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those who live beside the roads get more relief material than they need while those in far flung areas, especially offshore and remote islands, along with inaccessible villages, are not even getting the minimum...better coordination...of relief is just part of the problem.
There is also the question of longer-term development and protection against cyclones and floods. I recall that after a previous flood in Bangladesh, the Secretary of State for International Development spoke, quite correctly, about the need for shelters and raised areas to which people could escape when floods come; those things are very important.
I congratulate DFID on the excellent support and help that it has given, but we need to concentrate rapidly on developing a warning systemsuch systems are much better than they ever used to beand on a thorough reconstruction job, with properties that are to some extent cyclone-proof where that can be achieved, and refuges. A good emergency system is also needed, because Bangladesh does not have enough helicopters or other equipment to get aid to remote places. It has to plead with India, the United States and others to send that kind of equipment as quickly as possible. I would be grateful if the Minister could help us to some extent on those matters when he replies.
I will be brief, so that the Minister has sufficient time to reply, but the second part of my speech concerns the political situation in Bangladesh. As I pointed out, Bangladesh achieved independence in 1971. We are still dealing with the effects of the division of British India in 1947, and we will all be dealing with those effects for a long time to come, whether we like it or not. It was a great historical event. Bangladesh set up a democratic, secular constitution in 1972. The countrys future looked hopeful and rosy. The first President, Sheikh Mujib, was in office in 1972, and was assassinated in 1975 in the first military coup. There followed various periods of military government in Bangladesh, interspersed with elected government.
Tragically, violence has been a feature of life in Bangladeshpolitical and terrorist violence, and gratuitous violence against minorities. Many people have suffered as a result. For example, Kibria, a former Finance Minister, was assassinated in 2005. That got enormous publicity at the time because the British high commissioner was injured during the assassination. I want to draw to the Houses attention the problems with human rights in Bangladesh, and the abuses that are going on.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which is highly appropriate. Like him, I learned about Bangladesh through the eyes of a good friend, Talal Karim. I have never visited Bangladesh; I have only seen it on television. Does my hon. Friend agree that the tragedy of Bangladesh is that democracy has never been able to mature there? There have been regular military coups, and democracy never had the opportunity to flourish, so the country has never been able to find direction. Does he share those concerns?
I do indeed share those concerns. Although the constitution allows for democratically elected government, there has always been the concern that the military might take over and remove the elected system. There is a constitutional safeguard that in many ways is very good. In the period surrounding an election,
an interim Government have to take office. The interim Government are to be in office for only three months. Their role is to oversee the election period and the installation of the new Government. That is a laudable democratic aim that many other countries might think about.
The present problem is that the interim Government have already been in office for the best part of a year and plan to be in office a lot longer. There are concerns about that because of what is happening now in Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch, reporting on the events of 2006, states:
Security forces used mass arrests as means to suppress demonstrations. Workers in the export garment industry were subjected to violence and job dismissal in response to demands for wage increases and safe work conditions. Violence by religious extremists increased, and fundamentalist political groups gained influence in government.
Death in custody is common. In 2006, 51 prisoners, of whom 32 were reported to have died from various causes, including violence by fellow prisoners, and delays in medical treatment.
The idea that politics is banned in a democracy is bizarre. If the Bangladeshi authorities are serious about restoring democracy, they must fully end the ban on political activities.
However, the partial lifting of the ban,
will only allow a political party to meet to discuss internal party reforms in the context of the Election Commissions proposals for electoral reform. Parties will still be required to inform the Dhaka Metropolitan Police in advance about all meetings. A maximum of 50 party members will be allowed to attend each meeting. The ban on all other political meetings will remain in force in the rest of the country. Under the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007, those who violate the restrictions face prison terms of two to five years as well as fines.
Those are draconian measures, to put it mildly. I hope that our Government will be prepared to make appropriate and strong representations about them. Although we would all agree with the interim Governments laudable aim of fighting corruption, the best antidote to corruption is accountable government through a democratic processthrough the ballot box. It is therefore important that we make all the representations we can on that topic.
The leaders of the major political parties, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, often referred to disparagingly as the two sisters of Bangladesh, have very different political views and political aspirations. That is what democracy is about. Both are in detention, having returned to the country. We heard today that Sheikh Hasina has been given a date for her trial. Unfortunately, the trial will take place in front of a special court. I hope that the Government will send observers and make the appropriate representations to ensure that she has an open and fair trial. Those of us who met Sheikh Hasina in this country before she went back watched with amazement
as she was preparing to go back. Indeed, I had a meeting with her on the day that she was preparing to go back. At that moment a call came through from British Airways saying that she could not get on the plane because it would not be allowed to land in Dhaka. Considerable negotiations followed. She wanted to go back to face the trial. That, surely, is to her credit.
