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Sri Lanka

Volume 493: debated on Friday 12 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Helen Jones.)

I am very grateful to have this opportunity to debate the situation in Sri Lanka. Since the conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam came to its bloody end last month, some people might be tempted to shift their focus to other matters. However, enormous problems remain. In particular, I want to draw Parliament’s attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of people trapped in internment camps, and the need for reliable independent sources of information. The international community has a responsibility to take urgent humanitarian action, but the Sri Lankan Government have forfeited their position of trust.

As has been well documented, the conflict in Sri Lanka has lasted for decades. The 2002 ceasefire briefly raised hopes that an end could be negotiated, but peace talks stalled the following year. As the latest Library briefing paper acknowledges:

“While for a long time it looked as if there had simply been a return to the military retrospect the advantage was clearly shifting in favour of the Government.”

In November 2005, President Rajapaksa was elected on a nationalist Sinhalese platform, and his Government

“appeared increasingly intent on achieving a military victory over the LTTE”.

This culminated in January 2008, when the Government pulled out of the 2002 ceasefire. Even with the credit crunch enveloping the world, the Sri Lankan Government decided to invest an incredible share of the country’s economy in fighting a military campaign against ethnic Tamils. Last year, they voted to spend $1.9 billion of the country’s budget on the military. Coincidentally, they have since asked the international community, through the International Monetary Fund, for a loan. This is for a total of—believe it or not—$1.9 billion. Although it is claimed that this is to help Sri Lanka through the global economic crisis, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this money is actually to bankroll a massive military campaign against the country’s own people. The international community therefore has a responsibility to think long and hard before it agrees to such a loan. If the loan is granted, it will send out the message that the IMF is the place to go for any Government who want to fund a civil war. I hope the Minister will assure me that our Government do not want the IMF to be seen as a fall-back for any country that wants to attack its own ethnic populations.

Throughout 2008, the Sri Lankan Government decided to take on the Tamils no matter what the cost, financial or humanitarian. It has been impossible to follow the conflict in Sri Lanka satisfactorily, because its Government have not permitted any independent reporting of the conflict. By January, they had used their military might to take the town of Kilinochchi and the causeway between Jaffna and the mainland at Elephant pass. The Government had more than 160,000 troops—in contrast, by February there were an estimated 1,000 in the Tamil Tigers.

Tamil fighters were concentrated in an area of about 30 sq km on the Vanni coast. Despite the fact that 250,000 Tamil civilians also lived in this area, it was subjected to repeated pounding by the Sri Lankan Government. The British Government led international condemnation of that tactic, which many people believe killed thousands of people. I am proud to support the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who, despite the pressure on him from diplomatic circles and all the other vested interests, recognised that it is not right for any Government to behave in that way. Governments need to uphold the very highest standards of behaviour. In February, he and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, called for a ceasefire and full access to the war zone for independent humanitarian organisations. That was largely ignored, except for a brief lull in April, when the Sri Lankan Government said they were allowing civilians to escape. Many others saw that lull as an opportunity for Sri Lanka to regroup for a final onslaught, and only 300 civilians actually left the conflict zone at that time.

Two weeks later, my right hon. Friend visited Sri Lanka, but President Rajapaksa reportedly said:

“I don’t need lectures from Western representatives”.

Sri Lanka had always denied using heavy weapons against civilians, but on 27 April it then announced that it would cease using weapons that could cause civilian casualties. To most hon. Members that would be a pretty clear indication that it previously had used them and that the original denials were completely untrustworthy. The Sri Lankan Government’s words therefore had no value.

It is impossible to verify the shocking numbers of those affected by the conflict, owing to the lack of any independent evidence, but they are undoubtedly huge. A quarter of a million people were in the so-called safe zone, facing daily bombardment; 80,000 people have died in the conflict since it began and at least 7,000 Tamil civilians are thought to have died this year alone. Even in January 2008, the US Congressional Research Service estimated there were about 300,000 displaced people in Sri Lanka, including Sinhalese as well as Tamils. A further 250,000 Tamils are thought to be living in London, having left Sri Lanka for whatever reason. The impact of the conflict has been huge.

