HC Deb 19 June 2002 vol 387 cc111-7WH 12.39 pm
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Although I am chairman of the Britain-Nepal parliamentary group, I would not presume to speak on behalf of the group. I initiated the debate in my individual capacity.

As the House knows, the relationship between Britain and Nepal is unique: no other country in the world has citizens who have served in the British armed forces and under the Crown for more than 150 years, with conspicuous gallantry. They have made conspicuous sacrifices in two world wars and since.

Britain's relationship with Nepal goes far beyond the Gurkha connection. Large numbers of British people travel to Nepal to enjoy the unrivalled mountains of that country, the richness and variety of Nepalese culture and the charm and resilience of the Nepalese people, with their remarkable gift of friendship. The links between our two countries also extend into the constitutional and parliamentary field. When the late King Birendra made his wise move in 1990 towards constitutional monarchy and genuinely free multiparty parliamentary democracy, it was supported by the Government of this country. Members of the British Parliament have been present among the international observer team in all the general elections by universal suffrage in Nepal, beginning with the election in 1991. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be part of the last Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Nepal in 1996, went to the Nepalese Parliament and saw the Speaker's Chair in each House, carved in British oak—gifts from the Parliament of the United Kingdom to the Parliament of the kingdom of Nepal.

That parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy is under the gravest threat from Maoist terrorists, whose clearly stated objectives are the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy in Nepal and the imposition of a one-party communist state.

The Maoist campaign has been going for some six years; thousands of people have already lost their lives and the campaign is both spreading and intensifying. The trademark, and principal weapon, of the Maoists is extreme brutality. At a briefing recently, senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials told the parliamentary group that the latest Maoist tactics before attacking a security forces post are to go to the surrounding villages and make house-to-house calls demanding that each family gives up one member of the household as a so-called civilian volunteer. If they do not do so, the Maoists will be back to murder at random one member of the household, which is a threat that they carry out. Those civilian so-called volunteers are then used as first-wave cannon-fodder in attacking the security forces post, to expend the maximum amount of the security forces' inevitably limited supplies of ammunition. When the first wave has gone in and most of the ammunition is expended, the hardened, seasoned Maoist terrorists finish off the job. Inevitably, the casualty rate among those press-ganged civilian so-called volunteers is fearfully high.

Those who have been unfortunate enough to be captured alive by the Maoists have been treated unspeakably. Prisoners have had their throats slit, have been dismembered, disembowelled, burnt alive and tied to trees in order to have their limbs smashed so that they die in agony slowly. The Maoists understand totally the power of fear, as they have always done, and exploit it ruthlessly.

Not surprisingly, in a country with only limited road communications and where the ability to reinforce is extremely restricted, the Maoists have managed to take a greater or lesser degree of political control over approximately half of Nepal. They are cementing their control by isolating areas ever more completely from help from the elected Government. They destroy telephone links, electricity supplies, bridges and the remaining Government presence in villages, which principally consists of the offices of village development and forestry committees. They have extended their operations beyond the rural areas and into the capital, Kathmandu, where the terrorists have detonated bombs in buses and taxis and against Government buildings.

As we all know, the world has been engaged in a war against terrorism since 11 September, and the world's media have given massive attention to terrorist attacks and threats of further terrorism against the United States of America and its allies, and in Afghanistan, Kashmir and the middle east. However, comparatively speaking, precious little attention has been paid to the country that is facing the single greatest threat to its parliamentary democracy from internal terrorism—Nepal. If there is to be a truly worldwide campaign against terrorism, it is high time that the world community gave more attention and support to the needs of Nepal in its war against terrorism.

I want to raise three specific points. The first is the issue of military assistance to Nepal. As the Minister will know, during the past year a succession of senior members of the Royal Nepalese security forces and the Government, including most recently the Prime Minister, have visited this country and requested military assistance. Prime Minister Deuba was able to see the Britain-Nepal parliamentary group following his meeting with our Prime Minister during his recent visit.

