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Achieving peace is not going to be an easy task, and of course it is primarily for the Sri Lankan people to find a way forward. However, the international community can help. The Norwegians have had a central role in facilitating the 2002 ceasefire agreement, and the British Government applaud their efforts. It is obvious from recent events that the ceasefire is in trouble, if not shot to pieces. If it is adhered to and underpinned by the right conditions, however, it can still be a good base from which to launch a new peace initiative. The Norwegians have worked tirelessly and
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in difficult conditions to advance the cause of peace. As I said, they have our support. We value our regular consultations with them. The Norwegians tell us our commitment is valuable at this time. We support the work of the co-chairs—the US, the EU, Japan and Norway.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Would I be right in thinking that the Norwegian general who was based in Sri Lanka advised the EU against declaring the LTTE a terrorist organisation and said that that would lead to the breakdown of the ceasefire?

Dr. Howells: I cannot tell my hon. Friend whether that is true. I do not know; this is the first that I have heard of it, if it is the case. I will try to find out for him, and if I can find anything constructive, I shall write to him.

What is Britain doing to help with the search for peace? First and foremost, we are offering the benefit of our Northern Ireland experience. Sri Lanka is not Northern Ireland. It has a population of 20 million, which is more than 10 times that of Northern Ireland, and it is five times larger in area, but we think there are lessons from Northern Ireland that can be applied in a Sri Lankan context. For example, we learned the hard way that a focus on security can get us only so far. A lasting peace can come only if the underlying causes of conflict are addressed. In Sri Lanka, that means focusing on a credible framework for a negotiated settlement. An all-party conference will shortly present its findings on a constitutional way forward. I look forward to the publication of proposals for a framework for peace that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans, and to a constructive response to such proposals from the Sri Lankan Government.

Our Northern Ireland experience told us that peace will not happen until the parties to the conflict understand that nothing can be gained by continuing violence. A military victory for one side is very unlikely to produce a lasting political solution. Our experience tells us that an emphasis on the military inevitably means more war, rather than peace. A military victory is rarely winnable in the long run. Violence comes with too high a price. In Sri Lanka, we can see that such an approach brings suffering to the people, as human rights are eroded, the humanitarian situation deteriorates, a culture of impunity develops among the killers, extortionists and torturers, and mistrust between communities increases. That, in turn, damages Sri Lanka’s image in the eyes of the world. We are doing all we can to get that message across.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise for arriving too late to hear the start of his speech. Unfortunately, the previous business ended rather suddenly and the debate began before I could get here.

My hon. Friend mentioned human rights. There is considerable concern in Sri Lanka and internationally about the human rights situation at the present time. Several international organisations have suggested that the only real solution is to set up a UN-sponsored human rights monitoring commission. How would the Government view such a body?

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Dr. Howells: That suggestion is well worth considering. I will come to the question of a monitoring organisation in a minute. Of course, we already have one, and perhaps the best thing is to make that work rather than search for another one. However, it is certainly something that we could discuss.

High-level engagement is an essential part of our efforts to help with the search for peace in Sri Lanka. Last August, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister offered to share our experience of Northern Ireland with the Sri Lankan President, and he retains a close interest in events in Sri Lanka. I was particularly grateful that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) visited Sri Lanka in November to convey his invaluable experience as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Accompanied by another expert in these matters from the Northern Ireland Office, Mr. Chris McCabe, he met the President, Ministers and members of civil society. He also met representatives of the LTTE; the lessons of peace can only work if conveyed to all parties to the conflict. We remain ready to talk to the LTTE if such contacts can help the cause of peace. The response in Sri Lanka to my right hon. Friend’s visit was very positive. I know that the President shares my wish that he and Mr. McCabe will pay a return visit to the island, and I understand that preparations are already under way for that.

I was pleased to visit Sri Lanka for a second time in February this year. In my meetings with the President, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Secretary, I underlined the British Government’s wish to help in the search for peace. I stressed that a military solution was not the way forward—a message that I repeated to an MP from the Tamil National Alliance. The President told me that he thought that our contact with the LTTE would be helpful. I visited Ampara in the east of the island and was pleased to meet representatives of local communities—not only Sinhalese and Tamil but Muslims. It will be important to take into account the views of the Muslim community in any final negotiated settlement. I heard from UNICEF about the reality of child abductions and the threats and intimidations suffered by other non-governmental organisations in the east of the island.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister in London in March. She reiterated Britain’s commitment to peace and our willingness to get involved in that whole process. She spoke of the terrible humanitarian impact of the conflict on the civilian population and the need for both sides to do more to protect that population. She repeated the message that there can be no military solution to conflict. The Minister assured her that a credible framework for negotiated settlement would issue very soon.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I, too, apologise for arriving late, having been caught out by the business moving so swiftly.

