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Bluntly, unless the Government of Sri Lanka, under whichever President or Prime Minister, understand that without autonomy in defined areas and self-government—there is a debate about how that is defined, but the LTTE has said that it is willing to look at options other than independence—there will be no progress to a solution. It will not happen. Obviously, the solution has to be negotiated locally, just as
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negotiations on the concept of devolution of power to Northern Ireland were needed before there could be a breakthrough. There was rising nationalism in Scotland—less in Wales, although there was military action even in Wales, with the Welsh Liberation Army and little bomb blasts such as the one in Tryweryn. Apart from Northern Ireland, which was a big thing, we experienced only little things in this country, but they show that unless there is recognition of the need for autonomy there cannot be progress.

The Government of Sri Lanka must not run away from the need to accept that there will have to be autonomy and a democratic process. The people must be allowed to vote freely and decide which parts of Sri Lanka should have self-government. If Ukraine, which I respect greatly, can give self-government to Crimea and life can go on, Sri Lanka must give self-government to the Tamils, where they want it.

Of course, that does not mean that all the people in Tamil areas will be Tamils, just as in Northern Ireland communities are not confined to particular areas; Tamils will live in Colombo, just as Sinhalese will live on the east coast and in the north. There must be access. The roads have to be open so that people can travel. There must be no no-go areas. However, we have to make sure that the Government of Sri Lanka understand that they will not make progress unless they accept the principle of self-government.

Peter Luff: What is the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the LTTE’s commitment to democracy? The apparent absence of that commitment must be an inhibiting factor in ceding independence or autonomy to the Tamils.

Simon Hughes: I do not know the up-to-date position, I have not recently had a conversation with the Tamil leaders. From the point of view of the Sri Lankan Government, if I was seeking peace I should be terribly frustrated. The ceasefire agreement was broken and recent incidents are unacceptable. The lessons of Northern Ireland are that we just have to keep on going. As the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) said, the helpful things are the conversations and initiatives behind the scenes, such as those taken by Norway, and, sometimes in the past, the Indian Government or the British Government. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was positive and proactive when he was a Minister. I hope that the Commonwealth will do more and take more responsibility.

It is not encouraging when there is yet another suicide mission or bombing, but all the independent objective advice shows that there have been faults and terrible actions on both sides. Therefore, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen so wisely said, it is no good going back over history all the time. We have to move on.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what position he and his party are adopting? Is he really saying to the Sri Lankan Government that there ought to be an independent Tamil-led area within Sri Lanka, or would it be part of a federated or confederated process? What did he envisage when he made his remarks?

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Simon Hughes: I can be very specific. Our view as a party—it is my view also—is that the conflict will be brought to an end only by direct negotiations between the Government and LTTE and by the reaching of a political settlement that allows for a suitable degree of autonomy for Tamil people within a peaceful and secure Sri Lanka. We have not argued for an independent Tamil Eelam. We have argued for negotiations about autonomy between the Tamil representatives and the Government. That autonomy will have to be negotiated, because it has to be respected. It is absolutely not for me, from here, to prescribe whether there should be a federal state or a confederal state, but I am absolutely clear that a unitary state with no proper devolution beyond what has been offered so far will not work. Things have to go further.

Of course there is local government in Sri Lanka and there has been devolution. There have been proposals on the table in the past, but that is no good if the President says that there will have to be a unitary state, in the old-fashioned sense of one state with no subdivisions. Our view is that there should be a suitable degree of autonomy within a peaceful, secure and stable Sri Lanka. If later the Tamil people voted for independence in a free election—unharassed and without any pressure—that would be a separate issue and would raise other issues. The world would have to accommodate that through proper international recognition processes.

My party has supported both Conservative and Labour Governments in their efforts to achieve peace and it has supported the international peace processes. The Liberal Democrats share the sense of urgency that has been expressed. As was said, we now have an additional responsibility, together with the international community, to make further efforts to get the peace process back on track. We can express a view here, but unless there is a formal process in which people are engaged, there cannot be progress.

Mr. Love: Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the process instituted by the Government of Sri Lanka to draw on the views of all of the political parties among the Sinhalese community to try to seek a consensus, as the Government say, on a proper mechanism to devolve power as part of a settlement?

Simon Hughes: I do. There is lots of good practice. As we all know, lots of countries in the world are having to think about how to accept the devolution of power in different ways. The French and the Spanish have done it. The Germans started it after the war. The Canadians are another example. These are difficult, tense issues, and there is lots of world experience. We have done it in the United Kingdom. People’s national identity becomes more important, so they want more power.

