When we entered office last year, we recognised that there were long-standing and deeply held concerns about the UK’s extradition arrangements with other EU member states and about our extradition treaty with the United States. That is why in the coalition’s programme for government we made a clear commitment to review the

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operation of the Extradition Act 2003 and the US-UK extradition treaty to ensure that they were even- handed. That was why the Home Secretary announced an independent review to be chaired by Sir Scott Baker and assisted by two lawyers—an important point given some of the criticisms of the Baker commission—who between them had extensive experience of extradition from prosecution and defence perspectives.

As I made clear during the debate in Westminster Hall, that panel undertook an extensive examination of the issues and carefully examined evidence from a range of parties representing all shades of opinion. Contrary to suggestions by some, the panel assessed representations from those who had experienced extradition first hand and the evidence of their families. It has also been suggested that the panel did not take evidence from solicitors representing the subjects of extradition requests. In fact, one of the panel members was himself an experienced legal representative of those subject to extradition proceedings and brought first-hand insight into the realities of extradition from the UK.

As the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) said, the review has evidently reached controversial conclusions, but I hope that we would all acknowledge that it is a serious piece of work, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). I have been interested to hear the further points made this evening, and I am happy to assure the House that these opinions will be given the most careful scrutiny before we publish what action we propose to take in response to the review. There is a significant body of opinion from all sides that we need to assess seriously before reaching a decision.

Members on both sides of the House asked that we deal with individual cases of particular concern to them. I am, of course, happy to do that. Let me first summarise what I said about Babar Ahmad’s case. He was arrested for extradition purposes in August 2004, and in June 2007 he exhausted all the available domestic avenues for contesting the request for his extradition. He then applied to the European Court of Human Rights. On 12 June 2007, the Court imposed a stay on his extradition and on 8 July 2010 declared his case partially admissible. His case remains under consideration by the Court. The allegations against him in the United States relate to alleged conduct that took place while he was in the United Kingdom. As the House knows, an e-petition on behalf of Mr Ahmad calling for him to be put on trial in the UK has attracted more than 140,000 signatures.

Of course, the Government recognise the concern of those petitioners but it is not for the Government to decide if and when someone should be prosecuted in the United Kingdom.

Caroline Lucas rose—

Damian Green: I am about to deal with the hon. Lady’s point.

The decision about whether to bring a prosecution is a matter for the independent prosecuting authorities, and the Crown Prosecution Service has to date decided not to prosecute Mr Ahmad in the UK.

Caroline Lucas rose—

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Damian Green: If the hon. Lady will hold on a second, I shall deal directly with her point.

The CPS has advised that a small number of documents relating to Mr Ahmad were seized by the Metropolitan police and were submitted to the domestic prosecutor for advice in 2004. The domestic prosecutor was specifically asked to advise on whether any of those documents might disclose offences under the Terrorism Act 2000 with a view to prosecution in the UK. I am advised that, on the material provided, there was insufficient evidence to mount a UK prosecution. However, when the decision was made not to prosecute Mr Ahmad in the UK, prosecutors here were aware of evidence against him in the possession of the US authorities. I understand that that evidence was far more extensive than that which was in the possession of the UK authorities. Although the CPS extradition team was in possession of some of the US material, it amounted only to that which was necessary to seek extradition, and was provided to the CPS for extradition purposes only.

The extradition proceedings in this country have concluded. The case has been heard extensively through all tiers of the UK extradition process, and extradition has been ordered. The UK courts have held that the US authorities have jurisdiction in relation to the offences of which Mr Ahmad is accused and that they are entitled to seek his extradition. The offences are crimes in both countries, thereby satisfying the extradition test of dual criminality. Mr Ahmad is now challenging extradition before the European Court of Human Rights. The Court has asked a number of questions in relation to the case; both sides have submitted observations on these points on several occasions. The extradition review panel highlighted in its report those cases that awaited a decision by the European Court of Human Rights and the amount of time that they had been before that Court. The panel recommended that the matter of the delay be taken up by the Government urgently and that the Court should be encouraged to give priority to those cases where extradition had been stayed. The Government are considering that recommendation, along with others, but the United Kingdom has pressed, and continues to press, for the Court to reach its decision as soon as possible.

