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John Bercow: Surely at least part of the problem is that, whereas the public are generous, public policy is not. Given that, as he and I agree—and there is widespread consensus across the House—current western agricultural dumping policies are both morally wrong and economically devastating to the developing countries, but have very strong, wealthy and articulate supporters in the international community, how in practical terms does my hon. Friend think that it will be possible to get the agreement that we need to scrap those subsidies to facilitate market access for poor countries and thereby to give them the chance that they need to compete and grow?

Peter Luff: I entirely agree with the importance of the issue cited by my hon. Friend. India, for example, has a potentially very successful dairy sector and could export large quantities of skimmed milk to the Gulf particularly, but is unable to do so because of the subsidised milk that is dumped there by the European Union. The United States of America, which so often lectures us about free trade, has scandalously subsidised agricultural production that is carefully concealed behind various different schemes. Digging down and discovering the true extent of American subsidy of agriculture is very difficult. My hon. Friend is right that there are deeply entrenched interests that will take a lot of challenging. If there is one thing that we could do to improve the lot of the developing world, it is to get the EU and the United States of America to stop subsidising exports. That would transform the life chances of millions of people around the world. How would we do it? We must carry on battling; I am not aware of any
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short-term solution. I hope that the World Trade Organisation will be robust and will not accept bullying from the United States of America and the EU.

I particularly welcome our commitment as a party to an advocacy fund, because one problem is that countries in the developing world are often unable to make the case with sufficient power in international forums and institutions. They do not have the expertise to do so. An advocacy fund is one practical way of helping them to make that case in the WTO. Addressing that problem is possibly the single most important thing.

I am delighted that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has tabled early-day motion 14—the first in his name on the Order Paper—which addresses this matter in such detail. I am a little sorry that the Prime Minister did not make more of the matter in yesterday's debate in the Queen's Speech, because he has every reason to be proud of the report of the Commission for Africa. It is a truly remarkable document. The International Development Secretary and the Chancellor also have their names on that report. The report shows the detailed work that needs to be done in many areas of policy. It is a weighty document by any standards, but an important one, which I hope that the Government will drive forward in this Session.

Ministers on the Treasury Bench have a unique opportunity this year. There is the G8 summit in Scotland in July, the EU presidency in the second half of the year and the UN General Assembly special summit on millennium development goals in September. Those goals are slipping hopelessly out of sight; there is no prospect of that target being met by 2015. They have the Commission for Africa, which they must pursue relentlessly. They have in the public mind the 25th anniversary of Live Aid, as well as the powerful Make Poverty History campaign.

I do not associate myself with all of the remedies proposed by the Make Poverty History campaign. Sometimes there is too much hostility toward the private sector, globalisation and free trade, and a lack of understanding of the complex way in which organisations such as the World Bank have to operate. The debate on reform of the sugar regime, in which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe and I have been privately engaged during this debate, is a classic example of the difficulties. We heard earlier about the likely impact on Caribbean countries, but there is a hard judgment to be made. Opening up the trade in sugar might lead to massive deforestation in Brazil without corresponding benefits to that country's population. That could be the consequence of inappropriate reform. It is not always easy to get it right. None the less, the anger of the Make Poverty History campaign is an unmitigated, unqualified force for good. If the campaign can keep the Government committed to implementation of the excellent work that they have done on the Commission for Africa, and if it can drive our determination to tackle the greatest scar on humanity at the beginning of the 21st century, it will have done a good job indeed.

2.50 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) has made a wide-ranging speech and I am tempted to follow suit.
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I agree with him about the campaign to end poverty and pay tribute to the Ministers responsible for the production of the Commission for Africa report. However, I came to the debate intending to concentrate on one country in particular. I make no apology for that, because I think that the country in question requires the continuing attention of the whole international community, and, not least, of this House. That country is Afghanistan, and I am delighted to see the new Minister with responsibility for Afghanistan, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), in his place on the Treasury Bench.

Both the Queen's Speech and the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe opening today's debate set out the UK Government's continuing commitment to the Government of Afghanistan. Since the Bonn agreements of December 2001, we have been working with the Afghan people to secure their freedom, stability, human rights and democratic government. That has been a herculean task, not least because theirs is a country in which 1 million people died and almost as many were permanently disabled in a series of civil and in some cases internationally backed wars over more than two decades. Almost every major city has been destroyed. Fields were burned, ending all legitimate agriculture. Seven million people were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. State institutions collapsed and justice ceased to exist.

I commend to the House "A call for justice", a recent report by Afghanistan's independent human rights commission. It describes a national consultation on the lack of justice and the need for transitional justice arrangements in that country. The commission is led by a remarkable woman, Dr. Sima Samar. She and her team have shown enormous courage in travelling throughout the country, facing constant death threats, but engaging with ordinary people to seek their views on how they live now, as victims of all the atrocities that have occurred in their country.

