I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of Sri Lanka.
With the conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE in a critical phase, it is appropriate that we again discuss events in Sri Lanka. At the outset, I must apologise to the House, however, because I shall not be present for the winding-up speeches.
As the conflict area shrinks, now covering fewer than 5 sq km, so the risk to the tens of thousands of civilians who are still trapped in that area rises. That was shockingly brought home by the latest reports of the use of heavy weapons and of very many civilian casualties, including children. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary surely spoke for all Members when he said at the United Nations on Monday that he was appalled by those reports. Such actions would be deplorable at any time; they are all the more deplorable coming so soon after the Sri Lankan Government’s own commitment on 27 April to cease using
“heavy calibre guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons”.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Foreign Secretary’s excellent statement in New York. Is there any truth to the rumour, or, indeed, is it a fact, that Russia and China are still blocking Britain’s efforts to bring the issue to the United Nations Security Council? Have the Government made an effort to place a resolution calling for a ceasefire on the agenda of the Security Council? Yes or no?
I shall come on to comment in detail about that situation, but let me reassure—unfortunately reassure—my right hon. Friend that there is still no consensus for Security Council action in terms of a resolution.
The use of heavy weapons in an area of such dense civilian occupation will inevitably result in heavy civilian casualties, making it very difficult to comply with requirements under international law to minimise civilian casualties. Let me state quite clearly up front that we would support an early investigation into all incidents that may have resulted in civilian casualties, particularly the reported shelling of hospitals, to determine whether war crimes have been committed. The UN estimate, if accurate, of more than 6,500 civilian deaths since January is truly shocking and appalling.
It is quite clear that the Sri Lankan Government are impervious to anything that the rest of the world says. They have turned their back on the rest of the world; is it not time that the rest of the world turned their back on the Sri Lankan Government, isolated them and held them to account for the appalling things that are going on?
I am grateful to the Minister for making it absolutely clear that the Government support an investigation of any allegation of war crimes. Have they made it absolutely clear to the Sri Lankan Government that that is our message and that is what we will pursue?
Before I say anything further about the conflict, I shall touch on the Tamil demonstrations outside the House and elsewhere. It can come as no surprise that the Tamil community in this country has been galvanized by events in Sri Lanka to march through the streets of London, and to stage protests on our doorstep, in Parliament square, and outside a number of diplomatic missions. I pay tribute to the vast majority of Tamils in the UK who make valued contributions to British society, and I assure them that we fully recognise their legitimate concerns. The right to demonstrate is fundamental to the workings of our democratic society, but demonstrations must remain within the confines of the law.
I am pleased to hear the Minister say that, but is he aware that the reputation of the Government and the British state is harmed in the eyes of the Tamils by pointless attempts to use terrorist legislation against individuals such as Muralee and Vithy Tharan who were found innocent of any wrongdoing in terms of consorting with the Tamil Tigers? To those people who make such strange judgments about whom to arrest and attempt to prosecute, will the Minister please pass on the message that it does not help to put innocent men in the dock and to wreck their lives for a year only to find out that they are innocent, as anybody who knew them already knew?
The hon. Gentleman knows, as I have stated, that there is a right to peaceful protest; he knows also that, on the decisions that are taken in such circumstances, there is operational independence. That is the right approach.
Returning to the conflict, I believe that two crises are unfolding in Sri Lanka. The first, and most immediately pressing, concern is the fate of the civilians who are still caught in the conflict area. The lack of independent observers makes it impossible to be certain of the facts, but the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross estimate that there are anything between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians still trapped in an area that, to put it in context, is slightly larger than the combined area of St. James’s and Green parks. There are very clear indications that the LTTE is holding many of those civilians against their will and using some of them as human shields. It shoots at civilians who try to escape, forcibly recruits those able to fight, including children, and uses others as labour to construct earthwork defences. We rightly and utterly condemn those practices, but we also have to be clear that they do not in any way, shape or form excuse any failings by the Sri Lankan Government.
As I said earlier, democratically elected Governments are rightly held to higher account by the international community. The UN has spoken of a bloodbath, which must be avoided.
The Minister knows how supportive we are of him and his colleagues. Given the inability to establish the international presence that everyone wants in the area, are the Government willing to make representations to the Americans, who I understand have taken satellite photographs that show as much evidence as there is of activity, to make them formally available to the international community in order to seek to influence both sides, which would know that what they were doing was being seen and recorded?
The hon. Gentleman has taken a long interest in the issue, and our comprehensive view is that there is still not enough information to make an accurate assessment. However, I have listened to his point, and I shall consider it with my colleagues to see whether it represents a way forward.
We have consistently maintained that both sides must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and do everything possible to avoid putting civilians unnecessarily at risk. As the Foreign Secretary made clear in New York on Monday, our message is simple: the killing has to stop. The Government call on the Sri Lankan Government to stop their military campaign and allow the UN or the ICRC to facilitate a move away from danger to safety for those civilians who wish to leave. We call on the LTTE to let civilians—those same Tamils whom it claims to represent—to leave the conflict area.
Everybody appreciates and is thankful for the Foreign Secretary’s intervention, the statement from the USA and the visit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), the special envoy, to Sri Lanka. However, despite the statement made on Monday, thousands of people have still been killed and the bombing is still going on; we can see the photographs today in the free papers distributed in the London underground. There is enough evidence. The communities over here are not satisfied; they are worried about, and unaware of what is happening to, their loved ones. The communities, particularly the Tamil community, would like more and more intervention in the situation.
I emphatically understand the frustration of people who want the conflict to be brought to a conclusion. The reality is that, despite our best efforts, the conflict is still going on. I say that to describe the scale of the challenge that we face, but in no way do I mean that we will stop our unstinting efforts to try to bring the conflict to a conclusion.
The civilians to whom I have referred are in constant fear for their lives; they also desperately need food, drinking water and medicines. The regular operation of the International Committee of the Red Cross ship, which makes deliveries and evacuates the wounded, depends fundamentally on security. That is another reason why the Sri Lankan Government must uphold their commitment to stop using heavy weapons.
The second crisis revolves around the conditions for civilians who manage to escape the fighting. We welcome the fact that more than 190,000 civilians, including more than 120,000 during the past four weeks, have been able to escape it and are now registered in the camps for internally displaced persons. The ability of the relevant agencies depends on the full co-operation of the Sri Lankan Government. Bluntly, that has not been forthcoming.
Owing to those concerns and others, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and French Foreign Minister Kouchner visited Sri Lanka on 29 April. They made it clear to the President and Foreign Minister that the protection of civilians must be paramount and that the conflict must end. Since their visit, and the welcome visit made by the cross-party group of MPs, made up of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne)—he sends his apologies for not being here today; he is speaking elsewhere—about the Sri Lankan crisis the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Buckingham (John Bercow), there has been some improvement in the issuing of visas to the staff of the humanitarian agencies and in those agencies’ ability to move around the country.
