HL Deb 30 May 2002 vol 635 cc1511-22

12.47 p.m.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now make a Statement on the dispute between India and Pakistan.

Together with the rest of the international community, we remain deeply concerned about Pakistani and Indian military mobilisation. The prospect of military conflict between two nuclear states is very disturbing. The risk of war between India and Pakistan is very real, but it is not inevitable. If they choose to, the parties can avoid conflict.

This is a bilateral dispute, but one in which the whole international community has an interest. We are friends with both sides. We are working with both sides to find ways of lowering the tension. We still hope that we can achieve this, but responsibility for resolving the dispute lies squarely with India and Pakistan.

We do not believe that either side wants war. But we know from history that parties can sometimes end up in conflict no matter how much they do not wish or seek it. So we are urging both sides to realise that whatever their legitimate grievances, war cannot make the situation better. War is not the answer. Once wars start, they tend not to follow any plan. They are not easily controlled.

We are playing our part, therefore, in a concerted international effort to lower the tension between the two countries. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken personally in the past few days to President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee, as have President Bush and President Putin. We are in constant contact at the highest level with our United States, European Union, G8 and other partners. Several leaders have visited or are planning to visit the region, including EU Commissioner Patten last week, US Deputy Secretary of State Armitage next week, and, we hope, soon the EU High Representative Solana.

The international community is united in urging an end to Pakistani support for terrorism, on the need for de-escalation on both sides and for a resumption of dialogue. As part of that international effort, the Foreign Secretary returned this morning from two days of talks in Islamabad and New Delhi. During his trip, the Foreign Secretary made plain to both sides the huge human cost of any war and the steps that the international community looks to them to take to defuse the current crisis and to resolve their differences by peaceful means. We will continue to do everything we can to help the parties prevent conflict.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Secretary had a constructive and forthright meeting with President Musharraf, which lasted for 75 minutes. He explained the importance of the entire international community, including Pakistan, clamping down on terrorism, including cross-border terrorism. As a result of the Foreign Secretary's visit, the international community and Pakistan understand each other better.

The United Kingdom and the rest of the international community look to President Musharraf to ensure that the undertakings that he has given, particularly in his speech of 12th January, are fully followed through. It is now actions, not words, that will resolve the dispute. The Foreign Secretary delivered a frank message: President Musharraf must stop support for terrorism in Kashmir, including bringing an end to cross-border infiltration and taking action to dismantle training camps in Pakistani-controlled territory.

Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary met Indian Home Affairs Minister Advani, Defence Minister Fernandes, Foreign Minister Singh and Prime Minister Vajpayee. The discussions were thorough. The Foreign Secretary stressed that war was not inevitable and that persistent diplomacy had to continue. He reiterated what he said to President Musharraf in Islamabad, that the United Kingdom Government stand four-square with civilised governments around the world, including the Government of India, in our approach to terrorism. He made clear that the dispute had to be resolved not by military action but by dialogue. India had to play its part in helping to step back from the current heightened tension.

Throughout all of this, we are, of course, monitoring risk to British nationals in the region very closely. Our ultimate responsibility is to ensure their safety and security. We also have to consider the safety of our diplomats and their families. We are keeping our travel advice under close review. If the situation requires it, we have in place contingency arrangements. As your Lordships are aware, we have already withdrawn nonessential staff from Pakistan in response to the separate threat to British interests there from terrorists. In all this, we are of course mindful of the difficult balance we have to strike between providing the levels of service expected of us and our duty of care to our staff. I will, of course, ensure that your Lordships are kept updated as the situation develops.

We will not give up the search for peace. The situation is grave. The cost of war could be immense, but peace can succeed, if the parties wish it. My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

12.53 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for making the Statement today. It is important that we should know the Government's views on the situation before your Lordships' House goes into recess.

We fully share the concerns of Ministers about what is happening, and we recognise that the danger of conflict is acute and was made more acute by incidents this morning, including terrorist infiltration and the murder of Indian policemen. We also see it as, in a broader sense, a tragedy that two great nations, both of which are burdened with enormous poverty, should put their energies into enmity with each other, rather than into helping each other and raising living standards.

There is, of course, nothing new about many aspects of the situation; there have been three wars between the two states since independence. However, there are two new, grim features that we must recognise. First, following the horrific events of 11th September, Pakistan is at the heart of the global terrorist labyrinth. Indeed, it could be seen as the birthplace of the dreadful Taliban, with all their destructive doctrines and activities. Secondly, both countries have nuclear weapons. That means that the dispute over Kashmir is not a distant dispute that we can put at the back of our mind but a central issue of global stability that directly affects the security of our own country.

