I am not sure whether I can compete with that number of questions and answers in the next 45 minutes, but we will try our best.
With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement about the civilian crisis in Sri Lanka. I am very grateful to all Members of the House who contributed to yesterday’s important debate on the subject. I returned this morning from a visit to Sri Lanka with the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. I regret very much that the Sri Lankan authorities declined to allow our Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, to join us. Our visit to Sri Lanka was prompted by our increasing concern and that of many international colleagues, as well as of many Members of this House, for civilians in the north of the country, and in particular for the plight of the civilian Tamil population.
There are in fact two crises: that of the civilians trapped in the conflict zone as the Government enter the final stage of their fight with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorists, and that of the thousands of civilians who have crossed over the front line in recent days. The purpose of the visit was threefold: first, to highlight the need to bring the conflict to an end in a way that minimises further civilian casualties; secondly, to press the case for the humanitarian relief effort to be ratcheted up, as the United Nations and the European Union have been calling for; and, thirdly, to make clear the need for a long-term political settlement that meets the aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka.
Foreign Minister Kouchner and I met President Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister Bogollagama, the leader of the Opposition, Tamil and Muslim mainstream politicians and a series of permanent secretaries of the relevant Government Departments. We were briefed by the heads of the main United Nations agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross. We also visited a Government-run camp for internally displaced people at Vavuniya and visited a field hospital donated by the French Government. I heard a number of personal testimonies from recent arrivals in the camp. I am grateful for the way in which the Sri Lankan Government facilitated our visit.
The fog of war makes it difficult to be certain of the facts of the present situation. This is compounded by the lack of access for international agencies and the media. I heard widely different estimates of the number of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone. Government estimates ranged from 6,000 to 20,000 people. The UN, the ICRC and most others believe that there are at least 50,000. Some thought that the number could be as high as 100,000. Whatever the truth, it is clear that significant numbers remain, living under appalling conditions, under-nourished and in fear for their lives. I heard reports of civilians hiding in trenches to escape the shelling and of horrific injuries. I also spoke to people in the internally displaced person camps who recounted how the LTTE had forced them to stay in the so-called no-fire zone against their will and shot at them when they tried to flee.
We were told that 30 tonnes of food were delivered to the conflict zone between 1 April and 27 April, apparently enough to feed 60,000 people for just one day. A further ship delivered limited supplies during our visit. The ICRC has been able to send in only very limited medical supplies, despite having plentiful stocks in Sri Lanka. The block on deliveries of food and medical supplies hinges on security. To deliver these essentials to those innocent civilians trapped in the conflict zone, there needs to be safety. Ships take time to unload and the pauses provided by the Sri Lankan Government have not been long enough. As the House knows, the Government of Sri Lanka declared an end to so-called combat operations on 27 April. The President and Defence Secretary confirmed this to me personally and in definite terms. These commitments must be upheld.
In our discussions with the President and the Foreign Minister, Foreign Minister Kouchner and I made it clear that the protection of civilians must be paramount. We emphasised that if the LTTE had any heart at all, it would let the civilians leave the conflict zone. As G8 Foreign Ministers said in their statement on 25 April, we were also very clear that the time for the conflict to end is now.
We were briefed in detail by the Sri Lankan authorities on their humanitarian relief efforts outside the conflict zone. We welcomed this exchange of information, the extensive work that was under way and the commitments that the Government of Sri Lanka made. Nevertheless, some of what we were told was in contradiction to the information given to us by the international humanitarian agencies.
Let me go through the facts as we understand them. According to the UN, 161,765 Tamils have left the conflict zone since October last year, including an estimated 119,000 in the past 10 days. This is very welcome, but the numbers have seriously challenged the Sri Lankan authorities. The UN agencies we spoke to were frustrated that the Government appear to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of them and others who are trying to assist the Government in dealing with this crisis. The agencies lack any access to IDPs until the IDPs have already been through the preliminary “screening” process. They do not have full access to the camps, and visas and authorisations to move people and goods into and around the country are too limited. Meanwhile, people are not being allowed out of the camps and many families have been separated. Some men, alleged to be LTTE cadres, have been taken from families and placed in so-called rehabilitation camps. All that reinforces the need for full and unhindered access by the UN and other agencies.
