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Bob Spink (Castle Point): The petition has been compiled by Hadleigh residents, the St. James the Lesser church, the Hadleigh Royal British Legion and many Hadleigh small businesses, all of which are deeply concerned about the action of Castle Point borough council in holding secret meetings to plan the sell-off of public assets against the best interests of the communities that the councillors are supposed to represent. I agree entirely with the petition, as does every single constituent to whom I have spoken. We are indebted to the local press and the Yellow Advertiser for bringing these matters to the people's attention.
The Humble Petition of Mrs. Susan James, resident, and others of like disposition sheweth
That residents and others connected with Hadleigh in Castle Point deplore the actions of Castle Point Borough Council in holding secret meetings in order to plan to sell-off car parks and other publicly owned assets when Hadleigh needs more off-road parking and facilities.
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House shall urge the DTLR to consider the difficulty that selling-off Hadleigh car parks would cause to residents, businesses and Church attenders in Hadleigh and prevent these asset sell-offs.
And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.
Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate peace in south Asia. This is a timely debate, as events across the region have moved rapidly in recent days. Peace and stability go hand in hand, but where there is no peace, bold leadership is required, not only from the conflicting sides but from the British Government in their role as an honest broker with strong links to nations across the region. We must exert greater pressure on India and Pakistan to restrict their military excesses. Instead of the widespread poverty in India and Pakistan being tackled, there have been steep rises in spending on arms in both countries.
Jane's latest estimates place Indian defence spending at almost $14 billion a year, and Pakistan's at $3.3 billion. With a standing army of well over 1 million in India and one of around 600,000 in Pakistan, this confrontational madness must end for the sake of the security of the whole region. India has also shown an interest in Russian air defence systems while being positive about President Bush's proposals for missile defencemuch more so than other nations and many Members of this House, including myself.
Arms spending and military ambitions go way beyond the defence needs of both countries, but the nuclear capability possessed by India and Pakistan threatens us all. Although nuclear tests began four years ago on the sub-continent, there is still no treaty obliging either side to reveal the extent of their arsenal. Jane's experts speculate that India could have as many as 250 missiles, and Pakistan 150. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimates that India has about 60 warheads and Pakistan 25, but no one knows exactly how many each country has. Experts are uncertain whether either side even has a warhead able to be delivered by a missile.
This crazy uncertainty is a real threat to peace and stability in the region. Posturing along the border could quickly escalate. This is a crucial time. For more than five decades, Kashmir has experienced persistent conflict. Since partition, India and Pakistan have fought three wars over this disputed land. A nuclear confrontation would destroy both countries with terrible consequences for us all.
The situation has been extremely serious in recent months, and President Musharraf must be praised for taking bold steps to bring us back from the brink. He has made real gestures of friendship, not only with the symbolic handshake with Mr. Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister, at the conference of south Asian leaders, but with tough measures to tackle terrorist activity on Pakistani soil.
In recent days, the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl while he was working to expose the truth behind certain groups has only stiffened the resolve of President Musharraf. He is determined to deal with terrorists. I am disappointed that India has so far failed to respond positively. Prime Minister Vajpayee must show statesmanship, and India must negotiate with Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir.
Bilateral talks between India and Pakistan have taken place, but they were not successful. There must be a genuine attempt at mediation. In that matter, Britain has a special responsibility. As the colonial power, it created the situation facing Kashmir. Britain has a unique role as a close ally of both India and Pakistan, and it possesses much wider influence on the world stage. Britain is the leading nation in the Commonwealth and has shown itself to be an active and fair-minded member of the UN Security Council.
Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr): Does my hon. Friend agree that, as British parliamentarians, Members of this place ought to concentrate on human rights and not take sides in any country in south-east Asia or any conflict arising there? We ought to concentrate on the people living in those areas whose human rights are being eroded and what we can do to assist them in restoring those rights so that they can live with respect and dignity.
Mr. Sarwar: My hon. Friend is right. There are gross violations of human rights in occupied Kashmir and we have a responsibility as Members of Parliament to do whatever we can to end such violations in occupied territories.
