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5.20 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I bring to this debate no expertise, and I have not been fortunate enough to have a holiday in Sri Lanka. However, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who has set up the all-party group, and I hope and trust that I will be able to participate in it.

Like many other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, a very significant number of my constituents
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arrived in this country as asylum seekers and refugees from Sri Lanka. They now belong to the Tamil community that thrives in Lewisham, and in my constituency of Lewisham, Deptford in particular. As others have said, the families are settled British citizens, and they bring a great sense of commerce and endeavour to our communities. They run not only petrol stations but convenience shops, and play various roles in the NHS and the IT industry. Members of the Tamil community make an extremely valued contribution, and I very much support their work. They also bring a sense of culture to my area, which I especially enjoy. I should like to mention Vani fine arts, where young children are taught to play the sitar. It is the most wonderful experience to be at one of their concerts.

However, the Tamil community has a great and continuing sense of grievance, and members of it have made me aware of that for the two decades that I have represented the area in this House. In that time, I have seen blood-curdling films of the terrible atrocities committed against Tamils in Sri Lanka, and I have sometimes felt completely unable to suggest any way out of that terrible conflict.

My feeling about the situation in Sri Lanka was the same as that I felt about Northern Ireland for many years. As a mere politician, I felt that I could not propose a way forward, but the breakthrough that came in 2002 was a great relief to the Tamils in this country. Sri Lanka is a place of great diversity, and the news that a peace process was under way was appreciated by people of many faiths.

For quite a while, no political meetings were held in my constituency to discuss the situation in Sri Lanka. On looking back, and having read the excellent paper produced by the Library, it is clear that Sri Lanka has a history of absolute discrimination, with the minority being oppressed by the majority ever since independence. That oppression is so deep-rooted that, as with our experience with Northern Ireland, the beginning of a peace process is not seen as likely to produce a result in a short time. If the Sri Lankan Government had been more determined and committed to the peace process, or if the LTTE had shown more flexibility, it is possible that more success could have been achieved.

I was therefore very distressed and alarmed when last summer the Tamil community in my area asked for another political meeting to discuss the appalling outbreaks of violence that had taken place. I went to that meeting and heard about the many grievances that people had. I also heard the horror stories about what people in Jaffna had suffered. There was a lack of food and medicine in the city, and people who previously had been entirely self-sufficient were now relying on people from Britain to get to them the drugs, money and so on that they needed. It is a matter of enormous concern to me, as it is to all Members who have contributed today, that the violence has continued to escalate and to add to the terrible toll of previous decades.

It would appear that the hardliners on both sides are now in the ascendancy. I have been reading the catalogue of events that took place between January and April. The army has made significant progress in the east. Many towns and villages that were controlled by the LTTE are apparently now under the
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administration of the Karuna faction, which Human Rights Watch has alleged continues to recruit child soldiers, like its erstwhile allies in the LTTE. Defence expenditure, in a country that can hardly afford it, reportedly rose by 30 per cent. in 2006. The LTTE’s capacity to retaliate has not entirely diminished, either. In recent weeks, as we have heard, it has shown that it has acquired some air capability by launching two aircraft attacks.

I shall repeat what many colleagues have said today. Recent estimates suggest that about 4,000 more people have been killed in Sri Lanka since late 2005, bringing the total killed since the outbreak of the civil war to 68,000. In addition, many people have suffered injuries that will affect the rest of their lives, and tens of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes and are no longer able to carry on a normal existence.

We are all grateful for the Norwegian-led peace efforts and I pay tribute to them. It is incredibly important that the Norwegians stay in Sri Lanka and that they do not take sides. It is also important that both sides in the conflict—the Government and the LTTE—have said that they would be willing to return to negotiations, although in truth we do not see that there is much prospect of that at the moment. That is why we all encourage the efforts of the UK Government, and particularly those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy).