The press have reported that the Nepalese have requested helicopters, so that they are better able to reinforce their security forces than they have been so far; night vision equipment, so that they can mount their own attacks to try to nullify the terrorists' ability to operate more or less with impunity at night; and military training and expertise in counter-terrorism, which this country has in plenty.

I hope that the Minister will set out in the fullest and most specific detail possible in this public forum how the British Government have responded to those requests from the Nepalese Government for military assistance. I am concerned about the apparent lack of speed and resolve in the British Government's response so far.

There seems to be a striking contrast with the way in which the Government responded—rightly—to the requests from President Kabbah of Sierra Leone for military help against the brutal and serious internal terrorism that he faced and the threat to parliamentary democracy in that country. I welcomed the British Government's response to Sierra Leone, but I want to record the fact that, although Nepal is not a member of the Commonwealth, Britain's ties with Nepal are of infinitely longer duration and our obligation to Nepal is greater.

My second point relates to development assistance. The war against terrorism in Nepal will not be won by military means alone, any more that it will elsewhere in the world. The people of Nepal, particularly in rural areas, must be persuaded that their prospects for prosperity are substantially better under the existing democratic Government than they would be in a Marxist one-party state. Unless the people of Nepal can be persuaded of that, there is a real risk that the Maoists might win, so development assistance results are urgently needed on the ground.

The Secretary of State for International Development wrote to me on 9 June. She said: Last year my Department spent over £20 million on development assistance to Nepal. This included a number of short-term initiatives to deliver development benefits to people in conflict affected areas. Increases in the programme are planned this year, and if there is progress with reform we are ready to further increase financial support. I very much welcome the right hon. Lady's focus on providing development assistance to give short-term benefits to people in conflict-affected areas. That is crucial, but at the same time I am concerned by what she says about making increases in financial support dependent on progress with reform.

I completely understand the need for reform in Nepal, as do the Nepalese Government. I understand the need to root out corruption and remove what remains of the caste system, but it is an inescapable fact that those reforms will take time, and time is the one thing that Nepal does not have. The sands of time are running out in Nepal, and perhaps running out fast in terms of its parliamentary democracy, so I urge the British Government to increase development assistance now, to focus it on conflict-affected areas, and to increase development assistance without conditions.

Finally, I turn to the role that Britain can play in the international development community worldwide on behalf of Nepal. I do not begin to suggest that the British Government could or should single-handedly shoulder the burden of getting development assistance to Nepal on the scale and with the critical immediacy required. The entire international development community must be mobilised, including the United Nations development agencies, the European Union, individual donor countries with serious development programmes and the development organisations and agencies in Asia.

In the aftermath of 11 September, Britain played a crucial role in building the international military coalition against terrorism, not least through the Prime Minister. What is called for now is for Britain to take a similar lead, headed I hope by the Prime Minister, to build a similar international development assistance coalition for Nepal while there is still time. I cannot stress the urgent need for that too strongly.

I said at the outset that Britain had a unique relationship with Nepal. In my view, Britain also has unique obligations to that country. Twice in the past century, thousands of Nepalese citizens came to our country's aid as Gurkha soldiers in our hour of need. In Nepal's hour of need, it is incumbent on Britain to come to Nepal's aid with substance, determination and immediacy.

12.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on raising the issue of Maoist terrorism in Nepal. He is right to say that the debate is timely. The crisis in India and Pakistan has taken parliamentary and media attention from other countries in the region, especially Nepal, that also need international attention and support.

This morning, I spoke to a friend from Nepal who runs a business here. He had spoken to members of his family who were subject to direct intimidation by Maoist terrorists in Nepal. He told me of the fear that pervades many communities in the areas controlled by the terrorists, and the extent to which the need for a Government response presents itself. The terrorism must be cracked down on, and it must be ensured that the terrorists negotiate a proper settlement on the issues.

