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I am very glad to have the opportunity to initiate this brief but necessary debate on Nepal. It is one of the extraordinary paradoxes of the world since 9/11 that while huge attention has justifiably been focused on the war against terrorism, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, and then in relation to al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-type elements all round the world, precious little attention has been paid to the country that is most in the grip of terrorism of any country on this globethe Kingdom of Nepal.
Nepal is a country that has suffered tragically and most severely in the past nine years since the Maoist terrorism began. Indeed, the contrast between the situation nine years ago and that of today is very striking.
Nine years ago, in 1996, I had the great honour of leading the last British Inter-Parliamentary Union outward delegation to Nepal. In 1996, one could travel anywhere at any time in Nepal. There was no Maoist terrorism, there was a free media and free political expression and an emerging but strong and genuine multi-party democracy, not least because of the far-sightedness of the late King Birendra in ending the Panchayat system in 1990. Prior to our visit, two general elections had been successfully held in Nepal, under universal suffrage and with international observer teams, including Members of the House of Commons, in place on both occasions.
The close relationship between our Parliament and the Parliament in Nepal was demonstrated symbolically and in reality when, in 1992, our Parliament gifted the Speakers' Chairs for the two Houses of Parliament in Nepal. We saw those Chairs, carved in magnificent British oak, in situ in the National Assembly and the House of Representatives.
Today, Nepal is racked with terrorism. It is stalked by brutality, fear, appalling human rights violations, committed by the Maoists and also by Government forces. There is no Parliament in operation or in prospect, at least for the next few years. In the past nine years, the country has sunk from what was, in 1996, a democratic triumph to effective parliamentary oblivion.
I want to raise seven issues with the Minister. First, I want to ask about the role of the British Government's special representative to Nepal. I welcomed the appointment of Sir Jeffrey James as the special representative. The parliamentary group had beneficial contact with him throughout the time that he held the post. The need for a special representative is even greater now than when Sir Jeffrey James was appointed, especially with the assumption of autocratic power by King Gyanendra. Yet Sir Jeffrey James has retired and not been replaced. I hope that the Minister can tell the House why a successor has not been appointed and who is taking on the responsibilities that were previously
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discharged by Sir Jeffrey James. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the fact that there has been no successor to Sir Jeffrey James in no way suggests a diminution in the priority that the British Government give Nepal.
Secondly, I want to ask about the British Government's policy on the provision of military equipment to Nepal. I acknowledge that the Government are in some difficulty. They obviously wish to make it clear to King Gyanendra that they, along with other Governments around the world, strongly disapprove of the King's assumption of autocratic powers. However, I am sure that the British Government are also conscious of the seriousness of Maoist terrorism and the need to try to support the royal Nepalese army with equipment that will save lives, not least those of innocent civilians.
It is evident that the Government's policy has performed something of a switchback. Initially, there was the ill-fated gift of two helicopters, which rapidly became grounded. That was followed by a further gift of short take-off and landing aircraft. Then, in January this year, the Government announced a package of what was described as "non-lethal military equipment". Within a matter of two or three weeks, however, that announcement had to be superseded when the King took power at the beginning of February and the Government announced that the package had had to be suspended.
Only recently have we seen the release of one element of that package: the bomb detection and disposal equipment. I believe that the Government made the right decision in that regard, because only one function can be performed by such equipment, and that is to save lives, which is obviously the key objective. Will the Minister clarify what is now the British Government's policy? Are they going to release more items from the package that was announced in January, and are they now following a policy of releasing at least some types of equipment to help to prevent the worst eventuality of all, a complete Maoist takeover of the remainder of the country?
Thirdly, I want to refer to the position of the Gurkha connection, which goes back some 200 years. It is a key feature of the relationship between Britain and Nepal and, as we all know, the Gurkha soldiers in the British Army have served this country in two world wars and many other conflicts, and they continue to do so today with the utmost distinction. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that political developments in Nepal, particularly the assumption of power by the King, will not in any way imperil the Gurkha connection or reduce its strength. That is a key assurance that I am seeking from the Minister.
Fourthly, I want to find out what role the British Government see themselves playing bilaterally with Nepal in the key objective of trying to restore parliamentary democracy in that country. Are they, through our embassy in Kathmandu, engaging in dialogue with the constitutional parliamentary parties right across the political spectrum in Nepal? Are they also seeking to establish any degree of communication, directly or indirectly, with the Maoists themselves? What policy are the Government following bilaterally?
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Is it simply a passive policy of noting what is going on, or are they trying to make a contribution to bringing about an effective constitutional parliamentary settlement in Nepal?
Fifthly, the European Union joined together and made a statement at the beginning of February, when it condemned the assumption of power by the King. It also made a strong statement on human rights and declared, as other countries and organisations round the world have done, that there should be a restoration of parliamentary democracy in Nepal. Does the Minister consider that that is the only role that the EU can play in this crisis? Perhaps it is; Nepal is far away, and many EU member states have very little involvement with it. Many, understandably, do not even have embassies in Kathmandu. Again, it would be helpful if the Minister could clarify the British Government's expectations of the EU in this regard.
Sixthly, I am disappointed at the degree of non-involvement by the United Nations in the critical situation in Nepal. There has been limited involvement through the UN Commission on Human Rights, but that is all. Nepal has not been referred to the Security Council and, perhaps even more surprisingly, no steps have been taken by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to establish a special representative in the country. Could the Minister tell me whether the British Government would welcome Nepal being taken to the Security Council, and whether they would welcome the UN Secretary-General having a special representative in Nepal? I would like to hear any comments that the Minister may wish to make about a future UN role in efforts to resolve the crisis in the country.
My seventh and last question relates to the position of Nepal's all-important southern neighbour, India, with its 1,000-mile-long boundary with Nepal open. Of all Nepal's neighbours, it is undoubtedly the country with the most to gain from a satisfactory settlement in Nepal. Equally, the country that will have most to lose if Nepal dissolves into complete Maoist control is India, because India has an incipientindeed, I would say more than incipientMaoist-type problem with the Naxalites in the country.
India is, of course, deeply suspicious of any form of external involvement in Nepal, being always influenced by its position on external involvement in Kashmir. Having said that, I would add that I have no doubt that India is in a position to influence events in Nepal like, perhaps, no other country. What are the British Government doing to try to maximise the Indian Government's contribution to achieving a settlement in Nepal?
When people in this country hear mention of Nepal they understandably think of the majestic Himalayas, but Nepal is very much more than its mountains. Nepal is a country with a long and independent history. It is a country with a depth and quality of culture that is truly remarkable. And it is a country whose people are characterised by their strength, their courage and their loyalty, along with a true gift of friendship. It is the people of Nepalwho face brutality on an appalling scale, who face living in a climate of fear, who face serious denials of their human rightswho need their human rights and freedoms to be restored. I ask, and urge, the British Government to do all in their power to that end.
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