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2 May 2007 : Column 1585

I know that that is different from what the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire suggested, because he believes that we cannot hold discussions with people unless they renounce violence. As we have heard from colleagues on both sides of the House, however, without such discussions we would never have reached the stage at which we could look with mild amusement at a photograph of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and Martin McGuinness—with EU President Barroso in the middle—sharing a joke. Other right hon. and hon. Members who have had to sit through debates on Northern Ireland, as have I, would never have believed that possible even a few years ago. However, thanks to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and many others, it has become possible. It is possible to move on, but we cannot move on unless we have a dialogue, and we cannot have a dialogue if we proscribe and ban the groups involved.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many members of the Tamil community who have absolutely no interest in terrorism and who do not even consider themselves to be members of the LTTE are inhibited from speaking out because they are afraid of being tagged with the terrorist label? At a meeting that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and I attended recently, there had to be a police presence because those people were so afraid that they would engender enmity from the community by holding that meeting.

Keith Vaz: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is wrong for such people to be treated in that way and to feel that fear. Whoever is spinning that fear—whether it be the Sri Lankan Government or others—should stop. Participating in the British political process is the right of every British citizen. Contrary to the view that those people are here as asylum seekers or refugees—an idea that has been mentioned—they are members of the settled community. Clearly, some are asylum seekers or seeking refugee status, but others are very well established here, and they should feel able to be open about their involvement in political meetings and the British political process. We need to make sure that that happens.

It is therefore important that we take a lead, for the reasons mentioned by other Members. We have a responsibility, the historical ties with our country are profound and, as we have heard, this country gave independence to Sri Lanka. We have a special bond and relationship because of the large community living here and because of our previous responsibilities. We should seize the moment. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen is going to Sri Lanka again, and I hope that the Minister of State will also visit in the near future, as he started a process that he ought to continue. If he does continue that process, whenever he visits, that would be useful.

Dr. Howells: To reassure my right hon. Friend, I can tell him that I will shortly go back to Sri Lanka, and I hope to join my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) there so that we can take whatever measures are necessary to try to push the process forward.

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Keith Vaz: I am delighted to hear that. When I met my hon. Friend, he said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen was his best friend in the House. Sri Lanka is a good place for best friends to meet, and if they manage to move the process forward, it will be good business for best friends to conduct.

Stephen Pound: I make the point with considerable trepidation, but my right hon. Friend referred to the British Government “giving” independence to Sri Lanka. May I tell him that several of my constituents who have heard me use that expression have said that they would much prefer the wording to be that the British Government “returned” independence to Sri Lanka? I make no criticism of my right hon. Friend, whose record is impeccable, but perhaps we should consider using that verbal figuration on the Floor of the House.

Keith Vaz: I am more than happy to be corrected by my hon. Friend and am happy to use that terminology in the House. If I lapse again, I am sure that he will remind me.

Peter Luff: On the subject of correction, may I correct myself? I was seeking to convey to the House not that such people were refugees or asylum seekers, but that they had been driven from Sri Lanka against their will, often because of discrimination, persecution or violence, and many of them would prefer to have lived their entire lives in Sri Lanka, rather than being here.

On another subject, is the right hon. Gentleman convinced—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. As the hon. Gentleman knows, interventions are to be brief.

Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is allowed to make a correction, but not another speech in the middle of mine.

We have heard the shocking statistics and it is right that we should repeat them again and again: 80,000 internally displaced people; 900,000 children, 15 per cent. of the total child population, living in conflict-affected areas, and more than 300,000 directly affected by the conflict. The figures have varied between different Members’ speeches, but I have been given the figure of 68,000 lives claimed by the war since 1983, with 4,000 deaths since November 2005, and, according to the United Nations, more than 300,000 civilians displaced by the renewed fighting as of April 2007. We need to take account of those shocking statistics if we are to make progress.

Yesterday, the Sri Lankan President unveiled proposals to abolish the executive presidency, adopt a bicameral parliamentary system and ensure that both the police and the armed forces are more multi-ethnic. That, however, does not deal with the basic problems that have created the present difficulties. All ethic groups should be treated equally, and they and their values should be respected. I hope that those proposals signal a change, but I do not think that the change will happen unless we move it forward.

I mentioned the Tamil Tigers and the ban that we imposed on them. I hope very much that the LTTE will
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be able to challenge that ban. When we met the Home Secretary he said that one challenge had been successful, so they are in new territory, but they certainly have my support in their desire for a lifting of the ban. We heard that the Minister would be visiting Sri Lanka, and that is terrific.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has spoken of our role here. We represent many members of the Tamil diaspora in our constituencies: there is a large Tamil community in south London, for instance. The right hon. Gentleman has also raised the important issue of abuse of human rights, which has occurred on all sides—and, indeed, within each side. But another reason for debating this subject is our real interest in the success and prosperity of Sri Lanka, and in sharing in the great growth that has taken place in the south Asian economies. We have a global strategic interest in Sri Lanka. The Chinese are investing there, and perhaps taking their own approach to the balance of power in that part of south Asia. The United Kingdom therefore has a self-interest in Sri Lanka’s enjoyment of peace and prosperity.

