Robert Halfon and David Nuttall on Human Rights on the Indian Subcontinent

15th September, 2011, House of Commons 

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this debate. I also want to thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating some of the precious time at its disposal for this afternoon’s debate.

I want to restrict my remarks to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Having previously represented Bury North, my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that thousands of my constituents have a personal concern about the human rights abuses taking place in Jammu and Kashmir. Many have personal knowledge of the problems in that part of the world, while many have families still living there who regularly witness the human rights abuses that are taking place. However, it is not possible in the brief time available to do more than highlight the main points of what we all know is a long-running issue.

The seeds of the current conflict were sown more than half a century ago in 1947, when the partition of India took place. The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which had a Hindu ruler but a predominately Muslim population, was divided between Pakistan and India. The people of the state of Kashmir were denied any say in whether they would join Pakistan or India. They wanted what those in so many areas of the world still want today: to determine their future themselves, in a vote of all Kashmiri people. The United Nations passed resolutions to that effect in 1948, but to this day the situation continues. Kashmir remains divided by the line of control, with thousands of troops ranged against each other on both sides of that line.

From time to time over the past 64 years the conflict has flared up and hit the world’s headlines. There have been several attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement, but for the majority of the time the conflict has simmered away beyond the public’s gaze and attention. Sadly for the people of Kashmir, the killings and torture continue. The latest figures supplied by the Jammu Kashmir Self-Determination Movement show that there have been more than 93,000 killings since January 1989, resulting in some 22,000 women left widowed and 107,000 children orphaned. I commend the work of the Jammu Kashmir Self-Determination Movement, under its chairman Raja Najabat Hussain, for ensuring that the problems of that troubled territory are not allowed to be completely forgotten.

As we have heard this afternoon, many of the current human rights abuses are taking place under the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act of 1978. Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, has said of that Act:

“The Jammu and Kashmir authorities are using PSA detentions as a revolving door to keep people they can’t or won’t convict through proper legal channels locked up and out of the way. Hundreds of people are being held each year on spurious grounds, with many exposed to higher risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also expressed concerns about human rights abuses on both sides of the line of control in its human rights report, issued in May this year.

The people of Jammu and Kashmir are long suffering and patient. It seems that there is always another problem in the world that takes precedence over theirs. All they want is to be given the right to determine their future by themselves. Everyone appreciates the huge challenges facing the Foreign Office, particularly in the middle east and Afghanistan. However, I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will use every opportunity to advance the cause of peace in the troubled region of Jammu and Kashmir. We are fortunate to have a Minister who understands the issue, has tremendous knowledge of it and has a general personal interest in the plight of the Kashmiri people. I know that he will do all he can to ensure that one of the longest-running conflicts in the world is resolved.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak and I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate. May I say that I agreed with everything he said in his excellent speech? Given the shortage of time, I shall focus my remarks on the conflict in Kashmir. My primary concern is to press the Government, above all, to use their good offices to the maximum to help bring about a just settlement in Kashmir—one that is acceptable to the people of Kashmir. I say this directly to the Minister—a man representing my local county for whom I genuinely have the greatest affection and respect. I think that he will listen to today’s debate and do his very best to move things forward.

Thanks to the many thousands of my constituents from Kashmir, many of whom are close personal friends—some are here today, listening to our debate with great interest—I have long been familiar with the terrible sufferings of the people of Kashmir. Time and again, the appalling things happening in Kashmir have been brought to my attention. One hon. Member spoke of possibly exaggerated figures, while others have mentioned figures that, even if only half true, would be appalling. My suspicion is that the figures are accurate and that the reality might even be rather worse than has been said.

Some 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Azad Kashmir—Pakistan Kashmir. By way of Mirpur and Kotli, I visited a refugee camp. I saw how some people had suffered in Indian Kashmir: they had escaped, but having been displaced from their homes, they were still living in refugee camps. While I was a member of the all-party group on Kashmir, I visited the Foreign Office with other colleagues to press the previous Government to do all they could, first, to stop the human rights abuses and, secondly, to try to bring about movement towards a peaceful and just settlement. I say peaceful and just because a peaceful settlement is not enough; it has to be just as well. It is possible to have a peace that is a peace only because of force majeure, which would not be right. The peace must be acceptable to the people of Kashmir.

It has been said many times by many colleagues that Britain has a special responsibility in this part of the world. It was once part of the British empire; we ruled and governed that part of the world for centuries. When we left, partition took place and a lot of blood was shed. Mistakes were made, and this might be one of the most serious of those mistakes, which lingers on as a legacy of empire in a strange way.

Steve Baker: As so often, I am surprised at the degree to which I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree, however, that one of the problems of the legacy of empire is that, although it gives us a special responsibility, it is also in many ways a curse because that very legacy is often what makes our word so very unwelcome in various countries, including in India?

Kelvin Hopkins: Indeed. I am short of time, but I hope to come on to the point that Robin Cook said when he was Foreign Secretary that he wanted to embark on a process of ethical foreign policy.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, although we must we do everything to condemn human rights violations on either side of the line of control, we must also look to whatever means we can to ensure that we support self-determination and a lasting resolution for the people of Kashmir?

