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There has been long-standing evidence of the disregard for human rights in Sri Lanka to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) drew attention, and the failure to live up to basic human rights standards. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) quoted, has made the same point. The commission that has been established to look into extra-judicial killings and disappearances is welcome, but concerns have been expressed that there are shortcomings in the national legal system that could hamper the commission’s effectiveness. Previous commissions have made recommendations, but they have not been put into
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effect. The commission should be looking not only at individual responsibilities for acts that may be regarded as crimes, but at the broader patterns and the context in which such acts occur. It is no good merely looking at the individual case if nothing then happens to change the overall context.

The overall context at the moment is extremely worrying. There is no question but that there has been very serious deterioration in the situation over the past year or so. Relief organisations are expressing concern, and the Red Cross has recently told us that there are up to 120,000 displaced civilians in the Batticaloa district. Just in the past week or two, more than 40,000 people have fled their homes in that district. We have heard the claims about restrictions on humanitarian provision, as the A9 road has been closed, which is preventing essential medicines and humanitarian aid from getting through. Human Rights Watch and others have expressed concern that the Sri Lankan authorities are using threats and intimidation to compel civilians who fled recent fighting to return home when it is far from safe for them to do so. Those are not the actions that one would expect from a Government; one would not expect anybody to be forced to return home when they feel it is unsafe to do so.

As to what can be done, I understand perfectly well that we as a Government are not in a position to dictate solutions to the Governments of any other countries. The solution will be achieved in the end through negotiation and through the people of that country, the LTTE and its Government. I was interested to hear what my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and the Minister had to say about the initiatives that are being taken, in which we can export experience. It is also perfectly legitimate for us to express our opinions on the initiatives that are being suggested. I have read the recent reports about the devolution proposals unveiled by the Sri Lanka Freedom party. It seemed to me that the proposals were highly unlikely to lead to a solution. In fact, they will probably be regarded as a step backward, as they implied devolution of power at a very local level, rather than any significant devolution of power that would give any real autonomy to a region or province. The proposals seem a step backward in respect of some of the suggestions made a few years ago, and it would not be helpful to the peace process if they were pursued. It is not for me to say what the detail of any solution should be, but it will not last if it does not give a significant degree of autonomy to the north and east provinces—the parts of the country with very significant Tamil populations.

We must carry on with the initiatives that the Minister talked about in his opening remarks. We must offer our experience and support, but send a clear and consistent message to both sides—the Government and the LTTE—that there is not a military solution to this problem. I am worried about the attitude of the Sri Lankan military, who seem to think that they are on the way to crushing the LTTE and that just another push will do it. If that is their mindset, I am afraid that things will get far worse than they are now. That is the important message that we have to send.

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5.56 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I agree with almost every word that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said. It is absolutely crucial that we send a message from this House that we are jointly resolved on the need to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, particularly as regards their growing view that there could be a military solution to this problem. I hope that Members on both sides of the House reject that idea.

Sri Lanka has often appeared to me to be the forgotten tragedy in the world. We hear a great deal about theatres of war such as Darfur and Zimbabwe—of course, they are appalling—but Sri Lanka has been going on, like a running sore, for many years. It has not received the attention that it deserves from this House—that is why I welcome this debate, which has been partly stimulated by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), and congratulate the Government on holding it. This subject has also been forgotten by the British media, and I hope that the BBC and Fleet street will give it the coverage that it deserves.

Like other Members, I come to this debate as a constituency MP having listened to my Tamil constituents’ concerns over many years. In engaging with them, we have the wonderful experience of learning about the Tamil culture and seeing how Tamils contribute so positively to British society. One of the highlights of my year is going to Kingston’s institute of tamil culture and seeing the children play their instruments, dance, sing and tell jokes in Tamil—I get them translated for me. Sometimes it goes on for rather a long time, but it is always very enjoyable. When we engage with them properly and listens to their concerns, we hear stories of tragedies. When I have spoken to them at political meetings, I have always taken the view that we should approach this on a human rights basis, with equality across the communities. Like the hon. Member for Walthamstow, I have been accused of being an LTTE sympathiser, but I reject that utterly. I have always tried to take a balanced approach. The idea that in this House and in this country we can suggest a solution that we can somehow impose on people is clearly nonsense.

When we talk to Tamil constituents and say that we want to take a balanced, human rights approach, we cannot help but feel their anger, frustration and pain, because they have families who have been killed, they have seen killings themselves, and they look at communities of theirs that have been devastated by the violence. It is impossible, as a constituency MP, not to listen to those stories, and not to share their concern and anger.

