Note to Readers:
This is 3rd ‘Hazara Debate’ since 2012 by Hazara APPG – group of Hon. MPs concerned about the ongoing Hazara Genocide/systematic discrimination in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Note about certain passages of HazaraDebate:
Hazaras as Persian speakers – According to ongoing research by Hazara researchers, Hazaragi – native language of Hazaras – is its own language and NOT a dialect of Persian or Farsi (from Iran, as mentioned in the Debate). For example, Hazaragi words resembling Mongolian and Turkish are not in Persian language.
Hazara population (9% – 20%) – There has never been a census in Afghanistan, so any numbers and percentages quoted are without any statistical base. For example, the 9% or 10% quoted usually comes from CIA World Fact Book on Afghanistan. In the recent past, that number quoted was 19%, and within a few years, it dropped from 19% to 9% (error? or ‘freudian slip’ of political kind?). A better measure of Hazara population is 2010 election in which Hazaras secured approx 23.29% (58 seats in Wolesi Jirga, Afghanistan; Hazaras make the predominant body of Shias in Afghanistan). In addition, 2.5 to 4 million Hazaras are living as refugees in Iran, approx 600,000 in Pakistan, and close to 100,000 in Diaspora. This does not take into consideration Hazaras that were forced to change their identities to avoid persecution to other ethnicity for last 120 years in Afghanistan. See download page for Hazara Holocaust/Genocide/Slavery).
Participating Hon MPs
Rt Hon John Denham MP – Labour, Southampton Itchen (@JohnDenhamMP)
Tobias Ellwood MP, Foregin Office Minister (Conservative/Bournemouth East)(@TobiasEllwoodMP)
Mrs Eleanor Laing MP, Deputy Speaker (Conservative/Epping Forest) (@EleanorLaingMP)
Rt Hon Andrew Smith MP – Labour, Oxford East (@AndrewSmithMP)
David Burrowes MP – Conservative, Enfield & Southgate (@davidburrowesmp)
Stella Creasy MP, Labour Co-operative, Walthamstow (@stellacreasy)
Jeremy Lefroy MP, Conservative, Stafford (@JeremyLefroyMP)
Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Labour, Southampton & Test (@alanwhiteheadmp)
Mike Thornton MP, Liberal Democrat, Eastleigh (@Mike4Eastleigh)
Martin Horwood MP, Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham (@MartinChelt)
Mrs Madeleine Moon MP, Labour, Bridgend (@MadeleineMoon)
Jim Shannon MP, DUP, Strangford (@jim2win)
John McDonnell MP, Labour, Hayes and Harlington (@johnmcdonnellMP)
Mike Gapes MP, Labour Co-operative, Ilford South (@MikeGapes)
Rt Hon John Spellar MP, Shadow Foreign Office Minister (Labour/Warley) (@spellar)
Bob Stewart MP, Conservative, Beckenham (No Twitter id found)
Hazara Debate’ in UK House of Commons – Sept 1, 2014
On Monday 1 September MPs took part in a debate on the position of Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the House of Commons Chamber. This debate was scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee.
The Member in charge for this debate was John Denham, Labour MP for Southampton, Itchen. Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Tobias Ellwood, responded to the debate on behalf of the Government.
Video of Debate: Strat at: 21:09:11
How the subject for debate was selected
The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee following representations from John Denham and Mike Thornton at the meeting on Tuesday 1 July 2014. The debate was originally scheduled for 17 July but was rescheduled to take place on 1 September.
Note 1: Text of Transcript from ‘Hazara Debate’ is provided verbatim from House of Commons website (link above). We have only added pictures of each Hon. MPs once during first passage of their speech.
Hazaras (Afghanistan and Pakistan)
Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab):
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the position of Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I am grateful for this debate, and I speak as an MP and as chair of the Hazara all-party parliamentary group. In recent weeks, we have seen ethnic and religious minorities face appalling violence at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Iraq and Syria. This debate is about another community that has suffered at the hands of very similar ideologues for far too long.
I knew little of the Hazara until I met constituents who were part of the Hazara diaspora and who had been forced to flee violence. I believe that might be true of other right hon. and hon. Members who want to speak in this debate. The Hazara are an indigenous people of Afghanistan, predominantly but not exclusively Shi’a Muslims. The community in Quetta in Pakistan’s Balochistan province was established in the late 19th century by Hazaras fleeing religious persecution in Afghanistan. It largely prospered, providing education for men and women and showing a deep-seated and industrious work ethic, until it became the target of terrorist attacks from about 1999.
