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Sri Lanka

Volume 485: debated on Thursday 18 December 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ian Lucas.)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to you for selecting this subject—a matter of great import—for debate. It is the first debate of the Session on the important issues facing Sri Lanka. I am also grateful to the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), for attending today, at the end of this parliamentary term. Our last debate on the subject was in Westminster Hall, where the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) spoke about the issues of concern.

I am grateful to the very large number of Members who are present this evening. It is not normal for the House to be so full at this time, it being so close to Christmas. I am also grateful to the 32 Members who signed early-day motion 58 on this important subject. I know that there are Members who wished to be here but have clashes, particularly the hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and for Orpington (Mr. Horam). I regard myself as being here to facilitate matters for all those who wish to be involved in the debate; I shall be happy to give way to Members liberally.

Many of us have attended protests on the outside, in Parliament square. Some of us spoke to some of the 25,000 people who attended the Remembrance day event at ExCeL. It is important that we recognise the difficult task that Her Majesty’s Government have in trying to promote peace and harmony on the troubled isle of Sri Lanka, but we urge the Government to redouble their efforts to ensure that good work is done there.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need not just a United Kingdom effort, but an international effort that brings together India, which has an important role to play, the United Kingdom, for obvious historical reasons, the United States and the UN? Only by that sort of concerted action will we get movement.

I am grateful for that intervention. I have a number of questions to pose to the Minister at the end of my speech, and will give way less at the very end. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is being very generous. This is an important issue. Does he agree that a crucial part of the process must be a permanent UN human rights monitoring mission, based on the island, that can travel freely without let or hindrance, take up any causes that it wishes, and monitor any process or political agreement that takes place?

That is an important and fundamental point, particularly given how the Norwegians and our own representatives have been treated by the authorities in Sri Lanka.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most important issues is that all roads should be opened and that food should be allowed through to vulnerable people? What does anyone want but a roof over their head, safety and the opportunity to live their life in peace and harmony? Does he agree, and should we work towards that?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which highlights some of the problems to do with the road to Jaffna and how many people have been living in starvation—or living outside, having been turned into refugees.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for introducing this important debate. Does he agree that we also need more independent and genuine news coverage that genuinely exposes what is going on in Sri Lanka? All too often, we do not get such coverage. Does he agree that that issue is important as well?

That is right. Obviously, in conflicts information is sometimes used as a weapon. I have been impressed by what I have seen of the Defence Watch provision, which tries to give some balanced consideration.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous with his time. With my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), I met 400 Tamil people from our community. They presented evidence from relatives of what was happening in Vanni province. There is an immediate crisis and a need not only for a long-term solution, but an immediate one—particularly for those deprived of even the most basic medical supplies and of support from United Nations agencies.

I appreciate that intervention, which leads me to say that many of us Members of Parliament meet so many constituents whose relatives have sometimes been abducted or have disappeared. We all feel that keenly as Members of Parliament.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He may not be aware that this afternoon there was an extensive debate on the Foreign Affairs Committee report on human rights, and human rights in Sri Lanka featured greatly in that. Sri Lanka has one of the worst records on press freedom. That is one of our problems in trying to discuss Sri Lanka; it is difficult to get proper information about the abuses of human rights there.

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has attended this debate, given that that other debate finished only at half-past 5. It is important to highlight that the issue was given important consideration by the House; it was high up on the agenda in that other debate in Westminster Hall. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right: often there is a great deal of intimidation of journalists in Sri Lanka.

More importantly, the debate becomes debased by the fact that anyone who dares give any consideration to the prospects of genocide in Sri Lanka is described as a terrorist. Hon. Members will know that I have myself been decried as having fallen into the hands of terrorists for even daring to raise that issue.

I deplore the attacks made on the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members just because they raised that matter in the House. Is there not now a case for considering the proscription issue and doing what has happened with the People’s Mujahedeen: raising partially the ban in this country, not to stop condemnation of terrorism—we all condemn terrorism—but for the British Tamil citizens who wish to raise humanitarian and social concerns? They face a lot of harassment. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the ExCeL centre; there were 12 counter-terrorism police at that centre simply because the ban exists. Is there not a case for partially raising the ban?

It is a great privilege to give way to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, who knows these issues so well. We do condemn terrorism and we recognise that the conflict in Sri Lanka is one of evil, in which the antagonism on both sides has led to appalling atrocities. However, it is wrong for the Sri Lankan Government to think it appropriate to wage war on their own people. We must be sensitive to the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman because it is important that we make enough exception for there to be humanitarian and political activity. I guess that at the end of this debate we will come to the view that it is right to support Her Majesty’s Government’s approach and that a political dialogue should take place, rather than a continuation of the waging of war. We must also be cautious about the role that the high commission plays here in London in terms of forcing some banks to close accounts that might be being properly used for humanitarian efforts.

