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2 May 2007 : Column 1605

Mike Gapes: I agree. We also need to support all the international institutions, the UN processes that have been mentioned, the attempts made by individual Governments, and the attempt of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), whom I had the great pleasure of serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary during the Northern Ireland peace negotiations when the Labour Government were first elected. Nobody could be better qualified to try to assist the process in Sri Lanka, but I wish him luck because the complexities of the politics in Sri Lanka are even worse than those in Northern Ireland. Therefore, no easy solution can be reached.

The violence has had an enormous economic impact, as has been mentioned. Sri Lanka’s growth and economic development has been held back, and its once successful tourist industry has been harmed—it would be harmed even more if the BBC were to give some coverage to the appalling situation in Sri Lanka. Our media do not give the conflict in Sri Lanka the coverage that some other conflicts receive. Some of my constituents who demonstrated outside the House of Commons a few months ago were enraged that the hundreds of people complaining about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka received no coverage whatever. It is interesting to ask why. The reason might be the malign role of the LTTE and the image that it gives the community. I am an advocate not of the LTTE, but of my constituents and those who have suffered from the terrible things going on in their country.

Reference has been made to the number of people in refugee camps, the internally displaced people and the refugees who have gone all over the world in the Tamil diaspora. Human rights abuses have been committed on both sides. Many people in Sri Lanka today have suffered as a result of the recruitment of children into terrorist organisations. From evidence given by Human Rights Watch to our Committee and information from other sources, it has become clear that the Karuna faction, which was previously with the LTTE and has gone across to fight on behalf of the Sri Lankan Government, has been recruiting children for its forces and carrying out terrible crimes. The LTTE has also recruited children, and the tactic has been used in the conflict for many years. That is completely against all the international norms and conventions, and we need to denounce that loudly and press for the practice to end.

As has been mentioned, the Norwegians have tried hard to get a political solution over the years. But the situation today requires renewed international efforts. Along with the efforts of our Ministers and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, I hope that the Government of India will use whatever influence they have. We must bear in mind the sensitivities, especially given that a Prime Minister of India was assassinated as a result of involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict. Politicians in India might therefore be a bit wary of getting too involved. Nevertheless, if India aspires to be a regional power and player, and certainly if it aspires to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it has a role to play in thinking more about how it might assist in achieving a solution to the conflict on the island to its south.

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Simon Hughes: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is speaking, given that he chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. I think that I am right in saying that Sri Lanka does not feature in the report that his Committee has just produced, which deals with human rights matters around the world and covers what happened last year. Will he take the issues we have raised back to the Committee, and ensure that Sri Lanka is raised in next year’s report?

Mike Gapes: Our human rights report did not refer to every country in the world. We tried to highlight a few instances in which we thought the Government’s report was inadequate or required further comment. As we were conducting an inquiry on south Asia and would be publishing our report at about the same time, we felt that duplication was unnecessary. However, when our report is published on Friday it will contain comments about human rights in Sri Lanka.

I am sure that my Committee colleagues will consider what we do in future human rights reports, but I cannot commit my Committee. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is a democratic Committee whose 14 members make collective decisions. I hope we will examine the situation in Sri Lanka in the round in the coming year.

I believe that this conflict deserves much greater attention. I believe that there is a role for our Government and for Parliament in trying to facilitate dialogue and a political solution, but I also believe that tactics such as blowing up buses, assassinating political leaders and bombing villages cannot be excused, justified or apologised for, whoever employs them. I therefore believe that members of the various communities—the diaspora, and those in Sri Lanka—who are concerned about these issues must try to find the best way of returning to a political solution.

As other Members have said, we must get back to politics. Only politics, dialogue and negotiation will provide a solution. The slow, difficult processes in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen—and many other Members in all parts of the House—played a part for the many years that it took to secure agreement in Northern Ireland will be needed again in Sri Lanka. We must all maintain international support for that approach, just as we received support from the United States, the European Union and the international community.

6.22 pm

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the Government on making time for the debate. The fact is that Parliament has been rather remiss when it comes to Sri Lanka, especially in view of the number of people who have died and the fact that the conflict has been ongoing since 1983.

I pay tribute—as we all seem to be doing—to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) and to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, who will reply to the debate. Both played a prominent role in Sri Lankan affairs before they became Ministers, and—as has already been mentioned—both their constituencies contain significant Tamil communities.

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I want to make a number of points in the limited time available to me. The first concerns the drift back to war that has been going on for some time. Almost immediately after the ceasefire agreement in 2002, despite six rounds of talks that seemed to be very positive—the LTTE discussed prisoner exchanges and was going to drop the idea of an independent state—by 2003 the LTTE had pulled out, suggesting that it had been sidelined. That resulted in a serious loss of momentum. It was nearly four years before the next major effort was made to bring the two communities together, and although they met in February 2006 and agreed to meet again in April, that subsequent meeting never took place. I pay tribute to Norway for its unsuccessful attempt to bring the two communities together in Oslo in June that year.