However, more needs to be done. We will continue to press for improved access for the humanitarian agencies to the internally displaced persons and for adequate supplies of food, water and medicines to reach those in need. We are also calling on the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that the screening of IDPs is carried out in a fully transparent way that respects human rights and the dignity of those involved.
The Sri Lankan Government also need to give free access to the international media. Let me be clear: what is needed is greater access and transparency, not less. As I have said in this place before, hon. Members across parties have been criticised and attacked by the Sri Lankan high commission for speaking out and expressing their legitimate concerns about the actions of the Sri Lankan Government. Such criticism of MPs who are doing their jobs legitimately on behalf of their constituents is wrong and unacceptable.
As hon. Members will know, the Government have led in mobilising international pressure to bring about an improvement on the ground. In January, the Prime Minister was the first world leader to call for a ceasefire, and he has since repeated that call directly to President Rajapaksa. The Foreign Secretary has made the same call in his numerous contacts with the Sri Lankan President and Foreign Minister, in public statements and in concert with others, notably the United States and France.
The Indian elections are concluding on Saturday, and we need the new Indian Government to speak out on this matter. Not only that, but both Governments must speak out clearly in condemnation of countries such as China and Russia, which are impeding the progress of the United Nations attempt to resolve the dispute.
The issue of the Indian Government is at the fore of our concerns. Concerted international pressure is of paramount importance.
In recognition of the importance of internationalising the issue, we have led the calls of the G8 for an end to the conflict and the calls of EU Ministers for a ceasefire. Two days ago, an EU troika visited Sri Lanka, and the country will feature prominently at next week’s meeting of EU Foreign Ministers. We have also welcomed the engagement of the United Nations, including the personal involvement of the Secretary-General, with whom the Foreign Secretary has discussed Sri Lanka several times. My right hon. Friend has welcomed the Secretary-General’s statements and made it clear that we fully support the visits to Sri Lanka made by his representatives, including Sir John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and Walter Kälin, the Under-Secretary-General with responsibility for internally displaced persons. In the face of some opposition from others, we have also supported their subsequent briefings to members of the Security Council.
As the Foreign Secretary made clear in New York on Monday, we strongly believe that the civilian situation in Sri Lanka merits the attention of the United Nations at all levels, including formal discussions by the Security Council. We welcome the important step taken by the Security Council yesterday in issuing its first official written statement on the worsening humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka. While he was at the UN, the Foreign Secretary had direct meetings with other members of the Security Council, UN officials and non-governmental organisations, to discuss Sri Lanka.
Despite opposition from some other members of the Security Council, we will continue to explore how to keep the Security Council actively engaged. That is the right thing to do; it will ensure that the spotlight of international attention remains focused on Sri Lanka and that the Sri Lankan Government can have no doubts about the international community’s concerns. After his visit to the UN, the Foreign Secretary went to Washington, where he discussed Sri Lanka with Secretary of State Clinton and others in the Administration. We welcome President Obama’s strong statement last night, which underlined again the force of international concern.
In conclusion, I should say that for the past 25 years the conflict has inflicted dreadful damage on Sri Lanka and its citizens. The fighting now has to stop and the lives of civilians have to be safeguarded. There can be no military solution to the conflict; lasting peace can come about only through an inclusive process that takes fully into account the legitimate aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. How the conflict ends will have a direct bearing on the prospects for longer-term peace in the country. The Sri Lankan Government must win the peace as well as the war, and that will be the continuing focus of this Government’s activity, together with international partners, in the coming days and weeks.
This is the latest in a series of debates in the House about the worsening situation in Sri Lanka. I say straight away that what the Minister said about the fate of the refugees in the so-called no-fire zone beggars imagination. That so many people should be attempting to live in such a small area—let alone under fire—is absolutely horrific. We should bear that in mind.
The Conservative party has supported the Government’s initiatives to help resolve the fighting. I commend the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), who told me last night that he would be unable to be here. I also commend the other colleagues on their recent visit to Sri Lanka and the information that they gathered; no doubt some of them hope to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to update the House.
Does the hon. Gentleman’s support for UK Tamils and the British Government extend to a Member from his own party, who only on Monday suggested that water cannon be used against the Tamil demonstrators in Parliament square?
All hon. Members must be responsible for their individual thoughts; I certainly do not support what was said at all. I say with great respect to the hon. Lady that, on the whole, there is amazing consensus on both sides of the House on this issue. Now is not the time to raise such issues; I have made the Conservative Front-Bench position perfectly clear in all the debates. Indeed, in a few minutes I shall comment on what has happened in respect of the demonstration.
Since we last debated this issue, the situation has got demonstrably worse for civilians in the no-fire zone. The Sri Lankan Government had made a commitment not to use heavy weapons, but the recent bombardment of the last hospital appears to show that that commitment has been breached.
As I am sure that hon. Members will recognise, the use of heavy weapons includes close air support, artillery and mortars. In a battle zone, the use of high-velocity firearms—self-loading rifles and pistols—is bad enough, let alone artillery fire. I press the Minister to say what independent evidence there is to place in front of the Sri Lankan Government, who appear to be in denial. I recognise that in a war zone, as this is, it is possible to make mistakes; we have seen that on occasions involving NATO forces in Afghanistan. However, I think that most people believe that this was a clear breach by the Sri Lankan Government, who should be told that not only the military commanders but the political leaders may well be held to account, as they should be, in the international court of opinion and, indeed, international law.
The hon. Gentleman emphasised the small parameters within which refugees are located. Surely it is absolutely reckless, and leads towards allegations of war crimes, to use those sorts of weapons in such a small area, where it is inevitable that innocents will be injured, maimed and killed.
It is not only morally wrong, but stupid. If one has surrounded an area, there is a fair chance that if one starts lobbing artillery shells around one will get overshooting and might kill and injure some of one’s own troops. Without being facetious, it is, as Talleyrand might have said, more than a crime—it is a mistake. Sadly, it is one of many mistakes that the Sri Lankan Government have made.
As the Minister said, in excess of 140,000 civilians are now in IDP camps. Although the conditions in those camps are not as bad as in some that hon. Members have visited in other parts of the world, such as Darfur, they are not good, and they are not open to proper international inspection or to the media. What evidence do the Government have as regards the accusation made by several people who have had access to the camps that the Sri Lankan Government are weeding out young Tamils, not only directly because they are thought to have been active on the military side, but because they are young men, and they have gone into a category that I can only call “the disappeared”? Are we any closer to being able to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to respond to the request by the United Nations, the UK Government and other Governments for greater access to the camps?
On the demonstration in Parliament square by the British Tamil community, I would like to support the Minister’s comments. I think, on the whole, that although they have inconvenienced large parts of London, they have been within the natural bounds of such demonstrations. Given that many of them have relatives who have been killed, injured or wounded, or are under threat of all three, there is a natural emotion there.
