I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of Sri Lanka.
I am pleased that we are having this debate today because, to put it bluntly, the situation in Sri Lanka is nothing short of shocking. We are very concerned about the humanitarian and human rights situation there. The humanitarian situation in the north of the country particularly has seriously deteriorated since the House last debated this subject in December.
In recent weeks, the fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Government of Sri Lanka has become increasingly bloody and the humanitarian situation has deteriorated dramatically. Fighting has continued even within the Government-declared safe zone, and on Sunday a hospital that had been declared a no-fire zone was shelled three times. Further shelling has taken place this week. The United Nations reports that at least 50 civilians have died at the hospital and that many more have been wounded, including women and children. There are more civilian casualties every day.
Those attacks are serious violations of international humanitarian law. Any attempts, including by representatives of the Sri Lankan Government, to defend the shelling of the hospital are frankly unacceptable. We expect and urge the Government of Sri Lanka to investigate any allegations of abuses by their forces. We would support a full investigation into the shelling of the hospital and into other civilian deaths. The primary burden for investigation rests on the authority against whose forces allegations of war crimes are made, and we expect such investigations to be undertaken.
May I thank the Minister for that statement, which is a strong condemnation of the actions of the Sri Lankan Government? On Saturday, 100,000 British Tamils marched through the streets of London peacefully, to draw attention to the plight of the Tamil community. Have the strong words that the Minister has issued in the House today been transmitted to the President of Sri Lanka?
We have repeatedly communicated our concerns to the Sri Lankan Government and we will continue to do so. I am conscious of the number of Members who wish to speak in this debate. I will therefore try to make some progress, to get the Government’s position on the record, and then allow other Members to come in, if time allows.
The statement made by the Sri Lankan Government on Tuesday—that civilians should move out of the conflict area because they could no longer guarantee their safety—was extraordinarily worrying. The Sri Lankan Government have a duty to protect all their citizens and should do everything in their power to ensure their safety. Accurate figures of casualties are difficult to come by, but we estimate that there are around 250,000 internally displaced persons caught up in the conflict area. The United Nations has been unable to send a major humanitarian convoy into the conflict zone to assist civilians since 16 January, although some supplies were sent on 29 January. These are major matters of concern.
Our overwhelming priority is to press for a humanitarian ceasefire. Both sides have to respect international humanitarian law and take steps to protect civilians from the profound threats that they face, as well as allow humanitarian agencies the access that they need to bring those desperate people the help that they need. Over the past few weeks, we have increased our efforts to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to take action to alleviate the suffering of civilians.
We have also been acutely aware of the concern felt by members of the Tamil communities about the suffering of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary and my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown last week met more than 100 representatives of the Tamil communities in the UK to listen to their concerns, reassure them that we take them very seriously and explain the efforts that the Government are making to help bring about an end to the conflict.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote to President Rajapakse in mid-January expressing our fundamental concern. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary telephoned the President last week and urged him to declare a humanitarian ceasefire. My right hon. Friend has since repeated his calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and has publicly called on both sides to allow the wounded to receive medical treatment, to allow civilians to leave the conflict areas and to allow access for humanitarian agencies.
The Foreign Secretary also discussed the matter with US Secretary of State Clinton on Tuesday. They jointly called for a no-fire period to allow civilians to leave the conflict area and to allow humanitarian agencies access. There is no doubt that there is also concern in the United Nations about the safety and well-being of civilians caught up in the conflict, as the Secretary-General made clear in his statements of 26 and 30 January. We fully support the Secretary-General’s sentiments and endorse his call for both sides to the conflict to abide by those important humanitarian obligations.
I endorse what the Minister has said and welcome the strength of his call for a ceasefire. That said, if the Government of Sri Lanka are simply not prepared to listen to the international community’s calls for a ceasefire, is it not time for some degree of sanctions, such as suspension from the Commonwealth or the suspension of military or trade agreements, to show that the rest of the world means business in trying to bring about peace in Sri Lanka?
My hon. Friend will know that the European Union’s generalised system of preferences plus is already under investigation. I do not rule anything out. The situation is extraordinarily worrying. At the moment, we are focused with all our international partners on ensuring that both sides meet their obligations and that we get an end to that horrendous conflict, which is blighting the lives of so many people.
On 29 January, President Rajapakse offered safe passage to civilians, but the LTTE failed to respond positively and hostilities did not cease even temporarily. The LTTE continues to refuse to allow civilians to leave the conflict areas. Worse still, it is deliberately using them as a human shield. There are credible reports that the LTTE fires artillery on Sri Lankan Government troops from locations next to civilian centres, including from next to the hospital in the no-fire zone where civilians were killed on Sunday.
We call on the Government of Sri Lanka to repeat their offer of safe passage. We are working with others in the international community, particularly the United States and other members of the co-chairs group—Japan, the EU and Norway—to increase the pressure on the LTTE to respond positively. The call for a temporary no-fire period by the Foreign Secretary and Hillary Clinton this week should be acted upon immediately. The co-chairs have also called on both sides to allow a period for humanitarian aid to be delivered and have called on the LTTE to discuss ways of ending the current hostilities and to participate in a process to achieve a just and lasting political solution. Too many lives have already been lost in this terrible conflict. We do not want to see the situation deteriorate further.
The Minister’s strong comments will be widely welcomed. So far, independent agencies have not been able to gain access to the north of Sri Lanka. Will he undertake to ensure that such access is given priority, through action by either the United Nations or the Commonwealth, or both? If necessary, will the Prime Minister—who has been very helpful—make a further telephone call to the President of Sri Lanka, so that independent humanitarian and political agencies can gain access to the north, so that everyone knows exactly what is going on and can act accordingly?
I agree that humanitarian access is crucial. The Sri Lankan Government can be in no doubt about our views on that subject, but we will continue to put them forward forcefully at all levels.
Given the urgency of the situation, we are also taking immediate practical steps to alleviate the suffering of civilians. We have allocated a further £2.5 million, on top of the £2.5 million that we committed in October last year, to support the efforts of humanitarian agencies in Sri Lanka.
When the House last debated Sri Lanka, I explained that an objective assessment of the conflict was impossible because independent media and non-governmental organisations had limited access to the conflict zones. Attributing responsibility for individual attacks to one side or the other remains difficult. It is clear, however, that both sides have to take immediate steps to protect civilian lives.
The conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE has now been going on for more than 25 years. It has claimed the lives of at least 70,000 people in Sri Lanka and is daily claiming more. We recognise the Government of Sri Lanka’s right to root out terrorism, but we are seriously concerned about the impact that the current military approach is having on civilians in the north. It remains our position that a political solution that addresses the legitimate concerns of all communities is the only way to bring a sustainable end to the conflict. We are continuing to call for a full debate, free from intimidation, among all communities—Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese—on what an acceptable political settlement to the conflict might look like.