Hazaras comprise between 10% and 20% of the population of Afghanistan. Persecution continued into the Taliban era, with thousands killed in massacres during the civil war and under the Taliban Government. In part, the Hazara are victims of the violence against Shi’a Muslims and other religious minorities that is endemic in Pakistan and has featured strongly in the history of Afghanistan. I do not want to underplay the common features shared with the wider violence against the Shi’a community, but Hazaras have suffered disproportionately, in part because their distinct ethnic identity makes them easily identifiable and targets for prejudice and discrimination.
There is little doubt that sectarian groups have received finance from states and individuals in the Gulf. Today, they might be recognising just what they have created in Iraq and Syria, but we and other western countries have been silent for far too long on their role. Just occasionally, the violence in Quetta makes the international news: in June 2012, when a university bus was bombed, killing four and injuring 72; and in early 2013, when two bombings killed 180 Hazaras. Continuing violence has been well documented in the recent Human Rights Watch report “We are the Walking Dead”, published in June 2014.
The community in Quetta comprises about 500,000 people, yet nearly 1,500 people have been killed since 1999 and more than 3,500 injured. The attacks have targeted breadwinners and forced businesses to close, promoting economic deprivation, while some recent attacks have directly targeted women and children. Perhaps 55,000 people have fled to Australia or Europe—of course, not all survived the journey—and following attacks on transports, students no longer attend university. In Quetta, the community is restricted to two enclaves with a total area of just 4 square miles. The community is isolated, with travel restrictions imposed by the Pakistani Government.
1 Sep 2014 : Column 124
Shockingly, in the past 16 years, not one person has been brought successfully to justice. The al-Qaeda-affiliated organisation Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has openly claimed responsibility for the killings, while leading members have been seen associating with public figures and politicians in Pakistan. A few people have been arrested, but have then been released or able to escape or cases have been dismissed. It is clear that the Pakistan authorities have failed to act with any effectiveness to protect the Hazara community, with attacks taking place close to the presence of security forces.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab):
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the others who have secured this debate, and I agree with everything in his very powerful speech. Does he agree that given the inability or unwillingness to bring people to justice for these horrors in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and given the hideous murders that have taken place, it is high time that the United Nations referred Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other groups alleged to be responsible to the International Criminal Court in order to send the most powerful signal possible that this is utterly unacceptable to the international community?
Mr Denham: I think there is indeed a strong case for that, and I will come in a moment to the responsibility of the international community.
In other parts of Pakistan, the Pakistan state has made significant efforts against, for example, the Pakistan Taliban, that have not been made in Quetta. The Pakistan Government are clearly in breach of their international obligation to protect their people. We should call tonight for effective action by the Pakistan state, but those demands must be consistently reinforced by the international community, by individual Governments, including our own, and by international institutions, including the United Nations and its agencies, and that must be done in every relationship—political, military, development and human rights.
Demands for change must be central to our relationship with Pakistan, not just raised occasionally or at a junior level. Last year, the then Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi did raise those issues with Prime Minister Sharif and he denounced sectarian killings. What we now need to see is visible action to investigate those killings and prosecute those, particularly the LEJ leadership, who have claimed responsibility. Militant groups should be disbanded and those such as the political wing of the LEJ, which in March this year celebrated killings and pledged to eliminate Hazaras from Balochistan, must be brought under control.
We need the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development to recognise the roots of the problems faced by the Hazaras. I would like to see DFID develop assistance programmes to address the immediate needs of the community in Quetta. I would also like to see the conflict pool—the UK fund for conflict prevention, which already operates in other parts of Pakistan—extended to Balochistan. Big efforts must be made to engage the UN system, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said. The UN system has strong policies on human rights, preventing genocide and the protection of indigenous peoples, all of which should apply to the Hazara. While some recent and welcome progress has been made, much more could be done.
1 Sep 2014 : Column 125
Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Denham: I will take one more intervention.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on securing this debate. In 2012 there was an international conference on the genocide of Hazaras—indeed, the new Minister, whom I welcome to his post, was present. I notice that at that time not a single perpetrator had been arrested or brought to justice. Has there been any change in that regard?