Following the demonstrations, the debates that we have had in this House, and the formal requests made by the Government to the Sri Lankan Government, is there any evidence that the Sri Lankan Government have in any way moderated any of their policies? I said in our last debate, although I did not wish to be a Jonah, that I feared that they are not open to any persuasion at all. Indeed, I get the impression from colleagues who have recently returned from Sri Lanka that, if anything, they become even more intransigent in having these legitimate points put to them—although that is not a reason for us not to do it. The House should recognise—this is not to undermine the activities that have been undertaken—that, sadly, there seems to be no evidence that the Sri Lankan Government are prepared to moderate their policies. I suspect that that is because they still believe that in a matter of days or weeks they will have gained a military victory over the LTTE. However, as the Minister and other hon. Members have said, they will win the narrow military war but lose the peace; this will rebound on them.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am pleased that the Minister stated formally at the Dispatch Box that the Government have support for potential war crimes investigations. The Sri Lankan Government will obviously have to live with that. I would add that members of the LTTE, who are using civilians in the war zone and executing people who want to leave, also face the prospect of international prosecution.
What further effective pressure can we bring to bear in the immediate future on the Sri Lankan Government and, interestingly, on the LTTE? Does any country or organisation have any influence over the LTTE?
I recognise that this is a matter of judgment for our Government, but I would like to think that, with the general election effectively over, there may be an opportunity for the British Government to make representations to the Indian Government, who, as my hon. Friend rightly said, may be able to have some influence on the situation.
The Minister referred to the welcome news that, crab-like, the United Nations Security Council has moved from a position whereby several members were effectively saying that what was going on in Sri Lanka was an internal matter to a hardening up of that position. Do the Government intend to have any further discussions or conversations with individual members of the Security Council? On the question of whether we should put down a resolution, I accept that that is, again, a matter of judgment. On balance, I feel that if we were to put down a resolution knowing that it would be vetoed, that might look good in terms of publicising a negative view of one or other members of the Security Council. My view at this moment is that the Sri Lankan Government would regard that as a great plus and it would make them even more intransigent, but I accept that circumstances may change.
In broad terms, Conservative Members still actively support the Government’s policy on this. We recognise that the British Tamil community are suffering greatly emotionally. Although all we can do in this House is debate the situation, we would still like to think that we are, in many respects, giving support to the people who have relatives out there suffering. I hope that the Sri Lankan Government will, little by little, recognise that they are isolated internationally and that, as a consequence of the latest United Nations resolution, they may be isolated even further.
Order. Mr. Speaker had imposed an eight-minute time limit on Back-Bench contributions, but since then further Members have indicated a wish to contribute to the debate. I therefore regret to say that in order to try to accommodate everyone, I will reduce Back-Benchers’ speaking time to six minutes.
I thank the Minister for his opening speech, which accurately described the situation and what needs to be done. The efforts of the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and others have been leading the international community. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that we urge him to do even more; nevertheless, he and his colleagues deserve credit for what they have done.
I also thank the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), whose remarks were also helpful. It is important that we make this a cross-party matter as much as possible, because this is such a serious situation. Tens of thousands of civilians are facing shelling and the prospect of being victims in a bloodbath, or of being starved to death or dying from an epidemic. We have to come together to send the loudest possible signal that the Sri Lankan Government have to act like a proper, democratic Government and abide by the rule of law.
The problem, of course, is that the Sri Lankan Government have not been listening. Despite all the efforts of the Foreign Secretary, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, who have made their position clear, President Rajapaksa has not been listening. So we have to work out what else we can do to prevent this human catastrophe and get them to listen.
In his intervention, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said the two key things that we have to stress time and again to the Sri Lankan Government, and it was good that the Minister confirmed that that was precisely what the Government have been doing. We must make it clear to the Sri Lankan Government that if they do not behave properly and avoid this human catastrophe, they will be isolated, and that we will work the hardest to isolate them both as a Government and as individuals. On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, we must also make it clear that we will hold them to account. They have to hear that message from everybody.
It would be a lot better if the whole world—the United Nations—were coming together to make that statement. We have had that debate, and to be honest I have probably shifted my position. We probably should not table a resolution until we know that it is not going to be vetoed. However, I should like to know—I do not know whether the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), will feel free to answer this when he responds to the debate—what pressure we are putting on China in particular. The more I have examined the matter, the more I have found that it is the Chinese who are the real block, although they were hiding behind the Russians earlier. The Chinese have a massive vested interest because, as I said in a previous debate, China is now the biggest donor of aid to Sri Lanka, and while India and western Governments have refused to sell weapons to the Colombo Government, it has been the Chinese who have been supplying those weapons.
We have had many debates on tragedies around the world—Zimbabwe, Darfur—in which China has been on the side of despotic Governments. We have to find a way to make China listen and take its responsibilities, over and above its economic interests, rather more seriously. This is not about domestic politics in China. The Chinese Government get terribly worried when we mention Tibet, and one can debate whether it is right for them to be so sensitive about it, but at least we can understand why they might be. They have to understand that if China is to join the world community and be accepted properly, as it deserves to be on the basis of its huge significance in the world, it has to act responsibly. Even if it wants to veto a resolution, why is it not using its weight and clout to bring President Rajapaksa to heel?
The figures on arms sales and aid show that the President or Premier of China could pick up the phone and really exercise some influence over Sri Lanka. I should like to know whether the British Government are exercising their influence, and getting the Americans to exercise theirs, on the Chinese Government. That is one thing that we need to focus on, because it could really unlock some doors.
Does my hon. Friend accept that whereas the Chinese might, for historic reasons, be concerned that by either abstaining or supporting a resolution they might be supporting the case for an independent Tamil homeland, and worry about the implications of that in China, there has actually always been a strong Tamil voice, including from the LTTE, that accepts that that is not the only and necessary option? At the moment, that is not the main issue. The main issue is getting the peace, the ceasefire and other things, and the Chinese and potentially Russia should at least see the merit of abstaining, even if they are not able to support a resolution.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and we also need to go further within the European Union. It was good to hear in the Minister’s opening remarks that the EU is going to discuss the matter in the next few days, and I hope that the Government will be pressing for trade sanctions on Sri Lanka. The idea that we should give the Sri Lankan Government preferential trade benefits at the moment beggars belief.
In the less than one minute that remains to me, I add that what will happen after this immediate situation is resolved is difficult to foretell. We clearly need massive humanitarian assistance and support, but we also need to ensure that the message continues to be sent to the Sri Lankan Government that we are watching them. Not only must they act magnanimously to try to win the peace, and recognise Tamil rights and aspirations, but they need to keep the Tamil people around the island secure, including those living in Colombo. I fear that there could be repercussions on Tamil civilians living all over the island, but particularly in Colombo. The Sri Lankan Government must recognise that they need to keep all Tamil people safe throughout the island, and that they have to act responsibly as a democratic Government.
