HL Deb 19 January 2000 vol 608 cc1119-62

3.7 p.m.

Lord Weatherill

rose to call attention to the situation in Pakistan; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so I should perhaps start with an explanation of my interest in Pakistan. Also, I ask for the indulgence of the House in allowing the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, who is to speak last in the debate before the Front Benches, a little tolerance to answer some of the points that arise. After all, he is from Pakistan and I am only Pakistani by association.

From 1942 to 1946 I was privileged to serve in an Indian cavalry regiment, the 19th King George V Own Lancers. After partition in 1947 our PM squadron formed the nucleus of the present 19th Lancers in Pakistan while our Sikh squadron became Shinner's Horse and the Jat (Hindu) squadron, the Central India Horse.

Those noble Lords who have served in a cavalry regiment will know of the bond of pride and affection that exists, a genuine family spirit that is deep-felt and remains for life—in Urdu, a bhai-bundi; a brotherhood. Thus it was when I let the commandant of the 19th Lancers know that I was to be in Pakistan last August with a CPA delegation. He immediately replied that if I was unable to meet the regimental "family" in Multan, they would meet me in Peshawar. And they did.

At that party, among those present was General Pervais Musharraf. As a former Speaker of the House of Commons I am not in favour of military coups. Nevertheless, as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, stated in his outstanding speech on Wednesday last, Those of us who have been in Pakistan fairly recently know that both political parties in that country were corrupt, incompetent, unpopular and highly damaging".—[Official Report, 12/1/00; col. 629.] Sadly, that is the truth. Indeed, when General Musharraf took over on 12th October last year it was not as a military dictator but as chief executive, and there was general rejoicing. Many critics with little or no knowledge of Pakistan have decried his actions on the basis that he overthrew a democratically elected government.

Several points need to be made regarding the election which brought Prime Minister Sharif to power in 1997 and his subsequent misuse of office. Vote rigging was rife. So was the use of forged ballot papers and multiple voting by women, covered from head to foot, who managed to vote several times because they could not be recognised. Even so, the turn-out at that election was a mere 32 per cent of the total electorate. It was, sadly, very much a case of the old adage: Democracy is not just about one man one vote—it depends too often on who counts the votes! It would be possible to give numerous other examples of the misuse of power during Nawaz Sharif's time in office: his curtailing of the powers of the president; his politicising of the judiciary; and, when the press became critical, his freezing of bank accounts and imprisoning of the editor of the Friday Times. Prime Minister Sharif's regime has been accurately described as "kleptocracy masquerading as democracy." It is worth saying that today, by contrast, the Pakistani press is free, and free to comment critically, as it frequently does.

So enter General Musharraf, who had been sacked while out of the country on an official visit to Sri Lanka. It is known that the civilian flight on which he returned to Pakistan was refused permission to land, despite having only seven minutes of fuel left when it eventually put down in Karachi after the army had taken over the airport. In General Musharraf's own words, this was not so much a military coup as a counter-coup—the army's reaction to a reactive event.

Despite Pakistan's suspension from the Commonwealth and blacklisting by other members of the international community, accurately headlined in a leading article in The Times at that moment as "Harsh and hasty", General Musharraf has not sought to isolate his regime but has made efforts to ensure that his country is a responsible player on the international stage. He has announced a unilateral military de-escalation on international borders with India in an attempt to defuse tension between the two countries and has called for, unconditional, equitable and a result orientated dialogue", in seeking to resolve the core problem of Kashmir and Jammu.

Prime Minister Sharif openly courted Taliban and other extremist elements in the region. General Musharraf has behaved quite differently. He has sought to stem the growth of militant Islam and has made genuine indications that he is committed to the principle of good government. At his first news conference he pledged to set up a national accountability bureau which would embrace all sections of society, including the army, and stated his intention to protect the rights of minorities and to promote religious tolerance in Pakistan. He has said that he wishes to re-establish democracy in the spirit of the founder of the nation, Quaid-i-Azam; that is, respect for the rule of law—one must bear in mind that Mr Jinnah was a Bencher of Lincoln's Inn—respect for human rights; respect for minorities; and respect for the rights of women under the Quaid's slogan of faith, discipline and unity.

General Musharraf has inherited a country which is virtually bankrupt; a country whose foreign and domestic debt is almost equivalent to its GNP; and a country in which the payment of taxes has been pretty well voluntary and in which vast sums have been borrowed (as much as 4.8 billion US dollars) by a few powerful people, and never repaid. All this is well documented.

General Musharraf needs help and support in overcoming vast problems—not condemnation, but practical and positive support. I say that because I believe the alternative would be chaos and highly dangerous to us all. Pakistan is surrounded by a number of other highly volatile and unstable "Stans". We surely have a vested interest in seeking to ensure a strong, friendly and responsible Pakistan within the Commonwealth, a rock of stability in a very unstable part of the world. The alternative is a fragmented and irresponsible Pakistan with a nuclear ability. Think how dangerous it would be to India and, indeed, to the rest of the world if the Taliban had access to nuclear weapons. To those who say that we have no direct interest, I respond that 1 billion people in 55 countries are Muslims and that there are in this country over a million citizens, many of whom have strong links with Pakistan.

Kashmir will remain a dangerous flashpoint until a just and equitable solution has been found. It has already been the cause of two wars between India and Pakistan and the cause of some 25,000 deaths. Unless one has been to Pakistan it is difficult to appreciate how passionately this is felt.

We have both an interest and, I believe, a responsibility because the matter was not fully addressed in 1947 when the Maharaja of Kashmir (a Hindu) opted to remain independent rather than—at that time—join India or Pakistan. We should bear in mind that most of his subjects were Muslims. It may be that the Maharaja was right and that the only solution is an independent Kashmir with its boundaries guaranteed by the international community. However, that is a matter for another day.

My purpose today is to urge Her Majesty's Government to give General Musharraf and his government—a government of "all the talents" in which, incidentally, there is only one military Cabinet Minister, apart from the general himself—encouragement and support in helping to overcome the inheritance of massive economic problems. It is pointless to refuse to do so until a date for democratic elections has been announced. That would merely ensure a repetition of the bad old days of corruption, which has been a major cause of Pakistan's problems, with all the dangers and the consequences that I have outlined.

It is impossible to be absolutely certain that General Musharraf will succeed, but my reason for initiating the debate today is to draw attention to the potentially disastrous consequences if he fails. It is for that reason that I submit that he must be helped and not hindered in putting Pakistan on its feet and, thereafter, reestablishing democracy. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.19 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, we are truly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for introducing this extremely important subject. We do not give enough time to discussions of Commonwealth affairs and, given the fact that 1 billion people live in south Asia, it is really important that we pay attention to the region. I cannot claim the noble Lord's long and deep associations with Pakistan, but the one thing I can claim is that I was born in undivided India. Therefore, I regard myself as a citizen of undivided India since birth, as well as of this country.

It is important to remember that Pakistan has had a great deal of bad luck from its beginning. I was involved recently in contributing to a report on south Asian human development, devoted to a discussion of the crisis of governance in south Asia. There it was pointed out that Pakistan's main creator died soon after Pakistan's creation, while India had the benefit of 17 years of the Prime Ministership of Pandit Nehru. Mr Jinnah died within 13 months of independence, and Pakistan's first Prime Minister was assassinated soon after.

Pakistan has had a series of incidents involving bad luck; again and again the attempt to create a stable, democratic polity in Pakistan has met with many problems. We are going through another phase in which there is a hiatus, an interruption in the democratic polity in Pakistan. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, in that although I would oppose a military coup and would not want to see a permanent non-democratic regime in Pakistan, I think that we could for the time being suspend judgment and scrutinise the actions of General Musharraf quite closely to see what his policy turns out to be.

Pakistan has had a series of regimes that have failed to tackle the basic problems of literacy, social reform and land reform. Pakistanis one meets, either in Pakistan or abroad, agree that there is a big feudal overhang in Pakistan society. The need to remove feudal elements and to make the Pakistan elites abide by the rule of law—pay taxes for example, and behave as if they were like all other citizens—is extremely urgent.

It must be said, rather sadly, that the democratic regimes established since the death of General Zia-ul-Haq in 1988—Ms Bhutto as well as Nawaz Sharif—have failed to inculcate democratic habits in the population or to do very much to correct any of the anomalies that Pakistan faces.

I think that what is currently going on in Pakistan is, first, a quick emergency attempt to restore fiscal credibility in Pakistan. That is extremely important, as the noble Lord said. Pakistan has problems of both internal and external debt. There is a failure to collect taxation, and, as the noble Lord also pointed out, the elite who borrow money from banks habitually do not pay it back. The lists are public, and heading the list of people who do not pay back bank loans is the former Prime Minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif, as well as the man who headed the anti-corruption bureau. Therefore, there is not much to be said about the pretensions of the previous government to fight corruption. It was a purely partisan effort to get at Ms Bhutto.

We have not only to suspend judgment, but to be very attentive to what happens in Pakistan. For example, I am very heartened that the legal procedure that has been followed to bring Mr Nawaz Sharif to trial is proceeding normally, as it should. We have to watch it very carefully. It could easily be that the court is not convinced that Mr Sharif has done anything very wrong. If that happens, it will present the crucial test of General Musharraf—whether he allows Mr Sharif to he free to live in Pakistan; if Mr Sharif is not convicted by the special court, he has every right to stay there.

I agree that this is all hypothetical, but it could happen. If the ex-Prime Minister is not convicted of the charges against him, the question will arise as to how General Musharraf deals with the case. I should like him to say, "That is fine, and until such time as I think that elections can be called in Pakistan the ex-Prime Minister is free to live and conduct himself in Pakistan, but he cannot have the job back". That was the whole point of the interruption.

Something will have to be done if that contingency arises. Although many of things that the noble Lord said against Mr Sharif are true, and I could cite more examples, none of them is an indictable offence. He tried to bully the supreme court; he had his own person as president and made him sign over some of the powers; and he is corrupt. but none of that is an indictable offence.

Therefore, we must be very careful and watch the course of events in Pakistan. I hope, for the sake of Pakistan and the sake of south Asia, that General Musharraf will set an example of being as subject to the rule of law himself as he would like everyone else to be. The principal lack in Pakistan is of the rule of law, or at least in terms of members of the elite behaving as if they lived under the rule of law. That is very important.

I also hope that while he is in charge General Musharraf will not only clean up the outstanding debts owed to commercial banks, as well as the outstanding tax, but will also put in place institutions and practices so that payment of due taxes becomes a routine habit and does not depend on how large a landlord one is.

On a previous occasion Moeen Qureishi was briefly brought in to, as it were, manage the transition. He made a condition that any candidate for election had to settle all his or her debts. Reports are that Ms Bhutto went to the bank with a billion rupees in cash to clear her debts. I think that many more billion rupees need to be paid by Mr Nawaz Sharif and the entire Cabinet, which has been sacked, before we can have any confidence in them.

I do not want to go into the question of Kashmir or south Asia. As the noble Lord correctly said, that is for another day. If I start speaking on that, not just nine minutes, but nine hours will not be enough. I want only to say this: Kashmir is not just part of south Asian politics; it is part of British politics. It is our problem and not just south Asia's problem. Many, many citizens of this country are deeply concerned, and they have different views on it. There is no single agreed line on Kashmir. Even historical facts can be disputed again and again. It is very important that Her Majesty's Government keep an eye on this problem and do anything they can to help solve the burning problems in south Asia.

3.40 p.m.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for introducing the debate on Pakistan, an area in which my organisation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, has been working for many years.

Although problems abound, after talking to our Pakistani colleagues both in the United Kingdom and in Pakistan, we believe that there are some grounds for optimism and some developments that can be encouraged, many of which have been outlined already.