Mr Denham: There have been some arrests, as I understand it, but nobody has yet been successfully brought to justice. That is a matter of grave concern.
As I said, the UN has strong policies, but we have to make much more progress at the international level. Let me turn briefly to Afghanistan. The fall of the Taliban brought representation in the political system and support for the Hazaras’ long-standing commitment to educate girls as well as boys, though widespread discrimination continued. There have, of course, been atrocities, notably the killing of more than 60 people, mostly Hazaras, in Ashura in December 2011. However, fears are now rising of what might happen after the withdrawal of international troops. Secure and stable government is by no means assured, and the current political stalemate following the elections is hardly encouraging.
The security situation is becoming increasingly volatile, and Taliban forces are increasing their control of territory. We have seen the killing and forced displacement of Hazaras from Khas Uruzgan and killings and disappearances along the roads from Kabul to Bamiyan, Ghazni and Heart, with 30 Hazaras killed in three separate attacks on those highways in July 2014 alone. It is understandable that Hazaras fear a return to the scale of abuses they experienced under the Taliban regime. It is hardly encouraging that two of the Taliban released by the US in a recent prisoner exchange were Mullah Fazl and Mullah Norullah Noori, who both participated in the massacre of thousands of Hazaras in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That does not show a sensitivity to the history or the future dangers.
The message that we want to convey from tonight’s debate—happening as it is just a few days before the NATO summit—is that even as troops are withdrawn, the international community cannot afford to lose interest in what happens in Afghanistan. The international community needs a clear agenda for its continuing aid and political relationship with the Afghan Government, which should include pressure to address the continuing discrimination and under-representation of Hazaras within the Afghan Government and state, and to assist the Afghan Government in ensuring the protection of ethnic and religious minorities following troop withdrawal.
Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr Denham: I will give way one last time.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I wonder whether he believes it would also be helpful to have direct Hazara representation in discussions at the NATO summit as a result of the points he is making so eloquently.
1 Sep 2014 : Column 126
Mr Denham: It is a real issue that the Hazaras have often not been given a voice in international conferences and also, I have to say, in relation to our Government and their aid programme. That voice must be found.
My final point is this. The international community now generally recognises that talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban are both unavoidable and necessary, but it has to be made clear that such talks cannot be allowed to exclude the protection of minority rights as part of any long-term solution. Even after the withdrawal of international troops, I still think we should be in a position to ensure that those issues remain on the agenda.
Several hon. Members rose—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing):
Order. Unfortunately, because there has been a surge in demand to speak in this debate, I shall have to maintain the three-minute limit of the previous debate. I call Jeremy Lefroy.
Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con):
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) and indeed the Backbench Business Committee on bringing this debate forward. You will be glad to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker, that because the right hon. Gentleman has eloquently outlined the situation that the Hazaras face, I intend to make just one point.
I wish to say that it is the responsibility of every Government on this planet to look after their minorities—whatever they think of them, whatever the background or history. Governments have the responsibility to protect their minorities. We are not necessarily here to dictate political systems or say whether minorities such as the Hazaras should have this or that kind of democracy, but it is a fundamental role of any state to protect and to provide safety and security for all its people, and not to discriminate against any one people because of their faith, creed, colour or whatever else.
That leads precisely on to the point made by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen: it is up to the UK Government, in whatever way they interact with another Government, in Pakistan, Afghanistan or elsewhere around the world, to oppose any discrimination against and persecution of minorities simply because of who they are, and wherever that discrimination and persecution are taking place. It is for the UK Government at each and every opportunity, whether it be through development, military, diplomatic or even economic relations, to make that point. As I say, this does not apply only to Pakistan and Afghanistan, as we could think of dozens of other places where it is happening. It is a duty to protect minority citizens and give them equal rights with others.
In my work on the International Development Committee, I sometimes feel that we do not take up this challenge enough. Let us not forget that Pakistan is the single biggest bilateral recipient of UK aid. We have clout there. When our Committee visited Pakistan a couple of years ago, we could not go anywhere near Quetta or to Balochistan because of the situation there. We could go to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab and we saw some excellent work being done there, but we
1 Sep 2014 : Column 127
could not go to a place where all these things were going on at the time. I believe that it is for our Ministers in the Department for International Development and for parliamentarians on the International Development Committee to raise those matters whenever we have the opportunity. We may be ignored and there may be no action, but we could be listened to and it is our responsibility to act as I have suggested.
Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab):
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) eloquently put it in his introduction to the debate, this Hazara community does not have a nation; it has parts of a nation and has had a substantial diaspora across the world, with perhaps a million Hazaras in Iran, more than half a million in Pakistan and between 1 million and 2 million in Afghanistan. These people have suffered historically from enormous persecution, which in many ways continues today.
If I have time, I would like briefly to read out a letter that was circulated in Quetta at the time of the arrest of a leader of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a body that continues openly to pursue attacks against Hazaras in Quetta and around. The letter says:
“All Shi’ites are worthy of killing. We will rid Pakistan of unclean people. Pakistan means land of the pure and the Shi’ites have no right to live in this country. We have the edict and signatures of revered scholars, declaring Shi’ites infidels. Just as our fighters have waged a successful jihad against the Shi’ite Hazaras in Afghanistan, our mission in Pakistan is the abolition of this impure sect and its followers from every city, every village, and every nook and corner of Pakistan.
As in the past, our successful jihad against the Hazaras in Pakistan and, in particular, in Quetta, is ongoing and will continue in the future. We will make Pakistan the graveyard of the Shi’ite Hazaras and their houses will be destroyed by bombs and suicide bombers. We will only rest when we are able to fly the flag of true Islam on this land of the pure. Jihad against the Shi’ite Hazaras has now become our duty.”
That organisation is dedicated to eradicating an entire ethnic group from the face of the earth. Those are the circumstances under which the Pakistani Hazaras live daily, with the results that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen described.
There have been atrocities—for example, when a number of people were blown up on a bus while on a pilgrimage. When asked how he intended to “stem the tears” of the Hazara community, the then Chief Minister of Balochistan said:
“Of the millions who live in Balochistan, 40 dead in Mastung is not a big deal. I will send a truckload of tissue papers to the bereaved families.”
That is the reality of life for Hazaras in Pakistan and in other places. It is incumbent on us to raise the issue internationally and to call on the Pakistan Government and international agencies to ensure that the rights that any of us would expect are protected, including the rights of this vibrant community, part of which I am delighted to say is resident in my constituency.
Mike Thornton (Eastleigh) (LD):
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) for his sterling work on the issue. The subject was
1 Sep 2014 : Column 128
brought to my attention by Luci Woodland, who is part of the APPG and who told me that no one knows this is happening. We have heard about what is going on. We have heard the numbers. Amnesty International says that the targeting of Hazaras is increasing. That must frighten all of us. It is incumbent on all Members to spread the word. That is what we need to do. We need to ensure that people know what is going on. The press do not report it. The BBC does not report it. Sky News does not report it. We must persuade people to let everyone know what is happening.
Many years ago, people of my generation used to write postcards to Amnesty International about prisoners of conscience because we knew that, once the dictators knew that we knew what was going on, they would start to change their behaviour. It is the same when it comes to the Hazaras. Governments have been pursuing those kind, decent, gentle people, who educate all their children, male and female, and are renowned for their music and poetry, not violence and intolerance. The only way we can get Governments to listen and people to pay attention is if people know what is going on. If enough people start making a noise, things will change. Therefore, I ask everyone in the Chamber and anyone out there who happens to be listening to the debate to make the situation known, to listen and to write to the newspapers to ensure that people hear what is going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):
My hon. Friend is speaking eloquently. He is calling for a public outcry. Will he also press the Government to ensure that the £0.5 million or so that we are spending on the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission is reflected in the concern for the Hazara community, too?
Mike Thornton: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is vital that we do that. It is important that we use the money, the influence and the power we have to ensure that things start to change. I have been horrified by what I have found out. I was almost moved to tears in talking to Hazaras who have been exiled from their homeland by intolerance and violence. I knew nothing about it before I turned up at the first APPG, which the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen chaired. We have heard the figures. There is no point in me repeating what I have written down and what everyone else has said. I ask Members to pay attention and to think what it would be like to live in a situation where one is persecuted not just because of one’s religion but because one looks different from one’s neighbours. Hazaras look different from other Pakistanis and Afghans because they have a Mongolian ancestry, so they are being persecuted for racial as well as religious reasons. It is shocking and horrifying, and we must spread the word to make sure that things change. I ask all Members to do everything they can to ask for that change.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab):
As we have heard, the Hazaras are Persian-speaking people who live mainly in central Afghanistan. They are overwhelmingly Shi’a Muslims and make up the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, forming about 9% of the population. Their distinctive facial features in comparison with the Pashtuns, who make up 42% of the Afghan population,
1 Sep 2014 : Column 129
makes them easy to identify, marginalise and persecute. During the Taliban rule, the Hazaras suffered a repeated and systematic campaign of violence. Wholesale persecution of the people dates back to fatwas issued against them in the 1890s. Despite the genocidal campaigns, the Hazaras are still the third largest ethnic group in the country. Approximately 4.8 million live in Afghanistan, 1 million in Iran, and 550,000 in Pakistan. Despite their numbers, however, the Karzai Government had no Hazara Ministers, only 5% of Government officials are Hazara, and none of the 10 candidates in April’s presidential election was Hazara.
