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The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing the debate, and on the structure and delivery of his speech. It was a privilege to hear it.
The United Kingdom Government are deeply concerned about the escalating conflict in Nepal. As the right hon. Gentleman made clear, they have been closely involved in efforts to restore peace and stability in the country for several years. The right hon. Gentleman was right to observe that there is a great deal more to Nepal than those beautiful mountains, although when I was a child in the 1950s Tensing and Hillary reaching the top of Everest inspired me to become a mountain climber, which I have been all my life. I have never climbed in Nepal, but now that I am the Minister responsible for the area perhaps I shall have a chance to visit it, and even to climb a small peak.
Our historic ties with Nepal, our continuing recruitment of Gurkhas, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, and our large bilateral aid programme underline the importance of those efforts to restore peace and stability in the country, but I am afraid that there are no easy answers or quick fixes for the problems that Nepal faces.
I pay tribute, as the right hon. Gentleman did, to the work of Sir Jeffrey James, our special representative for Nepal. The right hon. Gentleman will not be very convinced by this answer, but the role of special representative for Nepal was never intended to be permanent. It was set up to deliver three objectives. The first was to draw together United Kingdom policy on Nepal and to provide a strong focal point for it. The second was to co-ordinate international efforts in support of the peace process and the third to provide advice in the event that negotiations got off the ground.
Sir Jeffrey's role was initially set to last one year. In the event, his position was extended for a further year and a quarter. Thanks to his efforts, Whitehall thinking is more joined up, and there is a greater shared international consensus on how to try to resolve the conflict. Regrettably, the prospect of negotiations remains a long way off. The role that he occupied will continue to be discharged through the close Whitehall network that he built up during his tenure and through the normal diplomatic channels, particularly our ambassador in Kathmandu.
I echo the right hon. Gentleman's tribute to the Gurkhas. They have been, as he pointed out, a great asset to this country for many years, in times of war and peace. I was privileged to see their work at first hand just two weeks ago in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, where they are providing security for what is widely acknowledged to be the best provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan. The evidence of their good work is everywhere to be seen in that area. We need to continue to recruit Gurkhas. It is interesting that, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, they often come from some of the poorest areas of Nepal. I can imagine that they sometimes are torn when they think about the politics of their country, but they are a wonderful asset to this country and we aim to continue with that relationship.
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May I try to deal with the question that the right hon. Gentleman raised about the United Nations? The UN plays a significant role and has recently established a major human rights monitoring operation in Nepal, which was set up in part thanks to this country's efforts this year. Other UN agencies are also active under the United Nations Development Programme, including UNICEF and the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. There have been several high-level UN visits, including by the UN working group on enforced and involuntary disappearances, which visited in December 2004, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, who visited in January 2005, and a UN team including the UN Secretary-General's representative on internally displaced persons, Walter Kalin, who visited in April 2005. In a statement on 1 February, the Secretary-General registered his concern about the King's takeover of power.
We believe that, if a peace process is to be sustainable, the Nepalese themselves must take ownership of it. There may be a role for mediation at some stage but that would need to be supported from the outset by the key parties involved. Our judgment is that we see limited prospects that all the key international partners would sign up to a contact group. At this stage, we believe that our focus should be on encouraging a process of constructive negotiation towards a democratic settlement. Any peace process would need discreet ground clearing at first to establish those bottom lines, and I know that the right hon. Gentleman, who is very experienced in this area, knows what I mean by that. It is very difficult to build that up unless we have that basis. One option might be for an independent and neutral third party, such as an international non-governmental organisation with expertise in facilitating dialogue, to play a part. However, at the moment there appears to be little appetite for genuine dialogue on either side.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about India's role. He rightly pointed out that India is Nepal's biggest trading partner, and that they have long shared a border. He also mentioned the difficulties that could arise if the conflict in Nepal spilled into India. There could be problems with the Naxalites, for example, and with many others. India has more influence over Nepal than does any other country, and an eventual settlement will need India's support if it is to succeed. We enjoy an increasingly close dialogue with our Indian partners on Nepal, and we are regularly in touch with our Indian counterparts, including at ministerial level. As a result, we have been able to share our analysis of the conflict and to offer suggestions on resolving it. We agree on the importance of restoring representative democracy.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman referred to the period when there was representative democracy. All too often, we seem to assume that it has never existed in such countries, but of course, it has. India also has the most to lose from a failure to resolve the conflict, as its spilling over into India would destabilise that country's own internal politics. We maintain that a one-party Maoist state in Nepal remains an unacceptable outcome. It can best be avoided by drawing the Maoists back into the democratic fold through a negotiated political settlement.
