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Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for bringing Bangladesh to the attention of the House. From the outset we have been well briefed on the debate. I thank all sections of the community that have provided us with extensive information. I shall make no apology for borrowing some of their comments, so I ask noble Lords not to cry foul.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for detailing some of the issues. To a certain extent, like other noble Lords, I shall merely add to his remarks.

On a lighter note—if that is possible given the subject of the debate—I congratulate the Bangladesh cricket team on defeating Australia. I am glad that England also did very well at Trent Bridge on Tuesday. As always, I have two perspectives on this debate, which I shall come to shortly. Most of our household supported England while my husband and I hung by a thread in support of Bangladesh, so I am glad that they did not let us down. There lies the dilemma in taking part in this debate. I do not recall the previous debate in this House on Bangladesh, to which the noble Lord referred. As noble Lords may be aware, although Britain has been my home for more than 30 years, I was born in Bangladesh. I have regarded it as sufficiently important to spend all my spare time there and to encourage my children to visit whenever my purse allowed.

I confess that, apart from a deep sense of family belonging, I have avoided, at all costs, becoming embroiled in the goings-on in Bangladesh. That is not to say that I do not acknowledge that what happens there deeply affects the Bangladeshi community in the UK, in which I am totally submerged.
 
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I came here as a 13 year-old, just after the civil war, when Bangladesh was led to victory under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, who is respected as the father of the nation. Much of my resilience, tenacity and ideals come from having witnessed the torture, rape, killings and utter destruction of that conflict. The knowledge that oppression, however minuscule, is totally unacceptable drove me to become engaged in fighting against prejudice and bigotry in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere.

My contribution today comes from a deep love for my birthplace, wanting it to do well at all costs. The way in which Bangladesh has been seen this week within the Westminster village—with the historic defeat of Australia, a meeting held in the House by the Hindu Council on the treatment of that minority group, the conference chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on human rights and the rise of violence, and now this debate—has come as a mixed blessing.

For many seeking international attention on Bangladesh, these opportunities are an invaluable way of acknowledging the amazing progress that it has made in its relatively short existence. Bangladesh has a lot going for it, for which all political parties can take credit: continuing democracy and Bangladesh's steady economic growth of more than 5 per cent. The struggle for freedom and democracy in Bangladesh achieved a hard-won multi-party system of political representation in 1991. There have been elections and a peaceful transfer of power between political parties twice since then.

Bangladesh has come a long way since its birth in 1971. Despite the countless lashings of Mother Earth and all the difficulties associated with civil war and climate change, the country has become self-sufficient in food provision. It has dramatically cut its population growth rate and increased access to education, particularly for girls. That is remarkable by any stretch of the imagination. Bangladesh is rightly proud that it is no longer dependent on international aid, and the micro-credit success stories have been acclaimed and acknowledged internationally.

The life expectancy of men and women has increased, and education and economic opportunities have expanded for Bangladeshi citizens. NGOs are encouraged, by and large, to play an important role, particularly in the empowerment of women. Bangladesh should also be rightly proud of its history of a free and active press. I acknowledge the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on the FCO's comment, which is deeply worrying for everyone.

On the international stage, Bangladesh is the second largest contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping forces. It has demonstrated a strong commitment to international peace and security through the deployment of more than 8,000 peacekeepers worldwide. They enjoy a well-earned reputation for discipline and effectiveness. Those are huge national achievements; they are the achievements of all Bangladeshi people.

Throughout, of course, Britain has stood shoulder to shoulder with Bangladesh. That friendship and understanding is centuries old, with Britain and
 
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Bangladesh working together in politics and trade, as well as cultural and countless social interchanges. We remain the largest single investor in Bangladesh, with more than 50 UK companies doing business there.

The UK is at the forefront of Bangladesh's efforts to help to combat poverty and meet the millennium development goals. It contributed £29 million to provide flood relief last year.

The attack in Sylhet on our High Commissioner, Anwar Choudhury, in May last year was absolutely shocking, and the subsequent attacks on the mayor in Sylhet, in August; on the Awami League and the opposition leader, on 21 August, with the subsequent death of a prominent female leader, Ivy Rahman; and, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned, on a well-respected UN ambassador and former Bangladeshi finance minister, have rightly led to widespread international condemnation and concern. The perpetrators remain at large, which has propelled an outcry in both Bangladesh and the international community. I hope that the Government of Bangladesh will want to do more than provide assurances that those attacks are being taken seriously and that they will be dealt with using the full force of the law.

No one, most of all the perpetrators of such crimes, should be left in any doubt that violence of such a magnitude will not be tolerated in a democratic country, albeit a young one. So the statistics compiled by various human rights organisations on human rights abuse allegations in Bangladesh make for very grim reading. Bangladesh is rightly judged alongside all other countries according to how it treats the most vulnerable in society. It too must be treated equally. I hope that there is consensus that, without respect for universal human rights, there is no potential for democracy to grow.