The hon. Gentleman has touched on many of the issues that concern us all, and many people who are tarred with the allegation that they are somehow supporting terrorists because they support their constituents and the wider community who want to speak out on issues of huge concern to them. Given the urgency of the current issues in Sri Lanka and the long-term problem that has not been resolved, does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the things that the British Government might consider doing is seeking to persuade the Commonwealth, as well as the UN and other countries outside the European Union and the United States that have not taken a view on proscription, to come together early in the new year to seek an initiative with the Government of Sri Lanka, whatever happens militarily between now and then? They might say that the military conclusion will be sufficient, but clearly the issues will not change even if progress in that regard is made by the Government.

That is the intervention that I would have expected from the hon. Gentleman, because it proposes practical ways for Her Majesty’s Government to show leadership on this issue in partnership with others. We look forward to what the Minister says about how that response might be made.

I will make one brief local comment and then pose some questions to the Minister before concluding. I am very proud that in Croydon members of the Tamil and Sinhalese communities came together in prayer in very large numbers—1,500 people—to pray for peace. That is the constructive approach that we would like to see in Sri Lanka itself. I would like to give credit to an associate of mine, Patrick Ratnaraja, who has lobbied effectively with Conservative Members of Parliament to raise concerns about this issue.

I do not know how many of these questions for the Minister I will be able to get through; I certainly know that it will be impossible for him to answer them all in the 15 minutes that he has allocated to him. What work can be done by Her Majesty’s Government to help non-governmental organisations to re-establish themselves in Tamil majority areas? What is the current policy on dialogue with Tamil groups in the UK and in Sri Lanka? Following on from the interventions that we have heard, which country does he think should take the lead in promoting dialogue with Sri Lanka? Is less attention perhaps being paid to this very important issue of the genocide and evil war that is taking place because of the distractions of the middle east?

On the question of which country could take the lead, an ideal opportunity is coming up in April when we host the G20 talks. Every other peace initiative that has worked, from Northern Ireland right across the world, has engaged with America. With Barack Obama coming to this country, does the hon. Gentleman think it worth while for our Government to liaise with Barack Obama before he gets into power to say that this is an item that we could discuss at the G20, where there will be a host of nations that can assist us in this peace campaign?

That is a good point to make. We often realise with American foreign policy that it is not only about ensuring that the right thing is done, but about strategic interests. We must remember that Trincomalee is a very important strategic harbour that we should be concerned about. Bearing in mind the Chinese interests that are now being promoted in Sri Lanka, partly because of the weakness of that country owing to the civil war, we need to be concerned about strategic American and British interests as well. What dialogue is taking place with China in the context of its growing interests in the country? How much of the money provided by the British public, and by the British taxpayer for tsunami relief, does the Minister think has been properly spent? Are export licences being properly managed to combat the export of arms that might be redirected for the killing of innocent people? How is the distribution of Department for International Development humanitarian funds going?

I have three more questions to go; I know that I would be optimistic if I thought that even three could be answered in the 15 minutes that are available. How are matters progressing with our political and development section in Colombo; what are we doing to raise our concerns at the UN, as so many colleagues have suggested we should; and are the authorities treating our diplomats fairly and giving them reasonable discretion to be able to travel within the country? I have only one question to ask the Sri Lankan Government: why cannot they stop waging war on their own people?

I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) on securing the Adjournment debate on an important issue. As several hon. Members have done, I deplore the attacks on him and other hon. Members for simply raising genuine human rights concerns in the House.

With great international concern about the humanitarian and human rights situation in the north of Sri Lanka, it is timely to hold a debate on that country. Like many people in Britain, the Government are deeply concerned about the worsening conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and its impact on the welfare and human rights of Sri Lankan citizens.

The lack of access by non-governmental organisations and the media to the conflict zone makes an objective assessment of the conflict impossible, to put it bluntly. Many alarming reports have emerged, speculating about the extent to which both parties’ activities conform with international humanitarian law. Those reports need a sober and measured analysis based on the evidence available, and I will try to provide that.

Concern for civilians in Sri Lanka and the primary responsibility of the Government of Sri Lanka to protect them means that the LTTE’s role in the conflict is sometimes overlooked. It is important not to forget that the LTTE is a ruthless terrorist organisation, which is responsible for serious human rights abuses against civilians throughout Sri Lanka.

The LTTE has no democratic mandate to represent the Tamil population. It is reported to recruit civilians, including children, into its ranks forcibly, to extort food and money from an already impoverished people, to abduct and kill Tamil civilians who disagree with its views or methods and to break all norms of international humanitarian law by preventing civilians from leaving conflict areas, effectively holding them as a human shield. The LTTE has conducted a terrorist campaign across the whole of Sri Lanka for nearly three decades, deliberately targeting thousands of individual civilians, as well as assassinating Government figures.

