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Bill read the Third time, and passed.

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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Constitutional law

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Social security

Question agreed to.

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Sri Lanka

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn .—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

7.12 pm

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): It would be remiss in starting this Adjournment debate not to welcome the Sri Lankan cricket team to this country and to wish its players the best of luck, because I think that they may need it.

The primary reason why I have called the debate this evening is to report to Parliament on a recent delegation to Sri Lanka that the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and I headed at the beginning of April this year. I shall report what we saw on our visit and some of the issues and concerns that were raised with us.

I want to focus on the rapidly deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka and on the action that both the UK Government and, through them, the international community are taking to address the increased number of suicide attacks, random killings and assassinations and to move towards the resumption of the talks that were cancelled in April.

I thank all those who were involved in arranging our visit, of whom there are too many to mention in this debate. I particularly want to thank those who were involved in facilitating our visit to the north—we flew to Jaffna and visited parts of the north that are under Government control.

Before we made the visit, my constituents and members of the Sri Lankan community throughout the country expressed their concern to me, as chairman of the all-party group on Sri Lanka, that tsunami aid was simply not getting through to the north and east of the country. As a result, I raised two questions with Ministers in the Department for International Development. Despite the reassurances that I received, people still expressed concerns that nothing was happening in the north and east. I was thus relieved to receive a letter from the Sri Lankan high commissioner, who detailed at some length several of the projects that were being undertaken in the north. I shall cite a representative example from the letter. She wrote that the World Bank was spending just over $32 million

and providing support for “community capacity building reconstruction” in the north and east.

Even with that letter, it was still difficult to persuade those who made representations to me, so our visit to the north was welcome because it allowed us to see three sites, two of which were just outside Jaffna and one that was at Point Pedro, which is the most northerly point of the Sri Lankan island. During our visit, we saw the work of an Italian non-governmental organisation called Movimondo, which had completed work on 36 houses and built a school just outside Jaffna. Right adjacent to that was a World Bank scheme involving 111 houses. A lot of the houses were in the early stages of construction, but quite a few had roofs on. I have no doubt that they will have been completed by now. We also visited a site that was
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organised by Caritas, another NGO. There were to be 68 houses on the site. Although they were in the early stages of development, we could at least see the foundations of the houses that would be there.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important and worthy debate. I have also heard reports from the Sri Lankan diaspora in my community—the Tamil diaspora—of the intimidation and harassment of NGO workers. The White Pigeon charity in my constituency and the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation in Sri Lanka have complained especially about the recent kidnapping of workers. When my hon. Friend was in Sri Lanka, did he get the chance to speak to NGO workers and find out from them whether they were being intimidated in the work that they were doing?

Mr. Love: We had the opportunity to speak to some of those involved in the three schemes in the north, but focused our attention primarily on the work that they were doing to rehabilitate and reconstruct following the tsunami. In all honesty, we did not get on to concerns about kidnapping, although I have heard similar reports to those cited by my hon. Friend.

During our visit, we also spoke at length to the reconstruction and development agency in Sri Lanka. It confirmed that, although there had been complex negotiations, it was confident that the tsunami relief efforts were beginning to show in the north and east, so I hope that I can provide reassurance to those who are concerned about that.

Through the good offices of the ministry for resettlement, we were able to visit Puttalam, which is in the western part of the island. We met some of the internally displaced people, who are primarily Muslims, who exist in 35 camps in the region. They have been in the camps for nearly 16 years. What we found was an absolute disgrace. The shelters were threadbare. The food supplies that the people received were intermittent and the food was basic, to say the least. People had to walk two miles to get water that they could drink and more than a mile just to get a bath in the morning. There were few employment opportunities for the people. Education was non-existent and discrimination was rife among the local people.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on securing the debate. The sad thing about Sri Lanka is that religious intolerance is still bad. The conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils is one thing, but the undercurrent of religious intolerance is just as bad. Did he see any of that on his visit?

Mr. Love: In relation to the Muslim community, a great deal of the discrimination described to us was partly based on religious differences. I have heard reports of other minority religions being discriminated against. It is of concern, but it was not our primary focus on visiting the island.