I want to ask Ministers some questions that have been put to me by my constituents. I asked one in a formal parliamentary question last year about aid following the tsunami. In October, I received a detailed reply from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development about the amount of aid and where and on what it was to be disbursed. I hope that in his winding-up speech he will tell us how that aid was distributed. As others have said, it is critically important for us to know that the aid was distributed fairly to the people most in need and that aid destined for Tamil areas was not impeded by the Government or the LTTE. I hope my hon. Friend can give us some assurance about that.

A point made by one my constituents was that we should not supply aid at all in the prevailing situation in Sri Lanka. I disagree with that view, so I hope that my hon. Friend can tell the House why it is important that we continue to give aid and that the aid is—we hope—used effectively.

Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend speaks with the great authority of a constituency representative of many members of the Sri Lankan community. Like her, I have had visits from community representatives who have noted that Her Majesty’s Government in fact withheld 50 per cent. of the aid agreed, because the final delivery mechanism could not be guaranteed. Does my hon. Friend agree with me and many representatives of the community that we should withhold the entire aid package until we can guarantee that it will reach the people for whom it is intended and not subsidise those who may be oppressing them?

Joan Ruddock: I take the points that my hon. Friend has raised very seriously, because this is a real debate. I just remarked that I did not agree with the proposition
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that aid should be stopped, but in deciding which of us is making the right argument I will be dependent on the Minister’s response at the end of the debate. We need to know where the aid is going and how it is being used to know whether we can justify continuing it. If we cannot justify that, we need to think about what other mechanisms exist. Could we use multilateral aid or other institutions? Are there vehicles through which some assistance could be given? I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contribution.

My next point is perhaps not for my hon. Friend, but for those in government. I want to refer to another issue raised by my constituents: export licences. Inquiries that I have made reveal that £7 million-worth of arms were licensed for delivery to Sri Lanka in the last quarter for which figures are available. The licences were for, for example, armoured all-wheel drive vehicles, components for heavy machine guns, components for military distress signalling equipment, and many other types of equipment, including military aircraft ground equipment and communications equipment, and small arms ammunition. All of that is military equipment that could conceivably be used in the conflict. I know that our Government have obeyed the rules—the EU and the national criteria by which we agree export licences. There is no question of wrongdoing. However, the issue has been raised by members of the Tamil community and I ask the Minister to consider whether those export licences and similar licences should continue when a live conflict is clearly under way in the country.

Constituents have asked me to raise other points, both for our Government and, in particular, for the Government of Sri Lanka. Other Members have referred to the need to ensure that there is effective human rights monitoring. We know that there is a culture of impunity in the country, that the police do not investigate, and that charges are dropped. It is critical that the many disappearances are properly investigated and that the extra-judicial killings, which everyone knows go on in Sri Lanka and which are undertaken by both Government forces and funded paramilitaries, are investigated.

Many people have spoken today about the need to recognise the LTTE. There are people in my community who believe that that is very important and that it should be done. It is critical—whether or not it is recognised—to enter into dialogue. That is one thing that is constantly being demanded of our Government by my Tamil community. People think that the Government should be more proactive and should somehow try to engage more with all sides. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East tell us of the efforts that he is making in that regard and give us the assurance that those efforts will continue and apparently increase.

Another point that my constituents have asked me to raise relates to the need for the Sri Lankan Government to demonstrate their commitment to a peace settlement by withdrawing to the 2002 ceasefire positions. There is a need to support Amnesty International’s call to “play by the rules”, to investigate the murders and abductions of politicians, many of whom were sympathetic to the Tamil cause, and to investigate extortion and the abduction of Tamil
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business people by the paramilitaries and armed forces. The Sri Lankan Government should not force civilians to settle in areas of conflict as human shields against their will. The armed forces should be vacated from people’s houses and compensation should be paid for those people’s suffering. Those guilty of war crimes should be brought to the International Court of Justice. My constituents also make a plea to us and to the rest of the European Community not to curb the peaceful and democratic activities of Tamils living in the diaspora.

