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Sri Lanka

Volume 556: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Swayne.)

May I wish you, Mr Hollobone, and—through you—everybody in this Chamber, a very happy new year? I hope that this debate will mark a small step in the attempts of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka to gain justice.

I called this debate in response to last November’s publication of the United Nations investigation of its handling of war crimes in Sri Lanka, which concluded that the response from the international community to the tragedy of the Tamils was inadequate. According to the internal review, UN staff in Colombo and New York simply did not perceive prevention of the killing of civilians as their responsibility. Despite the International Committee of the Red Cross reporting an “unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe”, the UN suppressed information on casualty figures and hid the Sri Lankan Government’s responsibility for the lives lost. Following intimidation and threats from the Government, the UN unquestionably relocated its staff away from the fighting.

Rather than trying to stop the atrocities, the international community turned a blind eye. Tens of thousands of people were being massacred, yet at the time the international community pretended that it was not happening. Oppression on a barely imaginable scale took place. Thanks to the fearless reporting of a small number of journalists, the truth is out. Channel 4’s documentary, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, deserves special praise. Anyone who doubts why we need justice should watch that astonishing documentary. The images broadcast by Channel 4 are among the most harrowing ever to appear on television. They showed what the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings concluded was evidence of “definitive war crimes” and what the UN Secretary-General’s panel of experts admitted was

“a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”.

Last year, I nominated “Channel 4 News” for the Nobel peace prize. In my nomination letter, I said:

“By bringing to light the breaches of international conventions by the Government of Sri Lanka in a bold manner and by piecing together numerous forms of evidence in a coherent way, the value of independent journalism to the building of a peaceful global order in the century ahead has been amply demonstrated.”

I want to pay my respects to the amazing Marie Colvin, one of the most astonishing people whom I have ever had the privilege to meet. Marie was a veteran war correspondent for The Sunday Times, and won numerous awards, including best foreign correspondent. She was fearless in her reporting of Sri Lanka’s troubles. In fact, she was so unafraid of getting close enough to find out the truth that, in 2001, she sustained shrapnel wounds to her eyes, chest and arms while reporting from Sri Lanka. In March 2009, I invited her to speak at a meeting of the all-party group on Tamils, which I then chaired, and she was hypnotic. She explained how the Sri Lankan Government tried to prevent reporting of what was going on. They would not allow in independent journalists, but, thanks to her persistence and courage, Marie was able to present evidence that the Government were firing cluster bombs, white phosphorus and rockets on civilian areas, including hospitals and so-called safe zones. She was a trailblazer and a wonderful woman. I was fortunate to meet her on several later occasions, and she made a lasting impression not just on me but on everyone who met her. Unfortunately, she was killed last year while reporting from Syria, where there are many parallels with Sri Lanka. Her death was not only a terrible loss for journalism, but a real blow to those of us who want to know the truth about conflicts that the rest of the international community is happy to keep under wraps. In relation to Sri Lanka, her bravery contrasts with the cowardice of the international community.

As the internal review has proved, the international community knew about the abuses that Marie Colvin put herself in danger to uncover, but it still failed to protect tens of thousands of innocent people. The international community’s weakness shames us all. We now need to deal with that shame. Human Rights Watch has said that although Ban Ki-moon

“deserves credit for starting a process he knew could tarnish his office, he will now be judged on his willingness to implement the report’s recommendations and push for justice for Sri Lanka’s victims.”

The international community was weak in its handling of this tragedy as it unfolded; we should not be weak when it comes to imposing justice after it has happened. No regime in the world should be able to think that if it commits the most heinous crimes, it will be left untouched. The UN has an overriding responsibility to protect that supersedes sovereignty. We should have used the responsibility to protect during the conflict. If we had, thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils would still be alive. We now surely have a responsibility to hold to account a Government who have treated their citizens in such an appalling way. As Amnesty International has said:

“This report is…a wake-up call for UN member states that have not pushed hard enough for an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes… The report clearly illustrates the Sri Lankan government’s lack of will to protect civilians or account for very serious violations. There is no evidence that has changed”.

Responsibility to protect is a concept at the heart of modern international relations. It has three core elements: first, states are responsible for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing and from their incitement, but, secondly, the international community has a responsibility to ensure that states fulfil that requirement and, thirdly, the international community—that is us—has a responsibility to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from those crimes. If a state manifestly fails to protect its population, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to do so. All three pillars of the responsibility to protect were broken in Sri Lanka.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and many others in this House on their work campaigning on the terrible and tragic war in Sri Lanka and the abuse and terrible suffering of many Tamils. She raises the issue of international pressure. Sri Lanka will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2013. Does she agree that unless the Sri Lankan Government live up to their promises and start a genuine process of peace and reconciliation, and unless there is an international inquiry, the British Government should not be represented at that summit?

I strongly support the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, which I hope to address later.

The UN internal review proved that war crimes and human rights violations took place, but it admitted that UN staff did not think that preventing those killings was their responsibility and that they deliberately suppressed casualty figures. According to the review, when the UN began collating information on casualties the

“reports pointed to the large majority of civilian killings as being the result of Government shelling and aerial bombardment, with a smaller proportion of killings resulting from the LTTE actions.”

However, the UN played down evidence about the scale of what was happening, and the truth was portrayed as propaganda from Tamil Tiger terrorists.

In fact, as outlined by the Secretary-General’s panel of experts on Sri Lanka in 2011, and as we were told by Marie Colvin in 2009, there was systematic shelling of hospitals and civilians by Government forces, as well as restrictions on humanitarian aid and assistance. The panel of experts speaks of “tens of thousands” of casualties—perhaps up to 40,000—and even worse figures are now emerging. The Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph, has stated that over 146,000 remain unaccounted for, and the former BBC journalist Frances Harrison cites a World Bank estimate of 100,000 people still missing. All that only emphasises the importance of having an independent, international inquiry into the conduct of both sides during the conflict. Credible investigations into war crimes allegations and human rights abuses are a duty under domestic and international law. However, Sri Lanka’s own inquiry, the so-called Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, has failed completely to provide the accountability required. It has been described as “deeply flawed” by the panel of experts, which has called for an independent, international investigation into war crimes. The LLRC was not independent or international, and our fears about it have been shown to be well founded. Government forces were largely exonerated of culpability. Only military rather than independent courts of inquiry have been established to look into the few abuse cases that were deemed worthy of further consideration by the LLRC.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and pay tribute to the work that she has done over many years in exposing what has been going on. Does she recall that, in a previous debate on the LLRC, the Minister said that the Government would see what action the LLRC took, and if it were not substantial they would take much stronger action and do precisely what the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) said and review again the decision to hold the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo later this year? I hope that we will see such a view reflected in the Minister’s response today.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We all have faith in the Minister, and we ask him to take action.

As there is no justice or accountability with the LLRC, what we see instead is a culture of impunity—enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, gender-based violence as well as the recent trumped-up impeachment proceedings against the Chief Justice—which is testament to the breakdown of the rule of law in Sri Lanka. Just as we had a responsibility to protect civilians at the time of the killings, so too do we now for ensuring that there is accountability.

Does my hon. Friend accept that there are credible reports that torture is routinely being used against the Tamil community remaining in Sri Lanka? Constituents have come to my surgery with clear evidence of torture, which backs up the more widespread reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that torture is still going on routinely in the country.