We therefore in the course of our visit returned again and again in our talks to five specific points in respect of the humanitarian situation: first, the need for visas to be issued swiftly to international humanitarian staff; secondly, the subject of travel permits for staff working on approved projects inside Sri Lanka; thirdly, the need for full access to IDPs as soon as they have crossed the front line and the monitoring of all stages of screening; fourthly, the need for a proper resettlement programme with specific deadlines to fulfil the Government's commitment to have 80 per cent. of IDPs resettled by year’s end; and, fifthly, to allow the distribution of sufficient food and medicine to meet the needs of civilians trapped in the conflict zone. We were promised intensive follow-up by the Sri Lankan Government and we will continue to engage with them on all these issues.
At present, the Sri Lankan Government are engaged in a war without witness in the north of the country. Civilians have fled the terror of the LTTE, but are afraid of what awaits them at the hands of the Government and unsure whether they will ever be allowed home. We were given assurances by the Sri Lankan Government that they had nothing to hide. We responded that it could therefore only be to the benefit of the Sri Lankan people and the Sri Lankan Government to work with the international community in a fully transparent way. By giving UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations the freedom to operate to capacity in all areas, the Sri Lankan Government would not only bring much needed relief to thousands of traumatised or injured people but attract greater confidence from the international community.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) will take up the invitation of President Rajapaksa and visit Sri Lanka as part of a cross-party group of MPs next week and will pursue these points. The other members of the group will be the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Buckingham (John Bercow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar). I share the gratitude of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that they have agreed to take part in this important visit at short notice. I will be visiting New York on 11 May for UN Security Council business and will pursue further UN involvement in the crisis. I will be discussing with Secretary Clinton tonight, as well as with other like-minded colleagues, how we can work more closely together to find a way to bring the fighting to a stop.
No one should underestimate the murderous damage done to Sri Lanka over the last 26 years by the LTTE, or the sheer hatred felt for its leadership. That is recognised in the international community, but while terrorist organisations work by killing people, democratic governments exist to protect them. That is why the fighting in Sri Lanka must end now. The LTTE is apparently cornered and trapped, having inflicted grievous suffering on the people of Sri Lanka, primarily Sinhalese and Tamil, but also Muslims. How the conflict is ended will have a direct bearing on the prospects for long-term peace in the country. The Government there must win the peace as well as the war. That will be the continuing focus of this Government’s activity, hand in hand with international partners, in the days and weeks ahead.
May I begin by thanking the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House to make this statement? It was surely right for him to travel to Sri Lanka with the French Foreign Minister to highlight our deep concern about the civilian situation there and about the other issues that he has mentioned. He was also right to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to live up to their obligations, and to call on the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone. All hon. Members across the House support the right hon. Gentleman in making that mission and in what he has said today. We also wish to register our emphatic dissatisfaction that Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister, was denied a visa to join him on the visit.
I want to raise two sets of questions—the first about the needs of civilians caught up in the fighting, and the second about efforts to secure a real ceasefire. On the humanitarian situation, the UN has said that there have been 6,500 civilian deaths since January. Moreover, as the Foreign Secretary said, according to the UN at least 50,000 people are still trapped in the conflict zone. Those are the statistics, but we should always bear it in mind that they mean that entirely innocent human beings are caught up in a situation of absolute horror, and that many thousands of people in Britain are deeply worried every minute of the day about the safety of their friends and relatives.
