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Situation of The Hazaras in Afghanistan: Westminster Hall Debate

On Wednesday 7 June 2023 The Situation of The Hazaras in Afghanistan had it's first Westminster Hall debate dedicated to discussion the issue of the persecution of the Hazaras, led by Paul Bristow MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hazaras, we also heard from Jim Shannon MP (DUP MP for Strangford), Taiwo Owatemi (Labour MP for Coventry North West), Mohammad Yasin ( Labour MP for Bedford) and The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Mr Andrew Mitchell MP.

Paul Bristow (Peterborough) (Con) I beg to move, That this House has considered the situation of Hazaras in Afghanistan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have this debate. I am also grateful to my constituents who have come to join me today. Hazaras from not just Peterborough but across the country are sitting in the Gallery, listening to the debate—the first, I think, in the Palace of Westminster devoted purely to the Hazaras and their situation in Afghanistan. The Hazaras are one of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic groups. Exact numbers are unknown, as there has been no accurate census of the Hazara population, but some estimate it to be between 20% and 30% of Afghanistan’s population. They are predominantly, but not exclusively, Shi’a. The number is often disputed by the Hazara community themselves, who believe that they are underrepresented in order to be denied adequate funding and political representation. For over a century, the Hazara community has suffered from targeted discrimination, persecution and massacres because of their ethnicity and religious sect. Identifiable by distinctive features, Hazaras cannot hide their ethnicity from aggressors. As early as the 1890s, about 60% of the Hazara population were slaughtered during genocidal campaigns. Those who survived were dispossessed of their land, displaced from their homes, with some even being sold as slaves. Oppression continued throughout the 20th century, as Hazaras were denied access to education and political rights. To this day, Hazara areas in Afghanistan remain some of the poorest parts of the country. I am proud to be chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Hazaras. As I say, I have a number of Hazara constituents in the great city of Peterborough. The community there is growing, with over 140 Hazara families living in my city. They have an amazing community centre called the Peterborough Afghan Shia Association —or PASA—to help residents with numerous issues. They are a real asset to my city. That is why this debate is so important to me personally. It is paramount that we raise awareness of and stand up for minorities such as the Hazaras in Afghanistan. The Hazara community in Peterborough are not just any community; they are our neighbours, our co-workers and our friends. They have been targeted in Afghanistan in places of worship, over cultural festivals, in sports clubs, at wedding ceremonies, at hospitals and schools, during peaceful protests, on public transportation and in the streets. For example, on 8 May 2021, a Hazara girls high school was attacked in Kabul, killing over 100 students and injuring over 160 others. On 19 April 2021, two other Hazara schools were attacked in Kabul, again killing 126 students and injuring 60. Two days later a Hazara mosque was attacked in northern Afghanistan, killing more than 50 worshipers and injuring hundreds more. On 30 September 2022, at attack at an education centre killed more than 60 female Hazara students and injured over 100. Those are just a few examples of attacks against Hazaras in Afghanistan over the last few years. Unfortunately, that is the tip of the iceberg, and it is something that the Hazara community have to live with each and every day in Afghanistan. The persecution of the Hazaras has continued into the Taliban era, but it has been around for a lot longer than that. Thousands of Hazaras were killed in massacres during the civil war, as they were under the Taliban Government. Since the takeover of Afghanistan, again by the Taliban, in August 2021, the plight of the Hazaras has only increased.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward and thank him for being a champion—I use that word honestly because it is the right one—in this House for the Hazaras. Other debates he has secured in Westminster Hall have been an indication of that. The Hazaras have long faced discrimination and violence. When the Taliban were last in power the Hazaras faced targeted violence. They fled to Iran and Pakistan for safety, such was their fear of what would happen to them or their families if they remained. The Taliban’s restrictions disproportionately affect women from religious minorities. As chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, I have spoken for the Hazaras before, and I would do so again. I commend the hon. Gentleman, and I also suggest that what he is doing—what we in this House are doing—today is being a voice for the Hazaras, and for their community here. Paul Bristow I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; today is just the start. This is the first dedicated Commons debate on the issue, but we have raised questions on it before. I want to work with Members such as the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin)—and others too—so that we can end the suffering. I hope that this is just the start of an extended campaign to protect Hazaras in Afghanistan. Hazaras face suicide attacks, forced displacement, torture and even execution. Those displaced people then have to make the harrowing journey, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, to find safety in other countries in the region and in Europe. To date, however, not a single perpetrator has ever been brought to justice, and the attacks against the Hazaras have been allowed to go on without punishment. Enough is enough; this cannot continue. Action is required to thoroughly investigate these crimes, bring perpetrators to justice and take further steps to protect the Hazara people in Afghanistan. Alongside colleagues and external advisers, I was part of the inquiry into the situation of Hazaras in Afghanistan, which was published last year. In its report, there were numerous recommendations for the United Kingdom Government, as well as the International Criminal Court and the UN. The recommendations to the Government were: “Monitor the situation of the Hazara, collect and preserve the evidence of the atrocities…Conduct an inquiry into the issue of sexual violence against the Hazara in Afghanistan…Recognise the specific targeting of the Hazara in Afghanistan and their vulnerability as a result (including for the purposes of asylum resettlement to the UK under” the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The report also recommended that the Government: “Assess the situation and identify a comprehensive response plan, including in accordance with the UK’s duties under the Genocide Convention…Assess whether and how the Hazara