The Government of Sri Lanka must do more. They need to reach out to the different communities, build their confidence and demonstrate real commitment to reaching an inclusive political end to the conflict. Reaching a political solution now is in the Sri Lankan Government’s interests. We also urge the LTTE to renounce terrorist methods and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to participate in a democratic political process to resolve the conflict. The LTTE should be doing all that it can to protect civilians at a time when Sri Lankan Tamils are suffering the worst effects of the conflict. We call on those who have influence with the LTTE also to encourage it to enter the democratic mainstream.
An important part of any political solution will be the establishment of effective systems and structures to protect the rights of all Sri Lankans. We continue to be concerned about the use of child soldiers by paramilitary groups, the culture of ethnic discrimination and the reports of abductions, disappearances and extra-judicial killings of civilians. The fact that prosecutions for such abuses are rare is feeding a dangerous culture of impunity. The Government of Sri Lanka clearly have a direct responsibility to tackle all human rights violations. Only by ensuring that full and thorough investigations into such violations are followed by successful prosecutions of those responsible will the Government strengthen the rule of law and tackle this corrosive culture of impunity.
Overall, the past month has demonstrated how serious the human rights situation remains. Media freedom has been under particular threat throughout January. A senior editor was murdered in Colombo in broad daylight, another was assaulted and the broadcasting centre of an independent TV station was destroyed by a well-armed gang. No one has yet been charged with any of these terrible crimes.
Is it not important for the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Sri Lanka as soon as possible so that they can see at first hand what is going on and have face-to-face meetings with the President of Sri Lanka?
The immediate priority is to allow the humanitarian agencies unfettered access, in order to bring relief to the people. A range of direct channels of communication to the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE are being pursued to try to get the message across about the urgency of the situation.
My hon. Friend has described the climate of fear that exists throughout Sri Lanka. Has he impressed on the Sri Lankan Government the fact that they should not simply label every Tamil voice a white tiger and refuse to have a dialogue with them? The Government must engage with the more moderate parts of the Tamil community, in Sri Lanka and internationally.
There is a great deal of force in what my hon. Friend says. I referred earlier to the need for a political solution and a political dialogue with representatives of all the communities, and that has to be a key part of the way forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for being so helpful to hon. Members who are concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka. Since 2006, 14 media workers have been unlawfully killed and, in the past two years, more than 20 journalists have left the country under threat. A climate of impunity has developed. The Sri Lankan Defence Minister has even accused the BBC and other international organisations of having a bias against the Government. Surely something must be done about this. Will my hon. Friend take the matter up with the Sri Lankan Government at the highest level?
I agree that the culture of impunity is wrong. It is extraordinarily corrosive, and it is undermining confidence. That is the message that my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have communicated.
I will give way, but this must be the very last time, as I am conscious of the number of Members who wish to speak.
I am grateful. I do not think all of us will have the opportunity to speak, so an intervention is possibly the best way to make my point. I support the Minister’s statement, but will he acknowledge that there is no such thing as a military solution in Sri Lanka? That is something that the Government there appear not to understand. Given the influence that the British Government have, will he please impress on the Sri Lankan Government the importance not only of humanitarian aid but of having independent human rights observation and independent arbitration of the many issues that will have to be resolved in the months and years ahead?
I agree emphatically that there cannot be a military solution, and that there needs to be a political one.
Recent attacks on the media are likely to have been carried out by extreme nationalist elements who have been encouraged by recent military progress in the north to take action against those perceived as traitors. We are urging the Sri Lankan Government to take firmer action to discourage the dangerous mood of ethnic nationalism, and to take clear-cut and rigorous action to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. It is unacceptable for the Government of Sri Lanka not to do this.
While discussing human rights, it is appropriate to mention here the concerns that some hon. Members have expressed to me about the tone and substance of their contacts with representatives of the Sri Lankan Government. For the record, let me say unequivocally that every Member of this House has the absolute right to speak out in the interests of their constituents.
In conclusion, we want to see an end to this terrible conflict that has already claimed too many lives and gone on for far too long. The situation is unacceptable. We will do everything in our power to prevent more deaths, but ultimately it is for the Government and people of Sri Lanka to bring this about.
I concur with nearly everything the Minister said. One of the most depressing aspects of this debate is that the war—and it is a war—has been going on since 1983. I suspect that the Sri Lankan Government are probably their own worst enemy, as was suggested earlier. They might believe that this final military campaign will end the war and they will achieve total victory, but our own history is littered with far too many examples to show that, although there will be a military victory and they will occupy the last areas held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, we will then see a new form of war that will probably be conducted in a much more ferocious and violent way. It is up to us, who regard ourselves as friends of the Sri Lankan Government, to persuade them of the undoubted errors of their ways.
I welcome the bipartisan approach that is being taken here today. That is different from the debates that we have had in the past. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is a matter not only of achieving a ceasefire, but of commencing a peace process immediately afterwards? Does he also agree that Britain has an important role to play, as we have in the past, in ensuring that the peace talks get going as quickly as possible?
I agree absolutely with the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, the history of the conflict is one of stop-start peace negotiations, during which it is possible to allocate blame at different times to both sides. The House will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), when he was a Foreign Office Minister in 1997, actually brokered a ceasefire and an agreement, which held for a considerable period. There are examples from both sides of the House of attempts to get the ceasefire moving.
My assessment is that, at the moment, it is not in the narrow military interests of Sri Lanka’s Government to allow what everybody has been asking for. They genuinely believe that the war will be finished within the next two or three weeks, so they are going to endure the pressures, the criticisms and the pleas from the international community, and particularly the British Government, to accede to the suggestions that have been made, whether it be to let in the international media, to allow humanitarian aid, or whatever. It is in the Government’s interests not to do that, whereas it is obviously in the LTTE’s interests desperately to hope for a ceasefire to prevent, as it were, the final endgame.
Is not the fallacy in the Sri Lankan Government’s position the fact that the legacy of enmity and bitterness created in the north of the island and the polarisation of opinion will militate against the conditions in which a peaceful settlement can actually be agreed?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman may well be right, but I also want to put on record, as I suspect did the Minister, the view that dreadful wrongs have been done on both sides. In trying to take a view on who is right and wrong, we should remember that at different times, both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government have decided to end a ceasefire. However noble the cause that the LTTE sees itself as defending, it needs to be recognised that it has indulged in some appalling terrorist atrocities: it is an incredibly effective terrorist organisation, which has provided an example of terrorist methods for many other such organisations. However much it believes in its cause, we must remember that the LTTE assassinated a Sri Lankan president and was involved in the assassination of the Prime Minister of India, so the fear and loathing felt by the majority population is understandable. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
My only hope lies in the possibility that if, at the end of two or three weeks, the Sri Lankan Government see that they have won a victory, there will be some voices within that Government calling to open up new negotiations. However, I could well understand it if the LTTE, having suffered such a humiliating defeat, decided not to engage in them and ratcheted up the terrorism.
The objective of all of us and of the British Government is, as the Minister said, to put as much pressure as possible over the next two or three weeks on the Sri Lankan Government to carry out the humanitarian action that is required. Indeed, it is in that Government’s best interests to do so, as they will eventually have to come to terms with international opinion. Secondly, we should protest as much as we can when the media are attacked or intimidated by either side; we must make certain that we have an absolutely fair balance. Finally, we should spell out to the Sri Lankan Government the types of ultimate sanction that the international community could impose. A number of organisations could do that.