Is it not a deeply depressing aspect of the conflict that both sides appear to have contributed to such massive civilian suffering? Reports that the LTTE has forcibly recruited young men to fight and used civilians as human shields are abhorrent. There are still conflicting reports about the use of heavy weaponry in the conflict zone. The Sri Lankan Defence Minister said yesterday that there would be
“absolutely no more heavy shelling”,
but reports this morning suggest that that promise may have been broken. Has the Foreign Secretary made any assessment of that, in view of the definite assurances that he has received and to which he referred in his statement?
We accept, of course, that the lack of access to the conflict area makes it very difficult for the Foreign Secretary to know the answer to this question, but can he give us his understanding of what the
“cessation of heavy military combat”
means on the ground? Does it mean that civilians are still caught up in fighting with lighter weapons? The Foreign Secretary has been to Sri Lanka, although he was not able to visit that specific area—what is his view on that?
There are also two crucial issues related to access to the conflict zone. First, we understand that aid agencies and convoys are still not allowed in to help, and secondly, we also regret the fact that the UN Secretary-General’s humanitarian team has still not been allowed to enter. Did the Foreign Secretary receive any rational explanation of why the Government of Sri Lanka continue to reject that vital assistance? Did he get any indication that their attitude will change?
It is clear that the Foreign Secretary has tried to insist on greater access. Considering the situation in the camps, what else does he think can be done to persuade Colombo to change its position? In his view, is the apparent screening of people held in camps leading to breaches of human rights? In the light of the reports of screening, is the right hon. Gentleman confident that the Sri Lankan Government are on track to meet their commitment to return 80 per cent. of the people in the camps to their places of origin by the end of this year?
Finally, does the Foreign Secretary also agree that recent sustained signs of a deterioration in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka as a whole are of concern? In particular, there have been reports of abductions and disappearances, as well as of intimidation of the media and so on. Does he agree that it is strongly in Sri Lanka’s interests for those reports to be thoroughly and independently investigated?
My second set of questions concerns efforts to secure a ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary has been quite rightly pressing for a ceasefire that allows the humanitarian situation to be dealt with. It is disappointing that his efforts and pleas have been refused, subject to how we are to define what the Sri Lankan Government have announced so far. Does the right hon. Gentleman see any prospect for any further initiatives, and what is the next step in the process? Is there any prospect of formal UN Security Council involvement? Presumably, that would be very difficult to secure, given the position of Russia and China. Can he confirm reports that the US Government have suggested that they might withdraw their support for the $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund package for Sri Lanka’s central bank unless the Government do more to help trapped civilians? Has he discussed that with the US Secretary of State, and what is the UK Government’s position on the matter?
Does the Foreign Secretary see any scope for the Commonwealth, of which Sri Lanka is of course a member, to use its influence to bring about an improvement in the situation? That is especially important as Sri Lanka sits on the Commonwealth’s ministerial action group, and is responsible for upholding the Commonwealth’s core principles and values.
We all hope that the forthcoming visit by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) and his colleagues will help to improve matters, and we wish him well. Some kind of end to the immediate fighting may be in sight, but we agree with the Foreign Secretary that long-term stability can be achieved only through a settlement that satisfies the concerns and legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans, and that preserves democracy in that country.
We all hope that Sri Lanka’s longer-term future will be one of peace, stability and economic development, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that the country will need allies and partners across the world, and respect for the policies that it pursues? Does that not make a compelling case for Sri Lanka, in its own interests, to heed international calls to protect civilians and to prevent human rights abuses for the remainder of this tragic and continuing crisis?
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for his broad support for the calls that we have been making. It is notable that they have been echoed right across the House, and that can only be a good thing. He almost asked 46 questions on his own, never mind leaving room for 46 in the whole session, but I shall try to run through as many answers as possible.
