The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con) [V]
My Lords, I begin my apologising to your Lordships for my delays and technical faults. The joys of virtual participation meant that, for some reason, I had been linked into a rather interesting debate in the Chamber, as opposed to the Committee. Nevertheless, I am delighted to join noble Lords and I heard a major part of the debate. I start, as have others, by acknowledging and recognising the role of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion and belief, inter-faith relations and human rights. In his opening remarks, he again reflected on the importance of these principles in the wider context of human rights.
I also welcome, as ever, a robust, open and challenging debate, which I am accustomed to on the broader issue of human rights. Today, we have heard various insights presented and questions rightly asked about our relationship with a standing partner and friend, the Republic of India. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and my noble friend Lady Verma, among others, on the importance of our strong relationship with India—bilaterally, as a Commonwealth partner and in the multilateral sphere. As the Minister responsible for our relations with India, as well as human rights, I assure noble Lords that our relationship is strong, which allows for a candid and measured exchange on important issues. That relationship with India goes both ways: for India in asking the United Kingdom, which my noble friend Lady Verma alluded to, and equally for us to raise important issues of human rights, as we continue to do.
As was pointed out by a number of noble Lords, Indian citizens are rightly proud of their history of inclusive government. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about the history of inclusive government. Let us not forget the secular constitution, which protects the rights of all communities, including minority communities, within India. It guarantees equality before the law, which we are proud of in our own democracy in the UK.
Our shared values and vibrant democracy sit at the heart of the transformational relationship between the United Kingdom and India and the comprehensive strategic partnership we work towards, launched at the virtual summit between Prime Minister Johnson and Prime Minister Modi in May. In June, at the G7 summit and in the 2021 Open Societies Statement, both Prime Ministers again highlighted our countries’ shared belief in the importance of human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law. They recognised the role of human rights defenders in promoting fundamental freedoms and our rejection of discrimination. We all recognise—and, again, my noble friend Lady Verma alluded to this—that human rights is never a job done. We have to be constantly vigilant, both at home and abroad, about this important agenda. I assure noble Lords that this remains a central priority of my work within the FCDO.
Along with G7 partners, we committed to co-operation to strengthen open societies globally, including by tackling all forms of discrimination. Media freedom was a key component of the statement and communiqué issued by the G7. As the integrated review made clear, open societies and human rights remain a priority for the UK. This month, as was acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, among others, we published the Human Rights & Democracy report.
It has been a challenging year. As several noble Lords mentioned, Covid-19 remains a challenge in its erosion of human rights and democracy and has amplified existing hardships and inequalities. In response, I assure noble Lords that the UK stepped up its efforts as a force for good in the world, championing those core values we hold so dear. We very much stepped up in our close collaboration with India, when it came to Covid-19, in supporting the supply of oxygen mini-factories to places such as those in Rajasthan to ensure that, in its time of need, we stood with India, as India stood with us during the early Covid-19 challenges.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, specifically asked about the human rights report. Just because a country is not mentioned within that report—and specific criteria go behind the inclusion of a particular country—it does not mean that we do not raise human rights issues with countries across the world.
I turn to human rights in India specifically. The UK Government engage on a range of human rights matters. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Kashmir; I assure him that we continue to raise issues, including the detention of leaders in Kashmir. We were heartened by the fact that Prime Minister Modi invited some leaders from the state to join him in Delhi. We believe it is very much a first step towards progress in Kashmir. Whether it was the internet being suspended or the release of those held in political detention, we continue to monitor and work with the Government of India in ensuring early resolutions. Through our high commission and network of deputy high commissions, we work with the union Government and, importantly, state Governments and NGOs to build capacity and share expertise.
I have visited India twice since my appointment as the Minister for India, and I assure noble Lords that human rights have formed a regular part of my direct engagement with Indian counterparts in Delhi. We look towards the Indian Government to continue to uphold the freedoms and rights guaranteed by India’s constitution and the international instruments to which it is a signatory.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned human rights defenders and Father Swamy. I assure noble Lords that his passing is a point of deep regret for us all; I mentioned it in a statement I put out at that time. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we raised this matter directly with the Indian authorities.
