HC Deb 15 October 2003 vol 411 cc100-2
3. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

What assistance his Department has given to re-establish democracy in Afghanistan. [132040]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn)

The Department financially supported both the traditional Loya Jirga in June 2002, which elected President Karzai, and the public consultation on the new constitution. We are helping to fund the current electoral registration process. We have also translated into Pashto and Dui the report that we commissioned on the political process in Afghanistan, and which has been distributed through the independent Human Rights Commission.

Mr. Allen

First, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his very well deserved promotion? He is proof that merit need not stand in the way of a ministerial career. Does he agree that it is very important, in Afghanistan, that we are seen to be making a democratic infrastructure work? That is especially important, given the possibility that it may be extended into Iraq. We have been involved in Afghanistan for a longer period, and people need to see progress in respect of democracy there if they are to have faith that we can make progress in Iraq. Will he continue to work with President Karzai to ensure that the infrastructure is built in Afghanistan?

Hilary Benn

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words, which give me the opportunity to express my appreciation to my noble Friend Baroness Amos for the work she did as Secretary of State and to wish her well in her new responsibilities. My hon. Friend is right when he says that we need to stick with the process of building a democracy in Afghanistan. That is why, as a Department, we are giving practical support to the constitutional process and to electoral registration, as I have said. The most important thing is that the people of Afghanistan now have the opportunity for that process to take place because of the action that was taken to remove the Taliban. We need to stick with them as they determine their own future.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

As I may be one of the relatively few Members of this House to have debated with the Secretary of State's grandfather as well as his father, may I too congratulate him on maintaining his family's ministerial and aristocratic role in the Labour movement? On establishing democracy in Afghanistan, may I urge him to remind his colleagues that other countries often have cultures and traditions that are different from our own and that to try to impose foreign forms of government on them is often counterproductive and futile?

Hilary Benn

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I hope that he will find dealing with me a similarly pleasurable experience. The constitutional Loya Jirga process that has been adopted in Afghanistan is taking place precisely because we recognise his point about the need to respect particular traditions and ways of doing things. The Loya Jirga needs to be given the time to draw up the new constitution. Then, the process can take place—hopefully, with elections next year. We need to acknowledge the cultural tradition of countries while upholding the principles of democracy that all hon. Members hold dear.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and ask him to join me in congratulating President Karzai, who has said that, of the 50 delegates that he will appoint to the Loya Jirga, 25 will be women? My right hon. Friend will know that that is what Afghan women, within their traditions, want—they want to participate. Will he discuss with the United Nations Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM, ways in which special help can be given to women to ensure their safe and thorough participation in the Loya Jirga and to prevent the intimidation that happened last time?

Hilary Benn

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I will be delighted to discuss that issue with UNIFEM. Indeed, I had a conversation on the subject when I was in New York recently. I very much welcome what President Karzai said about the steps that he will take in appointing women to the Loya Jirga. Of course, under the arrangements that have been put in place, 19 per cent. of the delegates to that body will have to be women. It is also worth reflecting on the fact that one third of teachers working in the schools of Afghanistan are now women and 30 per cent. of the pupils are girls—a situation that did not obtain when the Taliban were in control of that country.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his well deserved promotion. It is important, after an absence of five months, to have the Secretary of State in this House again. I am sure that the whole House will agree that giving Afghan women the vote is vital for the future of Afghanistan. Given the problems of electoral registration of women and the likelihood that those in traditional communities may simply vote as their husbands do, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what measures have been taken to inform and encourage women to participate on an individual and equal basis in next year's elections?

Hilary Benn

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words. She raises an important point about the process of change that is taking place in Afghanistan. First, as she says, we have to get the electoral registration process to work. It will begin in the cities and then move on to the rural areas, where the job will be more difficult—we need to acknowledge that.

Secondly, we are supporting activities of which I am sure that the hon. Lady will be aware, trying to encourage the kind of discussion to which she has just drawn the attention of the House. Thirdly, in the long term, the return of girls to school and the participation of women in civil society is the best contribution that we can make to enabling women to have the place in Afghan society that she and I would like to see.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)

I shall pass on the congratulations as I think enough has been done. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the United Nations Security Council resolution to extend the role of peacemakers in Afghanistan. At present, 16 of the 32 provinces are no-go areas for non-governmental organisations. Will my right hon. Friend indicate what can be done by his Department to extend the role of NGOs in Afghanistan?

Hilary Benn

My hon. Friend draws attention to the key issue in Afghanistan, which is security. The new UN resolution on ISAF—the international security assistance force—which has just been passed, will help. Four of the provincial reconstruction teams, which are a civil-military alliance, have already been deployed, including the UK team in Mazar. We hope that four more teams will be deployed before the end of the year. Training of the Afghan national army is being stepped up, as is training of the police. Those are all steps that we have to take to provide the security in which all the other things that we want to see in Afghanistan can happen.

Back to
Forward to