My last point is that according to Amnesty International, about 20,000 people are being held under special powers in Bangladesh, which is rather more than the number being held in Pakistan. I am not defending Pakistans human rights recordfar from it. I merely make the point that a large number of people are being held in detention in Bangladesh.
I hope that our Government will do a number of things. We are already doing the first, which is supporting the people in their hour of need after the cyclone, and I applaud what is being done. The Government should make all the representations possible to a fellow Commonwealth country about democracy and the restoration of democratic rights, and they should also send observers to the trial that I mentioned, to the electoral registration process and to the electionsif and when they finally take place.
I am a representative of the Bengali community in my constituency. I am very proud of that community, and I know that it, too, feels the pain of the lack of democracy in Bangladesh and that it wants democratic rights restored. I am sure that we would support that community in that laudable aim.
The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing this debate, and I welcome his close interest in the important issues that he raised. He is an indefatigable champion of the Bangladeshi communities in this country, as indeed are my hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), who made interventions, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who has been giving me a running commentary from the Front Bench.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) also intervened. I know from long experience that he has been very interested in this subject and is a firm supporter. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North have emphasised, and reminded us of, the vital part played in the life of our country by the Bangladeshi community. We ought to celebrate that, and it is an important point to make.
Hon. Friends spoke of the tragedy of the cyclone and floods in Bangladesh earlier this month, and Her Majesty the Queen and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have expressed their shock and sadness. Our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones and to those who have lost homes and livelihoods. I salute the resilience of the Bangladeshi people in the face of natural disasters, which sadly they know only too well. I have been fortunate enough to visit Bangladesh on a number of occasions, and I know that its terrain must be among the toughest in the world for people to eke out a livingit is astonishing how they manage to do it. The
impact of the cyclone and the floods was devastating, but it would have been worse without the early warning system and the contingency measures developed over recent years and implemented effectively by the caretaker Government.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development today announced a contribution of £7 million for immediate to medium-term relief effortsI did not pick that up in the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North but I think that he mentioned itand £2.5 million has already been channelled through the United Nations Development Programme to provide safe water, food, medical treatment and housing repairs. The remaining part of our contribution will be used to fund gaps in existing provision, particularly that for clean drinking water and sanitation. I was grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting some of the difficulties in the distribution of that aid. I have seen for myself after other disasters that people who live nearest the roads can be the more fortunate ones in receiving such aid, but I am sure that great efforts are being made to get this aid out to the more remote areas, too. We are considering further assistance as the needs become clearer.
I pay tribute to the impressive contributions of the Bangladeshi community in the UK. It quickly began raising large sums for the Disaster Emergency Committee, whose appeal is also raising additional resources for those affected. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North knows this, but it is worth repeating to the House that the development programme in Bangladesh managed by the Department for International Development is a vital part of our bilateral commitment, and is valued very highly by the people of Bangladesh and by the caretaker Government. Indeed, the United Kingdom is the largest bilateral donor to Bangladesh, with a programme of nearly £117 million this year. Bangladesh represents the United Kingdoms second largest country development programme worldwide. That is a sign of the warm relationships between our two peoples and the understanding in this country of the need to support Bangladesh and its democracy and to ensure that such natural disasters do not make matters worse than they already are.
John Battle: DIFD has produced a country strategy for Bangladesh that lasts from 2006 to 2010. That is very progressive and it addresses the longer term, but we need to get the World Bank, the European Union and other donors behind it; otherwise we will go through disaster after disaster and pick up the pieces. Will my hon. Friend press his colleagues to encourage other donors to get behind that longer-term strategy?
Dr. Howells: My right hon. Friend makes a good point. That is one of the ways of doing it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North might have said had he not lacked time. Bangladesh could become one of the world leaders in tackling climate change. It has 30 millionperhaps even 70 millionpeople threatened by rising sea levels. We should approach that bilaterally as well as trying to involve the big international funding organisations in projects to help the Bangladeshi people themselves to take these schemes forward.