What can we do? Given Britain's original actions and responsibilities—I am speaking about the independence period over 50 years ago —we are not really in a position to sermonise. I am sure that all of us, including the Foreign Secretary and the Minister here, recognise that it is essential to maintain a balance in any assistance that we bring to the situation. It is a delicate matter. I know that the Foreign Secretary has been trying hard, but, even so, the New Delhi papers this morning are running headlines to the effect that Britain backs India. That is not a helpful headline and demonstrates how difficult it is to maintain a balance.

There are two positive points. The first is that we have excellent and friendly relations with both nations; we ought to be able to build on those. Secondly, although we cannot—as the Foreign Secretary said— act as go-between in any sense, we have considerable experience of living and surviving in a situation of nuclear tension, as we did in the Cold War. Throughout that period, we sought to build up an infrastructure of dialogue, safety valves and other means of communication that underpinned the structure of mutual deterrence, which seemed to work at that time.

My questions to the Minister follow from what I have just said. India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, and that fact cannot be undone. What steps are we taking to help them to develop arrangements for contact and dialogue and an infrastructure to see that they do not find themselves pushed—even by accident—from tactical nuclear weapons into the ghastly destruction of a nuclear war? What steps are we taking to embrace India and Pakistan realistically into the non-proliferation system? We must cease pretending that they are not involved. That will lead us nowhere. What steps are we taking to help lay the foundations of some kind of peace process architecture, something of which we have some experience nearer home?

Those are my questions to the Minister, but I reiterate the fact that we fully share her concerns and those of other Ministers. Like her, we want to see a peace system triumph over the horrific threats and dangers about which we have heard this week.

12.58 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, on these Benches, we welcome the Statement and the effort that the Foreign Secretary has put in to reduce the tension in an extremely dangerous and fraught situation. We also welcome the extent to which the Foreign Secretary has stressed that he is in Pakistan and India on behalf of the international community, the European Union, the G8 and the other major countries properly concerned with the dispute. We ought to mention the constructive contribution that the Russian Government are making to attempts to alleviate the tension between the two countries.

We recognise how dangerous the situation is. It has implications for this country, too. We have substantial communities of Kashmiri origin, as well as substantial Pakistani and Indian—Hindu and Muslim—communities. On the whole, those communities get on well, but we must be conscious that, in the event of fighting breaking out in Kashmir, there might be tensions in this country. What attention have the Government given to that question?

There is also the question of the British nationals. There are British nationals in the region whose grandparents come from the region, and that makes it particularly difficult to look after the interests of British nationals there. Do the Government have any further information about the threat to British nationals, particularly those in Pakistan?

As the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said, we are conscious that the situation is caught up with the global war on terrorism; that the Pakistani intelligence services learnt through the war against the Soviet-sponsored regime in Afghanistan how to train militants from within and outside the country; and that those militants have moved on to cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. I therefore found it odd last week when the United States produced its list of states sponsoring terrorism that the Pakistani intelligence services were not on the list.

I again want to ask the Minister about arms sales and supplies to the two participants. In the event of war, the question of Britain supplying spares for the various weapons we have sold to those countries—in particular to India—will arise. Have the Government anything to add on that matter? We in this country are most conscious that the Kashmir dispute prevents good relations between two countries, which have much shared history and culture. It stokes the fires of Hindu nationalism in India, when we all value India's tradition as a secular democracy with a substantial Muslim minority. It increases the influence of fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan and makes it more difficult for Pakistan to move back towards democratic rule.

Finally, what is the international community planning to do to push for a longer-term resolution of the Kashmir dispute either on the basis of autonomy and shared sovereignty or other forms of negotiation between those two states?

1.1 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for their comments about the Statement. They both understand that this is an unfolding situation and that of necessity, as each day dawns, the situation can change. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, indicted, there was a further deplorable incident this morning. We must therefore continue to monitor the situation closely in terms of several issues raised by both noble Lords.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that both nations have a grave responsibility in avoiding the possibility of a terrible conflict in the region. He was right to draw our attention to the new features of international terrorism, which is why my right honourable friend made a forceful statement to President Musharraf when he was in Islamabad. Our concerns are heightened all the more because of the nuclear capability of both countries.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked about the role of the United Kingdom in these events. The role is the one that we have tried to fulfil; that is, a friend of both countries. We have the ability and urgent and passionate desire to talk to both countries and to do whatever we can to try to create a line of communication—to take messages—and to be of value in stepping back from the possibility of conflict.