The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that there are continued reports about the use of heavy weaponry since Monday, when the first announcement was made by the Government of Sri Lanka that heavy weaponry would not be used. I deliberately did not refer to those reports in my statement, because at this stage they are only reports and it is very important that we get to the bottom of the facts. However, I am absolutely clear that the international community has been assured—very clearly and in definitive terms—by Sri Lanka’s President and Defence Secretary and others that heavy munitions as well as aerial and naval bombardments will not be used. In that context, credible evidence that they have been used would have very serious repercussions for the relationship between Sri Lanka and the rest of the world.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the end of heavy combat operations meant that civilians in the conflict zone were somehow safe. I cannot give him that assurance but, as he intimated, the Sri Lankan Government’s efforts to capture the leadership of the LTTE will continue, with the result that the danger of civilians being caught in crossfire will remain.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the aid agencies. There was a delivery on Monday, and a further one yesterday. A 1,000-tonne ICRC vessel is waiting to make another delivery, but the way that shipments are unloaded means that that takes three or four days. The fact that there is not the security to allow that to happen has been a major focus for us. I know that the House will have seen that the ICRC has put out a very strong statement today setting out its concern about the situation, and that tallies with what I have reported this morning.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon’s team, which was the product of talks that his chief of staff, Mr. Nambiar, held with the Sri Lankan Government nearly two weeks ago. It was reported to the UN Security Council that a team would be allowed into the conflict zone to assess the humanitarian needs. In addition, however, and rather separately from what the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, the team would try to make provision for civilians to leave. That mission is now being denied by the Sri Lankan Government, and in fact they are saying that there never was any agreement for a UN Secretary-General mission to go to the area.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there was any rational explanation for Sri Lanka’s rejection of that assistance. The Sri Lankan Government have said that the team would not be safe in the conflict zone, but it is obviously a source of great concern that something could be reported to the UN Security Council as an agreement but then not followed through. The UN Secretary-General’s determination last Thursday after I spoke to him to dispatch the team to Colombo shows that the UN sees no practical obstacles to its reaching the area.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the return of 80 per cent. of people in IDP camps to their places of origin by December, and I think that the most important thing is to get a proper schedule. The main practical obstacle is the number of mines that exist in the country. The Sri Lankan Government want help with demining, but they must make sure that there is proper access if that help is to be forthcoming.
The right hon. Gentleman was right to mention the humanitarian problems in Sri Lanka as a whole, and that is a problem to which we have referred in written and oral statements to the House before. The killing of journalists is notable among those problems, and all friends of Sri Lanka will be concerned to ensure that its democratic heritage is upheld, because this is a time when Sri Lanka needs its democracy more than ever.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the involvement of the UN. He will know that Britain, France and the US raised the issue at the UN last week, under any other business. We have not yet been able to get it on to the formal agenda of the UN. The blockage does not come only from the two countries that he has mentioned, but obviously the New York special session on the middle east on Monday week will be an opportunity at least to try to take the agenda forward.
We are duty bound to look extremely carefully at the situation on the ground should any plan be presented to the IMF board. It is a basic tenet of the work of the IMF that any money should be put to good use, and that requires taking a close look at the situation on the ground, which is what we will do.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that Members of this House as well as the Government have approached the Commonwealth Secretary-General about Sri Lanka. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, the prospects of progress in that sphere are rather limited by the make-up of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, and its practice of taking action only against countries that suspend their own democracy.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about Sri Lanka’s need for allies in the future. That is evident from the scale of the humanitarian crisis with which it has to deal. Certainly my message and that of Foreign Minister Kouchner to President Rajapaksa yesterday was that Sri Lanka needed its friends and the international community, but the only way to keep them was to live up to the standards expected of a democratic Government.