I shall not speak further, as I know that many hon. Members have constituency interests to raise. The situation is appalling. I fear that the Sri Lankan Government, for military reasons, will not give way on the issues we have raised. Nevertheless, it is crucial that we continue to press them.
I know that my hon. Friend is a military historian. It is important to be clear that, however the Sri Lankan Government see the position militarily, there can be no international credibility in a purely military victory—indeed, that will not be a victory. Anything that happens militarily must be accompanied by solutions that involve suffrage for the Tamil community. Should we not say to the Sri Lankan Government that the model established for the eastern provincial council elections, whatever its imperfections, provides a way forward, in that it involves the Tamil community in the suffrage process?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our history and the history of the world are littered with instances where majorities have tried to impose an undemocratic system on a minority. There is ultimately a solution, as history shows: it involves driving the minority out completely. That, I suspect, will prove impossible in Sri Lanka, and I think that some elements within the Sri Lankan Government and within the majority recognise that. Although the situation is dark and one has great reason to be pessimistic, we should nevertheless continue our best efforts to reach a solution that successive British Governments have worked so hard to achieve.
I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a six-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
I start by welcoming the Minister’s statement, which clearly indicated the Government’s view and, I hope, the pressure that they and all our partners will bring to bear on the Government of Sri Lanka. I also welcome the cross-party approach expressed by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). The main political parties and others have pursued a cross-party approach for some time in the all-party Tamils group.
It is worth recalling that the people who are really suffering are the Tamil community both in Sri Lanka and here in the diaspora. Tamil constituents come to see me, absolutely frantic that they cannot make any contact with their friends and family. They do not know what has happened to their loved ones, or even whether they are alive, injured or, worse still, dead. We have a real responsibility because of our history with Sri Lanka, because we speak for our own constituents and a huge Tamil community of British citizens, and because of our deep concern about the current situation.
A recent report by the Genocide Prevention Project highlighted Sri Lanka as one of eight red alert countries where genocide or mass atrocities are under way or at risk of breaking out. I do not think that any of us can afford to ignore such an alert. We have said many times in the aftermath of genocide that we could have seen it coming and that we could and should have done more to prevent it. We must say and do more to prevent it from happening in Sri Lanka.
I thank my right hon. Friend for organising a meeting last week with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, in which these matters were raised. Does she agree that now is the time for the Government to appoint an envoy to succeed the current Secretary of State for Wales, who did the job extremely well? It is important that we send out a signal, and the appointment of an envoy is one way of doing so.
I very much agree. We had two very useful meetings with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and we are certain of their commitment to do more. I agree with the idea of appointing a special envoy, as envoys provide an important link and are able to form close relationships, to follow the situation and to report back directly to the Prime Minister. Such a role is important, so I hope that an appointment will be announced very soon.
We have heard the figures and know that 250,000 people are trapped. The most worrying aspect is that the Government of Sri Lanka have denied any responsibility for the safety and well-being of civilians who are still in the war zone. Lakshman Hulugalle, director of the Government media centre in Sri Lanka, has said that
“the Government cannot be responsible for the safety and security of civilians still living among the LTTE”.
Yes, they can. I repeat: yes, they can. That is an outrageous statement, which demonstrates that the Sri Lankan Government are abandoning their responsibilities.
There has been a huge number of civilian injuries and deaths. I believe that the estimate of at least 70,000 deaths has been updated to at least 75,000 and is increasing. We know that more than 10,000 people have been injured and that there are 220,000 displaced people. We know that more than 10,000 people have been injured, and that there are 220,000 displaced people. This is no longer a crisis; it is by any measure a catastrophe.
Human Rights Watch has said:
“Intense fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the separatist LTTE has caught an estimated 250,000 civilians in deadly crossfire, and in the past week civilian casualties have risen dramatically.”
Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, has said:
“Civilians are scrambling for shelter in an area that is under heavy artillery fire, including many children, wounded, and elderly who need urgent assistance.”
“The UN and concerned governments should press Sri Lanka to take all necessary steps to spare civilians from harm.”
In contrast, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told the media
“There were no civilians killed”,
“We are targeting the LTTE. We are not targeting any civilians, so there can’t be any civilians killed.”
I think that that signifies a complete abrogation of a national Government’s responsibilities.
Only yesterday, United Nations sources indicated that many reports were coming in of the use of cluster bombs in the safety zone. With my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), I raised that very matter with the Sri Lankan high commission, but the high commission, and all Government sources in Sri Lanka, regard any sort of question as an attack. Their attitude is “If you are not with us, you are agin us.” There is no room for anyone even to question what is happening in Sri Lanka. The high commissioner—showing what I am afraid I would call almost a lack of respect—rubbished our suggestion, implying that we were simply foolish victims of propaganda and unable to make our own judgments on these matters. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has said that it is
“unaware of any serious action by the government”.
Does the right hon. Lady share my concern about the fact that whenever any Member on either side of the House speaks up for the Tamil people and refers to their plight, the automatic, default reaction of the Sri Lankan Government is to accuse us all of being terrorists for doing so?
I entirely share that concern. I have been subjected to exactly that approach myself, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, ever since we first opened our mouths on this issue.
The tragedy is that this was so preventable. It has been coming for such a long time that we could see it happening. Now is the time to be brave: we must not lack courage now. This may be the very last opportunity for us to insist on a ceasefire before we see many, many more thousands of people killed or injured.
I am very concerned by the response of the Sri Lankan Government in denying responsibility for their own civilians. It flies in the face of earlier guarantees and clearly contravenes international law. The Sri Lankan Government have made it clear that civilians should move to the safe zone, but, as we have heard, civilians are not safe in the safe zone and we know that they are not being enabled to move to the safe zone. We have also heard reports of attacks on both civilians and international aid workers in the safe zone.
The situation is very difficult for all aid agencies and international NGOs, which have been forced out of the Vanni region along with journalists. There are now no “eyes of the world” to observe what is happening, and we fear that huge abuses are being perpetrated. We know that when international statespeople have tried to become involved—many eminent international figures have commented on the deteriorating human rights situation—they have been sharply criticised by senior Government officials. Some—
Order. I am afraid that the right hon. Lady’s time is up.
I am delighted that we are speaking as one in the House today. The message to the Sri Lankan Government must be loud and clear: British parties of all colours demand a ceasefire, demand justice for the Tamil people, and demand that humanitarian assistance be allowed through. A very welcome voice is being heard from the House today.
Let me first praise the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) and the all-party delegation to the Prime Minister—of which I was a member—that she led last week. I also praise the Minister for the strong words that he used, and, indeed, praise the words of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). I disagreed with the hon. Gentleman on only one small issue: I still think that we need to argue for the ceasefire. He may be right in saying that the Sri Lankan Government will not heed our calls, but I nevertheless believe that we should make them loud and clear. Unless we do so, there is a danger not just that more civilians and soldiers will be killed, but that there will be massacres in the Vanni region, where there are hundreds of thousands of civilians and troops.