There are many reasons for the failure of those efforts, but I shall cite three that I consider particularly important. In October 2003, there was an interim self-governing agreement. Unfortunately, that split the Sinhalese community, and in subsequent parliamentary elections the United National party, which was more sympathetic than some others to finding agreement, was defeated. A consequence of that defeat was that the LTTE and the Tamil community began to wonder about the limitations of the peace process in delivering genuine change for them.

Secondly, 35,000 people were killed as a result of the tsunami and Members know from debates in this House that there was no direct aid to Tamil areas; it had to be filtered through the Government. There was an agreement between the Government and the LTTE: the post-tsunami operational management system or PTOMS. However, that was challenged in the supreme court, and consequently the aid was slow in getting through and the Tamil community began to wonder whether its suffering caused by the tsunami was being recognised.

The third reason was the assassination of the Foreign Minister, Mr. Kadirgamar. Although it is widely assumed that that was carried out by the LTTE, no one has claimed responsibility. That has further deepened the hostility between the communities.

The drift into war became a slide after April 2006. The new Government of the Sri Lanka Freedom party came under pressure from the more nationalist smaller parties to take a tougher response to the negotiating process. The LTTE abandoned any prospect that peace would be delivered, and returned to the low intensity insurgency of some years before. There was also the defection of the Karuna faction, which felt that it was not being listened to within the LTTE, and the belief of many in the military and the Sri Lankan Government that they could exploit that split. The consequence of all of that is that some believe that there can be a military solution. We should make it clear—every Member who has spoken has done so—that there is no military solution. That is not only because the LTTE remains much stronger than many people think, especially in the north of the island, but because, as we have seen in recent weeks and months, it still has the ability to disrupt Sri Lanka and to fight back when
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necessary. Because we should not underestimate the LTTE, it is crucial that the international community starts to bring the two communities together.

We have talked a lot about Norway and some Members have been critical, but Norway cannot succeed alone. It needs the help of the international community. That was clear from what happened to the Sri Lanka monitoring mission. The LTTE said that it had to get out of its areas, and it had to retreat back to Colombo and remove monitors who were from European Union countries. The international community has a role to play, and it must do more.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Love: I apologise, but I shall not take interventions as I only have two minutes.

In recent months countries and organisations such as Canada, the European Union and the United States have taken tougher action in respect of the LTTE; Canada, for example, has joined others in proscribing it. I do not want to get into the arguments for and against taking such action, but we should clearly state that we cannot defeat it militarily and neither can we do so by banishing it from the political system. It has to be possible to bring it in. There has to be a political solution to the problem and that must include the Tamil community—a solution cannot be achieved without it. That requires critical and sustained international engagement. My major plea is that the British Government must call on the international community to do more. Some time ago, the international donors talked about putting pressure on in terms of international donations. Many countries give debt relief to Sri Lanka. Are we asking whether that is getting through to all the people in Sri Lanka to ease all of its problems? We need answers to such questions.

I wanted to go into greater detail than time allows on the human rights situation, which is extremely bleak. There is an intensification of the dirty war that mainly impacts on civilians in the north and east of the country. Child recruitment continues on both sides, and there have been more than 700 abductions and disappearances in recent months. Emergency regulations have effectively been turned into prevention of terrorism legislation that contains sweeping powers and is not accountable to the political process. Of course, the LTTE has gone further in rejecting the possibility that the peace process can deliver for it.

So the reality is that the situation has not been bleaker than this for many years. The reality is also that only the international community can make a real difference in bringing the two sides together. I make the plea that I am sure everyone else is making. Although the British Government may not play the main role, in many ways they have a unique role because of our membership of the Security Council, our historical role in Sri Lanka and our membership of the EU. All those factors can be brought to bear to ensure that we do the most important thing: bring the two sides together, reintroduce the ceasefire agreement and get the political process under way.

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6.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): This has been a serious and considered debate that has reflected the Government’s profound concern at the situation facing the people of Sri Lanka. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East began the debate by setting out a range of steps that we have taken. He deliberately chose to initiate this debate precisely to allow Members to raise the issues that we know many constituents are concerned about. He confirmed not only that he has visited Sri Lanka, but that he is due to do so again.

My hon. Friend was followed by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who spoke for the Opposition. In a wide-ranging speech, he made a series of points and asked a number of questions, not the least of which concerned the role of India and the potential of British discussions with the Indian Government regarding the situation in Sri Lanka. I can confirm that such discussions are ongoing, and that my hon. Friend is due to visit India shortly to continue them in person. I will come to the other questions that the hon. Gentleman asked in due course.

