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In this House, we have sought, along with the Minister, who has always been extremely co-operative, and his fellow Ministers, to debate regularly how the Government and others in the UK can assist in the peace process. I pay tribute not only to the right hon. Member for Torfaen, but to people such as the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), and other colleagues who have taken a consistent interest and sought to facilitate progress. Some of my colleagues who cannot be here today were with me yesterday at a meeting, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and for St. Ives (Andrew George). The former has constituents from Sri Lanka, and the latter does not, but they have taken a concerned interest and want proper development,
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economic success and prosperity for Sri Lanka. The Minister made the Government’s position very clear at Foreign and Commonwealth questions last week. He called for the Sri Lankan Government to go down a different route to try to come to a peaceful and just conclusion. Sadly, that did not happen, and formally, as of yesterday, the ceasefire is at an end.

Last night, in the Grand Committee Room in Westminster Hall, there was a large gathering of the Tamil community. Colleagues from all three major parties met people to hear them express their concerns, which they did moderately but with great anxiety. I know that many of them have lost relatives; they have had family killed or injured. Many cannot get things through to their relatives, particularly if they are in the Jaffna peninsula in the north. At 4 o’clock today, a petition was presented to No. 10 expressing the concern of the Tamil community here that the ceasefire should be reinstated and that the peace process should continue.

During this period of catastrophe, according to the best figures available—Government figures that are not fundamentally disputed—70,000 people may have been killed and 1 million may have been displaced. On top of all that, as if it were not enough, the tsunami struck, and a further 30,000 or 40,000 people were killed on Boxing day just over three years ago; hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. This country desperately needs peace in order that it can have prosperity. I will not go through the litany of killing, but in the past two years probably 5,000 people have been killed—estimates vary—and that has continued, as I said, even in recent weeks.

I shall make a linked point before I come to my reflections and suggestions. I have been in touch with the Sri Lankan high commissioner here, and I am grateful for her considered response to my request for an accurate, up-to-date statement of the Sri Lankan position, to ensure that I was not misrepresenting it.

We have always had a good relationship, though a tense one, as we have debated the issues. According to independent reports, the economy is suffering as a consequence of what has happened there. There is growth in the economy, but the trade deficit has widened by 66 per cent. in a year, and exports have gone down. In November, imports went up, and stocks are going down. Probably some 1 million people are in poverty, mainly in areas affected most by the conflict. That situation will go on, and it is a worldwide phenomenon. On the BBC World Service this morning I heard someone reflect that it is always the case in the developing world that conflict absolutely and directly exacerbates poverty.

The Government and international bodies, such as Amnesty and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, have a similar view as to what has happened in the peace process. There is not really any international dispute.

The agreement that was reached in 2002 followed unilateral efforts to hold a ceasefire for a month and see how that went. The ceasefire has been piecemeal and inconsistent, and of course, as everybody knows, it has not been universally respected. However, in the middle of it, suggestions for proper devolution were made. Proposals for an autonomous Tamil province or
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part of the country were on the table. I do not mean proposals for local government but a new constitutional settlement, such as, in some ways, we have achieved here, and as has happened in many other parts of the world. Things went well, but then the past President intervened and sacked people from various Ministries and progress stalled.

People keep hoping, but their hopes are repeatedly dashed. After the tsunami, people hoped that it might, paradoxically, be an incentive to get together but that was not to be. It is troubling that there is a universal view that, despite countries such as ours linking their development assistance to the peace process—the Government agreed a strategy in 2002 that was rightly clear about that—human rights have been poor. That remains a general understanding. The Foreign Office website states:

Yet records for recent years and months confirm that serious cause for concern remains.

Amnesty International’s 2007 report states that the United Nations special rapporteur reported in March on a visit made some months previously and on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions. The rapporteur said that freedom of expression, movement, association and participation were threatened, especially for Tamil and Muslim civilians.

In May, the President appointed new people to the human rights commission, which then no longer appeared to fulfil its constitutional requirements or the international requirements for independence. In September, the supreme court ruled that there was no legal basis for the UN Human Rights Committee to hear cases from Sri Lanka. That was regrettable. As the year went on, international human rights bodies raised concerns about the escalating human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. That has been on the agenda at the Security Council.

