House of Lords discuss aid programme conditioned to human rights in Pakistan, members criticise blasphemy law as inhuman


Nation special report

LONDON: House of Lords discussed aid programme for Pakistan and human rights situation there on Tuesday (July 2) in detail and twelve members including Baroness Liz Sugg, Minister of State, Department for International Development participated and expressed their views on this important subject. Lord Alton tabled the debate and  Lord Alton of Liverpool, Lord McInnes of Kilwinning (Con), Lord Bishop of Coventry, Lord Qurban Hussain (LD), Baroness Cox (CB), Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB), Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB), Lord Iltaf Sheikh (Con), Lord Hogan-Howe (CB), Baroness Sheehan (LD), Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab) and Baroness Sugg participated in the debate.

Representing the Conservative Government, Baroness Sugg said thatshe shares the concerns that all have expressed about minorities in Pakistan. Nobody should face discrimination because of their religion, let alone the examples we have heard tonight of trafficking, forced marriage, forced conversion or threatened or actual violence.

“Freedom of religious belief is a high priority for the Government’s work in Pakistan. We raise it regularly at the highest levels of government and support grassroots campaigning with our programmes. We continue to urge the Government of Pakistan to guarantee the rights of all people in Pakistan, particularly the most vulnerable, as laid down in the constitution, highlighted by Lord Alton, in his opening speech”.

We have heard much distressing testimony and evidence tonight, but there is some hope. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked about the new Government and whether they wanted to change direction. Prime Minister Khan has stated his desire for a more tolerant and pluralistic Pakistan. We welcome his commitments to improve transparency and inclusion. Some progress has been made to date on the passing of a new Child Marriage Restraint Act and the issuing of 3,000 visas to allow Indian Sikhs to make pilgrimage to Pakistan, but there is clearly more to be done, and we continue to support the Government to implement other commitments, including the creation of a commission on minorities, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the Christian divorce bill.​

She said that Lord Alton and Lord McInnes, Lord Harries and many other noble Lords raised the blasphemy laws. We remain deeply concerned by the misuse of those laws, and that religious minorities, including Christians, are disproportionately affected. The harsh penalties for blasphemy, including the death sentence, add to these concerns.

The long-term objective is to overturn these draconian laws, which are used not just against minority communities but against Muslims, Lord Qurban Hussain, highlighted.

Lord Ahmad raised our concerns about freedom of religion or belief, the blasphemy laws and the protection of minority religious communities with Pakistan’s Human Rights Commissioner in February 2019. The Foreign Secretary raised those concerns with Foreign Minister Qureshi during his recent visit. We will continue to urge Pakistan to strengthen the protection of minorities, to explain the steps being taken to tackle the abuse of the blasphemy laws and to honour in practice its human rights obligations.

Lady Cox, and others asked where in Pakistan aid, DfID money, is being spent and whether we are specifically targeting minorities of all faiths. We have a number of programmes which directly target and benefit minorities. Our new AAWAZ II programme will address a range of modern slavery issues, including child labour and forced or early marriage. Our first AAWAZ programme saw great success, holding community forums and peace festivals and supporting a national anti-hate speech campaign. That programme developed early response mechanisms to try to pre-empt some of the violent conflict we have seen and really work on interfaith and intrafaith conflicts and community dialogue.

(A detailed report on the debate would be published in next edition.)