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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): We are strongly committed to the equal treatment of women in Afghanistan. We are extremely pleased that the chairman of the Interim Authority, Dr. Karzai, pledged to uphold the rights of women at the authority's inauguration on 22 December, and that two senior members of that authority are highly distinguished Afghan women.
Mr. Olner: I thank the Minister for his encouraging reply. Does he agree that although the events of 11 September were an evil act of terrorism that we all abhor, the repression of women in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime is an equally evil act against human rights, especially against women? Will he ensure that the good work that we are doing with non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam will continue and will receive our full support long after the glare of publicity has gone? It is easy to do things now, but in several years' time there will still be a need to support the human rights of women in Afghanistan and surrounding areas. Will he assure me that we will do that?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. He may be interested to know that the Prime Minister met a group of Afghan women during his visit to the region yesterday. We continually stress that this is a long-term project, and we cannot repeat the mistakes that the international community made with Afghanistan in the early 1990s, when we simply walked away from the problems. There have been encouraging signs such as women returning to education and work. As my hon.
Mrs. Humble: I thank my hon. Friend for that very encouraging reply. I urge him to draw to the attention of the Afghan Government the recent Brussels proclamation by more than 30 Afghan women's organisations and NGOs, which not only urges Afghan women to be part of the peace process but calls for them to be allowed to work and to use their undoubted skills, experience and expertise to rebuild their economy and their country.
Mr. Bradshaw: We fully support the declaration. Women in Afghanistan are now going back to work and are being given access, which was denied them under the Taliban, to education and health care, which are perhaps two of the most important factors. As I said earlier, two women are leading members of the Interim Authority; indeed, one is a vice chair. We hope that when the transitional authority is established in June women will participate and that when free and fair elections are held in Afghanistan in two yearswhich will be a remarkable achievementwomen will play their full part in that process too.
Jane Griffiths: My hon. Friend will be aware that literacy levels among women in Afghanistan are worrying low, possible as low as 4 per cent., as a result of the policies not only of the Taliban but of the Rabbani regime. What steps can be taken to promote literacy and education for women so that future generations of women will be able to play a full part in the life of the Afghan nation?
Mr. Bradshaw: We are playing a leading role in that, both through our new diplomatic representation in Kabul and through the good work, which has already been alluded to, being carried out by British and British- supported NGOs. My hon. Friend is right: the denial of education to women in Afghanistan will leave a terrible legacy for some time to come. We need to get girls back to school and to offer adult education to women so that they can play a full role in society that will be good for Afghanistan and for the international community.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I suspect that there is little difference between hon. Members on either side of the House about what the Minister has said, and I applaud the Government's position on the matter. However, when democratic elections take place in Afghanistan, as we all hope and trust they will, will the Government play their part, through the United Nations, in ensuring that women who are illiterate, who are in purdah or who wear the burqa have the opportunity to express their opinion freely?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes. The nature of any Government in Afghanistan in two years' time is a matter for the Afghan people, but the hon. Gentleman will remember that in 1964 women in Afghanistan had the vote, and certainly to deprive them of it now would be an extremely retrograde step.
Mr. Bradshaw: Foreign Office Ministers have been working extremely closely with Ministers from DFID. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has told me that he will have another such meeting with the Secretary of State for International Development tomorrow to discuss the very issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.
Tony Baldry (Banbury): Better education, health and employment opportunities for women in Afghanistan will be largely dependent on the international community committing substantial sums to the country's reconstruction. Is the Minister convinced that the international community, including the United States, has the determination to commit the sums necessary over the time necessary to ensure that there is decent reconstruction in Afghanistan?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I am confident of that. All the statements made by our Prime Minister, President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have made it clear that the international community will not walk away from Afghanistan. There is huge job of work of reconstruction to be done. The evidence so far is good: when the UN has called for an international response in terms of donations from various countries, those donations have been forthcoming extremely quickly.