I suspect that there will be a lot of agreement in this debate—virtual unanimity—as there has been in earlier debates on this subject. I am one of quite a number of Members who have been accused of being supporters of the LTTE when we have spoken up in these debates. I hold no brief for the LTTE. I know that many Tamils regard them as freedom fighters, but I know something of their history and hold no brief for them. The Government of Sri Lanka need to understand that we are criticising them not because we are supporters of the LTTE but because what they are doing is totally and completely unacceptable from any Government.
I am supporting the Tamil people, who for years and years have been denied political rights in Sri Lanka and have suffered from human rights abuses such as the disappearances and extrajudicial killings that have gone on, and the assassination of journalists who have said anything critical of the Government. I am supporting people in my constituency who have friends and relatives about whom they are desperately worried. They are fearful about what has happened to them and cannot get in touch with them. They fear that they are trapped in Vanni, among the civilians who are still being shelled by the Sri Lankan army.
Civilians are entitled to protection from Governments. It is no good trying to draw equivalence between the Government and the LTTE, because Governments have duties under international law and conventions. To give one example, the protection of hospitals and medical care is one of the cornerstones of the Geneva conventions to which Governments sign up, but it is being totally and completely ignored at the moment.
The key question is what we should do. It seems crystal clear that, as has been said this afternoon, the Government of Sri Lanka are simply not interested in a ceasefire at the moment. They believe that this is their opportunity to crush the LTTE once and for all. That is why they will not allow international observers and international organisations into the area. They believe that this is a war that they are about to win and that will be the end of the LTTE. The fact is, I do not believe that they can win this war.
Even if the Sri Lankan Government manage to take the last bit of land that is currently occupied by LTTE, I am not convinced that that will mean the end of the LTTE. I am absolutely convinced that it will not mean the end of the problems, because nothing will solve them in the longer term except a political solution. That solution has to mean the recognition of the political and human rights of Tamil people in the whole of Sri Lanka. We must try to ensure that the people responsible for some of the criminal acts that have gone on and are still going on are brought to justice. I cannot see any move towards that at the moment within Sri Lanka.
As long as the Government of Sri Lanka believe that they can act with impunity and continue to deny access to international organisations, the international media and international observers, they will continue to do exactly what they are doing now. The only way in which that will change is through international pressure. I know that the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers have been doing what they can, but we simply need to do more. We must try to get a resolution through the UN. We should be considering suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth. We should make sure that Sri Lanka does not get money from the International Monetary Fund.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) referred to isolation, which is an important sanction, but until the Government of Sri Lanka feel that they are being isolated, they will not significantly change their policies. They must realise that they will not be supported, through arms sales, international finance and trade, as long as the killing continues and people in Sri Lanka are denied basic human and political rights.
We have had numerous debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall on Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister has been deeply involved in the matter, the Foreign Secretary has paid visits to Sri Lanka and a recent delegation has just got back from there. The House is unanimous in its disgust at what the Sri Lankan Government are doing daily to innocent people. Although our words are worthy, they will not save one life among the relatives of my constituents and those of other Members. More people are dying every day.
The Sri Lankan Government seem to hold everyone and everything in utter contempt. They could not care less what any of us say. I welcome what the President of America said yesterday, and what Hilary Clinton has said, but I am not convinced that the Sri Lankan Government could care less what they say.
What can we do to make a difference and to act as the voice for people who do not have one at present? As the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said, and as I have said in previous debates, the only thing we can do is to suspend Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth now. Sanctions must be taken against Sri Lanka so that it hears loud and clear that the world will not accept what it is doing to innocent people.
I have heard no one on either side of the House speak up for any terrorist act, and nor would we. However, I have seen some of the photographs on the internet taken by the American satellite—they were mentioned by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey)—that show the terrible conditions in which people are being asked to live. In 2009, how can we stand by and let that happen? How can the world stand by and let it happen? But that is what we are doing.
In the previous debate on this matter, I said that we should hang our heads in shame if nothing is done. It is not that we are not trying, because everyone in the Chamber is trying to do everything that they can, but when a democratic Government—I use the term loosely—condemn each and every one of us, call us white Tigers, as they have done on a website today, cannot take criticism and have no morals at all, action must be taken. They should not be given any money from the International Monetary Fund. They should know that the whole world is united in condemning what they are doing. There must be an immediate ceasefire now. Humanitarian aid must be allowed in, as should non-governmental organisations. The media should be allowed in.
In the longer term, when people are no longer dying every day, we can consider how a political solution can be found to the problem. I believe—I emphasise that this is my own view, and I have not discussed it with those on my Front Bench—that autonomy might be the only way forward. I apologise to those on my Front Bench if that was a shock, but it is my view.
Many Members want to speak in the debate, and I do not intend to prolong my contribution. However, we must help, and we must help now, or I for one will not be able to look Tamil constituents in the face and say that we are doing everything that we can. I pledge to continue to do everything in my limited power to stop the genocide that is happening in Sri Lanka today.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott). No Conservative Member has done more for the Tamil cause than him. I pay tribute to him not only for his speech and his work, but for clearly putting the shopping list to the Government: we should not give any more money from the IMF; ensure that we get a resolution before the Security Council insisting on a ceasefire; and call for suspension from the Commonwealth. I would go one stage further. Why are we even considering allowing Sri Lanka to host the next Commonwealth conference in 2011? We should make it very clear to Sri Lanka that we will not be present if that happens.
I have three emotions today: pride, anger and despair. The pride is in what the Government have done. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for all his meetings with Members on both sides of the House, to the Prime Minister, who has met the all-party delegation twice, to the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), for his work on the matter, and to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). Ministers have been prepared to take calls from Members who are concerned about the matter at all times of the day or night. I rang the Under-Secretary at five o’clock in the morning. I thought he was in Worcester; he was actually in Indonesia, but he still took my call.
My concern is that we are still not doing enough. To paraphrase my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who has become a mini-diplomat in her own right, visiting all the countries that are on the Security Council, and encouraging us all to attend, the Foreign Secretary is our friend as are all those on our Front Bench—and Labour Back Benchers do not check their speeches with those on their Front Bench—but from friends we expect more. I thought that the Minister of State gave us a Foreign Office speech today. I know, because I have been a Foreign Office Minister. The Foreign Office is full of wonderful people, it is the best in the world, and the greatest diplomatic service anywhere, but the speech was still couched in diplomatic terms. This House wants more.
The eloquent speeches of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) indicate that my hon. Friend has the united will of the House behind him. He has political cover, but his speech was not enough. What is the point of this great, wonderful country of ours, which I love and which I came to as a first-generation immigrant—I chose to come here, I was not born here—and which has so many values that are followed by Parliaments and peoples all over the world, sitting on the Security Council? What is the point of hearing condemnations here and there, which of course we welcome, if we do not get something done?
