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Lord Triesman: My Lords, I start with a heartfelt word of apology for arriving after the beginning of the debate. I was at a G8 preparatory meeting on debt and trade and word arrived slightly too late, despite my efforts at athleticism, for me to be here right at the beginning. I particularly regret it because I would not want any sense of discourtesy to the House, and least of all to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. Let me just say at once that I apologise for that.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for giving the House the opportunity to discuss the situation in Bangladesh. His energy and commitment in defending human rights and campaigning against religious persecution are second to none, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, rightly observed. I hope that the House will not feel that the issue is not also close to my heart. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

I shall start with the first issue of substance. It is to do with the meeting held at SOAS, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The High Commissioner saw a senior official in the department shortly before the conference. We took the view that it was a private event. We will always support meetings within the law and academic life, and the FCO was interested in events. I am glad to say that the High Commissioner ensured his attendance and tried to come to grips with some of the issues rather than protesting. We were glad that the government of Bangladesh were represented in that way at that meeting.

Let me say a few words about our relationship with Bangladesh. Britain and Bangladesh have been partners for centuries in politics, trade, and cultural and social interchange. That partnership is growing right across the board. Our trade with Bangladesh is growing. Bangladeshi exports to the United Kingdom in 2004 were up more than 10 per cent at £635 million. UK exports to Bangladesh also grew by 20 per cent. The United Kingdom remains Bangladesh's single largest investor.

Britain is also in the forefront of Bangladesh's efforts to help to combat poverty and meet the millennium development goals. We are Bangladesh's largest bilateral development aid donor. Our development programme rose to £125 million in 2004 and a similar figure is planned for 2005. I hope that we will be counted as a friend in need: the United Kingdom contributed £29 million to relief efforts following the terrible floods in 2004. In regard to that appalling natural event, I acknowledge the sterling efforts made by my noble friend Lady Uddin, and the generosity of the British-Bangladeshi community.

Even more importantly, the links between our people are deep, forged not least by a vibrant British-Bangladeshi community. Cultural, religious and linguistic
 
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contributions are invaluable to a multicultural society. We are friends of long standing with a broad and dynamic relationship. Of course, however, there are issues of concern that noble Lords have rightly raised.

As noble Lords are aware, Bangladesh's early history was difficult and marked by tragedy, with a bloody liberation war, famine, assassination, coups and military rule. My noble friend Lady Uddin mentioned some of those. But the struggle for freedom and democracy achieved a hard-won multiparty system in 1991, and there have been two peaceful transfers of power since. It is a relatively short time, but there has also been tremendous economic and social progress, including food self-sufficiency, a dramatic fall in population growth, improved access to education—especially for girls—increased economic diversification, and recent economic growth at more than 5 per cent per annum.

Bangladesh has also seen a flowering of civil society. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, made particular mention of the microcredit organisations, which are world leaders. I am proud that DfID has taken a role in helping to establish them. Bangladesh also has a free and vibrant press, which is to be cherished. Of course, dangers and threats to it are not acceptable. They should not be tolerated, and we will raise the issues that have been identified by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, with the Bangladeshi authorities.

As a whole, there have been tremendous achievements of which all Bangladeshi people can be proud, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor, said. They provide many of the prerequisites for a democratic and prosperous society, and we all want to see that in Bangladesh. Precious gains that must be safeguarded have been achieved in a difficult environment.

Bangladesh's elected leaders have a leading role to play. The divisive relationship, to which many noble Lords have referred, between the two main political parties affects all aspects of the way in which Bangladesh is governed. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, emphasised the point a few moments ago. Politicians need to demonstrate more clearly a commitment to democratic values and institutions which rise above party-political divisions and meet the aspirations of the Bangladeshi people. Constructive dialogue between the main parties is essential for the proper running of any parliamentary democracy, and Bangladesh needs it urgently.

I also take note of the reports from Amnesty International. They are telling. On one side, there are positive steps in anti-corruption, but on the other, some elements in the regime of law make democratic life extremely difficult. We stand ready to help in any way in which we can.

