HL Deb 05 November 2002 vol 640 cc557-9

2.41 p.m.

Lord Ahmed

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they recognise the newly elected Government of Pakistan.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, the British Government recognise states not governments. We have welcomed the holding of multi-party elections in Pakistan. The elections are an important milestone in Pakistan's ongoing transition to democracy. The next crucial step is the transfer of power to the new national assembly and establishing parliament's role. We will continue to watch this process closely and are committed to remaining engaged with the Government of Pakistan throughout their transition.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her kind reply. Will she agree that democratically elected governments are good for the rights of their electorate, and for peace, stability and regional development? Will Her Majesty's Government encourage the governments of India and Pakistan to start dialogue to resolve the issue of Kashmir in accordance with the will of the people so that they can have a free, fair and impartial plebiscite to decide their future?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, it is absolutely clear that democracy is good for south Asia. In particular, we welcomed the announcement of the Indian and Pakistani governments to withdraw their forces from their international border. We hope that both sides will take further steps to de-escalate tensions and that this will lead to a resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan, because only dialogue can lead to a lasting solution of the Kashmiri issue.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I commend the Minister on her reply. It is very welcome to see some steps to de-escalate what has been a very troubling position. Given that we very much commend the Government of Pakistan on the help they have extended with regard to Al'Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, what steps are they taking to close down training camps on their territory on the other side of the line of control, from which there is a steady infiltration of terrorists into India?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that we have welcomed the steps that President Musharraf has taken so far to clamp down on terrorist and extremist groups in Pakistan. We shall urge him to continue in that vital task. We have made clear that the international community will expect Pakistan to take firm action against any terrorists seeking to use that country as a safe haven.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, does the Minister find a contradiction between President Musharraf, who has tried to introduce democracy and done his best, and other nations of the Commonwealth who deny all the tenets of democracy? Does she feel that the Commonwealth is fulfilling its moral ideal?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I have said on a number of occasions in this House that the Commonwealth is made up of 54 countries, all very different. Those countries have signed up to some clear principles. The Commonwealth Secretary-General has a key good offices role, which was strengthened recently at the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Clearly, CMAG's role in looking at countries that violate the principles of the Commonwealth is very important.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a good test of the democratic credentials of any government is the way they treat their minorities and uphold human rights? Is she aware that over the past 12 months in Pakistan there have been 39 deaths, 100 injuries and nine attacks on churches, church buildings, hospitals and schools? Does she recognise that one of the continuing sources of persecution against that tiny minority in Pakistan has been the blasphemy laws on the statute book there? I support the call that she and her noble friend Lord Ahmed have made for those blasphemy laws to be repealed. Will she renew that call?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we remain extremely concerned about the treatment of minorities and the misuse of the blasphemy laws. We are also concerned that extremist and sectarian groups have been responsible for violence and intimidation across the country. We shall continue to discuss that with the authorities in Pakistan.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I maintain close contact with my wartime regiment, the 19th Lancers, three of whose senior officers were members of General Musharraf's government. I welcome the noble Baroness's support for Pakistan. Does she accept that it is not really possible to have the sort of democratic elections that we have in our country in a country such as Pakistan where half the population is illiterate and subject to pressures and worse from the zamindars, the landlords, the tribal chiefs and the mullahs? Should not General Musharraf be warmly congratulated on having put into practice his promise to hold an election? Finally, will the Minister reaffirm that she will continue to help him achieve the objectives of Quaid-e-Azam in the days to come in his own country and, in particular, to support him, because of his importance in a very dangerous and difficult part of the world?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I am aware of the noble Lord's particular interest. I think I made clear that we welcomed the elections, although we realise that they were not perfect. European Union and Commonwealth observers highlighted the deficiencies. However, in working with countries such as Pakistan, bilaterally or through the European Union or the Commonwealth, one of our responsibilities has to be to help them to ensure that elections are carried out as freely and fairly as possible. These elections are a step forward in the transition to democracy in Pakistan. We want a stable, democratic Pakistan that works for the good of all its people.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, although some of the current trends in Pakistan are very worrying, following the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, does the Minister agree that there is more than one path to democracy? One kind of democracy can lead to more liberty; another kind can lead to hideous suppression and oppression of a kind that we would not welcome. Will she counsel her colleagues to ensure that when we press Pakistan we do so gently and with caution, recognising that too great an acceleration or enthusiasm for parliamentary democracy at this stage might destabilise things? Does she agree that the line taken by the European Union with the EC-Pakistan co-operation pact is very sensible and positive at this stage? Will she undertake that the Government will give their full backing to that agreement?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I hope I have made clear that we have been working with the Government of Pakistan, not just bilaterally but also through the Commonwealth and the European Union. The noble Lord is right that the co-operation agreement is an important element of that. We have sought to give the Government of Pakistan technical assistance. That is one area in which the Commonwealth in particular has taken a lead role. We will continue to do that. The noble Lord is right that in moving down the road to democracy, it is important that all the different elements are in place.