Many concerns have been expressed about the length of time for which Mr Ahmad has been detained in custody awaiting the outcome of the extradition request. This has at all times been on the order of the Court, and we continue to press the Court to reach its decision on the case as soon as possible. Where the Court seeks observations or clarifications from the Home Office on the representations in the case, these are provided as soon as possible. We are acutely aware of the time that has passed since the extradition request was first made and of the importance of dealing with the matters raised as quickly as is consistent with fairness to all sides.

Caroline Lucas: Will the Minister agree to investigate why the CPS acknowledged and admitted that it had not seen all the information only on 23 November, after many, many years in which Babar Ahmad had essentially been in prison? If that information had been available earlier, the process here in the UK could have been much faster.

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Damian Green: I am not sure that the hon. Lady’s last point is right, but I take her general point, and obviously the CPS will have heard what she has said.

Let me turn to the case of Gary McKinnon, which has been raised many times, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes). This case is different from Mr Ahmad’s, as it falls to be decided by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I shall briefly explain the reasons for this. Mr McKinnon has exhausted all rights of appeal under the Extradition Act 2003, and the European Court of Human Rights refused an application to impose a stay on his extradition. However, under the Human Rights Act 1998 the Home Secretary is under a duty not to act in a manner that is incompatible with a person’s rights under the European convention on human rights. She must therefore consider whether, as a result of events occurring after the extradition proceedings, it would be contrary to the convention for a person to be extradited. The sole remaining issue, therefore, is whether extradition is compatible with Mr McKinnon’s convention rights. The Home Secretary sought the independent advice of the chief medical officer, who has provided the names of two experts whom she believes to be well placed to provide evidence on the relevant medical issues. Those experts are preparing a report that will help the Home Secretary to determine whether extradition would contravene Mr McKinnon’s convention rights. We hope that the experts will report as soon as possible; but clearly a number of issues will need to be considered in depth.

During tonight’s debate, as in the previous debate, a number of concerns have been raised regarding specific European arrest warrant cases. We will take careful account of the points made by right hon. and hon. Members in respect of those cases. In the case of Benny Wenda, which was raised this evening by the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), we understand that an internal red notice for Mr Wenda has been issued by the Indonesian authorities. That does not constitute an extradition request for the purposes of the 2003 Act. Generally, if an extradition request is issued by a country in relation to which the person sought has refugee status, the Home Secretary can refuse to certify the request, and if it comes to the attention of the courts during extradition proceedings that the person sought has refugee status in relation to the country seeking extradition, the courts can discharge the person from extradition proceedings on human rights grounds. I hope that that helps the right hon. Gentleman.

It is worth my repeating what I said on 24 November. We share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and many others—including my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) —about the issuing of European arrest warrants for trivial offences. That is a significant issue which the Government seek to address as a matter of urgency. As I said in our earlier debate, I know that Members’ concerns are shared by other European Union member states and by the European Commission. While we are considering whether wider action is required to meet the challenge and resolve the problem, we continue to discuss the matter with, in particular, our Polish

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counterparts to encourage their prosecutors and courts to consider proportionality before a European arrest warrant is issued.

The debate has made clear that Members in all parts of the House understand that these are complex and important issues and that there is significant evidence to be assessed, all of which requires careful analysis and reflection. The debate has provided much more useful information and analysis, all of which I know the Home Secretary will take carefully into account. As soon as we can, we will announce what action we propose to take in the light of the extradition review.

9.56 pm

Mr Raab: With the House’s permission, Mr Speaker, I rise for the second time to wind up what has been an excellent debate. Let me thank the Backbench Business Committee again for making it happen.

We have heard powerful speeches on the basic principles of justice which are at stake. I doubt that I shall have time to mention all of them, but the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) started us off with the benefit of his considerable experience as Home Secretary; my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) spoke passionately and at length about the importance of the presumption of innocence; the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis), the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, talked about the Committee’s review and report; and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) spoke about the flaws in the European arrest warrant. I am sure that we all look forward to the publication of his report in due course.

We also heard compelling speeches from a range of Members representing victims of rough justice under our extradition laws. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) spoke passionately and powerfully about the arbitrary treatment of Gary McKinnon, while my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) talked about the Michael Turner case. I welcome the Minister’s engagement. He has listened very patiently, and I hope that he has been convinced of the case for reform and the strong consensus in favour of it in the House.

I listened carefully to the considered speech of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). He seems to be rather lukewarm about the whole issue of extradition reform, but I am glad that at least he does not oppose the forum provision enacted by the previous Government.