Looking forward, even though the immediate fighting is over, most commentators agree there are going to be many problems. Although the LTTE has been destroyed, the grievances that led to its rise have not been addressed. Many Tamils actually opposed the Tigers, but they are even more opposed to the nationalist Sinhalese extremists. The way in which Sri Lanka ruthlessly crushed the Tamils will undoubtedly lead to resentment among those Tamils who survived the onslaught—indeed, to say that Tamils living elsewhere around the world are resentful would be an understatement. As Parliament has learned in the two months during which a protest has been going on here, British Tamils are anxious, angry and motivated. Many feel they have nothing more to lose. So far they have been entirely peaceful, but it is possible that some will have been radicalised by the brutality back home.

Britain has done more than almost any other country to resolve the conflict, but despite our efforts we were ultimately powerless to prevent thousands of Tamils dying. If we are disappointed and sad about that, we can only imagine how Britain’s Tamils feel. They are angry, and that anger is likely to be shared around the world. I therefore wish to take this opportunity to urge our Government to do all they can to work closely with Tamil representatives and ensure that their voice is heard. However, of immediate short-term concern is the fact that as many as 300,000 people are currently in refugee camps—that is the reason I called for this debate.

A kind of doublespeak exists when it comes to Sri Lanka. The camps are described by the Sri Lankan Government as welfare villages, but even the Library says that they are better described as internment camps. Last month, despite the desperate conditions in Sri Lanka, the last neutral organisation in the conflict zone, the International Red Cross, pulled out because the Sri Lankan Government had barred it from the camps. Some 300,000 civilians live in the camps, with huge numbers sick, malnourished or injured. But the Sri Lankan Government are still refusing to allow any independent monitors or agencies into the area. There must be unhindered access for independent international agencies like the Red Cross and the UNHCR to all the internment camps.

As usual, my hon. Friend makes a powerful speech on the plight of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Does she agree that the camps should be opened to the media? One of the real problems in all this has been the complete absence of objective press reporting—indeed, any press reporting—because of the Sri Lankan Government’s refusal to allow media access.

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come to that point later in my speech.

The conditions in the camps have not improved, and with the monsoon season on its way there is an even higher risk of disease. I hope that Britain can lead the way in calling for urgent humanitarian action now. Although the fighting is officially over, humanitarian assistance is needed now more than at any other time in the past six months.

The Government there have claimed that conditions are improving, but if that is true they have no reason to fear the presence of independent monitors or reporters, and if conditions are worsening, they have a greater reason to need the help of independent aid agencies. Many people fear that Sri Lanka’s claim about improving conditions in the camps is just a way to prevent external agencies from showing the world what is really going on. It is illogical for there still to be heavy restrictions on the media, aid agencies and human rights groups entering the camps now that the war is over. I hope my hon. Friend will comment on the need for independent monitoring of the camps in his reply. I hope he will also comment on the need to ensure the safety of civilians and even former LTTE cadres.

In order to achieve a long-term peace, there must be reconciliation, and that means treating people with respect. It is not right to intern mass populations, and civilians must be allowed to resettle as soon as possible. Interning mass populations breaches the rule of law and Governments should not be permitted to repress minority populations through the use of long-term internment. Again, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that this can be achieved only with independent monitoring.

As a gesture, the Sri Lankan Government should allow the mercy mission ship to unload its humanitarian cargo. This would show the world the kind of magnanimity that we are looking for. I understand that the ship is said to have the wrong paperwork and cannot be allowed to dock, but in reality Sri Lankan officials have been on board and know that the cargo is purely humanitarian. Given the exceptional need for humanitarian assistance, the Sri Lankan Government would earn a lot of respect around the world if they allowed an exception to the usual rules and permitted the ship to unload its cargo. Such a gesture would be much appreciated, whereas not allowing it to unload simply looks mean and unnecessarily nasty. I have written to the Sri Lankan high commission asking Sri Lanka to permit the ship to unload and I hope it will show that it has a heart.