I completely accept what my hon. Friend says about the ongoing torture against Tamils in Sri Lanka. It must be said though that other ethnic groups are also being tortured now.

Without accountability, we are seeing torture, disappearances and killings, yet the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is still scheduled to take place in Colombo in November. What sort of message does that send out? The Commonwealth was right a couple of years ago to take away from Sri Lanka the honour of hosting a summit. If it was right to do that then, how can it be right now to let Sri Lanka have that honour when our fears about its Government have been confirmed? Canada has bravely stated that it will not attend the 2013 summit unless significant progress is made on human rights and accountability. Why cannot Britain show the same leadership? Why are we so determined to brush accountability under the carpet, just as the UN did with the evidence of atrocities four years ago?

In November, I wrote to the Prime Minister imploring him to do the responsible thing. I pointed out that the number of people who had been killed in the space of just five months was roughly the same as the entire population of the major towns of his constituency: Witney, Carterton and Chipping Norton. Those poor people were herded into an area smaller than the Prime Minister’s constituency, tricked into believing that it was a safe zone and then relentlessly targeted while the institutions of the international community made a deliberate choice not to help, even though they knew what was happening. I pointed out that Britain’s Tamil community, which numbers more than 250,000 people, is still grieving. I asked what the British Government were doing to ensure that there is justice for Tamils now. In particular, I said that it would send out a terrible message if Sri Lanka were permitted the honour of hosting the CHOGM. I said:

“If a nation had systematically killed every single person you knew in Witney, Carterton and Chipping Norton, raping and murdering in cold blood, I do not think that you would find it acceptable for that Government to host an event as prestigious as a Commonwealth summit, or for our Government to attend… The international community has admitted it failed to help Tamils before, and cancelling the summit will ensure that mistake is not compounded.”

I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, but does she accept that there were human rights violations on both sides of the community in Sri Lanka—certainly during the war and in the immediate post-war period—and that the relationship between the communities has improved in recent years? Secondly, does she accept that hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting would mean that Sri Lanka had a global audience looking at it, and that that in itself may produce the result that she is looking for?

I totally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that his motivations are entirely good, but he misreads how the Sri Lankan Government interpret representations from foreign Governments. If the Queen were to put her foot on the soil in Colombo it would be regarded as a vindication of the Sri Lankan Government’s actions—and this is at a time when at least 40,000 people are still dying or missing.

I am startled by the view that if Her Majesty were to put her foot on the soil of Sri Lanka it would be an insult to democracy. Recently, Her Majesty had to shake the hand of the leader of the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland in an effort to demonstrate that peace happens through process and progress. Sri Lanka should be hearing the message that we are here to help. We should stretch out our hand to Sri Lanka; we should not step on Sri Lanka. I must say that I am amazed by the hon. Lady’s position.

I am amazed by the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. As he knows, the process towards reconciliation has taken 600 years in Ireland. It is a struggle with which I am well acquainted because of my own family background. Unlike the Sri Lankan Government, the British Government under different parties accepted that there were things that they could and could not do. I accept that there were atrocities and human rights violations on the part of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Democratically elected Governments are always judged to a higher standard.

Let me continue with what I said to the Prime Minister:

“The international community has admitted it failed to help Tamils before, and cancelling the summit will ensure that mistake is not compounded. I believe it is in the international community’s best interests—and the best interests of the United Kingdom, as well as of Sri Lanka—for there to be an independent international investigation into war crimes in order to bring a lasting peace in Sri Lanka after such a long period of ethnic conflict. However, while this continues not to take place, Sri Lanka should not be hosting the Commonwealth summit.”

The response was weak. The Prime Minister himself did not answer my letter, passing it instead to the Foreign Secretary. The reply was very disappointing. First, instead of supporting an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s behaviour, he said that the Government

“believe that the process of reconciliation has a greater chance of success if investigations are Sri Lankan-led rather than externally imposed.”

He said that the British Government were concerned about the human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, such as

“disappearances, political violence and reports of torture in custody.”

However, what will the British Government do about them? We have not stopped deporting Tamils who are claiming asylum, even though most reasonable people would think that any Tamil who made a big deal about hating the Sri Lankan Government when they were in the UK might be most at risk of disappearance, violence and torture.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the recent report by Human Rights Watch, which cites examples of a number of asylum seekers deported from Britain and a number of other European countries who were tortured on their return to Sri Lanka?

I am aware of that report, and I have also read appeal judgments and documents from the Medical Institute for Victims of Torture. I am well aware of some of the cases involved; indeed, some of them involve my constituents or my hon. Friend’s constituents.

The Foreign Secretary said:

“We seek to promote progress through direct lobbying, working with international partners, and funding human rights projects.”

I have to say that it is not very reassuring to learn that the Government’s approach to getting Sri Lanka to behave is to give it more money.

Finally, the Foreign Secretary fails to offer any support for the idea of a boycott of the Commonwealth summit, although he says the UK Government

“believe that the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting should uphold the Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights. We will look to Sri Lanka to demonstrate its commitment to these values, both now and in the run up to the meeting in 2013.”

I would be grateful if the Minister could expand a little upon that in his response to the debate. In what possible way does he think that Sri Lanka is currently demonstrating “commitment to these values”?

I note that the Minister is going to Sri Lanka later this year. No doubt his presence will be portrayed by the Government there as yet another vindication of their murderous approach. If he wants to ensure that his visit is not another public relations victory for a regime that feels it is immune from accountability for war crimes, will he use his visit as an opportunity to warn his hosts that Britain and the Queen will not be attending a summit that is built on blood? When my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) visited Sri Lanka in 2009, he was not afraid to confront the Rajapaksa regime. When the Minister visits Sri Lanka later this month, will he do the same as my right hon. Friend did, or will he have meetings about trade?

The hon. Lady mentions the fact that lots of people visit Sri Lanka. May I ask her when she last visited Sri Lanka? She has mentioned lots of second-hand evidence in her speech so far, but when did she last visit Sri Lanka and see for herself—at first hand—some of the things that she is alleging are happening there?

I have never been to Sri Lanka, but I respect the views of the UN special envoy to Sri Lanka, the UN, the Canadian Government, the Australian Government, the US Government, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Are all of those organisations bogus? Do we not believe anything that any of them say?

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) made exactly the same point that I will now make. I do not think that anyone is suggesting that those organisations are bogus, or that the claims of constituents are bogus. We are asking the hon. Lady about her opinion.

Just as I have not been to Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and—it has to be said—most countries in the world, I have not been to Sri Lanka and I determine my views of the country on the basis of the evidence provided by those organisations and by people whom I respect, including the many organisations that I have just named and my own constituents.

In fact, I would like to take this opportunity to give an apology to my constituents because in 2008 and 2009, when they told me that cluster bombs were being dropped on their relatives by a democratically elected Government and that tens of thousands of people were being herded into a tiny area, I did not believe them immediately; it was only when they became more desperate and told me more that I began to believe them. The problem is that too many of the institutions that we respect did not believe them either and did not accept what they were saying, which is precisely why we are in the position that we are in now.