I too congratulate my right hon. Friend on undertaking this initiative along with the French Foreign Secretary. It shows the priority given by the UK and French Governments to achieving a ceasefire. I refer my right hon. Friend to his letter to Members yesterday. He outlined three priorities, the first of which was to bring the conflict to an end. We all recognise that that is the most important initiative if we are to undertake the two further priorities that he outlined. My right hon. Friend said that he would be going to the UN and meeting the American Secretary of State over the weekend. Can he outline some of the discussions that he is likely to have and what initiatives he will put to them to ensure that we achieve that objective at the earliest possible time?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has a long-standing interest in this issue. The discussions will focus on the items that we all agree are essential—the humanitarian crisis and how to get access for the UN agencies and their aid, but also how to fashion a halt to the fighting, and then in the longer term to ensure that some kind of political process is developed to respect all Sri Lanka’s minorities. I will discuss that with Secretary Clinton tonight.
Last night when I met many from the diplomatic community, I found one of the remarkable things was that high commissioners and ambassadors from countries around the world wanted to talk about how they could join the coalition for change in Sri Lanka. There is a real sense in the international community that there needs to be a coherent and focused engagement. When I spoke to Foreign Minister Bildt this morning on his way to Washington, he was clear that he wanted to remain engaged despite the denial of a visa to him.
May I start by wholeheartedly thanking the Foreign Secretary for making his trip to Sri Lanka and reporting back to the House immediately on his return? He has clearly read at least some of the debate that we had in the Chamber yesterday, and I hope that he finds the unity that we achieved and the tributes paid to him in his absence a small reward for his efforts. However, I also know that the rewards that he and all of us really seek are a ceasefire, humanitarian assistance and a settlement that brings peace and justice to all in the island of Sri Lanka.
The Foreign Secretary said in his statement that he was promised intensive follow-up by the Sri Lankan Government. Can he say what that actually means in terms of the timetable for enabling humanitarian assistance to get through, for media access and for the access of UN monitors, which is so important? He may also have noted the calls yesterday in the House for a major increase in diplomatic pressure on the political and military leaders on all sides, on top of what he is already doing, in order to secure a ceasefire. For example, surely we should be using the proposed IMF loan as leverage, telling the Sri Lankan Government that unless they listen to the reasonable humanitarian requests of the international community, that loan will not be forthcoming. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with other Governments, especially Japan’s, about producing a package of financial sanctions, such as an end to non-emergency development aid, that will be imposed on the Government of Sri Lanka if they fail to listen to the humanitarian requests?
Can the Foreign Secretary confirm a pledge that the Government made in the House yesterday that they support an early investigation into all allegations of war crimes and crimes against international humanitarian law? Has that message been conveyed to both sides? If not, will he ensure that all leaders in the conflict are reminded directly that there can be consequences, including personal consequences, to their actions?
The right hon. Gentleman will also know it has been alleged that what is happening in Sri Lanka amounts to genocide. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yet sought legal advice on whether that is what might be happening? If not, can he now request that such advice is sought?
Can the Foreign Secretary make special arrangements for all Members of the House, from all parties, who have worked so hard on this issue to be fully briefed by the FCO over the next few crucial days, weeks and months so that we can provide as much information as possible to our constituents who have families and friends who are suffering in Sri Lanka?
I am grateful for the interest that the hon. Gentleman has taken in this issue and for the spirit of unity that he has sought to help to develop. I think that that can be sustained. The timetable for the intensive work started this morning. Sri Lankan time is four and a half hours ahead of us, but as I left the Foreign Minister last night in Colombo, he was clear that he would be attending to this as a matter of urgency. He had cancelled various trips and was focusing on it. We will continue to engage. Meetings are planned by people in the country, and I will be making sure that they happen. Some of them are still to be scheduled, but time is of the essence. That is why there is a sense of real urgency about this work and why the bold statement by the ICRC today is further testimony to the need for urgent action.
As I said in response to an earlier question, any IMF programme needs to be credibly implemented. That depends on the situation on the ground. We will look carefully and with due diligence at any proposals by the IMF authorities to take forward the suggestion of the Government of Sri Lanka that they want an IMF loan.