We really need that ceasefire, and I am delighted that the Government—in the form of the Prime Minister as well as the Foreign Secretary—have called for it. I am also delighted that the Foreign Secretary achieved, through his discussion with Secretary Clinton in the United States, a joint US-UK call for a ceasefire. However, I urge the Government to go further. As I said in a letter to the Prime Minister recently, they should go to the United Nations Security Council. We need the whole international community to speak as one. We need to work for that, because the Sri Lankan Government should be in no doubt about how the international community feels. I am aware of the dangers involved, because it is always difficult to get a resolution through the United Nations Security Council. That is why I think we should call on some of our international colleagues to recognise the significance of the situation.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but it is also true that we are one of the big players in the United Nations. Even if we do not get a resolution through, it is important that one should be raised at the Security Council.
I agree, but let me identify some of the challenges that the Government face in trying to secure that resolution. The first comes from China. Britain and others have rightly reduced aid to Sri Lanka because of our opposition to some of its Government’s measures, not just recently but over a number of years, and the Chinese have filled the vacuum. They are now sending £500 million of aid to Sri Lanka. We must tell them that it is not acceptable to give that amount of aid to a Government who are breaking international law. We must tell them—presumably quietly—that what they need to do in order to make amends is vote for a Security Council resolution. I believe that, with the Chinese and the Americans, we will bring the French and the Russians along as well.
Other developments show how strong we need to be with the Government of Sri Lanka. The fact that the Iranians are sending £900 million of aid in soft loans, grants and cheap oil should tell us everything that we need to know about the current Sri Lankan regime: its biggest friends are in Tehran. Does Sri Lanka really want to put itself in that position? Does it want to isolate itself along with Iran? It used to be a fantastic country. It used to be more democratic. It used to uphold the rights of individuals and minorities. Now, through the way in which it is behaving both to its own people and internationally, it is putting itself in serious jeopardy.
Last March, the State Department of the United States issued a report accusing the Sri Lankan Government of attacking civilians and practising torture, kidnapping, hostage-taking and extortion with impunity. That is the nature of the regime, and our calls today should be loud and unequivocal.
One of the biggest obstacles, in my view, is Sri Lanka itself. On the last occasion when President Rajapaksa came to the United Kingdom, I was privileged to have an opportunity to ask him about the human rights situation there. He told me that national human rights organisations were simply a front for the Tamil Tigers, and that international human rights organisations were simply gun-running for the Tamil Tigers. With that psychology, he must realise that we have a major impediment to overcome.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and sometimes one feels powerless when such injustices are taking place, but it is our job in this House to make the case nevertheless.
Colleagues have talked about how the press have been restricted. Not only have they been prevented from reporting the fighting, but journalists have been killed—the editor of The Sunday Leader was murdered—and there have been attacks on CNN and the BBC, accusing them of partisan behaviour. That shows how low the Sri Lankan Government are stooping. Also, only recently they expelled non-governmental organisations providing humanitarian assistance in the north-east of the island from that area, which was despicable. The Sri Lankan Government are breaking international law in many ways, so the Minister was right to use such strong language. I simply urge him to do that more, and to go to the UN.
I am conscious that other Members wish to speak, but I want to make one final, and very serious, point. In international discussions, too many countries hide behind the idea that they are democracies; they think that as they have elections and voting, they are somehow beyond the law, but they are not. Democracies are not beyond the law, particularly when they abuse the rule of law, allow minorities to be attacked and attack civil liberties and human rights. In my view, that makes them non-democracies. Sri Lanka has a proud history as a fantastic democracy and country. In the early ’70s, it was not just a beautiful island—many parts still are beautiful—but it reduced infant mortality and increased adult literacy to levels not seen even in our country. In the past, democracy in Sri Lanka produced fantastic achievements. That is why what is happening now is so tragic. It is betraying its own history, as well as its own people.
Today, this House should be absolutely strong—I am looking forward to hearing Members’ contributions—and the Government should have our full support as long as they take this argument to the Sri Lankan Government and take the message to the international community.
Since the end of last year, the eyes of the world have been on Gaza and southern Israel. There have been humanitarian aid appeals, debates in the House and statements from Ministers. However, while everyone focused on that area, a nasty, vicious, unremitting offensive was launched in north-east Sri Lanka at the end of last year, and I, like other Members who represent Tamil communities, have been inundated with letters and e-mails demanding that our Government take action. An appalling humanitarian catastrophe has unfolded almost unseen because the Sri Lankan Government have forbidden journalists to go there to report it. There has been a full-scale war with little or no respect for the human rights of the civilians, all of them Tamil, who are trapped in the battle—a battle for survival for the LTTE, and a battle for conquest for the Sri Lankan Government.
Three-hundred thousand civilians are trapped, and hundreds have been killed and injured in Vanni. There has been aerial and artillery bombardment, and there are allegations that cluster bombs have been used. There have been human rights violations by both sides—I spoke about them in the House during the debate on human rights and the Foreign Affairs Committee report on 18 December. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported on 28 January:
“Hundreds of people had been killed…scores of wounded were overwhelming understaffed and ill-equipped medical facilities…People are being caught in the crossfire, hospitals and ambulances have been hit by shelling and…aid workers…injured while evacuating the wounded.”
The Sri Lankan Government claim that they have established safe zones, but civilians have been killed in them by their artillery. A hospital doctor reported that 1,000 shells fell around his hospital. Internally displaced people from Vanni are kept in compulsory camps in Jaffna. People have repeatedly been displaced with inadequate food, shelter or medicine. Civilians face extreme risks in the safe zones from indiscriminate fire. On 28 January, the American Ceylon mission at Suthanthirapuram was bombed; 17 people were killed and 39 injured, including three orphans. At the time the Government of Sri Lanka had declared the area a neutral zone. On 30 January, the UN Secretary-General called on the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that civilians fleeing from Vanni were treated in accordance with international standards. Clearly, that has not been the case.
Journalists have been excluded, there have been increasing attacks on the media, and Lasantha Wickramatunge, editor of The Sunday Leader, was recently assassinated. Fourteen media people have been killed in the past three years, and others have been detained or tortured or have disappeared. Yet these crimes are not being investigated.
We should not absolve the LTTE, as it has been guilty of human rights abuses. A 24-vehicle convoy arranged by the Red Cross and the UN to transport 300 wounded and 50 children was stopped from leaving. The LTTE has been guilty of forced labour and forced recruitment, including of child soldiers. It has prevented civilians from leaving, forcing them into Mullaitivu, the LTTE controlled area, effectively as human shields, in violation of the laws of war. The Bishop of Jaffna, Dr. Nayagam, said on 25 January:
“We are urgently requesting Tamil Tigers not to station themselves among the people in the safety zone and fire their artillery shells and rockets at the Army.”