I can thoroughly understand the hon. Lady’s approach to this whole debate. It is on a very emotive subject, and more to the point there have been atrocities committed on both sides—that is evident. However, I say to her that we are now years ahead from where we were. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) is living proof of reconciliation—after 600 years—here in this House.

We should move on. As I say, I understand where you are coming from and I also understand what you have said has happened. I think that everybody in this Chamber accepts that there have been some irregularities in Sri Lanka, to say the least. But we are at a point now where we must move on, we must help Sri Lanka to improve and we must have reconciliation. I have been to Rwanda and I have seen what has happened there. The perpetrators of war crimes there are back in their own communities and being productive.

If you go to Sri Lanka, and I am sure that the Government there will invite you, and probably have invited you already, you will see what progress has been made—

Order. Thank you, Mr Morris. Interventions on another Member’s speech should be brief. Also, I remind new Members, who have now been in the House for more than two years, that they should not use the word “you” to refer to another Member in the Chamber.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I have never been invited to Sri Lanka? Generally, I do not do international travel in my role as an MP, because I am constituency-focused. I secured this debate, and I have become involved in the Tamil cause, because of the Tamil community in my constituency and because of the information that I have received from them. I have become aware of the despair and distress that they experience. My own experience as someone who is London-Irish—I have Irish parents— is that people cannot just ignore what happened in the past. People cannot just move on and forget, because people do not forget. If we do nothing now, we will say to the next young generation that violent struggle will continue. We must address the issues now, in order to make progress.

I compliment my hon. Friend on her work and I urge her to resist the temptations from the Sri Lankan Government lobby that is in Westminster Hall today and trying to claim that all is well in Sri Lanka when the reality is that it certainly is not. Furthermore, holding the Commonwealth conference in the country would be an endorsement of the Sri Lankan Government’s policies on the Tamil people, and would be extremely damaging to the cause of human rights, to the image of Sri Lanka and indeed to the prospect of a peaceful future for the country.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. As she knows, I had the privilege of being a Minister in the Department for International Development during the last Government. As a result, I saw the private assessments of the situation in Sri Lanka, the type of which the Minister now has the opportunity to see. What was clear then was the scale of the human rights abuses that were being perpetrated. I do not think that we knew then the level of detail that has come out since, but we certainly knew that the Sri Lankan Government—through their military and paramilitary police, for example—were perpetrating considerable human rights abuses.

That was part of the reason why Britain led in Europe on the withdrawal of the GSP plus trading arrangements—the generalised scheme of preferences—which signalled our concern about human rights. My hon. Friend is rightly demanding that this Government show the same commitment as the last Government in demanding action by the Sri Lankan Government. It is a pity that we have not yet heard cross-party support for the aspiration for our Government to get a bit tougher with the Sri Lankan Government.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. Although I completely understand the duty of any Government—most importantly during a recession—to travel to gain more trade and support, I ask the Minister to consider whether that is appropriate in the case of Sri Lanka.

I say that because the last thing that the international community needs right now, after the failings of the past few years, is for Governments such as our own to put the pursuit of profit ahead of the responsibility to protect. The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and the developing situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—two countries that I have never been to—both show why we need to be strong. A credible and robust approach to international relations by the UK, and more widely by the international community through the UN, is vital. When the UN internal review was published in November, Ban Ki-moon said:

“Our obligation to all humanity is to overcome our setbacks, learn from our mistakes, strengthen our responses, and act meaningfully and effectively for the future.”

However, I am very much afraid that the international community would rather move on and pretend that these events in Sri Lanka never happened, just as it turned a blind eye while the atrocities in the country were taking place. If we are not strong now, we will abdicate our moral authority over Sri Lanka. Regimes such as those in Syria and DRC will see that there is nothing to lose and that justice will not be served.

We have a responsibility to ensure that the international community’s failures in Sri Lanka are addressed. Accountability and reconciliation must take place. When the 22nd session of the UN’s Human Rights Council commences next month, our Government should take a lead. The issue of whether Sri Lanka has complied with previous resolutions on accountability and reconciliation should be a priority. The UN’s HRC, with Britain to the fore, must be prepared to take urgent action to initiate credible, independent investigations in Sri Lanka. For the sake of other civilians around the world who are under threat from their own Government, we have a responsibility to be strong. We should tell Sri Lanka in no uncertain terms that we cannot support its hosting the Commonwealth summit while its reputation is under a cloud. We have a duty to protect, and we cannot fulfil that responsibility by continuing to be weak, weak, weak.

Order. Seven Members contacted me before the debate seeking to speak, and another Member has contacted me from the Floor. In a moment, I will call the first speaker, Lee Scott, followed by Barry Gardiner. With Members’ consent, I propose that the running order will then be Robert Halfon, Ian Paisley, James Wharton, Jeremy Corbyn, Aidan Burley and Simon Hughes. Personally, I am keen for all those Members to contribute, but if they are to do that, Members will need to keep their remarks to within five minutes; if they run over, the last speakers will not be called. I propose to call the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman at 10.40 am and the Minister at 10.50 am.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this vital debate.

Perhaps I can prevent any interventions and save some time by saying that I, too, have not visited Sri Lanka: someone who is criticised for everything they say because none of it suits the Sri Lankan Government is hardly likely to be taken to Sri Lanka and shown what they want to see in an uninhibited way. Like the hon. Lady, I would be delighted to make an unfettered, unhindered visit to Sri Lanka so that I could go wherever I wished to go, ask whatever questions I wished to ask and see whatever I needed to see. In that spirit, I look forward, in my role as the chairman of the all-party group on Tamils, to me and my deputy chairman receiving such an invite, but I will not hold my breath.

You will be pleased to hear, Mr Hollobone, that I am not going to repeat what has been said and that I want to look at different aspects of this issue. It is easy to say that one should forget the past, but if we do, we predict what will happen in the future. Should we forget Auschwitz, Rwanda or the atrocities committed in Northern Ireland? No, we should not. That would be an insult to the memories of the people who lost their lives on all sides, and that is not acceptable.

If we are to move on, there must be reconciliation and true justice for all. It is not my role as a non-Sri Lankan and a non-Tamil to say who was or was not responsible. Anyone who has watched “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” or listened to independent evidence knows that atrocities were committed, and people need to be brought to justice. Simply saying, “It wasn’t us who did it” is not acceptable. Someone took out women and children, someone raped people and someone interned people. Someone has not said where missing children are, when relatives in the Tamil diaspora around the world want to know what has happened to their families.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the debate. Is my hon. Friend aware that there are nearly 94,000 internally displaced Tamils without proper facilities, following the terrible tragedy that took place a few years ago?

Order. Those who are listed to speak should bear in mind that they will have a turn. By making an intervention, they will just knock somebody else off the end. Please can we restrain ourselves so that we can get everybody in?

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. Can I have 30 seconds back for that?

All I really want to say is that I want justice for the Tamil people and for all Sri Lankans. For that to happen, however, the UN must play its role. Over a number of years, it let down the Tamil people and allowed things to happen that should never have been allowed.

I note the Chair’s comments about the time, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) that it would be wrong for Britain to attend the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka unless there is a dramatic change in the situation on the ground?

