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Sri Lanka

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 21 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to give urgent material assistance to Sri Lanka to alleviate the economic crisis in that country.

My Lords, we are closely monitoring the humanitarian and economic situation in Sri Lanka. The United Kingdom provides assistance to organisations in both these areas in Sri Lanka, including through the Red Cross and the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund; the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, CERF; the World Bank; and the Asian Development Bank. We have offered to support a key role in the UN on humanitarian co-ordination. This is in addition to our existing £11.3 million CSSF programme funding focused on addressing the legacy of conflict.

My Lords, when I asked a similar Question on 16 May, the Government said they were monitoring the situation; it is hard to fault them for lack of consistency—they are still “monitoring”. The situation in Sri Lanka is dire: people are starving, people are dying for want of medicine, and fuel and electricity are scarce. Practical and immediate help, more than monitoring, is needed. Britain, as a leading figure in the Commonwealth, should surely be doing more and acting more vigorously in relation to this Commonwealth country that has been hit with this disaster. Sir Peter Heap, a former British diplomat, has described the British Government’s response as shameful. I do not expect my noble friend to agree with that, but surely he could agree that this Government should be doing more.

My Lords, in my Answer to the original Question I outlined the financial support we are giving, so I disagree with my noble friend. Of course we are monitoring the situation. We are not intervening militarily; it is for the people of Sri Lanka to determine their future. We should be supporting the right to free protest, which we are. We should be working with international partners on the ground and UN agencies, which we are, and we are working directly with Commonwealth partners. I am looking to engage with the Foreign Minister of India, and we have already reached out. I am looking to have a call next week with the new president, who has just been elected. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister engaged with the new president directly when he was the prime minister. We are working with the Government, we are working with UN agencies, and yes, we are monitoring. By monitoring we ensure that any intervention we make is the right one.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Commonwealth Secretariat is in close touch with the situation and seeking ways in which it can assist in this very difficult position. Would he make sure that his colleagues in the Foreign Office co-ordinate closely with the Commonwealth Secretariat, as this may be the best channel, or one of the best channels, to co-ordinate efforts to ensure that Sri Lanka does not fall too rapidly into the Russian orbit, the Chinese orbit, or indeed both?

I can give that assurance to my noble friend, not least in my role as Minister for the Commonwealth. I reassure him that, during the Kigali summit, we met directly with key Commonwealth partners. Foreign Minister GL Peiris was there, who is still in situ in the new Government. We are engaging directly and bilaterally, and scoping what level of co-operation we can offer Sri Lanka, including on the positive progress that has been made thus far, in a dire situation, through the IMF support, to ensure that Sri Lanka sustains itself as a democracy that is inclusive to all people.

My Lords, will Her Majesty’s Government urge the Americans to provide more assistance to the people of Sri Lanka? After all, are not the woes of developing countries such as Sri Lanka compounded by the strength of the US dollar, itself largely the consequence of belated remedial action to raise interest rates following the excessive stimulus provided by Washington to the US economy during the last two years? Should not the Americans take account of the impact of their domestic policy on other very vulnerable countries both for humanitarian and geopolitical reasons.

My Lords, what I can talk to is the response of the British Government. We are working closely with all key allies, including the US, which, like the United Kingdom, plays an important role within the context of the support being given on the ground—tantamount to several hundred million dollars—through the World Bank.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, that fuel is of acute importance to this crisis in Sri Lanka. Its previous president negotiated a purchase of Siberian oil, brokered through our allies in Dubai. The current, new Administration are also seeking to purchase new Russian supplies of oil and Putin has offered Russian wheat to Sri Lanka. What is the UK doing specifically to prevent Sri Lanka becoming, effectively, a purchaser of Russian oil? The geostrategic interests of the European war are now moving to Asia, and the UK is not part of these discussions.

My Lords, I disagree with the noble Lord. We are engaging quite directly with key partners in Asia and south Asia. As I have already alluded to, I shall be speaking to Foreign Minister Jaishankar in the near future, because India has a key role to play. On the issues of fuel and Russian supplies, the UK has a robust sanctions regime in place, which we are co-ordinating with our key partners.

My Lords, do Her Majesty’s Government agree with those commentators who believe that part of the issue has been an overclose relationship between the ruling family and China? Does the Minister also agree that this is a wake-up call to those countries which are now being courted by China? What else can Her Majesty’s Government do to increase our soft power among the Commonwealth at this time when people are vying for power in this volatile part of the world?

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate. We have discussed before in your Lordships’ House the ever-growing role of China, and it is important that we work not just as the United Kingdom but with key allies, including the European Union, America and other like-minded partners, to offer economical alternatives for long-term infrastructure development. He is correct that we have seen the key port in Sri Lanka being financed by Chinese money, which then leads to a large level of debt being held by the Chinese. Current stats show that China holds 10% of Sri Lanka’s external debt stock. Although at a similar level to Japan, that debt is nevertheless on a rate which disables the economy rather than enabling it.

My Lords, can I press the Minister on the humanitarian support that we are giving to Sri Lanka? Last month, inflation on food prices was 80%. There is rising unemployment and the World Food Programme has talked about 3 million people in need of dire humanitarian assistance. Supporting a co-ordinator in New York is not going to deal with the immediacy of that humanitarian crisis.

My Lords, it is not just the co-ordinator role; we are providing support through CERF and money through the World Bank. But the noble Baroness is quite right about further direct support, and I have tasked officials—I have seen one submission already, but sent it back to them—on enhancing support bilaterally for the funding we can stand up, specific to the very point she raises about humanitarian support. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, mentioned fuel, as did my noble friend in his original Question, but it is equally important that we look at averting further famine on the ground, if indeed that is the next repercussion. We are encouraged by the incorporation of a degree of political stability, which we see with the swearing-in of the new president. As I said earlier, I will be looking to engage with him directly over the coming days.

My Lords, I have two questions. First, the Minister mentioned India, but are the British Government also in touch with Bangladesh, which has a high-quality supply of medicine? Secondly, what are the Minister and his Government doing to ensure that there is no violence against women or rape in any upcoming conflict that there may be? Can he assure me that his team is watching this situation?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a valid point about Bangladesh. We are talking to key Commonwealth partners in this respect; I mentioned India because it has a key role to play in direct economic support. On the issue of violence more generally, and specifically to women, we are of course looking at that constructively. We are offering direct support on the ground through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, where money has been stood up and is invested in projects. When I said in my original Answer that there was monitoring, of course we are monitoring the security situation and working with key partners. We are imploring the importance of peaceful protest, which should be sustained. Underlying issues still remain, such as the historic conflict which gripped Sri Lanka. We need to ensure that we stay focused, so that the current political and economic instability does not lead to communal violence.