UK aid supporting minorities in Pakistan – short debate House of Lords 25th April 2024.

Lords Grand Committee
Thursday 25 April 2024 

Lord Alton of Liverpool:
I am grateful to all noble lords participating in today’s short debate about ways in which UK development aid to Pakistan- rising from £41.5 million this year to an estimated £133 million next year – will be used to help the poorest of the poor in Pakistan’s minorities to climb out of destitution and caste.

I declare a non-pecuniary interest as cochair, with Jim Shannon MP, of the APPG on Pakistan Minorities on whose behalf I am currently chairing an Inquiry into the plight of brick kiln bonded laborers caught up in modern slavery- including young children – and who are massively and disproportionately drawn from the country’s minorities.

I have shared the draft report and preliminary recommendations with the Minister and pay tribute to the APPGs secretariat and advisors – notably Morris Johns and Professor Javaid Rehman.

Before saying more about the horrific evidence, we have taken in the current Inquiry, ML let me briefly refer to other questions and recommendations which I have sent to the Minister and to which my noble friends will refer.

Some of those issues are referred to in earlier reports of the APPG and the submissions of the APPG on Ahmadis.

They include discrimination and persecution against minorities – entrenched in school textbooks books; stigmatization in schools and colleges; primitive and dismal conditions in the “colonies” where Christians live – often devoid of running water, sanitation, and electricity- and which I visited with Marie Rimmer MP and Jim Shannon MP. 

We have highlighted the lack of reparations, convictions, and impunity following the violence, in 2023, in Punjab’s Jaranwala when a mob rampaged and torched churches and homes.

I hope the Minister will respond to the desecration of Ahmadi mosques and cemeteries – the persecution of the dead as well as the living; violent attacks – including murder – and the denial of comparable voting rights with other citizens.

We will want to hear the Minister’s assessment of the abduction of Hindu and Christian girls, forced conversions, rape, and coercive marriages – all issues which British aid could and should be used to address. 

And what happens to those who try to escape and end up caged like animals in detention centers in other countries – which Lady Cox and I have seen first hand.

For the record, 3.72 % of Pakistan’s 230 million people are from religious minorities background. 

1.60% are Hindus and 1.59% are Christians some of whom converted to escape the untouchability of the caste system.  Most of the Hindus are also from Dalit or Scheduled Caste with all the stigmatization and discrimination to which that leads. 

Does the Minister agree that this deserves to have greater focus and does he further agree that women and girls from the religious minorities remain at the very bottom of the societal hierarchy?

Has he had the chance to read the report ‘Life on the Margins’,  including disturbing evidence of child mortality rates higher than the national average? 

Whilst acknowledging the significant impact of the work of FCDO in improving lives in Pakistan it would be negligent not to point out the failure to prioritize the minorities.

Our resources should be used to challenge and reform laws and policies that are used as a pretext for persecution, procedures that breed impunity, and priorities that bypass the destitute and despised minorities. 

And in saying so we stand with the foundation ideals of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s original constitution and the findings of its most eminent jurists.

On 19 June 2014  the then Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued an admirable landmark directive which included the continuing failure of the State to create a federal task force to promote religious tolerance; new educational curricula to encourage religious harmony and social tolerance; the curbing of hate speech in social media; the establishment of a national council for minorities’ rights; police reform, employment opportunities and prompt action whenever constitutional rights of religious minorities are violated or places of worship desecrated.

UK Aid programs should be turning that ten-year-old directive into action. When did we last raise the failure to implement the directive with the Government of Pakistan and what response did we receive?

Let me end by returning to the plight of bonded labor and the preliminary findings of our Inquiry.

Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of bonded laborers in the world with over a million workers in brick kilns.  

Although religious minorities comprise less than 5% of the total population; in brick kilns, the percentage of religious minorities is often as high as 50%, especially in Punjab and Sindh, where most of the religious minorities live – a finding corroborated by Anti-Slavery International.

UNICEF says bonded labor is ‘an abuse analogous to slavery” – a system in which the middleman or ‘jamadar’ arranges the advanced loan, called ‘peshgi’

The often-illiterate worker must work exclusively for that employer, until the loan has been paid off, including high interest rates. It’s a vicious circle trapping workers and their families across whole generations. 

According to the 2023 Global Slavery Index, in one recent year, an estimated 10.6 of every 1000 people were in modern slavery in Pakistan.

Theoretically, bonded labor was made illegal under Pakistan’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992, and it has signed international treaties outlawing slavery – as does the Constitution.

In practice, successive governments have lacked the political will or capacity to implement and enforce the law on bonded labor.

In evidence to our Inquiry, we have heard shocking stories that women and girls from minority backgrounds, subjected to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse – reduced to lives of servitude. 

Our Inquiry can confirm the finding of Human Rights Watch that “there is a consistent pattern of sexual abuse at the brick kilns, including rape.”  I would draw the Minister’s attention to the testimony of “Sara” and other accounts from women who told us of rapes by jamadars or local police officers.

They described women and girls being sold into marriage or prostitution. One of the victims testified to the Inquiry:

“After raping my wife, the owner boasted about his ability to be above the law and told me they could do what they liked, nobody would be able to touch them”.

We heard of enslaved children to whom the debts have been passed down from generation to generation. 

Recall the horrific murder of Iqbal Masih – taken into bonded labor at the age of 4 and having escaped and campaigned against modern slavery was murdered at the age of 12 having helped 3000 children escape bonded labor.

When did we last specifically raise the plight of children in Pakistan?

Children should be in school not servitude.

We also heard accounts of a lack of any safety equipment, no medical coverage or social protection, shortage of clean drinking water, absence of latrines, and obscenely low wages. 

A recent ILO report highlighted the dangers workers face. Including exposure to “toxic fumes and carbon particulates”

We set out 10 practical recommendations to the UK and Pakistan Governments – from ethical buying standards to confiscation of assets.

If time does not allow today perhaps the Minister will commit to responding to each of the recommendations by letter. I also hope a Select Committee will use our Report to drive this issue forward until change occurs.

No one should underestimate the consequences for those who call for change, equity, and reform.

In 2011, when the Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and his friend, Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of Punjab, spoke up for Asia Bibi and called for reforms, both men were murdered.

When did the UK last challenge Pakistan over the failure to bring the murderer of Shahbaz Bhatti to justice? 

If you can’t bring the killer of your Minister for Minorities to justice is it any wonder that the two children forced to watch a lynch mob of 1,200 burns alive their parents or minorities living in a place like Jaranwala are in despair?

But more hopefully also recall that on August 11th, 1947, in a famous speech, the great Muhammad Ali Jinnah insisted “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

And Jinnah gave the newly independent Pakistan a new flag – symbolizing the country’s plurality and diversity combining the Islamic green of its Muslim people with the white of the country’s religious minorities. The flag’s crescent represents progress. The five-pointed star symbolizes light and knowledge – objectives that Jinnah hoped would inspire and unite the nation. 

Empirical research shows that countries that enjoy the greatest prosperity and harmony are the ones that promote freedom of religion or belief for their minorities. Something on which the UK, Pakistan, and the Commonwealth should prioritize.

It’s my fervent hope that today’s short debate will return Pakistan to that path and encourage the realization of many of Jinnah’s unfulfilled hopes.

Source: David Alton

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