Where do I stand? I am sorry, Mr Hollobone. The hon. Gentleman and I should not be having a conversation across the room. I apologise for that, as I am sure he does. Where do I stand? I want to see reconciliation and justice before any such thing happens. I think that is clear.

In my final 20 seconds, I should say that the Tamil people have suffered, and their diaspora suffers. There must be justice for all, but most importantly, at the UN’s meetings in March, I would like to hear what the Sri Lankan Government will do to ensure that an international inquiry shows what has happened and who is responsible so that those involved are brought to justice. I have gone five seconds over, Mr Hollobone, so I apologise.

I thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). She knows more and has researched more than anybody in the House, and she has done more to keep this issue at the forefront of its debates and of the Government’s mind, as they consider their obligations to the international community.

I arrived here this morning with a speech that detailed many of the things in the UN internal report and the way in which the UN had looked at its own failure. It is important to understand that it was extraordinarily courageous of Ban Ki-moon to establish a report looking at the UN’s failure properly to protect people and to intervene at the right time in the war in Sri Lanka. Although it was a courageous report, however, it now needs to be followed up. It highlighted many of the actions that took place at the time, but the international community must now see whether the reconciliation that we all wish for has actually taken place.

My hon. Friend spoke of the LLRC. At the time, many of us said it was a smokescreen intended to avoid having the independent international review that was being called for. However, the Minister said, “Let’s give it space. Let’s see what it comes up with. Let’s see whether it actually delivers. If it does, we should judge it on that basis.” Well, it has now produced its report, but it has not delivered. The international community, from the UN right through to Amnesty International, has acknowledged and documented the LLRC’s failings. Initially, the commission made absolutely no mention of war crimes; subsequently, under pressure, the Sri Lankan Government made further moves to switch the international community’s focus. When the Minister sums up, I would ask him to be true to his words in our previous debate: we should judge the Sri Lankan Government by their actions. On any international standard, they have failed.

I said I had come with a speech that I had prepared. What I was not prepared for, however, was the schoolboy nonsense from the Government side—“Oh well, have you ever been to Sri Lanka?”—and the sniggering when my hon. Friend said that, no, of course she had not been there. Does that in any way reduce the value and the quality of her research? Absolutely not.

I wish I had not been to Sri Lanka, because I could have stood with my hon. Friend, but I have been there. A decade or so ago, the then Foreign Office Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), asked me to become involved in the second tier of the negotiations that were going on at the time. I was partly responsible for Anton Balasingham coming here with his wife, Adele. I also went to Sri Lanka and met all the parties there.

When I was a Minister in Northern Ireland, I invited Mahinda Rajapaksa to dinner there to discuss speaking to the communities in Northern Ireland to see exactly how reconciliation could be achieved and how a country could move on. At that stage, I hoped he would go back to his country to try to implement some of those ideals, but he did not: he went back and turned Sri Lanka into a kleptocracy, in which the Rajapaksa family controls absolutely everything. How is it that the President’s brother, Gotabaya, is Secretary of Defence? Another of his brothers, Basil, is Minister of Economic Development. Chamal, the third brother, is Speaker of the Parliament. They have carved up the country between them and there is absolutely no economic freedom.

If we take the Commonwealth Heads of Government or the Commonwealth Business Council there, what will we be doing? We will be putting money into the pockets not of Sri Lankan people, but of one family: the Rajapaksas. Anybody who pretends to be part of this debate without acknowledging what is going on in that country currently is fooling themselves. Those Members on the Government Benches may or may not have gone to Sri Lanka, but if they have, they have not looked into the detail of what is happening in that land, because it is corruption and it must end. The Government of this country should not allow Her Majesty the Queen to set foot on Sri Lankan soil.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, this morning.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) has set out three compelling arguments, but before I go on to those, I want to say that I have never been to Sri Lanka. I would not want to go to Sri Lanka as it is currently constituted, just as I would not want to visit President Assad or the President of Iran—because I would be going to a bloodstained nation.

First, with every day that passes, it is clear that there is terrible persecution of the Tamils, especially of students, women, journalists and families. Secondly, because of our historic relationship and our economic ties, we can make a difference. I welcome what the Minister is doing to exert pressure on Sri Lanka’s rulers. Thirdly, the international community must show the Sri Lankan regime that there will be consequences if it does not respect and implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment at the tone of the debate so far? Should not we all agree that both sides must be held accountable for the crimes that are committed and that there has to be a genuine process of reconciliation? Until that starts, the Government need to think carefully about the level of representation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

I agree that it is important that we have a debate on both sides, but my firm view is that the emphasis must be to expose what has really been going on in Sri Lanka and how the Tamils have been maltreated.

Like the hon. Lady, I believe strongly in the responsibility to protect. As the Foreign and Commonwealth Office acknowledges on its website, after the civil war ended in 2009, approximately 300,000 Tamil civilians were displaced or caged in internment camps. The FCO website states:

“The Sri Lankan Prevention of Terrorism Act permits prolonged detention without charge or trial.”

We know that that power is routinely abused, most recently with the detention of four Jaffna university students just before Christmas. They were locked away without trial or any meaningful right of appeal. The regime also forbids the free movement of people, especially journalists, in many Tamil areas.

At the end of November 2012, an estimated 94,000 people were still internally displaced. In November 2011, the UN Committee against Torture even reported that the Sri Lankan military behave as if they are above the law. In 2011, Sri Lanka was ranked fourth highest in the entire planet for cases of unsolved journalist murders. Tens of thousands of Tamil men and women continue to live without security, shelter or independence.

I believe that Britain can put peaceful and diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka. We are already Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, their second largest investor behind China and their main source of western tourism. If the UN were to move towards economic sanctions under the responsibility to protect, British involvement would have a huge impact on the Sri Lankan economy. It is very rare for me to disagree with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), but the Government need seriously to consider, as the Canadians have done, boycotting the Commonwealth event. I do not believe that appeasement works. If the Government said that there would be a boycott unless things dramatically improved, that would have a significant impact on the Sri Lankan regime.

On the responsibility to protect, the lesson, as we have seen in recent years, is that in almost every case where the UN has shouldered its responsibility and stepped in, such as in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s or more recently in Libya in 2011, catastrophe has been averted and it has led to economic growth and the beginnings of democratic reform. Where the United Nations has done nothing, such as in Syria, things have worsened.

We have to use everything at our disposal to make it clear to Sri Lanka that it can no longer behave like a rogue nation. Concrete steps have to be taken to demilitarise the north and east, civil administration should be restored and Tamils should be given their basic human rights: the rights to life and a fair trial, freedom of expression, movement and assembly, property rights and the rule of law. Sri Lanka should publish a list of all prisoners and where they are being held. The International Committee of the Red Cross must have access to all detention centres and a neutral commission should be appointed by the UN to safeguard property rights in Tamil areas and all resettlement programmes. Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission should implement the recommendations made in its interim report. Above all, Sri Lanka must comply with the recommendations of the report by the UN panel of experts and arrive at a durable justice for the Tamils.

Clearly the Tamil Tigers are no longer a threat to the Sri Lankan Government and can no longer be used as an excuse, but persecution continues. The excuse of security was used as a cover for genocide, and it is now being used for an attempt to wipe out the inheritance of the Tamil-speaking minority. The UN, as the hon. Lady said, has a responsibility to protect if a regime is abusing its own people. If we can put peaceful, legitimate but tough pressure on Sri Lanka, whether through sanctions or a boycott of the Commonwealth summit, that is what we must do.

