Alok Sharma responds to a Parliamentary debate on Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations and outlines the Government's position that the establishment of a lasting solution on the future governance of Kashmir is for India and Pakistan to decide and should take into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
We have had a long, detailed debate with powerful speeches from Members on both sides of the House, and I am grateful to all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on securing this important debate and thank the members of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group for their commitment to the issue and for welcoming me to their meeting in December.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North said in his speech, the region has a long, complex history. The situation in Kashmir continues to attract significant public attention and parliamentary interest in the UK, as shown by this debate, not least because of the thousands of British nationals with connections to Kashmir. An estimated two thirds of British Pakistanis hail from Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Before I respond to the many points raised by right hon. and hon. Members, I will briefly set out the Government’s position on Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations. A number of Members set out what they believe to be the Government’s position, and I can confirm that what they said is consistent with our position. It has been the long-standing position of successive Governments of all hues, and the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) has also stated that the Opposition’s position has not changed.
India and Pakistan are both long-standing and important friends of the United Kingdom, and we have significant links to both countries through Indian and Pakistani diaspora communities living in the UK—I have many in my constituency. We also have strong bilateral relations with both countries, which we hope to make even stronger.
The long-standing position of the UK is that it can neither prescribe a solution to the situation in Kashmir nor act as a mediator. It is for the Governments of India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. In our discussions with both India and Pakistan, we encourage both sides to maintain positive dialogue, but the pace and scope of that dialogue is for them to determine.
I will address the issues in the order in which they came up in the debate. First, on the violence across the line of control, I agree that a strong relationship between India and Pakistan is crucial to maintaining regional stability and prosperity. I am pleased that the escalation of incidents between India and Pakistan along the line of control showed some signs of decreasing in the run-up to Christmas, but there have been recent reports of renewed activity this year.
A number of Members talked about combating terrorism. As Members will be aware, following the attack on the Indian military base in Uri last September, the Foreign Secretary publicly condemned all forms of terrorism in the region and stated that the UK
“stands shoulder to shoulder with India in the fight against terrorism, and in bringing the perpetrators to justice.”
He reiterated that message during his visit to Pakistan shortly before Christmas.
Following her visit to India last November, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Modi released a joint statement in which they reiterated their strong commitment to combating terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. They also stressed that there can be no justification for acts of terror on any grounds whatsoever.
The UK and Pakistan are, of course, also committed to working together to combat the terrorist threat, and the extremism that sustains it, in line with human rights. The UK regularly highlights to Pakistan at the highest level the importance of taking effective action against all terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, as Pakistan has committed to do. The UK will continue to encourage both India and Pakistan to ensure that channels of dialogue remain open as a means of resolving differences.
Many Members mentioned the use of pellet guns. I have said in this House on a number of occasions that I am very concerned about the violence in Indian-administered Kashmir, and I extend my condolences to the victims of violence and their families. I have also discussed the use of pellet guns and alternative methods of crowd control with representatives of the Indian Government. The use of pellet guns in Kashmir has recently come under review by the Government of India. The results of the review have not yet been shared publicly, but I understand that alternative methods are now being used. I believe that, since September 2016, pellet guns have been replaced by chilli powder shells as a preferred non-lethal crowd control device. From media reporting, it appears that the number of fatalities and injuries has since declined, which I am sure the whole House will welcome. We will, of course, continue to monitor the situation.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, and we are aware of the concerns regarding allegations of the immunity from prosecution for Indian armed forces personnel in Indian-administered Kashmir under the PSA and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The Indian Government have put in place a mechanism that allows people to request that they investigate such concerns, and we expect all states to ensure that their domestic laws are in line with international standards. Any allegations of human rights abuses must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently.
I also understand that, on 11 January, Chief Minister Mufti told the state Assembly that the Indian Government have ordered the establishment of special teams to investigate the deaths of civilians and to look at the involvement of police personnel during the unrest over the past five months.
On the face of it, it is very encouraging that those investigations have been launched, but will the Government take steps to make sure that there is international confidence that those investigations can be relied on to determine what is true?
Of course we continue to monitor the whole situation in the region and, if my hon. Friend will allow me, I will talk about the UN and other such matters.
The establishment of dialogue and confidence-building have also been mentioned, and the UK already supports a number of existing initiatives to encourage open dialogue between Pakistan and India on the basis that those attending are able to share their views in confidence. We hope that such opportunities will continue.
On the motion itself, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North calls for the British Government to raise the situation in Kashmir at the UN. As I have set out, the British Government believe that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting solution to Kashmir, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. Of course we stand ready to support both countries in that goal, but it is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or to act as a mediator. He made a powerful speech in the Westminster Hall debate in 2014, in which he said:
“The Governments of India and Pakistan are the principal parties who can bring about a resolution of the problem.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2014; Vol. 585, c. 365WH.]
That really is the case.
The UN and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights were raised by a number of Members. As a “permanent five” member of the UN Security Council, and as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the UK is a long-standing supporter of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and I am aware that the high commissioner has requested access to Kashmir from both the Indian and Pakistani Governments. Of course we encourage all states to consider visits by the high commissioner.
It is absolutely right that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has extended that request, and Pakistan has sent a letter saying that it will accept if India accepts. India has not got back to the high commissioner. What will the Minister be doing to encourage India to accept that request?
Let me reiterate the point I made to the hon. Gentleman, which is that we encourage all states to consider visits by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and I know that we have had this discussion previously.
We had a discussion about the Prime Minister’s visit to India in November. Of course, as Members would expect, she discussed a range of issues, including on Kashmir, and I hope that will be a source of reassurance to Members.
I would like the Minister to be a bit more specific and confirm that “a range of issues” includes that of human rights abuses.
The right hon. Gentleman should take comfort from the fact that the subject of Kashmir was discussed by the two Prime Ministers. It was a bilateral discussion and he, as someone who has been in government, will know that we cannot comment on private discussions. Today, we have also had a discussion about the Foreign Secretary’s visit to India, and of course he is also discussing a range of issues, including regional security issues.
Let me conclude by saying that the UK Government will continue to encourage and support both India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution to the situation in Kashmir, in line with the wishes of the people of Kashmir. We cannot, however, mediate in the process. I am fully aware of the strength of feeling about Kashmir among many people in Britain, and of course in this House, and I am glad that this debate has given me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. Once again, I thank right hon. and hon. Members for raising issues today and for their contributions.