Skip to main content

Sri Lanka

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What assistance they are offering to the Government of Sri Lanka following the recommendations of the All-Party Representative Committee in that country.

My Lords, we support the efforts of the All-Party Representative Committee to devise a political solution to the conflict and remain ready to share our experiences of devolution. We believe that full implementation of the 13th Amendment, including funding for regional councils and greater emphasis on official use of the Tamil language, can be a step forward, but we would welcome more fresh thinking from the committee on a just settlement that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of all communities.

My Lords, that is a very encouraging Answer. However, as the noble Lord knows, we have a new high commissioner there. Is it not rather disappointing that our aid to Sri Lanka through DfID is, I understand, to be reduced just when the eastern province needs help in educating Tamil policemen and the child soldiers who have been taken out of warfare? Finally, is it not also a great problem that we have 20 bogus Tamil Tiger front organisations in this country? The Tigers are a proscribed organisation. Should we not be doing more to stop the millions of pounds that are going from this country to continue that war?

My Lords, as to the noble Lord’s second point, he was with me at a meeting with the British Tamil constituents of a number of Members of Parliament. I think he will recall that I gave very clear advice to those Tamil UK nationals that we thought it utterly inappropriate for them to contribute in any way that might be used to provide military arms for terrorist activities in Sri Lanka. I am happy to have his full endorsement of that point.

On the noble Lord’s first point about DfID assistance, the DfID programme to Sri Lanka has largely ended because of the country’s income level. The debt relief component of it is a special case but the fact is that a combination of concerns about the country’s human rights and income level have indeed led to a sharp reduction in the DfID provision for Sri Lanka.

My Lords, is not DfID making a contribution to the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, which fears that half a million people may need assistance later in the year? Does the Minister agree that at least a limited devolution of power to the north and east would do something to mitigate the polarisation of the two communities, even though it would be better to insist that the all-party committee recommendations are published by at least April, even if the parties cannot all agree on them? Can the Minister say what we think about the development of a more politically powerful contact group, as recommended by the International Crisis Group?

My Lords, the humanitarian assistance that we provide will not in any way be changed because of the situation in Sri Lanka. We provide assistance through the Global Conflict Prevention Pool and want to participate in the humanitarian action plan, although, as I said, we have no bilateral aid development programme.

On the second point about devolution of powers, local provincial government and our support for that, we think that is all moving in the right direction. Our fundamental concern is that there is not a sufficiently ambitious political initiative through the APRC or through other means to offer the prospect of a political solution to the problems of the country.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Naseby has just circulated a very interesting report on Sri Lanka, following his visit there, in which he points out that there is a threat of EU sanctions against the garment trade in Sri Lanka for various reasons—good or bad—which would have a devastating effect on the country generally at a very sensitive time. Will the Minister assure us that we will use all influence that we can in the European Union to prevent ill-timed sanctions of this kind damaging poor Sri Lanka more than it has been damaged already?

My Lords, the issue of the garment trade and the EU is a trade matter as well as a political one. On the trade side, we have been anxious that countries such as Sri Lanka do not suffer disruption because of changed EU international trade arrangements. There need to be managed changes in such regimes.

On the broader point, we are concerned about the escalating human rights difficulties in the country and the lack of an adequate political way forward. The EU, like us, is following that. At the moment, our activities are focused on trying to improve human rights monitoring of the situation in Sri Lanka, not on sanctions. That is a position that the EU shares with us. I join the noble Lord in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on his excellent report.

My Lords, the Government of Sri Lanka have already announced that they are prepared to hold unconditional talks with the LTTE. In light of that, what are we doing in this country to ensure that proscribed, and related, organisations are not collecting funds for the purchase of arms to destabilise that process?

My Lords, I slightly take issue with the noble Lord about the unqualified nature of the Government’s willingness to sit down and talk to the LTTE. I wish it were that straightforward. We would press the Government for a wholehearted political initiative and to resist the danger of believing that there is a military solution to the problem. Seeing many of our colleagues from Northern Ireland in the Chamber today, I shall repeat that we have been impressing on the Government the need to learn from some of our experience in Ireland as regards finding a political way of resolving this conflict. I say again that the LTTE is a proscribed organisation here and in Europe at large and, therefore, people should not be knowingly contributing to its military activities. It is wrong and illegal to do that.

My Lords, I want to follow up on the final question asked by my noble friend Lord Avebury. Will the Minister comment on whether there should be deepened co-operation—this is the recommendation from the International Crisis Group—between India, the EU and the US, with the goal of eventually developing a more politically powerful contact group? Will he comment on that please?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving me an opportunity to answer that part of the noble Lord’s question. In general, Sri Lanka has been protected by its genuinely democratic character. It has a Government who were elected through the ballot box. That has meant that its neighbours, as well as the EU, have held back a little from forming a contact group or bringing direct pressure to bear and have relied on the Norwegians to provide a mediation function. Unfortunately, that is now at an end. It is an idea that merits serious attention, whether a powerful friends’ group might help both sides to begin the much-needed serious dialogue to resolve these issues politically.