I recognise that newspapers in New Delhi, as well as in other parts of the world, carry headlines which may not be accurate or helpful. In answer to those who comment that the New Delhi newspapers report that a particular country is backed by the United Kingdom, I would say that the United Kingdom backs peace. I hope that that message has been given most forcefully in New Delhi and Islamabad. The United Kingdom will never back terrorism. Indeed, we made a point of applauding the help given by President Musharraf to the coalition following the dreadful events of September 11th.

The noble Lord asked what further steps we can take to help India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, they have little means of direct communication. They do not have the means to conduct the kind of conversations which we believe to be necessary in trying to resolve the issue. Therefore, together with others in the international community, we are trying to assist such a dialogue. It is only through dialogue that the issue can be properly resolved.

As I indicated in the Statement, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are in almost daily communication with leaders all around the world; with the EU, the United States and the G8. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, about the important role of our friends in Russia in trying to gain a clearer understanding.

We have made it clear that we in the United Kingdom will do everything we can to try to further that end, but it must be furthered by consent in both countries. The noble Lord was kind and generous in making it clear that he did not believe that we had been lecturing or had tried to dictate what should happen next. That is the last thing we need to do in the circumstances. We have put ourselves forward—as have others detailed in the Statement, including the Americans, our friends in the EU and soon, we hope, Mr Solana—as those who will continue to try to persuade both countries to lower the temperature in this difficult position.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, made the extraordinarily important point about our contacts within the south-east Asian community in this country. The recent rise in tension between India and Pakistan is of particular concern to those communities in the United Kingdom. We are committed to keeping in close touch with the communities concerned. Yesterday, the Home Secretary met leaders from each of the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities and the Foreign Secretary will be doing so today in a meeting with community leaders when he will apprise them of his impressions from his recent visits. We therefore hope that with such outreach into those communities we will clearly demonstrate not only the importance we attach to keeping them in touch with what is happening but also the importance we attach to the continuing exchanges between the two countries.

The position of British nationals, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is under constant review. It may change even today. I was able to give your Lordships the position as it stood when I came into the Chamber, but I am greatly aware that as the situation develops so may our advice to our nationals in the area. It may be that different advice will be given while your Lordships' House is in Recess.

The noble Lord was right in what he said about the terrorist training camps. As the Statement indicated, my right honourable friend raised that particular issue when he was in Islamabad.

The noble Lord also asked about arms sales. There has been no change of policy since my noble friend Lord Sainsbury answered a Question on the:issue posed by the Liberal Democrat Benches earlier this week. There is no decision to impose an arms embargo on India or Pakistan, but I remind all noble Lords that the consolidated criteria used include a specific reference to the preservation of regional peace, security and stability. Those absolutely clear criteria are used in trying to decide any export licences, but I also remind your Lordships that no export licences are being considered in relation to some of the bigger items which have been in recent news headlines; for instance, Hawk or other aircraft. As I stand at the Dispatch Box, no licence requests have been made.

Both noble Lords rightly expressed concern for what happens in the longer term. We must now do everything in the power of the international community to try to lower the temperature between the two countries to ensure that, through dialogue rather than armed conflict, they resolve what both noble Lords have acknowledged has been a long and bitter dispute. The United Kingdom stands ready to do everything it can to that end.

1.9 p.m.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on making it unequivocally clear that this is a bilateral matter. Is the Minister aware that one of the conflict-exacerbating factors is the confusion caused by the 1947 UN resolution which gave a right of self-determination to the people of the valley? 'Will she consider using her good offices to ensure that all parties to the conflict are left in no doubt that this is a bilateral issue, including possibly returning to New York to determine what mechanism can be used either to scratch the original UN resolution or to draft a new one to reflect that sentiment?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that I have made absolutely clear to noble Lords the view of Her Majesty's Government that this a bilateral matter. At the moment, all our energies are concentrated on trying to do everything possible, along with other key players in the international community, to lower the temperature.

I am sure that the noble Viscount knows that there are differences between the two countries as regards the terms on which they would wish in any sense to "internationalise"; that is, to approach other parties with a view to resolving this conflict. We would be treading on very sensitive ground were we to declare that a particular way would lead to a resolution, let alone that we know the ultimate answer. I do not think that we are in a position to do that.