For example, at the first news conference after the coup General Musharraf pledged to set up a national accountability bureau to attempt to rid the country of the corruption that beset it during previous administrations.

Secondly, General Musharraf has had talks with human rights groups, including our own contacts, and has consulted Asma Jahangir of the Pakistani Human Rights Commission.

Thirdly, General Musharraf appears to be distancing himself from the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. He has respected the recent UN sanctions imposed on that regime, and he has ordered the closure of Afghan banks and frozen Taliban bank accounts.

Perhaps most encouragingly, General Musharraf has promoted tolerance in Pakistan along the lines of the constitution, which was designed to be a model for democracy by its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who made the following eloquent and famous declaration: You are free: you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques, or any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the State. We are all citizens and equal citizens of 3ne State". The developments I have mentioned are worthy of encouragement. If General Musharraf is genuine in his attempts to move Pakistan towards implementation of a human rights-based constitution, he could prove himself to be a leader indeed worthy of support and there could be a window of opportunity to help Pakistan to move towards democracy.

However, there are continuing problems. I shall concentrate briefly on two areas: first, the rights of women and their quality of life; and, secondly, religious freedom. The Hadood laws represent a significant departure from the vision of Jinnah's constitution. These laws illustrate how the constitution of Pakistan has been changed so that women suffer discrimination within the legal framework. For example, in 1979 promulgation of the Hadood Ordinance introduced the so-called "Islamic punishments" for crimes including slander, theft, drunkenness, bearing false witness, rape, adultery, fornication and prostitution.

I give one example concerning rape. The law requires four male witnesses to testify that an unlawful act has occurred between a man and a woman. In Pakistan this instruction has been applied to rape. If rape is not proven, the accuser—a woman who may already be the victim of that rape—is charged with adultery. The punishment for adultery is death or imprisonment. The result is that thousands of women, unable to defend themselves in a court of law, are serving sentences of various terms, accused of adultery when they themselves have been the victims of rape. Thus a large number of rape victims do not take recourse to the law but suffer their fate in silence.

Such practices and policies associated with the Hadood laws and the Shariah laws of evidence, which make such stark distinctions between men and women, are gross violation; of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which affirms that human rights should be granted to, all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion". It would be a good indication of General Musharraf's commitment to human rights if he were to find an opportunity to bring Pakistan's legal provisions into line with international law and convention in these areas.

I turn to the area of religious persecution, beginning with the treatment of the Ahmadis. In 1952 the Ahmadis were declared not to be Muslims, because they reject the principle of jihad and they recognise an additional Prophet, Mirza Ghirlam Ahmad. This declaration resulted in a wave of destruction of Ahmadi property and their mosques. In 1974 they were "officially" declared non-Muslims by an act of parliament. Since then the systematic persecution of the Ahmadis was formalised in the 1984 penal code under sections 298B and 298C which forbade the Ahmadis from describing themselves as Muslims, from using any Islamic terminology to describe any of their buildings, from using the public call to prayer, and from propagating their faith.

Many Ahmadis have also suffered under the blasphemy law. Amnesty International estimated in 1995 that over 130 Ahmadis faced charges of blasphemy which carry a mandatory death penalty. As recently as September and October last year, police took no protective action against the fatwas which were issued, offering rewards to anyone killing human rights activists, journalists and religious personalities, including the head of the Ahmadiyya community.

I turn from Ahmadis to Christians. Despite their crucial vote in the establishment of Pakistan, the Christian minority began to face persecution in civil and political life as early as the 1950s. Article 20 of the 1973 constitution protects the freedom to profess religion and to manage a religious institution. It states: Subject to law, public order and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practise and propagate his religion, and every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions". However, the right to change religion is not protected and apostates are particularly vulnerable to attack. Although the penal code does not list conversion from Islam to Christianity as an offence, a judge's decision may be made on the basis of his own interpretation of the constitution, which states, No law shall be repugnant to the teaching and requirement of Islam as set out in the holy quran and sunna, and all the existing law should be brought into conformity therewith". The law and the culture which in recent years have been endorsed in Pakistan endanger individuals who dare to consider religions other than Islam. I mention one illustrative case. In June 1997 a 17 year-old girl, Saleema, and her pastor were arrested for allegedly converting Saleema's friend, Rahela, to Christianity. Both Saleema and her pastor, Salim, were tortured. Saleema was whipped 16 times while in detention. On 8th July 1997, after repeated attempts by family members to force Rahela to recant her Christian faith, she was killed by her brother, Altaf, who claimed that she had brought "dishonour" on her family.

I have tried to illustrate how the constitution and legal framework in Pakistan have changed since the original constitution, and how these changes have brought enormous suffering to many people. I have highlighted a few areas in which some legislative revision would greatly improve the plight of both women and religious minorities in Pakistan. I therefore ask the Government to capitalise on General Musharraf's apparent openness to change and to prevail upon him to ensure that the constitution of Pakistan is reformed to a healthier state for its people. If he does so, he will have made a valuable contribution towards the establishment of democratic values and policies as a basis for the eventual return of civilian rule. In doing so he would perform a great service to his people, to the Commonwealth and to the international community at large. We wish him well in so doing.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I add my thanks to those that have already been expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for initiating this debate. I warmly agree with his endorsement of the remarks that were made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, a week ago today when he said that we should suspend judgment on the coup, taking into consideration the abundant evidence of large-scale corruption within both of the political parties. It is indeed wicked for those in power to have enriched themselves and their cronies at the expense of the people. The Government of General Musharraf evidently had the support of the vast majority of the people of Pakistan when the first item on his agenda was to punish those who had stolen the country's money. Under Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan was sliding into bankruptcy, but his predecessor had also allowed her cronies, and especially her husband, to profit from their hold on the reins of government.

The establishment of the National Accountability Bureau, which has already been mentioned, and the Speedy Trial Courts, which were announced by General Musharraf at the first press conference he held on 24th November, were right and proper measures to deal with the cancer in the political system. Already some progress has been made in getting bank loan defaulters to pay up and that has helped the Economic Revival Plan, under which there has been something of a turn-around in economic conditions. The recovery of the bank loans has clawed back 8 billion rupees out of a total that is estimated to be outstanding of 240 billion rupees—that is some £3 billion—which are reported to have been illegally siphoned out of the banking system by political crooks and their cronies in the form of loans that were never going to be repaid.

The second main plank of General Musharraf's policy was to investigate the former Prime Minister. As has already been said, in that regard the law is taking its course. The Foreign Secretary has expressed concern that there should be no "show trials" and in a letter to my right honourable friend Menzies Campbell he stated that the handling of this process would provide a test of Pakistan's military in their commitment to democracy and the rule of law. That has been repeated this afternoon. Do the Government therefore agree that there has been no interference with the courts and that the proceedings against Nawaz Sharif and others are being dealt with strictly in accordance with the laws of Pakistan? Only today the full charges have been made against Mr Sharif and seven others in the so-called "plane conspiracy case"—they include the serious charge of murder against Mr Sharif—so there may be quite a lengthy trial. I understand that matters are proceeding in accordance with the normal rules of the courts in Pakistan and that the press and the public are freely admitted to the proceedings.

The need to allow the defence its full rights is one of the reasons why it is not possible to have a full timetable for the return to democracy. General Musharraf has committed himself to handing over to an elected government, but the trials of those accused of embezzling the wealth of Pakistan have to be completed first and the political system has to be cleansed of the kleptocracy to which reference has already been made.

At the same time, democracy needs to be rebuilt, starting at the grass roots. That process has already been started with the setting up of the electoral commission and the decision to hold district-level elections this year, as announced to a visiting delegation of US senators in Islamabad on 14th January. This is also in accordance with the General's undertaking to create a much more decentralised system in which decisions are taken at district level wherever possible and as close as they can be to the people.

Next, the Chief Executive undertook to try to settle outstanding issues with India, a task which has always eluded his predecessors. He has reiterated that he wants to resume talks based on an equitable solution. There is no doubt that if this could be achieved it would transform the relations between India and Pakistan and the whole atmosphere and development of the subcontinent. It would end the nuclear arms race and free for peaceful development the immense resources that are now wasted on excessive armed forces.

On the other hand, India has ruled out bilateral talks unless Islamabad desists from cross-border terrorism. That guerrillas do cross from Pakistani territory and into the Valley and Jammu, where they engage in gratuitous killings, is a certain fact. Indian forces have killed many of them and have found identification papers on them to show that they did come from Pakistan. But that does not prove that the state of Pakistan is involved in these activities. The only way of settling the matter beyond doubt would be by means of an investigation under international auspices, for which purpose it would be necessary to increase the United Nations monitoring force, UNMOGIP, on either side of the line of control and to persuade the Indians to allow it to operate on their side of the border. At the moment it operates only on the Pakistan side.

When General Sir Charles Guthrie visited Pakistan last week he said that Britain was willing to assist Pakistan and India to resume their dialogue and to resolve bilateral conflicts, but only if both countries wanted it. That has always been the problem. Your Lordships will know that as recently as 11th January India said that it would not resume bilateral talks as long as Pakistan is involved in cross-border terrorism. The Indians claim that they have publicly presented all the evidence for these allegations and for their assertion—for which I have seen no evidence—that Pakistan was involved in the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aeroplane. Can the Minister say whether the Foreign Office has seen any of the evidence? If so, will she place copies of it in the Library? It certainly has not appeared in the media.

There have also been counter-allegations of Indian-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan. An official at the High Commission in Islamabad was arrested yesterday in possession of an explosive device, and a bomb outrage in Karachi is now being laid at the door of the Indians, by some commentators at least. Perhaps Britain could help both countries by providing anti-terrorist experts to review the evidence and to publish a report so that at least outsiders may be able to evaluate the case. I know that we can do only a limited amount because the Indians are always so keen to uphold the principle that it is a bilateral dispute between themselves and the Pakistanis, in which no outsider has a role.

Finally, I should like to draw attention, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, to the Chief Executive's condemnation of intolerance and bigotry in his televised address to the nation on 17th October last. He urged scholars to curb those who were exploiting religion for vested interests and bringing a bad name to Islam. He said: Islam teaches tolerance, not hatred; universal brotherhood and not enmity; peace and not violence; progress and not bigotry". In the new Pakistan, with a genuine system of democracy, that spirit of tolerance, so powerfully articulated originally by the Quaid-I-Azam when Pakistan first gained its independence—we heard earlier the powerful statement that he made—there will be no room for laws discriminating against minority groups. It would be enormously welcome if the Chief Executive repealed the iniquitous sections of the penal code which discriminate particularly against the Ahmadis, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said.

The government of Nawaz Sharif let loose extremists who relentlessly persecuted and prosecuted Ahmadis all over Pakistan, but the evil forces of bigotry that they unleashed had even more harmful consequences. Sectarian violence was spreading across Pakistan. An attack on a Shi'a mosque in Karachi, for instance, resulted in the deaths of nine worshippers—and the person charged with that offence proved to be the head of an extremist Sunni party. Pakistan badly needs a powerful law against hate speech and against incitement to acts of discrimination against members of a particular religion. I respectfully hope that the Chief Executive will consider that, as well as the repeal of the infamous Ordinance 20 and its successors.

Let us give Pakistan a breathing space to reform the law, to reconstruct true democracy and not a mechanism for rotating corrupt feudals masquerading as democrats, and to sweep away the cobwebs of corruption and nepotism. Why not go a little further and offer technical help to Pakistan, both in drafting laws to eliminate religious discrimination and in establishing fair and effective procedures in the National Accountability Bureau?

3.46 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

My Lords, as the House knows, the background to the creation of Pakistan was the feeling of a minority—that is to say the Muslim community in undivided India—that it was being oppressed. The reason, as Professor Akbar Ahmed, who is in the Gallery, has pointed out, was the revival of a particular kind of Hindu nationalism in the 1920s and the 1930s in British India. It was for that reason that the founders of Pakistan were determined that those who are now in the minority in the new state should not suffer from a similar feeling of oppression; hence the quote we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the state.