In truth, it is for Members of Parliament in all parts of the House to stand up for our constituents, to stand up for our citizens, and to stand up for the basic principles of British justice.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House calls upon the Government to reform the UK’s extradition arrangements to strengthen the protection of British citizens by introducing as a matter of urgency a Bill to enact the safeguards recommended by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its Fifteenth Report, HC 767, and by pursuing such amendments to the UK-US Extradition Treaty 2003 and the EU Council Framework Decision 2002 on the European Arrest Warrant as are necessary in order to give effect to such recommendations.

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Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith ( Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Water Industry

That the draft Water Supply (Amendment to the Threshold Requirement) Regulations 2011, which were laid before this House on 31 October, be approved.—(Mr Dunne.)

Question agreed to.


committees

Mr Speaker: With the leave of the House, I propose to take motions 3 to 5 together.

Ordered,

Environmental Audit

That Simon Kirby be discharged from the Environmental Audit Committee and Paul Uppal be added.

Justice

That Claire Perry be discharged from the Justice Committee and Steve Brine be added.

Public Administration

That Nick de Bois be discharged from the Public Administration Committee and Priti Patel be added.—(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

5 Dec 2011 : Column 132

Bonn Conference (Women in Afghanistan)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

10 pm

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be aware that the Bonn conference on Afghanistan took place today. More than 1,000 people from 90 states attended and Britain was represented by our Foreign Secretary, who spoke up for the rights of Afghan women during the sessions. The Foreign Office estimated that 10 of the Afghan delegation of 40 were to be women, but I believe that the number was reduced by visa problems. Whether by accident or design, it was a great loss to the conference that Fawzia Koofi, Afghan MP and presidential candidate, was reported not to have obtained her visa in time to travel, although she had a place reserved at the conference. I look forward to hearing more from my hon. Friend the Minister about progress made in Bonn today.

I offer a brief historical perspective on the position of women in Afghanistan. As we all know, the country is a traditional and patriarchal society where women have limited access to decision making and resources. Women’s movement and their freedom to pursue activities outside the home have been severely limited over the years and mostly dependent on male family members. Before the arrival of the Taliban, the extent of the suppression of women varied between tribes and areas. In some parts of the country, women could and did work and had some access to education.

Historically, there has been far too much acceptance on the part of western politicians, mostly men, of the so-called traditional and cultural reasons for the persecution of women by men in many parts of the world, including Afghanistan. Indeed, had western opinion been more outraged at the policies of the Taliban from the mid-’90s onwards, perhaps a great deal of history could have been changed and many lives saved, but that was not to be and the Taliban were allowed to get on with their atrocities and extreme oppression uninterrupted until 9/11.

Jane Corbin, reporting for BBC “Panorama”, interviewed members of the group Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan. She told viewers that, from 1996 to 2001, under the Sunni fundamentalist Government of the Taliban, women were not allowed to leave their homes without being escorted by a male relative and girls were not allowed to go to school. When women did leave their homes, they were required to wear a blue burqa, which covered their bodies from head to toe. The only opening was a small net that provided an eyehole for the women to see through.

In the programme, a female teacher said that during the Taliban regime she was stopped at the market by the Taliban and beaten with a whip. Her crime: she wore a shawl covering her body instead of a burqa. She said that she was too poor to purchase a real burqa, and after that beating she was stuck in her home for months until someone was able to give her a used one.

I will not dwell further on the Taliban. Their evil rule is well documented. Suffice it to say, and with great relevance to the current peace negotiations, women in Afghanistan remember those days with despair and fear their return.

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Since 2001, there has been significant progress. The rights of women are enshrined in the Afghan constitution. There is, in theory at any rate, equality in the eyes of the law. Sixty-eight of the 249 seats in Parliament are reserved for women. Nine members of the High Peace Council are women—not many out of a membership of 79, but a sign of progress none the less. There is now a national Ministry for Women’s Affairs and in 2008 the Government launched a 10-year national action plan for women. It is, however, important not to adopt too celebratory a tone because, so far, there is not much to show for that Department’s work and many of the female Ministers and MPs are often pushed into largely symbolic roles, according to the very brave MP and Afghan presidential candidate Fawzia Koofi, whom I had the privilege to meet in October.

Subsequently, however, there have been some welcome changes, including the passing of the elimination of violence against women law. That came into effect in August 2009, and it is a major step forward in the legal protection of Afghan women’s rights. The law seeks to eliminate

“customs, traditions and practices that cause violence against women contrary to the religion of Islam.”