While I acknowledge the comments made by the noble Viscount, I would urge him to agree that we have to be extraordinarily sensitive to the very firmly held views in both countries with regard to the best means of resolving the dispute.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I wonder if my noble friend can help me with one or two queries. What is the Secretary-General of the United Nations doing at the moment? If ever there was a situation in which the doves ought to be encouraged on both sides, it is this one. Defining the bilateral issue does not strike me as capable of taking the matter forward in any way. This is a bilateral issue with profound global implications.

The UN system, and the Security Council in particular, was designed to try to deal with this kind of situation. The Secretary-General has the power to call a meeting of the Security Council on his own initiative. I know that that power is rarely used, but are the Government urging the Secretary-General to take the initiative? Furthermore, are other members of the Security Council pushing him in that direction?

I find it difficult to believe that, were the Secretary-General to call a meeting of the Security Council, India and Pakistan would fail to turn up. We all know that in this kind of situation, buying time is in some ways the most essential move, otherwise we shall see an inevitable and inexorable drift which no one seems able to control. We have to buy some breathing space. One of the places where that might be done is in the Security Council. I hope that the Government are giving serious consideration to this proposal.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with the wisdom expressed by my noble friend; one of the most important ways of trying to lower the temperature in this dispute is to buy time. However, I should also say to my noble friend that the way that is done has to be handled extremely carefully.

I shall make again a point that I sought to make clear to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley. The way in which the temperature is lowered could have the potential for inflaming the dispute. That fact is that not both sides wish to have the dispute resolved through some of the international mechanisms to which my noble friend referred. That is why we have sought to use the mechanism of individuals visiting the countries concerned. I have indicated that our friends in the United States and the EU have also been trying to use their good offices in this respect.

In other circumstances, I would be able to agree with the remarks made by my noble friend. However, on this occasion the sensitivities of the views of both sides in the dispute are such that it is not easy for us to declare that it is a matter that could be resolved through the United Nations. I am sure that all of us want to find the best means of securing a resolution, but if the UN represents a means that is not acceptable to one of the sides, then we must handle the matter with great sensitivity.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is not aware that I visited Islamabad during the Easter Recess and that I had quite a long discussion with General Musharraf. During our conversation he made it plain that he was doing his utmost to crack down on those terrorists launching attacks on India.

First, has the noble Baroness seen the article printed in today's Independent, in which it states that, a spokesman for Jaish-e-Mohammed, one of the prominent groups of Islamic radicals fighting in Kashmir, told a news agency in Pakistan: 'We have been stabbed in the back and abandoned by Pakistan in the same way in which it has disassociated itself from the Taliban'"? Does not that comment indicate that General Musharraf is doing his utmost to pursue a crackdown on terrorism?

Secondly, a comment made in the same article on the words of the Foreign Secretary during his time in Pakistan points out that the, international community would be able to help Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism through what he described as 'precise assistance—. General Musharraf made it plain to me that it was virtually impossible for his troops to patrol the whole of the India-Pakistan border. After all, we were unable to do that in Northern Ireland. The border between India and Pakistan is infinitely longer.

Surely the answer lies in a political solution, as was the case in Northern Ireland. I believe that the only way in which that can be achieved is by pursuing what has just been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Richard; namely, we must try to involve the international community.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am pleased to learn that the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, had an opportunity to hold the discussion that he has described to noble Lords during the Easter Recess in Islamabad. I am sure that he, along with others in the international community, took the opportunity to urge General Musharraf to acknowledge the importance of dealing with the problems of terrorism and cross-border infiltration.

I was also interested to hear the quotation cited by the noble Lord. Yes, I believe that it does indicate that President Musharraf is trying to stem the growth of terrorism. However, the problem remains that that terrorism has not been stemmed. There are still training camps for terrorists in Pakistan-controlled territories which really must be dismantled. In essence, that was the purport of the discussions held by my right honourable friend in Islamabad.

My right honourable friend stressed three issues above all else: first, stopping support for terrorism in Kashmir; secondly, stopping cross-border infiltration; and, thirdly, dismantling terrorist training camps. I acknowledge that President Musharraf has made some efforts to do that, but those efforts will have to be concentrated and, if I may so say, they will have to be effective.

Of course I agree with the noble Lord that a political solution to this conflict is most important. The Statement has made it clear that armed conflict and war are simply not going to provide the solution that both sides so desperately need. However, the central issue is that we must listen carefully to what both sides have been telling us are what they believe to be the means of resolving the dispute. We cannot impose those means on them. Only if both sides want to use particular means, will they work. If we try to impose a resolution on one side or the other, I fear that we shall sink even deeper into the mire.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I welcome the Statement and in particular the efforts made by the Foreign Secretary to do something about the urgent situation.

