Pakistani side about what is happening in Indian-administered Kashmir. We will continue to make strong representations in that regard.

Photo of Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Labour, Slough

Many of us were appalled by the despicable terrorist attack in Pulwama, but it was also awful to see reprisals against entirely innocent Kashmiri people in India. Along with my Slough constituents, I was heartened to see various Sikh groups in the neighbouring Punjab and human rights organisations elsewhere stand up for and protect Kashmiris living in their neighbourhoods. Will the Minister continually make it clear to his Indian counterparts that although we understand their anger, they must ensure that innocent people are not harmed in response?

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I can confirm that in my conversation with Foreign Secretary Gokhale in New Delhi last week I brought up that very point, and we shall continue to do so.

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Justice)

I join other Members in our unanimous condemnation of terrorism in all its forms. I welcome the Minister’s efforts to de-escalate this very dangerous situation. I also welcome the efforts of all people on all sides who continue to voice with reason the message of de-escalation, peace and stability in the region. In particular, I note the Pakistani Government and Imran Khan’s real gesture of peace in the release of the captured Indian pilot.

At the heart of this issue continue to be the sons and daughters of Kashmir. Tragically, I did not hear anywhere in the Minister’s statement the outright condemnation of the continued human rights violations. Just this morning, constituents have given me reports of ceasefire violations in the Bhimber, Kotli and Samahni districts that have left people injured and many others running and fleeing. I urge the Minister to demand an urgent end to the violations of the ceasefire and to urge the Indian Government, as Pakistan has done, to allow the international community to come together and act as mediators to allow an end to the human rights violations, and to allow self-determination.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I am doing my best to de-escalate some of the passions and tensions even on the Floor of the House. As I said last week, I very much admire the hon. Gentleman’s real sense of passion. Please do not think that we do not express the concerns about human rights. There are of course concerns on both sides of the divide, and it would be wrong to think of it as a one-way thing. Of course we do not support human rights violations, but one concern is that using the word “condemn” is not enough; we want to try to do something more constructive. Condemning is simply words; I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that a lot of action is also taking place in both Islamabad and New Delhi, and we shall continue to do that work.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I, too, welcome the tone of these exchanges on what can be a tense subject matter and what has been a very tense situation. One problem that causes terrorism all around the world, and certainly in this area, is information and misinformation. Many Members have called for monitoring by an honest broker, the UN, in Kashmir. It could not only help to find out what human rights violations are going on and seek to offer aid, support and condemnation, but help with some of the efforts to stop terrorism through misinformation and propaganda. Should not the UK Government constantly be pushing for UN investigators and monitors in Kashmir to protect Kashmiri people?

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

The issue of disinformation, which the hon. Lady rightly mentions, is a global phenomenon, due in part to the nature of social media. It is something that we will try to address. At the very least, we will try to corral the international community with a conference on press freedom in July, in which this will be one of the issues that will emerge.

The trust that has been built up over the years within our diplomatic network genuinely assisted in keeping open the lines of communication between Indian and Pakistani counterparts during the fraught weeks since 14 February. We can be very proud that, at a time when so much of our energy and attention is on Brexit disputes, we have in the Foreign Office individuals who are working hard to do their best to ensure that, when there are flashpoints such as those that have happened in Kashmir, we can utilise as much of our diplomatic network’s muscle as possible to bring sides together. We can all be proud of that, but equally, we are not complacent and we will continue to work very hard to ensure that that de-escalation and the sense of calm that has come into place over the past couple of weeks are maintained.