On my journey to the House this morning, I drove through the memorial gates near the Mall. The words “Sri Lanka” are carved in granite on those gates to remind us that the Indian subcontinent, during the two great world wars, gave 5 million volunteers to this nation to defend freedom. When we hear the aggression from Argentina over the Falklands this week, we are reminded that the only country that stood with us in the international community in the original attempt to take back the Falklands was Sri Lanka. When a country that has supported us in the past comes under pressure, we should not kick it in the teeth. We stretch out the hand of forbearance and say, “We will help you through the difficult, post-conflict situation that you are clearly in. We will give you our experience and our help. We will not give you our hatred and our anger.” That is an important lesson that we, in a nation part of which is in a post-conflict situation, should recognise.

I have visited Sri Lanka on a number of occasions, both as a private individual and with constituents who had business there, as well as on a cross-party parliamentary trip. My experience was very different from what I have heard from propagandists not in Sri Lanka. The people on the ground gave a very different message from the out-of-touch one that I have heard from the self-appointed diaspora, both in Canada and here in the United Kingdom.

I have visited Jaffna, the most disputed part of Sri Lanka in the north. There I saw new housing settlements, with Tamils living in them. I had tea with some of those families, whose interests are fishing and farming. They did not talk to me about the past, even though they had opportunity to do so. Indeed, when I raised the past—I was with them on my own—they wanted to talk about their future, their children and their new housing settlements, which were supported by money given by our country through the EU to help rebuild their country. They wanted to talk about moving forward. I have met both Tamil and Sinhalese families, and their united wish was to present a picture of hope for their country, not a picture of division. It was a community that wanted to move forward. They did not want to hear the international community talking about what happened in the past; they wanted the international community to help them to move to a better future.

On one occasion, two of my guides were a Tamil gentleman and a Sinhalese gentleman who had been at war with each other. At the end of my visit, in tears they embraced each other, and they spoke about how they were now new brothers in a new land. Whenever I raised with them issues that I had heard in the propaganda in the United Kingdom, they could not understand them. They said that they bore no resemblance to their reality on the ground. In many aspects, Sri Lanka has made more measurable gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland. That is what I have seen on the ground, and we should recognise it and stop the suffocation of a country by its past and help Sri Lanka to move forward to a better future.

I took a day out and spent it with the leader of Tamil National Alliance, Mr Sampanthan. I spoke to him and his party colleagues at length, and I waited for him because I wanted to hear from him at first hand, without his being pushed or prodded into some of the difficult issues about the past. He did not raise with me the issue of the disappeared; he did not take time to raise with me the issue of war crimes; he did not take time to talk about routine torture, in his country, of his people. He had a politician with him from this nation and he did not want to talk about those things. In fact, he actively applauded the Government, whom he opposes. He applauded them on their investment in the country—in parts of the north—and he said that the most effective thing that many of his people required was practical help to get bicycles and other tools to help them to work and run their country. That was the message of the man who is leading the opposition.

If people took the time to speak to the active politicians on the ground who are representatives of their community, they might have a slightly different perspective than that in some of the propaganda that we have seen and heard. I urge the Minister to appeal publicly today to Sampanthan to stop his boycott of the political process, to lead his people and his party, and to join with other parties in the parliamentary select committee of Sri Lanka to find a political solution to the problems. We learnt the lesson the hard way.

People find a political solution by engaging in politics, not by asking for a boycott or for the international community to do their work for them—they do it themselves. I appeal to our Government to say to Sampanthan, “Lead your people and do not boycott the process any longer.” Politics, not a boycott, will work. The international community will not solve Sri Lanka’s problems. It will be the people of Sri Lanka, living in Sri Lanka, who will fix the problems of Sri Lanka, and we should actively encourage them in that. The biggest mistake that this Government could make would be to send the message to Sri Lanka that they were going to pull out of the Commonwealth talks later this year and punish a country that needs help, not more persecution.

If our remaining four speakers take no more than four minutes each, they will all get in. They are James Wharton, Jeremy Corbyn, Aidan Burley and Simon Hughes.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who speaks passionately, with experience of post-conflict life and of rebuilding communities after a very difficult period. He gives us all cause to pause and to reflect on what the debate is really about. There was a great deal that I wanted to say, but as I have a very short time, I will significantly cut down my comments.

I have been to Sri Lanka a number of times, and the visits are all declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have gone there with colleagues, some of whom are here today. What worries me is how much misinformation is out there about what is happening on the ground. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott), who follows matters in Sri Lanka keenly, has a different position from mine, but it is a genuinely felt one. He was absolutely right to say that we must not forget the past, but we must not misinterpret or misrepresent it either.

A problem that Sri Lanka has faced in the debate in the western world, in this Parliament, in the media and in other places across the globe is that, for a variety of reasons, too many people try to change what happened in the past, to change the accepted facts of what went on. The reality is that a lot of what we see is not based on facts or in reality. I have raised the point before in the House that even the Darusman report, which preceded the UN report that has led to the debate today, specifically states, in paragraph 53:

“This account should not be taken as proven facts, and any effort to determine specific liabilities would require a higher threshold.”

It is made clear that the report establishes a narrative that can be used to work forwards but that none of the data—for example, on the numbers of casualties—should be quoted as specific figures. The facts on the ground regarding the provision of food and medical supplies are starkly different from some of the evidence given by unnamed sources to the expert committee that put together the report.

I am conscious of the time, so I just want to draw the House’s attention to a few areas in which progress is being made in Sri Lanka. Most of the 300,000 internally displaced persons have now been resettled. I visited Menik farm, one of the welfare camps set up to house the huge numbers of people displaced by conflict in January of last year. There were about 6,000 people left, and the camp has now closed and the people have gone home. They have been able to do so because demining operations have proceeded at an amazing pace, with more than 900,000 mines and unexploded ordnance having been cleared, primarily by the Sri Lankan army but also by the HALO Trust with support from UK aid, and I congratulate the UK on its contribution.

More than 120,000 houses have been constructed in the north and the east, nearly 600 child soldiers have been rehabilitated and more than 10,000 adult combatants have been rehabilitated or reintegrated into Sri Lankan society. Some 900 Tamil speakers have been recruited into the police force in the north and east, and that is important in building trust in a community that does not have historic trust in its Government and the organisations that represent it. Investment is key, as is infrastructure, so that the economy can grow and people can improve their lives.

When I went to Sri Lanka with the charity International Alert, we visited a group of young Tamil people in the Vanni, and they talked about jobs and employment prospects, about what they were going to do and what they wanted to do. They talked about the challenges that they faced at home and about how they wanted to get education and the cost of education. They talked about the same things that young people in colleges in my constituency talk to me about; they share some of the same problems. They wanted to look forward and go forward.

The tone of debate in the House too often worries me, because we focus on what we can do to punish the Government of Sri Lanka, whether by the removal of the generalised system of preferences or the UK’s pulling out of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Such things will not damage the Government of Sri Lanka; they will damage progress towards peace and the prosperity of the people who live in Sri Lanka. The tone of the debate here needs to change. We need to work constructively with the Government of Sri Lanka to put pressure where it is due and, where we can, to deliver improvement.