Keith Vaz: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is the new secretary of the all-party parliamentary Tamil group. His points are extremely valid.

The debate is to be wound up by the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who is currently sitting next to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner). Both their constituencies contain large numbers of British Tamils.

When we consider the issue of international aid, I want to know whether when we give aid to Sri Lanka, as we should, the point is made to the Sri Lankan Government that it is important for that aid to reach the people whom it is intended to reach. While we support the Government in the aid process, they have a responsibility to ensure that a dialogue begins.

If we have achieved anything this week in setting up the all-party group and debating this issue on the Floor of the House, I hope that we have created the climate and conditions for dialogue: dialogue between Tamil groups, including the Tamil Tigers, and the Sri Lankan Government; dialogue between Tamil groups and the international community; and, indeed, dialogue between the Foreign Office and the Home Office. I was very surprised to hear from the Minister of State that he had not had a chance to meet the Home Secretary to discuss these issues—through no fault of his own, no doubt; I am sure that, given his Foreign Office responsibilities, his diary is awful. But I hope that he will meet the Home Secretary, because the issue affects both the Foreign Office and the Home Office. I hope it will be recognised that dialogue is the only way in which to bring peace to a troubled but beautiful island.

5.3 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is a great privilege and pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz).

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I am very pleased that the House has taken the opportunity to debate such an important subject. With so many conflicts around the world, and with our own armed forces engaged in so many places overseas, it is sometimes easy to overlook the ongoing difficulties in countries such as Sri Lanka. I compliment those on both Front Benches for taking such a conciliatory tone in their speeches, and concluding that there must be dialogue and a ceasefire. Although the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) is not present at the moment, I want to say what a pleasure it was to listen to such an authoritative contribution as his.

The difficulties in Sri Lanka have arisen for a number of reasons, not the least of them being the ethnic, cultural and religious divisions between the Tamil and Singhalese communities. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE is fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamil people. Tension between the Tamil and Sinhalese people has existed for many years, but a full-scale conflict has developed since the early 1980s, with armed groups operating in the north-east of the island, the area mainly populated by the Tamil minority. As we have heard, in the past 20 years some 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict and many more have been maimed and injured; almost 1 million people have been displaced from their homes. There remains the ever-present threat to many ordinary citizens of kidnap and murder, both of which have been a continuous feature of the conflict.

It is important to remember that atrocities have been committed by both sides. When in 1983 riots resulted in the death of 2,000 Tamils, it was suggested by many that some of the blame lay with the Sri Lankan authorities. On the other hand, the LTTE has long recognised that fear and devastation can be caused by suicide bombers. It has used that deadly tactic on many occasions, maiming and killing hundreds of people—often innocent people.

However, despite all the terror one thing is clear: both sides have demonstrated a capacity for peace. They did so when both sides approached the Norwegians to negotiate a ceasefire in February 2002. Unfortunately, that ceasefire now lies in tatters and the resumption of hostilities on both sides has led to some 4,000 people being killed over the past two years. There have been particularly worrying developments in the past few weeks; there is a real danger that Sri Lanka might end up in a state of civil war. Recent military pushes by the Sri Lankan army have led to the recapture of much of the Tamil-occupied land in the north and east of the island and, encouraged by its success, the army might well be preparing for another major offensive.

It is noteworthy that on Monday 23 April The Irish News reported:

The report went on to speculate that that was likely to mean that a major military push by Government forces was imminent.

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Many contributors to the debate have spoken of the ban on the LTTE acting as a barrier to dialogue. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that some of the main people involved in the peace negotiations—the Norwegians—are engaged in dialogue with the LTTE and the Government. We must take comfort and heart from that.

Simon Hughes: One of the reasons the Norwegians are still in such good standing is that Norway is not part of the European Union so it is not collectively responsible for the ban. Countries that have not taken the same view as the EU and the United States are likely in some respects to be more acceptable in the short term to assist in the process.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful for that contribution. It could be said that we have both angles covered, as the Norwegians are independent but they are also co-sponsors who have the support and assistance of the EU, the USA and Japan.

If the Sri Lankan army is considering an extra push in the north-east of the island, that is a worrying development as it will lead to further suffering and loss of life. If the advances are resumed, it is likely that the LTTE will wish to reply in kind, and it could be years before there is a reduction in the violence.

Meanwhile, the LTTE has started making deadly air strikes on both Government troops and the infrastructure of Colombo. There have recently been strikes on an oil depot and on the main airport in the capital city, timed to coincide with the cricket world cup final. The Foreign Office website describes the situation in Sri Lanka as “no peace no war”, but the brutal reality is that since the 2002 ceasefire the conflict has resumed and is in danger of escalating to a much greater scale. The ceasefire needs to be rekindled and the international community must make every effort to secure it.