I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Japan on Tuesday morning. Obviously, Japan is an important player; it is a co-chair as well as a generous donor. In all the work that we do, we shall be concerned to avoid harm to the citizens of Sri Lanka of any community and to make sure that they do not lose out but, in saying that Sri Lanka needs its friends, it is implicit that it must uphold the standards of behaviour expected by its friends. I believe that that is important.
I stand four-square behind what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said last night at the close of the debate. Our standing position is that any allegations of war crimes by any side in any conflict need to be urgently, independently and credibly investigated, and that remains the case in this conflict. As it happens, the focus of the aid agencies yesterday morning, and of the UN, is on the immediate issues, for obvious reasons that I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands, but I am happy to reaffirm the position of the Government on war crimes.
A British Foreign Secretary must be incredibly busy. I would like to just say to my right hon. Friend how proud I am of him for changing his diary and travelling thousands of miles in search of peace. The whole House is grateful for what he has done.
Echoing the sentiments of the shadow Foreign Secretary and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), I suggest that the IMF loan is important. In his conversation with Hillary Clinton this evening, I hope that my right hon. Friend will convey to her the feelings of the whole House on the matter. In all his conversations and the huge efforts that he is making, please will he not forget the Indian Government? It is vital that we keep in touch with the Foreign Minister of India. I know that India is in the middle of elections, but it has a crucial role to play in ensuring that there is peace in this troubled island. I thank my right hon. Friend again for all that he has done.
I am extremely grateful for the heartfelt thanks from my right hon. Friend although, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said, there will be no reward for any of us unless there is some alleviation of the suffering in Sri Lanka. I know that that is very much my right hon. Friend’s position as well because he has campaigned long and tirelessly on this issue.
The IMF question will certainly be addressed in many of the conversations that occur about this issue, and the situation on the ground will be very important in those discussions.
I spoke to Foreign Minister Mukherjee last week, and although he is in the middle of the election campaign, he has given important priority to this issue. As my right hon. Friend says, India is a vital player when it comes to change in Sri Lanka. Notwithstanding the challenges of the election campaign, I spoke to the Indian high commissioner in Colombo last night. He reiterated the Indian Government’s concern, and I reiterated that I would soon be in touch again with Foreign Minister Mukherjee, because—election campaign, or no election campaign—this is obviously a matter of high concern to the Indian Government.
May I join colleagues from both sides of the House in thanking the Foreign Secretary for what he is trying to achieve for peace? I have taken on board everything that he said about the Commonwealth committee, but has the time not come, as people are dying every day, to call for Sri Lanka’s suspension from the Commonwealth?
I totally understand the sense of frustration that the hon. Gentleman feels, given that the circumstances are indeed dire in Sri Lanka. As he knows, the Commonwealth has only ever suspended countries on the basis of the violation of its democratic norms, which are at the heart of the rather ironically titled Harare declaration—irony is not really a strong enough word, but the House will know what I mean—and that may be a good or a bad precedent, but that is the fact of how the Commonwealth works. Sri Lanka is one of the members of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, which works only by consensus, and that is why the secretary-general has appointed to the limits of what the Commonwealth can do in this area. Obviously, we have a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting coming up, but frankly that is too far away, given the immediate needs that exist, and that is why it is right that we pursue progress via other channels at the moment.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making the trip that he has just made and for acting to protect innocent civilians in Sri Lanka. I hope that other leading politicians and statespeople around the world will see that as an example that it is important to stand up and be counted, and we are grateful that he has done that on behalf of the whole House.
My right hon. Friend referred to the statement of 27 April and the Government of Sri Lanka saying that they had ended combat operations. I wonder whether he could say a little bit more about whether we can have confidence in that, particularly given that we have not achieved a ceasefire.