I will be brief, Mr Hollobone, so that the other Members can get in. I compliment you on your chairing of the debate and on your announcing in advance the line of speakers. That is helpful, and it is a good precedent for Westminster Hall debates.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on their contributions and on their work within the all-party group for Tamils and in support of the Tamil diaspora. The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) and I have been involved in issues regarding the Tamil people and Sri Lanka ever since 1983, when we were both first elected to the House, and I have never forgotten the huge demonstration that took place in July of that year in London because of the problems that there then were in Sri Lanka. There has been a litany of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka for the past 30 years and beyond.

It is not an accident that there is a large Tamil diaspora in London. Many Tamil people came to this country to seek a place of safety because of the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and the years before. I pay tribute to the diaspora community for pulling together. It supported the hunger strikes that took place out here in Parliament square and mobilised 200,000 people to march through London in support of the rights and survival of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Mobilising 200,000—almost the entire diaspora community—was a remarkable achievement; but, disgracefully, the British media routinely and almost totally ignored it. They were more concerned about traffic disruption in Parliament square than about human rights in Sri Lanka.

I recognise that things have changed and that things have to move on. There has to be a peace process, reconciliation and a reckoning with the past, which we are looking at to move forward.

My two essential points are that the UN report of last November specifically refers to the shelling of hospitals and civilian areas by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the way in which UN staff were driven away from the areas of conflict in 2008. I hope those issues will be seriously examined at the UN Human Rights Council meeting next month, which I hope to attend, as I have attended many Human Rights Council events

If we do not consider those issues, if we do not ensure the closure of what I do not refer to as welfare camps—at the end of the conflict, they were more like concentration camps—and if we do not address rights and opportunities for Tamil people in Sri Lanka, the war will return in a different form at a later stage. It is not a question of the Sri Lankan Government claiming victory over the Tamil people and the Tigers, as they have done; it has to be a question of their perception of the future of that country, otherwise in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time, if any of us are still here, we will be debating the same thing again: yet another massacre of Tamil people and yet another wave of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka trying to flee to a place of safety.

I hope that the Minister is able to tell us that the Government will be robust on the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and will play a robust role at the UN Human Rights Council next month to show that the UN, the Human Rights Council and the human rights of the Tamil people matter in bringing about long-term peace in Sri Lanka.

Many speakers this morning have started by declaring whether they have visited Sir Lanka, and I intervened on the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) to ask whether she has done so, because I visited Sri Lanka in July 2012 and spent eight days travelling all over the country. I did not just fly into Colombo; I went to the north, the east and the south. I went to Jaffna and Kilinochchi, Trincomalee, Kandy and Hambantota. I went to all the rural areas, not just to the towns and cities.

I went to the Jaffna teaching hospital and discussed the lack of medical equipment with some of the doctors. I went to the chamber of commerce and discussed inward investment with business leaders. I visited resettlement projects in Ariyalai and mine clearing in Kilinochchi with the HALO Trust, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) mentioned, is partly funded through the Department for International Development.

I met the President in Kandy. I also met, Mr Sampanthan, a leader of the opposition, for several hours in Trincomalee—I recognise the comments of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley)—and I remember him telling us that he wanted a bicycle for every one of his people, which is his main priority.

I have detailed my trip because I strongly believe that people can only speak authoritatively and honestly about a subject if they have first-hand experience, seeing things with their own eyes and forming their own impressions, rather than just watching a Channel 4 documentary. After all, would a person buy a house just because someone told them it was nice, or would they want to see the property first hand? Would a person move to an area just because someone said it was a nice place to live, or would they want to visit the area first?

Everywhere I went on my eight-day trip to Sri Lanka last year, I saw the same thing first hand: Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims living harmoniously with each other, getting on with their lives and rebuilding their country. I saw the different communities and faiths living beside one another after their horrendous civil war. I saw Sinhalese boys and Tamil girls playing together in the playgrounds of the schools that we visited. That is why I wanted to speak in this debate. The UK should be helping Sri Lanka, our former colony, to rebuild itself. British politicians should understand Sri Lanka’s reconciliation and help it to demine, so that communities can move back to their own lands. I saw that happening with my own eyes; I saw the minefields being cleared through the HALO Trust, and I saw houses being rebuilt and crops being grown on the old minefields. That is constructive. We saw HSBC and Marks and Spencer in Sri Lanka. I learnt that the software that runs the UK stock market is based in Sri Lanka.

All that is positive—it is about jobs and livelihoods—and we should be having a debate on encouraging trade to Sri Lanka. British politicians should be leading business trips and delegations of British companies to Sri Lanka to encourage Sri Lankan and British businesses to work together. Britain has the second-highest number of tourists to Sri Lanka—a country that desperately needs tourists’ pounds. I do not believe this debate will help that rebuilding process; it is a negative debate that perpetuates old myths and stereotypes and is based on narrow interest groups in the UK that have their own agendas.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said that he was astonished to see the Sri Lankan Government lobbying here. I know lobbyists for the Sri Lankan Government. My constituency is 99% white, and there is no diaspora. I have no candle to hold for the Sri Lankan Government; I am just recounting the first-hand impressions that I witnessed for myself by bothering to go to the country. The hon. Lady should go to Sri Lanka and speak to the people of Sri Lanka, not to the people of Mitcham and Morden, and listen to what they have to say. I found a country at peace with itself. That is what we should be debating and supporting: helping Sri Lanka to build a better future for itself, rather than letting extremists in the UK divide it.

I thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I appreciate the initiation of this debate by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I remind some colleagues, who I think have forgotten, that the subject of the debate is Sri Lanka and the UN responsibility to protect. As the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, I have taken an interest in the subject during all my time in the House—not because I have a significant number of Sri Lankan, Tamil or Sinhalese constituents, but because I am a human rights lawyer and I think minority rights need to be protected.

I have been to Sri Lanka, and I paid for myself—I had political meetings some years ago. I was not allowed to go everywhere I wanted to go, particularly in the north. I regularly engage with Sri Lankan Ministers and high commissioners, sometimes very frustratingly, when they have been in this country. I am a co-founder of the all-party group on conflict issues. I have worked with the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Elders to ensure that young people from both communities have gone to Sri Lanka.

I found the civil war one of the most depressing, frightening and unhappy periods of my time in the House. I was with the Tamil community out on Parliament square pretty much every day, and I arranged to go with them to the White House to try to get the US to press the UN and the Sri Lankan Government. They met the Commonwealth secretary-general and the leader of the European Foreign Affairs Council. I had a conversation with the UN and the Tamils, and the UN was unable to do anything; it failed abysmally. The UN agreed in 2005 that there should be a responsibility to protect, but it did not do any protecting. The UN pulled out, which was absolutely scandalous and shameful. The UN proved itself to be a totally ineffective organisation at that time.

My interest now is to ensure that the UN learns those lessons, with the UK’s help, and that the Sri Lankan Government learns those lessons, too, because Sri Lanka is not yet a wonderful democracy. Sri Lanka is nepotistic, as has been described. Disappearances have not been explained. Sri Lanka has one of the worst records for journalistic freedom in the world on all objective indices. Assassinations have happened, and no one has been brought to trial for them. Not all people are allowed to go back to their own community, and I say that not because I am pro-Tamil and anti-Sinhala—I am a member of both all-party groups—but because, so far, minorities have not had an equal opportunity to play a part in Sri Lanka.