Much of the conduct employed by the Maoists in their efforts to secure power has been nothing short of barbaric, in their acts against Nepalese security forces and against civilians. Threats such as those that the right hon. Gentleman outlined are an everyday occurrence in many parts of Nepal.

The United Kingdom fully supports the Nepalese Government's efforts to combat the Maoist terrorists. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reiterated our support during a meeting with Prime Minister Deuba of Nepal only last month. He came to this country and asked for support, and was assured that he would be given it.

As the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling suggested, the UK has strong ties with Nepal that stretch back over 200 years. One obvious link is our Gurkha relationship. The Gurkhas are an integrated part of our Army, and are held in deep affection throughout the United Kingdom. They have distinguished themselves in areas as diverse as Bosnia, East Timor and Sierra Leone. I place on the record the Government's thanks to them for all their efforts. Until the escalation of the conflict over the past few months, Nepal has been a popular destination for British tourists, who have travelled in large numbers to holiday and trek in a country of outstanding natural beauty. The tourists need to be aware of the circumstances and take account of the escalating terrorist campaign in Nepal if they plan to travel there. They should certainly not travel in areas controlled by the Maoists, and they should also be careful in other areas.

The Maoist military campaign remains focused on three targets. The first is the continuing destruction of the civilian infrastructure. The second is the monthly pattern of major assaults on district headquarters and security force garrisons. The third is the campaign of attacks against police posts, Government offices and public transport in Kathmandu. The pattern of violence has been accompanied by repeated Maoist-inspired national shutdowns and strikes. Those have exacerbated the impact on an economy already debilitated by the conflict.

It has been estimated that there are about 5,000 core Maoist members. The Maoists have used force to bolster their numbers in operations against the Nepalese security forces. The right hon. Gentleman described some of the methods that they used. The Maoists currently control areas in the mid-west of Nepal through fear and intimidation, and there is evidence that they are present in all Nepal's 75 districts.

The security situation in Nepal has deteriorated alarmingly over the past few months. The Maoist threat continues to dominate life in the country. The scandal of destruction is enormous. Districts in the far west are now without piped water, telephones and electricity. Some districts have been losing contact with Kathmandu as the Maoists destroy repeater stations and radio masts throughout the country. Bridges have fallen to Maoist bombs, and postal services have been severely disrupted. Food stocks have been looted and local government officials are fleeing to Kathmandu as their offices are bombed and burnt.

The Maoists recently offered a unilateral ceasefire for one month. However, that proposal was rejected by Nepalese Prime Minister Deuba, who argued that the Maoists could not be trusted, especially in light of their previous ceasefire break in November 2001, when they abandoned the last round of negotiations. At the moment, the Maoists are not genuinely interested in a peaceful resolution of the situation but want to resolve it by a terrorist campaign. A ceasefire would merely provide them with the opportunity to regroup, retrain, rearm, and recruit new members to their cause.

The abandonment of peace talks by the Maoists and their return to violence last year forced the Nepalese Government to create a state of national emergency. One consequence of that was the introduction of the Royal Nepalese Army into the conflict. Previously, the role of combating the Maoists had been left to the police. The addition of the RNA to the conflict has contributed to some military successes against the Maoists. However, those achievements have been tempered by undeniable reports of human rights abuses by the police, the armed police and the RNA. Although a valued contributor to peacekeeping forces overseas, Nepal has no experience of fighting wars on its own territory. We have strongly urged the Nepalese Government to take action on human rights abuses, stressing the need properly to investigate the reports and punish the perpetrators.

The current political uncertainty in Nepal, culminating in the dissolution of the Nepalese Parliament and the expulsion of the Nepalese Prime Minister from his own party, comes at a time when the country is already undergoing a security and fiscal crisis. Prime Minister Deuba last month extended the state of emergency for a further three months. To do so, he required parliamentary support. A stand-off over the extension between Prime Minister Deuba and his party president, Mr. Koirala, resulted in the Prime Minister's dissolving Parliament in order to push ahead with the extension of the state of emergency. That was conducted within the Nepalese constitution and by the order of the Nepalese King. However, Mr. Koirala then ordered the expulsion of Prime Minister Deuba from the Nepali Congress party.