I have particularly been asked to raise those points in today’s debate. I have done so in tribute to members of my Tamil community, to the contribution that they make in our society and to their entirely justified search for justice and equality for the people of their community in their home country, which is where many of them would wish to be and where many of them have family and friends. I know that all of us would want proper respect in that country for all minorities and religions. We have learned lessons with such pain in Northern Ireland, and we want to see the same kind of positive result that we are about to enjoy in these islands. I thank the Ministers for making this enormously important debate possible. There has been unanimity in the House on the fact that human rights are indivisible and apply to all nations.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Joan Ruddock: I was about to conclude my speech, but I shall willingly give way.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As the hon. Lady knows, the presidential commission is investigating several of the allegations that she has mentioned and is being observed by the international group of eminent persons, to which I referred in my speech. Does she support that process? Is it not essential that the process is thorough and that it concludes as soon as possible?

Joan Ruddock: Of course I would be supportive of that process. There will always be a range of views on how such investigations and inquiries are best carried out. However, we have a mechanism in place; let us see whether it can work and produce real accountability and conclusions that the international community can sign up to and support.

We should call on all sides to resume the ceasefire. This might not be total war, but it is in no way peace. The process must be restarted effectively.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I tell the House that Back-Bench speeches have been averaging 16 minutes. If the Minister is to be given sufficient time to answer the points raised in the debate, it would be helpful if that average were brought down a little so that all the remaining Members who are seeking to catch my eye may contribute to the debate.

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5.37 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I will certainly take note of your comments, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Like many Members who have spoken, I have constituents with deep concerns, many of whom have come to my surgery to express their worry about what is happening to many of their relatives in Sri Lanka. Some of them are Tamils, but my Ahmadiyya Muslim community has recently expressed concerns about the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. I agree with a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff): it is easy for us to give our views on what should happen in Sri Lanka. I intend to cite the concerns that my constituents have expressed to me, although I will perhaps fall short of saying what should be done, except by noting that a diplomatic and non-violent solution will be needed to find a long-term way out of the tragic situation in Sri Lanka.

There is no doubt that Sri Lanka has suffered as a country for a number of decades and that it continues to do so. Some 3,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict since the resumption of armed hostilities in 2006. As hon. Members have said, 68,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict. There is no doubt that that has brought immense personal hardship to many people who have been displaced across the country—some 0.5 million in Sri Lanka have been displaced as a result of the conflict. I want to refer in particular to the tsunami, which added another 140,000 displaced people to the total of 0.5 million. Many of us who were aware of the troubles in Sri Lanka hoped that that tragedy on Boxing day 2004 would bring the country together and provide a common humanitarian cause so that people could set aside political differences and focus on what was required for the good of the whole country. It is unfortunate that, in retrospect, that did not happen, and I am concerned about what that means for, dare I say, ordinary Sri Lankans caught up in the conflict. Constituents who come to see me are particularly concerned about falling literacy rates among Sri Lankan children, whose education is constantly disrupted.

As we have heard, there are many human rights problems, and the Human Rights Watch briefing to which reference was made earlier in the debate provides a great deal of evidence of an increase in communal violence between different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, which is a matter of deep concern. The tsunami was a particular tragedy for Sri Lanka, because there was a ceasefire in 2002. Again, to make a comparison with Northern Ireland, I believe that the economic prosperity that resulted from political stability was one of the main reasons why people in Northern Ireland were not prepared to go back to the conflict, bombs and violence of the past. It is truly unfortunate that the tsunami may well prevent that bedding-down or entrenching of the economic development and benefits across Sri Lanka that might have made people less quick to become involved in armed conflict as a result of what they regarded as oppression.