communities have access to humanitarian aid provided by the UK…Ensure that the UK Aid provided to Afghanistan researches the Hazara communities…Engage in a dialogue with Afghan-neighbouring countries to ensure that the Hazara fleeing persecution in Afghanistan are provided with assistance and not returned to Afghanistan…Impose the Magnitsky sanctions against all those responsible for the atrocities…Call upon the Taliban-run ‘caretaker government’ to ensure that all atrocities against the community are investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice…Provide capacity assistance to help with investigations and prosecutions of the perpetrators.” We, along with the international community, have a responsibility to do whatever we can to protect and to bring about justice whenever we can. Taiwo Owatemi (Coventry North West) (Lab) I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing such an important debate. As mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the Hazara community has long faced persecution and attacks in Afghanistan. I represent a large Hazara community in Coventry North West, and I understand how the group has been overlooked and forgotten in the broader understanding of Afghanistan and the wider region. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government must heed the recommendations of the UN special rapporteur’s report regarding the protection of the historically persecuted Hazara community? Paul Bristow I agree with the hon. Lady. We should pay absolute attention to recommendations from the UN and others, to ensure that we end the persecution of Hazaras and bring about a decent resolution for that community. We and the international community have a responsibility to do whatever we can. The report’s recommendations are a good start in achieving that, and there was considerable value in producing it—something that is underlined by a number of references made to it by other Parliaments around the world and by the Hazara community itself. The Hazara community is now finally getting a voice internationally, after many years of suffering at the hands of the Taliban and other extremist groups without there being the same sort of awareness of these atrocities. Last week, I spoke remotely at an event held in the Canadian Parliament, organised by the Hazara community in Canada. This is not just a UK fight; it is an international fight, where Hazara communities across the world can unite to press for justice. The seminar was hosted by Members of the Canadian Parliament and its aim was to discuss the ongoing atrocities in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on human rights violations against Hazaras. Those are positive steps, but they are not enough. The persecution of these people cannot continue. We must use our diplomatic channels and foreign aid budget in a targeted way specifically to assist Hazaras as well as other persecuted minority groups. Crimes against the Hazara in Afghanistan may, because of the intention to eliminate their culture, faith and way of life, constitute genocide. Given the severity, there is a case for something like the independent tribunal into crimes against the Uyghurs, which was chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice KC, to be established and to examine the evidence regarding Hazaras in Afghanistan. Whatever happens, we cannot walk away from our responsibility to this great people. There has been silence for too long, but I am determined to continue working with other members of the all-party parliamentary group, and with those in the Hazara community in my city and beyond, to ensure that this does not continue. Lastly, I would like to put on record my tribute to the Hazara community—a community I did not know a great deal about before I became a Member of Parliament, to be honest. I have made some fantastic friends over the past couple of years in my constituency and through my involvement with the APPG. I hope we can continue to work together and to make a positive contribution to the Hazara community, some of whom are in the public gallery here today. You are no longer just my constituents —you are my friends. Mohammad Yasin (Bedford) (Lab) It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for securing this important debate and for the work he and fellow MPs in the APPG do to protect and enhance the human rights and status of Hazaras around the world. In the aftermath of the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, violence against the Hazara population has escalated. With a long history of persecution, including by the Taliban, the threat of genocide is real. It has been 10 months since the APPG published its excellent report, which documented human rights violations against the people of Afghanistan—in particular, the Hazara ethnic and religious group. According to Human Rights Watch, the Shi’a minority has been subject to suicide bombings, as well as sustained attacks on mosques, girls’ schools and workplaces. The Taliban leadership may have moderated its rhetoric to please the international community—it claims it will protect all ethnic groups—but it has done nothing to stem the growing number of crimes being committed by its fighters. The only hope for the Hazara people is that the international community stays true to its commitment to human rights and pressures the Taliban into concessions. Although there are limitations on what we can do, the United Kingdom and the international community have a legal, moral and political obligation to protect the Hazara people. The UK Government should allocate resources to provide immediate humanitarian aid to the affected Hazara communities. I assure my constituents from Hazara communities, and the Hazara community around the UK, that they are not alone. As the hon. Member for Peterborough said, this is only a start. I assure the Hazara people in Afghanistan that I and colleagues in this House will stand up for them and raise the issues that their communities face in these difficult times. They have my support. I also assure my constituents that they have my support and that they can come to me whenever they feel they need my support. I am there for them. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Mr Andrew Mitchell) It is a pleasure to serve on your watch, Mr Hollobone, in my second appearance in Westminster Hall today. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for securing the debate. I pay tribute at the outset to all his hard work in support of the Hazara people not only in the UK but internationally. We all recognise that, in his impressive chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group, he is doing a great deal of good to advance this most important cause—that of the Hazara people. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who reliably intervened, as he does so often in these debates, in support of the oppressed, wherever they are around the world. I also thank the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who spoke eloquently in support of the Hazara people in a brief intervention, and the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), who made it clear that his support for the Hazara community and his knowledge of this issue are extensive and helpful. I will try to respond to all the points raised during the debate, and I will start with the current situation. The Hazara people make up around 10% of the population of Afghanistan, and they are overwhelmingly Shi’a. They have historically been one of the country’s most persecuted groups and they have faced continued repression under the Taliban. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, has reported numerous serious human rights abuses committed against the Hazara people by the Taliban since August 2021, including summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill treatment. He has documented how Hazaras have been forcibly evicted and have had their land expropriated, often with only a few days’ notice. In September 2021 alone, at least 2,800 Hazara residents were forcibly displaced from 15 villages in the provinces of Daykundi and Uruzgan. When community representatives called for an investigation, they were arrested. The special rapporteur has reported a “clear trend towards Pashtunisation”, with the exclusion of minority groups from decision making and the failure of the Taliban to protect at-risk, predominantly Hazara institutions. There are also reports from the United Nations of an increase in inflammatory speech, both online and in mosques during Friday prayers, including calls for Hazaras to be killed. The Hazara people have suffered a series of deadly attacks by Daesh and other terrorist groups. There was a horrific attack on the Kaaj educational centre last year, which killed dozens of young people and was outrightly condemned by my noble Friend the Minister for South Asia. The Taliban responded by expelling Hazara students from universities for planning protests against the attacks on their community. The Taliban have a duty to protect the whole population of Afghanistan for as long as they are in power, yet they are often the greatest source of the repression. The UK Government and Members across the House condemn them utterly for that. I will turn now to the action the UK Government are taking. We closely monitor the human rights situation in Afghanistan and work with our allies to press the Taliban to respect the rights of all Afghans and protect Hazaras and other minority groups from terrorist attacks.