The past three and a half years have brought some remarkable achievements that demonstrate the courage of the people of Afghanistan, such as those who formed the interim Government, and the commitment of the international community. They have achieved most of the major goals set out in the Bonn agreement, beginning with the emergency Loya Jirga and continuing with the constitutional Loya Jirga and the presidential elections. Reconstruction is under way—millions of children are back in school and millions of refugees are returning from Pakistan and Iran—but I would say that the challenges today outweigh the successes. There is progress in central Government in terms of both organisation and reach throughout the country, but there has been a signal lack of success in local government. There is no powerful mechanism to drive out corruption. Afghans have no trust in their police—with good reason. There is still no effective judicial system and violence is endemic, as can be seen in the outrages that have occurred in many cities in recent weeks and in the targeted attacks on international non-governmental organisations and on women.

I pay tribute to the work of the NGOs. Although they are usually headed by people from other countries, such as our own, they are almost always staffed by ordinary
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Afghans, who run constant risks in their daily lives delivering aid and services to the people of Afghanistan. Twenty-four NGO workers were killed last year, and already five have lost their lives this year. I also pay tribute to those who are standing up for organisation and transparency. Through various commissions on the civil service and the judicial system and in the police and army academies, many people are working to introduce the rule of law to Afghanistan.

There has been considerable success in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of the huge number of men who carried arms during the decades of war. The UK has been particularly active in this field. No fewer than 50,000 people have successfully gone through the DDR process, but even that enormous achievement is outweighed by the fact that in Afghanistan today, an estimated 150,000 men continue to carry illegal arms and to operate illegally.

In saying these things, my intention is not to diminish the remarkable achievements since Bonn or to underestimate our Government's considerable commitment and their successes in working with Afghans in various aspects of the redevelopment of their country. I say these things because I believe that Afghanistan is now in a particularly dangerous phase. The country is in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, which, having been twice postponed, are now scheduled to take place on 18 September.

In addition there are constant calls, especially in the United States, to reduce the scale of the international forces and the American military commitment to Afghanistan. The Afghan people need all the security that they can get. President Karzai has frequently sought an increase both in the numbers of forces and in the international community's commitment. An even greater danger is the possibility that, having succeeded in holding elections, as I hope and believe will happen, the international community will decide that that is a good time to reduce its presence in the country. That will be entirely justified if it is what the Afghan Government want, but I suspect that they will not want that; I suspect that both the Afghan Parliament and the Afghan Government will continue to demand international support. I urge our Government to do all they can to ensure that there is no security vacuum, either before the elections or immediately afterwards.

Let me now talk about the status of women. After 11 September, we all became familiar with figures in blue burqas flitting across our television screens. The whole world's sympathy went out to Afghan women, who were the most oppressed under the pernicious Taliban regime, and the international community said that women's rights must be restored in Afghanistan. People like me who stood up to support Afghan women were criticised; it was suggested that we were western feminists who were trying to impose our views on others. I have not met every Afghan woman; I have not even met those who live in the villages of Afghanistan. My contact has been limited to meetings with women from various parts of the country held during two visits to Kabul and here in London. But all the women to whom I have spoken want the same most fundamental and basic human rights for themselves as we women in the west want for ourselves.
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Afghan women want rights. In their case they have, and accept perfectly well, arranged marriages, but they want the right not to be forced into a marriage. They want the right not to be sold by a man to settle a dispute with another man. They want the right for their girl children to go to school. The international community has enabled them to achieve that, for already a third of the children now in school are girls. They also want the right to vote, which they have exercised in the presidential elections. Further, they want the right to be able to work.

In every way, we need to be mindful of what Afghan women are saying and demanding. We must understand that we in the international community have a duty to support what they want. As recently as last year, in the Berlin declaration—a declaration that was made with international participation, including, obviously, the Afghan Government—this was said:

meaning the Afghan Government—

That would be a remarkable achievement for any Government, let alone a Government trying to form a democracy in the difficult circumstances that they face.

We need to contrast that commitment with the actual state of Afghan women today. To give hon. Members a snapshot, when the population statistics were being assembled in Afghanistan in recent times, we believed that we would find that as a result of the huge loss of men during the war, women would undoubtedly be more than 50 per cent. of the population; they are, of course, more than 50 per cent. of the populations of most developed countries. Yet what we now know is that of 22.2 million Afghans, the proportion of women is only 48.2 per cent. So the incredible haemorrhage of men due to war has been outmatched, or outpaced, by the haemorrhage of women. The life expectancy of men in Afghanistan is only 46; the life expectancy of women is 45. The causes of the deaths of these women—avoidable deaths and premature deaths—are poverty and pregnancy. Afghan women are among the very poorest in the whole world, and Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality. Seventy mothers and 700 children die every day in Afghanistan.

