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Sri Lanka

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 12 February 2009


Asked By Lord Wallace of Saltaire

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking, in co-operation with other governments, to avert a humanitarian disaster resulting from the conflict in northern Sri Lanka.

My Lords, DfID has provided financial support of £5 million since October; £1,750,000 has already been disbursed to help meet the immediate needs of those displaced in Vanni and elsewhere. As a leading donor, DfID has taken a strategic approach to supporting those key agencies which have been able to operate effectively despite the difficulties on the ground. Most other donors are working through the UN and the ICRC. We have sent three DfID humanitarian experts to Sri Lanka to conduct an urgent reassessment of the deteriorating situation. DfID is working through the United Nations to maintain pressure on both sides, for international humanitarian law to be respected, for access to humanitarian agencies and for safe passage out of the conflict area for all civilians.

My Lords, I hope we all recognise that Britain has a very active interest in this tragedy. We have the largest Tamil population in Europe and a rather smaller Sri Lankan population. A humanitarian disaster will therefore lap over on to this country if there is a substantial flow of asylum seekers. Many of us are not partisan of either side in this dispute; it is clear that there have been serious human rights abuses on both sides. Will Her Majesty’s Government do their best with others, including Sri Lanka’s neighbours, to bring sharp pressure to bear on both sides not to use civilians as shields in a very bitter conflict?

My Lords, I agree with everything the noble Lord says. This is a desperately sad conflict, with some 250,000 internally displaced persons. It is absolutely right that the Government, and all Governments, should bring the maximum pressure to bear on the parties to respect international law. We recognise the importance of that. The real issue is not money, as we think that we are providing enough money, but ensuring that people respect international law—that is true of both sides—and getting access to the war zones to provide help to the affected civilians.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the real issue is between a democratically elected Government, including Tamils, and a terrorist outfit, probably the strongest in the world? Is he further aware that this morning there is a new safe zone west of Mullaitivu? The figure that I have is still huge, but the number of people involved is around 100,000 rather than a quarter of a million. Provided that the Tigers do not shoot people when they come into the new safe zone, they will be welcomed and the international community can help to look after them. However, my key question is: did Her Majesty’s Government support the statement by the Tokyo co-chairs; namely, Norway, the US, Japan and the EU? I am sorry to burden the House with this but it is very important. They,

“call on the LTTE to discuss with the Government of Sri Lanka the modalities for ending hostilities, including the laying down of arms , renunciation of violence, acceptance of the Government of Sri Lanka’s offer of amnesty; and participating as a political party in a process to achieve a just … political solution”.

Did the Government wholeheartedly support them?

My Lords, further to the Minister’s first Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, what contacts have the Government established and maintained with aid agencies in the region? As soon as it becomes possible to access the conflict area thousands of people will need urgent humanitarian aid. Do we have the logistics in place to spring into action?

My Lords, the Government have dispatched three specialists to Sri Lanka. I think that they went about three or four days ago. They are assessing the situation on the ground and will provide information to the UK about where to channel the aid. It is our view that aid should be disbursed through the people on the ground at present. They have the local knowledge and the local contacts. It is about our knowing who to support and then supporting them as soon as that possibility emerges.

My Lords, do not the suicide bombing of people who have already escaped from the enclave and the shooting of people still trying to escape show the necessity in the long run of eliminating LTTE terrorism from Sri Lanka? At the same time, will the Government urge Sri Lanka to make it clear that the doors are open to sensible, moderate Tamils to discuss the constitutional future of the country and the devolution of powers to the north and east?

My Lords, clearly the society of Sri Lanka needs to eliminate terrorism. It is a cancer in its heart and there is, as the noble Lord suggests, significant LTTE terrorism. The Government do not go as far as being very specific. They are urging, and asking the international community to join them in urging, that there must be a political solution and an understanding on all sides as to how to form a Sri Lanka for the future. Sri Lanka has the resources to be a very successful country, if only this terrible war could end.