Having said that, it is also true that Pakistan was created primarily for the Muslims of India. It is reasonable, therefore, that Islamic beliefs, values and traditions should influence law, policy and other measures in that state. But this should not exclude respect for the contributions of minorities. Indeed, it should make room for them. On the eve of the Wakeham commission report, perhaps it is pertinent that this is how the Church of England views its service to the nation and to the House. The Christian tradition, perhaps in its Anglican form, will of course be influential, but that should not be seen as in any way exclusive.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, that time should be given to the new government. At the same time, we need to ask questions. What is it that we are looking for in this time of grace afforded to General Musharraf? First, it is open and accountable government through democratic processes at every level, not only at the national level, and an independent judiciary. The higher judiciary has often saved Pakistan from the fate that has befallen countries like Afghanistan and Iran. Furthermore, the country needs impartial ombudsmen so that ordinary people have access to speedy justice.

Like other speakers, I welcome the desire of the new government to maintain an effective fiscal policy, and I welcome moves to tax both wealth and income above a certain threshold, in particular that of the feudal classes. However, I am concerned about indirect taxation—a blunt weapon that hits the rich and poor alike. I am concerned to see that, under pressure from the world financial institutions, Pakistan is now placing an emphasis on this area of taxation. It is important that indirect taxation should not harm the poor who are already under tremendous pressure in Pakistan.

Once again, I welcome the action against institutions and individuals who have been defaulting on their huge loans. However, this points to the need for a regulated banking system, an independent review of the lending policies of the scheduled banks, and a regular audit of defaulting loans and of the action taken by the banks, if any, in establishing a difference between legitimate banking charges—we call them "interest", but call them what you wish—and usury, the kind of charges that exploit the needy. The two are often confused in Pakistan.

We need equality of opportunity and access for all citizens to education, to public services and to employment. That is particularly true of the religious minorities, whether Christian, Ahmadis, Hindu or whoever. I welcome the Government's initiatives on the religious schools, the Madrassahs. There is a requirement that they should teach a wide range of subjects so that their pupils are prepared for contemporary life in this world.

I would support a return to the 1973 constitution in its original form. It was the best constitution that the country had, a constitution of consensus. All sides agreed. A return to that constitution would have implications for legislation that has flowed from amendments to it. That would be a desirable result, achieving some of the aims asked for by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

A unified electoral system should be put in place. That would allow minorities to participate at every level of political life, as they did in the past. The present system of separate electorates reinforces a form of social apartheid which is highly undesirable when trying to build one nation. It alienates minority communities from their constituency representatives. I am sure that many noble Lords will appreciate the value of people feeling that they belong to a particular constituency.

I turn to the issue of equality before the law, about which the noble Baroness spoke. In certain cases under Shari'ah, the evidence of a Muslim woman is half that of a Muslim man. The evidence of a Christian man is also half that of a Muslim man while a Christian woman has no legal standing at all in the law in such cases. That is clearly an absurd situation which must be addressed. Women and minorities should be equal before the law. Of course, there should be respect for Shari'ah, the accumulated wisdom of legal experience in the Muslim world. However, for almost 200 years now, Muslim reformers themselves have been asking for reform of the Shari'ah so that it can address modern circumstances. I could cite a long list of distinguished reformers: Mohammed Abduh in Egypt; Jamaluddin Afghani and Mohammed Iqbal. They have been asking for a radical Iftihad—radical research into the sources of Islam so that a new legal consensus can be built. Indeed, the principle of movement and of development is native to the existing schools of law in Islam, whether they be Hanifite, Malikite or Shafi'i. Only one school does not have any principle of movement at all.

In my articles in The Times, I have often referred to the blasphemy law as profoundly un-Islamic and against the practice of the Prophet of Islam. It should be repealed. However, there must be effective legal provision for the prevention of incitement to religious hatred. There might even be a law against insulting the founders of the various religions, while at the same time—this is also an important point—maintaining the freedom to criticise religions and religious beliefs.

Let us encourage the rebuilding of Pakistan according to the plan left by Iqbal, by Jinnah and by the first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was mentioned in an earlier contribution. However, none of this is achievable without a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. It is urgent to address how the international community could facilitate negotiations between India and Pakistan and, indeed, also include the Kashmiri people.

Long ago the poet-philosopher of Pakistan, Mohammed Iqbal, said: Thought of home has become a sadness without cause, sometimes an ache for beauty, sometimes an ardent desire for the unattainable. May it not be so".

3.56 p.m.

Lord Paul

My Lords, I should like to express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for initiating this debate. He has given us the opportunity to discuss one of the more critical areas of foreign policy today. At the outset, perhaps I may say that I love Pakistan and its people. That is because we are the same people. However, I must also say that I do not like a coup anywhere.

Noble Lords may not be aware that I have some personal experience of the current situation in Pakistan. On 12th October last year, on the very day of the military coup, I arrived in Islamabad representing this country as an ambassador for British business. So I had a unique, first-hand view of what took place during the first three days after the coup. I spent that time with the then acting UK Head of Mission, Greg Dorey, and his colleagues, at the British High Commission in Islamabad. I wish to commend them on their professionalism and courage in very difficult circumstances. That is not unusual. I have observed many of our overseas missions. They are doing outstanding work and we have every reason to take pride in the way our Foreign Office functions abroad. Perhaps I may request my noble friend the Minister to convey my appreciation to them.

During my visit last year to Karachi and Islamabad, it was my strong impression that most people in Pakistan were very unhappy about the political state, in particular the corruption. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said in this House on 12th January that, both political parties in that country were corrupt, incompetent, unpopular and highly damaging to the welfare of the people of Pakistan".—[Official Report, 12/1/00; col. 629.] However, I cannot share his conclusion that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was unwise to condemn the military coup. A careful reading of history, including that of Pakistan, will find a lot of support for the Foreign Secretary's statement that: There is no such thing as a good coup". Surely, the answer to the problems of democracy is more democracy, not less democracy. If Britain, so widely recognised as the Mother of Parliaments, is seen to endorse the destruction of a democratic regime, it will send a sad message around the world. Anti-democratic forces, which threaten so many fragile democracies, particularly in developing countries, will be encouraged. This is why the Foreign Secretary's statement has been widely applauded by democratic and freedom-loving forces in the developing world.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to intervene? Our argument is that it was not a democracy. It was a kleptocracy which was ripping millions of rupees away from the public exchequer.

Lord Paul

My Lords, yes, but is the answer a military coup? And what is the guarantee that the military men can solve those problems?

One of the primary reasons for the international esteem in which Britain is held is our commitment to the rule of law, human rights and representative government. This is something about which every British citizen should feel proud. Your Lordships will forgive a personal, and perhaps emotional, note when I say that this is why I became a citizen of this country nearly 25 years ago and why I am happy that I did.

Millions of people everywhere look to Britain as a source of inspiration as they struggle to fulfil their democratic aspirations. We should never sacrifice this perception. The fact that we in this House accept the primacy of another place because it is an elected body testifies to our own endorsement of democratic principles.

On 20th April last year, in a debate on India and Pakistan, your Lordships may recall that I said that both these societies are capable of sustaining democratic systems of government. I also said that the most welcome contribution Britain can make in that region is to support and encourage democracy. Since then, developments in the political environment of the sub-continent make me even more convinced of this.

There is another practical consideration that I would like to share with your Lordships. Pakistan's most urgent need today is for greater investment in its infrastructure. Given the abysmal rate of adult literacy—somewhere below 40 per cent—the expansion of education is a vital need. The country has one of the highest population growth rates in the region; about 2.7 per cent per year over the past decade. About 40 per cent of its population is currently below 15 years of age. Surely, all that suggests that social and economic development is a critical issue.

As we look across the experience of nations, there is little to give us confidence that military governments will address these priorities; they are usually preoccupied with increasing the size and firepower of the armed forces; and that, of course, creates another unhappy spill-over impact on regional development. Last month, I was in India and fortunate to meet the Prime Minister Vajpayee and his senior Cabinet colleagues. Their concern is that events across the border will compel India to increase its own defence expenditures at some cost to the national development process.

We now have, in Pakistan, the first known instance of nuclear weapons under direct control of the military. All other nuclear states have had the insulation of civilian control over the final decisions about their weapons. It is good that our foreign policy keeps these broader considerations in mind as it addresses that situation.

Let me say a word about corruption. The present regime in Pakistan, and even some people here, suggest that corruption was the downfall of previous Pakistan governments. Perhaps that is so. But there are two observations that I think are relevant. First, where is the evidence that dictatorships are less corrupt than democracies? Dictatorships may, in that infamous phrase, make the trains run on time". But that they can transform or reduce corrupt politics into more honest politics is surely unproven. The answer to corruption is transparency, accountability and due process of law; to open up the system as much as possible rather than to constrict it.

My other observation is this: we must of course strongly condemn corruption wherever it exists, in Pakistan or elsewhere. It eats at the heart of any society, particularly a society that has few resources and great developmental demands. But as we do so, let us make sure that economically developed countries do not, inadvertently or otherwise, facilitate corruption in other regions.

I have avoided Kashmir and the Indo/Pakistan conflict because, as has been said, perhaps it is for another day. In conclusion, the decline of democracy does not contribute to the decline of tensions anywhere. I strongly endorse government policy in that it stands for encouraging the people of Pakistan to make their own choices through the democratic process.

4.6 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, from debates in your Lordships' House and in another place, it is strikingly obvious just how many friends Pakistan has right across the political spectrum. For many years, one of the most consistent and reliable of those friends has been my noble friend Lord Weatherill. Anyone who has an interest in the affairs of Pakistan would do well to read his speech and attach proper weight to his remarks. The whole House is indebted to him for initiating today's debate.

I want to comment on two things: first, the military coup; and, secondly, the importance of creating a more tolerant, plural and socially just society in Pakistan which is better able to accommodate its minorities.

Just before Christmas, I had the opportunity to visit the small West African country of Benin. In 1990 its military dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, whom I met during my visit, became the first African military leader voluntarily to surrender power. He felt sufficiently confident about the stability of the country to call elections in which he was a presidential candidate. He lost those elections, but a peaceful transition to democratic government nevertheless took place. It is perhaps worth commenting that five years later he stood as an independent candidate and was elected by the people in open and free elections. There is a lesson there for General Musharraf.

Notwithstanding the deeply unsatisfactory nature of the government of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's friends would surely wish to see, as the noble Lord, Lord Paul, said, the creation of democratic government in Pakistan at the earliest opportunity. I hope that when the Minister replies she will be able to tell us what progress General Sir Charles Guthrie was able to make last week during discussions with General Musharraf. I should be interested to know in particular whether in those discussions there was any debate about outstanding military sales.

Echoing remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Paul, and others, we are aware of the military instability of the region and the problems of nuclear weapons. But some 80 outstanding licences are pending. I should be interested to know what the Government's policy is towards implementing the sales that will go with the granting of those licences. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, was right last week to say that we should suspend judgment. So perhaps it is also wise for us to suspend sales, at least for the time being.

I am not naïve about the previous government. I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. When the Government were elected in 1997, the turn-out was about 32 per cent. There were many allegations of vote rigging. Holding an election does not necessarily make a country truly democratic, especially when the party of government then seeks to subvert any legitimate opposition, interfere with the judicial process and stifle hostile comment in the media. Nawaz Sharif undoubtedly did all those things. He may also have been the principal author of the events which led to his undoing. If the allegations are proven that he gave orders refusing permission for an aircraft carrying General Musharraf to land in south Karachi, that is not the action of a true democrat. No democratically elected leader would seek to kill the head of the armed forces.