We intervened in Kosovo. I accepted the dossier presented to the House by the previous Prime Minister, and I voted to intervene in Iraq. I say that we cannot stand aside. The hon. Member for Ilford, North said that he cannot face his Tamil constituents if we do nothing. I cannot face coming to this place if our wonderful Government, who have done so much, will not take the next step. What is the point of the UN if we do not take effective action to stop what is happening? There is a ship off the coast of Sri Lanka with tons of food that should be delivered to innocent people who are dying and being killed by their own Government, who are committing genocide against their own people, and the world stands by and issues statements. People have had enough. They want firm action to be taken. If the United States, Britain and India—they have all condemned the genocide—cannot act together to stop the genocide, nobody can.
I am listening carefully to my right hon. Friend’s speech. He touched on the role of the Indian Government now that the elections have been concluded. Does he believe that it is critical for countries such as the United Kingdom and India to put the enormous pressure that they can bring to bear on the Sri Lankan Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. India cannot do it on its own, but going through the statements made by all the Foreign Ministers and Prime Ministers, India, the United Kingdom and the United States speak with one voice. But speaking with one voice and condemning is not enough when genocide is being committed. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister had to read his speech. I know that he has put a lot of work into it. I know that it is probably very different from the speech that he was given originally and that he has added his own words, but it is not as we would like to hear it. We want more.
I am pleased that the special envoy went to Sri Lanka. I thank the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and other colleagues for going to Sri Lanka at short notice. I look forward to hearing what they have to say. The fact remains, however, that there is a Government who are not only committing genocide and arresting British journalists—the Channel 4 reporters —because they happen to be reporting truthfully from the war zone, but separating people from their families so that they may never see each other again and causing such despair.
The Minister walks into that Foreign Office every day. He cannot possible want to go in there another day and feel that we are not doing more. We cannot stand by and in five years’ time realise that the Sri Lankan Government have wiped out a whole people, We have to do something now.
I remember the fabulous speech that our Prime Minister made to the US Congress only a few months ago. He stood before it and talked about a young man who had died in Rwanda. His name was David. He said that on his tombstone were the words “David. Occupation”—what he wanted to be, because he was only a young man—“a lawyer”, and also his last words, “Don’t worry. The UN will come for us.” Let us not allow the Tamil people to say of us that in the moment of their darkest hour, we stood by, we passed a lot of resolutions, we had a lot of meetings, but we did not do anything effective. I say to the Government, to the Minister of State and to the Under-Secretary of State, we want more—more because we expect more and more because we do not want any more deaths—and we urge them to act immediately.
I come to the debate with some trepidation because I am fresh to the topic. On the other hand, I was a member of the delegation led by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) which was in Sri Lanka last week. I hope to share with the House something of what we saw and heard.
It is fair to say that the stance of the Sri Lankan Government can be described as aggressive defence. When we met the President, at one point in our engagement he indulged in what I can only describe as a hissy fit, saying, “We’re not a former colony.” It was the usual response. Indeed, in response to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) who quoted United Nations evidence, the President denounced the UN as infringing the sovereignty of Sri Lanka by trying to monitor and observe what was going on. He protested vigorously, as Ministers of the Sri Lankan Government are doing to this day, that no heavy artillery of any kind was being used within the war zone. If that is the case and that is the Sri Lankan Government’s position, the best response is to allow international observers to see what is happening. If that does not happen, they can hardly be surprised if people draw the wrong conclusions.
We did not go to the war zone. Hardly anyone has tried to. It is a very dangerous place, and none of us knows what is going on or who is doing what. We do know, however, that tens of thousands of people are trapped there, clearly in a desperate situation, which everyone wants brought to an end as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, it is important to share some of the things that we did observe.
It is interesting that the media were denied the access that we were given. That in itself is a problem for the Sri Lankan Government. Apart from myself and the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, the delegation included the hon. Members for Buckingham, for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady). We were flown into Vavuniya and taken to the two newest parts of the camps there, zone 2 and zone 3, I think. Zone 3 had not existed the week before we were there; it had been forest. The Sri Lankan army had cleared the forest, put in roads, shelters, water points and sanitation, and provided some clinics and food. That is an objective fact.
There were problems because the food was not arriving at an even speed. There was pressure on water and sanitation. There were not enough medical supplies. As hon. Members have said, people were concerned about being separated from their families, not having access to them and not having information about them; they were fearful of what was happening to them. Clearly, we impressed on the Sri Lankan authorities the need to address those issues, again in good faith, if they were honestly claiming to deliver a safe environment before allowing people to return to their own areas.
The initial problem was that when the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun asked people to tell their stories, the crowd drew around but the military were there. The first exchanges were extremely inhibited, with a brigadier interrupting an interpreter and challenging what that interpreter was saying. We got away and asked the military to stand back, which they did, and asked people about their experiences. Many of those people had escaped from the conflict zone at the point at which the Sri Lankan army had breached the bund that had been built around it. Something like 165,000 people were reputed to have walked out and been taken into the camps.
I can and should report what people said. They were grateful to the Sri Lankan army for giving them the opportunity to escape and were glad to be out of the conflict zone. In response to direct questions, they said they had not left earlier because the LTTE had basically said, “If you try to leave, you will be shot.” They had evidence of people who had tried and who had been shot at. That is an objective fact.
However, if that is the whole story, why not let the international community in, in the numbers that are necessary, to help to deliver the supplies that are not being fully provided? Why not give the media the opportunity that we had and let them in to see and hear those stories for themselves? That is the message to the Sri Lankan Government. They cannot issue denials and protestations while keeping the country closed and expect people not to believe the counter-argument. They have lost the propaganda war. The way to justify their behaviour is to open the country up to proper public scrutiny.
Of course, that is exactly the question we asked. Some of the supplies had been getting in. The fundamental problem, and the Under-Secretary may be able to confirm this, was that the agencies—the UN and others—experienced bureaucratic delays affecting, for example, what trucks they could take in and the visa processes. As a result, a variety of equipment and expertise was poised to go in, but not getting there. It is not true to say that nothing was there, but it was not arriving fast enough and not on the scale that was needed. Of course, it was not open to international scrutiny, which is the merit of what needs to be concluded.
The right hon. Gentleman described the conditions in the camps, but there have been many accounts of young men—presumably considered to be LTTE suspects—being screened out from the camps even before they get there. Does he have any idea whether that is going on, and in particular what is happening to those young men and whether they are being taken away?
I am grateful for that intervention, because we asked that question. The local authorities conceded that several thousand people had been taken out of the camps to a nearby technical college where they were being screened and put through to rehabilitation. Apart from whatever that implies, the problem is that people were not given access or information about what was happening, which was causing more distress. To be honest, some people understood the motivations, but were not satisfied because they could not get in touch with others. One woman was in tears: she had a phone number but no access. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Central tried to facilitate that communication.