Britain has a historical connection, of course, with Sri Lanka, and we should do whatever we can to bring peace to the island. I am mindful, however, that some former colonies are wary of British involvement in their now independent countries, which is why our involvement should be handled with sensitivity, helping as is necessary and appropriate. The Norwegians, operating with the support of the USA, Japan and the European Union, successfully negotiated the February 2002 ceasefire. They deserve our utmost praise and respect, and we should offer them all the support that they need and want from us. The ceasefire may have collapsed, but to the Norwegians’ credit they have continued to maintain good links with both sides in the conflict, which may lead to further peace proposals.

We should also use our position in the international arena to encourage other countries to press both sides for peace. Britain has considerable influence in the United Nations by virtue of being a permanent member of the Security Council. Although we might sometimes have disagreements with our European Union counterparts, we still have influence in the Union. Nor should we forget our many friends in the Commonwealth, who should also be urged to press for peace.

India, too, has a major role to play in this conflict, not least because of its proximity to Sri Lanka and its own large Tamil population in Tamil Nadu. As India heads toward becoming a 21st-century superpower, it is
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important that it be included in the peace negotiations because of its own vested interest and its global and regional influence, which is increasing daily.

Mr. Love: The hon. Gentleman might well be aware of recent opinion polls in Sri Lanka suggesting that there is greater trust in India’s performing the role of an international good partner than in any other country in the world.

Mr. Vara: For that reason—as well as for the reasons of India’s proximity and of Tamil Nadu—it is important that India is involved in any talks that take place. However, given that Norway is leading the way and has been successful in the past, it should continue in that vein, but with the support of any country that has the trust and confidence of the Sri Lankan people. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enlightening the House about that opinion poll.

We have successfully brought peace to Northern Ireland, a community previously riven by internal hatred and conflict. The bombs and bullets of just a decade ago have been laid to rest. Republicans and Unionists may not yet have forgiven and forgotten every single grudge and grievance from those troubled times, but they have stopped killing. We can share our experience of nurturing that peace process with the Sri Lankan Government and with the LTTE. As I said earlier, it was a pleasure to hear the right hon. Member for Torfaen discuss that very issue. However, before all these things can happen, both sides in the conflict must take action to stop the killing and mistrust. The LTTE must cease its attacks and the use of child soldiers and suicide bombers.

There is also concern about overseas funding for the LTTE. Reference has been made to the arrest in Australia of two people suspected of seeking to divert funds raised for the tsunami disaster on Boxing day 2004, for the purpose of purchasing weapons for the LTTE. Perhaps in his reply the Minister could give us an assurance that the funds that were sent from Britain after the tsunami were subject to checks to ensure that they were not diverted. I would also ask the Minister to comment, to the extent that he has the information to do so, on the written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on 9 October 2006, which stated that some £7.5 million had been designated to be spent in Sri Lanka on reconstruction after the tsunami, but only £4.5 million had been spent. Has more money been spent and are there measures in place to ensure that the funds are directed towards reconstruction and not used for other purposes, such as assisting parties to the conflict?

The Sri Lankan Government must also take action. To start with, they could ensure equality for all their people, as previous contributors to the debate have mentioned, whether they be Tamil or Sinhalese. The Government should also stop their roadblocks, especially on the A9 highway to Jaffna. Only yesterday I was talking to someone from Sri Lanka who was very concerned that his sister in Jaffna is not having even one meal a day because of that roadblock, which is stopping medicine, food and clothing reaching the people of Jaffna, many of whom are innocent in the conflict.

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Susan Kramer: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as the Under-Secretary of State for International Development will reply to the debate, it might be an opportunity for him to state that the British Government, working with the various non-governmental organisations in the area, are making forceful representations to reopen the blockaded road? As the hon. Gentleman said, the impact is devastating and is destroying communities that have historically been well-to-do, but are now in absolute poverty and dire crisis.

Mr. Vara: I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution and she makes a valid point. I hope that the Minister will be able to say what the Government are doing to ensure that the misery and suffering that the blockade is causing ceases. If we are to have a ceasefire, we need dialogue, and that can happen only if the misery and suffering abate.

The Sri Lankan Government must also ensure that rogue elements in their army are not acting independently against Tamils. Not only is that wrong and a violation of the human rights treaties that the Government of Sri Lanka signed up to, but it provokes and encourages the LTTE to seek revenge. As has been proved time and again around the world, not least in Northern Ireland, a cessation in violence has to be a precursor to productive peace talks. A negotiated settlement through peaceful means is the only way forward for both parties if they wish to see their people prosper.

Sri Lanka as a country has enormous potential for the future. The people involved in the conflict need to recognise that the future of their country lies in investing in its future prosperity and not in bombs and bullets. In the 21st century, the world’s centre of gravity is moving from Europe and the Atlantic to the south and the east. Sri Lanka needs to ensure that by continuing its conflict, it does not miss out on the opportunities that this century will bring for all the people in that region.

Recent history has shown time and again that most conflicts are eventually resolved by dialogue. The LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government have a simple choice. They can either continue the conflict, with many more people suffering and dying on both sides, and decide to engage in dialogue at some future point, or they can engage in productive talks now and prevent the needless suffering and death that are the immediate alternatives.

It really is time for both sides to engage in dialogue, to have a ceasefire and to ensure that peace once more reigns in that beautiful island. I thank the House for listening.

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