HL Deb 20 March 2003 vol 646 cc381-3

3.16 p.m.

Lord Ahmed asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will support the lifting of the suspension on Pakistan from the Commonwealth.

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

My Lords, this is currently a matter for the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. The UK is not a member of that group. Its members will meet in May and we understand that their discussions will include Pakistan. We believe it is important that the Commonwealth stays closely engaged with Pakistan throughout its transition to democracy and that it helps to sustain the process with technical and other forms of assistance. We are providing help and remain committed to supporting Pakistan's development over the long term.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her reply. Is she aware that Pakistani people recently elected many thousands of women as councillors—more than 33 per cent of the total? Is she aware that Pakistan has elected more women as parliamentarians than about 147 other countries? In fact, in that respect Pakistan now ranks thirty-third out of 180 countries. Now that the Senate elections have taken place, is my noble friend satisfied that the process of restoring democracy has been completed, and will Her Majesty's Government help Pakistan to fight poverty and illiteracy?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, of course, we welcome the holding of multi-party elections in Pakistan. The system of having reserved seats for women has meant that there are now a number of women councillors and women in the National Assembly and other parts of the legislature. Although the election process was completed with the holding of the Senate elections last month, it is now the joint responsibility of the new Government, the political parties and parliamentarians to ensure that Pakistan's progress towards democracy is sustained. There are concerns that the Parliament has met infrequently since being established.

My noble friend also asked me about support with respect to illiteracy. We have a development programme, whose focus is on three areas: creating the economic conditions for the reduction of poverty; improving health outcomes; and improving educational outcomes. I believe that that tackles my noble friend's point.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, apart from the progress that Pakistan has made in the restoration of democratic institutions and in enhancing the rights of women, does the noble Baroness agree that it has also made considerable progress in combating corruption and in rural development, as the World Bank has acknowledged? In those circumstances, even though we are not a member of CMAG, does the noble Baroness believe that the Government could exercise their influence with members of the Commonwealth who are part of CM AG so as to restore Commonwealth membership to Pakistan at a date earlier than that of the CHOGM in December?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, as I said in my initial reply, CMAG will meet in May. It will then make a decision, which will he referred to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. It is highly unlikely that it will convene again before the meeting in December, and I believe that we should await the outcome of CMAG's discussions in May. As the noble Lord will know, we were members of CMAG until we left at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that Pakistan has made progress in other areas, including in rural development and in tackling corruption.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, have not people from Pakistan made outstanding contributions in many fields before and after independence in 1947—not overlooking its pre-eminence in the world of cricket?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that people from Pakistan have made outstanding contributions in many areas. I agree with the point about cricket, although that has not been reflected in the recent World Cup.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, if the Government are really serious about democracy and human rights in Pakistan, why is it that the Government, including in answers given by the Minister herself, have absolutely refused to take any interest in the imprisonment of Benazir Bhutto's husband? Whether or not he is guilty, the fact is that he has not been brought to trial; he has been tortured; and his treatment has been condemned at a conference of the IPU. And the Government just say that the plight of the husband of a leading politician in that country has nothing to do with the functioning of democracy and is nothing to do with the Government because he is not a British citizen. Why is it not their concern?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I think I have made it absolutely clear in replies on this matter that I have given to the noble Lord that our consular responsibilities are clear. They are set out in international law. We have a responsibility to look after the welfare of British citizens abroad. Benazir Bhutto's husband is not a British national.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that it is a fairly obvious case of double standards when Pakistan is not allowed to become a member of the Commonwealth because of its undemocratic regime, whereas Zimbabwe is being reconsidered for admission by both South Africa and Nigeria? Does she agree that this case of double standards calls into question the value of the Commonwealth as a forum for promoting democratic rights?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, Pakistan and Zimbabwe are both suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth. Zimbabwe's suspension will continue until the next CHOGM in December in Abuja, as was announced by the Commonwealth Secretary-General last weekend.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I am surprised at the answer given by the noble Baroness to the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, that this country does not have a responsibility to people who are being imprisoned in Pakistan, as is the husband of Benazir Bhutto. I thought we—according to the Prime Minister—were in the process of conducting a war in Iraq to make a regime change, a regime that is in fact imprisoning and torturing people. What is the difference?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I made absolutely clear what our consular responsibilities are. I have set out those responsibilities in reply to the noble Lord in correspondence that goes back over many months.