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I remind the Housethe right hon. Gentleman will need no remindingthat there are a number of underlying causes of the conflict in Nepal, which is rooted in poverty, under-employment, discrimination, social exclusion and corruption. He was right to contrast it with the period when Nepal seemed to be making great progress. Our goal is to help Nepal emerge from the current conflict with a sustainable peace, based on the principles of civilian, accountable and democratic government.
We have consistently argued that the conflict in Nepal cannot be resolved militarily. Instead, we advocate a negotiated political settlement as the best way to resolve it. To that end, we have been pressing for the resumption of negotiations by encouraging the King and the political parties to form a united front as the basis for dialogue with the Maoists. At the same time, we have been operating a large bilateral aid programme, run by the Department for International Development. The right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that the Under-Secretary of State for International Development listened carefully to his speech. That programme is aimed at reducing poverty and at tackling social inequality and the other underlying causes of conflict. We have provided limited assistance to the security forces to help them carry out legitimate counter-insurgency operations with greater professionalism and regard for human rights. We have also funded civil society and human rights organisations.
As the right hon. Gentleman told the House, the King's actions on 1 February have hindered our efforts to promote peace in Nepal. We consistently advised that such a move would increase the risk of instability, undermine the institutions of democracy and ultimately put the monarchy at risk. We have criticised the King's takeover of power in direct representations to the King and in public, including through the European Union. The King has lifted the state of emergency imposed on 1 February, and most of the political party activists whom he detained under the emergency regulations have been released. However, several dozen remain in detention and others are being prevented from travelling freely. Furthermore, the Nepalese media are not able to report freely.
The right hon. Gentleman will recall, as I can recall, a vigorous free press in Nepal, which was one of the great strengths of the country for a good period. Especially outside Kathmandu, however, many human rights organisations have been intimidated into silence, which has not helped at all.
At the same time, the Maoists have shown little sign of willingness to negotiate. After the plenum meeting of August 2004, the Maoists decided to move forward to
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the "strategic offensive", as they call it. It is a phase of their military campaignthe third of the three stages of classic Maoist warfare. I have to say that it has more to do with rhetoric than with what I remember of classic Maoist warfare when I had to read that stuff as a student. In view of the revisionist histories of Mao that are emerging nowadays, I am not even sure that he knew what the three phases of military campaigns were.
Since 1 February, the Maoists have turned down the King's offer of negotiations and continued their economic, psychological and physical warfare, staging regular "bandhs" or strikes and blockades, which cut off food, medicine, fuel and other essential supplies to the civilian population. We are deeply concerned that human rights abuses continue unabated. The Maoists continue to use violence for political means, carrying out beatings and killings, extortion, forced displacement, mass abduction, forced military recruitment of child soldiers and attacks against political activists, human rights defenders and journalists.
The Nepalese security forces, too, are involved in grave violations. We have heard of summary killings, rape, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrests and torture. That is happening in what was once, as the right hon. Gentleman described for us, a beautiful, productive and peaceful place where people wanted to live.
Upholding human rights remains a key element of the UK's efforts to resolve the conflict in Nepal, and we have regularly spoken out against abuses committed by the security forces and the Maoists. The UK has consistently funded human rights organisations, and we are now in the process of funding the new UN human rights monitoring operation, for which the UK successfully pressed at the recent UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.
Bearing all that firmly in mind, we also recognise the legitimate efforts of the Government of Nepal to protect their citizens from Maoist attacks. While the overwhelming majority of our bilateral assistance has been focused on poverty reduction, civil society and human rights, part of our assistance under the Global Conflict Prevention Pool, run jointly by Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has been set aside for security assistance. As part of our conflict prevention strategy since 2001, we have donated a package of non-lethal military assistance, which has included two transport helicopters
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