May I press another point with my right hon. Friend? I am pleased that he is going to the UN shortly, but despite the difficulties of achieving a UN resolution for the reasons that we have discussed before, it is very important that we continue every diplomatic effort possible with all members of the Security Council to make it absolutely clear that if it is not possible to achieve a resolution because of the veto, the overwhelming majority of that council’s members totally support such a resolution if achieving one is possible.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard on this issue. I wish that a large majority of the UN Security Council supported action on the issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun made the rather important point when I met him last week that, when he was in New York last week, all the demonstrations happening there were outside the buildings of countries that supported UN action. I fear that that number is not very large and certainly not large enough, but she can be assured that I will continue to work with all countries around the world on the issue.
The first question that my right hon. Friend asked was about the commitment to end so-called combat operations, or heavy mortar fire and the use of naval and air power. What I and Foreign Minister Kouchner said to the President and what we repeated to the Foreign Minister was that there could be no greater word of honour placed by the President and Defence Secretary of a country to two visiting Foreign Ministers but that the use of such weaponry will end. That is why, given that the stakes are so high on that word being its bond, we ensure that we bottom out all reports before we comment on them. The consequences could not be more serious for a country to promise that it will not use heavy weaponry and then to do so. That is why all reports or rumours need to be investigated. Equally, it is incumbent on me to be careful before making accusations that are not wholly well founded and well researched.
May I echo the words of thanks of other hon. Members to the Foreign Secretary and the comments made from both Front Benches that there is clearly fault on both sides in the dispute? The Foreign Secretary will be well aware that the humanitarian crisis for innocent Tamil civilians concerns the whole House. Although we take on board his comments that he was assured that the Sri Lankan Government had nothing to hide, given the blockages at the UN can he tell us what confidence he has that the Government of Sri Lanka will react to international pressure, particularly on the five points that he outlined and especially on the humanitarian visas given to outside organisations?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I will not start giving percentages, marks out of 10 or grades of confidence, but those five issues are much higher on the agenda today than they were on Tuesday, before Foreign Minister Kouchner and I went. Tragically, for some Tamil civilians it is too late. That should drive us forward, to ensure that no time is lost on following through on these issues. It is very important that we recognise that democratic Governments are held to higher standards than terrorist organisations. I made that point in my statement. It recurs in a number of parts of the world where democratic Governments may feel frustration at the limits that are imposed on them in how they conduct their operations, but those limits are imposed for very good reason: if we do not defend the values that we are meant to uphold in the way that we attack terrorism, we fall to standards that we should not even consider. The fact that the LTTE is preventing civilians from leaving the combat zone says everything that we need to know about where its interests lie, but it is vital that the Government of Sri Lanka rise above that—they need to find a way that builds a peace as well as wins the war, and we are trying to work with them to achieve that.
I do not want my right hon. Friend to become big-headed, but on behalf of my constituents may I say how proud I was that he took the time to go to Sri Lanka? That was a really brave decision, and we will be for ever in his debt for doing it. But we always want more of our friends, so may I ask that he does everything he can at the UN Security Council? I do not wish to frighten him, but a number of Members are going round to all the London embassies of the Security Council’s members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) and I have recently come back from the Austrian embassy. We went to see the Costa Ricans last week. We are overwhelmed by their great confidence in the leadership of the UK Government and their willingness to support them in any way they can. We therefore believe that a large number of countries want to support my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in his efforts and are there to back him up. Finally, if he can find the time in his busy day, could he possibly meet a similar delegation of UK young Tamils to talk about his visit to Sri Lanka?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has shown determination and passion in abundance in standing up for her constituents on this issue. The work done by parliamentarians and civilians around the world is exactly what we want in a democracy, and I applaud the peaceful and diplomatic discussions that she has undertaken. Well, perhaps they are not always diplomatic, but she knows what I mean—the sometimes diplomatic but always passionate discussions that she undertakes. I can certainly confirm that we are in touch with as many countries as we can find, because this important issue requires the coalition that we have been trying to build for some time but that is now beginning to come to fruition.