I know the commitment of my hon. Friend the Minister to peacekeeping and bridge-building from our work together over the years.

Given that the UN set up its panel of experts, which reported to Ban Ki-moon in November 2012, and given that the UN Human Rights Council agreed a resolution in Geneva—we supported that resolution, which will come back for assessment this spring—what are we doing to ensure that the UN responsibility to protect means something in future? That responsibility does not yet mean something, and an amendment to the way that the Security Council and the UN work is needed.

What will we do in Geneva in the next few weeks to ensure that the accountability that was sought is implemented? What do we do to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government are held to account for war crimes? There were war crimes on both sides, but Governments have a particular responsibility not to commit war crimes, and they need to be held to account.

What will we do about the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting? It should not have been agreed to hold it in Colombo. Unless Colombo shows that it is moving in a fundamentally different direction, the UK should not support the Commonwealth, which has been weak on the issue, or endorse the Commonwealth’s support for the regime by its presence in Colombo. That would not be the right approach for the British Government. I hope that the Minister will be robust. We need Britain to be robust, in the interests of everybody in Sri Lanka and of a successful future for Sri Lanka as a whole.

Mr Hollobone, I join in congratulating you on how you have chaired this debate and managed to call all the speakers. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate. I have participated with her in previous debates on Sri Lanka, and she is not just passionate but knowledgeable about the situation there, despite not having visited the country.

It is interesting that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) discussed the eight-day trip to Sri Lanka in July, which was arranged by the Sri Lankan high commission. Nine Conservative MPs went on that trip, plus the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). I certainly was not invited. As I am the Opposition spokesperson on Sri Lanka, one might think that I would have been the first port of call if the high commission genuinely wanted it to be a cross-party trip. It is obviously useful and important to visit countries and see the situation on the ground, but the experience on such trips and the lessons learned tend to depend on what one is shown and who is the host. This debate has amply demonstrated how going to see things on the ground does not necessarily give the whole picture.

I will not, because it is important that we give the Minister time to respond. I want to use less than my time if possible.

Like the Government, we welcome the report of the internal review panel on UN action in Sri Lanka, and we note the panel’s conclusion that the Secretary-General took a courageous step in commissioning the review, but that in itself is not enough; we must learn lessons from it. We must not just focus on the extent to which the Sri Lankan people were let down by the international community; we must see how we can move forward.

The temptation with any review is to focus on the past. We should not forget the atrocities committed on Sri Lanka’s killing fields, the tens of thousands who needlessly lost their lives during the civil war or the many other civilians who have been affected. I do not support calls to draw a line under those atrocities; I do not think that the time has come to say that we can now move on and forget what happened. Many people have not been held to account for the crimes that they committed, and we must still focus on that. I thought it quite shocking that one Government Member referred to irregularities in the past. They were much more than irregularities. It is also shocking that people cast doubt on the evidence, such as was shown in the Channel 4 programme, about what happened in Sri Lanka. It is well documented by international organisations.

As the head of Amnesty International’s UN New York office stated, the review is

“a wake-up call for UN member states that have not pushed hard enough for an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes”.

Amnesty warned that there is “no evidence” that

“the Sri Lankan Government’s lack of will to protect civilians or account for very serious violations…has changed”.

The most pertinent conclusions on which we must now focus are that the report’s recommendations provide

“an urgent and compelling platform for action”

and that the

“UN’s failure to adequately respond to events like those that occurred in Sri Lanka should not happen again.”

Many have been shocked by the review’s finding that UN staff

“did not perceive the prevention of killing civilians as their responsibility”.

On the concept of a responsibility to protect, the review warned:

“Differing perceptions among member states and the Secretariat of the concept’s meaning and use had become so contentious as to nullify its potential value. Indeed, making references to the responsibility to protect was seen as more likely to weaken rather than strengthen UN action.”

The panel concluded that there is an

“urgent need for the UN to update its strategy for engagement with member states in situations where civilian populations…are not protected”.

Will the Minister outline the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s current interpretation of the responsibility to protect doctrine? What discussions have the Government had with international colleagues about the internal review and how the situation can move forward?

During the past year, the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission has been published, but as has been widely acknowledged, it failed to address the credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides in the conflict, as highlighted by the UN panel of experts. The LLRC’s composition and narrow terms of reference were deeply flawed, as is borne out in its report, which fails even to mention torture, despite the fact that the UN Committee against Torture noted “continued and consistent allegations” of its widespread use.

The LLRC was in no way adequate, but some of its recommendations offered a foundation on which we could build, providing that they are properly implemented. In accordance with the UN Human Rights Council resolution passed in March, the Sri Lankan Government developed their national action plan, about which I have asked the Minister before, but there remain few signs of meaningful progress, as noted by many countries and non-governmental organisations during Sri Lanka’s universal periodic review towards the end of last year. What contact has the UK had with the Sri Lankan authorities since the periodic review? Will the UK set out identifiable goals that can be assessed at the UN human rights plenary session in March, which must take the opportunity to reassure the people of Sri Lanka that the UN can help them?

The year 2013 could prove to be a crossroads for Sri Lanka, but the UN is not the only institution with a pivotal role to play. Many Members have mentioned the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit later this year. The UK’s stance to date has been ambiguous compared with, for example, that of the Canadian Prime Minister, who stated unequivocally that, unless there were clear signs of improvement in Sri Lanka’s human rights record, he would boycott the summit. Is the UK Prime Minister’s attendance at CHOGM provisional? If so, what conditions must the Sri Lankan Government meet if the UK is to be present?

We must also consider the UK’s duty to protect. Will the Minister update us on the Foreign Office’s discussions with the Home Office regarding deportations to Sri Lanka, which other hon. Members have mentioned? Finally, given the UN’s clear failures to protect civilians and recognise the Government’s human rights abuses and the shortcomings of the LLRC, does the Minister agree that the people of Sri Lanka deserve an independent international investigation to provide not only answers and accountability but a clear way forward for their country?

I add my thanks to those of my colleagues, Mr Hollobone, for your chairing of this debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her brevity and her remarks. I start, as always, by congratulating the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate. Her deep and committed interest in Sri Lankan issues is well known. I welcome the opportunity to state the Government’s position and the opportunity that she has once again provided the House to discuss the issue.

I welcome the interventions of a number of colleagues in this debate. They have been passionate, thoughtful and honest. The difference of views expressed across the Chamber emphasises the complexity of the issue. In an effort to defuse a little of the heat, may I say that, bearing in mind the history of the issue and who was in Government in 2009, a degree of humility in all parties is helpful? Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The contributions of colleagues with personal experience of reconciliation in parts of the UK were particularly important in bringing to the surface some of the difficulties involved.

The UK’s relationship with Sri Lanka is long-standing, strong and based on close historical, cultural, educational, commercial and family ties that will not weaken. The United Kingdom is fortunate to have a large Sri Lankan diaspora community, which contributes much to our rich and diverse culture. Over the past couple of years, I have met regularly with Sri Lankan Ministers, parliamentarians from different parties and members of the diaspora in the United Kingdom. As has been noted, in two weeks’ time, I will make my second visit to the country.