The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) spoke of tsunamis in Africa. For Afghanistan, a country with a population of little more than a third of that of this country, that death rate is the equivalent of a tsunami every year. Few Governments in the world prioritise the needs of women unless women themselves demand their human rights, and that is what Afghan women have been doing since 11 September, and what they are continuing to do today. That has been under the leadership first, of Dr. Sima Samar, then Habiba Sorabi and now Massouda Jalal.

Massouda Jalal took it into her head—I do not know how, although I have had many conversations with her, because I have not asked, "How did you think of doing this because it is so utterly extraordinary?"—that she
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would stand up for Afghan women by contesting the presidential elections, and she was a candidate in those elections. She did better than some of the men. Obviously President Karzai was elected, and he had the generosity to make her his Minister of Women's Affairs.

Women participated in that election to the extent of 40 per cent. That was a remarkable achievement, and one that we all hope will continue into the parliamentary elections. Sixty-eight of the 249 seats that will comprise the lower house of the national assembly are reserved for women. How are those women going to get into those 68 seats? There will be few women in this place who will not appreciate that it is more difficult for women to achieve parliamentary office than it is for men. Often the task is more difficult in practical terms because women have family responsibilities and often do not have the same incomes or spending money as men to pursue a political career. How much more will that be true in Afghanistan.

I am glad to say that the international community is already addressing that issue. I pay tribute again to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which is making great efforts, not only by taking overall responsibility for the elections in Afghanistan but by addressing the particular concerns and needs of women voters and raising voter involvement while stressing, importantly, the secrecy of the ballot box. It is also making great efforts to provide support for women, especially the security that they require if they are to be campaigners. The EU and the UK Government are participating in such programmes.

When I was last in Kabul in March, I was delighted to be involved, as I had been earlier, in the British Council programme, which is encouraging women, particularly in the most recent workshops that it organised in Kabul and the video conference that was held between Washington, London and Kabul. It engaged with about 12 or 15 women, who had decided already that they would put themselves forward as candidates for the election. I was delighted to engage with them too, and to hear something that I think is well worth quoting from Massouda Jalal. During the video conference, she said:

There can be no doubt that Afghan women wish to participate in the elections. They want to get elected. They need all the help that we can give them. There are already more women registered than the 68 needed for the reserved seats. The Minister with responsibility for women has made clear the extent to which they will need support, not only in being able to campaign effectively and get elected, but after the election.

For those who are not aware of what has happened, I should say something about the election system. A single non-transferable vote system has been adopted—a system used in very few countries in the world. It is supposed to favour individuals but may in effect favour organised groupings dependent on warlords and the drugs trade. None the less, that is the system that has been adopted, and the one in which candidates will have to compete. The system is particularly disadvantageous to women. Without a party organisation to support them, and standing as individuals, they will be especially disadvantaged, not least in terms of finance,
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organisation and the ability to travel. If women are to be elected to the Parliament, they will need further help which men might be able to do without.

We all come to this place with the means of running offices. We can provide ourselves with accommodation. We can travel back to our constituencies. All that will be essential for Afghan parliamentarians if the Afghan Parliament is to work at all. It will be extremely difficult to make it work anyway. For women who do not have a rich husband, there will be no means of providing themselves with all those facilities and being able to be a proper representative of their people, unless the international community engages with this topic. The Afghan Government do not have the means to provide that support. Many of the women who are standing are widows, and these women face an even greater disadvantage.

In conclusion, there is a need for security during and after the election, and for support packages for Afghan Members of Parliament. We must try to ensure that they have the opportunity to make their democracy work. On 21 June there will be a donor conference in London. Again, I congratulate the Government on the commitment that they have demonstrated by organising that conference. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will ensure that it is not gender-blind. It is extremely important that the donations, programmes and policies that receive support take account of women's needs. Election funding is critical. UNAMA says that the budget to run the elections is $50 million short, and one third of the money that is needed has not yet been raised.

There is therefore much to do before we can proceed further with reconstruction and the development of a fully fledged and legal economy. While I look forward to economic development, I hope that regard will be paid to the worth of women. Very often, the work that Afghan women do at home in the production of handicrafts and carpets, or as farmers in the fields, is not counted when policies are devised with the support of western advisers. I hope that our Ministers will deal with that—and we have just been joined by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, who is very much concerned with support for Afghanistan in general and women in particular.

Without justice for women there is no rule of law. Without the education and empowerment of women, families will always remain in poverty. Without the political participation of women there will be no real democracy in Afghanistan, and if it should fail again, that will be a failure of the whole international community.

3.12 pm

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