Those are the kinds of things that international agencies can help to achieve and support. The issue one has to consider is that if there is to be a long-term future for Sri Lanka as a successful democratic country, there must be proactive measures to integrate and provide support and rights for every member of the community. A passing observation was that in the north the elements of the police force and army that were visible were entirely Singhalese. There was no significant Tamil representation.
Those are the long-term solutions which should be sought, and which we wanted to discuss constructively with the Sri Lankan Government. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun has made it clear that the delegation would be willing to revisit Sri Lanka and engage in such discussions if the Sri Lankan Government were willing for that to happen. But for those who have been engaged in the debate and the conflict for decades, there is a huge legacy of bad faith and bad treatment that prevents the Sri Lankan Government’s assertions about their conduct and stance from being credible.
The message is simple. If the Sri Lankan Government do not want to end up as a pariah, isolated from the international community, the answer is “Let the international community in, let the observers in, let the media in, stand by your claims in public, and then you might be rehabilitated. Your refusal to take such action will only lead people to draw the obvious conclusions that you so deeply resent.”
The Sri Lankan Government believe that we will not do anything. They believe that Governments around the world make statements but are not prepared to back them up. They believe that the United Nations will talk and not pass a resolution. They believe that the Commonwealth will talk and not suspend them, and may even allow them to hold a Commonwealth conference when it perceives all this as being over in 2011. They are not looking for our good opinion. They are not looking for all of us to be united. They want to be secure in the knowledge that we are happy to make statements and do nothing. A bully does not stop because you ask him to; a bully stops because you force him to.
We are simply seeing hundreds and thousands of people dying, starving to death on our watch. We are looking at the failure of all the institutions that Members hold dear. What is the UN worth if it can see people doubly amputated on a beach and not pick them up and remove them? What is the point of a Commonwealth that does nothing about a country that is prepared to bomb its own people and then insult everyone’s intelligence by suggesting it is not doing that?
The Minister may think there is not enough evidence to prove that the Sri Lankan Government are currently bombing their own people, and he may be the only person in the world who thinks that, because we all know that it is happening. The newspapers know it is happening, and the UN knows it is happening. The point is, what are we going to do about it?
The Sri Lankan Government believe they will get their loan from the International Monetary Fund, and who here is prepared to say that when they start defaulting on their loans the IMF will not back down? They believe that nothing will happen, and we have to prove that something will. That means that if there are demonstrations outside, we must encourage the Tamil community to take the action that they feel they need to take. It means we must not suggest that it is a good idea to use water cannon on people, or that this constitutes an inconvenience and not a priority for us.
We have responsibilities as Members, but we also have responsibilities as consumers. Why is it that a company such as Marks and Spencer, one of the most respected companies in the country, can spend a fortune using Sri Lankan suppliers, and no one says anything? How many companies in this country happily use Sri Lanka, and no one knows? How many people have shares in those companies, while making statements against the Sri Lankan Government?
We have learned from our past international endeavours that it takes peoples and individuals to stand up to some of these mighty organisations, whether we are talking about Barclays bank in the case of apartheid or about any other company. We need to come together and, argue constructively, not only with the UN and the Commonwealth but with our own companies, as consumers, about what they are continuing to do. I hope we can do that in the coming weeks.
We have to ask what is the biggest single thing we can do to cause a shock to the Sri Lankan Government. Is there any point in Britain’s retaining an ambassador in Sri Lanka? What is that mission doing there? Is it saving anyone, is it protecting anyone, or it is giving succour to the Sri Lankan Government? I am absolutely confident that if the countries that have made the biggest statements—Britain, France or America—decided to remove their ambassadors, we would see change. The question is, how much do we care, and how much do we want to see change?
It is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who spoke with an integrity, passion and eloquence that will have been admired by Members on both sides of the House.
Like the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), I was a member of the five-person delegation to Sri Lanka that was led by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). I was pleased to be part of that, and did it on the basis that I had no previous Sri Lankan footprint. To my knowledge, I do not have a significant number of Tamils in my Buckingham constituency. What I do have is a passionate interest in international affairs, human rights and the need to avoid, or minimise, conflict. I want, very briefly, to say something abut the Sri Lankan Government, about the camps that we visited, and about the future for the country as a whole.
Let me be clear, like the right hon. Member for Gordon: the Government of Sri Lanka are still fundamentally in denial. They were given to ostentatious and bellicose denunciations of all and sundry who had dared to criticise them. They were extraordinarily rude, and inappropriately so, about the Foreign Secretary. They took umbrage at our raising critical evidence against them. For example, when I mentioned, during a meeting with the President, the UN’s satellite photography, which appeared to repudiate the notion that they had stuck to their 12 February commitment not to deploy heavy weaponry, the President’s response was both to complain bitterly about UN spying and to rant at me about adopting a neo-colonialist posture. The House will not be surprised to learn that I was not intimidated by the rant, or indeed impressed by it, but rant it nevertheless was, and it will not do. We are entitled to hold that Government to account.
We underlined the imperative of a ceasefire. We said that heavy weaponry must not be used. We said, “You cannot secure a military victory, and if you think you are behaving properly in the face of a considerable body of evidence to the contrary, glasnost must apply. Open up; let people witness what is taking place; allow the international aid agencies, and in particular the media, to inspect the territory and judge for themselves whether you are behaving properly.”
Let me next say something about the camps. We visited two zones of a camp called Menik Farm, which had been established only about a week earlier. Tents were more or less universally provided and everyone was housed, albeit in extremely spartan conditions. There was anecdotal evidence of a reasonable number of latrines and some evidence of a decent water supply, but much more needed to be done about sanitation.
I was horrified to be told by students receiving tuition in business studies and by their tutor—this was at 4 o’clock in the afternoon—that they had not had a single thing to eat in the course of the day. That is lamentable and unsatisfactory, and must be changed without delay.
What the right hon. Member for Gordon said was true. When we asked individuals in the camps, independently of each other and in the absence of any military personnel—whom we had told, in language that would not be acceptable in Parliament, that they needed to absent themselves from the scene—why they had not escaped from the conflict zone earlier, those people, to a man and a woman, volunteered that they had been prevented from doing so by the LTTE on pain of being shot dead, and that they knew of others who had been. The position needs to be put on the record: the LTTE is a pretty poisonous force. But we were not there to stand up for the LTTE. We were there to have discussions, to observe the situation for ourselves and to challenge the Government of Sri Lanka, and we make no apology for doing that.