One of the main achievements in Afghanistan has been to bring a measure of democracy and representative government to the people of that country, but many obstacles still exist. All of us know all too well that there is more to democracy than voting and more to democratic government than representing the views of the majority. A true democracy is one where not only are the views and wishes of the majority represented but the needs of the minority are given protection and respect.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP):
There seems to be an attitude permeating through the Pakistani Government that picks on small ethnic groups and religious groups, and does so purposely because they are small. Does the hon. Lady think that we should take the action suggested by other Members and try to redirect DFID money to those who need it most rather than to the Government who are taking it out on people in minorities?
Mrs Moon: The hon. Gentleman, as always, is trying to steal my best lines. I ask him to wait until my conclusion.
If Afghanistan is going to survive, the rights of groups such as the Hazara need not only to be tolerated but fully accepted and incorporated into the workings of the state. This is no small task or easy feat even in the best of circumstances, but many of the ingredients are there. Article 2 of the constitution guarantees freedom of worship and article 22 clearly states the equal rights of all Afghan citizens before the law. The most difficult tasks that Afghanistan has to meet are freedom of worship and equal rights. At the end of the day, this will be the only way of ensuring the well-being of minorities and the stability of the whole country.
The British Government have committed to provide ongoing financial support for Afghanistan and Pakistan. This House must make it very clear today that we will be watching to see how all minority groups are protected and engaged with, and that when considering our financial support we will be looking for freedom of worship and equal rights for all minorities.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab):
Like everybody else in the Commons today, I knew nothing about Hazaras until a small group of my constituents turned up in my constituency office and took me through their experience, which was horrendous. The group travelled as pilgrims and on the coach they were divided on ethnic lines, taken off, and a number of them murdered on the spot. That was just one experience. When I witnessed the photographs and the reports, I felt, like everyone else, lacking because I did not know about this and a sense of a sin of omission in not doing anything about it.
1 Sep 2014 : Column 130
The other thing that came up in the discussions with the group was their anxiety that the perpetrators of this violence against them, particularly in Pakistan, were operating with virtual impunity, with no action taken against them or only tokenistic arrests. Then there was the bizarre element that some of those who had been arrested were allowed to escape, with clear collusion on the part of the authorities.
I told my constituents that I would do everything I possibly could to support the all-party group—I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) on establishing it—and also to look at how we systematically approach this so that we have a method of working in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said, we bring attention to the issue and do not allow it ever to be dropped again.
I want to thank Baroness Warsi for the work she did and the commitment she undertook on this issue, but may I make a suggestion to the Minister? I know he has offered to meet the all-party group, but a systematic report from Government on how we are going to approach this issue on a whole range of levels would be helpful.
Obviously, there is an element of carrot and stick. In terms of positive assistance through DFID, there is a question as to how we target resources with regard to the Hazara community in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and what support we can concretely give them, because they are suffering economically as a result of the oppression they are facing. The second point is to do with the conflict pool and conflict prevention and resolution. We have looked at proposals in other areas where we support Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations to put people on the ground, including supporting the Hazaras in terms of the legal representation they need on individual cases.
Thirdly, there is an element of stick. As has been said, Pakistan receives a significant amount of aid from this country. It is also a significant trading partner with us. All of those trading agreements now have a commitment to human rights embodied in them, but that is not being fulfilled. We must explain to the Pakistani Government in particular that if they want this relationship with us, they have to start delivering by addressing human rights abuses in this particular instance, and we should invite them to bring forward their programme of work for tackling this disgraceful abuse of the Hazaras.