Bangladesh will have parliamentary elections by January 2007, crucial tests of its democracy. Successful democratic elections will require a genuinely level playing field, full participation by all parties and a peaceful and efficient voting process. We urge all sides to commit themselves to that, and to make the compromises necessary to achieve it. We and others in the international community are ready to help.
 
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It is not always easy, and perhaps not always useful, to make a distinction between political violence and terrorism. It is sad that the history of Bangladesh contains instances of political violence, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right to highlight the instances of violence over recent years, as have other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. As a friend of Bangladesh, we are seriously concerned by the law and order situation generally, and especially by the series of seemingly similar attacks on senior political targets.

The 21 August 2004 grenade attack on the rally in Dhaka of the opposition Awami League was an attack on Bangladeshi democracy itself, as were the murders of the widely respected former Finance Minister, the opposition MP and their colleagues. The only possible response to such attacks is outright condemnation and a determination to bring to justice those responsible. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary wrote to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister after the 21 August attack calling for a transparent and credible investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice. My right honourable friend Douglas Alexander raised the lack of progress in the 21 August investigation with the Bangladeshi Prime Minister when visiting Dhaka in December 2004. He spoke also to the leader of the opposition.

We are trying to assist the investigations, through our High Commission in Dhaka and in whatever other ways we can. Specialist officers of the Metropolitan Police also visited Sylhet shortly after the attack on the British High Commission, to assist the Bangladeshi police with their investigations. A second visit to Bangladesh was made in July. They have continued to provide assistance to the authorities there. The Bangladeshi Government have not requested assistance from us in either investigation.

The Bangladeshi Prime Minister gave a personal undertaking to Douglas Alexander that the investigations into the attacks would be pursued to a conclusion. Although there has been some progress in other investigations—there have been arrests and other prosecutions—we regret that, to date, nobody has been arrested or prosecuted for the 21 August attack. I shall make what we are doing clear to my noble friend Lady Uddin. We will continue to make it clear to the government of Bangladesh how essential it is to demonstrate to the Bangladeshi people and to the international community that they are doing everything in their powers to bring to justice all those behind the attacks, whoever they may be. To avoid a climate of impunity, justice needs to be done and seen to be done.

Extremism was described in the debate as a cancer, and I agree. Bangladesh is not immune from terrorism. No country is. However, it is also right to acknowledge the contribution that the country has made to UN peacekeeping. Bangladeshi troops wearing blue berets stand in the way of extremism in many difficult parts of the world. However, like other countries, Bangladesh must face the dangers posed to it by domestic and international terrorism, and take decisive action to tackle them. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right to
 
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suggest that there has been some worrying extremist activity recently, of which the examples in journalism are among some of the most significant.

We welcome recent acknowledgements by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister and other senior Ministers about the dangers posed by terrorism. We also welcome some positive steps such as the banning of two extremist groups in February 2005 and the Bangladeshi Government's commitment to sign all UN counter-terrorism conventions. We look forward to the required legislation being passed soon by the Bangladeshi parliament. The UK and other international partners are already working with the Bangladeshi authorities to try to improve their counter-terrorism capacity. We will assist further.

At the base of all of this is the need for respect of human rights. Whatever the motivations of those who carry out criminal acts, it is incumbent upon any government to apply the law. There are worrying indications that the Rapid Action Battalion and the police in Bangladesh are not always doing so. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, emphasised our anxieties and I agree with him that the RAB causes anxiety. There is a need for a clear investigation and prosecutions as necessary. We look to the Bangladeshi Government to see that their security agencies are fully accountable.

The attack in Sylhet in May 2004, in which our High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Mr Anwar Choudhury, was injured and three people were killed, was a shocking event. I believe that noble Lords will want to join me in acknowledging Mr Choudhury's courage in returning to his post so rapidly and, more widely, to recognise the courage and dedication of many of our diplomats working in dangerous environments around the world.