Susan Kramer: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the deep frustrations in the Tamil community, rightly or wrongly—it may be an unfair statement—is the feeling that because of the war on terror the British Government and other European Governments do not have the same energy and will to resolve their problem because, first, they have higher priorities, and secondly, they are very hesitant about being associated with conversations with anyone who carries the label “terrorist” anywhere near their name?

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Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend makes the point clearly. To be fair to the Government, and although I heard only the second half of the Minister’s speech, for which I apologise again, I was pleased to hear about the initiatives that he and his colleagues are taking. I am sure that they have the support of hon. Members of all parties. However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), I urge him to go further and not be put off by the label “terrorists”, which can pollute a proper debate about the policy towards a country.

Most of the Tamils to whom I speak do not support the LTTE. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, many of them are fleeing violence that the LTTE perpetrated against them, their families and communities. The Tamil community is, of course, varied. Let us be clear: some people support the LTTE, often reluctantly, because they feel that it is the only organisation that can voice their concerns and represent the Tamil community. Some believe that they have no alternative. Let us be honest and say that that is partly because the LTTE has stamped out some of the alternative Tamil political organisations, again with acts of terror. The LTTE has therefore almost created a monopoly. Nevertheless, for many people, it represents a true voice of the Tamil community’s demands. Those voices should be listened to and their anger heard.

One must apply proper standards to the Sri Lankan Government. I have read UN report after UN report, Amnesty International report after Amnesty International report, as well as reports from Human Rights Watch and the International Bar Association, which show that the Sri Lankan Government are not fulfilling the requirements of civil rights and due process or their legal responsibilities. The emergency regulations allow for the most incredible abuses of civil and human rights, primarily against the Tamil population. We must bear that in mind in the debate.

I want to make four quick points. First, let us consider the suffering of the civilian population in the east and north. People have commented on the A9 and its closure by the Sri Lankan Government. That is critical. The lack of food and medical supplies, especially in the Jaffna peninsula, causes great hardship, and I cannot understand why the Sri Lankan Government continue to set their face against international pressure. I am told that that was a sticking point at the Geneva peace talks, and that the Sri Lankan Government walked away from them last autumn because of the demand to reopen the road. To me that was a legitimate demand from the Tamil side, and I hope that it will be realised. I refer hon. Members to early-day motion 955 in my name and that of my hon. Friends, in which we press for the A9 to be reopened for humanitarian reasons.

My second point is directed at the Sri Lankan authorities. Like my hon. Friends the Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Richmond Park, I have been challenged when I have raised such issues; I have also seen colleagues challenged. Councillor Yogan Yoganathan on Kingston council, a former mayor of the royal borough, has been labelled an LTTE sympathiser and supporter simply because, like hon. Members, he wanted to speak out about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. I believe that the Sri Lankan authorities,
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possibly through their representatives in this country, are trying to prevent people from speaking out—to prevent freedom of speech. We must convey a message that we will debate such issues in this country, that that is our democratic right, and that the Sri Lankan authorities should accept it and not try to intimidate people who speak out by trying to label them LTTE sympathisers or terrorists. I hope that the Government will make the point that that is unacceptable in their discussions with Sri Lankan representatives in this country. I intend to do that when I meet the Sri Lankan high commissioner, as I shall shortly.

My third point relates to the Home Office, to which one or two other hon. Members have referred. Let me tell hon. Members a story from one of my advice surgeries a few months ago. I met a gentleman who was claiming asylum—for the second time, as he had failed the first time. He had been returned, re-arrested, detained and tortured again. I learned from talking to his lawyer that his case was not an isolated one. This country has been sending back as failed asylum seekers a number of people who went through that experience. Some managed to escape again and tried to claim asylum again; others have disappeared; still others have been killed.

I ask Ministers on the Treasury Bench tonight to take the message back to the Home Office to be particularly careful when considering asylum claims from Sri Lankan citizens. These stories are simply unacceptable and we must ensure that bona fide claims for asylum are considered with real care, particularly given the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that merely the act of seeking asylum on the part of many people from the Tamil community in Sri Lanka would render them liable to all kinds of dangers if they were forcibly returned? In that sense, would it not be better not to return people forcibly to Sri Lanka?

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. This is a cleft stick for the Government. False claims are false claims, but I have seen too many cases where bona fide claims for asylum have been rejected. Despite making the strongest possible representations, people have been returned, sometimes never to be heard of again.

My final point relates to the ban. The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) rightly suggested that it was counter-productive. It may well be. I hope that the Minister can develop the response that his colleague gave me when I asked about the possibility of a process for reviewing the ban. Can the Government be a little clearer about how they could involve Members in looking at the issue again? They should do so, for the following reason.