I want the Minister to meet the all-party group, but also to prepare a systematic report on how we can bring forward this issue so that we can protect this community.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op):
In recent weeks we have been commemorating events relating to the first world war. One thing we have been commemorating is the contribution of the British Indian army and those people who came out of the colonial past of 100 years ago and gave their lives for our country. Many of them were Hazaras.
Hazara groups were part of the British Indian army from the early years of the last century. They were involved in many parts of the world, including the middle east, as part of a group of Hazara Pioneers who came out of Quetta.
1 Sep 2014 : Column 131
At that time, the colonial civil service was also staffed by many Hazaras. Their commitment to education and the role of women in society has been mentioned, and that is an important reason why they were used by the British colonial authorities. As a result of that, however, there is discrimination against and hostility to this minority from some other groups. The Hazaras face not just the problem that they are Shi’a predominantly, but also the problem that their commitment to girls’ education draws hostility from adherents to the more virulent forms of misogyny and hatred of education of girls that comes out of the Taliban, as we have seen in recent years.
The Hazaras come from Bamyan province in Afghanistan, which is where the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddhas of another religious minority that were part of the history of that country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said, we need to be very vigilant about what happens in Afghanistan over the next two or three years. Whoever eventually becomes President—if anybody ever does and they ever do finish the process of election verification and counting—must be held to account.
We will need to make sure that the Afghan Government speak for, and represent, all of the communities in Afghanistan, and we must also use our diplomatic channels and our aid programme in a targeted way to assist minorities within Pakistan. Britain has a great relationship with Pakistan and that must continue, but we also need to speak up for minorities there.
Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab):
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) on securing this short but significant debate. He has had a long history of campaigning for the Hazara community during his time in Parliament, and they will greatly miss his voice when he retires at the next general election, as indeed will his wider constituency in Southampton.
As hon. Members will be very much aware, the persecution of the Hazaras is part of a greater tide of religious and ethnic intolerance and persecution around the world, and of appalling brutalities perpetrated on those of a different faith or community. The barbarities of ISIS are the most recent, graphic and disgusting examples, but, unfortunately, they are by no means unique. Equally reprehensible is the acquiescence, even complicity, of state bodies in actions against minority groups, particularly faith groups, and hon. Members have given examples of that. My right hon. Friend and his parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), drew attention to some of those, particularly the failure to take action against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. That organisation has proudly claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, yet many of its leaders continue to play command and leadership roles, they avoid prosecution, they escape and they evade accountability. Some of them, having been arrested, have even escaped from military and civil detention in circumstances the authorities have found hard to explain.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con):
The International Criminal Court is the court of next resort which may well prosecute such people, and we should make much greater use of it when states refuse to prosecute individuals.
1 Sep 2014 : Column 132
Mr Spellar: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am sure it has been noted by the Foreign Office Minister. Part of the effectiveness of this debate is in raising this in the order of priorities of not only the Foreign Office, but the Department for International Development, which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members.
The only redeeming feature at the moment of this situation is the much greater level of public awareness and debate on these issues, and the welcome attention in the political world. Today’s debate is one example of that. In this House there has been a growing interest in the persecution of not only the Hazaras, but of Rohingya Muslims in Burma, of Baha’is in Iran and of the Ahmadiyya community in a number of Muslim countries. Increasingly, we have also seen persecution of various Christian groups in a variety of countries across the world, particularly in the middle east and Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan, to which I will return in a moment. For many people, campaigning on their behalf often seems a lonely road to be travelling, as they try to get a message across about the horrors to a world that is unaware, as many colleagues have rightly indicated. Therefore, this level of interest from Parliament and Government is particularly welcome. As we are seeing tonight and in other debates, these issues unite those on both sides of the House—Government and Opposition alike.
In early July, the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), rightly said in a speech to Christians on the Left that
“The first centuries of Christianity are often described as being scarred by blood, violence and brutality. And yet the plight of Christians today could go down in history as one of the most brutal periods of our common history.”
That is being borne out on a daily basis on our television screens. He also rightly stressed that
“wherever Christians are persecuted, the right to religious freedom for all is jeopardized.”