A good test of an administration's credentials is its human rights record. Sharif's flirting with Taliban-inspired Sharia law did not bode well. Paradoxically, as we have heard during the debate, it is General Musharraf who has invited the world to judge him by his treatment of minorities and by the yardstick of tolerance.

In that respect, many of us hope that the new government will repeal the blasphemy laws. I associate myself wholeheartedly with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said. Since their introduction in 1986 as section 295C of the Pakistan penal code, the blasphemy laws have been used as a weapon against both the Ahmadi and the Christian minorities there. I have corresponded with the government of Pakistan about this matter. On two occasions I have led delegations to see ambassadors and ministers to press for reform of the laws. Last year, I heard first-hand here, at a meeting outside your Lordships' House, from a group of Christians in Pakistan who came to give evidence of their systematic persecution.

In 1990 the federal court determined that the death penalty should be imposed on those said to be in breach of the blasphemy laws. That is an open invitation to any fanatical group to bear false witness. As we know, the consequences can be fatal. At least two Christians—Naimat Ahmer and Manzoor Masih—have been killed by fanatics because of false blasphemy accusations. Even those Christians who have eventually been acquitted have had to flee the country because of the threat to their lives.

False accusations have, on occasion, sparked anti-Christian riots. On 6th February 1997, a mob of 30,000 rioters went on the rampage in the Punjab province, burning down homes, churches and shops belonging to Christians. The perpetrators of those events have never been brought to justice.

Blasphemy accusations are commonly used as a means of carrying out vendettas. In one case, Nelson Rahl, a stenographer at Rawalpindi general hospital, was arrested on 4th January 1997 and detained for allegedly burning some pages of the Holy Koran. He had been framed because of his refusal to participate in an embezzling scheme. Currently on bail, he and his family are in hiding because of threats to their lives.

Trials have frequently generated communal strife. On one famous occasion a mob erected a gallows outside a court where a blasphemy trial was taking place in an effort to intimidate the judicial authorities. Clearly, such actions and the existence of such laws impede the development of a more plural and tolerant society. Many of us hope for the early reform of those laws.

Later today, my noble friend Lord Sandwich will initiate a debate on contemporary slavery. Bonded labour continues to affect millions of people in Pakistan, India and Nepal. One submission to the United Nations estimates that some 20 million bonded labourers exist in Pakistan, of whom 8 million are children. In January 1999, Asma Jehangir, the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, estimated that there were 50,000 bonded labourers in southern Shindh alone. In a separate study, Human Rights Watch estimated that 1.2 million children were involved in carpet weaving in Pakistan and that many of them were bonded. In 1993 the ILO World Labour Report described the problem of debt bondage as being among the worst in the world.

Although legislation prohibiting bonded labour has been enacted in Pakistan, too little has been done to identify, release and rehabilitate labourers and prosecute those responsible for using bonded labourers. When the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, replies, I hope that she will tell us what progress is being made with the programme initiated by the European Commission in 1996 which pledged one million dollars towards the release of bonded labourers. By last year there had been no releases. I wonder how political developments in Pakistan have affected the programme, whether it will continue, and what progress the Minister expects in seeing the buying out of bonded labourers.

On those issues of human rights and social justice, General Musharraf has the opportunity to make useful progress. Many of us echo the remarks made during the debate about the links we all have with members of the Pakistan community in Britain. While I was in another place, my constituency chairman supported me loyally over many years. He had come from Pakistan, and he is one of the holiest, most resolute, devout and tolerant men I have ever met. He is the trustee of the local mosque, fully part of our society, and continues to have a great love of the country from which he sprang. People like him, who are representative of the best traditions of democracy from Pakistan, will wish for the day when democracy is created again in that country. I believe that if General Musharraf tackles the kind of questions outlined in our debate today, it will pave the way for the creation of democracy in Pakistan. Friends of Pakistan from across the political spectrum hope that it will not be too long delayed.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I join other noble Lords, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, on initiating this important and timely debate.

My perspective is not, however, to enter the debate that other noble Lords have raised of how Pakistan might best be returned to democratic rule, nor on the justifiability of the coup. My perspective is how to reinforce and strengthen the institutions which are necessary now and which will enable the country, when it returns to democracy, to be, in the words of the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, Mr Peter Hain, writing in an article in the Guardian, a genuinely new democracy; one that provides stability and sound government for the future". My concern in particular is how to strengthen and reinforce the institutions of the legal system in support of the rule of law, both now, during the present regime, and when democracy is restored. My interest—and one which I should explain, if not declare—is that I am co-chairman of t he Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association. That association is the largest organisation of lawyers in the world. Through collective and individual membership, we can count 2½million lawyers in 183 countries.

The Human Rights Institute is a separate arm, with its own membership drawn from all over the world. Our objectives are to promote and protect the rule of law and human rights. We believe those are essential to stability, to a just and peaceful society, and indeed to prosperity because they provide the framework for orderly economic growth.

We pursue this aim partly through the traditional methods of trial observations, interventions and investigation of legal systems by international experts. We also believe that we have a special role to play through the richness of our resources of experienced lawyers in every part of the world, to help educate, to offer practical assistance, or procure practical assistance, to help build or reinforce structures which will support the rule of law.

It is in that connection that we have been working in Pakistan since 1997. In October of that year, a multinational mission went to study the workings of the legal system and to report on the rule of law and human rights. It held discussions in four main centres with Bar leaders, individual lawyers, representatives of government, human rights activists, judges, non-governmental organisations and the military.

The report, which was published a year later, following discussions on the draft with the Pakistani Government, constitutes a comprehensive critique of the state of justice and the legal system in Pakistan at the time. It also included a raft of recommendations for reform in relation to the legal profession. the judiciary, the criminal justice system, on gender and justice—I note with appreciation and admiration the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox—and the approach to the prevention of terrorism.

These were serious criticisms of the justice system showing an urgent need for reform; exclusion of millions of Pakistanis from effective access to advice and representation; an over-politicised legal profession; deep concerns about the approach of the executive to the independence of the judiciary and, indeed, to some extent of the judges themselves to their relations with the executive. The latter led to the extraordinary events of late 1997, when different divisions of the Supreme Court successively suspended and placed under restraint the Chief Justice and suspended and restored part of the constitution.

We have pursued some of the recommendations since and carried out follow-up visits. I visited Islamabad and Lahore last year to discuss the report with government, Bar leaders and the judiciary. In Lahore we held the first human rights conference ever, which attracted a great number of lawyers and others.

We have offered technical assistance. Next week there is to be a mission concerned with legal education and judicial activism. We have been engaged in a programme that is designed to reinforce the structures necessary for a stable legal system based firmly on the rule of law. I say "reinforce" because the basic structures are there. There is an able and strong-minded judiciary and a large legal profession which includes many highly competent advocates and lawyers. The basic structure is based on the English legal system. When I visit the courts they are reminiscent of English legal procedures and proceedings.

It is not surprising that the basic legal structures are there. As the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, said, the founder of Pakistan, Mr Jinnah, was a firm believer in justice and the rule of law. He qualified as a barrister at Lincoln's Inn in 1895 and practised as an advocate and magistrate in his early years. But he would have been appalled to see some of the subsequent developments in the relationship between the executive and judiciary, such as the incident shown on television (reliably reported to me) when a Cabinet Minister, supported by his colleagues, physically set out to attack the Chief Justice. There is much to do in terms of the legal system and the laws. We in the Human Rights Institute shall continue our work and offer any help that we can. We are encouraged by some of the developments in the field of human rights which the present regime appears to be pursuing.

But there are two other areas in which we have been involved where we suggest that Her Majesty's Government may have a further role to play. The first is the encouragement and support of exchanges between the Pakistani and British judiciaries. As noble Lords may be aware, there are a number of countries with which such exchanges take place. Those exchanges are valuable in helping to find solutions to common problems and supporting and maintaining the culture of independence and justice.

It was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, who first explored the possibility of such exchanges with the then Chief Justice of Pakistan in 1993. The first such exchange occurred in 1995 when senior Pakistani judges visited this country. The second has not taken place, in part as a result of the constitutional crisis and in part because of financial constraint. I have been able to speak to both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, and Lord Justice Potter of the Court of Appeal, who is now responsible for those exchanges. Both have authorised me to say to your Lordships that they remain committed to the idea of a judicial exchange.

Another programme in which we have been involved is designed to gain support and help from the English legal profession. We have procured an agreement between the English Bar and the Pakistani legal profession which is intended to provide technical help and assistance in training, building legal aid programmes, pro bono schemes and other such matters. In both cases, however, while the Government have been morally supportive of what is being done a little more is needed in the form of material assistance. Not much is required, because the greatest resource is the experience and time of lawyers and judges, which is freely given. We shall continue to give any assistance that is requested in those areas, but I ask the Government to consider doing more.

I quote part of a letter that I received from Lord Justice Potter: The small amount of funds necessary to support a programme in this respect would not only pay enormous dividends; it would also be a particularly appropriate demonstration of support for the judiciary at a time of constitutional upheaval". I emphasise the last point. It is especially important at the moment that the judiciary in Pakistan does not feel beleaguered and isolated. There are particular pressures at a time like this. Judges need strength and support to play their part in upholding the rule of law as far as possible. That is no less true of the legal profession. Whatever is done now to support those structures can only help to build a stronger system ready for the return of democracy. I respectfully ask Her Majesty's Government to consider whether an enlightened and flexible approach to helping this process would now be consistent with still maintaining their position on the need for a return to democracy.

4.25 p.m.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I follow other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Weatherill for introducing a debate which has already proved to be remarkably thoughtful and, certainly as far as I am concerned, informative about the situation in Pakistan. There has been, perhaps less predictably, a high degree of unanimity about the attitude that Her Majesty's Government should take, with one notable exception.

I intervene briefly in the debate to express the hope, which was also expressed by my noble friend Lord Weatherill and other noble Lords, that we shall not exacerbate the situation in Pakistan by taking diplomatic, economic or any other measures against that country without considering fully what the consequences may be.

I should like to take a slightly different line from that which has been taken hitherto by concentrating on the dangers of getting it wrong. In a brief exchange in the other place on 2nd November, the right honourable gentleman the Foreign Secretary remonstrated with the Opposition spokesman and said that it would be wrong to give a signal that military coups are acceptable in certain circumstances. Whether, as the Foreign Secretary implies, all military coups are always unacceptable and there is no such thing as a good military coup is a matter of opinion. I hold a very different opinion from that held by the right honourable gentleman.

What is true is that military coups are sometimes understandable. If the elected government of a country prove to be corrupt, undemocratic and incompetent, as my noble friend Lord Weatherill said the sooner they are removed, the better. It would be best if that could be done by the normal democratic process. If that is not possible, as it certainly was not in Pakistan, surely it is better that there should be a temporary period of military government than the continuation of a situation in which the elected government produce nothing but misery and hardship, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, demonstrated in her admirable speech.

It is desirable that the democratic process should be restored as soon as possible. I shall be grateful if the Minister can provide any information about the validity of the Chief Executive's promise that democratic government will be restored as soon as possible. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and other noble Lords have suggested, we should at least give the military rulers a chance to put their country in order before contemplating draconian economic sanctions and bringing about Pakistan's diplomatic isolation.

There is also a practical matter to be considered. I refer to the possibility of increased regional instability. That is a matter which the Government to their credit now appear to have at the heart of their foreign policy. Pakistan is predominantly a Muslim country (97 per cent), as the design of its national flag symbolises. Pakistan has a high proportion of Islamic militants. It is a country with over half a million men under arms and the capacity to construct and deliver nuclear weapons. On its border is India with a reverse population: over 80 per cent Hindu and only 10 or 11 per cent Muslim. It has over a million men under arms. As the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, said, it has a long-running territorial dispute with Pakistan. These are key players in the stability of this region of central and southern Asia. We should do nothing that might damage the stability of that region which is already depressingly fragile.