It does so by, for example, making it a crime to buy and sell women for marriage and to offer girls as a means of dispute resolution, and by criminalising forced and child marriage.

Fawzia Koofi has stated that improvements in the rights of women are inextricably linked to improvements in governance and ensuring that there is enough space and funding for non-governmental organisations dedicated to improving governance.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): The hon. Lady is making an interesting speech. In the context of Government inaction in protecting women and of elements of corruption, she must be aware of the interesting book written by Malalai Joya, a former Member of Parliament in Afghanistan who was forced into exile because she tried to expose that corruption, and also, frankly, the hypocrisy of those who pretend to be doing something on behalf of women in Afghanistan, but in reality are doing absolutely nothing and just going along with the situation.

Margot James: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point in that there is a great deal of double-speak and hiding behind weasel words of progress. There are also a great many laws designed in theory to protect women which are not in operation on the ground. However, according to the women politicians from that country whom I have met, some progress is being made, and I shall outline the progress that is reported to me by people on the ground.

There are excellent legal aid centres, set up by non-governmental organisations Womankind Worldwide and the Afghan Women’s Network, in Herat, Kabul and Jalalabad. They allow victims of domestic and sexual violence to obtain legal advice and assistance. They also provide training for law graduates on the rights of women under the Afghan constitution. Womankind Worldwide and the Afghan Women’s Network will also collaborate in monitoring how the elimination of violence against women law is being implemented between now and 2014.

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The position of women in education and health has also improved. Six times more children go to school now than when Afghanistan was under the rule of the Taliban. Although the total proportion is still only half the children in the country, a third of the pupils are girls, and there are now more than 3 million girls in education—although not many at secondary level. This is a step forward given that the education of girls was almost entirely banned under the Taliban.

In health, there have been great improvements in life expectancy, and a significant decrease in infant and child mortality over the past five years. Save the Children estimates that 20,000 community health workers and 2,500 midwives have been trained since 2003.

Despite the progress that has been made, many obstacles to the freedom of women remain, and there have been setbacks along the way. Much of the judiciary has proved impervious to change. The absolute denial of any form of justice to women under the Taliban is what provokes the greatest fear about the possible return of its rule to parts of the country, and the difficulties women have experienced in upholding their supposed equality before the law are legion. It is illustrated by the scandal of some 300 women estimated to be in Afghan jails at the moment charged with so-called moral crimes. These are women who have run away from forced marriages and terrible domestic violence. Worst of all, these are women such as Gulnaz, who was imprisoned for being raped—one almost has to repeat that, so incredible and barbaric is such a situation. Having been raped by a cousin, Gulnaz was imprisoned for 12 years. I will return to her case briefly in a moment.

So the progress is at best fledgling, it is certainly vulnerable, and it is patchy and non-existent in some regions. Real progress has, none the less, been made since 2001 and it is very much worth fighting to protect. I call on the Government not to trade away the rights of the women of Afghanistan in order to conclude negotiations with the Afghan Government and representatives of the insurgency.

It is important to acknowledge the role of international aid, including the Department for International Development’s commitment of £130 million per annum, the considerable efforts of non-governmental organisations and the courage of individual Afghan women. I am talking about women such as Selay Ghaffar, director of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, who met me and other MPs here last week on her way to the Bonn conference.

We need to recognise that after the withdrawal of troops in 2014 we will need to leverage this work all the more, and ensure that our aid policies and political pressure support the excellent work of organisations such as the Afghan Women’s Network, Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, ActionAid, CARE International and Womankind, to name some of the most active and effective NGOs in the field. International pressure must be applied to all Governments, and most of all the Afghan Government, as it has been today in Bonn, not to trade away the rights of women during these negotiations.

The Karzai Government have been shown to succumb to international pressure from time to time, and we need to build on that. When the law to legalise rape in marriage was almost passed last year, the international chorus of disapproval forced the Afghan Government

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to retreat, and

The Times

has done an excellent job in highlighting the appalling case of Gulnaz, whom I mentioned earlier. She had been imprisoned for being raped, and in response to that international pressure her case has been reviewed by President Karzai and she is to be released. At one point, she faced the horrific prospect of having to marry her attacker as a condition of her release, but that now seems unlikely, thank goodness.