There have been particular concerns about the failure of the state—and even its involvement and that of its institutions—to protect those who practise Christianity in Pakistan. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) rightly said, we will be watching carefully for any failure of the state to protect minorities, including the Hazara. We will be watching for any failure of the state in Pakistan, and indeed in Afghanistan, in its duty to provide that protection: where it is failing to protect them from other groups, leaving aside what it is doing in its own right. We also need to be clear that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion, as well as the right not to believe. Those rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was agreed in 1948 after the horrors of world war two. In ringing tones, it declared:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The international community should be working, striving and insisting on those rights.
It is good to see this issue being dealt with in the broader context, but we must also focus on the particular, so that the voices of the persecuted are heard. That is
1 Sep 2014 : Column 133
why today’s debate is so welcome. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) said, the position of Hazaras in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is especially hazardous, particularly with the uncertainties that we are anticipating with the end of the NATO military drawdown. There are also continuing uncertainties over the outcome of the presidential election and whether there will be an inclusive Government in Afghanistan. That inclusivity needs to draw in not just all the major actors but all the communities in the country. As I have repeatedly said, it is also vital that there is early involvement by the neighbouring countries, all of which have an interest in stability in Afghanistan, but all of which could lose out if they try to play for sectional advantage, which will contribute to breakdown. Minorities such as the Hazara, which is probably one of the worst treated groups in the region, need to have their rights protected.
It is clear that many extremist groups are still receiving protection from the authorities. Although a ban has been in place since 2002, it has not stopped them from carrying out attacks across Pakistan. Civilian and military security forces deployed in Balochistan have done little to investigate the attacks on the Hazara or to take steps to prevent the next attacks. The head of LEJ has been prosecuted for alleged involvement, but has not been convicted. Now we are seeing some of those who have been involved in the atrocities against the Hazara being released from prison.
Tonight, all parts of the House are calling not only for greater public awareness but for the Foreign Office and Department for International Development and international forums to make the persecution of Hazaras a priority in their discussions with the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Such a call is not only in our interests but a matter of decency.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood):
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) for calling for this debate and for ensuring that it took place on such a busy day in the Chamber. Important contributions have been made by Members from all parts of the House. I will try to touch on some of them, but if I do not get through them all, I will write to hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) mentioned the important role of the International Development Committee and the work of DFID. I hope that they will continue their studies in this area. Britain is committed to providing £70 million for a number of years in Afghanistan, and we are one of the major donors in Pakistan as well.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) spoke about the role of Iran and the responsibility of the Pakistani Government to do more and not turn a blind eye to the various incidents taking place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) spoke about improving knowledge of what is happening with the Hazaras not just in this place but in Britain as a whole. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said how easy it is to identify the Hazaras because of their make up and also spoke about the role of the Afghan Government in addressing some of the
1 Sep 2014 : Column 134
issues. It is good to see that the second assistant President is a Hazara and that one fifth of MPs in the Afghan Parliament are Hazaras, too. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said in Pakistan.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) spoke about a report on tackling these issues. This is now the third such debate in as many years and I hope that it will become an annual event. The FCO’s annual human right report and quarterly updates comprehensively cover persecutions faced by all, including the Hazaras, so perhaps we should have a debate on the report itself to highlight that point.
The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) spoke about the future of the Afghan Government. He is perhaps better aware than most that we are in a bit of a stagnation period at the moment and are waiting for an outcome and for votes to be counted. Once that happens and there is agreement about what Britain’s and the international community’s role can be, we can step forward and start addressing some of the other issues.
The right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) spoke about LEJ, the prime persecutor of the Hazaras. We should bear it in mind that it is not the only one, but it is obviously the focus of our attention.
The conflict pool was mentioned by a number of right hon. and hon. Members and has now been replaced by the conflict, security and stability fund, which is a much longer phrase for us to get our heads around. There certainly needs to be more focus on what we can do using that fund. The forthcoming NATO summit was mentioned and I will certainly do my best to have a number of bilaterals on this subject. I had the fortune of speaking to our high commissioner in Pakistan on the matter this evening.
This is an area with which I am familiar. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen, who is a bonus to this House, on showing how a constituency matter can be moved forward. He has become very much an expert in the matter and I think the whole House is grateful to him. I was the former co-chair of the all-party group on Afghanistan and I visited the country and the region a number of times, so I am pleased to be able to take on the portfolio and move the agenda forward.