Britain must assume leadership in resolving the situation in Kashmir through mediation. Our Prime Minister should also use his special relationship with President Bush and the USA. There must be a change in priorities for the United States as the world superpower. Instead of making sabre-rattling threats against Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea, it must focus clearly and concentrate on outstanding issues such as Kashmir and Palestine. That will bring greater peace and stability not only for the people of those disputed regions but for us all, and build trust among Muslims that the west is even-handed.
That will not happen while the US continues to threaten other nations in the ongoing war against terrorism. The people of Kashmir deserve a just and peaceful settlement, and the leaders of Pakistan and India must show commitment to achieve it, bringing peace and stability to the region and enhancing the quality of life of the poor people of those two great countries.
We can take a lead from Sri Lanka. On Saturday, the ceasefire ending 19 years of civil war took effect. After substantial mediation by the Norwegian Government, the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government signed a permanent ceasefire, which I am confident will lead to direct peace talks. Measures to build confidence are to be implemented within three months. We know from Northern Ireland the difficulties involved in meeting deadlines, but that is a very positive start. Will the Minister join me in praising the Sri Lankan and Tamil leaderships for reaching agreement to build a better future for all on the island? Will he also join me in congratulating Norway on its pivotal role in bringing the opposing sides together? I am certain that the success in Sri Lanka is a lesson for Britain and the opposing sides in the dispute over Kashmir.
We must also remain vigilant over other threats to peace in south Asia. I have real concerns over the escalating crisis in Nepal. The conflict has worsened in recent weeks. Last Thursday, the vast majority of Nepalese MPs extended the state of emergency by a further three months, allowing the army to continue its deployment against the Maoists. A two-day general strike was then called by the rebels to mark the sixth anniversary of their uprising. Most places of work and education were shut and streets in the main towns were almost deserted but for army patrols and guards at Government buildings. The international community is backing Nepal's Government, but I fear that the conflict could extend beyond Nepal's borders. Can the Minister assure me that we will step up our support to tackle the threat, not just for the people of Nepal but for neighbouring areas?
We must also consider Afghanistan. We must work to extend the fragile peace from Kabul across the country. The Afghan people have suffered enough, living in grinding poverty and being bombed back to the stone age during two decades of conflict. I welcome the Government's pledged support, but it will take years of sustained aid to produce any lasting effect.
Major problems highlighted recently will hinder moves towards peace for the whole nation without Britain's leadership and resolve. Last week, a preliminary survey by the United Nations drug control agency found that drug production levels are again high and widespread, particularly where the Interim Administration have little control. Until recently, Afghanistan was the source of 90 per cent. of all heroin in European markets. A drug problem in Afghanistan means a serious drug problem all over Europe: I know that only too well from my constituency. The Turning Point drug crisis centre helps 5,000 hard-drug users every year.
Hamid Karzai has asked for the multinational force in Kabul to be extended to other areas while the Afghan army and police force are being built up. I praise the skill and commitment of the British armed forces leading the 4,000-strong International Security and Assistance Force. Their role will be crucial as more refugees return home in the coming weeks.
Five million Afghans are living in refugee camps and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is preparing for the return home of more than a million refugees, which will begin this Friday. But in northern Afghanistan thousands of minority Pashtuns are still being forced from their homes, with 20,000 stranded on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border trying to flee the country. The UNHCR is calling for international peacekeeping troops to be deployed to parts of Afghanistan where minorities are threatened.
There have been serious human rights violations. Families have been forcibly evicted from their homes, property has been plundered, and there is a very real threat of violence. People are genuinely running for their lives from areas where the Interim Government have little authority over local warlords.
The Prime Minister has put Labour principles at the heart of the international agenda, committing our Government to striving for peace and a better, fairer life for all who are denied it. I hope that Britain will continue to accept its responsibilities as a lead nation in rebuilding Afghanistan. I also hope that our Government will demonstrate bold leadership to bring peace and stability across south Asia.