HL Deb 09 March 2004 vol 658 cc1116-9

2.46 p.m.

Lord Ahmed asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will facilitate peace talks between India and Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, we commend the statesmanship and courage that President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee have demonstrated in moving Pakistan and India resolutely towards substantive talks on all the outstanding issues between them, including Kashmir. As a friend of both countries, we stand ready to offer any assistance that they might request. But at their root the differences between Pakistan and India are bilateral in nature and will have to be resolved through peaceful engagement between the two countries.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her reply and I pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister for encouraging both India and Pakistan to talk during the SAARC conference. Does the Minister agree that, in order to reach a lasting solution on the issue of Kashmir, the Kashmiri leadership must be involved in the talks between India and Pakistan and that violence on all sides must stop? Does she also agree that fence building along the line of control has to stop if we are to secure the right to self-determination for the Kashmiri people? Finally, military personnel in residential areas of the Kashmir valley must leave as soon as peace talks begin.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his encouraging words about my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. I very much agree that the views of the Kashmiris must be taken into account if any settlement of the issue of Kashmir is to be durable. Of course it is not for us to go into the nature of that settlement, but we welcome, for example, the announcement made by the Government of India of an inquiry into the killing of five civilians in Bandipore on 8 February. It is important that the inquiry is thorough, transparent and independent, and that any perpetrators of human rights abuses are brought to justice.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, as the Minister rightly indicated, it is obviously not for Britain to tell India and Pakistan how to resolve their differences. However, does she agree that the Indian cricket tour of Pakistan which is just beginning—an historic development—and the moves towards talks are promising signs? Will she undertake to ensure that, while we do not interfere, we extend to both governments every possible offer of facilities and encouragement, not merely to talk about Kashmir and its difficulties over the years, but also to discuss mutual disarmament and de-escalation, in particular on the nuclear side?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his words of encouragement in regard to the cricket tour. My noble friend the Leader of the House knows more than I do about the intricacies of who is up and who is down in cricket, but certainly a unique tour is about to begin.

We very warmly welcome the announcement that the Indian and Pakistan Governments have made in regard to agreeing an agenda and timetable for substantive dialogue to begin following the Indian general election. I agree that this is a promising start after many years of anxiety world wide about the situation in the region. It builds on the highly significant breakthrough in relations announced by President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee at the beginning of January. We welcome the agenda and timetable; we wish it well and encourage it.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, while endorsing the welcome given by the Minister to the signs of progress that we see between India and Pakistan, particularly the cessation of shelling across the line of control, how can the views of the people of Kashmir be taken into account? Does she think that, notwithstanding the fact that we have no direct role to play in the negotiations between India and Pakistan, we could encourage both countries to allow greater freedom of expression in the parts of the territory which are under their own jurisdiction? This would enable the people of Kashmir to exchange views, both among themselves and across the line of control, on a future constitutional settlement.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that the views of the Kashmiri people must be taken into account if a settlement is to be sustainable. As to his point about freedom of expression for the people of Kashmir, we welcome the steps taken by the Jammu and Kashmir state government to address human rights grievances, including the disbanding of the police special operations group and the release of leading political detainees.

Lord Paul

My Lords, when I was in India recently I met the Indian Prime Minister, who was cautiously optimistic about the new negotiations. Will my noble friend the Minister congratulate Mr Vajpayee? He has been working on this for four years, persevering with every new initiative despite the setbacks. The final negotiations have now started and Mr Musharraf has responded very well. Will my noble friend congratulate them on this start? Does she agree that any outside interference can only damage the negotiations that they have started and that we should refrain from doing so?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that a solution to the problems of Kashmir will be through direct bilateral agreements between India and Pakistan. I agree that Prime Minister Vajpayee is to be congratulated on the hard work that he has put into reaching the position we are now in, where there is an agenda and substantive timetable for talks to begin after the Indian elections. I also of course congratulate President Musharraf.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, does the Minister also agree that there is a strong element of urgency in this matter as people are dying every day it goes on? The bloodshed which has already taken place is heartbreaking. We should all recognise that there is a real need to settle the matter.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Baroness about the urgency of the matter. That is why we welcome the detailed talks that are taking place between Deputy Prime Minister Advani of India and the leaders of the moderate separatist Kashmiri groupings called the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. The noble Baroness will know of the ceasefire along the line of control. We encourage the confidence-building measures that are taking place, such as the Muzaffarabad and Srinagar bus link which will bring benefits to people living on both sides of the line of control.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, if the voices of the people of Kashmir are to be heard, the guns must be silent. Is it not the case that, in this instance, the less the Government try to do the better?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I think I made it clear in my earlier replies that I believe an appropriate line is to be drawn between encouragement and intervention.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I endorse much of what the noble Lord, Lord Paul, said about the negotiations that are taking place at the present time. Not only the cricket tour but also the opening of airways between India and Pakistan, better trade links between India and Pakistan and better links for surface transport between the two countries are steps in the right direction. Does the Minister agree that we should congratulate both countries on having the courage to move in a peaceful manner?

Baroness Crawley

Absolutely, my Lords. The opening of transport links is a very encouraging start to what we all hope will be the beginning of a real solution.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, in view of the fact that yesterday was Commonwealth Day, does not the Minister feel that it would be a considerable encouragement to Pakistan if it could now be brought fully hack into the Commonwealth family?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the decision on lifting Pakistan's suspension from the counsels of the Commonwealth is ultimately a matter for the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, as the noble Lord will know. However, Her Majesty's Government consider that Pakistan has met the criteria laid down by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and support its readmission to the counsels of the Commonwealth as a result.