A ceasefire is desperately needed. The real responsibility for what is going on lies with the Government of Sri Lanka. There is no doubt about that; they launched this cruel offensive. We must use all the levers available to us to demand a ceasefire from the Sri Lankan Government. In the interim, there must be more safe zones and humanitarian corridors. The ICRC and the UNHCR must have full access, as must journalists. We must demand respect for the Geneva convention by both sides, particularly in relation to captured prisoners of war and civilians.
We need to look at our humanitarian aid effort. We have given £2.5 million, on top of the £2.5 million given last year. That is less than one tenth of the amount that we have committed to Gaza, and the situation in Sri Lanka is as bad, if not worse.
We must take action to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government. Sri Lanka should be suspended from the Commonwealth for its repeated breaches of human rights week after week, month after month, and year after year. We should end the EU generalised system of preferences-plus scheme, which gives beneficial trade arrangements to Sri Lanka. The preferences are dependent on Sri Lanka’s compliance with human rights, but Sri Lanka has broken every rule in the book.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that we need to be very careful that any sanctions imposed do not hurt more the communities that we are seeking to help? There is evidence that taking action in respect of GSP-plus will potentially harm the Tamil community as much as anyone else. That would be unfortunate.
I find it very hard to see how the Tamil community could be hurt any more than by having 300,000 people trapped in a declining pocket, exposed to artillery fire, indiscriminate bombing and attacks from the Sri Lankan Government.
The Sri Lankan Government say that they will get a military victory over the LTTE, but the Tamil issue will not be resolved by bombs, shells, grenades and bullets. The underlying grievances of the Tamil people will remain. We have to foster a political solution through reconciliation. That will be difficult, given the hatred that has been engendered by this vicious assault and by a war that has gone on for 25 years. There must be recognition of the Tamil’s demand for the right of self-determination. If the LTTE is defeated in this military offensive, it will not go away; the fighting will continue in a different form, as we have seen so many times around the world. That fighting will continue until the Tamils are properly and effectively politically empowered, and have a voice in their own country, and are able to run and have a say in their own affairs.
We must bring about a proper arrangement to achieve a political solution to a war that has gone on for far too long, claimed far too many lives, and destroyed far too many homes. I hope that the Minister will do all he can to bring about what all Members on both sides of the House want, by putting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to stop this offensive, to stop killing people and to start talking.
I join the thanks to the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) and other members of the all-party group who facilitated the meetings with both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister last week. I believe that the meetings have produced dividends and that things are pointing in the right direction, so it is to be hoped that we can bring about what everyone in this House has called for with a united voice.
I fear that the Sri Lankan Government used events elsewhere in the world to camouflage their own attack. They knew that the eyes of the world—including of the media—would not be on Sri Lanka, and they took that as an opportunity to conduct this offensive. My constituents, like those of other Members, are frightened to the core about what is happening to their relatives. They do not know whether they are dead or alive or injured; they cannot get any contact, and that is of great concern to them. It is therefore vital that all of us are their voices today; we must say to the Sri Lankan Government that this is not acceptable.
There must be a ceasefire now. It must be immediate because if it is not, how many more thousands of innocent women, children and men will be killed every day in the coming weeks until the Sri Lankan Government, who wrongly think that a military option is the way forward, stop what they are doing? There must be a ceasefire and it is vital that it happens now. Whatever the means that need to be brought to bear, be it the United Nations, the Commonwealth or the meetings that the Foreign Secretary had with Secretary Clinton earlier this week, they must start to bear dividends, because if they do not, lives will continue to be lost in the Tamil community in Sri Lanka on a daily basis. If that happens, all of us in the western world should hang our heads in shame.
We face a number of different problems. We have heard about the 75,000 people who have been killed—the figure I had was 70,000, so I am distressed to hear of the reassessment to 75,000—and the 250,000 people who have been displaced. Non-governmental organisations must be allowed into Sri Lanka now. I welcome the suggestion made by Labour Members that a new special envoy should be appointed to replace the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), because that is vital and I hope that that comes to fruition quickly.
We have a duty to prevent the loss of any innocent life. As I have said in debates on other issues and other conflicts around the world, any loss of innocent life, on any side, is a tragedy. We are duty-bound to do something about this. What really holds fear for me is the fact that hospitals are being bombed and innocent people are being caught in the middle of a conflict. They want to live their lives in peace and harmony, as the rest of us do elsewhere in the world.
The only solution to this situation is a political one that gives the Tamil community the right to have a say in and govern their own lives, and to live in freedom. If that does not happen, I fear that other Members of Parliament in decades to come will be in this Chamber having exactly the same debate as we are having—we must do everything we can to prevent that from occurring. It is vital that this debate of such importance has taken place; I, too, feel that the Leader of the House should be complimented on providing time for it. It is vital that when we go away from here, we leave more than just our words.
I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I conclude by saying, as I said in an intervention, that the Sri Lankan Government should be ashamed of themselves for seeing everyone in this Chamber today as a terrorist because of our wish to stand up for people’s rights. What we are not is what they accuse us of being. We wish to see human life being saved and people living in safe harmony and in a democracy.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this much-needed debate. It gives me the opportunity to tell the House of the terrible circumstances in which the Tamil people of Sri Lanka are living. The story of those sad and terrible circumstances is one that I have been hearing for years from hundreds of my Tamil constituents who have family members under military bombardment from the Sri Lankan Government even as we speak.
As chair of the all-party group on Tamils, I have had the opportunity to meet many Tamil MPs and leaders to hear about the tragedy of the Tamil people’s plight, and to discuss the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka with Members from all sides of this House. It has been difficult to get the message to a wider audience, but through this debate, the continued demonstrations and campaigning by UK Tamils and the increased awareness of the world’s media, the appalling situation that innocent Tamil civilians find themselves in is becoming clear and the pressure for an immediate ceasefire and a long- term, just and peaceful settlement of this conflict is growing.
Is it not important that we should also examine the laws governing proscription, because some campaigning organisations that wish to campaign on behalf of those who are suffering in Sri Lanka are prevented from doing so because of proscription?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention and I agree with him.
The Sri Lankan Government are seriously mistaken if they think they can resolve this problem through military means. After 25 years of conflict, it is clear that there is no military solution. A peaceful negotiated long-term settlement that enshrines the rights of the Tamil people in a federal constitution that devolves real power to the Tamils is desperately needed. All parties need to agree to an immediate ceasefire and get back to the negotiating table. Norway, the broker of the 2002 to 2005 ceasefire, and India, Sri Lanka’s neighbour, need to be brought back into the picture to help bring about a lasting peace. I have used my own contacts with the Indian Government and Parliament to help in this regard and will continue to do so. It is in the interests of India and all the other neighbouring countries for there to be a resolution of this long-running conflict and for there to be regional stability.
I pay tribute to the efforts made by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development to get an immediate ceasefire and to help tackle the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the conflict zone in the north-east of the island. I welcome yesterday’s joint statement issued following the meeting between the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and the Foreign Secretary, which emphasised that
“both sides need to allow civilians and wounded to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies”.
I also welcome the pledge of an extra £2.5 million from the UK Government to help with the humanitarian crisis, but I urge them to do all they can to ensure that the aid actually gets to the people. Reports from my constituents’ families in Sri Lanka suggest that this humanitarian aid is not getting through to the people. It has been of great concern to me that the Sri Lankan Government have not allowed international aid agencies, apart from the Red Cross, into the conflict zone since late summer last year.
More than 250,000 Tamil civilians are trapped in the war zone having fled their homes after shelling, and today we hear further reports that the one hospital in the war zone is being subject to sustained shelling and the dropping of cluster bombs on it. The UN, overnight, reported that 52 civilians had been killed and 80 wounded, some inside a “safe zone”. A UN spokesperson said that the Puthukkudiyiruppu—PTK—hospital in the war zone was evacuated after 16 hours of shelling. A dozen patients were killed in the shelling. Both sides deny that they are responsible, but reports suggest that air strikes were used and only the Sri Lankan army has such a capability. The attacking of hospitals and the killing of patients with cluster bombs is an obscene outrage, and those responsible need to be brought to account and punished.
The international community and the whole world need to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to end these attacks on civilians and to enter into a new dialogue, so that a new round of peace talks can begin and a just settlement can be reached that recognises the legitimate rights of the oppressed Tamil people of Sri Lanka.
What I recognise in this debate compared with the Adjournment debate that took place at the end of the Session before Christmas is a very changed atmosphere; unfortunately, our tolerance towards what has being going on with the Sri Lankan Government has come to an end.
Many hon. Members representing London constituencies —south London constituencies in particular—attended two separate meetings, one with the Foreign Secretary and the other with the Prime Minister. I was genuinely impressed by the Government’s very real concern to secure, by any appropriate means, a ceasefire in Sri Lanka; there was realism as to the leverage that the Government have and the need to work, and importance of working, with European partners and other powers around the world. It was prescient of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to have those meetings with us before the large crowd of 100,000 British people marched past this place last Saturday. It is no wonder that there should have been such a strong showing of concern. The attendance was much greater than the Metropolitan police had anticipated, but 100,000 is their estimate of the number who attended.
No wonder so many turned up when we hear stories of the Government of Sri Lanka suggesting that civilians move to so-called safe zones where they are then killed by actions by the Sri Lankan army. No wonder people are concerned when hospital compounds that include paediatric wards and intensive care units are shelled. In those circumstances, it is no wonder that so many Members of Parliament are in their places today and are keen for the appropriate leverage to be applied. Appropriate work has been done with our European partners on suspending European Union grants, but other sanctions may be required to ensure that further action is taken.
The Sri Lankan Government still appear to be of the view that they can secure an unconditional surrender. The use of that term makes me very concerned about what the next steps will be in the treatment of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. There is a real danger that some dreadful retribution will be meted out by the Government on the Tamil people—Tamils who are not terrorists, but simply the fellow countrymen of the Sri Lankan Government, who have pursued the foolish policy of waging war on their own people.
I shall try to be brief, because it has become obvious that we are more or less unanimous on this issue, which is unusual even on a subject as serious as this. I welcome the Minister’s opening remarks. His message will be welcomed by all my constituents who have contacted me about this issue. A significant number of Tamils live in north and east London and, like many other Members who represent that area, I have received many representations about the situation in Sri Lanka.
As far as the immediate crisis is concerned, it is obvious, unfortunately, that the Government of Sri Lanka see this as a fight to the end and a way to eliminate the LTTE. The Government do not seem to care what else happens as they try to do that. That is why we see the indiscriminate shelling and bombing of areas that the Government know contain huge numbers of civilians. Even though a safe area was declared, there was no way for people to reach it, so it was an utterly pointless declaration. The Government are not interested in a ceasefire, because they see this as an opportunity, and that is why pressure from outside is so important.
Above all, we need a ceasefire and we need international observers and non-governmental organisations to be allowed into the north and east of the country. The message about the ceasefire has to be conveyed again and again to the Government of Sri Lanka. As other hon. Members have suggested, we should think seriously about sanctions. For years, the Government there have not been interested in listening to any criticism. I remember some years ago speaking at a rally in Trafalgar square and the day after there was someone outside Downing street holding a placard saying that I was a terrorist and asking the Prime Minister to do something about me—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I would rather not do so, because I want to be brief and allow other hon. Members to speak.
In the longer term, the issue is how we reach a political solution. I fear that the Government, if they are able to occupy militarily all the areas that have been controlled by the LTTE, will not be interested in looking for a political solution. They will think, “That’s it, we’ve won.” Whether that will stop a return to guerrilla warfare by the LTTE is another matter, but even if that happens, we will not have a political solution. Enormous pressure needs to be applied from outside. We know the history of arbitrary detentions and disappearances, and other human rights abuses that have gone on and on without anyone being held responsible. That is why, in the end, we need a political solution that recognises the rights of the Tamil people. Without outside pressure and influence, that will not happen. We have to keep the need for a political solution high on our agenda, and consider what we can do through an envoy or mediation. We cannot impose a solution, but we should do whatever we can to encourage it. The message to the Government of Sri Lanka should be clear: they need to make progress towards a political solution.
Our task in the medium term is to try to help people come to terms with history. There is no way of writing up the Sri Lankan issue without pointing fingers one way or another.
To the Sri Lankans we can say that we recognise that the Sinhalese and the Tamils share the island and, although there can be only one military Government in the country, there must be space for autonomy in terms of economic, cultural and political development.
It is necessary for the Sri Lankan Government to start saying more openly now how they will provide the space for the Tamils to be represented and have their voices heard, to avoid the feelings of second-class citizenship that have inspired much of the past.
One of my contemporaries, Rajiv Gandhi, was a victim of this conflict because he sent a peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka from India, and that led to his assassination. I pay tribute to him and to the journalists, whether from the Sinhalese elite—such as the editor of The Sunday Leader—or others, who have died because they tried to make information available that some wished to keep obscured.
We know, from imprecise parallels with the violence in Gaza, what can be experienced by civilian populations in areas subject to a change in military control. Most of us accept that there will be a change of military control in that north-east corner of Sri Lanka. The Tokyo quartet is right to ask for an immediate ceasefire to allow people to get away from areas of fighting, and to point out to the Tamil Tiger leaders that there is no point in continued military resistance. They should be told not to make the people around them suffer while the transition takes place.
I understand the views of most people in this conflict. We cannot do a great deal but in the short term we can aim to save lives and, in the medium term, we can provide the space for some kind of political development so that people can go on trying, however valiantly, imprecisely or unsuccessfully to begin with, to create an island that can contain all the ethnicities that are there.
I want to speak on behalf of my constituents who are members of the Milton Keynes Tamil forum. I also want to mention another Sri Lankan community in Milton Keynes, the Sri Lankan Muslim community. It is very small but has an equal interest in a Sri Lanka that recognises all its minorities.
I want to draw attention in particular to an interest of a significant section of the Tamil community, and indeed the wider community, in Milton Keynes. It is an orphanage that has been funded for a great many years by members of all communities in Milton Keynes. It is supported by the Hope Outreach UK charity, which is run by a Tamil GP in Milton Keynes, Dr. Sam Muthuveloe. After it was damaged in the tsunami, the orphanage was rebuilt thanks to contributions from many people in Milton Keynes. It is managed by the Anglican Church, but was bombed by Sri Lankan air force bombers, fortunately after the girls had been evacuated to another area. However, the Government did not know that it was empty when they bombed it.