I do not say that those leading the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam do not share responsibility, as insurgents, for the situation. However, it is clear from reports that Sri Lankan Government responses have not been confined to those acting militarily. They have intervened in the lives of civilians and gone far beyond what is internationally recognised as acceptable. I understand the provocation when suicide bombing happens and ships get blown up, but Sri Lanka spends $1 billion on defence—money that should logically be spent on development.

Amnesty International says that last year, humanitarian aid agencies were unable to reach many of those at risk in the north and east. From August, aid supplies to the north were obstructed by the closure of the Jaffna peninsula road and a sea blockade by the LTTE.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns that, with the motorway remaining closed and the ceasefire having ended, the humanitarian crisis can only get worse? The international community must do something about that urgently.

Simon Hughes: I understand that the hon. Gentleman spoke at the same meeting as me last night, although he
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was there before me. The community was grateful that he was there. The A9, the main road to Jaffna, is the only appropriate and established thoroughfare for a huge community on the peninsula in the north. It has been closed for a long time; it was reopened but is now closed again. Last night I heard at first hand people saying that they could not get medical supplies, food or money through to their families in that part of the country.

The Sri Lankan Government say that although the road is closed, supplies can be delivered by boat and so on, but that is clearly not the experience of people here who talk to us. I do not mean that those people are inventing or imagining that, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the road needs to be reopened. Whatever the decision about the ceasefire this month, I cannot believe that it is beyond the competence of the Government and the LTTE to agree that the road can be opened and protected, so that people can go to their homes and supplies can reach people who live in the north.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Earlier the hon. Gentleman mentioned the tsunami and the aid that went to its victims. I am sure that he is aware that there is still huge anger about the distribution of that aid and a feeling among those in the Tamil community in the north and east that they were deprived of necessary aid. Does he not think that there is still some point in pursuing that as part of confidence building?

Simon Hughes: Yes I do. The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development might be able to help us on that matter. There is now independent confirmation that large amounts of the aid given have not gone where they were intended to go. That is a tragedy, given the absolute destruction caused in those areas. It must be right for there to be further investigation, conducted independently of the Sri Lankan Government, into where that money has gone, and for us to seek to liberate it to rebuild those communities. The hon. Gentleman is right about that.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I had the good fortune to go to Sri Lanka two years ago, specifically to see how aid money was being spent. Although I recognise all the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised—he is absolutely right—equally I recognise how difficult it was, in a war zone, to rebuild and replenish the badly damaged area in the north around Jaffna. I got the impression that a Sri Lankan Government body comprising a group of young people was working very hard indeed and achieving a sizeable success in replenishing some of those areas in the north. I understand the difficulties and concerns; none the less, I want to inject some balance and say that, judging by my investigations when I was there, the Sri Lankan Government seemed to be trying their very best under difficult circumstances.

Simon Hughes: I have not been back to Sri Lanka since the tsunami, so I cannot comment from experience on the ground, although I know that the Under-Secretary of State has been. I do not doubt that much work has been done by Sri Lankan Government agencies and international non-governmental organisations, but often—I
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do not know whether this was true of the Minister’s visit—Ministers from other countries, international agencies or parliamentarians cannot go where they would like to go, because the Sri Lankan Government say that it is unsafe. People therefore end up going where it is possible to see good things happening. I have no idea whether the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) asked to go to Jaffna and the north, for example, and whether he was free to travel there—

Mr. Binley indicated assent.

Simon Hughes: He was. I am reassured by what he says; all I know is that there are internationally authenticated concerns that much of the money has not ended up where it should have ended up, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) intervened on me to say. I am not attributing personal blame, but if that is happening, it is no good.

I have two final points of concern. There are still huge numbers of unlawful killings—it is not me saying that, but Amnesty. Several hundred extra-judicial killings were reported last year, which, as Amnesty makes clear, were carried out by forces of the Government, the Karuna group—a splinter group of the LTTE that is reportedly co-operating with Government forces—the LTTE and other armed opposition groups. We are not talking about one-side-of-the coin activity. The situation is complex, with many involved in taking people out of what they see as a political battle.

