HC Deb 30 October 2001 vol 373 cc735-7
1. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

What recent discussions he has had with the Governments of India and Pakistan about the security situation in Kashmir. [8785]

6. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

What recent discussions he has had with the representatives of the Indian Government about combating terrorism. [8790]

12. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

If he will make a statement on the situation in Kashmir. [8796]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have had a number of discussions with our Indian and Pakistani counterparts. Both countries are playing important roles in the international campaign against terrorism. We have long called for an end to external support for terrorism in Kashmir, and we condemn all acts of violence there. The House was united in its revulsion of the terrorist attack on the State Assembly in Srinagar on 1 October, in which at least 38 people were killed—an act for which the terrorist organisation Jaish-i-Mohammad, linked to Osama bin Laden, claimed responsibility. We have continued to urge both countries to act with restraint, to respect human rights and to look constructively at ways to resolve the issues between them.

Mr. Prentice

Our eyes are fixed on Afghanistan, but the real powder keg is next door, in Kashmir. Only today, the Pakistan Government accused the Indians of state-sponsored terrorism, after 22 Kashmiris were killed and 26 properties were torched. I despair. Where will it all end? This has been happening for more than 50 years.

General Musharraf has accepted an invitation to speak to the United Nations General Assembly on 10 November. Is there not a case for trying yet again to involve the UN in brokering a settlement? The issue has been festering for a long time, but a settlement seems as far away as ever.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right to say that the situation in Kashmir is serious, and he asked where it will end. The hopes of all of us are that it will end with a peaceful resolution.

My hon. Friend asked about the role of the UN, which I have thought about carefully. However, I doubt that there is a role for the UN in this matter, unless it is at the request of both Pakistan and India. In our judgment, the best hope for a peaceful future for Kashmir lies in a continuation of the talks that were started in Agra in July, but which then, sadly, stalled.

Mr. Crausby

My right hon. Friend will know that India, the largest democracy in the world, has suffered more than most countries from acts of terror over the past 20 years. Will he therefore support India in its efforts to persuade the UN to adopt a comprehensive convention against terrorism?

Mr. Straw

Not only do we support India's proposed comprehensive convention on terrorism, but we have been working actively with the Indian Government on its text. I discussed it in some detail with India's Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, when he was here a couple of weeks ago. We are both working hard to ensure that key sections of the text, which some member states want to be removed, are retained in order to ensure that the convention is effective.

Mr. Bellingham

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the Government should take account of the various communities in this country, which may have a different perspective on this difficult problem? Will he undertake to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor who, every time he looked at the matter, managed to upset people on every side?

Mr. Straw

I shall leave that second point to one side, as I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the previous Foreign Secretary did upset people on every side. The truth is that the Kashmir problem is one of those issues—of which there are, sadly, too many around the world—in which emotions run high. That means that, if one departs from what are regarded as well-worn texts, it is possible for some people to take offence.

The hon. Gentleman asked about taking account of different perspectives in this country. My constituency contains about 13,000 people of Pakistani origin, and about the same number of people of Indian origin. The hon. Gentleman will therefore understand that I have been living with the Kashmir issue for many years.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), does the Foreign Secretary see any future in talks between India and Pakistan without the intervention of an international mediator, as has happened in the middle east? Does he agree that the views of the people of Kashmir on both sides of the line of control should be taken into account?

Mr. Straw

Yes. The views of the people, wherever the final line is drawn, will need to be taken into account. However, with regard to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), it is worth bearing in mind that in recent years more than 200,000 people of the Hindu religion have been forced out of Jammu and Kashmir and many of them are now in refugee camps. It is a complicated situation.

Our judgment is that the United Nations or an external mediator will be able to have a constructive role only if it, he or she is asked to exercise that role by the two countries overwhelmingly concerned in this, namely Pakistan and India.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Is the Foreign Secretary saying that the UN resolution on Kashmir which followed the 1948 war, as a consequence of which the UN observers were set up in the line of control, is no longer valid? If that is the case, does he have any confidence that an enduring solution can be found? Is it not true that the major powers ought to bring pressure to bear to ensure that opportunism does not occur at this critical time of crisis in south-west Asia?

Mr. Straw

Of course we take account of the resolution passed in 1948. However, one difficulty is that India claims that the terms of the 1948 resolution were superseded by the Simla agreement of the early 1970s, and Pakistan disagrees. Simply exchanging arguments about previous texts will not resolve the situation. It can be resolved only by direct discussion between India and Pakistan. That is why we greatly welcomed the Lahore declaration of two years ago—sadly followed by a resumption of violence—and the talks in Agra, near Delhi, in July. We look forward to a resumption of those discussions. A peaceful future for all the peoples of the area can come about only as a result of discussion and agreement.

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