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Sri Lanka

Volume 486: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

The Government have long- standing concerns with the promotion of peace in Sri Lanka, where the conflict has claimed at least 70,000 lives during the past 26 years. We are now at an important moment.

Since its abrogation in January 2008 of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, the Sri Lankan Government have embarked on a policy of militarily defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In recent months the Government have made significant military gains, including the capture of Kilinochchi, the former administrative centre of the LTTE in the north, and the capture of remaining rebel territory in the Jaffna peninsula. These gains make progress on a political solution even more urgent. The LTTE is a proscribed terrorist organisation with no democratic mandate to represent the Tamil people. It is responsible for a terrorist campaign that has targeted innocent civilians across all communities in Sri Lanka over the past three decades.

Thousands of lives have been lost since the renewal of open hostilities in 2006. We recognise the Government of Sri Lanka’s need to root out terrorism. It also has a responsibility to safeguard the rights of all its citizens and adequately to address their political concerns. Our consistent position remains that for peace to be sustainable, an inclusive political process that takes fully into account the legitimate concerns of all Sri Lankan communities—Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim—is essential. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, we must see an end to the conflict and new drive for a lasting political solution. We continue to engage with all political parties across all communities in Sri Lanka to support progress in this direction.

We are deeply concerned by the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka and the growing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke about this issue with President Rajapakse when they met last September and we continue to raise our concern at senior levels. The UN estimates that 200,000-300,000 IDPs remain in the conflict area. Although there have been convoys providing basic humanitarian assistance, there are credible reports that these supplies are inadequate. The military gains by the Sri Lankan armed forces have resulted in these IDPs being squeezed into an ever-decreasing space. Further deterioration in the situation would mean acute humanitarian need and distress.

Following on from a Department for International Development (DFID) mission in September 2008, we will be sending a DFID humanitarian expert in the coming weeks to try to assess the situation and to report on the distribution of £2.5 million in humanitarian funding that we have committed to assist IDPs in northern Sri Lanka. In co-ordination with international organisations on the ground, we have urged all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular the need to ensure the safety of civilians, to allow their free movement and to enhance access for humanitarian agencies to facilitate the delivery of adequate supplies of humanitarian aid. Safe passage for civilians wanting to escape the hostilities should be guaranteed by all parties and safe humanitarian space provided for them. We believe that a full independent assessment of the IDPs’ humanitarian needs is essential. Such an assessment would be a powerful demonstration that everything that can be done is being done to support these vulnerable people. We will continue to press on these matters.

Recent weeks have seen a considerable number of high profile attacks on media freedom in Sri Lanka. We condemn such brazen attacks. Of particular concern was the murder on 8 January of the Chief Editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickrematunge. The Sri Lankan authorities have a duty to take prompt action to ensure a thorough and independent investigation is carried out. Those responsible must be held to account. The lack of progress in securing convictions for such cases indicates that urgent action is needed.

There continue to be reports of abductions, disappearances and acts of violence and intimidation in Sri Lanka. Without strong mechanisms for independent human rights reporting, it is difficult to assess the true scope of the problem. We consistently call upon the Government of Sri Lanka to take decisive action to tackle human rights abuses, including by taking action against those responsible for violations. Creating an environment in which people from all communities in Sri Lanka live without fear is essential to creating the conditions for a sustainable end to the conflict. The recent commitments by militias on release of child soldiers and disarmament following our lobbying are welcome steps that need to be followed through.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written to President Rajapakse to express our concerns.