In that context, let me presume to utter a word of caution about the growing tendency of what is called the international community to interfere in the affairs of sovereign states. Mr Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, seems nowadays to be advocating the abandonment of the traditional United Nations doctrine of non-interference, enshrined in Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, and replacing it with something that I can only call "the right to interfere". This new doctrine has already been seen in action in the Balkans and in south-east Asia and, from what one can see and hear, Her Majesty's Government seem to be strongly supportive of that new doctrine. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, articulated it recently as follows: Ethnic and religious rivalries, territorial disputes, inadequate or failed efforts at reform, the abuse of human rights, and the dissolution of states can all lead to local and even regional instability and there remains the serious risk that such instability might spill over into the NATO area". Instability seems to be the mantra, the key word.

As we contemplate the chronic instability in central and southern Asia, I conclude with another dangerous factor that we should bear in mind. It has not been mentioned. Pakistan does not belong to—it is not a member of—the International Missile Technology Control Regime. Pakistan, like India, has an active missile programme. It has recently flight-tested its GHAURI missile, an intermediate-range missile with a range of 1,500 kilometres. It has also tested a nuclear weapon and would be capable of producing one and firing it at short notice. Western intelligence reports suggest that in this programme Pakistan has had the strong support and assistance of the People's Republic of China. Those are important factors to bear in mind in conducting and formulating a foreign policy in this region.

Instability in the area is not like Kosovo or East Timor. We are dealing with countries which are, in military terms, almost regional superpowers. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Paul, said, generals are as a rule less likely to go to war than politicians. However, despite that, the sooner that nuclear weapons in Pakistan return to political control with the return of democratic government, the better. I do not ask the Government to say that military regimes are acceptable as a long-term form of government. I do, however, ask them not to be swayed by the demands of political correctness in their immediate reaction to the military coup so that they make the situation in that region worse rather than better.

4.33 p.m.

Lord Sandberg

My Lords, we all welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, in introducing the debate. Like the noble Lord, I had the good fortune to hold a commission in the cavalry regiment in the old Indian Army. That regiment, the 6th Lancers, became part of the Pakistan army after Partition. I have the honour of being that regiment's representative in Britain.

It is now some three months since we received the news that the Pakistan Government had been turned out by an edict of the army led by General Pervaiz Musharraf. Most of us who know and have an affection for Pakistan instantly, if perhaps inwardly, felt a sense of relief. We were only too aware of the deep corruption of successive governments over too many years. Naturally, we do not encourage the overthrow of elected governments, albeit Sharif s majority in 1997 was on such a low turnout of the electorate, and there was good reason to imagine, as the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, pointed out, that there were some shenanigans during the election.

At that election, Pakistan was striving to find a government to undo the political corruption of the past years. The low turnout was influenced by the fear that both parties were almost equally corrupt. 'That fear turned out to be only too true. Almost immediately, Mr Sharif and his colleagues started to feed at the same trough as their predecessors. The reaction in the streets in Pakistan to the army's action told its own story. There was almost universal relief and rejoicing, and the grassroots support has continued. Since then the stock exchange index in Karachi has risen from about 1,130 to 1,700 points, an indication of the greater confidence investors have in the new administration.

I make these points because those with perhaps little understanding of Pakistan were quick to criticise the move by General Musharraf. Perhaps with more thought it might have been seen as an almost inevitable event when one takes into account the fact that the political and economic situations were at such a low ebb.

As we have heard, the aeroplane in which General Musharraf was travelling back from Sri Lanka was deliberately barred from several airports and was nearly out of fuel when it was enabled eventually to land only because of action taken by the army. I imagine that being so near a crash must concentrate the mind more than somewhat. Nevertheless, apart from the arrest of Mr Sharif and some of his close colleagues who will later go on trial, General Musharraf has refrained from martial law or any of the other extremes that we have come to fear after a military coup. Indeed, we understand that the courts and judiciary are functioning normally. There appears to be a free press. I have seen articles written in the newspapers which confirm that.

It is all too easy to condemn a military coup. The last thing we want to do is to isolate Pakistan while it is trying to formulate its future. We must wonder with some doubt—some noble Lords will have different thoughts here—whether the suspension from the Commonwealth was somewhat premature and a little hasty. One result is that in a country in dire economic circumstances, General Musharraf's first visit abroad has been not to London—it would have been a natural reaction for a member of the Commonwealth—but to China to which he will look for help. Would the Foreign Office consider—it might be difficult politically—inviting General Musharraf to this country? At that time it could ask him more about his intentions for the future. Meanwhile, General Musharraf has sought to de-escalate the military confrontation with India, as we have heard, and, it is hoped, to diminish yet another Pakistan-India war. I do not need to remind your Lordships that those two countries have a nuclear capability.

General Musharraf has stated clearly that he wants to return to democracy. He has said that the armed forces have no intention of staying in power any longer than is necessary to find the path to true democracy in Pakistan. He has thus started off well. But it would be foolish to expect that there can be an instant return to democracy in Islamabad. Equally, I believe that a precise timetable for such a return is premature. Indeed, I think that the only result would be a return to corruption. We must remember that the two opposition parties—we know that they have been less than pure—have yet to cleanse themselves.

We must be patient and allow the process to devolve. Among other factors, it is important to allow the new administration to distance itself from fundamentalism. There is a tendency among people to identify all Islamic states as being both militant and terrorist. Certainly, under Sharif there was a disturbing closeness with the Taliban. On the other hand, General Musharraf has made it clear that he wishes to return to the tenets laid down by Dr Jinnah, who was a firm and open supporter of freedom of religion and of the role of women in Pakistan.

Britain's relationship with Pakistan goes back over very many years, both as an independent country and, formerly, as part of the British Empire. Thus we must surely help Pakistan in its hour of need with sympathy and understanding. We must offer Pakistan continuing friendship. We must not act hastily just because democracy is close to our heart and there is not yet a programme in Islamabad for a return to the ballot box; rather we should be thankful that there was no bloodshed or violence.

I end by saying that those of us who have had the privilege of travelling and living in Pakistan have the fondest memories of friendship and tolerance. So I ask that we show Pakistan's citizens the same friendship and tolerance at this crucial time in its history.

4.41 p.m.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, I regret that Britain originally appeared to be out on a limb in her policy towards Pakistan, an aberration likely to be long remembered. The military did not act irresponsibly or against the interests of the people of Pakistan, who responded with widespread relief and celebration, or those of her allies. The Commonwealth, at Durban's CHOGM, was also right not to take punitive action beyond temporary suspension.

The internal affairs of Pakistan and the related complexities of Afghanistan and Kashmir require a more resolute appreciation and calculated approach by external decision-makers. The systematic dismantling of democratic institutions, the engineering of absolute powers over legislators, the removal of constitutional presidential mechanisms to dismiss a government, the subversion of the judicial process, the attempted manipulation of the military, the intimidation of journalists, including forays on press freedom, and, finally, presiding over breath-taking nation-wide corruption by all except the army, sealed his fate. Nawaz Sharif clearly had a political death-wish.

General Musharraf'should be offered a conditional tenure of no more than two years to accomplish the following far-ranging agenda before a general election commitment: the election of an independent electoral commission; fresh demarcation of constituencies, including the equal participation of minorities; mechanisms to ensure an independent judiciary; freedom of press guarantees; the safeguarding of minority human rights; a reassessment of intelligence agencies' charters of duties; revamping of the tax regime; and, finally, the protection of international investment commitments. All this must be accomplished within a programme of poverty alleviation through increased expenditure in social and education sectors and with transparency and strict accountability.

In addition, Pakistan is embroiled in two unsettling external situations, which must also be addressed—that of Afghanistan and Kashmir. Afghanistan's civil war has destabilised the region, for which Pakistan must accept a considerable degree of responsibility. It can and must now provide solutions in its own national interest. Failure to do so could see Pakistan's original involvement seriously backfire.

Afghanistan offers sanctuary, training and financial support through smuggling for militants from Pakistan, Iran, central Asian republics and the Xinjiang province of China. Afghanistan now produces three times more opium than the rest of the world put together. The Taliban have an agenda to overthrow neighbouring regimes, including that of Pakistan. I do not need to remind the House that the recent Dagastan débâcle is but one example of the devastating effects of Taliban insurgency. Worryingly, already neo-Taliban elements have become a major influence in Baluchistan and North West frontier provinces, together with increasing influence outside the Pushtun belt to Punjab and Sind.

What has been Pakistan's role in all this? —the preaching and training of the Taliban's extreme interpretation of Islam by Pakistani mullahs in Afghan refugee camps, the setting up of a strongly anti-American political party in Pakistan, the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam—the JUI—which gained leverage under Benazir Bhutto, and the undeniable support by the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency—the ISI. The solution is for Britain and the United States to put pressure on Pakistan, together with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Uzbekistan to halt the supply of arms into Afghanistan and to curb drug exports. The Taliban would then negotiate an end to the war and deliver an immediate benefit by allowing Western interests, for example, to export central Asian oil and gas via Afghanistan and Pakistan, all of which is unrealistic without peace.

Finally, there is Kashmir. Pakistan's internationalisation and Islamisation of Kashmir is undermining Pakistan's interests and the Kashmiris' demand for self-determination. While the Kashmiris have a case to be answered, realistically, territorial integrity safeguards will never make for an acceptable solution to Pakistan and Muslim Kashmiris. I regret that the new regime in Pakistan has seemingly prioritised Kashmir, for two reasons. First, a large amount of essential internal state reorganisation must be implemented; and, secondly, an atmosphere conducive to successful negotiations with India will never be achieved by continued saber-rattling—this not withstanding the new nuclear threat, fanned by a hard-line Pakistan military and a Hindu fundamentalist Indian government. There has indeed been uncertainty as to who controls Pakistan's nuclear capability.

It is worth noting that the large majority of Pakistanis living in Britain are in fact of Kashmiri origin. This has enormous significance and, not surprisingly, even certain Ministers in the United Kingdom are deemed to have a jaundiced view of Islamabad as many of their constituents come from what is known as Azad or free Kashmir. Indeed, 31 new Labour constituencies are influenced by Kasmiri Pakistanis.

I have just one question for the Minister. Given the recent Lahore Declaration, affirmed by the June G8 communiqué of which the UK played a part and is a signatory, both accords acknowledging through the Simla Agreement that the Kashmir issue is to be resolved bilaterally between Pakistan and India, and given that the UN resolution, of which the UK was also a signatory, gave the Kashmiris the right to self-determination, will the Minister say today whether the Government support the successive accords or the UN resolution? The two are contradictory and therefore misleading and complicate a resolution.

In conclusion, the Chief of the Defence Staff has just returned from bilateral meetings, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. What is the assessment, and will this lead to the necessary pragmatic assistance programme, with sufficient time and resources to right the many underlying ill-judged policies on a strict timetable? What is all too often forgotten, and what must not be lost sight of at this critical juncture, is that democracy is a process—evolving and enduring—not just an election.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Brett

My Lords, I doubt whether many noble Lords would disagree with the description given by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, a week ago of the political parties in Pakistan. Of all the constructions made of the situation in Pakistan, I favour the one given by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. It is feudalism masquerading as democracy.

I have listened to the debate with a sense of unease, and it was only following the intervention of my noble friend Lord Paul that my unease lessened slightly. It seemed that while we were not approving of the coup, we were pretty close to understanding it and accepting it. I share the view that there is no such thing as a good coup, but, whether we like it or not, the Pakistani Government had been democratically elected, even though the election was flawed. However, as my noble friend Lord Desai stated, we should suspend judgment. In a sense the realpolitik is that judgment has to be suspended because there has been a coup.