May I, too, commend my right hon. Friend for the courageous and determined way that he has pursued peace in Sri Lanka? What reasons did the Sri Lankan Government give for not agreeing to an immediate ceasefire, for blocking relief aid into the area and for not allowing transparent, independent access to the media and human rights organisations? Will our Government now consider ensuring that the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in 2011 is not hosted by Sri Lanka, as it wishes?
As I said in my statement, the Sri Lankan Government did not have the same rendition of the facts as the agencies about the delivery of various forms of aid. They denied allegations that they were blocking aid, and it is important that we follow through on that in detail. On the ceasefire, they argue that they need to prosecute their military campaign against the LTTE to its end. They point—rightly, actually—to the fact that they have made more advances in the past three or four months than anyone expected and that 120,000 citizens have been got out of the conflict zone. While they put forward those arguments we, in return, have emphasised the paramount importance of protecting civilians’ lives, as we will continue to do.
Given the Sri Lankan Government’s stated intent to continue this “war without witness”, to use the Foreign Secretary’s term, will the Government suspend any UK arms export licences to Sri Lanka with immediate effect? What steps is he taking to prevent the sale of munitions, including artillery shells, to the Sri Lankan military by EU countries? If we did not take such steps, would we not be complicit in any further civilian deaths?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we, alongside other European countries, have the toughest arms export criteria in the world. There has never been a shred of evidence to suggest that the Sri Lankan Government have used British artillery. We will continue to impose that tough arms control regime in everything that we do.
May I add my thanks to the Foreign Secretary? My constituents in the Milton Keynes Tamil association will be heartened by the seriousness with which he is taking his concerns, as he demonstrated by going to Sri Lanka with Mr. Kouchner. May I focus on one of his five points—full access to the IDPs? There is huge concern among the Tamil community about the way in which men are being screened out of the IDPs and assumed to be part of the LTTE, just because they are male Tamils. Will he ensure that that point is not lost as part of all the other issues that he is rightly pursing at the UN and in other places?
This is an important point. Some young Tamil men have been taken for “rehabilitation”, although not all of them. It is important that I say that I talked to many young men at the IDP camp that I saw yesterday, as well as women—both younger and older. One reason why we have been emphasising the need for UN access throughout the non-conflict area is precisely to address that concern of my hon. Friend and her constituents, which we will continue to raise.
On behalf of my constituents, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to end a conflict that has caused such suffering and destruction. Given his statement that this is a war without witness, will he prioritise ensuring that there is proper UN monitoring and freedom of the press so that democratic values and a respect for human rights can be restored to Sri Lanka and, especially, the Tamil people?
On behalf of the Tamil community in my constituency, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his trip and everything that his Ministers are doing to raise my Tamil constituents’ concerns.
May I press the Foreign Secretary on a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) about seeking legal opinion on whether genocide, under the convention definition, is indeed happening? Has legal advice been sought, and if not, will he do so? Does he agree that only a political process, not a victory on the battlefield, will in the end deliver the justice and peace that people in Sri Lanka deserve?
May I say, hopefully by way of encouragement to the Foreign Secretary and all of us, that in response to the strong, united view of the House yesterday and his actions, the last of the hunger strikers in the UK gave up his hunger strike this afternoon? Will the Foreign Secretary continue to concentrate on ensuring not only that we have the ceasefire that is immediately wanted, but that independent people will have the ability to watch what then happens on the ground, because only such presence in the days following any end to conflict will give confidence that there will not be further human rights violations of people in the Tamil community in the north of Sri Lanka?
Too many lives have been lost at other people’s hands for people to take their own lives in the search for change in Sri Lanka. We will certainly continue to make the case for independent access. The central message that we delivered yesterday was that with aid must come access. It is vital for Sri Lanka’s reputation, as well as the well-being of its people, that there is independent access for people of only good intent—in my experience, they are the brave people of the UN, the ICRC and the aid agencies, who want access to do good—so we should do everything possible to encourage it.