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Sri Lanka

Volume 708: debated on Monday 23 February 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the political situation in Sri Lanka and the impact of the military campaign against the Tamil Tigers.

My Lords, the recent military advances of the Sri Lankan Government and the subsequent humanitarian crisis make a sustained drive for a lasting political solution to the conflict all the more urgent. We have made clear to the Government of Sri Lanka that a political solution that addresses the legitimate concerns of all communities in Sri Lanka is the only way to bring a sustainable end to the conflict.

My Lords, why was a special envoy appointed with absolutely no consultation with the Sri Lankan Government? Is that the way to treat a friendly country? Indeed, it is one of just a handful of countries that supported us at the time of the Falklands war. In any case, do we not have a first-class high commissioner already in Sri Lanka who, rather than a failed politician, can do any job that is necessary?

My Lords, that is a little unfair. If the Government had done nothing in the face of this developing crisis in Sri Lanka I have no doubt that the noble Lord, who is always knowledgeable about these issues, would have been very critical. The Government sought after consultation to appoint Des Browne, with his experience of military and defence issues, as a special envoy. As the noble Lord will recognise, this is all about a military conquest of the northern part of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans then said that they were not prepared to accept him as an envoy, and we are still discussing the issue with them. However, the position is rather different from that portrayed by the noble Lord.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that Sri Lanka’s participation in the EU trade preference scheme depends on it maintaining a good humanitarian record, and that an EU investigation mission has also been refused entry? What should we make of this?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that Sri Lanka benefits from the generalised system of preference. If it were withdrawn the Sri Lankan economy, which is already blighted by the present world problems, would be likely to lose 140,000 jobs and see its gross national product drop by 2 per cent. That is very serious. So we should be careful about the economic aspects of the position. However, the Government intend to bring pressure to bear in every way they can on the Sri Lankan Government to observe human rights. The noble Baroness is right that their acceptance of the generalised system of preference depends on their observing human rights in their country.

My Lords, will the Minister say whether the Government are satisfied that the Sri Lankan authorities are doing all in their power to bring to justice the killers of the journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga? Have the Government made any representations to the Sri Lankan Government about the threat to freedom of the press and free speech that such murders of those who write critically about them necessarily represent?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising that point. Press freedom in Sri Lanka, to which the Sri Lankan Government contend they are committed, is of the greatest importance in ensuring that the world fully understands the position as it develops in these difficult times. The House will recall that the editor presaged his murder in an article that he wrote before his death and which was widely circulated, including in sections of the British press. He identified the threat to anyone who voiced criticism of the regime, even someone such as himself who had been quite friendly with the President of Sri Lanka. That shows how parlous the situation is. I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing attention to it.

My Lords, after the apparently decisive military victory, my noble friend is right to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis, and to the fact that the real challenge is now for the Sri Lankan Government to respond in a way that builds reconciliation and does not further deepen the internal cleavages. Is there any evidence at all that the Sri Lankan Government are rising to that challenge?

My Lords, the situation for civilians who are trapped in the crossfire in the embattled part of the island is very serious and I cannot give the House a great deal of comfort about it. The Governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and India have sought to demonstrate that we are prepared to carry out evacuation by sea if that proves possible, but it has not proven successful thus far. The narrow corridor down which displaced civilians are expected to escape the conflict is itself so fraught with problems that it is not proving an effective escape route for very many. That is why the situation is so desperate for civilians in the northern part of Sri Lanka.

My Lords, if the reports mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, are right and the final defeat of the Tamils is imminent—if it has not happened already—does that mean that the Tamil dream of a separate state of Eelam in north-east Sri Lanka is really dead and that the task will at last be for these two communities to learn to live together? If so, are there some special contributions that we can make from our experience in other parts of the world, notably Northern Ireland, to ensure that this living together really begins to take place and that Sri Lanka does not go straight back to another horrific and brutal civil war of the kind that we have seen over the past 20 years?

My Lords, the House will appreciate that the country is still in the turmoil of military conflict that involves a great deal of violence and is entrapping civilians as well. So, at this stage it is a step too far to talk optimistically about how the future of Sri Lanka will develop. However, the noble Lord is right that Sri Lanka can develop only if the two communities respect each other and if in due course there is within the provision of the constitution a proper safeguard for minority rights.

My Lords, the Minister will have seen the reports of the attempted suicide air attack on the civilians of Colombo which fortunately was thwarted when the two aircraft were shot down. Does he agree that for as long as the LTTE controls any territory at all, it will continue to stage terrorist attacks of this kind; that he was wrong to speak about conquest, when what is happening is the reoccupation by the sovereign power of territory that it owns; and that the right solution is for that process to be completed, and then for a federal or devolution solution to be negotiated with the true representatives of the Tamil people?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be the first to appreciate that atrocities have been committed on both sides of this situation, and he indicated the most recent one as far as the Tamils are concerned. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, indicated, the Tamils have nurtured the hope of a separate, independent enclave in Sri Lanka, but that is clearly something that the majority Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Government are not prepared to tolerate. We must build on the situation as it is. However, I do not think that anyone in the House underestimates the challenges facing Sri Lanka, or any help that the outside world can offer. The challenge is very great for the foreseeable future.