I thank my hon. Friend for his focus on these issues; whenever we have asked to meet to discuss them, he has been ready to do so. One of the bars to a proper solution to this problem is the ban that remains on the LTTE. Has he had any further discussions with the Home Secretary about whether the Government would
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be prepared to lift that ban, so ensuring that all parties could be part of a discussion to bring peace to the island?

Dr. Howells: My right hon. Friend, through no fault of his own, missed that part of my speech. If he will forgive me, I will not go back over it but simply say that, for reasons that I tried to explain a little earlier, I have not met my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to discuss this matter; if I thought that it was a good idea I would certainly do so. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen met LTTE representatives in the north of the island, and we are prepared to meet LTTE representatives in Sri Lanka if it is considered that that will help the peace process. I hope that that is clear enough.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): We are all apologising for lateness, but I was not as late as the others.

As we learned from Northern Ireland, individual issues can build up to create a sense of grievance. That is the case with regard to the proscription and non-recognition of the LTTE. Although there can be informal dialogue, nothing can substitute for more formal dialogue and recognition. Removing the ban would undermine one of the elements of the sense of grievance that contributes towards the conflict.

Dr. Howells: I take my hon. Friend’s point, which is something that we have to consider. However, I have to tell him that, of all Members in this House, I am very much averse to recognising the legitimacy, if I could put it like that, of suicide bombers, murderers, torturers and rapists. I have been there twice and I have heard these stories myself many times, from NGOs and from Tamils themselves, as well as from Sinhalese and the Sinhalese Government. This has to be considered very carefully. As I tried to explain earlier, there is no silver bullet that will sort everything out. If we thought that that recognition would take matters forward, we would certainly be prepared to consider it very seriously—I give my hon. Friend that undertaking.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I must add my apologies for lateness.

The Minister clearly wants to ensure that there is a balanced discussion about this issue, and he is right because it is very serious. However, could not he lay out a review process and explain how he might talk to colleagues in this House and groups in this country, as well as to the people he and his colleagues have met on their visits to Sri Lanka, to determine the criteria? Some people in communities throughout this country and around this House feel that a one-sided approach is being taken and that a proper review process might ensure that a truly balanced approach is taken.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is not to know this, but we have had quite a number of meetings with Tamil groups from around the country. As well as talking to the Sri Lankan Government, we have met all kinds of representatives. Let me assure him that this is a completely balanced approach. Securing this debate
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is part of that process, and I hope that he will contribute to it. Our approach seeks not to take sides either with the Sinhalese Government or with the LTTE but to try to use our good offices and our experience in Northern Ireland, among other places, to try to find ways in which it might be possible to help the Norwegians to make the ceasefire work, and then to take that peace process forward, put the issues on the table, and get everyone around the table to try to resolve the issue.

Some 60,000 people have died in this war so far, and perhaps 1 million people have been displaced. It is a very serious conflict by any standards in the world, and we are working very hard to try to resolve it, but, believe me, there is no easy way forward on this one—it will take a long time. This conflict has been going on for a very long time. Before you took your seat in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr. Deputy Speaker was telling me that he remembers it kicking off when he was out there in 1983—in fact, it was the day after he left; I do not know whether he was to blame.

We complement our high-level engagement with more practical assistance through a joint Department for International Development, Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office peace-building strategy for Sri Lanka. The focus includes people-to-people contacts between communities, mechanisms to provide early warning of potential for conflict, and development of civil society capacity to monitor conflict. We are involved in all those processes. We believe that quiet activity of that kind has an important role to play in these difficult times.

I know that many in the Sri Lankan diaspora have been pleased to see Britain’s active involvement in Sri Lanka. We believe the Sri Lankan diaspora in Britain to be perhaps as great as 200,000 strong. It is important that we take into account their views and insights as we try to formulate a balanced policy on Sri Lanka. Right hon. and hon. Members present will understand that there is a wide range of views within the community on a way forward for peace and the role of Britain in Sri Lanka. We try to listen to all perspectives within the community, and we value those opinions and insights.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I congratulate the Minister on his balanced approach to a sensitive and difficult subject. He has been subject to calls during the debate to recognise the LTTE. Is not it difficult to do that when, for example, the organisation assassinated the Foreign Minister, who was an ethnic Tamil, in 2005? As long as organisations practise such blatant violence and disruption of civil society, it is difficult to give them the recognition that they crave.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman made that point well—I could not have made it more vividly.

The Tamil community has been especially concerned about deteriorating human rights in Sri Lanka. Its concern is understandable—many of its members have first-hand accounts of the difficulties that their friends and family face daily. Earlier, I spoke about the abductions, disappearances, intimidation and extra-judicial killings that have regrettably become commonplace. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have made our position clear to the
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Government of Sri Lanka. There has to be an end to the culture of impunity. Those responsible for human rights violations should be brought to justice.