Mr. Bradshaw: I assure my hon. Friend that the British Government are keen to ensure that the whole reconstruction effort in Afghanistan involves the sort of monitoring she suggests. The UN is also committed to that. I was sorry to hear the disappointing figure she quotes; if she will allow me, I shall look into it and write to her about it in more detail.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): The movement of Afghans across the border into Pakistan is one of the many issues relating to Afghanistan about which we are in constant touch with the Government of Pakistan. I discussed that with President Musharraf on 28 November, and over Christmas with Foreign Minister Sattar; the Prime Minister did so during his visit to Islamabad yesterday. We welcome President Musharraf's statement at the end of his meeting with the Prime Minister. The security of Pakistan's borders, east and west, is of crucial importance in the fight against terrorism.
Mr. Dhanda: The Government should be congratulated on the role that they have played in ensuring a new and representative Government in Afghanistan, but there is great uncertainty about the whereabouts of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what discussions he has had on securing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially at a time of heightened tension in the area, when Pakistan might be considering redeploying some of its troops toward the border it shares with India?
Mr. Straw: Security of that border is extremely important, not least to efforts to prevent infiltration into Pakistan by al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan. In that context, I am glad to report to the House that yesterday, during his press conference with our Prime Minister, President Musharraf said that Pakistan remains conscious of its responsibilities on the western borders and of the importance of troops deployed there to seal the borders. He also expressed the hope that it would not become necessary to move those troops as a result of the conflict and pressure in Kashmir.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House roughly how many Afghans are currently refugees in Pakistan and whether there is an ordered policy for their return to their homeland? Does he accept that if too many were to return too quickly, they might find themselves in a worse position than their current one, which is grave, and that intelligence and the knowledge of many experts will be demanded to ensure that the great movement back is carried out in an ordered way during the reconstruction of Afghanistan?
Mr. Straw: The estimate taken before the end of the conflictthe hon. Gentleman appreciates that it was a rough onewas that about 2 million Afghans were to be found on the eastern border of Afghanistan adjacent to Pakistan, and between 1.5 and 2 million on the western border adjacent to Iran. Our understanding is that up to 5,000 Afghans are returning home every day. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern to ensure that such movements are organised properly, so far as is possible. That runs into the overwhelming case that the international community's commitment to Afghanistan should be long term and backed by funds. For that reason among many, we welcome Japan's call for a donors conference at the end of the month. It will be attended by senior Ministers from this country, the United States and many other major donor countries.
Mr. Straw: Since the outrageous assault on the Indian Parliament on 13 December, Pakistan has taken increasing action against terrorist organisations masquerading as freedom fighters that have been operating in the state of Pakistan and in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. President Musharraf has banned two of the worst organisations, Jaish e Muhammed and Lasjka e Toiba. He and his security forces have also arrested a number of people known to have been involved in terrorism across the border or within Pakistan. We welcome those steps, but we also look forward to further steps being taken by the Government of Pakistan fully to implement United Nations Security Council resolution 1373.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): In applauding President Musharraf's determination to crack down on terrorists and militants in his own country and prevent al-Qaeda terrorists from infiltrating that sensitive region, will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to give the House the Government's assessment of President Musharraf's ability to control elements of his own armed forces, specifically the Inter-Services Intelligence? What assessment has he made of any destabilisation in Pakistan that might result from large numbers of Afghan refugees who could do rather more than simply sit in refugee camps?
Mr. Straw: We welcome the action taken by President Musharraf so far and look forward to further firm action from him, the whole Government and the security forces of Pakistan. In our judgment, President Musharraf is very much in control of that Government, and the hon. Gentleman will know that he fired the previous director general of Pakistan's intelligence service because he was not satisfied with his loyalty. As for the infiltration of refugees by terrorists across the borders, that is one of many reasons why we are looking to the Government of Pakistan to maintain its garrison of troops and its patrolling of its western border with Afghanistan, as well as its eastern border with India.