Specialists from the Metropolitan Police were deployed to Bangladesh immediately after the attack. We are disappointed that the investigation has not yet led to the arrest and prosecution of those responsible. It will remain at the very top of our agenda in all our high-level contacts with the Bangladeshi Government. The investigation must be pursued to a conclusion and those who died deserve no less. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, reminded us that paramedics and people working with the NGOs also lose their lives. Those investigations are equally important to us and must be pursued.

I want to turn to religious intolerance and violence. Bangladeshi society has a history of moderation and tolerance. The vast majority of Bangladeshis are strongly opposed to religious extremism. Sadly, there is evidence of intolerance. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry have rightly pointed out, sadly, there is considerable evidence of intolerance against minorities. The situation of the Ahmadiyya community is a pertinent example. There can be no excuse for the organised intimidation against that peaceful community which has taken place over the past two years. Drawing on a phrase used by the right reverend
 
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Prelate, there is no such thing as the obscure persecution of an obscure group. It touches us all and it is fundamental to civilised life.

I feel that strongly. My mother's family were encouraged to leave Spain in 1492 in circumstances which meant that those who survived were then encouraged to leave almost every other European country. Such intolerance against religious groups frequently leads to the most excessive violence and murder that is experienced in the world. We all have the deepest commitment to ensuring that it is stopped.

I assure the right reverend Prelate that we regularly seek to highlight this issue and to support the rights of Ahmadis and other minorities and have lobbied extensively in that regard. The British High Commission in Dhaka maintains close contacts with the Ahmadiyya community. The European Community will be closely involved. The local EU presidency raised the situation with the home Minister in May. The European heads of mission demonstrated their solidarity in late 2004 by visiting an Ahmadiyya mosque under threat from the extremists. Such support will continue to be visible.

On occasions, the Bangladeshi police have prevented violence but the authorities have too often shown too little determination to stand up to the extremists. The moves to ban Ahmadiyya publications was a particularly regrettable example. We will continue to encourage the Bangladeshi authorities to take a proactive and unequivocal approach to meeting their constitutional and international human rights obligations to all minorities. I will certainly look at the suggestion made by my noble friend Lady Uddin for parliamentary contact and visits. Transparency in governance and debt relief all hang together.

Several other questions were raised and I touch on them briefly. The situation in the Rohinga refugee camps is being raised by the British High Commission. We have taken a close interest, with the support of the UNHCR. Officials have visited the camps on several occasions and it is my understanding, which I will confirm, that they will continue to do so. It is a difficult situation to resolve, but we are encouraging the government of Bangladesh to be flexible in their resolve and to deal with the situation with the appropriate levels of attention.

I was also asked by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, to comment on the Government's assistance to the Biharis. We are well aware of their problems and we recognise the historical context. However, essentially this is an issue for the governments of Bangladesh and Pakistan. We are encouraging them to come to a long-term resolution, because that is obviously what is now needed. I am pleased to confirm the noble Earl's understanding that the British High Commission is implementing a project and I will write to the noble Earl with further details on how it is progressing.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, to comment on the rights of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. We again look to the Bangladeshi Government to implement in full the 1997 peace agreement in full consultation with local communities. We welcome that
 
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peace accord, which ended large-scale violence in those hill tracts. We are disappointed that there has not been the progress and implementation we would have all wished. We raised the issue and we will continue to do so. We are encouraging the government to implement the agreement fully. We will stay in close contact with the representatives of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and we will support the work of the United Nations Development Programme.

The theme that has run through this important debate is that a threat is consistently posed to the rule of law in Bangladesh. So much of it comes down to the stability of the rule of law, which is an essential underpinning of any democratic society. The UK is working actively in Bangladesh to strengthen the rule of law in practical ways. It is working with the government and with civil society. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Astor, that the Department for International Development is providing £5 million over the next three years to a major UNDP-managed police reform project, for which he rightly called, in conjunction with the government of Bangladesh. We are also supporting local NGOs engaged in developing alternative dispute resolution. This innovative approach is beginning to produce results.

Security concerns have damaged Bangladesh's reputation. All nations rely on having a good reputation. It is all the more reason why we need to deepen our engagement with that country and to continue our work to support Bangladesh's continued economic and democratic development. We most certainly will do so.

3.18 pm


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