We have welcomed the establishment of a President’s commission and an eminent persons group to observe the commission’s work. The British Government are funding the participation of Sir Nigel Rodley, an internationally respected professor of law, in that group. We shall continue to raise our concerns with the Sri Lankan Government.

Mr. Love: Considerable concern and criticism have been expressed about the Sri Lankan Government’s failure to support the commission in its essential work, with which the international community is involved through the eminent persons group. What action have the British Government taken to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government do everything that they can to help the commission in its work?

Dr. Howells: We have attempted, through all diplomatic channels, to clarify for the Sri Lankan Government our determination that the process should work. Sir Nigel Rodley is not somebody to mess around with. He is a serious person, who will not take part in the group if he believes that his investigations are being impeded in any way. We have great confidence in him and in the eminent persons group to see the matter through. We urge the Sri Lankan Government to make their rhetoric on the need for a proper investigative commission work on the ground. We shall continue to urge them to do that and facilitate that work wherever we can.

Britain is a great friend of Sri Lanka and the dire situation there is a matter of great concern to the Government. We are determined to work with the Government of Sri Lanka to bring peace. We are ready to talk to all parties to the conflict if that can help with the search for a solution. I have spoken of three things that need to happen to make peace possible. First, the parties to the conflict must accept that a military victory is neither possible nor a basis for a lasting solution. Secondly, there has to be a credible framework for a negotiated settlement—I hope that that can emerge from the work of the all-party conference. Thirdly, there must be respect for the human rights of all Sri Lankans and an end to the culture of impunity.

Britain stands ready to help the Sri Lankans find a peaceful solution to their conflict that will offer a bright future for all their citizens. I hope that the House will agree that the Government’s commitment to peace in Sri Lanka at this difficult time has been genuine and that it will be sustained.

3.13 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I congratulate the Minister on his calm and balanced introduction to the debate. We have had a good start to a debate on a subject that evokes passions. It is important to debate it in the House.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful island with a population of approximately 19.5 million people and it has been my pleasure to visit it. It is rightly a popular tourist
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destination—it has more than 600 miles of beaches, with resorts on the west, south and east coasts. It also contains deep jungle and mountain slopes, where high quality Ceylon tea is grown.

Sri Lanka has an ancient and historic civilisation, some of which I have explored through ruined cities and buildings such as palaces, dagobars and Buddhist temples throughout the island. I am conscious of the substantial archaeological interest in various sites, including Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa, Sigirya, Dambulla and Kandy, where the glory of the island’s past can be witnessed at first hand.

I have been welcomed by the friendly people of Sri Lanka when I have visited. It is therefore especially sad, given its natural richness, that the troubles and deep divisions persist on that beautiful island. I note that the Minister visited in February. As he said, the problems have been going on for far too long. The dispute in Sri Lanka does not get as much international attention as it deserves when compared with Darfur, Somalia or Burma. That is a travesty, given the long-standing nature of the conflict.

Its recent history began in 1975, when a Tamil, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, began to form an extremist wing, which is now known as the Tamil Tigers—the LTTE. The Foreign Office estimates that, since that conflict began, nearly 70,000 people have been killed and perhaps more than a million people have been displaced. It is a major conflict in anybody’s terms. In recent times, the conflict and death rates have escalated. In answer to a written parliamentary question from me earlier this year, the Minister said that there were 1,000 civilian deaths last year and 40 this January alone. I also note that some 64,857 internally displaced persons are in the process of being resettled. That is expected to happen by the end of July.

The conflict has brought untold misery to many more throughout the country who have been injured, displaced or lost loved ones. The international community should make renewed efforts to inject momentum into the peace process. As the Minister repeated several times, a political solution, agreed by all the parties involved in the dispute, is the only lasting answer to the problem.

To begin to resolve the conflict, both sides must recognise that that will not happen by military means. As the United Kingdom Government discovered in Northern Ireland, there must be a political solution. There will never be a military solution to the Sri Lankan problem.

Given the deeply ingrained feelings of mistrust on both sides, resolution is not an easy prospect, as the Minister said. Yet we should not stop trying. It should be our purpose today to discuss what we can do to facilitate the end of the violence in that beautiful country.

There is almost daily violence between the armed forces of the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. On Friday, three Sri Lankan navy personnel were killed by members of the LTTE in a gun battle in Trincomalee on the east coast. On Thursday, Sri Lankan army troops launched an attack on the rebel mortar position in the north-west of the country, where clashes the previous day left 23 combatants dead. The
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sad truth is that similar incidents happen every day and will probably continue to happen unless something is done to stop them.

As the Minister said, only five years ago the position appeared a great deal more positive, when the 2002 peace agreement brokered by the Norwegian-led peace envoy was signed on 2 February. Both parties agreed to

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