Alok Sharma responds to Bangladesh human rights debate

Alok Sharma responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the protection of religious minorities in Bangladesh.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this incredibly important debate and thank him for his kind words about my appointment. I commend the commitment he has shown, as chair of the all-party group for British Hindus, towards the protection of religious minorities in Bangladesh and elsewhere. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on a powerful speech. From the day she arrived in this place, she has always championed and spoken up for minorities and the vulnerable wherever they may be. I commend her for that. They are both real champions for human rights and have raised several important issues and questions, which I will try to address in my remarks. If they do not feel that I have sufficiently answered them, I will be delighted to answer more substantially if they write to me.

The UK and Bangladesh are long-standing and close friends. We were the first European country to recognise Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 and we continue to support its economic development. We have the largest Bangladeshi diaspora in Europe. The half a million British people with Bangladeshi heritage have made an immensely positive contribution to every aspect of Britishlife. The UK cares deeply about what happens in Bangladesh. We want it to be economically successful and to maintain its rich tradition of accepting people of all religions and beliefs, and all backgrounds and cultures.

Religious tolerance is not just an end in itself; it goes hand in hand with economic prosperity. A country will reach its full potential only if it values and harnesses the power of all its people. As my hon. Friends have noted, however, the situation seems sadly to be moving away from, not drawing closer to, that aspiration for tolerance. The threat against minority groups and foreign nationals has intensified. My hon. Friends mentioned Hindus, who have suffered the largest number of attacks, but there has also been a rise in attacks against Sufi, Shi’a and Ahmadiyya Muslims, as well as Christians, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. Such attacks run counter to Bangladeshi traditions of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

When Bangladesh was last debated in the House at the end of June, hon. Members raised concerns about the political situation, about freedom of expression, and about the number of attacks against those whose views and lifestyles appear contrary to the teachings of Islam. Since then, we have seen further shocking incidents of extremist violence against minorities and foreign nationals across Bangladesh. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East noted, on 1 July, 22 people died in the appalling attack on the Holey Bakery café in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone. Also in July, the Sholakia Eid congregation was targeted and there were separate attacks on Hindus, including a deadly attack on a Hindu priest. On behalf of the UK Government, I utterly condemn all these attacks. Many have been claimed by Daesh or groups affiliated to al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent—that is a clear demonstration of the global and shared threat posed by these extremist groups.

Terrorism is a global threat that faces all of us, and we stand shoulder to shoulder with Bangladesh and all our partners in the fight against terrorism, but it is clear that extremism flourishes where there is a culture of intolerance and impunity, or where space for democratic challenge and debate is lacking. I of course welcome Prime Minister Hasina’s “zero-tolerance” stated approach to countering extremism and terrorism, yet it is vital that the Government of Bangladesh also make it clear that they will uphold and protect the fundamental rights of all their citizens: the right to life; the right to religious freedom or belief; and the right to freedom of expression. Underpinning and guaranteeing all of those is the right to justice for all. Mass arrests, suspicious “crossfire” deaths and enforced disappearances at the hands of the police undermine confidence in the judicial system. Investigations must be conducted transparently and impartially, irrespective of the identity of either victim or alleged perpetrator. Anyone arrested should be treated in full accordance with Bangladeshi law—there must be no impunity.

When the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh in May at the G7 meeting, he expressed concern that extremist attacks risked undermining stability and investor confidence in Bangladesh. While in Dhaka at the end of last month, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), also raised the issues of countering extremism and gaining access to British nationals in detention in Bangladesh in his meetings with Government representatives. I urge the Bangladesh Government to do everything they can to tackle this scourge of violence, to bring the perpetrators of these heinous crimes to justice, and to explore the root causes of these attacks.