As I have said, this is the third debate since 2012 on the position of the Hazaras and it remains an issue of grave concern for Her Majesty’s Government. Sadly, the difficulties faced by the Hazara community, which the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen raised in this House last year, remain in 2014 and it is a tragedy that people from minority communities across Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the Hazaras, suffer the scourge of sectarian violence, a scourge that should not have a place anywhere in the world in the 21st century.
The appalling acts of sectarian violence are well-documented by human rights groups and the FCO’s own quarterly human rights report on Pakistan, which I have mentioned, highlighted that the first three months of 2014 saw no substantial improvements. Our human rights report on Afghanistan continues to view the situation as poor.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, sectarian violence is not isolated to the Hazara community. We must remember that the former senior Minister of State at the Foreign
1 Sep 2014 : Column 135
Office, the right hon. Baroness Warsi, who has already been mentioned in the debate, highlighted on many occasions how ethnicity, religion, the freedom to have a religion and the right to believe what one chooses to believe extend across sectarian lines. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have laws and constitutional protections for the rights of citizens and minorities, but turning those words and genuine commitment from the Governments into action is where much of the challenge lies. We recognise that Afghanistan and Pakistan face significant internal security challenges that have seen thousands of their citizens of all faiths killed in terrorist and other violence, which is why Her Majesty’s Government are committed to ensuring that both countries understand the need for urgent resolution to the violence faced by the Hazaras as well as by other minority groups facing persecution.
We do not underestimate the difficulty of that challenge, but we will not shy away from urging real commitment to progress. We remain unequivocal in our call for the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan to address the concerns of all their citizens, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender, and we continue to raise the issue at both ministerial and senior ministerial level, including Baroness Warsi’s visit to Pakistan last year following her meeting with representatives of the all-party parliamentary group on the Hazara. We will monitor and shine a spotlight on the plight of the Hazara and other minorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report.
Our relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan on aid remains significant. Of course, we do not make our aid conditional on specific issues, which will remain the case, but UK aid to any country is based on three shared commitments with partner Governments: first, poverty reduction and meeting the millennium development goals; secondly, respecting human rights and other international obligations; and thirdly, strengthening financial management and accountability. In Pakistan, our aid helps the authorities to make progress in those areas, including concrete measures to improve the economy, reform education and devote proper attention to human rights.
Mr Spellar: But many of those objectives are undermined by the uncertainty and the terrorism being inflicted on the Hazara and other communities, particularly those who are among the most commercially productive and entrepreneurial. Is there not therefore a direct link between the objectives and getting change in behaviour?
Mr Ellwood: The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that. That is why we are focusing on those three areas of education, tackling poverty and confronting the extremist narrative.
1 Sep 2014 : Column 136
I am conscious of the time and wish to allow the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen the opportunity to give us his final thoughts on the subject, so I conclude my remarks by reiterating that the UK is committed to the enduring relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan and all their peoples, regardless of faith or ethnicity. We will continue to work with the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan to address ethnic and religious persecution. We will remain unwavering in our commitment to frank discussion with them as our friends. We will not shy away from tough messages on the rights of minorities.
Having recently taken the responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan within the Foreign Office, I am committed to ensuring that those issues receive the attention they deserve. I look forward to meeting members of the all-party parliamentary group in due course to ensure that I understand the issues fully. Once again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman and others for ensuring that this important issue receives the attention it deserves.
Mr Denham: I thank the Minister. I know that his interest in these matters predates his appointment to the Front Bench, on which I congratulate him. I hope that we can develop the same relationship we had with his predecessor, who personally went further than other Ministers had done to raise the issue with the Pakistan authorities.
I want to say three things. First, I want to put on record my tribute to the Hazara community in this country. A group of people, most of whom came here as refugees and asylum seekers, have managed to use the system of parliamentary democracy by talking to hon. Members individually as constituency MPs to have the affairs of their communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, many of which have personal links—personal sufferings connect them—raised in the House. That is a significant achievement.
Secondly, beneath the points of principle on action raised in the debate, policies that could be changed and reports that could be made, there is a great deal of detail that we would like to discuss with the Government about how they could develop relationships with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and develop the aid programme. I look forward to the opportunity of doing so.
Thirdly, our country has been tied up with the histories of both Afghanistan and Pakistan for many years, including recent years. People, including many of our constituents, are tired of our involvement. I hope that, tonight, we have made the simple point that we cannot walk away. We have responsibilities for the position faced by the Hazara community and others in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we must ensure that we do not allow them to slip.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the position of Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan.