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Sri Lanka

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2009

5. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. (257917)

The recent military advances by the Sri Lankan Government and the subsequent humanitarian crisis are of continuing serious concern. We have repeatedly called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. We have made it clear to the Government of Sri Lanka that a political solution that addresses the legitimate concerns of all communities in Sri Lanka is the only way to bring a sustainable end to the conflict.

Our commitment to that goal and our desire to work with the Sri Lankan Government are clear in the appointment of an experienced former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I remain in active discussion with the Sri Lankan Government to encourage them to work with him.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and also welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun as special envoy to Sri Lanka, as well as the statements made in the House by members of the Government regarding ceasefire, but warm words and good intentions will not protect the civilians of the Vanni.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be aware that, in the last 24 hours, a ceasefire offer has been made but was rejected out of hand by the Government of Sri Lanka. The situation is grave, with 2,000 civilian deaths since January. Is not now the time for the Government to take the issue up at the highest levels—namely, at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council or in the Security Council itself, or by seeking the suspension from the Commonwealth of the Government of Sri Lanka?

The situation is indeed extremely serious. For some time, the Sri Lankan authorities were offering a ceasefire and it was rejected by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Now there is news of an LTTE offer, which has been rejected by the Government. My right hon. Friend will have seen the strong conclusions reached by the European General Affairs and External Relations Council yesterday on the Sri Lankan issue, which are wholly appropriate and welcome, and she can be assured that we continue to press at the highest levels for humanitarian assistance and for a ceasefire.

Further to the point made by the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), will the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why the Government have not sought a resolution of the UN Security Council for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka? Indeed, why, when Mexico recently asked for the council to be briefed on Sri Lanka, did the British representative to the UN fail to support that call? Does the Foreign Secretary realise that people get pretty angry when UK Ministers here in London talk about and call for a ceasefire, but British officials in New York do not follow through?

I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman talk in that way, because he knows that a failed resolution—one that faces a veto—is worse than no resolution at all, and it would strengthen precisely the forces that he and I oppose. I can assure him that our diplomats, whether in New York or in the region, are all working off the same script, which is one that has been set by the Prime Minister and me.

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the problem in the Security Council is not the UK Government, but the Russian Government, who refuse to support the Security Council resolution? Therefore, unlike in Gaza, we are unable to get the Security Council resolution that is so needed.

There certainly is a blockage at the UN. That is why the UN has not been able to opine on this issue.

The Secretary of State will know that there are credible reports of atrocities on both sides. Will he assure the House that the Government will channel their energies into getting this ceasefire before more and more civilians are killed and brought into the conflict?

Yes. The tragedy in Sri Lanka has claimed 70,000 lives in the course of the conflict. That conflict is against the interests of all Sri Lanka’s communities, which could find a way to live together if they had representation that was able to eschew violence and look for a political solution. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are using all our best efforts to achieve that. It is deeply to be regretted that the appointment of an envoy has not yet been met with a welcome in Colombo, but that is what we are working for.

But will that envoy be able to help us ensure that Ban Ki-Moon’s commitment to supporting a ceasefire that enables civilians to leave the hot areas in Sri Lanka can be realised? Families in Britain are anxious about relatives of whom they have heard nothing for months. We need to help them, and their relatives, to be safe.

My hon. Friend speaks about this issue with knowledge and passion. She is absolutely right about the need for us to do all that we can to protect those civilians, including working with the United Nations. There are very distressing reports of both sides interfering with civilians’ ability to find safety. It is at the heart of our concerns not just to try to provide money, but to try to provide space to which civilians can escape and in which they can be given proper safety. The situation is deeply distressing, not just to people in the region but to many, many people in the United Kingdom.

Some of the signals coming from the Sri Lankan Government imply that they are quite prepared to go ahead with acts of genocide. Time is of the essence. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is doing what he can, but many of us are deeply worried about what is going on in Sri Lanka and, as time goes by, it is getting worse. The next fortnight may be crucial. May I urge the right hon. Gentleman to think again about every possible avenue that might enable a horrible humanitarian catastrophe to be averted?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. Sri Lanka has a democratic Government, and—as I have said in another context—high standards are rightly expected of democratic Governments, and should be adhered to by every single Government.

What the hon. Gentleman said about the Sri Lankan Government was absolutely right. No one denies that there is a terrorist problem in Sri Lanka. That terrorist problem poses a mortal threat to Sri Lankans in all communities, but the resolution of that terrorist problem cannot be achieved at the expense of the rights of minority communities in Sri Lanka, and that is what we are trying to work on.

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka, I welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), and wish him well in his discussions with the Government there.

Human Rights Watch reported recently that 2,000 people had died and 5,000 had been injured—innocent civilians caught in the conflict. There are now reports that the so-called safe areas are no longer safe because conflict is proceeding there. I have noted the comments of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Will he redouble his efforts to secure a humanitarian corridor that will allow innocent civilians to escape entirely from the area of conflict in the Vanni?

I recognise the work that my hon. Friend has done as chairman of the all-party group. We will certainly explore all options for the provision of civilian safety, including a ceasefire, a humanitarian corridor and humanitarian safe zones. The situation does indeed get worse day by day. The stories that emerge are of extreme cruelty—cruelty, I have to say, on both sides—and it is very important for the international community to work on the issue. The unanimity of the European Union’s response yesterday is an important indication that the issue is rightly becoming higher on the international agenda.

Obviously we all wish the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) great success. However, is it not the case that after the Prime Minister had announced the right hon. Gentleman’s appointment, the Sri Lankan Government made it clear that they had not been consulted and that they found the whole thing extremely objectionable, and is it not the case that, on Wednesday 18 February, the Sri Lankan Cabinet met and refused to withdraw its opposition to the right hon. Gentleman’s appointment? If that is so, it must mean either that the right hon. Gentleman personally is unacceptable—which I would find strange—or that a special envoy from the United Kingdom is unacceptable and will therefore be in permanent limbo.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has taken the position that he has, because following a letter from our Prime Minister to the President of Sri Lanka, I spoke to the President of Sri Lanka on 30 January—a long time before the date the hon. Gentleman mentioned—and President Rajapakse said he would engage with a UK envoy. Two meetings between our high commissioner and the President confirmed that position, so it is important that we do not leave on the record the suggestion that there was not consultation. There was, indeed, consultation on this issue, and that is why we are working hard to explain to the Sri Lankan Government not only the virtues of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, but the potential benefit of a UK envoy, joining envoys from Japan, Norway and other countries, playing a positive role in the conflict.

Among the civilian deaths in the north of Sri Lanka as a result of the Sri Lankan Government’s military action are 11 relatives of a member of the Milton Keynes Tamil Forum. What she wants to know is what justice there will be for her relatives killed in that action. Can the Foreign Secretary offer any hope of justice?

The constituent my hon. Friend mentions has lost 11 relatives, and it is impossible from this Dispatch Box to say anything that will give someone in such a situation, at a time of such huge distress, any sense of real comfort. She is among a large number of people in this country who have lost large numbers of relatives in this terrible conflict. I can assure her and every person who has Sri Lankan heritage or relatives in Sri Lanka that their Government in the UK are working very hard, internationally and bilaterally, on the issue. There are responsibilities on the LTTE, but there are also responsibilities on the Sri Lankan Government, and both need to fulfil them.