I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for introducing the debate. He mentioned the tests that the new regime has to pass to restore democracy. They include demonstrating respect for the law and human rights.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandberg, quoted General Musharraf's claim that he wants to remain in power only long enough to introduce true democracy.

I should like to introduce what some noble Lords may feel is a narrow point, but which I believe is fundamental to democracy. I refer to the issue of trade union rights in Pakistan. Trade union rights involve human rights and the law. The government of Pakistan have ratified Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labour Organisation. I have the privilege of being the vice-chairman of the governing body of that organisation. The Sharif administration attacked trade union rights in at least two ways: by passing anti-trade union legislation and by attacking the trade movement. He interfered with the banking union by denying membership to certain categories of staff. He completely suspended WAPDA, the power and water trade union, for two years. He not only suspended the organisation and its right to represent all its members, but he took away the ability of its members to contribute to it. He thereby, at a stroke, crippled the finances of the All Pakistan Federation of Trade Unions, the democratic trade union centre.

When the coup occurred, one might have thought from the statements made by General Musharraf that action would urgently be taken to bring about normality and democracy and the legal process that had been violated by the Sharif government. I quote from a letter written by my good friend Kurshid Ahmed, the general secretary of the All Pakistan Federation of Trade Unions, stating: We were expecting that Government of Pakistan would review the situation on the intervention of ILO", which had condemned the suspension. The letter continues: On the contrary, it has further extended the restrictions placed upon the WAPDA workers through a Presidential Ordinance issued on 24th September, 1999 for another two years and also allowed the WAPDA management to terminate services of WAPDA workers without assigning any reason". This kind of signal runs counter to the appreciation that there may be swift moves towards democracy. Our Government were right to condemn the coup, and it is important that they put pressure from all directions on the government of Pakistan. It may take time to introduce local election democracy and to build up a true democracy, but it would take no time at all for the government of Pakistan to remove the restrictions that have been placed on the trade unions and to conform to their binding obligations to the International Labour Organisation.

Independent trade union freedoms are fundamental to a true, free democracy. I go further and state that trade unions have a great part to play. They have a distinguished record and in the past decade have been a major player in bringing about democracy in Poland and South Africa. I ask, therefore, that the trade unionists of Pakistan receive no less support from the Government in all respects than the trade unionists in Poland and South Africa received from all sides of the House.

The test set out by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, could begin to be passed if the measures applied to the trade unions of Pakistan by the previous regime, but extended by General Musharraf, are removed at the earliest possible opportunity.

4.55 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Weatherill for initiating this important debate on Pakistan, just as we are grateful to him for giving us such a lovely excuse to have a really jolly party last night in honour of his loving convenorship of the Cross-Benchers.

Noble Lords will be relieved to hear that I am not going to speak for anything like nine minutes. I have an interest to declare in that two of my sons are currently setting up an Internet start-up company, Ascot-Drummond, based in London and Pakistan. We therefore already have many friends in Pakistan and much goodwill towards her people.

We have heard so many good and meaty speeches today covering the situation in Pakistan from so many angles that there is very little for me to add. Although the new President of Pakistan, General Musharraf, has arrived there in rather an undemocratic way, the regime that he replaced, although democratically elected in the first place, had turned out to be not very democratic in practice, difficult to dislodge and gradually becoming more and more corrupt. General Musharraf has said that as soon as the country re-settles itself he will re-initiate democracy. Naturally, we are very anxious to see this happen. We are also anxious to see the lessening of tension towards Kashmir and other neighbours and a cessation of nuclear testing.

I should like to emphasise our close ties with Pakistan, both now and historically. We wish her and her new government well.

4.56 p.m.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I also should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for introducing the debate. I pay tribute to him and his unique and special ability to address matters in an impartial and neutral way. He is very well respected in both Houses of Parliament. I always say that the noble Lord is living history. He has had enormous influence and impact on my political experiences in this House and is without doubt one of my greatest mentors.

I have listened with great interest to the speeches and should like to discuss a few of the concerns that have been addressed. The first issue is the imminent visit to the Indian sub-continent by the Foreign Minister, Keith Vaz, who is responsible for visa sections abroad. I understand that he will be visiting India and Bangladesh. However, unfortunately, he will not be visiting Pakistan. I express my concern about this matter, on behalf of over half a million British Pakistani Kashmiris and British businesses. The biggest problem in the world relating to entry clearance visas is in Islamabad. To alleviate these problems it is imperative that Mr Vaz visits Islamabad; otherwise, individuals and businesses from the British Pakistani Kashmiri community will be at a loss.

I am aware that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has seconded extra staff to cope with the long delays. My noble friend Baroness Symons has approved provision of extra entry clearance officers, who have achieved some progress. However, I understand that people are still queuing at midnight to apply for settlement visas; and they often have to wait for eight months before an interview is granted.

Britain and Pakistan have had a shared history of strong political and economic ties. I am most encouraged by the comments made by Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff. Following his recent visit to Pakistan, he was reported in the press as saying: We want to take Pakistan down a path that heads to democracy and peace and we are ready to help if the progress is maintained … Turning our back on Pakistan is simply not an option. The ties of history and friendship are simply too close. In a recent article in the Guardian, which was referred to earlier, my right honourable friend the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Peter Hain, stated that, Britain still seeks to provide funding and other practical assistance for reforms in the civil service, the police and the judiciary and in the management of public and private enterprise. For example, we are prepared to fund expert help in a fair voter registration system". I welcome those statements and should like to ask the Minister whether Her Majesty's Government would extend help to fund and organise courses here in the UK for potential parliamentarians in Pakistan, because the real problem, as has been demonstrated in today's debate, has been with Pakistan's politicians as well as its institutions.

The foreign affairs debate has again been referred to. I concur with the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, in that debate, that in recent years Pakistan had become a dysfunctional and sham democracy—had in fact become a kleptocracy, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, earlier. Therefore, General Musharraf's action was clearly in Pakistan's national interest. The people of Pakistan have accepted and welcomed the removal of the previous government, and that is perhaps why there was no violence or bloodshed and why 80 per cent of the public supported the change. Not only should we suspend our judgment, as my noble friend Lord Desai suggested earlier, but right now we should be supporting Pakistan through this difficult time.

It must be appreciated that Pakistan is a difficult country to govern. There are real problems; for example, the continuous existence of the oppressive feudal landlord system; the culture of tax evasion—which has been mentioned earlier—corruption; favouritism; nepotism; and political and economic mismanagement. There are clear signs that General Musharraf is committed to addressing some of those issues. However, I hope that the administration will either bring charges against Mr Sharif, Senator Asif Zardari and others or release them as soon as possible.

I agree with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, regarding the rights of women and their quality of life. However, I am aware also that minorities have representation at local, provincial and national level, including a cabinet minister from a religious minority. I remind the House that, before Labour came to power, there were no Muslims in either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. I remind your Lordships that in France and Germany there are millions of Muslims but they still have no representation. That does not stack up the argument for Pakistan, but all I am saying is that it is a sad fact of life that the poor and the weak—Muslims or Christians—always suffer at the hands of the majority and the strong.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester that Pakistan should have laws preventing incitement to religious hatred. I believe that we should have similar laws in Great Britain too. As your Lordships are aware, this country does not have religious discrimination laws. I hope that those noble Lords who have spoken in support of changes in Pakistan will support me when I introduce a Private Member's Bill on religious discrimination.

Pakistan has a real chance of becoming a genuine democracy. I have spoken with General Pervaiz Musharraf and he has assured me that the armed forces have no intention of staying in charge any longer than absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy to flourish in Pakistan.

General Musharraf's Government have so far taken some positive steps: they have reduced Pakistan's military budget by 5 per cent and initiated appropriate steps towards achieving economic revival. That is reflected in the confidence which the investment community has shown in Pakistan's economy, resulting in a 20 per cent increase in the stock market since 1st January 2000.

The Government are also moving towards transparent accountability, depoliticised state institutions, an improvement in the law and order situation and devolution of power to grass roots level. General Musharraf has announced that there will be local and district elections this year. That will pave the way for true, genuine and lasting democracy in Pakistan. General Musharraf's appointment of Dr Akbar Ahmed in London and Dr Maleeha Lodi in Washington has been welcomed by the masses. They are both highly respected in the Pakistani community and in the western world.

On the issue of relations with India, General Musharraf has made positive moves; for example, he unilaterally implemented a military de-escalation on Pakistan's international borders with India. Pakistan would welcome unconditional, equitable and result-oriented dialogue with India to resolve all issues; especially the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir. It is imperative that we put pressure on India. The United Nations resolutions on Kashmir are valid. No bilateral agreement between India and Pakistan can supersede the United Nations resolutions, because the United Nations is the supreme legal body.

I accept that Pakistan is currently not a democracy. However, that should not prevent the implementation of the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir. Furthermore, India is not the great democracy it pretends to be. It has 700,000 soldiers committing gross human rights violations in Kashmir. India's Interior Minister, L. K. Advani, pursues fascist policies: he was responsible for the destruction and demolition of the Babri mosque and the slaughter of 2,000 innocent civilians. He continuously threatens to take Azad Kashmir, a beautiful heaven on earth where I was born.

Recently, when General Musharraf's envoy went across the globe to explain the situation in Pakistan, he was met by top politicians in Japan and America; in Washington, by the Assistant Secretary of State. However, we failed to produce a single politician to meet him. That policy of non-engagement at ministerial level has to change. I want to see more help and co-operation with Pakistan at the highest level. I understand and support Her Majesty's Government's foreign policy. However, I ask the Minister to understand the British Pakistani community and its expectations.

Finally, our foreign policy should be an ethical foreign policy based on moral values; that is, to help others who need our help rather than persecuting them. Pakistan is a poor country. It needs help and support, not isolation from the international community. That is why I am privileged to support the proposal moved by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill.

5.8 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I, too, add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill. He matches his wisdom with his integrity, which is why so many of us take him so seriously. Pakistan is fortunate in having Peers of the calibre of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and my noble friend Lord Sandberg so closely associated with it and so anxious to champion it in its time of need. It is perhaps one of the greatest pieces of fortune that a country may enjoy to have voices, such as those we have heard, in another country's Parliament, so determined to try to assist in every way that they can.

We have already heard a great deal in the debate—and there is no point in my adding to it—about the record of the government of Mr Sharif. One has to add to that the record of his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto. Both Governments did a great deal to erode democracy in Pakistan. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester pointed out, some of the most serious erosions of the constitution of Pakistan occurred with the acceptance of the 13th and 14th constitutional amendments. Those amendments literally swept away the right of people to express dissent, even in parliament itself, or to hold other religious beliefs, and they did so without a single hour of debate in the Pakistani parliament.

Even worse, or perhaps at least as bad, we now know that both Governments' elite ruling groups simply ripped off one of the poorest countries in the world. Its loyal and courageous people, to whom both the noble Lords, Lord Weatherill and Lord Sandberg, have paid tribute, have been the victims of their own government. That is a terrible epitaph to any government of a so-called democracy. I agree with all of that. I believe that that has been in every sense a tragedy for a fine people.

However, I do not agree with those who said that it was wrong of the Foreign Secretary to make it clear at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference that he believed that a coup to overthrow an elected government should not be accepted by us without protest. I remind noble Lords that the Commonwealth is based increasingly on the concept of a mutual recognition of human rights and of democratic institutions. I believe that it would be an extremely serious step if the Foreign Secretary had simply disregarded that basic foundation and had done so in the face of the attitudes of those, for example, such as the Foreign Secretary of Canada, Mr Roy Axworthy, who, on behalf of the Commonwealth Secretariat, led the mission that went to Pakistan to meet General Musharraf to discover what were his commitments for a return to democracy. If one flew in the face of the committee, chaired by a Minister from Zimbabwe, which was set up to look into the matter, and if one behaved simply as though exceptions could be made because one had every sympathy with the reasons for that, I believe that, again, one would be taking an extremely serious step.