We were then treated to the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who brought his considerable experience of Northern Ireland matters to this debate. I welcome the fact that he has visited Sri Lanka, and that his interest continues and he is willing to travel again to that country to share the benefit of and reflect on his experience. His forthcoming visit, timed as it will be to coincide with the visit of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who will bring the Government’s perspective to the situation in Sri Lanka, will be particularly important. My right hon. Friend made a particularly important point about the Northern Ireland process. The lessons learned from Northern Ireland have a particular read-across to the situation in Sri Lanka. He referred to the importance of parity of esteem, as he put it: the need to develop mutual respect across the divides that haunt Sri Lanka.

My right hon. Friend was followed by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who touched on the concerns of many of his constituents and made a series of wide-ranging points that I will come to in due course. He was followed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), who, among the various points that he made, was the first Member to highlight the wide-ranging contribution of Sri Lankans to the cultural and economic life of our country, and to many of our constituencies, towns and cities.

The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) made an especially important point about the need for courage from the leaders of the key groupings in Sri Lanka to offer leadership towards a peace process, given the scale of the conflict and the number of lives that have been lost. It is important that that leadership is offered.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) brought his considerable interest and involvement to the debate, and highlighted the need to ensure that the aid that we offer to Sri Lanka is well targeted. I will say more about that point later.

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The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) gave justified recognition to the considerable contribution of the Norwegian Government. I pay particular tribute to the Norwegian Minister, Erik Solheim, who has been diligent about maintaining his country’s support for the peace process in Sri Lanka in a difficult period. The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the considerable humanitarian needs in the country, and I shall describe how my Department is trying to mitigate the scale of that need.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) also described the considerable role of the Sri Lankan community in her constituency and rightly dwelt on the scale of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka at present.

The hon. Members for Putney (Justine Greening) and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), and my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) also made heart-felt points about the opportunity that the tsunami appeared to pose for bringing the sides together. I visited Sri Lanka most recently in June 2005, having also travelled to Aceh in Indonesia, where the tsunami was indeed a catalyst for bringing all sides together. However, by June 2005, it was beginning to become clear that the moment had passed when the force and devastation of the tsunami could have offered a route back into the peace process in Sri Lanka. The conflict was already beginning to return to the state it was in before 2002.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) rightly highlighted the concerns in his constituency and across the UK about the level of human rights abuse in Sri Lanka. In acknowledging the importance of the presidential commission that has been established to look into the issue, he rightly highlighted the need to go further and to ensure that the recommendations of the commission are implemented and deliver tangible improvements in the human rights situation in that country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) brought to our debate his considerable experience as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We look forward with interest to the publication of his Committee’s report on Friday. He made the point that more media attention could justifiably be paid to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Perhaps the publication of the Committee’s report will provide an opportunity for that greater media engagement.

In addition, some extremely astute and important interventions were made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and by the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes).

I know that concern about what is happening in Sri Lanka goes beyond those hon. Members who have been able to attend today’s debate. I have received representations from my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Claire Ward), for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), for Brent, South (Ms Butler), and for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). I also know that this debate will be noted widely across the UK by people in the Sri Lankan Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim
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communities. I know from my own constituency of the profound concern about the situation in Sri Lanka.

I first had the privilege of visiting the country in October 2002, at a time of great hope in the peace process, when people were very optimistic about what was happening. I travelled to Jaffna, which must be one of the most beautifully sited cities in the world, in the company of a Tamil friend from my constituency, and I saw his tears at the scale of the devastation in the city where he grew up and was educated. Since then, and like many other hon. Members, I have heard about the frustration that many people from our Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese communities feel about the situation in Sri Lanka. That frustration has to do with the prospects for peace, the worsening humanitarian situation and the impact that the conflict is having on development, human rights and on the recovery from the tsunami.

As my hon. Friend the Minister set out, the desire for peace and progress has to come from inside Sri Lanka itself. Our Prime Minister has made clear to President Rajapakse our willingness to help, and I hope that the House will agree that my hon. Friend’s visits to the country, the discussions held by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers with visiting Ministers from Sri Lanka, and the engagement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen show the extent of our commitment to help the people of Sri Lanka move forward. However, I repeat that the peace process must begin in Sri Lanka itself.

All Governments, and especially democratically elected Governments, have the responsibility for defending their countries against terrorism. The Sri Lankan Government are no exception, although they also face the considerable challenge of delivering a peace settlement that will meet the aspirations of all Sri Lanka’s different groups.

The last time that the House had the opportunity to reflect on the situation in Sri Lanka as we have done today was in the aftermath of the tsunami. At the time, there was considerable concern about the scale of the displacement and loss of life that had taken place. In today’s debate, we have heard about the continued concern in the period since the tsunami, so I will set out in some detail what my Department and the Government more generally have been able to do in response.

Simon Hughes: Have the Sri Lankan Government given any indication that they understand what the Labour Government, to their credit, have understood in respect of Britain—that people can be kept happy only if they are given power and self-government? Has there been any recognition of that in communications from the Sri Lankan Government since Labour has been in office?

Mr. Thomas: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, in a little while I shall deal with matters such as the fact that the President has set up all-party talks about a possible settlement offer.

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