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Sri Lanka

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the call for investigations to examine whether war crimes have been committed in Sri Lanka.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government endorse European Union calls for an independent inquiry into allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. An inquiry would play an important role in the post-conflict reconciliation process.

We welcome the joint statement by the United Nations Secretary-General and President Rajapaksa underlining the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Government of Sri Lanka have agreed to take measures to address those grievances.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. What has happened in Sri Lanka can only be described as a human tragedy. Over 300,000 Tamils were trapped in an area subjected to heavy bombardment, and it is expected that about 20,000 Tamils were killed and over 200,000 Tamils are now in refugee camps. There are perhaps breaches of the Geneva Convention. I am pleased to hear that we are pressing for an independent inquiry, but I would like to ensure that there is transparency and accountability. The second point is—

Noble Lords: Question!

My Lords, can we ensure that refugees are treated humanely and that there is an inclusive political peace settlement?

My Lords, that latter point is of great importance. Our immediate concern is for the safety of some 270,000 civilians who fled the fighting and are now being held in camps. We are somewhat encouraged by the fact that the President of Sri Lanka seems to recognise that it is now time to win the peace. He has made gestures of reconciliation. There is no doubt that identifying the nature of the action of the armed forces with regard to the position against the Tamils will need investigation, but we must all hope that the Government set out on the task of reconciliation after such a disastrous series of events.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, lamentable though it was, it was not possible to set up an inquiry? The highest priority now is to give the United Nations and its humanitarian agencies proper access to the camps where the Tamils have taken refuge and seek in that way to ensure that the refugees come under pressure neither from former terrorists nor from members of the Government’s security forces? Will he say what undertakings the Secretary-General of the United Nations received about that access and what progress has been made?

My Lords, not a great deal. I have to tell the House that the noble Lord is right in saying that this is an important objective for the international community. He will also fully appreciate that the United Nations has its difficulties with regard to the Human Rights Council. He knows that there are divisions there that inhibit aspects with regard to an inquiry and therefore that the international community is not as one on how progress should be made in Sri Lanka. The point that the noble Lord has made should commend itself to all people of good will towards Sri Lanka.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the statement made to my honourable friend Ed Davey by the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, which is quoted on the High Commission website, that the Government of Sri Lanka wish to create a new Sri Lanka,

“based on values of liberal and inclusive democracy with an unprecedented reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation process”?

Given that welcome statement and following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, can the Government urge the Sri Lankan Government to give immediate full access to the international bodies, both to the IDP camps and to be able to carry out a full investigation of recent events?

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Baroness has reinforced and reiterated the constructive and hopeful words of the President of Sri Lanka about the future. She is right: words need to be translated into action, and that action needs to support the very large number of displaced persons who are in these camps in the most horrendous circumstances. We have not yet been able to secure the necessary action to give the international authorities an opportunity to be constructive.

My Lords, will the Minister accept my congratulations on his remarkable skill in being able to answer almost every Question on almost every subject from the Front Bench these days? It is most impressive and a model for us all.

If we are pushing for an inquiry—obviously the Sri Lankan Government are reluctant—can we make sure that it will be balanced and will really look at the atrocities, or alleged atrocities, on both sides? Can we explain to the Sri Lankans, possibly with the help of the Chinese, who have been very influential in this matter, that it will benefit the future of their country greatly to conduct this inquiry, providing that it is fair and balanced?

My Lords, I applaud the noble Lord’s comments about the role of the Chinese, who are significant in this area, not least by dint of their significant investment into Sri Lanka in recent years. If we are to get full international action, we need Chinese co-operation rather than blockage in the international sphere. I agree entirely, as do the Government, that atrocities were carried out on both sides; in fact, there have been two decades of appalling behaviour in Sri Lanka. We all know the nature of the terrorism on the Tamil side over the past years. Sri Lanka is now at a point where reconciliation needs truth and care about the past. The noble Lord’s point is therefore very well taken.