I have Tamil constituents, as do many of us in the House. My next meeting with the high commissioner will take place next week, with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton. We both also have colleagues who are councillors in our boroughs. He will speak about his. I have a councillor colleague who is our deputy mayor in Southwark. She is a Tamil and a
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Christian. She has supported the battle for self-determination. She is not a terrorist. People like that in this country, who have been supporters of the struggle, often have a pretty hard time because of a very ungenerous view—I am choosing pretty mild words—by the Sri Lankan authorities. I regularly get messages that people who take that view and are active in politics in Britain will be charged, arrested or locked up. I just say, “Look, if you think that people in this country have broken the law, arrest and charge them, but you can’t win the argument in this country by seeking to suppress the voices of dissent.” People of all views in the Sinhala and Tamil communities must be allowed to say their piece. Perhaps that will not be popular with the Government of Sri Lanka. Many of us are not popular with our Governments from time to time, but, in a democracy, people are allowed to express dissident opinions.

I hope that there will be a slightly more balanced view in this country so that all people of peace and good will, including the politicised ones who want justice and have members of their families who have been killed, may see peace come in their lifetime. Like others, I want to go back to Sri Lanka and see a peaceful country in which all people can be proud of their community, faith and background and in which the terrible bloodcurdling litany of death and destruction over 20 years or more will have ended. I hope that Britain will always step up to the plate, as the Minister has indicated we will, and realise that we have a huge responsibility for our friends. In that way, I hope that we will all have peace soon.

4.15 pm

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I have never visited Sri Lanka. My knowledge of the problems in Sri Lanka stems from my experience as the MP for Tooting for the past two years and as a councillor for Tooting ward between 1994 and 2006. There is a large Tamil diaspora in Tooting. In my experience, the Tamil community has helped to regenerate Tooting town centre and contributed to Tooting’s vibrancy. It has also brought cultural enrichment to our community in Tooting and Wandsworth.

Members of the community first came to the area as asylum seekers. Many of them became refugees and went on to become nationals. Most of them then became British citizens. They are proud to be Tooting Tamils. Tooting has a vibrant and well-used temple: the Sivayogam temple on Upper Tooting road. The White Pigeon charity on Upper Tooting road does a great deal of charitable work in Sri Lanka. The Tamil rehabilitation organisation is on Garratt lane. The South London Tamil welfare group, Wandsworth Tamil welfare association and many other groups do a tremendous amount of work not only in the community in Tooting, but in Sri Lanka. In my contribution I will articulate the concerns that those groups have raised with me. My experience of Sri Lanka comes through the eyes of my constituents, many of whom come to my surgeries to seek help and still have family members and loved ones in Sri Lanka.

As hon. Members have said, over the past four months fighting has continued to rage between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the LTTE. The 2002 ceasefire
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agreement that was signed by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE now seems like years ago. It is worth remembering that up to 2002, the civil war in Sri Lanka had claimed the lives of at least 64,000 people, most of whom were civilians. Men, women and children were indiscriminately killed or seriously injured.

The Sri Lanka monitoring mission made some progress. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) commented, Norway deserves tributes for the role that it has played, but the US Government, the EU, Japan, the Indian Government and ourselves have also played a big role.

Many of us have used the BBC as our source of reference. It estimates that 4,000 more people, mainly Tamil civilians, have been killed in Sri Lanka since late 2005, when violence began to escalate once again, bringing the total number of people killed since the outbreak of civil war to 68,000. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for reminding us of the history of Sri Lanka and where any blame for the civil war should be apportioned.

Hon. Members will be aware that although the LTTE was a party to the 2002 ceasefire agreement, it was—and still is—proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000 in the UK. The US and India have also proscribed the LTTE and declared it to be a terrorist organisation. In mid-May 2006, the European Parliament passed a resolution in support of declaring the LTTE a terrorist organisation. On 29 May, it was confirmed that EU Foreign Ministers had decided to list the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. On 31 May, the EU announced in a statement that sanctions against the LTTE were in force.

I accept that in the UK it is open to the LTTE to challenge proscription using the route set out in the Terrorism Act, and I understand that when the Home Secretary recently met Tamil groups he made it quite clear that any challenge would have to be made via that route. I take on board the serious points made by my hon. Friend the Minister, and it is right that they should be addressed. However, may I tell the Government and colleagues that there is a perception among the Tamil diaspora of double standards? The House of Commons Library note states, in the context of violence:

There is a belief that only the LTTE has been penalised. The Tamil diaspora cannot be confident that the EU is an impartial broker, following its declaration that the LTTE is a terrorist organisation, and there are fears that that will seriously weaken the Sri Lanka monitoring mission.

Colleagues will know from other debates in the Chamber going back many years the arguments about one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter. Concerns have been raised by my constituents about a dirty tricks campaign that is being waged against the Tamil diaspora in the UK. We have all seen—and it has already been mentioned—the press coverage on 21 April 2007, in which a representative of
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the Sri Lankan embassy in London claimed that the LTTE was behind a scam involving petrol station employees in the UK, in which credit cards were cloned, PIN numbers recorded and money withdrawn and allegedly used by the LTTE. On the other hand, Humberside police say clearly and unequivocally:

There is a perception in the communities of the Tamil diaspora that allegations and aspersions can be made without their having any recourse to try to clear their name. We should understand their frustration, and colleagues have articulated the snowballing of perceived unfairness, whether real or not, leading to other forms of discomfort and actions that we all condemn.