We then encountered the shelter regulation, which aimed to deprive women’s NGOs of their right to run shelters for victims of violence and to make them hand over the shelters to representatives of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. That step was proposed to hide violence towards women by Government officials, including MPs and their sons. That was yet another area where international pressure, supporting the brave campaigning by Afghan women, forced the Government to think again. Both prior to and following the withdrawal date of 2014, it is essential that we mobilise international pressure and aid policies to prevent the hard-won gains that women have made from being sidelined or overturned.

In its vision for women and girls strategy published earlier this year, DFID set out the need for women to take a central role in our development policy. We know that when women are better educated, they are more likely to prosper economically and send their children to school. The World Food Programme has shown that when women are responsible for distributing food it is far more likely to reach the children who need it most. Not just in Afghanistan, but across the developing world, there is plenty of evidence to show that improving the lives and rights of women is a precondition of development, peace and security, which is why joining in this battle with the women of Afghanistan is so much in our own interests post-2014.

In conclusion, women at last have a voice in Afghanistan and the Taliban would dearly like to silence it. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that they do not succeed. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan welcomed a joint report, launched on the eve of the Bonn conference last week by a group of Afghan civil society organisations and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, called “Afghan People’s Dialogue on Peace”.

It is humbling to read the views of the ordinary people of Afghanistan in that report. They express their view on the peace process and what is important to them and to their community’s future. The things that are overwhelmingly important to them are important to people everywhere: integrity in the Government, an end to corruption, basic health and education services, and an end to the oppression of women.

Let me finish by quoting the words of a female lawyer from the Baghlan province who contributed to the report. She expressed a view that the report said was common to many participants:

“All Afghan citizens including women should be equally treated by their Government and they should be able to enjoy from their citizenship rights individually, not based on their gender, tribe or ethnic group; women should not be considered as second level citizens, and their appearance in social or political affairs should not be symbolic or based on their gender; they should be empowered in all aspects of their life, and all human rights standards must be respected by our law enforcement authorities.”

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We in this Parliament and in Britain owe it to the brave men who have sacrificed their lives in our mission in Afghanistan and to the brave women who are fighting there and who, in some cases, are sacrificing their lives in the pursuit of the freedom of justice in that country to support those words. I am grateful to hon. Members for their support in this very important debate.

10.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) on securing this important debate and praise her for her well-informed and compelling speech this evening. It is exceptionally timely, because today’s Bonn conference follows 10 years on from the first Bonn conference. That set Afghanistan on the road to recovery from the damage caused by 30 years of civil war and the misrule of the Taliban. The Afghanistan of 2011 is unrecognisable from the Afghanistan of 2001.

The past 10 years have been difficult but real progress has been made. The Afghan economy is growing and the Afghan Government are providing increasing levels of basic services to the Afghan people, including in education and health. In 2001, under the Taliban, only 1 million children attended school, none of whom were girls. As my hon. Friend pointed out, by last year nearly 6 million children were attending school regularly and more than 2 million of them were girls. More than half the population can now access a health facility within one hour’s walk, compared with 9% in 2002. Security is improving in many parts of the country, increasingly delivered by the Afghan national security forces. There is also progress on governance and the rule of law, but many significant challenges remain.

Today, in Bonn, the Afghan Government have chaired an international conference on Afghanistan to address these challenges and agree a path towards a stable and secure future. Some 100 delegations and about 1,000 participants attended the event. They shared a common objective: to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for international terrorism and to ensure that the Afghans can be responsible for their own security and their own future.

At the conference, the international community sent a strong message of its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. UK combat troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but our support for the country will not cease. Participants emphasised that international support for sustainable Afghan national security forces needs to continue after 2014. The international community will work to define a clear vision and an appropriately funded plan for the ANSF before the NATO summit in Chicago in May next year.

The conference also reaffirmed the international community’s readiness to support the Afghan Government in developing their economy. International partners will direct financial support to Afghanistan to help to address her continuing budget shortfall and to achieve self-sustainability. We will work with the Afghans and international partners on detailed plans which we hope to discuss at the Tokyo conference planned for July next year. Alongside those steps, the Afghan Government are committed to revitalising the reform process agreed in Kabul last year and to accelerating progress on the

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key development priorities. Participants also gave their backing to the Afghan Government’s commitment to an inclusive and representative peace process and agreed a set of guiding principles. In addition to the internal issues, the international community signalled its firm support for improved regional co-operation by backing the Istanbul process agreed at the Istanbul conference in November.