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We spoke to a number of the people in the camps and were surprised to discover that they did not want to return to their original homes in the north and east. They felt safe where they were and had been living there for a considerable time. It was very much the strong feeling of both members of the delegation that they had been forgotten by everyone—by their Government and the international community. It was part of our wish on returning to raise their profile and see whether something could be done. I note that the Department for International Development has been involved in innovative programmes on internally displaced persons. In former programmes, it has tried to assist people to return to their original homes. It could construct a similar programme so that people can rehabilitate themselves within the district of Puttalam and establish employment opportunities. Perhaps the Minister can pass that request on to his colleagues.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on obtaining the debate and thank him for his great companionship on the trip. I support what he says about those unfortunate people in Puttalam. Frankly, their plight shocked me to the core. One of our objectives was to get the British Government to raise the matter in a slightly more active way. I recognise that Ministers are aware of the situation and are compassionate about it, but I make a plea to extend those efforts and to raise the profile of those people, who have been forgotten in relation to the tsunami, the troubles and so on. Does he agree that that would help?

Mr. Love: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and endorse everything he says. I hope that Ministers will read our debate tomorrow and take those issues up on our behalf.

The main reason for having the debate this week is the concern that exists throughout the international community, but primarily on the island itself, about the major escalation in violence following the breakdown of the ceasefire agreement talks in April. That had been coming for some time. The two sides were on the slippery slope. Although there had been a so-called ceasefire agreement since 2002, the violence never stopped. If we look back at the history of that agreement, we see that, although intensive talks took place between 2002 and 2003, they soon ran out of steam. There has been little or no political progress since then. The situation between the two communities has deteriorated and violence has flared up.

A combination of events led to that position, such as the assassination of the former Foreign Minister, Mr. Kadirgama, the collapse of the post-tsunami operational management structure—P-TOMS—agreement, which would have allowed both communities to be involved in tsunami relief, and the split in the Tamil Tigers, with the Karuna faction actively engaged in violent activities, mainly against the other part of its own community. Human rights violations have been perpetrated with impunity in the north and east of the island. There was euphoria when the talks began in February, but that was soon replaced by the same old problem of lack of trust and
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confidence between the two communities, with the result that tit-for-tat violence led to the current situation.

Talks broke down after the Tamil Tigers walked out, because in their view the Government did not help to facilitate meetings between commanders in the north and east of the island. They claim that those talks have not been abandoned. I hope that that is the case, because the re-establishment of genuine talks is one of our few hopes of progressing to negotiations. The situation is serious—indeed, it is much more serious than it was. In a recent speech, the Minister highlighted the attempted assassination of the army chief, General Fonseca as an example of the escalating violence on the island. There have been many incidents, but recently, a suicide attack on a navy gunboat killed 18 crew members and injured many others. Many people who were on the boat used by the attackers were also killed.

In April, 191 people—some of them were soldiers but many were civilians—were killed on both sides of the conflict. The violence has been condemned and there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity. Norway has actively engaged in the task of trying to bring people together. What are the British Government doing on behalf of Parliament to try to bring the parties together to reduce the violence on the island? For example, have they pressed for a resumption of the talks between the two parties on a ceasefire agreement? What action has been taken by the United Nations and the European Union to try to support efforts to engage the parties? We are in a unique position—we have a long historical connection with Sri Lanka, and many Sri Lankans live in the UK—so are we assisting Norway with our expertise?

At the end of the month, major donors, including the EU and the UK, will meet in Tokyo. What action will they take to try to reduce the violence on the island? People across the country who are interested in Sri Lanka often raise the issue of whether the UK Government could and should play a more central role in offering assistance. We all know the historical record: the Indian Government and the United Nations have been involved, and Norway is currently involved. We accept that there are difficulties, but Britain can play a special or unique role. I hope that the Minister accepts the urgency of the situation.

Mr. Khan: Today, I received a letter from Mr. Seevaratnum at my local Sivayagum temple. He feels frustrated and let down by the British Government. He believes that they have failed to take enough action to make people aware of what is happening in his homeland and that they should be more interventionist and help their kin in Sri Lanka. Does my hon. Friend empathise with those feelings?

Mr. Love: I hope that the Minister can respond, as I have certainly heard such feelings expressed on many occasions. We are doing what we can, but I am sure that the Minister will offer reassurance to the House and the communities that are listening to our debate so that they can be confident that we are doing everything that we can to help Sri Lanka at a time of extreme need.