When the statutory instrument was originally passed proscribing the LTTE, it was one of more than 20 organisations named in it. There was no single debate about the LTTE, just one debate on the whole statutory instrument. We did not have 20-odd separate votes after 20-odd separate debates—just one. Of course those regulations included a number of organisations that really needed to be proscribed, as the whole House agreed, but I believe that there is a debate—a legitimate debate—about whether the LTTE should be
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proscribed, and it ought to be heard. The process that proscribed the LTTE in the first place was inadequate. That, in itself, is an argument in favour of a review at the very least.

Simon Hughes: Just so that my hon. Friend is clear, I am sure he remembers that that was a point that we made at the time, and beforehand; it is not a point that we have thought up later. We said then that if a step as serious as banning organisations is to be taken, there must be a process in this place to look into the evidence for each case separately, one by one. We have argued that consistently, and I hope that the Government have at last come to understand it.

Mr. Davey: I totally agree with my hon. Friend.

Sri Lanka has the potential to be one of the powerhouses of Asia, and the world. Just three decades ago, it was held up as a model society. Professor Amartya Sen used to write in glowing terms that here was—dare I say it?—a socialist economy and society that had managed to reduce infant mortality, improve literacy and achieve many other key indicators of human progress. Sri Lanka had done a tremendous job. However, the strife that we have seen over the past 30 years has, unfortunately, seen the society go backwards and social progress reversed.

I am sure that those achievements can be regained—but what it will take to do that is peace. It will take Governments such as ours and the European Union putting even more pressure than they have hitherto on both parts of the island to come together. The biggest aid package that we could ever give to the island would be to help it to promote peace. It would no longer need our support or aid—it is more than capable of becoming prosperous by itself, without a pound of aid—if we helped it to restore peace. I am delighted to see that a Minister from the Department for International Development is to respond to the debate, and I hope that his Department, working with the Foreign Office, can give Sri Lanka that aid.

When the tsunami occurred, I hoped that it would help to stimulate peace and reconciliation, because the response to it was building on the ceasefire agreement that had been working, particularly under Prime Minister Wickramasinghe. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Some of the negative voices from the old Kumaratunga regime, and subsequently from the Rajapakse regime, had their way, and we have seen a deterioration in the situation ever since.

When we were considering how individual MPs and communities in this country could help, one project that I was delighted to support was the fish and ships scheme. Many fishermen had lost their boats, and their livelihoods, as a result of the tsunami, but some British people living in Sri Lanka got together with the fishermen and the communities and said, “If we supply you with ships and get you contracts with British supermarkets for your fish, that will help to revive your economy.” And that has happened.

If we help people in such ways, Sri Lanka can be a wonderful place again. But there is a precondition: peace. Let us not wait another five or 10 years before the House again debates this issue and puts pressure on
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the Government to do more. Let us keep coming back to the subject again and again, because the cause of peace in Sri Lanka deserves our attention, and deserves to be one of the key issues to which we pay attention.

6.11 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): First, I should like to apologise for not being here for the opening speeches. This debate started earlier than expected, and I was chairing a Select Committee evidence session on Iran.

I am speaking in two capacities: as the MP representing a constituency with a large Sri Lankan Tamil community and as the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I am in an unfortunate position, in that the Committee is publishing a report on south Asia on Friday, but it is embargoed so I cannot quote from it— [ Interruption. ] Yes, I am holding it in my hand. I can at least refer to the evidence. The report examines the whole regional context, but we have of course touched on the serious situation in Sri Lanka.

Before I refer to the report, however, I should like to place on the record the fact that I agree with most of the contributions that I have heard today, and certainly with what the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said about the cultural contribution of the Tamil community. We have a chariot festival in Ilford every year, and the community contains temples and prosperous businesses. The area of my constituency around Ley street has become a centre of the Tamil community, enriching and enlivening the cultural life of the borough of Redbridge.

Given the contribution that most Tamil people in the UK make, it is tragic that many of them are suffering grievously because of what is happening to their relatives and friends in Sri Lanka. A letter was faxed to me two days ago in which one of my constituents says:

I could go on. Other Members have reported many similar things. The sad thing is that the hope for the co-operation that might have resulted following the terrible tsunami, and the possibility of building on the ceasefire agreement have clearly gone backwards. In the past few months, we have all no doubt received from our constituents pictures of the consequences of the air raids and the bombing of civilian areas, and of people who have died in many parts of Sri Lanka. At the same time, terrorist actions and criminal activities are going on, and the population in many areas is suffering grievously as a result.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am not asking my hon. Friend to reveal anything in the report due out on Friday, but does he agree that it is important to give all the support that we can to the International Committee of the Red Cross in trying to trace some of the missing people? Such anguish is caused to families here whose loved ones have disappeared and are possibly dead but who receive no news because of either the collapse of communications in Sri Lanka or the refusal to divulge information. International agencies are therefore required to help out.

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