The UK condemns those activities and recognises the Government of Sri Lanka’s democratic right to fight terrorism. But—

I tried to get the “but” in quickly because I anticipated an intervention from my right hon. Friend.

But if the Government of Sri Lanka are to be successful in the fight, they ultimately need to address the causes of terrorism, which are at the heart of the problem.

My hon. Friend is right to condemn terrorism, but is he not alarmed at the Sri Lankan Government’s deploying cluster bombs—bombing their own people, as the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) has said? If my hon. Friend deplores the attacks on hon. Members, will he call the Sri Lankan high commissioner to his office tomorrow, and ask him to stop attacking hon. Members who raise important humanitarian issues in Parliament?

As I have outlined, there are genuine concerns. I have already made clear my view that there should not be attacks on hon. Members who raise legitimate concerns. We have put forward that view forcefully, and we will continue to do so.

However, I also believe that we need a political solution—that was the “but” that I wanted to express.

I shall deal with that shortly.

The conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE has gone on for more than 25 years, and it has claimed the lives of at least 70,000 people in Sri Lanka. We recognise that the causes of the conflict, and the legitimate concerns of all communities in Sri Lanka, need to be addressed. However, terrorism is not the way to achieve that. The LTTE claims to be the sole legitimate voice of the Tamil people and is alleged to have killed Tamil politicians with different political views from its own. We must never allow a proscribed organisation to be the only voice of the people.

There needs to be a full debate among all communities—Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese—free from intimidation, on what an acceptable political settlement to the conflict might resemble. We have called on the LTTE to renounce terrorist methods and demonstrate genuine commitment to democratic principles. I hope that the recent reduction of attacks on civilian targets in the south of Sri Lanka suggests movement in that direction.

The Government of Sri Lanka also have real responsibilities. They need to show that they are serious about reaching a political solution to the conflict, and to do much more to reach out to the different communities in Sri Lanka. We are supporting initiatives to get political parties together around the same table and to promote grass-roots dialogue between the different ethnic communities. An important part of a political solution will be to ensure that proper structures and institutions are in place to protect the rights of all Sri Lankans, and to bring an end to the culture of impunity that allows human rights abuses to occur across the island.

In the past few years, Iraq has put on trial its leader, Saddam Hussein, who bombed and killed his own people. Exactly the same thing is being done by the Sri Lankan Government now.

Genuine concerns are being aired across the Chamber this evening, and we need them to be addressed, particularly in the context of a political solution. I was about to make the point that the Government of Sri Lanka’s current approach is to defeat the LTTE militarily before developing a political solution. That does nothing to win the hearts and minds of conflict-affected civilians in the north, and it will not resolve the underlying conflict.

I wonder whether the Minister understands how distressing it is for our Tamil constituents not to hear an outright condemnation of the Sinhalese Government’s use of strategies such as cluster bombing towards their civilians. Such language would have been used in the context of Darfur and elsewhere, yet it seems, selectively, not to be being used in this context.

I do not think that that is the case. There are real concerns about the strategy and the tactics that the Government of Sri Lanka are pursuing. I have made that clear this evening and, in all the contacts that my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown has with the Sri Lankan Government, those views are put forward very forcefully. We continue to argue that achieving a political solution now would be fundamentally in the Sri Lankan Government’s interests. It would undermine the LTTE by demonstrating that they are not the sole representatives of the Tamil people, and it would diminish their support in Sri Lanka and overseas. We are strongly encouraging the Sri Lankan Government to initiate an inclusive political process to address the fundamental causes of the conflict.

The Government’s strategy has always been very helpful on these issues. Can somebody try to get through to the Sri Lankan Government that there is no shame in involving other countries in trying to resolve these issues? We used Americans to help to resolve the issues in Northern Ireland. The Sri Lankan Government do not appear to understand that other people can help by bringing in their experience, and that, without them, there will probably be no internationally acceptable solution.

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my next two points. I was going to say that we are working with other international partners such as the co-chairs—the European Union, the United States, Japan and Norway—and India to encourage a political solution. The UK welcomes all initiatives, domestic or international, that can contribute towards a sustainable political framework for a just settlement of the long-standing conflict in Sri Lanka that will satisfy the legitimate aspirations of all communities.

Earlier this year, we invited the Sri Lankan all-party representative committee to visit the UK to examine the political process that was set up in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday agreement. The recent devolution proposals put forward by the APRC represent a positive step, but a more concerted effort is needed from the Government to involve all the major political parties in the APRC process and to demonstrate their political will to implement their proposals. For Sri Lanka to find a way forward, there needs to be a concerted effort from all communities to come together and agree a political package to resolve the underlying issues.

To pick up on the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), we support the call by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for an expanded UN monitoring mandate in Sri Lanka. I believe that that could be a constructive contribution.

The humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka is of enormous concern. The increase in fighting and the progress of the Sri Lankan army in the north have created a large increase in the number of internally displaced persons. The latest estimates are that there are more than 230,000 IDPs, and many families have been repeatedly displaced during the past year. Each successive displacement leaves a household more impoverished and increasingly reliant on humanitarian assistance, and they leave the political solution that we are striving for much further away. Accurate figures have been difficult to get hold of since September when the Government instructed all NGOs and international NGOs to relocate away from the conflict zone.

I am grateful. It is, of course, a matter of most urgent concern that no one is able to get into the north of the island to find out what is actually going on. That is particularly reprehensible in that that is where aid organisations are based to help displaced people, and they are not being allowed to do their job. What efforts and pressure are the Government applying to get the Government of Sri Lanka to relent on that issue?

I very much agree with the strong point that my hon. Friend raises. We are lobbying at all levels to allow international NGOs full access to the affected areas, and we are pressing the Sri Lankan Government to permit a full, independent UN-led needs assessment mission to visit the affected areas and allow the UN to take appropriate humanitarian action. The issue has been raised at the highest level.

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met President Rajapakse in New York in September, he urged the Government to ensure that regular food convoys reach those in need. However, these have been delays and inadequate supplies are reaching those in need. We therefore continue to urge the Government to ensure that access is improved to enable sufficient food to be delivered and that essential non-food items such as shelter and medicines are also delivered in the quantities needed to improve the critical human rights situation.

There have also been allegations of genocide or the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in the Vanni by the Sri Lankan Government. Our high commission in Colombo has discussed these allegations with NGOs, international organisations and the diplomatic community in Colombo. We should not lose sight of the fact that the LTTE also has a role to play. Most of the IDPs are caught in areas still held by the LTTE. In a joint statement on 26 September, my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown and the then Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), called on both parties to respect their international obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians affected by the conflict and to enable free access for humanitarian agencies and the free movement of civilians.

I have already mentioned that Sri Lanka faces a substantial terrorist threat, but respect for human rights is crucial to counter terrorism effectively. The human rights situation in Sri Lanka is of enormous concern. Disappearances and killings of civilians continue; there are reports of widespread intimidation of the media; child soldiers continue to be used by paramilitary groups; and a culture of ethnic discrimination persists. Prosecutions for such abuses are rare, which is enormously to be regretted.

Human rights groups have alleged Government involvement in human rights abuses as well. Central to the allegations of Government collusion in human rights abuses is the weakness of the rule of law and the failure to investigate and prosecute those thought to be responsible for the worst abuses. That feeds a culture of impunity, which is one of the real obstacles to peace in Sri Lanka. There has, for example, still been no arrest of anyone for the murder of 17 “Action Contre La Faim” aid workers in 2006.

The Government of Sri Lanka are also linked to human rights abuses through the actions of Government-aligned paramilitaries, including the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal, which broke away from the LTTE in 2006. The TMVP’s human rights abuses, including child recruitment, mirror those of the LTTE. In our contacts with the Government and TMVP politicians, we have regularly raised critical human rights issues, such as the need to release child soldiers and the need for the TMVP to disarm. There has been recent progress on both those issues and our lobbying has contributed to an agreement being made in early December between the TMVP, UNICEF and the Government to work towards the release of all TMVP child soldiers within three months. Following our lobbying, the TMVP recently made a public commitment to disarm as soon as the threat from the LTTE was removed. I welcome those positive signs of the TMVP’s commitment to democracy but, bluntly, much more remains to be done. We will continue to urge the Government and paramilitaries to take further steps.

Although the LTTE and paramilitary groups share responsibility for the poor human right situation, the Government of Sri Lanka have primary responsibility for ensuring the human rights of its citizens. When my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown visited the country in July, he encouraged the Government to do more to protect the human rights of those affected by the conflict. Our high commission in Colombo regularly repeats that message at the highest levels.

It is understandable that the Tamil community in this country are concerned about the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and we have heard that point made very forcefully by hon. Members this evening. I want to assure them that we attach importance to listening to all views from the Sri Lankan diaspora, and I encourage all members of the community who wish to offer humanitarian support to Tamils to channel it through the humanitarian agencies as the most effective way to make a contribution.

I am conscious that members of the Tamil community in the UK are concerned about proscription of the LTTE—an issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I have already outlined the LTTE’s record as a terrorist organisation and I have to say that until it renounces terrorist activities in word and deed, there is little prospect of the proscription being lifted.

I hope that it is clear that the Government share the concerns expressed this evening. We are doing everything possible to ease the humanitarian situation and to push for a political solution. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, Central again on raising these crucial issues in this evening’s debate.

Before we rise for Christmas, may I say how pleasant it is to hear so many kind words and good wishes expressed in the Chamber? In turn, may I wish every single Member of Parliament, every single member of staff and all their families a very merry Christmas and a happy and peaceful new year.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.