I believe that it is very reasonable to say that we must take a position with regard to the overthrow of democratically-elected governments, even though the democracy itself may be flimsy and shaky. Then we should explain why in that particular case we believe that there may be reasons why we should nevertheless resume aid to that country and resume support of the kind outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith. I say that for one other reason which I believe to be important; that is, that we should not go back on those commitments but, rather, strengthen them.

That brings me to my first question to the Minister. Would it not be better if the Foreign Office, perhaps together with the Commonwealth Secretariat, began to develop a somewhat richer definition of democracy: one that embodies, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, the rule of law; one that embodies, as a number of other noble Lords said, the independence of the judiciary; and one that embodies the concept of accountability and transparency in government? I am not asking for a tome, but rather for a short paragraph which will make it much easier for governments such as our own to say, "This government have fallen short of the definition of democracy that the Commonwealth recognises". Quite frankly, to hang the idea of democracy simply on the process of elections on one day is a ludicrous misdefinition of a great institution.

I turn to two questions which I want to put to the Government. First, why did we suspend aid? The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked that question because, like me, he is troubled by the fact that we have suspended aid but have continued exports of arms. Suspending aid, at least for more than a few token days, seems to me exactly the wrong thing to do. Pakistan is a flimsy democracy, partly because she is a desperately poor country and most of her people are becoming not richer but poorer. She will never establish a proper democracy unless her people have something to look forward to other than hunger. The right reverend Prelate made that point very strongly and very impressively. If in a country taxes are not paid by the wealthy, that country cannot provide education to the poor. Therefore, that is a very strong reason why I believe our economic aid should continue.

Incidentally, I should like to see that economic aid, as soon as possible, linked to co-operative endeavours with India. Last year I visited the north-west desert which lies between Rajasthan and Pakistan—a desert which on the Indian side is beginning to bloom and where I believe there is scope for major economic development along the lines of the Negev Desert in Israel, if only there could be co-operation between the two governments and support from the international community.

On arms exports, again, I have a question for the Government. Is it the case that we still rest entirely upon the old wartime emergency legislation with regard to the decision on arms exports? As Sir Richard Scott pointed out the other day, we still have made no changes, despite the strong recommendations of his report. Four years on, that appears to me to be a little casual, to say the least. Therefore, I should like to ask, first, whether any proposals are being made more rigorously to control arms exports to Pakistan, among others, and, secondly, to ask the Government whether, in the escalating current situation, it might not be wise to suspend arms exports for the time being while resuming economic aid.

My final point relates to an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and a number of other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Paul. That is how we deal with a crucially insecure region of the world which is becoming rapidly more tense. Last year, following his election in India, Mr Vajpayee extended his hand considerably towards Pakistan with a view to de-escalating relations over Kashmir. Noble Lords will remember, for example, the establishment of a bus link between Pakistan and India, the decision by India to accept and agree to a natural gas contract, and various other extensions of friendship on, it must be said, the Indian side on this occasion. That was when Mr Sharif was the Prime Minister of Pakistan. I believe that the situation was made worse by the Lahore Declaration of February 1999. I believe that that was genuinely entered into by India. However, we now understand that the declaration was signed on the very same day as Mr Sharif gave the green light to what is known as the Kargil Incursion into Kashmir. The incursion was official and involved, among others, members of the Pakistani Army. It led to a great deal of distrust at a moment when it looked as though we might at long last gee some basis of trust over Kashmir. It is proper and right to ask Pakistan and India to resume their discussions. Indeed, I believe that it is vital for the world—otherwise, we may see an escalation into real danger in that region.

I conclude by asking the Government whether there is any truth in today's report in the Pakistan newspaper, Jang, that China has said that she will not allow any harm to come to Pakistan's security and national integrity, that she will not remain silent if Pakistan is made the target of aggression, but, perhaps more important, that she is willing to meet whatever defence needs Pakistan might have and, furthermore, that she reiterates Pakistan's position on Kashmir. I make no judgment about what China is alleged to have said. I state only that if that is true, as the Pakistani newspaper suggests, then we are into a much more dangerous period in the world's history than most of us would have believed even a week ago. Perhaps the Government can throw some light on that. Perhaps they can tell us what urgent steps they are taking to try to obtain the international community's support for a new attempt to resolve some of the terrible, long-lasting and increasingly dangerous problems of Kashmir.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for securing this debate at such a critical time in Pakistan's turbulent history. As a number of noble Lords have said, south-east Asia and Pakistan in particular have continued to feature prominently in the world's consciousness over the past months. Pakistan is a pivotal country in the stability of south-east and central Asia and that stability is currently hanging in the balance.

From these Benches, we join with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in calling upon the military to respect the safety and legal rights of those who were elected by the people of Pakistan. In particular, Pakistan must respect the rights of the ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and pursue any genuine legal case through due process with a fair and open trial.

Likewise, we share the Government's desire to work closely with our colleagues in the Commonwealth to press for an early and credible timetable for the restoration of democracy to the people of Pakistan. We agree that the international community should not accord any legitimacy to the military regime or provide any signal that it is willing to condone the overthrow of a constitutional government.

Yet this debate has been characterised by wise counsel from all sides of the House on the merits and characteristics of democracy in Pakistan, and the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Chalfont and Lord Sandberg, were noteworthy in that respect. I too wish to sound a note of caution which echoes the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. I share with the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, the view that the international community must not be tempted to punish Pakistan disproportionately for that breach of democracy just because we feel we can, while larger and more powerful states are left unpunished for their violations because we feel we cannot.

Chechnya is a case in point. Although it is under consideration, after more than four months of war on its own citizens, Russia has not even been suspended from the Council of Europe, the very body which promotes the values of democracy and human rights in Europe. Of course, as this House well knows, not all elected leaders are democrats and not all generals are villains.

I make it absolutely clear that from these Benches, we do not condone or approve of the way in which the government of Pakistan was changed but there are certain matters of which we believe it is important that the Government take account and factor into their assistance to the people of Pakistan so that a truly democratic government, free from intolerance and corruption, can be elected.

The fact that the coup was bloodless and did not inspire widespread protest within Pakistan tells us what we already knew; that, in a worsening economic climate, Pakistan's previous elected government failed to provide transparent and good governance and thus lost the support and trust of those whom it represented.

Indeed, in its response to Pakistan's military coup, it is essential that the international community recognises what lies at the heart of Pakistan's political problems and does not compound them through its actions. Pakistan is a country that was created in the chaos of partition; nurtured in a cold climate of poverty and corruption; and torn, since birth, between conflicting cultures. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that Pakistan has been badly let down by successive governments, both civilian and military. Tragically for Pakistan, failures by both the Sharif and Bhutto governments have coloured perceptions of what democracy can accomplish in Pakistan. Two long periods of martial law in Pakistan have embedded the concept of military participation in politics and have inhibited the development of a stable, democratic, constitutional system.

So the challenge for the international community now lies in matching our goals for Pakistan's future with the tools that we have available. Those tools of persuasion are limited and we lack the calibrations of subtlety and balance for which the situation today in Pakistan calls. The tools of condemnation and isolation are too blunt and heavy for that country. They must be tempered by the tools of engagement and forbearance. To engage is not to condone. But to isolate may result in Pakistan's descent into further political and economic chaos which would cause ordinary Pakistanis, whose interests we purport to champion, to suffer the most.

Likewise, regional stability is at risk if we do not continue to engage with Pakistan on core issues of international concern, be they counter-narcotics, non-proliferation, law enforcement, regional peace and security and counter-terrorism. Our own actions towards Pakistan in the days ahead should be guided by the steps taken by the new authorities. In that context, General Musharraf's commitments to a democratic future, to resolution of the dispute over Kashmir and to restraint in nuclear proliferation are most welcome.

Of course we wish to see General Musharraf take practical steps to acknowledge that democratic governance is not an experiment; it is a right accorded to all people under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The sooner civilian, democratic rule is restored, the better. It is better for the ordinary people of Pakistan; better for Pakistan as a nation; and better for Pakistan's relations with her neighbours and the international community.

In that context, I wish to add to the questions put to the Minister by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify the precise purpose of those discussions between Sir Charles Guthrie and General Musharraf, given the recent speculation over arms sales to Pakistan. The Minister will be aware that the Foreign Office Minister of State said that, we will consider any licences that we have in for arms exports on their merits as we have done in the past but we will not support anything which is used for external aggression or internal oppression, not least over Pakistan's activities in Kashmir". Given that the Government fruitlessly proclaimed the very same gestures in relation to East Timor, what confidence can we have that those conditions will be respected in Pakistan?

Will the Minister confirm that there are at least 80 applications for export licences pending and will she clarify the Government's policy on applications for arms sales to Pakistan? In the light of the Government's strong condemnation of the coup in October and November and their ethical dimension to foreign policy, will she confirm that it is government policy that arms sales will not be reviewed until democratic guarantees are in place? If not, will she explain how the Government intend to demonstrate to the military government of Pakistan that there cannot be business as usual between them and the rest of the world, as the Foreign Secretary demanded in October?

I must say that it is difficult to see how the ethical dimensions of foreign policy have been served, when the Government are quick to suspend all bilateral aid to the government of Pakistan and when the Secretary of State for International Development says that, obviously, we cannot provide development assistance to the military authorities in Pakistan", and when the Foreign Secretary said: We will not be doing business with the military regime", yet the Government's policy on applications for arms exports to Pakistan remains far from clear.

The Minister will be aware that in July, President Clinton, on the subject of Kashmir, said that he would take a personal interest in encouraging an expeditious resumption and intensification of those bilateral efforts to resolve all issues dividing India and Pakistan, including Kashmir, once the sanctity of the line of control has been fully restored.

Pakistan has interpreted that as an indication that America may be willing to play a mediation role in Kashmir, something which, as we have heard during this debate, India vehemently opposes. Again, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that Kashmir is also our problem. Britain's position has always been that we are willing to act as a broker for peace if both sides request it, but that the impetus for a just and lasting solution to the conflict and the final settlement which involves and reflects the views of the people of Kashmir remains firmly a matter for India and Pakistan. In view of that, will the Minister say whether the Government have sought clarification of President Clinton's statement?

The state of development in the country of Pakistan has been made extremely clear by noble Lords during this debate, not least by the right reverend Prelate who referred to the importance of a grace period.

General Musharraf has pledged to revive the economy and indeed we should assist. We should assist because 36 million people in Pakistan live in absolute poverty; over two-thirds of the Pakistan adult population is illiterate; 60 million people do not have access to health facilities; 67 million people are without safe drinking water, and 89 million people are deprived of basic sanitation facilities. That is why it is incumbent on this House, indeed this Government, to respond positively to programmes of assistance for the development of Pakistan.

In conclusion, democracy will not take root if it is grafted on to corrupt and bankrupt institutions. Economic growth in Pakistan cannot be sustained without substantial investment in human development. It is from that development that in due course we will get the sort of democratic security for the people of Pakistan that is so essential. A simple adherence to the concept of democracy without recognising the fundamental importance of building the institutions of good governance and effective development programmes will simply not work. That is why we need to be sensitive to these issues when considering this question today; we need to be firm yet persuasive; robust yet sensitive to the new government of Pakistan; and resolute yet encouraging as we pursue our goal of the restoration of democracy.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, this has been an interesting and high quality debate. I welcome the level of unanimity and understanding of some of the difficulties that in general has been expressed by so many noble Lords.

