To ask Her Majesty’s Government what information they have received regarding the number of people killed in recent riots in Bangladesh, and the theft or arson of property belonging to minority communities.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): My Lords, the Government are deeply concerned by reports of the recent violence in Bangladesh. Sadly, there have been more than 70 deaths and many injured as a result of the recent protests. There are reports of 24 Hindu temples, 122 houses and dozens of shops being destroyed across Bangladesh. We deplore attacks on places of worship and private property and have urged the Government to ensure that investigations are conducted and that those responsible are held to account. As I said during my recent visit to Bangladesh, violence and vandalism have no place in legitimate protest.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, I very much welcome the statement issued by my noble friend yesterday condemning the violence which, as she said, has led to the deaths of more than 70 people, most of whom died at the hands of the security forces. Have the Government of Bangladesh ordered the security forces not to use live ammunition against demonstrators unless it is absolutely unavoidable, in accordance with the UN basic principles on the use of force by law enforcement officials? With regard to the widespread attacks on temples, houses and other property of religious minorities—a repeat of what happened after the 2001 elections—will the Government of Bangladesh pay full compensation to the communities for the losses that they have suffered, as Sheikh Hasina promised to the citizens of Ramu, who suffered a similarly gratuitous attack by extremists last September?
Baroness Warsi: Officials are currently confirming whether the Bangladeshi security forces are operating in accordance with the UN basic principles on disturbances. A briefing for heads of mission was held by the Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, on 7 March in which she said that law enforcement agencies would deploy force in situations of self-defence and to maintain public order, but that they would first use other means of crowd control. She also informed in a briefing that the district administrations are distributing relief and reconstruction material to the families that have been affected by the violence. We continue to urge the Government of Bangladesh and others in Bangladesh to urge restraint in this violence.
Baroness Uddin: I express my deep condolences via the House, if I may, for those who have lost their lives in this conflict. As a child growing up and witnessing the liberation war, I understand deeply the wishes of Bangladeshi people to call for justice for those who have committed atrocities. Will the Minister recognise the current serious difficulties faced by the Bangladeshi Government and people, and urge the Government to
redouble their efforts to ensure that all judicial and electoral processes are not only transparent and accountable but are seen to be so?
Baroness Warsi: The Government have been fully supportive of the International Crimes Tribunal, which tries people who are alleged to have committed crimes during the 1971 war. The Government feel that it is important for those trials to take place to dispel the ongoing culture of impunity when these issues arise in times of conflict. We have urged for that process to be transparent and for it to be done in accordance with the rule of law. However, we condemn the violence that has escalated as a result of those sentences, most recently after the verdict on 28 February of the vice-president of Jamaat-e-Islami.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I welcome the statement of the noble Baroness. I draw to her attention that yesterday I met a deputation of some of the minority organisations based in this country, who clearly identified the role of fundamentalist organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami and the fanatical student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir. They are the people who are perpetrating a substantial amount of crime against temples and the religious minorities. Will the Minister, first, bring that to the attention of the Bangladeshi Government? Secondly, will she meet those organisations because they have more information than that supplied by the Minister?
Baroness Warsi: My noble friend raises an important point. I am aware that there was a protest on 13 March, at which a number of minority communities originating from Bangladesh expressed their concern. We are currently investigating who is behind much of this violence and we have said clearly that we expect all parties to exercise restraint.
Lord Trimble: My Lords, what do we do and what can we do to promote human and civil rights in Bangladesh generally? Looking forward to the elections, will there be fair opportunities for minority groups to participate?
Baroness Warsi: There should be such opportunities, and that was certainly the basis of many discussions I held with Sheikh Hasina, the Foreign Minister and, indeed, the leader of the Opposition, Khaleda Zia. It is important that these elections are inclusive and free from violence. There is an ongoing debate in Bangladesh about the interplay between political parties and whether they should be secular or there should be a religious base to them. When I was in Bangladesh, I urged all parties that it is important to ensure that political parties are defeated through the ballot box rather than through violence.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, last week we had an excellent debate on the Commonwealth and the new Commonwealth charter, and I wonder whether some of these issues could be pursued with our Commonwealth partners? Could pressure be put on the authorities in Bangladesh to make sure not only that there are free elections, but that the violent atrocities cease?
Baroness Warsi: The noble Baroness will be aware of the long history of political dispute within Bangladesh, and that it can spill over into our own communities of Bangladeshi origin on our streets. It is of concern to us, as part of the Commonwealth family, that these elections should take place in a fair and inclusive environment—there has been some talk of certain parties boycotting them—and one in which there is no violence. It is also of concern to me in terms of my domestic portfolio that this does not spill over into tension. We have seen increasing levels of tension in, for example, Whitechapel, as the result of demonstrations and counterdemonstrations.