We urge the Taliban to engage in a constructive dialogue with all parts of Afghan society and to establish inclusive governance. We raise our concerns about the Hazaras and other minority groups in the United Nations and other multilateral fora. In March we worked with the Security Council to renew the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and to call for inclusive governance with meaningful participation of minorities. We are also working closely with international partners to ensure that credible human rights monitoring and accountability mechanisms are in place. In October we co-sponsored a Human Rights Council resolution to extend the mandate of the United Nations special rapporteur. We are working with the international community to respond to the recommendations the rapporteur made to the council in his February report. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough took part in the cross-party Hazara Inquiry, and we are grateful to him and his colleagues for their report. It has done much to raise awareness of the plight of Hazaras in Afghanistan. In line with the report’s recommendations, we continue to monitor and document discrimination and abuses against Hazaras, both through the United Nations and other institutions, and through our own programme work. We have discussed aid distribution with our partners. The UN World Food Programme has told us that there is no evidence of systematic discrimination against Hazara people in aid distribution, but we will of course continue to monitor the situation. We continue to consider the other report recommendations and to discuss the most effective course of action with our international partners. Ministers and officials engage regularly with a range of Afghans, including Hazaras, to ensure our policy and programming reflect the needs of the entire population. Our most recent contact with Hazara groups was between officials and a representative from the Hazara National Congress on 24 May. My noble Friend the Minister for South Asia last met UK-based Hazara groups in December, and we will continue to engage with the Hazara diaspora. We also provided a platform to Hazaras at the ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in July, which allowed them to raise awareness of the situation of Hazaras in Afghanistan and to exchange views with Ministers and policymakers from across the world. I will conclude by emphasising that the British Government will continue to work closely with international partners to press the Taliban on our human rights concerns, including the treatment of the Hazara people. We will also continue to work to ensure credible monitoring and accountability mechanisms are in place, including by supporting the UN special rapporteur. It is a tragedy to witness the reversal of the human rights progress made in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. We will never compromise on our belief and insistence that all Afghans, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender, should be free to play a full role in their communities, their economy and their governance. Without a more inclusive system, Afghanistan will not be able to progress and to fulfil the potential of its people. Question put and agreed to.

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