I do not think that there is a military solution to the problems in Sri Lanka. Surely, what must happen is a return to the ceasefire and discussion. That has proved to be the way forward in Northern Ireland, which is close to many of our hearts, and it is almost certainly
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the way forward in Sri Lanka. Democracy is surely the route through which people across the country can air their concerns, and it will enable Sri Lanka to recover in both economic and humanitarian terms after the tsunami and its effects. There is no doubt that that is the only route by which Sri Lanka can take advantage of the massive opportunities for economic growth in that part of the world. I can only hope on behalf of my constituents, who have many relatives in Sri Lanka—many of them do extremely valuable jobs in our community but they would almost certainly like to be able to do them in their original community in Sri Lanka with their own families—that if our debate has done nothing else today, it has highlighted our concerns as a neighbour on the planet as well as our desire to work with Sri Lanka and all the groups there to see an end to the situation and the violence that so many people who live there face on a day-to-day basis.

5.44 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am extremely pleased that we have had this debate this afternoon, as it is a long, long time since there was a debate on Sri Lanka in the House. Like many other hon. Members who have come to the Chamber to take part, I have a very significant number of Tamil constituents who, over the years, have talked to me about their concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka. Of course, it is a long-standing problem, and in its present form the violence goes back over 20 years. The serious violence that occurred in 1983 was one of the factors that led to many members of the Tamil community coming to this country. There have been periods of hope, and as a result of the good work of the Norwegian Government there have been ceasefires. The ceasefire that was put in place in 2002 with high hopes clearly has not lasted and is in serious trouble.

I shall not labour the points that have already been made—that the only way a solution will be reached is through negotiation, and that that must involve the LTTE. There is no question about that. A solution will not be reached without negotiations that involve the LTTE. That is true whether that organisation is recognised or banned in the UK. Reference has been made to keeping lines of communication open. I think it is not particularly helpful that the LTTE is banned, although I am under no illusion about some of the things that it has done and still does, such as the involvement of child soldiers, about which we have heard. I have met people and I know members of the Tamil community in the UK who are here as refugees because of the LTTE. There are two sides to the story.

Stephen Pound: Does my hon. Friend share the frustration of many of my constituents that there seems to be a belief that there is an equivalence between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE? People talk about two sides of the argument. One is the state. The other is a small group of people in the north and east of the island. There is no equivalence. The two are not analogous.

Mr. Gerrard: That is an important point, which I had intended to deal with. Let me develop it now, as it has been raised. There is talk of being even-handed and looking at both sides of the question, but we are
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dealing on one side with a Government who have signed up to international conventions—in relation to human rights, for example. One should expect standards from a Government which one does not necessarily expect from a guerrilla organisation or an organisation described as a terrorist organisation.

It is no excuse for a Government to point to the activities of the LTTE and say, “Well, if the LTTE behaves like this, we have to take action.” It is no excuse at all for a Government to be involved in breaches of human rights and point to the activities of the LTTE. Governments sign up to international conventions about how they will behave, and over the years there has been significant evidence that the Sri Lankan Government have not always lived up to the conventions to which they are signed up.

Mr. Davey: On that important point, speakers have mentioned the analogy with Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, in almost all respects, the British state did not behave against the international conventions. If we press on the Sri Lankan communities the Northern Ireland parallel, surely that should speak volumes to the Sri Lankan Government. If they behaved as the British Government behaved, abiding by the rules, they would be more likely to succeed.

Mr. Gerrard: That message is right. If we look back at the history of Northern Ireland over the years, we could find some examples where we did not behave according to conventions, but it did not do us any good when that happened. That is the message that must be put across.

I have been labelled an LTTE supporter in the past, and been told that I was supporting terrorists. I am well aware of things that the organisation has done of which I do not approve. I am convinced, as I am sure are other hon. Members, that money is being raised in this country which goes to the LTTE. Whether or not the story about the petrol stations is true, I am sure that I am not the only person who has heard the stories of taxing, whereby people are more or less required to contribute money. That happens, and let us not be under any illusion or pretend that it does not. The bottom line, however, is that there will be no settlement and solution unless the LTTE is involved in developing them and in the negotiations. The Tamil politicians in Sri Lanka, and the Members of Parliament who are members of the Tamil National Alliance, which I know is sometimes described as an LTTE proxy, but comprises elected Members of Parliament, will say exactly that—that the LTTE is the body that represents the view of the majority of Tamils.

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