I also want to take this opportunity to call on Sri Lanka to show heart over the case of doctors who looked after the sick and dying in the conflict zone. A group of doctors who worked in the conflict zone are being held on suspicion of collaboration and could be in detention for a year or more before being tried. Many people are concerned that the doctors should not be treated like this, and feel that they are in fact heroes rather than criminals. They have not been heard from since they were detained, but their work during the conflict has been widely praised. They treated patients in makeshift health facilities in the war zone. They undoubtedly helped to save many lives, and the UN has described them as “heroic”. However, they were also a source of embarrassment to the Government.

As journalists and independent monitors were banned from the conflict zone, the doctors became one of the few available sources of news about the fighting. They told the world that shelling had in fact come from the Government side and had indeed killed civilians. Sri Lanka, however, has accused the doctors of spreading falsehoods and has implied that doctors were not really looking after civilians at all, accusing them of supporting the Tamil Tigers instead.

Sri Lanka wants the world to believe that not a single civilian died in its final offensive, but few people believe that. Imprisoning the doctors would help to hide an inconvenient truth. I hope that our Government will therefore do all within their power to ensure that the doctors are treated well and receive independently verifiable justice. I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that the Government are doing all they can to help the doctors.

I have spoken to Ministers about Sri Lanka many times. The Foreign Secretary has shown extraordinary resolve in his efforts to help Tamils caught up in the conflict. Britain has, in my view, gone as far as any Government in working for peace and a solution to this humanitarian crisis. Our Government have repeatedly called for a political solution that establishes a meaningful role for Tamil and other minorities in national political life. Unfortunately, the UN has not covered itself in glory. The Security Council made strong statements, but we all know that words are not enough and there has been no action because Russia, China, Japan and Vietnam prevented it.

The cause of the Tamils has been my first foray into international relations and has been particularly depressing. Thousands are dead; many hundreds of thousands are homeless. They need our help now and I hope that the Government will do all they can to reassure Britain’s Tamils, and everyone else around the world who believes in decency and values in foreign affairs, that we are on their side.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) not only on securing today’s debate but on her long track record in fighting to bring the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka to the House’s attention? The issue is not only important around the world, but for the foreign policy values for which the UK should stand. It is absolutely right that my hon. Friend should choose now—at the end of a 25-year conflict—to raise these incredibly important issues.

Of course, we are relieved that the thousands of civilians who were trapped in the conflict zone are no longer at immediate risk from the fighting, but we must also be clear that this is no time for celebration. Too many Sri Lankans died during three decades of conflict. We may never know the final figure, but it is reasonable to assume that it was far more than the 70,000 that is frequently cited.

The significant challenges that now face the country are threefold: to provide immediate relief for the thousands of displaced civilians; to ensure their rehabilitation and resettlement; and to initiate a process of political reconciliation that is genuinely and authentically inclusive.

As my hon. Friend said, as soon as the fighting was over my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary spoke to the President and Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka and urged the Sri Lankan Government to launch a genuine political process and to address the needs of the internally displaced persons—the IDPs. I think that we would all be united in saying that the most pressing priority has to be tackling the humanitarian situation. Shockingly, there are now more than 280,000 civilians in the IDP camps. Any country would struggle to cope with that number, and that is why the presence of the UN and international humanitarian agencies is so important, but they can provide the much needed assistance only with the full co-operation of the Sri Lankan Government.

Since the visit to Sri Lanka at the end of April by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and French Foreign Minister Kouchner, the Sri Lankan Government have shown a greater willingness to issue visas to agency staff and to improve agency access to the IDPs, but problems remain. The camps are overcrowded and without adequate clean water or adequate medical facilities. Families who were separated when they fled the fighting have still not been reunited. The Sri Lankan Government must demilitarise the camps as soon as possible and grant unhindered access to the aid agencies and freedom of movement to the IDPs.

