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Sri Lanka

Volume 490: debated on Tuesday 31 March 2009

We have become increasingly concerned about the humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka and in particular about the fate of the many civilians caught in the conflict area. We have made repeated calls on both the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to agree an urgent humanitarian ceasefire to allow civilians to leave the conflict area safely and for increased humanitarian supplies to be brought in.

One of the great tragedies of the conflict has been the loss of civilian life, particularly in the so-called Government safe zones. Many feel that the only way in which we can have a lasting settlement is if the alleged abuses of human rights are investigated. Does the Minister agree? What action are the British Government taking to ensure that that happens?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The scale of losses since January this year—more than 2,600 civilians killed, more than 7,000 injured and hundreds of thousands internally displaced—is truly shocking. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed very serious concerns about the civilians reported killed and injured in the conflict. We are urging all parties to investigate those matters, and we believe fundamentally that there needs to be full and independent investigation.

I commend my hon. Friend and the Government on appointing the former Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), as an emissary on these matters. Notwithstanding the initial reception for this move, will my hon. Friend stress to all parties involved in this tragic case that this is not a matter of taking sides; it is a recognition that however essential military means may sometimes be, they are never sufficient to solve a problem? One cannot ultimately solve a political problem by military means alone, and it is in that spirit that we approach trying to assist a resolution of that terribly tragic conflict.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that this is not about taking sides; it is about standing up for all the innocent civilians who are caught in the middle of the conflict. He is right to draw attention to the fact that on 12 February the Prime Minister appointed the former Secretary of State for Defence as his special envoy to Sri Lanka. I very much regret the fact that the Government of Sri Lanka have yet to agree that appointment. We are disappointed and do not understand their attitude. I further agree with my right hon. Friend that the conflict cannot be resolved by military means and that there must be a political solution.

The Minister has rightly identified the problem in northern Sri Lanka with the Tamils, but is he aware that in parallel with all that is the persecution—I think that is the right word to use—of journalists in the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and in national newspapers in Colombo? What steps can the Government take to try to protect journalists and ensure that journalists can speak out and speak the truth?

We have the power of advocacy, but we do not have the ability to mandate actions on the ground. Nevertheless, the aspect that the hon. Gentleman has identified is a matter of the highest priority. The attacks and threats to journalists, members of civil society and others is extraordinarily concerning, as is the culture of impunity. We have urged and continue to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to do everything possible to investigate such instances and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.

About two weeks ago, Balasingham Nadesan, the political leader of the LTTE, made a plea for a ceasefire. My view is that the Government of Sri Lanka should take that plea seriously. Have the Minister or his colleagues pressed the case with the Government of Sri Lanka and their representatives?

I know that my right hon. Friend is extremely concerned about the situation and has forcefully put forward her views. We agree that there should be a ceasefire. Indeed, our Prime Minister was the first international leader unequivocally to call for a ceasefire, and at every opportunity we are making it clear to all the parties that that is our view.

Mr. Speaker, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman’s lawyers will be speaking to mine.

May I draw the Minister out a little further in his comments about the UK special envoy? Will he explain to the House what reasons the Sri Lankan Government have given our Government for refusing to accept the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne)? Does he see any way in which, in the near future, we will be able to resolve that impasse?

Dead ringer, I would say!

Let me be clear on the position of our special envoy. He remains our special envoy and we emphatically urge the Sri Lankan Government to recognise that. I do not know and do not understand why they will not work with our envoy. We are not in isolation. There are other envoys with whom the Sri Lankan Government are not co-operating. The message that we need to communicate emphatically at all levels is that there must be a political solution in Sri Lanka, not a military one.

Over the weekend, a group of brothers from the De La Salle order in my constituency came to see me about their concerns about Sri Lanka and the civilian safe zone in particular. Can my hon. Friend assure us that whoever is to blame for the problems and the mayhem, we will continue to give as much humanitarian support as the situation clearly invites?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. There has been a limited delivery of UN humanitarian supplies to the conflict area since January. That is not enough, and we urge all parties to ensure that medical supplies, food and equipment get to the people who so desperately need them.