My hon. Friend asked about today’s conference. I can tell her that it focused on a number of key issues relating to the role of women in Afghan society and politics. The conference made it clear, first, that the peace and reconciliation process must be inclusive and must represent the legitimate interests of all the people of Afghanistan, regardless of gender or social status. Secondly, the conference made it clear that the outcome of the peace process must respect the Afghan constitution, including its human rights provisions—notably the rights of women. The Afghan Government reaffirmed that the Afghan people will continue to build a stable, democratic society, based on the rule of law, in which the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the equality of men and women, are guaranteed under the Afghan constitution. The fundamental freedoms and rights enshrined in the Afghan constitution, including the rights of women and children, are key to Afghanistan’s future.

It was encouraging to see that 25% of the Afghan official delegation was female and that there was significant representation by women in the Afghan civil society delegation that attended Bonn. In addition, one of the two civil society representatives who participated in the main conference today was female. The Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), attended the civil society forum preceding the Bonn conference. She also held a meeting with representatives from the Afghan Women’s Network. In all her contacts, she reiterated the importance of women’s rights and the UK’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan post-2014.

At the civil society forum, the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and the Afghan Foreign Minister Rassoul both reiterated the commitment of the international community and the Afghan Government to upholding the rights of women in Afghanistan now and in future. Over the past 10 years, the status of women in Afghanistan has improved. A quarter of the MPs now in the Afghan Parliament are female, there are nine female members of the high peace council and there is the first female provincial governor in Bamiyan province. There are clear signs of the effective participation of women in the political process.

The Afghan Government have worked to support women throughout Afghan society by establishing a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which promotes women’s rights in Afghanistan and implements the national action plan for the women of Afghanistan. In September 2010, the Afghan Government also established a human rights support unit at the Ministry of Justice to co-ordinate and advise on human rights policy and legislation across the entire Government. To complement the work of the Afghan Government there is a growing network of women’s NGOs and advocacy groups across the country, which are increasingly leading the way in calling for change on women’s rights issues and on the wider human rights agenda.

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The UK Government continue to support this effort alongside the Afghan Government, local and international NGOs, civil society organisations and international partners to continue improving the status of women in Afghanistan. For example, we have provided support to both the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the human rights support unit in the Ministry of Justice, including human rights training. We participate in the AIHRC donor group to ensure that the commission addresses human rights protection for men and women in Afghanistan. I praise the support from DFID, and I am very pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for International Development on the Front Bench with me this evening. That is a sign of DFID’s commitment and determination to make progress.

Our national action plan on United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security includes a country action plan for Afghanistan which co-ordinates cross-Government activities on gender issues.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I welcome the Minister’s message that involving women is important for security. I was fortunate to visit Afghanistan last month with a cross-party group of MPs and we heard much about the progress being made in training the army and the number of new recruits. To the end that we all seek, can the UK Government assist us by including in the monthly reports progress on gender equality and women’s rights as we head towards transition in 2014?

Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that practical and sensible suggestion. I assure her that we will take it on board. I can see my DFID colleague nodding.

We have undertaken wider work in areas such as education, economic opportunities and participation in public life. During a recent visit to Kabul, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development launched Strengthening Afghanistan’s civil society project “Tawanmandi”, which will help Afghan civil society organisations to engage more effectively with the Afghan Government and help to make the Government more accountable and responsive to their citizens, particularly women.

Although there is significant progress, there is still much more to be done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge made clear, women in Afghanistan continue to face huge challenges, including high illiteracy rates, domestic violence, forced marriages, poor access to health care and lack of livelihoods. The isolation of some rural communities makes it difficult to raise awareness of women’s rights. I agree with my hon. Friend that progress in some of the remoter regions has been patchy, and we need to do our level best to reinforce the progress that has been made.

At the Bonn conference my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in his intervention the UK’s strong support for women’s rights in Afghanistan, and we continue to make it clear that any political settlement must be inclusive and address the concerns of all Afghan citizens. We will continue to support the Afghan Government as they work to address these issues, and continue to emphasise that a political system which represents and includes all Afghans, regardless of gender or ethnicity, is the best way of securing a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

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I conclude by praising my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge for her indefatigable energy in pursuing and pressing this issue. Her work and her focus and passion give hope to many millions of women in Afghanistan.

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Question put and agreed to.

10.28 pm

House adjourned.