The internal conflict will not assist in reaching a solution and ending the conflict. We strongly urge Nepalese politicians to put aside their differences and to work together in the interests of the country at this difficult time. The dissolution of Parliament has resulted in new elections being called in November. We stand ready to do what we can to support the Nepalese Government in the holding of free and fair elections so that the democratic process may prevail.

Our close relations with Nepal amplify our concern for the instability there. We support the democratically elected Government of Nepal, and recognise their right and obligation to provide security to their people. We have offered our full support to the Government of Nepal in their attempt to find a resolution to the insurgency. That message was reiterated recently by the Prime Minister to the Nepalese Prime Minister. The European Union has also condemned the Maoist attacks.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

The Minister heard a compelling plea for immediate action—a plea for sufficient military assistance from the United Kingdom to support the Nepalese Government. Will he address that point?

Mr. O'Brien

I am certainly hoping to be able to deal with that. It is of course an important request. We are considering those requests and we hope that in the very short term—I am thinking of days rather than months—we will be able to give a response on some aspects. I do not wish to go into some of the detail of the military requests that have been made but I would be happy to brief hon. Members privately about that after the debate.

We are also working closely with our US colleagues and others in identifying ways to stop the insurgency. We consider our involvement to be part of the wider war against terrorism, whatever form it takes. We are committed to continuing our developmental, political and military assistance to the Nepalese Government and the United Kingdom is taking the leading role in coordinating support to Nepal in this time of significant crisis.

In that context the United Kingdom decided to host an international meeting in London, which started this morning and will conclude tomorrow. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing marred his otherwise excellent speech by claiming that we lacked resolve. The calling of that international meeting suggests otherwise. The situation is much too serious for that sort of party political knockabout and must be taken seriously. It concerns an international situation in which we have a deep vested interest and the Government intend to take it very seriously indeed.

We developed the initiative for the international conference in close consultation with our international colleagues and with the Nepalese Government. We have invited representatives from other countries who share our concerns over the worsening security situation there, those with substantial donor programmes, and, of course, representatives of the Nepalese Government. We have also invited multilateral organisations with interests in Nepal, including the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, together with the United States, India and other countries.

The international meeting is an important initiative to bring together representatives from the international community to discuss how that community can best coordinate its efforts in supporting the people of Nepal. The international meeting also provides an opportunity to reinforce the need for strategic action by the Nepalese Government and the international community to address the situation in Nepal.

But that is only the beginning. We believe that this meeting should become a process—one that will involve greater co-ordination between Nepal and other countries. The UK is helping Nepal bilaterally. Our already substantial £27 million bilateral development programme to Nepal will be increased in the short term to assist the Nepalese people. It focuses on short-term programmes to deliver development benefits to communities affected by conflict, sector reforms in health and infrastructure, governance reforms and targeted programmes to assist the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

It has to be acknowledged that the development record in Nepal is mixed. There have been some gains in reducing poverty and improving the human development of the people. However, much more must be done to reduce inequalities and corruption. That is why the Department for International Development has also worked with other agencies and the Government to improve the latter's implementation of poverty reduction programmes.

We have also approved a package of measures for Nepal totalling £6.7 million as part of our strategy concerning south Asia for this financial year. That is an increase of approximately 1,000 per cent. in Nepal's allocation from the last financial year under the global conflict prevention pool. The projects will be aimed at short-term development and at reinforcing Nepal's development, military and police capacity. They are, therefore, directly related to the current crisis.

A substantial amount has been allocated for training and equipment support for the Royal Nepalese Army. Training support will include assisting the RNA in human rights awareness, while approximately £500,000 from the fund will be spent on providing equipment, including bomb disposal protection goods.

We are committed to helping Nepal, and we are determined to do so. We are providing military and financial support, and we are determined to continue our efforts on human rights.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Order. Time is up.