Dr. Howells: We are not taken in by anybody’s spin or attempt to subvert what we hope will be the even-handed treatment of all the members of the Sri Lankan diaspora in this country, whether they are Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil. We are very well aware that all sides are pretty adept at using propaganda to further their own ends. We were not born yesterday, and we did not come in on a pineapple boat from Sri Lanka. We know exactly what is going on and we are watching it very carefully. We will make sure that we are even-handed and that everyone receives fair treatment.

Mr. Khan: I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments, which will be welcomed and received in the spirit in which they were made. He and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development are friends of Sri Lanka, and will not be taken in by spin.

Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend has made many important statements on the Floor of the House, and the statement that he has just made is so important that it needs to be underlined. My Tamil friends, neighbours and constituents have been agonisingly hurt by the statement that there is some sort of terrorist funding scam operating at petrol stations. It is crucial that my hon. Friend put that lie to bed, and it is important, too, that we recognise that many members of the Tamil community work extremely hard in petrol stations. We should be grateful to them for their hard work and their contribution to the economy, and we should not seek to spin them into an atmosphere of blame.

Mr. Khan: I am extremely grateful for that intervention from my friend and hon. Friend. I deliberately made a point in my introduction about the cultural enrichment that the Sri Lankan community has brought to Tooting and London, as well as the regeneration to which it has contributed. What impact do those press reports have on community cohesion, if labels about the Tamil community are so easily thrown around?

Colleagues have referred to atrocities in Sri Lanka, and they are right that the blame rests with all parties—there is no single party that can be completely exonerated. However, we must not ignore the fact that impartial international organisations objectively
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confirm the atrocities that have been committed. The UN working group on disappearances commented in December 2005 that

The problem of internally displaced persons and refugees has been mentioned by many of my colleagues. The Tamil-speaking population of Sri Lanka has, by percentage, one of the highest rates of internally displaced people in the world today. Most of them have been bombed out of a number of locations. Most estimates show that more than one third of the remaining Tamil-speaking population on the island are displaced and living in makeshift camps and welfare centres. In addition, many others have recently fled to India, which has already had hundreds of thousands of refugees from past periods of the conflict and from the tsunami.

The Tamil diaspora represents one third of the Tamils from Sri Lanka and now numbers over 1 million persons. The camps for the IDPs are in deplorable condition, owing to lack of food, water, sanitation, medical care, schooling and adequate shelter. Some of the IDPs are housed in schools, making the schools for those local communities unusable. In a moving contribution, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, mentioned the impact that visiting the IDPs had had upon him.

In its report in December 2005, the United Nations committee against torture commented on the atrocities in Sri Lanka, and in March 2006 the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions submitted a powerful report. Finally, in relation to independent corroboration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated clearly and unequivocally in December 2006, in a powerful report that I recommend to all colleagues:

In Tooting, the White Pigeon charity, which does a tremendous amount of invaluable work in Sri Lanka, tells me that a few weeks ago White Pigeon’s prosthetic technical workshop was bombed and destroyed by the air force in the Mullaitivu district. The charity also tells me that the ongoing daily bombing by the air force is adding many new physical disabilities to the people with whom it works in the Tamil communities.

I am told by the Tamil rehabilitation organisation in Tooting that there are 160,000 people whom it is helping who have no food and lack water and shelter. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) spoke about the A9 road, which is a main road into the northern province that has been blocked since August 2006. The blockage has prevented clothes, medicine and food from getting to people in Jaffna.

The UK and Sri Lanka have a special historical relationship. Until 1948, Sri Lanka was part of the British empire, and since 1948 and Sri Lanka’s
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independence, it has been part of the Commonwealth. Sri Lanka also has a special relationship with the Labour party. It was a Labour Government who gave Sri Lanka its independence. We have a special role to play in helping Sri Lanka in its current troubles. I call on my Government to use our special relationship to persuade all the parties and factions to recommit to the 2002 agreement.

I agree that terrorism and violence, whether state-sponsored or not, can never be the way to achieve a negotiated solution in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. I am aware that the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen has done and will continue to do may lead the way to progress being made. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister confirmed that any advice and help that we can give, based on our experiences in Northern Ireland, will continue.

The international players must square a circle, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) commented. Although they accept that extensive autonomy for the north-east is the only realistic basis for a sustainable peace, they do not wish to reward the LTTE for its actions over the past few years. Once again, there are lessons that can be learned not only from Northern Ireland, but perhaps from South Africa. I am pleased that the Home Office has looked again at how we treated asylum seekers, and I welcome the fact that Sri Lanka has at last been taken off the white list of safe countries. Its inclusion in the list was causing my constituents and those of other hon. Members huge problems.

An early return to negotiations is crucial. I ask our Government to continue to use all the levers, public and private, at their disposal to alleviate the suffering of all the Sri Lankan people, so that peace and tranquillity can return to that beautiful island once again.

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