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7.29 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Dr. Kim Howells): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on securing the debate. These are difficult times for Sri Lanka, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss how the United Kingdom is engaged in Sri Lanka to help improve the prospects for all. We should remember that Sri Lanka is not a small, faraway island. It is a substantial country of 20 million people.

The Indian ocean tsunami caused wide-scale loss of life and devastation last year. Hopes that the process of tsunami recovery and reconstruction would help develop greater long-term harmony among communities were unfortunately not realised. Over the past year, there has been a steady and deeply worrying deterioration in the security situation in the country. Sri Lanka’s development is again in danger of being overshadowed by its long- running ethnic conflict.

The appalling assassination of the Foreign Minister, as we heard from my hon. Friend, was followed by the attempted assassination of an army commander, regular attacks on military personnel, grenade attacks against civilians, extra-judicial killings, disappearances and intimidation, mob violence and violence by paramilitary groups. The cycle of violence has contributed to an atmosphere of extreme mistrust and polarisation, which has fuelled further antagonism and violence.

For a lasting peace to be possible, the violence must abate, and the parties must discuss in earnest and honest terms the issues that matter to them and find a way forward. No one else can do that for them. That is a statement which I know my hon. Friend understands. He has visited Sri Lanka, together with the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), and seen it for himself. I saw it for myself on my visit there.

Only Sri Lankans can secure a peace for Sri Lanka. All sectors of Sri Lankan society need to contribute positively to the quest for peace. The Sri Lankan diaspora in the UK and elsewhere in the world, like any diaspora, needs to allow the parties the appropriate space to make progress towards peace, and we must try to help with that.

However, as my hon. Friend made clear, the international community has an important role to play in the peace process by supporting and encouraging the parties on that journey, and creating an environment conducive to building a sustainable peace that will benefit all the peoples of Sri Lanka. Within the international community, the UK uses its long-standing and good relationship with the people of Sri Lanka to work to that end. I am sure the House supports that aim.

In response to the worsening situation in December and January, the international community urged the parties to talk. As presidency of the European Union, Great Britain played a big part in those efforts. The co-chairs of the Sri Lanka donor group—the EU, the United States, Norway and Japan—put great pressure on the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to put an end to the violence and fully respect the ceasefire.

Those efforts brought results, when the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE got round the table in
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Geneva in February for the first time in three years. All of us had great hopes at that moment. The Government pledged that no armed group or person other than Government security forces would carry arms or conduct armed operations, and for their part, the LTTE pledged to take all necessary measures to ensure that there would be no acts of violence against the security forces and the police. Both sides made a commitment to ensure that there would be no intimidation, acts of violence, abductions or killings.

I am sure my hon. Friend and hon. Members will agree that the resurgence and subsequent escalation in violence since that moment is all the more disappointing. Since the beginning of April, as my hon. Friend reminded us, at least 300 people have died, more than half of them civilians. That is a terrible situation.

We know that the LTTE are responsible for many of the violent acts. Our position on the LTTE is clear: they are a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000. Along with the international community, we have urged them time and again to move away from the path of violence. Our concerns go beyond high profile attacks on the armed forces. There is an established pattern of LTTE involvement in killings, torture, detention of civilians and denial of freedom of speech. For many Tamils, any expression of opposition to the LTTE is not an option. That is the sad truth. We remain deeply disturbed by the LTTE’s continuing recruitment of child soldiers.

But the LTTE is not the only source of violence. I have to make clear, too, our deep concern at the plight of civilians in Government-controlled areas, who are regularly subjected to brutal attacks by paramilitary groups, often acting with apparent impunity. There are also reports that Government security forces may be involved in some of those killings.

So what needs to happen next? My hon. Friend asked some very pertinent questions. In my view, the answer is clear. It is vital that both sides return to the negotiating table and live up to the commitments that they made in Geneva in February. We shall continue to offer political and practical support to the peace process in whatever way we can. Violence is not the answer. The only way forward is a negotiated settlement that satisfies the concerns and legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans and preserves national unity and integrity. I am sure that the House will join me in expressing the hope that all parties go down that road, and soon, and that we shall finally see Sri Lanka fulfil its very considerable potential. As the hon. Member for Northampton, South has told me, it is potentially a tourist paradise. It should be one of the wealthiest countries in southern Asia, but it is rapidly becoming one of the poorest. It is a disgrace that that has been allowed to happen.

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