It is thanks to our deepening relationship that we have been able to engage on such sensitive matters with Indian counterparts on a regular basis and as sovereign equals. The Government of India also raise direct concerns with us. To give noble Lords some insight, in December the Foreign Secretary discussed a number of human rights issues, including those relating to Kashmir, with Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr Jaishankar, on 5 January our acting high commissioner in New Delhi spoke with officials from India’s Ministry of External Affairs about minority communities in India and on 15 March, while I was visiting India, I discussed the situation for different religious communities, including Christians and Muslims, as well as the situation in Kashmir, with India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kishan Reddy. These were both productive and constructive engagements.
In October and December last year I raised concerns with the high commission about NGOs. The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, rightly raised Amnesty International and the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. I have requested that all Amnesty International accounts be unfrozen while the investigation is ongoing and have stressed the important role that organisations such as Amnesty International play in any democracy. I meet quite regularly with representatives of Amnesty International here at the FCDO.
In my capacity as Minister for South Asia and Minister for Human Rights, I regularly have frank discussions on the topic with the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and the Indian high commission in London. Most recently, this month we also had discussions about this during my visit to New York with the Indian Permanent Representative to the UN in New York.
As noble Lords will be aware, in our human rights work key priorities for the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and me are freedom of religion or belief and promoting respect between different religious communities. The British high commission regularly meets representatives of all faiths to understand their perspectives. The excellent team on the ground undertakes a variety of projects to promote interfaith dialogue. For example, in 2020 we hosted a virtual round table with leaders from faith communities.
This year, the British high commission hosted a multifaith virtual iftar during Ramadan. I was very pleased to speak at that event, which included leaders from across India’s Muslim community and the wider religious tapestry that makes up modern India today. We continue to support interfaith leadership programmes for a cohort of emerging Indian faith leaders, creating a dialogue—I know the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, will appreciate this—to tackle shared challenges and promote not just tolerance but respect.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lords, Lord Singh and Lord Alton, raised the situation with the Dalit community. Our recent project work with the Dalits has included the provision of legal training for over 2,000 Dalit women to combat domestic violence and the creation of the first ever network of Dalit women human rights defenders trained as paralegals. We will continue our support in this respect. The British high commission also held an event on empowering Muslim youth, which saw over 100 educational institutions participating in six three-day workshops.
I turn to academic and journalists’ freedom, raised by my noble friend Lady Verma, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that academia and a free media are two further elements of a successful democratic society. Here again, India and the United Kingdom share fundamental values. We regularly engage with the Indian media, which promotes lively debate—[Inaudible]—directly during my visit by members of the Indian media fraternity.
The annual South Asia Journalism Fellowship programme, under our flagship Chevening brand, is central to our activity in this regard and has been since 2012. We also engage with India’s academic community, as expanding academic co-operation is among the principal aims of the 2030 road map, which was agreed between the two Prime Ministers. I regularly speak at universities; indeed, on one of my earlier visits to India, I spoke at a Muslim university.
To conclude this debate, I assure noble Lords that we will continue to engage with India across a series of areas, including on issues of trade. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and others have said about the issue of human rights within the context of our future trade agreements. I assure them that human rights remain central to our thinking, as we negotiate trade agreements around the world.
We will also continue to work with the Government of India to ensure that the rights of all minorities, as according to their constitution, continue to be upheld in the rich tradition of religious inclusivity, which I know full well from my family’s experiences remains alive and well. Indeed, during my last visit to India, I convened a round table of religious leaders in Punjab.
I give noble Lords the further assurance that was sought: we will continue to monitor human rights directly though our high commission in New Delhi. We have a strong relationship with India and a relationship of being partners and friends with it. When we have concerns, I assure noble Lords that we will continue to raise them. On occasion, as I have said before, we do so privately because we believe that that is the right thing to do. Where there are more general issues of concern we will continue to raise them, not just in the context of our relationship with India but further afield.
When it comes to human rights, our principle is clear. It is central to our thinking and we remain steadfast in our opposition to any form of discrimination, for it is our common values, shared by India, and our common belief in international rules and norms that will continue to govern our growing and strengthening partnership with India.