The third point that I wish to make concerns the future. The Government of Sri Lanka are still obsessed with complaining about people waving banners and flags in Parliament square. We explained to them the principle and practice of the operational independence of the police. I remember saying to Foreign Minister Bogollagama that the idea that just because people demonstrate or wave a flag—even of a proscribed organisation—it would be justified for the police to wade in and round them up, or fire tear gas or water cannon at them, is for the birds, as that is simply not reasonable or proportionate. There has to be a constitutional blueprint for a sustainable future for all the people of Sri Lanka. The idea that there can be a military victory—that the LTTE can be wiped out and that the problem can be physically removed and that will be the end of the matter—is nonsense on stilts, and the Government of Sri Lanka need to be clear about that.
I went there, as others did, trying to be relatively impartial by taking note of the evidence but not seeking to take sides. However, I say to those who have much more experience on this subject than I do that since we came back the situation has got worse: the killing has continued, civilians have suffered, and there have been indiscriminate attacks. Unless the Government of Sri Lanka very quickly and in short order recognise the scale of international anger and change their behaviour, it will be inevitable that the multilateral institutions on which we depend for civilisation will assert themselves to take the strongest possible action against the regime. It is in the regime’s hands to behave properly or to face the consequences.
Like many other Members, I am here to voice the feelings of my Tamil constituents; a wave of anger, despair and almost desperation has swept over them. I have held constituency meetings, and hundreds of people have turned up. I have also received vast volumes of letters sharing examples of lost relatives, people butchered and maimed, and more now stranded on a beach and being shelled by the Sri Lankan Government. There is not a Tamil family in my constituency who have not been touched. Kandiah Mylvaganam, a friend of mine who has been pictured with me, went to Sri Lanka a few months ago to try to find a relative. He was hurt and became ill, but when he went to a medical station there were not sufficient drugs so he died—he never came back. That highlights why there is such deep anger. No wonder so many people came to Parliament square; they felt no one was listening to them. I support them; I have been out there with many Members in absolute support of that demonstration. Now, however, the world has begun to listen, and the question on the lips of all of them is: “Why can’t you stop the killing? Why can’t you stop the butchering that is going on?”
I pay tribute to what Ministers have done and the diplomacy, but when I go out and talk to my Tamil constituents and tell them that diplomacy takes time, that is incomprehensible to them—especially when 100,000 people are perched on a beach and being shelled by the Sri Lankan Government. I feel that now is the time for decisive action.
The Sri Lankan Government are not going to move. This is a brutal, belligerent regime that is resisting all pressure. In the United Nations, there is the usual international game playing to do with spheres of influence and future strategic and military positioning. I think we have gone beyond that stage now. As we have seen fairly recently, if we cannot get UN multinational action, we now take unilateral action. In the past, we have looked for coalitions of the willing to invade places. Well, why cannot we have a coalition of the willing for peace? Why do we not now bring together our partners and make a clear statement of offering to broker a peace deal and to give the Sri Lankan Government 48 hours? If they do not abide by that, let us start on a programme of action, which should include breaking off all diplomatic links, as talking to them is not working so what is the point of that? We should send back their representatives and bring back our diplomats. We should isolate them diplomatically, as has been said.
We should also isolate them economically. If that means imposing sanctions, then so be it, and if it comes down to sequestration of Sri Lankan money, wealth and industrial investments in this country, let us do that to show them we mean business.
I also think there is now sufficient evidence to justify an inquiry into war crimes. We should be saying to representatives of the Sri Lankan Government, “If you pass through our state, we will arrest you on suspicion of that. We believe that war crimes are taking place, and we take that so seriously that we will detain you if necessary to bring you to trial.”
Creative action is needed as well. The Tamil community has made the attempt to send a ship with aid. Why do not we, as a coalition of the willing for peace, send flotillas, and send in flights and if necessary drop aid? Even if we have to perch ships from various countries carrying aid near the shore and then send in aid and assistance to the beaches, we should do that. At the same time, we should send in human rights advisers, and observers and reporters, so we can tell the world what we are doing and what is happening there.
The word “genocide” has been mentioned. Most members of my Tamil community believe genocide has taken place, and I must concur with them now because of the numbers of those who have died and been injured, and because of the targeting, in this small area, of this community. We cannot stand by. We need creative and decisive action, and we need it now.
May I say four sentences? First, I pay tribute to the gentleness and courtesy of the demonstrators in Parliament square; there have been times when I have tried to get through when they have been having a big demonstration, and they have always made way and been understanding.
The LTTE must be asked to stop, which basically means they must surrender; there is no military way forward for the LTTE in the current circumstances, and I hope that the Tamil communities in Sri Lanka, India and around the world will say to it, “You have not got our support in maintaining a military resistance or offensive, and this has got to stop.”
I say to the Sri Lankan Government—although I do not have the same expertise in these matters as some of my colleagues—that they will be held accountable for the way they treat those who have come out from the enclave and those who are in the enclave.
I also want to say that the Government have been treating this issue seriously and properly, and I pay tribute to them for that.
We are meeting here while an enormous demonstration is taking place in Parliament square. I have been out there with colleagues many times and spoken to people, and I pay enormous tribute to them for being there, for what they are saying, and for what they are trying to achieve. Sadly, many of the people I have met out there I first met in 1984 and 1985 when they came to this country as asylum seekers and I supported their application for asylum at that time. What has recently been happening to the Tamil people is not new.
What is happening to the Tamil people is the endgame of the madness of the Sri Lankan Government’s idea that there is a military solution to this problem. They are going to bomb, they are going to maim, they are going to kill, and they are going to call it a victory. That victory is not possible, because the anger of the Tamil people will go on. There will therefore be an uprising of guerrilla actions in the future. There will therefore, I suspect, be forced population moves by the Sri Lankan Government against the Tamil people. The Government there are creating all the problems of tomorrow, and of all the tomorrows after that.
There has to be an absolute demand for a ceasefire. There has to be isolation of Sri Lanka because of its refusal to undertake the ceasefire. There has to be a diplomatic and political way forward that brings about that ceasefire and a process of safety. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said. Why cannot we have a Commonwealth mission going to Sri Lanka now that says, “We’re going to the war zone as human rights observers, and we will monitor what is going on and report back to the rest of the world”? If we do not do that, are we just going to allow satellite images of this killing to go on and no further action to be taken?
There is a cry for help in the square. There is a cry for help in Sri Lanka. There is a cry for help all over the world. If the UN cannot act, shame on the UN; and if the Commonwealth cannot act, shame on the Commonwealth. If we cannot act to impose economic sanctions now on Sri Lanka, shame on us.
Like the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), I have sought to support the Tamil community for a quarter of a century, and wished and hoped and prayed that it would never come to this. Like other colleagues, I share the anger, frustration, despair and desperation of the Tamils in the country. I join Members in all parts of the House in paying tribute to the people who, with courtesy but out of desperation, have sought to come to Parliament and to the Government and say, “You are the people we rely on; you must do more to help our families and friends.”