As I was growing up in this country, I believed that there was a clear demarcation between right and wrong— perhaps I was seeing it through the tinted vision of youth—but, in my latter age, the global context has shifted and, however much we dislike it, there are several indications that there is no parity of treatment on the issue of human rights abuse. It seems to be applied in different contexts and according to different standards of behaviour. There is a perception in Palestine and elsewhere that we have allowed a free-fall in standards while overstraining our sense of justice to accommodate those who are regarded as "friends". We have to have an internationally agreed basic human rights principle and an understanding that freedom of speech and a right to religious expression are fundamental to all of us.

In this regard, as has already been said, I know that there is rising concern about the level of continuing violence in Bangladesh—not least because there is a wide-ranging consensus on the fragile law and order situation, which has meant that the implementation of the rule of law, particularly by the special forces known as RAB, is counter to good practice.

Good governance has to be practised at all levels in order to create confidence in the communities and internationally. From that point of view, whether it is
 
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from the policeman on the street, from the local district administrator or from the top levels of government and the judiciary, we require assurances. While RAB is regarded as being present by popular demand, it perhaps demonstrates that the country's force of law is not able to function properly in the usual way.

It has been reported that the British High Commissioner in Bangladesh commented recently that he hoped that, if apprehended, the perpetrator of the grenade attack on him in Sylhet would not be killed in cross-fire. There is deep concern that cross-fire is one of the tactics used by RAB, for which it has become well known.

These debates are taking place in the context that we now live in a global world and are no longer able to be comforted that what we do in our own country is our own business. I add here a caution that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Globalisation is rapidly transforming the way in which we live and strong governance, a respect for human rights and law and order are prerequisites for development and growth. We have become world citizens. I hope that everyone involved in the welfare of Bangladesh will accept that debate in the public arena is a positive and that there is no need to be defensive when things are not as they should be.

One of the primary reasons for the lack of progress in many arenas of Bangladesh is that the two main parties remain at loggerheads, thereby leaving Parliament in limbo and people in doubt about the seriousness of the commitment to continue building democracy. They have nothing to look forward to in the way of role models.

I hope that there is consensus that international concerns about the shape of the political landscape in Bangladesh should lead to some re-jigging in the light of what has become apparent, and that the Bangladesh Government will recognise that this is having an adverse effect on the perception of Bangladesh internationally, notwithstanding its tremendous economic and social success.

As has been said, the next election in Bangladesh will be a key challenge. I hope that the political parties can begin to move away from hostile confrontation to a spirit of accommodation, agree basic standards of conduct and abide by them. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what role the UK may play in facilitating this.

Democratic principles cannot be enforced or made hostage to party politics and personal gain. Surely it is no comfort to the Bangladesh Government that they are continually regarded as a corrupt force. They now have the added baggage of having to defend their actions on human rights violations, particularly against other religious minorities, as well as the accusation that they are harbouring extreme activities among their own.

I should like to see the Bangladesh Government make it apparent to the world outside that they are seriously concerned about the numerous allegations of violent incidents and abuses taking place against the minority. I hope they will invite a parliamentary group to visit at the
 
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earliest opportunity. Opening the doors to a greater understanding and the reality on the ground may go a long way towards giving some answers.

If left unanswered, these concerns and allegations of corruption and abuse will tarnish the international reputation of Bangladesh and discourage further inward investment, thereby damaging the prospects for long-term prosperity and making ordinary people suffer.

As the next election looms nearer it is important for Bangladesh to ensure that every step necessary is in place to demonstrate that it can earn the confidence of the world community. No matter how much each of us thinks that what we do is our business, that we can cushion our existence and take comfort from the fact that even the UK and the USA are under scrutiny for their human rights records, there should be no place to hide if we are to live together.

Bangladesh faces a thousand challenges—all of those to which I have referred and, perhaps, impending water shortages, huge floods, global warming and arsenic poisoning. These should be matters for discussion and attention. I hope that we will not neglect them in the future.

As a member of the All-Party Group on Bangladesh, I hope that we will take note of the debate today, perhaps forge some links with other Members and work through some of the resolutions put forward by the conference. I also hope that the Minister will look at the resolutions and consider how best to work with the Bangladesh Government to ensure that they are open and transparent when discussing difficult issues such as human rights violations.

Perhaps I may borrow a quote made by the UN Secretary-General earlier this month. It might not be totally appropriate but, nevertheless, it shows us where we are. He said:

So, as a daughter of Bangladesh, I ask that we—as friends of the Bangladesh Government and as partners in adversity—promise to work together with mutual respect while, at the same time, explicitly stating that human rights abuse, however small, is the business of all of us. Let us promise that we will not allow Bangladesh or any other country—especially those we regard as friends—to get on with it by themselves.

2.7 pm


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