The UK Government are supporting organisations that work to protect minorities in Bangladesh and that ensure that their rights are protected, both in law and through Government policy. Since 2010, the non-governmental organisations we support have defended the rights of more than 200,000 people in Bangladesh. This work ranges from advocacy at a national level to helping Dalit communities secure access to Government land meant for landless people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned the Chittagong hill tract. The advocacy that has been supported by the British Government has also persuaded the Bangladesh Government to establish a land commission to resolve land disputes in areas with a high proportion of ethnic and religious minorities, such the Chittagong hill tracts. UK support for civil society organisations promoting human rights and free speech in Bangladesh will continue under a new programme funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy.

Outside this House, a number of people have raised the issue of whether we should be imposing sanctions on Bangladesh to make it adhere to civil and political rights. With respect, I disagree with such an approach—let me explain why. Extremism and terrorism is a global threat, and one that countries must face together. Our development programme in Bangladesh, which is still one of our largest in the world, enables us to provide broad-ranging support to address some of the root causes of extremism, including poverty and economic marginalisation. Sanctions would hamper our ability to do that. We believe that the right approach is to engage with the Government of Bangladesh on areas of shared concern, such as countering terrorism and extremism, and promoting human rights for all. We will continue to do that. The UK Government have prioritised counter-extremism support for Bangladesh and we will identify areas where we can work with the Government of Bangladesh better to understand the problems of extremist views and to help counter them.

In their powerful speeches, my hon. Friends raised a number of points, which I will try to address. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East asked about the new laws being enacted in Bangladesh. As I have already noted, we have consistently called on the Bangladesh Government to protect religious minorities in the country. We continue to support advocacy to ensure that the rights of minorities are protected in Bangladeshi law and in Government policy.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of compensation. Compensation for the victims of attacks in the country is a matter for the Bangladesh Government to address. I urge them to ensure that all attacks are investigated transparently and impartially and to consider carefully the need to provide remedy to victims.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of refugee status. Of course immigration status is a matter for the Home Office, and I refer him to that Department for its consideration. He mentioned the United Nations in this regard. As he pointed out in his own speech last September, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief visited Bangladesh. We urge the Bangladesh Government to implement the recommendations in the rapporteur’s report, which includes a call for the Government to

“protect the vibrant civil society and pluralistic society in Bangladesh.”

That is the right approach to take.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton talked about the press. I absolutely agree that a vibrant civil society and media, with the ability to discuss and debate freely, are fundamental to building democracy. Indeed, the charges brought against newspaper editors, even if they are eventually dismissed by the courts, can be seen as a form of harassment and intimidation. She talked about what we are doing to support bloggers and others who find themselves under attack. I can tell her that, in addition to ongoing public and private diplomacy, we have funded safety training for bloggers in Bangladesh. We have supported a review of its Information and Communication Technology Act to bring it into line with international standards and help lawmakers to develop a better understanding of international standards on hate speech. I have already mentioned that the new programme funded by the Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy is promoting freedom of expression and aims to protect those who exercise it.

Finally, my hon. Friend talked about the work that is being done by the Department for International Development. We are the largest grant aid donor in Bangladesh, allocating in this financial year of 2016-17 around £162 million. Our support focuses on improving the provision of basic services, supporting private sector development skills, and reducing the risks to development, especially those related to governance and natural disasters. I wish to make it clear that no UK aid is paid as direct budget support for the Government of Bangladesh. About one third of UK aid to Bangladesh goes to the Government as reimbursement for agreed activities or results and, as we all know, we are very clearly focused on that.

I hope that I have been able to address many of the issues that have been raised by my hon. Friends but, as I have said, if they wish to write to me on any particular issue, I will of course respond to them in a substantive manner.

As I have already outlined, the UK and Bangladesh share a set of values—they are core Commonwealth values—and they include a commitment to parliamentary democracy, inclusive communities, free speech and tolerance. As Bangladesh progresses from least-developed country status towards middle-income country status, it will need more than ever to promote and defend its people’s rights—the right to an effective justice system, the right to a vibrant civil society, the right to a free media and the freedom to hold authority to account. The British Government will continue to encourage Prime Minister Hasina to deliver on those commitments and to uphold the international human rights standards that Bangladesh has pledged to uphold as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

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