I also give thanks to those who have received us when we have gone with members of the Tamil community to see the Government, the American Government—at the State Department and the White House—the UN, the EU at Strasbourg, and the Commonwealth. The community has put its case more effectively than we ever could and those people have listened, but the action that it needs and that we call for has not been taken. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, the situation has become worse in its implications every day. I repeat my request to the Minister for the public release of the aerial and satellite photography, which would give us—now—the independent evidence, which I know exists, because I have seen some of it, and would make clear what is going on. I repeat the call for both sides to stop fighting now—we must keep repeating that.
I also wish to put on the record what specifically has to happen—this follows on from comments made by hon. Members from across the House. There ought to be an attempt by our Government to secure an agreement within the next few hours, or within the next day, for a coalition of countries to say to the Sri Lankan Government, “Within one or two days we are going in with the relief, the aid, the food, the water and the medical aid. We are going to land and we challenge you to stop us.” The international community cannot say that sovereignty takes precedence over international responsibility. We have passed that point, as the UN has accepted; the right to protect has been accepted. We have to say that we are going to implement that; we cannot wait for more diplomatic negotiations to take place.
My call to Ministers is to respond to that. Of course we can seek a resolution in the UN Security Council and we can ask the United Nations Committee on Human Rights to take action. My Liberal colleagues say that the international communities—the Commonwealth, the EU and the UN—are good because we are stronger together, but it is no good if being stronger together does not deliver any action. I ask that that now be taken. I ask that the Commonwealth take some action, because so far it has not done so and for those of us who believe in the Commonwealth, that is unsatisfactory.
The responsibility to protect is legally established and morally incontestable, so the Sri Lankan Government need to be clear about that. May I say to the hon. Gentleman in case this was not clear, although the point was made very powerfully by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), that allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide must be investigated whenever? There can be no question of any amnesty for the Sri Lankan Government, at any time, from consideration of allegations of that kind.
I absolutely support that, and I ask the Minister to indicate in his winding-up speech that the Government have begun the work on investigating war crimes and are working with other partners—I know that the US is active on this—to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government know that that is happening so that those who are responsible are held to account.
I wish to make only two further points, because we want everybody to contribute to this debate. The first follows some of the other requests that have been made. Another way of effectively making the point to the Sri Lankan Government is for the Governments of the other Commonwealth countries, other countries in the EU and the United States simultaneously to call in the high commission ambassadors and warn them that if there is not a stop to the Sri Lankan Government’s military action, there will be a peaceful but immediate intervention. That concerted sign has to be given, because all the pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Lastly, I am very conscious of the fact that this House has become very united and very determined on this issue. I am grateful that the Foreign Affairs Committee looks as though it will respond to the petitions presented on behalf of our Tamil communities here by considering the human rights issues in its human rights report. But this situation is a challenge to the effectiveness of our democracies and our democratic Governments, and so far, in the moment of the greatest need of any people from this country since I was elected 25 years or so ago, our democratic system has been found wanting. We have to do more if the effectiveness of our own democracy is not to be undermined and if we are not to let down people whose relatives are threatened with the prospect of not being alive tomorrow.
Since the previous debate in the House, things have got significantly worse in the conflict area in north-east Sri Lanka. There are about 120,000 people in a narrow strip of coastal land of only 3 sq km, and the shortage of food, water and medicine has got significantly worse, although thanks to the efforts of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister’s special envoy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), some improvements were temporarily made. I thank them for their ongoing efforts to bring about a ceasefire and to get humanitarian aid to the Tamil civilians caught in this terrible conflict.
It is also without doubt now clear, despite their denials, that the Sri Lankan Government forces are using heavy weapons to shell this small area. The reports of the past few days of hundreds of deaths and casualties in the makeshift hospitals in the conflict area are testament to the callous indifference of the Government of Sri Lanka to innocent civilian casualties. It is clear that the Sri Lankan Government armed forces do not have the capability to avoid civilian casualties or the moral will to stop killing innocent civilians. There must be an immediate and permanent ceasefire to stop this slaughter of innocent Tamil people. The Government of Sri Lanka must also be held to account for these war crimes, and there must be proper UN investigations into any alleged war crimes.
The International Red Cross is continuing to try to get food and medical supplies into the war zone by sea, but the continuing fighting has made that very difficult. Civilians are now starving and dying from untreated injuries, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has said. Any member of the Tamil community will give thousands of examples of relatives, brothers, sisters and friends dying because of the shortage of medical aid and food, so an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into the conflict zone is vital.
Reports from “Channel 4 News” about conditions for the 180,000 Tamil civilians in Sri Lankan Government internment camps are also very worrying. There have been reports of dead bodies left for days; sexual abuse; food, water and medical shortages; and families being split up. The Government of Sri Lanka must allow UN and international aid agencies into these camps. The Sri Lankan Government are now isolated, given their unwillingness to call a ceasefire and to allow international media into the conflict zone and the camps. I urge our Government to take the steps that other hon. Members have mentioned, because that is how we will win the confidence of the communities here and have the trust and the faith of the international communities.
I wish to make just three points. On Monday, having spent many hours, and after seven separate phone numbers had been given to me, I was able finally to make representations to try, with the UK Border Agency, to block the deportation of a young woman, whom I shall simply call Laksna, aged 21. She had been sexually assaulted by the Sri Lankan security forces and had come to this country seeking asylum, but she was facing deportation. I want to put on the record my gratitude to the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Borders and Immigration for the way in which, after I had eventually discovered that despite those representations to block the deportation that woman had been taken to Heathrow and was about to be put on the plane—that was in stark contrast to the assurances that I had been given by the UKBA—they ensured that that young woman was sent back into detention in Yarl’s Wood and was not deported. Can this Minister assure me that the country assessment that the UK has now made of Sri Lanka has been communicated to the Home Office and that no further deportations of Tamil asylum seekers will be allowed?
The second point that I wish to make is that it is time that relatives of the members of the Sri Lankan regime were no longer deemed welcome in this country, whether they are here studying as students—as immediate family of the President have been—or in other ways. Diplomatic sanctions must now be imposed, and those people, including more distant relatives, should be told that they are not welcome in this country.
Finally, unless this House looks at the strategic relationship between Sri Lanka and China—a point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman—including the investment made in the port at Hambantota, we will not see a full resolution of this conflict.
In the very few seconds left to me, I undertake to write to colleagues to address the issues that have been raised—
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24A).
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand the problem with time, but it does no credit to this House that a debate as important as this has to be curtailed after such a short time. Is there any way in which it can be extended, even for only half an hour, to allow the few remaining hon. Members who wish to contribute to do so, and the Minister to respond? I understand that not very many Members wish to take part in the next debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order and I understand that many hon. Members would have liked to contribute to the last debate for longer and to have heard the Minister reply. I did my best to ensure that as many Back Benchers contributed as possible, but I regret to say that the Standing Orders do not allow for an exception to be made.