My contacts in Milton Keynes have been in direct contact with Foreign Office staff about the girls in the orphanage, because nobody knows where they are. They moved from the original orphanage to Visvamudu and then moved eastwards towards the safe area. For the last week, nobody from outside has known where those girls are. There are about 80 of them and my constituents are extremely concerned about their safety. Anything further that the Government can do to try to locate these Sri Lankan orphans and to get them to safety would be greatly appreciated.
I want to make two more points. One is about the so-called safe areas that the Government have created and the way in which the Sri Lankan Government keep saying that the civilians can come out and separate themselves from the LTTE and they will be safe. Regrettably, because of the things that have been happening to Sri Lankan Tamils elsewhere in Sri Lanka, at least with the Sri Lankan Government’s collusion if not their active participation, the civilians in the north do not feel that they can trust the Government with their safety. That is part of the reason they are not coming out. Of course they are not safe under bombardment, but they are not confident that they would be safe in the hands of the Sri Lankan Government either, particularly since my understanding is that almost all the men who come out are suspected by the Sri Lankan Government of being actively involved with the Tamil Tigers and are therefore under particular threat of harm.
It is incredibly important that the Sri Lankan Government understand that they have to be seen as a protector of all their citizens and should not just assume that every Tamil is in league with the Tamil Tigers, because they are not, even though all Tamils would, of course, want their individual rights to be respected.
My second point, which has not yet been made, is about the way the Sri Lankan Government had clearly been planning this onslaught for some time and had, for several years, been indulging in what might be called a massive shopping spree to upgrade their arms so that they were ready to take on the Tamil Tigers. Members of this House have been asking our Government for some time why the Sri Lankan Government were spending so much money on accumulating arms. We have asked them to look at the arms export process and to take into account what one might call disproportionate military expenditure, which might lead one to suspect that a Government were intending to use those arms for external aggression or internal repression. I know that such an approach is more difficult than dealing with it when it is going on, as it is now, but I would be grateful if the Government could take this point away and think about using their military intelligence, if I can put it that way, to try to perceive when a Government might be trying to build up their capacity to be used in a way that we would not support—the Sri Lankan Government have done so.
I have no illusions about China’s putting any pressure on Sri Lanka. China has its own way with its minorities and it probably thinks that the Sri Lankan Government are doing rather a good job, but I wonder whether we could be doing more with the Indian Government. They are, at least, adjacent to Sri Lanka and have an interest in stability in the region. We could enlist their support in trying to get the Sri Lankan Government to see sense and to start pursuing a political solution, not a military one.
Yesterday was Sri Lanka’s national day. It is a human tragedy almost beyond words that 61 years after that country gained its independence from the UK, independence day was unable to be a cause of celebration for all the peoples—the Sinhala majority, the large Tamil minority, the significant Muslim population mentioned by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), the Burgher population and people of all the great world faiths on that beautiful island.
I have taken an interest in Tamil issues in this place and outside it for more than 20 years, but not because I have a huge Tamil constituency—I do not. One Tamil organisation has been based by my constituency, although it is not now, but I have some Tamil friends as well as Sinhala friends, and I have known all along that without a generous recognition by the Government of Sri Lanka that they had to govern with all the people and to work out a new constitutional settlement, there would not be peace in that island. We are talking today about a quarter of a million civilians—perhaps more—who are in a terrible state and may be trapped, and about a Tamil population of millions, both at home and abroad. The voices that are heard here are for them.
Last weekend, 100,000 or more people took part in a demonstration here, which shows the strength of the link that Sri Lanka has with this country. We have a particular responsibility, as we were the colonial power in Sri Lanka for 150 years. It was from us that Sri Lanka gained independence, and it is now a key member of the Commonwealth led by our own Head of State. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Sri Lankan diaspora around the world are looking to those other countries in which Tamils and other Sri Lankan people live to influence the outcome in that country.
Does my hon. Friend agree that hon. Members who speak out in this House on this issue do so to condemn equally the atrocities committed by both sides, to further humanitarian aid ambitions and to ensure that there is a peaceful solution? We do not condone terrorism: we are implacably opposed to it.
Absolutely. Many of us have been accused of being supporters of the Tamil Tigers, but I have never supported terrorism as a way forward in Sri Lanka. My appeal is to the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE to renounce arms, but the Tamils will do so only if they have confidence that they will be protected. Just as the Sri Lanka Government may not have confidence in many Tamils, for reasons good or bad, so many Tamils will not have confidence in the Government. I am afraid that that is the position on the ground, and that is why the international agencies and organisations such as the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross and others need to be present. Only with them there can there be any confidence in the north of Sri Lanka that there can be fair treatment.
We are thousands of miles away, and we are not the only ones concerned about these matters. I received an e-mail on 3 February, which stated:
“I have just come back from Colombo myself and I have met persons who are carrying out voluntary service in a small scale in Jaffna secretly, and other affected parts. They want to remain anonymous due to obvious reasons. I couldn’t believe what they told me. The very people who are coming out of the troubled areas are kept in open camp with barbed wires around with no proper shelter. They are not allowed outside, nor are any relatives able to contact them or take them away to be looked after. The injured children are taken to the hospital but the mums are not allowed with them. They are crying out for help. This reminds me of the Hitler days and the pictures I have seen on films. What is shown in Colombo is the army handing out food parcels and water bottles and this is all propaganda by the Army and government.
The person who told me was in tears when he told me that the young are being abused and they now have 55 cases of aids in Jaffna alone. My friend, together with other friends, donated their savings to create more beds in the intensive care unit in Jaffna hospital. Patients are sleeping on the verandahs on mats due to lack of medical help. Considering that Sri Lanka has the largest cabinet in the world with every one of them being provided with bullet proof BMWs, it appears that they can’t afford hospital beds.”
The Sunday Leader newspaper is regarded as the best independent paper in Sri Lanka, and its last editor has been referred to several times. He was assassinated in January, just the other day. An editorial that he had written—published posthumously—made it clear that he suspected that he might well be assassinated. In it, he owned up to being a friend of the President, so it was not a personal attack. He wrote:
“A military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering ‘development’ and ‘reconstruction’ on them in the post-war era.
The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful diaspora to contend with.”
People who have lived all their lives in Sri Lanka are calling out to us, and the journalist I have just quoted gave his life in the cause of independence and freedom.
I wish to join colleagues in unanimously making the strongest possible statements about the situation in Sri Lanka. First, a ceasefire should be accepted immediately, as should the presence of the UN and the relief agencies. In addition, there needs to be a free press: Sri Lanka has the second worst record on press freedom in the world, behind only Eritrea.