I wish now to conclude our deliberations on the Motion before us on recent developments in Pakistan. During last week's debate on the international situation, I also promised replies to the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and my noble friends Lord Desai and Lord Janner.

I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for drawing our attention to the crucial issue of the future of Pakistan—crucial because Pakistan is undoubtedly at a crossroads. He and other noble Lords spoke of the military coup, economic and developmental challenges, tensions with India, and nuclear issues. At this early stage, I particularly want to thank my noble friend Lord Paul for his kind words of thanks to our staff in Islamabad who at present are facing such difficult times.

The British Government are watching developments with concern, but we are not yet ready to subscribe to the gospel of despair, as perhaps some believe we are. I can reassure my noble friend Lord Ahmed that we agree that Britain cannot and should not turn its back on Pakistan and its people. Pakistan is too important to isolate. That is why, despite our deep concern over the coup, the British Government will stay engaged. We have too much shared history and too many shared interests to do otherwise, as a number of noble Lords mentioned. In that context, as far as I am aware Ministers have never refused to meet any envoy sent by General Musharraf. I was surprised to hear mention of that.

The policy of staying engaged is why the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence agreed to the visit of Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff, to Pakistan on 13th January. He underlined to General Musharraf our concern at recent events in Pakistan and the necessity for him urgently to reassure the international community of his commitment to an early transition to democratic rule and to tackling tensions in the region, particularly with India.

To answer the questions of my noble friend Lord Alton and respond to the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, I say straightaway that the issue of arms sales was not on the agenda. Our policy on arms export licensing, as clearly set out in response to a Question in another place, is that we consider export licence applications for Pakistan on a case-by-case basis against our national criteria and those in the EU Code of Conduct for Arms Exports. Applications for export licences can take some time to process, especially if the situation in the country concerned is fluid. The coup in Pakistan created many uncertainties and, in the circumstances, it is right for the Government to take the time necessary to assess the new regime's behaviour and intentions before deciding on outstanding export licence applications.

I shall try to respond to the questions in relation to bonded labour in my response to the debate of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. I shall write to noble Lords in the event that time defeats me.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I apologise for intervening. On the last point, does that in effect mean that we will be suspending arms licences for Pakistan until such time as there is some assurance that Pakistan will be returning to a democracy, possibly on a timetable basis?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as I said, we will look at each application on its merits on a case-by-case basis. Obviously some considerations will apply more acutely to some than others. That is the fullest answer I am in a position to give.

I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that I cannot but agree with what was said by my noble friend Lord Paul in his fine speech, my noble friend Lord Brett and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that there can be no such thing as a "good coup". We have made that clear from the outset. We are aware of the shortcomings of the previous government in Pakistan. We made no secret of concerns about their record on many issues: relations with India, economic reform and human rights. But they were elected and the Pakistani people had the right to challenge them through the ballot box.

Military intervention is an unacceptable response to dissatisfaction with an elected government. Coups can only hinder the evolution of the democratic process. An apathetic response to a coup in a country of Pakistan's size and importance—it is the sixth largest democracy in the world—would have sent a destabilising signal to other fragile democracies throughout the Commonwealth and the rest of the world. I compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on an excellent speech. She raised an interesting point on the definition of "democracy" which merits proper and further consideration.

Pakistan is a proud country with a proud people. My noble friend Lord Desai rightly made reference to the bad luck to which it has been subject. But the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was right when he said that it has been badly let down too by successive leaders, both civilian and military. As a result, Pakistan continues to struggle with deep-seated political and economic problems, including widespread poverty, as many noble Lords mentioned. Those trying circumstances help to explain the popular acceptance within the country of the coup to which the noble Lords, Lord Weatherill and Lord Sandberg, and my noble friend Lord Ahmed referred.

We welcome General Musharraf's pledges to address those problems. But I beg to challenge the conclusion of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, that the military should work to rebuild and restore democracy only after it has solved them. It is clear from previous experience in Pakistan and elsewhere that the military cannot be expected to see this process through on its own. In the long term, it is only through public consent, rooted in a strong responsive democratic process, that those issues can be addressed. We urge the present regime to begin work on the transition to democracy immediately, in parallel with the wider agenda. It cannot expect us to give it a blank cheque.

Since the end of the Cold War, the trend is undeniable. The world is moving in the direction of elected democratic government, and of professional armies under civilian control. We want to help to ensure that Pakistan is not left behind.

Democracy in Pakistan has suffered a setback. But we should not give up on the principle; nor should we lose hope that democracy in Pakistan can and will be rebuilt and restored, perhaps in an even healthier state than before. The Pakistani people deserve a new and better democracy—a democracy which is fair, responsive and transparent; a democracy which can deliver stability and national unity; a democracy which can bring security and prosperity to all Pakistanis, rather than a privileged few; a democracy strong enough to ensure that this military intervention is the last.

I should tell the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that General Musharraf has promised an early transition to a stronger democracy, as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, and other speakers. The British Government welcome this. We want to see him succeed. It is now up to him to convince us that he is taking steps in pursuit of this end. I should say to all noble Lords that we are ready to listen, engage and provide practical help as long as we see real and sustained progress. This approach applies equally to our policy on government-to-government developmental aid.

The Commonwealth is also committed to the same approach through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group mechanism. We have no illusions about the size of the challenge facing General Musharraf. But that does not mean that benchmarks for progress cannot be set. If a realistic and publicly-announced timetable is drawn up, and this is demonstrated to be working, the British Government will respond constructively.

However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, rebuilding democracy is not only about what happens on election day. It also means restoring public trust in the organs of the state and the system of checks and balances on which all democracies, including our own, depend. In this context we cannot ignore the accumulated problems posed by poor economic management, corruption, weak rule of law, a "winner takes all" political culture and a poor human rights environment. We hope and expect that General Musharraf will be looking at these issues in parallel.

My noble friends Lord Desai and Lord Paul, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, all placed proper emphasis on the economic issues with which Pakistan is challenged. Without public trust in the management of the economy, any rebuilt political and institutional structure will have an uphill struggle for credibility. Economic reform is necessary to bring prosperity and to benefit the poor, but it can also encourage fairer and more transparent administration. Economic reforms are not just about the right to do business; they are also about the way in which business is done. It is in the interests of all to enshrine and enforce obligations to pay wages, taxes and debts. I agree with what has been said by many noble Lords in this regard.

Corruption has extended its powerful tentacles into all areas of national life in Pakistan. My noble friend Lord Desai gave us some graphic examples of this in his powerful speech. Other speakers also commented on it. This hurts the weak, curtails efficiency, checks economic development and sharpens the public's sense of alienation from the government.

Acting to stamp out corruption and encourage disinterested and transparent administration would benefit all Pakistanis. This process should apply equally to all sectors of society. Once those in authority are seen to respect the rule of law, it should become easier to demand that the public also do so. The law should uphold the rights of the weak against the strong. But, in parallel, there is a need for justice to be faster, firmer and fairer. I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Goldsmith for his helpful account of the work of the International Bar Association in this field. We wish to look very carefully at his suggestions in relation to taking these issues further.

We also welcome the emphasis placed by my noble friend Lord Paul and other noble Lords on the importance of the rule of law generally, and the judicial process. That applies most particularly to the excellent speech made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester. The tradition of "winner takes all" should and can be broken. For democracy to work better, a government should be able to take and respond to criticism and deal with their opponents in a balanced way. Political intimidation has no place.

In the immediate future, any trial of the deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must be fair and open. I cannot but agree with the comments made in this regard by my noble friend Lord Desai, and the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Moynihan. A show trial to settle old scores would strike a sour note. In answer to the specific question of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I can tell him that we have a hope and an aspiration that there will be no improper interference with the courts or with Mr Sharif's trial. We are watching closely the process of the trial, but our jury is still out.

Our dialogue on human rights with the previous government was wide ranging. We raised frankly our concerns over the position of women (Hudood Ordinances—honour killings), the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities (Christians, Ahmadis and Shias) and trade unions, as well as press freedom. Indeed, specific mention was made of the issue regarding the editor of the Friday Times. We welcome the commitments made by General Musharraf which were rightly highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in her sensitive speech. We also agree with the sentiments made in this regard by many other noble Lords.

However, General Musharraf has to respect fully the guarantees set out in the Pakistani constitution. We look to him to ensure that they are implemented. But with that constitution formally suspended, the climate is uncertain. We shall be monitoring the situation closely. It is hard for us to continue our pressure for the repeal of the laws, such as the blasphemy laws and the Hudood Ordinances, in the vacuum that currently exists. I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Sandberg, that we do not believe that the teachings of Islam or the people of Pakistan are anti-Western or that they embrace violence. There is a history of good relations between Pakistan and the UK, exemplified by the positive role of people of Pakistani origin in modern Britain.

As I said earlier, Pakistan does not exist in a vacuum. I should like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, in particular for his pungent and well-informed analysis of the challenges facing the region. Britain is committed to working for peace, stability and prosperity throughout south Asia. A Pakistan which is at peace with itself and its neighbours is a crucial element in this equation. We should be under no illusion: the situation in south Asia is worrying. A number of my noble friends were right to express disquiet about the summer's conflict in the Kargil sector of the Line of Control, especially as it came so soon after nuclear testing by both Pakistan and India. The recent hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft has further increased tensions.

We have urged General Musharraf to renounce the option of military aggression over Kashmir and to make early moves towards reducing tensions with India. We have also asked that Pakistan co-operate fully with international efforts to combat the scourge of terrorism. We remain deeply concerned about Kashmir, both as a potential flashpoint and for the sake of the Kashmiri people. Our position is well known: we call for India and Pakistan to reach a just and lasting settlement that reflects the views of the Kashmiri people and offers them the best hope of peace and security. We have reiterated our calls for Pakistan and India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and address the root causes of the differences between them.

On the issue of Kashmir, as I have already said, the British Government's position is very well known. We condemn terrorist attacks and human rights abuses alike. We stand ready to offer our good offices in any negotiation, but only if this is requested by all parties.

I have not yet seen the reports of General Musharraf's visit to China quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. If she will permit, I shall reply to her in writing.

To sum up, we want the best for Pakistan and its people. We firmly believe that that means democracy—a strong and resilient democracy that can guarantee political and economic security for its citizens, and work for peace in the region. We welcome the commitments that General Musharraf has given to work to that end, but urge him to reassure us with a time frame. If we see progress, we are ready to help. Pakistan is too important to give up on.

5.50 p.m.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, this has been a very useful debate. In the last Session it was suggested that we might do away with Wednesday's debates in order to devote our time more frequently to looking at the Bills that come before us. I hope that today's debate and the debate last Wednesday demonstrate how very important these general debates are.

I should like to take the opportunity to thank all noble Lords who have participated. In particular, I thank my noble friend Lord Ahmed for his over-generous comments; the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester—my personal bishop, as I am in his diocese—for his contribution; and the Minister for her comments.

I take issue with the noble Baroness on only one matter. If General Musharraf's were a purely military regime, I would not support it. But, as I sought to point out, it is not a military regime. It is seeking a government of all the talents. As I understand it, there is only one military cabinet minister, apart from General Musharraf himself. So it is not a purely military regime.

I thank the noble Baroness very much for her comments and for the helpful way in which she dealt with the subject. I pay tribute also to the noble Baroness for speaking in the next debate. As one who, in a past incarnation, had to sit on the Front Bench throughout the day, I know how tempting it is to put one's feet up on the table. But that is not a tradition we have in your Lordships' House.

In concluding what has been a valuable debate, I would not wish it to be thought that in being pro-Pakistani, I am anti-Indian. I am certainly not. I served in the Arakan campaigns with the Jat (Hindu) squadron of my regiment. I have an equally high regard, respect and great affection for India and its people. I have only one remaining ambition, and I hope it may be vouchsafed: to see reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.