The hon. Lady suggested that my visit might be taken as a vindication of the Government. I assure her and the House that judging from experience over the past couple of years, my remarks are not always taken in that way by the Government, who are entitled to see them as they wish. I do not think that that is a particular risk.

There are different ways of visiting a country. People do not always have to go on a Government-sponsored visit; non-governmental organisations are operating, for example. People should declare everything and of course they must be on guard, no matter who takes them on a visit. It is helpful to visit and get a picture, if it is possible to do so, although that does not preclude views from those who have not visited but know a great deal about the issue.

The decades-long war in Sri Lanka, which ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, devastated the country and deeply scarred its population. Sri Lankans deserve lasting peace and reconciliation and where the United Kingdom and international organisations, such as the UN, are able to encourage and support the process it is right to do so.

I want to deal with three elements that came out of this debate: the situation of the UN; progress being made in Sri Lanka; and issues to do with the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. In essence, I agree with and support the remarks made by the hon. Lady. It is right that the UN has been through an intense process, examining its role in relation to the conclusion of events in Sri Lanka. We welcome the report by the panel of experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General in 2011, which found credible allegations that both sides were involved in violations of international humanitarian law, and its setting up its own independent internal report to consider what happened with regard to the UN’s role. We agree that shortcomings were identified. In following that up, we note that the UN has moved swiftly to put in place a lessons-learned programme overseen by a panel chaired by the Deputy Secretary-General’s office. It is there that we will make our contribution to how the UN is going to repair what it failed to do in relation to the responsibility to protect, and we will follow that panel’s progress closely. I expect that questions will be raised about that over time.

We are committed to and support the concept of responsibility to protect, which was supported by all UN member states in 2005. The difficulty that was found in 2009 was that a pillar III responsibility-to-protect response required the agreement of the UN Security Council. It was clear at the time—former Ministers in this Chamber know this better than I—that there was not widespread support in the wider international community for a more assertive position towards the parties to the conflict. This turns out to have been a tragedy. The United Kingdom’s primary concerns during the final offensive were to ensure unimpeded access by humanitarian agencies and compliance with international humanitarian law, including investigations of allegations of violations. The UK focused, therefore, on the parties’ obligations to protect the civilian population.

In the light of what he has just said, will the Minister comment on paragraph 15 of the internal report? It says that there was

“concern that the moment that humanitarian organizations leave, the Government will begin bombing Killinochchi town and that the physical security of the civilian population will be at increased risk”.

It is implicit that there is safety by the UN organisation’s very presence and that there is supervision.

Yes. As we have all said during the debate, the UN is examining its processes carefully as it finds fault in what it did in the past and emphasises the importance of UN engagement in the most difficult circumstances. Of course, we see in Syria today how difficult that has become. No doubt, the UN panel will look carefully at how it failed to meet that obligation and what might be done in difficult circumstances in future.

The LTTE is a brutal, ruthless organisation that rightly remains proscribed in the UK, but a military victory alone cannot deliver the stable, lasting peace all Sri Lankans deserve. Addressing events during the final days of the conflict is important and the UK has consistently called for an independent investigation into allegations of violation of international humanitarian law on both sides. There needs to be a more fundamental approach that goes beyond accountability. Colleagues have mentioned this in terms of the context of the future of Sri Lanka being for Sri Lankans themselves and how they take this forward. Therefore, we support the view, widely held in Sri Lanka and outside, that long-term peace can best be achieved through an inclusive political settlement that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict. Such a settlement must also take into account the legitimate grievances and aspirations of all Sri Lanka’s communities.

On the progress that has been made, the Sri Lankan Government recognised that in appointing the LLRC, which submitted its report in December 2011 and made more than 200 recommendations, including calls for credible investigations of alleged judicial killings and disappearances, demilitarisation of the north, implementation of impartial land-dispute resolution mechanisms and protection of freedom of expression.

Although we welcome the recommendations that were made, as I said at the time, the Government’s view is that the report left gaps and unanswered questions on alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. We were disappointed by the report’s conclusions and recommendations on accountability. None the less, as colleagues have said, the recommendations, if implemented in full, would go a long way to achieving the reconciliation that we believe will achieve lasting peace.

What progress has there been and, in answer to colleagues who have asked what we are looking for, what have we measured? The UK recognises and welcomes progress made in various areas. UK officials have visited all nine provinces of Sri Lanka in the past 12 months and have seen much to welcome. The absence of conflict has brought greater security and opened up economic development—the demining was mentioned by colleagues—with UK financial support, freeing up yet more land for resettlement and agriculture. Rehabilitation of thousands of ex-combatants, including child soldiers, has allowed many individuals to integrate back into society. The majority of internally displaced persons have now moved out of camps, although there is still work to be done in ensuring that “permanent homes” means just that, and does not mean people being deposited in places that they came from. Troop numbers are well below those in 2009. Although that is positive, there still remains more to be done to ensure that there is lasting peace and prosperity.

The March 2012 Human Rights Council resolution, supported by the UK and a number of member states, called on the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the LLRC recommendations and address alleged violations of international law. I assure hon. Members that we will be robust in pursuing that in the March 2013 council meeting. We wish that action plan, with deadlines from early this year for the implementation of LLRC recommendations, to be carried forward. It only covers about half of the LLRC recommendations. When I go to Sri Lanka in a couple of weeks, I will see if Sri Lanka will consider implementing all the recommendations and, if so, how to take it forward.

It is too soon to talk about our attendance plans for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. We will not move from that position for a period of time. Sri Lanka was scheduled to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2011, but given ongoing concerns about the humanitarian and human rights situation, the UK and other Commonwealth members did not support its bid. However, Commonwealth members decided that Sri Lanka would host in 2013. To reopen that decision would require a consensus of all member states and I do not think that is likely.

I have listened carefully to exchanges between hon. Members. The intensity of views and the sharp divide between colleagues emphasises how difficult and complex the situation is. A decision on the location of CHOGM is not for the UK; it is for the Commonwealth. The meeting will discuss many issues, not just Sri Lanka, but as Sri Lanka well knows it will inevitably shine a spotlight on the host country, demonstrating either its progress or lack of it. It is up to Sri Lanka to choose what will be seen. As the Foreign Secretary has said, we expect the Sri Lankan Government to demonstrate that they uphold the values of the Commonwealth.

Colleagues have said that the UK should not let Her Majesty the Queen go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. It is important to clarify that she attends that meeting as head of the Commonwealth, not the UK Head of State. Her attendance is not a decision for the UK Government. If she were to ask for advice, it would be from all Commonwealth members.

Following the resolution of the conflict, it is clear that long-term reconciliation is an issue. The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), perceptive as he often is, said that unless that is done the problem will come back at some stage to haunt everyone in Sri Lanka. The process of reconciliation is not easy. Some progress has been made in implementing some of the recommendations in the LLRC report. More needs to be done. The LLRC needs to be given time and good will must be there on all sides to see the process through. Nothing has been swept under the carpet and we are mindful of what has happened in the past and of the wishes of all Sri Lankans for the future.