Both sides are also still recruiting child soldiers. Apparently the LTTE recruited 1,500 or so child soldiers a year ago, while more than 100 were reportedly recruited in Government-controlled areas in the east by the Karuna group. A special adviser to the UN reported in November—two months ago—that Sri Lankan Government forces had been actively involved in forcibly recruiting children. That is absolutely unacceptable. It is even more worrying if anyone connected to the Government or Government forces is involved. The world is trying to stop conflict, and in particular it is trying to ensure that it does not start with youngsters being brought in, as they are the most vulnerable people.

There have been numerous detailed reports about torture in police custody and so on, but my final point on this report is that an international commission of inquiry was announced by the President in September to investigate abductions, disappearances and extra-judicial killings. In the end, however, it was changed to being a national investigation with an international observer group. There are real concerns about the independence of the information gathering and assessment involved.

I guess that that is why, at the end of the year, some pretty robust statements were made by independent bodies. The programme director of Amnesty International for the Asia Pacific region said this month:

Norway, the United States, Japan and the European Union have also made clear their unhappiness at what
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has happened in connection with the ending of the ceasefire. I am grateful that our Government have made their position clear in that regard. I am also grateful that Norway, which has played an absolutely central role throughout by seeking to be a peacekeeper, to arbitrate and to initiate, is still willing to do that. I had the privilege of meeting the man who had led that exercise when he was passing through London just before Christmas, and I want to thank him and his team, and the Norwegian Government, for continuing to offer their assistance in very difficult circumstances.

I want to reflect on what the Sri Lankan Government have told me, to ensure that I am not in any way misrepresenting it. They have a view that the position of the LTTE, and the more extreme Tamil position, is to create a mono-ethnic, mono-political separate state. Some hold that view, but in my opinion it can never be possible in this world to have mono-ethnic mono-political states. Look at the history of the Balkans; look at anywhere else. No state is going to be like that; it is not a sustainable option.

Many people hold a different view, which is that self-governance within a federal, or confederal, solution is a viable option. Countries flourish, blossom and grow under such systems. India and Pakistan are examples of such states, as are—nearer to home—many of the European Union countries. One has to try to reflect the different aspirations and views involved. The negotiations looked as though they were going down that road and becoming much more realistic. It is unlikely that the support of the Sri Lankan Government would be won by an argument for the secession of part of the country to become a separate Tamil nation state. That is not a credible option under the present constitutional settlement. It must be likely, however, that people could be persuaded by the argument for a new constitution that could confer autonomy for the Tamil people. Yes, there would have to be a referendum, and independent political decisions would have to be taken, but that must all be possible. Within such a self-governing part of Sri Lanka, there would of course have to be freedom for other people to have their human rights acknowledged, whatever their faith, background or interests.

The Sri Lankan Government responded to the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees by saying that they were awaiting the proposals of the all-party representatives’ committee that they set up a year ago. They are doing that, and I welcome it. They are due to report next week. That might be a branch that is worth clinging on to, in order to start climbing back on to a more secure part of the tree. I do not know what the report will say, or how credible it will be, but I recognise that it is clearly important. I hope that it will provide a positive and constructive way forward.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point there. My understanding is that the United Nations Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner would prefer to have an independent UN presence in Sri Lanka the whole time. There seems to have been a long period in which the Sri Lankan Government have employed delaying tactics to try to head that off. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that we should still use our good offices at the UN to insist on an independent UN presence?

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Simon Hughes: I absolutely do think that; it was going to be the last of my suggestions for the Government. The UN is absolutely clear that unless independent agencies can go where they want to in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Government will not be believed by the international community. I appreciate that it can be difficult in times of war and hostility, but it is also about allowing independent relief organisations and independent reporting by valid and respectable press people. I am not talking about people with a partisan view, but respectable international journalists with credibility.

The Sri Lankan Government make a point—and it is not a good point—in their reply to the statement issued by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:

they come on to a very odd argument here—

I have to say that without international adjudication and verification, the Sri Lankan Government will not be regarded as acceptable. I understand the arguments about sovereignty, but if they are trying to win credibility in the world after 30 years of civil war, the UN must be represented in the country and able to go about its business there. The Sri Lankan Government must change their view on that.

The statement to the UN High Commissioner ended by saying:

concluding that,

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