My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
Seven months have now passed since the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka. I should like to update the House on developments in the humanitarian and political situation in Sri Lanka.
Since the end of the conflict the UK has focused its efforts on securing an improvement in the humanitarian situation. The end of the fighting in May left over 280,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps in northern Sri Lanka. The UK’s approach to the situation has been fourfold: to advocate for improvements in conditions in the camps so that they meet international standards; to push for the early and safe return of IDPs to their home areas; to support, with the Department for International Development’s (DfID) allocation of £12.5 million since September 2008, the vital work of the humanitarian agencies that have been providing assistance to the IDPs; and to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to allow those not yet resettled to have the ability to enjoy unrestricted freedom of movement.
Conditions in the camps have improved to the extent that basic needs are now generally being met. In recent weeks there has been some progress in the return of IDPs. As of 6 December, the UN has confirmed that over 158,000 IDPs have been released. Of this number approximately 29,000 vulnerable people had been transferred to host families or institutions. This leaves fewer than 112,000 people left in the Menik Farm site and fewer than 15,000 people in camps in other locations. It is important that IDPs continue to be able to return to their home areas as soon as it is safe to do so. When I spoke to Foreign Minister Bogollogama on 29 October and 4 November, he confirmed that the Government of Sri Lanka were committed to returning those still in the camps. In order to assist this process, the Government have been funding the work of demining non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Mines Advisory Group and HALO Trust to help make areas safe for return. We will continue to help clear landmines, to provide transport from the camps and to help civilians to restart their lives so they can return home quickly and safely.
The recent announcement by the Sri Lankan Government that as of 1 December all remaining IDPs have been granted freedom of movement is a positive step. We hope this leads to unrestricted freedom of movement for all IDPs as soon as possible. As my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mike Foster) made clear in his Statement of 28 November, we believe that the opening of the camps and granting of real freedom of movement will enable the thousands still living in the camps to start to rebuild their lives. We welcome the fact that a number of national NGOs have now been granted access to some areas where IDPs are returning to such as Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Jaffna in the north. The recent announcement by the governor of the Northern Province that international NGOs will also be allowed to work in these areas on agreed projects is also welcome. It is imperative that all humanitarian agencies are given full access to all IDPs, including ex combatants, so that they can provide them with the help and protection they need both in the camps and in places of return.
Beyond the immediate humanitarian concerns the UK has underlined to the Government of Sri Lanka the importance of securing genuine reconciliation between Sri Lanka’s communities.
At the end of May the Sri Lankan president issued a joint statement with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recognising the need to work towards a lasting political solution. The UK has consistently maintained that one of the prerequisites for lasting peace in Sri Lanka is a political settlement that fully takes into account the legitimate grievances and aspirations of all communities. Presidential elections have now been announced for 26 January 2010. Parliamentary elections in spring 2010 will be a further opportunity for the voice of Sri Lanka’s communities to be heard. Free, fair and credible elections will allow Sri Lanka’s communities to have their say in shaping the country’s future. Adequate arrangements must be made to ensure IDPs can vote in upcoming elections. It is important for all those who want to play a role in Sri Lanka’s future to agree to an inclusive political solution that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict.
The EU has made clear its belief that accountability is integral to the process of reconciliation. We therefore welcome President Rajapakse’s decision to appoint an independent committee to look into the incidents cited in the US State Department’s report. We will continue to press the government of Sri Lanka to live up to this and his earlier commitment made to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in May to take measures to address possible violations of international humanitarian law.
GSP+ (General System of Preferences plus)/Human Rights
The EU's GSP+ trade preference scheme is intended to provide vulnerable economies with incentives to achieve standards in sustainable development, human rights, labour standards and good governance. Beneficiary countries are required to implement effectively certain international human rights conventions. On 19 October 2009 the European Commission published a report of its investigation into Sri Lanka’s compliance with three of these conventions. The report was clear about Sri Lanka’s failings in the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This report has reinforced our serious concerns over the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and we share the Commission’s assessment. The Commission is expected to issue its formal recommendation on Sri Lanka's continued access to the GSP+ scheme shortly. We are clear that, in order to continue enjoying access to the GSP+, Sri Lanka must meet fully its human rights obligations. I have urged the Government of Sri Lanka to take urgent action to address the issues raised by the Commission in its report such as the lack of effective investigations into alleged disappearances and the need to uphold the right to freedom of expression. As EU foreign ministers made clear in our conclusions of 27 October, the EU will maintain a dialogue with Sri Lanka on the steps necessary to address the problems highlighted by the Commission’s investigation, in order effectively to implement the conventions.
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM)
When the Heads of Commonwealth Governments met in Port of Spain in November members agreed that Australia will host CHOGM in 2011. The most important thing for the UK was that the host for each Commonwealth summit demonstrably embodies our shared values—including respect for human rights and democracy. While we welcome the recent progress on freedom of movement for IDPs in Sri Lanka, given our ongoing concerns about the humanitarian and human rights situation at the time, the UK was unable to support Sri Lanka's bid to host CHOGM in 2011. However, Commonwealth leaders accepted the President of Sri Lanka’s offer to host the summit in 2013.
We have regularly made clear our view that the Government of Sri Lanka have a unique opportunity—and duty—to work for genuine political reconciliation. As a measure of the UK’s ongoing commitment to the future of Sri Lanka, we remain at the forefront of international efforts to help ensure lasting peace there. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister’s special envoy for Sri Lanka, my right honourable friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), continues to engage the Tamil diaspora and he has updated honourable Members on his recent activities.
We will continue to work directly with the Government of Sri Lanka and with international partners including the EU, UN and Commonwealth, to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict through an inclusive political process which addresses the legitimate grievances and aspirations of all communities—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.