My hon. Friend spoke about the political situation in Bangladesh. We should not forget the scale of the crisis
when the President of Bangladesh asked the caretaker Governmentmy hon. Friend called it the interim Governmentto take on their heavy burden in the first place. A confrontational, winner-takes-all political culture, deep-rooted corruption, cronyism and falling standards of governance added up to a raw deal for the people. I saw that for myself, time and again, when I visited Bangladesh. The country was nowhere near reaching its full potential. This time last year, we saw violence on the streets between the parties ahead of elections that showed no signs of meeting the free and fair test. Members of the public and of civil society told us repeatedly that the status quo could not continue. There had to be fundamental change to put Bangladesh on the right track, and the country needed, and continues to need, a political overhaul.
That is not to say that good things have not happened in Bangladesh; my hon. Friend mentioned some of them. The country has made impressive progress on poverty reduction, with poverty being reduced from 58 per cent. in 1990 to 40 per cent. in 2005, as well as progress on gender equality. Bangladeshs pioneering of systems of micro-credit has gained global admiration. Those systems have been replicated around the world, wherever I go. Bangladesh should be very proud of that. Bangladeshs armed forces have forged a good reputation in United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world. The economy has achieved steady growth. The frustration was that Bangladesh should have been doing even bettermuch betterand that the focus of the political class on self-interest was depriving many Bangladeshis of the chance of a better life and a chance to share in the countrys prosperity.
By January 2007, Bangladesh had been pushed to the brink of state failure. I say that after a great deal of consideration. We were as worried about Bangladesh a year ago as we were about anywhere in the world. Because it is such a populous country with so many people living on the edge, it was very important that something was done to start pulling its politics around. There was an urgent need for an Administration who would put the interest of the Bangladeshi people first and put Bangladesh on the right track. It is unfortunate that circumstances arose in which a state of emergency was declared. We do not want that, and I fully understand my hon. Friends concern. We welcomed the appointment of the caretaker Government as offering an opportunity to establish conditions for credible elections that could sustain democracy in the longer term.
We believe that the caretaker Government have taken at least some constructive steps towards those goals. I see plenty of evidence of concrete action towards creating a strong Bangladeshi democracy that can endure. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North and I could talk for a very long time about the time lines that he mentioned and about the need to get to elections as quickly as possible while producing a sustainable result. It would be a disaster to hold elections that were not regarded as free and fair because we would probably see another cycle of corruption and military action.
There has been good progress on the production of a revised and accurate new photo-voter list. The judiciary has been separated from the Executive, which was an historic step. The election commission has been strengthened and made independent and the anti-corruption commission rejuvenated and given unprecedented bite. There are
measures to reform public service and make merit the basis for advancement, and there are signs of better relations with India. That is a notable list of achievements 10 months on, but important challenges lie ahead, including food prices, which are the main concern for many Bangladeshis. Effective management of the economy will be key over the next year, and beyond.
Our Government strongly support the road map to elections by December 2008 at the latest. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North has pointed out, that is a long way away. We are offering practical support for election preparations. It is our strong impression that the majority of Bangladeshis accept that time is needed to put in place preparations for free, fair and credible elections for a democracy that can endure. We welcome the chief election commissioners remarks that the date for elections could be brought forward if the voter list and electoral reforms can be completed earlier then planned. If the date of elections can be advanced, it should be. We welcome the good progress that has been made on preparing the new voter list.
I realise that my hon. Friend has very little time left, but will he put what pressure he can on Bangladesh to lift its ban on political activities and
to release its political prisonersand all others held under emergency legislationso that they can go through the normal judicial process?
Dr. Howells: We are certainly in favour of releasing political prisoners anywhere in the world. I welcome the attention that my hon. Friend has drawn to the important issues of due process of law and human rights. He raised a particular concern about the treatment of Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia, both of whom I have met on several occasions. I remind him that both have been charged with corruption and extortion, and remain in detention in so-called sub-jails. We cannot ignore that. Their cases are within the judicial system of Bangladesh, and we have consistently urged the caretaker Government to ensure that due process and individual rights are upheld, and that trials are independent and fair, consistent with Bangladeshs international human rights obligations.
That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 13112/07 and Addendum 1, Commission Communication: Progressing Galileo: re-profiling the European GNSS Programmes; No. 13113/07, amended draft Regulation on the further implementation of the European satellite radionavigation programmes (EGNOS and Galileo) and No. 13237/1/07, Commission Communication concerning the revision of the multi-annual financial framework (2007-2013), on re-profiling the Galileo programme and on the proposal for the revision of the Financial Perspectives to finance the Galileo programme and the European Institute of Technology; and endorses the Governments approach to discussions on these documents.
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