Secondly, there has to be a reference to the UN, the Commonwealth and other bodies, so that the international community can make their voices clearer. There may be a case for reference to the International Criminal Court. At least one Sri Lankan Minister is an American citizen, and there may be a war crimes issue to be dealt with.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West, rightly made the point that the Indian Government could be hugely influential. Many people in Tamil Nadu who are Tamil by definition are about to vote in the Indian general election. They are an important part of the make-up of democracy in India. We should have a try with China and Iran, too, however difficult and unproductive that may be.
Above all, we have to keep focused on the fact that a political solution will be needed. The current position is what Northern Ireland would be like if only Protestants were ever to play a part in the constitutional future of the Province. We know how foolish that idea was, and the situation there is different now. Unless Tamil people have a proper part in the future, and can determine their own part and their level of autonomy, there will not be peace. My call, and that of colleagues, is for the people of Sri Lanka at home and abroad to make it clear that the current politics of the Sri Lankan Government will never succeed. The Sri Lankan Government should realise that they need to be as magnanimous as other failing dictatorships have been; and that until they are, they will not have peace on their island. This is probably the most important issue facing the Commonwealth, and one of the most important facing the United Nations.
If fine words and knowledge could bring an end to the conflict, it would end after this debate. There are Members on both sides of the Chamber who speak far better and far more knowledgeably than I, but with every word uttered, I become more frustrated on behalf of all the UK Tamils who live in my constituency and the constituencies of other hon. Members. I become more concerned about what young Tamil British people will think about our ability to spread our ideas of democracy and free speech if we cannot take action against the Sri Lankan Government.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and his team of Ministers to go and see, in the next few minutes, how we could bring about the suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth. We need to do something that hurts. The Sri Lankan Government clearly believe that within the next few days, they will have sorted out the Tamil Tigers and that the Tamil problem will, for them, be over. However, as so many Members have said, it is only just beginning; we know that from our own history. We need to do something large and bold. We need to take a step.
I thank the members of my Government who have worked so hard in the past few weeks, following pressure from us Back Benchers. There are so many problems in the world, and how many friends do the Tamils have? Sri Lanka is not a large country, and there is not a great deal of publicity, which frustrates Tamils very much, whereas the Sri Lankan Government have so many big and important friends. On behalf of the Tamil community and all the Tamils who live in my constituency, I ask my Government to do what they can to get the Sri Lankan Government suspended from the Commonwealth.
I am grateful for this opportunity to say a few words. I will try to be brief so that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), who is the chairman of the all-party group on Sri Lanka, can say a few words. It is clear and important that today in the House we heard strong words of criticism from the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), and from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), on the unfolding humanitarian crisis. That must be important to the Sri Lankan Government, and to our Tamil constituents, who feel the oppression.
As early as last April, it was quite clear that the Sri Lankan Government’s next push would be to do what they have since done. I had the privilege of visiting Sri Lanka as a member of the all-party group last year. The reason why I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk was that we saw some progress in the east, even before the provincial council elections. We went to Jaffna, although our high commission tried to persuade us not to. Walking down the high street, we had the chance to meet some people who lived there. It is absolutely clear that Jaffna is, to all intents and purposes, a prison camp. There is a continuing problem there. Although the Sri Lankan Government think that they will have a military victory, there will be no victory unless there is a political solution.
The Tokyo quartet is absolutely right to say to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, “Lay down your arms to make sure that there is no loss of life.” The Minister may well take on board the points made about pressure at the UN and the need for an envoy, but the Sri Lankan Government must commit to an immediate ceasefire, too. They must ensure safe passage not only for the poor innocent people currently affected by the conflict, but for those who come to the ceasefire table and for the UN human rights mission. Will the Minister consider speaking to the Sri Lankan Government about a process that we learned in Northern Ireland—the de Chastelain de-armament process, which is binding on both sides—to accompany the ceasefire?
Looking ahead, the eastern model may not be perfect, but it could be the basis for a solution. The Government must be made to realise that there cannot be a military victory in any credible international sense. A victory without a political solution for all Sri Lankans will be worthless. Without a negotiated solution and universal suffrage, the economic, cultural and political resentments of the Tamil community which have fuelled the conflict will remain unresolved and nothing will have been gained.
I urge the Minister in his representations to consider not just the call for an immediate ceasefire, but for the measures that must accompany it. I listened to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who dismissed my point about sanctions. In other parts of the world we have seen sanctions hurt the very people we want to help. We must ensure that any sanctions that we impose hurt the people we intend to hurt.
May I add my voice to those heard from all parts of the House, including from the Minister, calling in the strongest possible terms for the Sri Lankan Government to do everything they can to minimise the humanitarian disaster that we are beginning to see unfolding in the north of the island? Yesterday, according to the UN, 52 innocent civilians died. Many hon. Members have spoken about the 250,000 Tamils trapped between opposing forces. We have heard about the so-called safe area, yet all the evidence suggests that that is currently being bombed, with excuses for that being made on both sides. Even the one hospital available for those innocently wounded in the conflict has been bombed and has had to close.
The Sri Lankan army seems determined, as many hon. Members have said, to eradicate the LTTE. That is perhaps not surprising, given the history of the conflict. However, that appears to have blinded the army and, more important, the Government to the plight of innocent civilians in that part of the country. On the other side, Amnesty is reporting today that a convoy of 300 innocent wounded civilians, including 50 children, was prevented from leaving the area by the LTTE. The first thing we all need to agree on is the urgent need for humanitarian relief. That should combine a corridor to allow innocent civilians to get out of the trap in which they are caught with a UN assistance mission to provide food and medicines to people in the north of the island.
Let me deal briefly with three issues. Many hon. Members have commented on the growing climate of intolerance of any form of criticism, characterised by the comments from the Sri Lankan Defence Minister in recent days about the irresponsible behaviour of the BBC and CNN. If his intervention were not bad enough, we have seen the recent attacks on journalists, the media and even human rights activists in Sri Lanka. Many people have died in mysterious circumstances or have left the country because of the climate of intolerance, and we hear daily of the abduction, detention and disappearance of people on the island. I urge the Minister to raise the issue at the highest level. There must be independent investigation to root out why such human rights abuses are happening.
Everybody has asked whether there will be a military victory. One is undoubtedly possible, but the important point is that that would not be the end of the violence; all independent opinion tells us that. The Sri Lankan Government have not dealt with the underlying causes of the conflict: the real grievances felt by the Tamil community and the aspirations that are rarely discussed in Government circles. I have been saddened that the call for a ceasefire has not been met with any support from either side, but I am particularly sad that the Government have rejected the opportunity to negotiate with the other side so that the situation could move forward from being a military conflict to being a peace settlement. That needs to happen, otherwise there will be guerrilla warfare again and terrorist activity might even intensify. The reality is that the conflict will not occur only in the north of the island; it will be taken to all quarters of it, and that cannot be right.
There is a need for a political solution, which is more urgent now because of recent events. There is a climate of bitterness and enmity, even greater than before, because of what has happened in the north of the island. Inevitably, that has polarised opinion. That is not the fertile soil on which we can build a peace process. The Sri Lankan Government tell us that there will be elections, but those are almost certain to be boycotted. They will have—
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24A).