First, one of the dangers which has been repeatedly highlighted is that not only is there no dialogue between the two countries, but there is not even basic telephonic equipment such as a hotline in place between them. Neither country has a fully implemented command and control system which the other can understand. Is there not something that could be done to help both sides to establish that kind of infrastructure in order to ensure that war could not break out by accident? At the very least, we should be able to ensure that both countries are given the appropriate equipment.

Secondly, in the Statement my noble friend mentioned the helpful meetings with the leaders of local communities held by the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary. Does my noble friend agree that it would be an advantage to sponsor, as it were, a Kashmir forum in which all the different elements of the diaspora—the British, the Indians and the Kashmiris—could be given an opportunity to discuss these questions? Such a forum should not he an official gathering, but rather it should bring together all the different factions so that a dialogue on Kashmir is promoted across the communities. Perhaps a solution would emerge out of that.

Such a forum may convince the two governments in India and Pakistan that, not the international community in the abstract, but the diaspora is interested in solving the problem. Such a forum may help matters.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for pointing out the difficulties as regards simply having the means for the two sides to communicate properly with each other. When a bus route was established between the two countries some two or three years ago, I remember the relief felt by many of us that some form of communication would be possible. I agree with my noble friend that the basic infrastructure that most of us have in order to try to resolve some of these conflicts is just not available between India and Pakistan at present. That is what has made the role of international figures, such as my right honourable friend, so very important: they have actually visited the two capitals in order to try to establish the fundamental issues involved and—yes—to be a means of communication between those who do not speak directly. I am not saying that they never speak directly, but they do not do so quite as much as they might were the means of communication more readily available.

I thank my noble friend for the very helpful suggestions that he made about what he described as a "Kashmir forum". Perhaps I may correct something that I said a short while ago. I referred to the "south-east Asian" community, when I should have referred to the south Asian community. I beg your Lordships' pardon for that slip of the tongue.

As regards the community in this country who are bound to follow this issue most keenly and closely, we must do everything that we can to keep them in touch with what is happening. I shall certainly take my noble friend's suggestion to my right honourable friend and put it to him as a helpful thought.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for the Statement. Is she aware—I am sure she is—of the fact that the leaders of the Asian community in this country, especially those who sit in this House, have been remarkably helpful in keeping the community informed as to what the British Government are doing? I believe that a compliment ought to be paid to them for the way in which they are working to this end with the British Government and their communities.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords; that is a most helpful and important suggestion. It cannot be easy for many colleagues in public life when such issues arise. We can all applaud them for the way in which they handle such situations, and for the sensitive way in which they deal with the different communities. I, too, thank those in your Lordships' House who have been part of that sort of leadership.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee have accepted the invitation of President Putin to go to Kazakhstan, even though they have said that they will not meet each other directly? Is this not an opportunity for the civil servants on both sides to get together and consider mechanisms, such as those suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Desai? Those civil servants could at least talk about what possible mechanisms could be established—a hotline, and so on—and also what means of communication might be developed to enable them to communicate indirectly with one another at this very critical time.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I understand that both sides have accepted the invitation of President Putin. This brings us back to the points raised earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, about the helpful role that President Putin is playing. Yes, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that every opportunity must be taken in order to bring together those who are able to engage in some dialogue. Even if the leaders themselves will not be able to meet, those in their respective entourages ought to be able to get together on this occasion; and, we hope, seek to find at least an agreed means of trying to solve this problem, if not a solution to it. In taking some of these questions on the role of some of our international institutions, I have been made acutely aware of the fact that we do not even have a means of trying to solve this issue. Like the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I hope that those opportunities will be taken in Kazakhstan.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, we know that the Pakistani Government—and, perhaps, the Indian Government—have been involved in the testing of missiles. Can my noble friend the Minister say whether we are making representations to the two governments to ensure that international observers are on site to monitor such testing, and the precise nature of the weaponry that is being tested?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, representations are matte to both governments on these issues. However, as my noble friend will be aware, those governments are not party to some of the international treaties. There is a very complicated background to the status of both governments in trying to ensure that they become party to such treaties, and as regards acknowledging them as nuclear states. We would, of course, wish to see proper verification of the ways in which those governments are handling such issues.

Lord Campbell-Savours

On site?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Indeed, my Lords; the ways in which we would want to do so would be ways that maximised confidence in such a procedure.