Kelvin Hopkins: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and thank her for her intervention. Wherever suffering occurs, we must always support human rights; we have a record in doing so. More than one of my hon. Friends has mentioned that India is a great democracy. Indeed it is, but great democracies can also commit sins and have blood on their hands. In Britain, we consider ourselves to be a great democracy, but recent revelations about the Hola camp and what we did in Kenya, as well as about what we did to certain prisoners in Iraq suggest that even a democracy like ours can have blood on its hands. We must not excuse terrible things just because a country is a democracy.

Shabana Mahmood: Does my hon. Friend agree that no democracy—whether it be the world’s largest or not—should be afraid of a debate, either in the House, like today’s debate, or anywhere else, if that debate helps to shed some light on what is going on in another part of the world?

Kelvin Hopkins: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

I was about to make an important point about Robin Cook’s reference to an ethical foreign policy. It did not make him popular with America, but Robin Cook stood by his position and resigned over the Iraq war. That contrasts with what I believe Palmerston once said, and here I paraphrase—that in politics, there are no such things as rights and wrongs, only interests. We must raise ethics above interests sometimes in politics, as I am sure all Members do. In time, I hope that we will ensure that Pakistan and India come to a moral and ethical solution, allowing Kashmir and the Kashmiri people to determine their own future.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): This is a hugely important debate. As we hope that the Arab spring heralds a new dawn, we must be clear that freedom is a right for people in other continents too. I want to focus on the regime that calls itself the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, because I believe it is neither democratic nor—I am sure that Labour Members would agree—socialist.

The relatively normal relations Sri Lanka enjoys with the west, with little condemnation of its thin democratic credentials or genocide of Tamil civilians, have always mystified me. It is worth looking at the evidence. If we judge a democracy by its rule of law, property rights and religious tolerance, the Sri Lankan Government fails on all three. First, the Sri Lankan military is above the rule of law. As Members have said, 17,000 Tamils are still caged in barbaric camps. We still hear reports of Tamil civilians being summarily executed or disappearing, and that follows the genocide of 40,000 Tamils in the past decade. Secondly, property rights do not exist. Large areas of Tamil land and housing are still occupied by the Sri Lankan military.

Mr Scott: My hon. Friend may have seen the document from the Sri Lankan Government saying to their army that it is perfectly acceptable to take Tamil property. Does he agree that that is a disgrace?

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is exactly right. The evidence that he has seen shows, as I am pointing out, that Sri Lanka is not a proper democracy.

Thirdly, there is no tolerance of minorities. An estimated 180,000 Tamils are still displaced, either in transit camps or sheltering, and the names of prisoners have still not been published, so families cannot find out if their relatives are alive.

There is a saying that one judges a man by the friends he keeps. In the same way, one can judge a Government by the allies they keep. In the past decade, Sri Lanka’s key allies have been Iran, North Korea and Colonel Gaddafi. Colonel Gaddafi gave Sri Lanka £500 million in financial assistance for so-called development projects. In return, Sri Lanka strongly opposed the no-fly zone in Libya and offered him sanctuary. Even after Gaddafi was threatening Benghazi, Sri Lanka organised mass rallies in his support, protesting against NATO intervention. We all know the story of North Korea, yet Sri Lanka was happy to sign a major weapons contract with it in 2009. We also know the story about Iran, yet Sri Lanka signed business and oil contracts with that country in defiance of international sanctions. Despite that, Sri Lanka continues to be a member of the Commonwealth and the United Nations.

Mr Virendra Sharma: In the light of all the reports, television coverage and films shown on Channel 4, and the international condemnation, does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is the right time to demand that the Sri Lanka Government be expelled from the Commonwealth until they accept the international court?

Robert Halfon: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. As I will say in my concluding remarks, we should also boycott the Commonwealth leaders summit in Sri Lanka in 2013.

As has been highlighted, the genocide of 40,000 Tamils has brought the civil war death toll to 70,000. We must make a distinction between murder and genocide—genocide is scientific, organised killing. Having taught the Sinhalese to hate the Tamil minority, the Sri Lankan Government used the Tamil Tigers, who are opposed by moderate Tamils, and whose systematic killing of civilians we all condemn, as the excuse for a litany of horrific events and actions. Let us take a couple of examples.

In 2008, according to Human Rights Watch, the Sri Lankans used rockets to obliterate entire refugee camps full of women and children. In 2009, the Sri Lankan Government’s tactics evolved again. They declared a 35 sq km “safe zone” for Tamil civilians, and dropped leaflets appealing to civilians to move into the safe zone as soon as possible. Immediately after several thousand people had gathered there, near a United Nations food distribution plant, the Sri Lankan military shelled the area heavily, killing thousands of people in a few hours.

The United Kingdom has financial leverage. We have millions of pounds’ worth of business and tourism with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka needs the west. But we have seen what happened in “The Killing Fields”, and we must press for a UN resolution and tough economic sanctions to pressurise the Sri Lankan Government to change their ways. As I said a moment ago, we must boycott the leaders’ summit in Sri Lanka in 2013. I welcome the Canadian Prime Minister’s call for a boycott, because symbolism is incredibly important in politics.

There are very few Tamils in my constituency, so many people may ask why I am here today, but I believe that because of my background, it is my duty to try to support nations that have suffered from genocide. That is why I have been involved in Rwanda and have been there, why I have been very involved in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and why I am supporting the Tamils.

Mr Scott: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Robert Halfon: I will not, because there is very little time. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me.

We must be clear about the fact that Sri Lanka is a rogue nation. It has carried out genocide against the Tamil people, and we must do all that we can to stop the persecution of the Tamils once and for all.