When they met last week, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary urged the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka to make continued progress on those fronts. He also made it clear that early resettlement must be an essential part of any reconciliation process.

We welcome the Sri Lankan Government’s undertaking to return the bulk of the IDPs to their homes within 180 days. Of course, we look forward to seeing how they plan to achieve that, and how we could offer assistance. The recent visit to Sri Lanka by the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who was able to visit four of the IDP camps, and his subsequent briefing to members of the Security Council, were important, but continued engagement by the UN is essential to keep the spotlight of international concern focused on Sri Lanka.

The United Kingdom will continue to offer practical help in addressing the needs of the IDPs. Since September 2008, my former Department, the Department for International Development, has allocated £12.5 million to support the work of the international humanitarian agencies. DFID’s contributions will continue to focus on the immediate needs of the IDPs, but they will also help to support displaced people in making a dignified and safe return to their homes. That could include activities such as mine mapping to assist in the demining process, and providing shelter and basic services for survival and the recovery of people’s livelihoods.

We have always made it clear that there could be no satisfactory military solution to the conflict; my hon. Friend made that plain in her contribution, too. Lasting peace can come about only as a result of an inclusive political process, in which all communities in Sri Lanka believe genuinely that they are accepted and valued members of society. After years of conflict, the process of political reconciliation will not be easy. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made the point strongly to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister last week that winning the peace could end up being harder than winning the war. We therefore very much welcome the comments made by the President of Sri Lanka in his victory day speech on 3 June:

“The war fought against the LTTE was not a war against the Tamil people”,


“It is now time to win the hearts of the Tamil people”.

We also welcome his acknowledgement, at the end of the UN Secretary-General’s visit, that

“addressing the aspirations and grievances of all communities and working towards a lasting political solution”


“fundamental to ensuring long-term socio-economic development”

In Sri Lanka. Of course, when it comes to those fine aspirations, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We will expect to see the details of how the Sri Lankan Government intend to take a process of reconciliation forward.

Any reconciliation will require legitimate grievances from the past to be addressed before we can move on to the future. The President recognised that during the Secretary-General’s visit. We welcome the President’s commitment, in his joint statement with the Secretary-General, to taking measures to address possible violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary re-emphasised the need for such a process of accountability to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister last week, and urged the Sri Lankan Government to make it clear how they intend to follow up on the President’s commitment.

We have always been clear that the United Kingdom would fully support an independent, credible and transparent investigation into allegations of breaches in international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict. We cannot be certain exactly what happened during the fighting, particularly towards the end of the conflict, but enough reports have surfaced for us to have grave concerns about the number of civilians who might have died as a direct result of the fighting in the conflict zone. We are well aware of credible reports suggesting that thousands of civilians died between January and May this year.

I should like specifically to address my hon. Friend’s point about the doctors. We are very concerned that the three Sri Lankan doctors, who had been on the front line in the war zone, treating wounded civilians, as she said, were arrested on 18 May by the Sri Lankan Government on charges, we believe, of giving false information to the media. When our Foreign Secretary discussed matters with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister on 5 June, he raised that specific issue, and we will continue to follow the cases closely. I shall be happy to keep my hon. Friend informed of developments.

In conclusion, many challenges still face the Government and the people of Sri Lanka, but there is also an historic opportunity now to heal the wounds caused by years of violence and to create a Sri Lanka in which all communities—

What is the Government’s view on the access of journalists and international reporters to the zone?

Any Government who are content with the way in which people in such circumstances are being treated should—taking account of security considerations—ensure that journalists have access. We hope the Sri Lankan Government will be willing to consider that.

For Sri Lanka to move forward, all communities—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims—must feel that they have an equal stake in that society. We will continue to use our influence and continue to work with the Sri Lankan Government and other partners to help bring this about, so that we can move from conflict and war to an authentic process of peace and reconciliation.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.