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However, the Sri Lankan Government apparently do not believe that a solution by force is the way forward. That being the case, I hope that they will recognise that they must find another way to have dialogue with the LTTE. Given that the co-chairs of the peace process are willing to help, and that the Government of Sri Lanka affirm that they are willing to help, given that the Government are saying that they want a negotiated solution and that a ceasefire agreement is not necessary for such a solution, given that this report is going to the President on 23 January, given that the Government say that they continue to value and uphold Norway’s role, and given that they acknowledge that we could assist through our good offices to get all the minority
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communities to negotiate, it seems to me that it all demands a context where there is no violence or aggression.

I know that we are about to change the high commissioner in Sri Lanka, and I know that there have been some difficulties about our representation, but I hope that the Minister will soon be able to tell us that, with the support of colleagues on all sides of the House and because of the seriousness of the situation, the Government will increase their efforts to ensure that all parties in Sri Lanka have some grounds for confidence. The Government must make it absolutely clear that to be critical of the Sri Lankan Government’s position is not a way of endorsing the activities of the LTTE, but a way of reflecting that until all stakeholders in the outcome are around the table and all parties have the ability to exercise some political power, there will be no justice—and without justice, we will not get the peace.

I hope that the Government will be robust in helping the Commonwealth and the United Nations to be engaged, which was the request of the community to which I spoke last night. We need to be robust in ensuring that the north is opened up again, and that the Government of Sri Lanka are in no doubt that the present position is unacceptable. Peace is more urgent now than ever.

5.29 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this important debate. As he said, it is very timely for all the worst reasons. Like him, I observed the deterioration at the end of last year and the beginning of this, and asked for a debate to be held this week. That is how important it is at this moment.

I think the best thing that those of us who are in the Chamber now can do is demonstrate our united support for our Minister, and for the work that he must do in trying to bring together the international community to tackle three immediate interlinked tasks: stemming the recent increase—again—in violence, returning people to talks about peace, and ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches those who need it.

As I think Members will agree, the Minister already has a pretty good track record for demonstrating his commitment to peace in Sri Lanka. He has worked with great application and patience for longer than most in trying to bring about peace in the country. He was instrumental in securing our very full debate on this subject in May last year. I wish him the greatest success in the work that he will do in the coming days, and he has my full support.

I want to reiterate what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said about the many links that our country has with Sri Lanka, and the interest that all Members take in the subject as a result. There are all the historical and political issues mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but the crucial current issues that make us interested in the country involve the Sri Lankans in all our communities, whom he also mentioned. He is right: people from Sri Lanka have come to this country, enriched our lives, and reached positions of great influence. I think of engineers, lawyers and doctors in my constituency, and of friends
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of mine who came from Sri Lanka originally. I think, too, of the civic links that we have with Sri Lanka throughout the country.

Last autumn I sat down in a school in my constituency, Walton high school, and listened to students who told me about taking part in the world challenge in Sri Lanka last summer. Twenty students and teachers from the school joined students and staff from 13 other schools around the country, establishing links with Sri Lankan schools. It is at that people-to-people level that we in this country feel such great concern to learn of an eruption of greater violence, and the human tragedy and greater instability that it is creating in Sri Lankan society. I am sure that we all feel a determination that that should stop.

I know the Minister will agree that we are speaking of a country of great beauty, and a people of great talent. They have so much to offer the rest of the world and so much to gain for themselves if they can secure the political stability and get the democratic structure right, and if there can be tolerance between groups in their society. There is so much for them to gain, and there is so much being lost while the violence and disagreements that we are witnessing continue.

I wish my hon. Friend the Minister the greatest success in the important days that lie ahead.

5.33 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am grateful to you for allowing me to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), not only for securing this timely debate but for allowing me and others to intervene briefly.

We know from our debate last May that what we say in the House is scrutinised very carefully in the Sri Lankan Parliament. Indeed, an entire debate was held there on our debate in May. I believe that one or two unfortunate comments were made in the debate, and that the wrong impression was left after it; so I think that we must be very careful. We must recognise that there is a democratically elected Government in Sri Lanka. It is not perfect, but it is better than some of the alternatives.

It is on a note of sadness that we are here today at the time of a recent upswing in violence, as indeed was the case when we last debated the subject. Every death on either side increases the suspicion on both sides, and I call for all parties to exercise restraint.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that while we would, of course, wish there to be forbearance on both sides, it was the Sri Lankan Government who unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire agreement in January this year?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I was coming on to that, and it is an important point, but we must be very temperate and careful in what we say in these debates.

The recent history of the LTTE—the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—started in 1983-84. That was a time of considerable trouble in Northern Ireland, and I do not think that anybody then would have predicted that the Irish Government would give up article 3 of its
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constitution claiming sovereignty over the north, or that some of the principal leaders of both sides would be sitting in a democratically elected devolved Parliament in the Province of Northern Ireland with, as we hope, the peace process going forward. Therefore, while I take on board the remarks of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about the black nature of Sri Lanka’s future, with good will on both sides it is not impossible that we could move to a peaceful solution. The hon. Gentleman put his finger on precisely the right button when he called for a confederate solution—a solution whereby there is a devolved Government of the Tamil areas with considerable autonomy, but under the sovereign Government of an elected Sri Lankan Parliament. I can envisage such a solution in times to come.

I agree with the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) that it was unfortunate that the Sri Lankan Government abrogated the peace agreement unilaterally, and I had a discussion with the high commissioner this morning in which I made that very point. The agreement might not have been perfect, but it did

and it further agreed that

I hope that all people of good will would agree that everybody should share that aspiration. I hope that the Sri Lankan Government and all the Tamil factions will be able to get together around a table and start negotiating because, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, there has to be a political solution. That was the one message from Northern Ireland: there could never be a military solution. There will never be a military solution to the Sri Lankan Government’s problems.

I was delighted to receive an assurance from the high commissioner this morning—she allowed me to say this in the debate—that her Government are absolutely committed to finding a political solution. I hope and believe that that is so, in which case the different sides must get around the table and talk.

It is unfortunate that the international monitoring commission has been withdrawn. The considerable efforts of the Norwegians are proving difficult not only because they cannot monitor a ceasefire that does not take place, but they cannot monitor the process either. I made the point to the high commissioner this morning that it is important that we get some form of international monitoring under United Nations auspices in the country, so that accusations and counter-accusations can be verified by a completely independent body or individual.

When I went to Nepal, there was a powerful United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative there; he was a Brit—a Scot—and he was widely respected by all sides and was able to act as an interlocutor where the Nepalese Government were unable to go. We should be looking for that sort of model for Sri Lanka.

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The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) is sitting in his place, and I wish to pay great tribute to him. I hope that he is able to go back to Sri Lanka, because he was widely respected by all sides and was able to talk to all sides. He was also able, modestly and patiently, to give all sides the benefit of his experience, which is characteristic of him. I hope that he will be able to revisit that beautiful island shortly, and that his good offices will begin to help the peace process again.

Mention has been made of the All Party Representative Committee report due to be handed to President Rajapakse on 23 January. It will be interesting to see what the committee comes up with, whether it is independent and whether it will move things forward. I truly that it will, because all-party talks are the route we should take.

Both sides must recognise that in this type of dispute—the parties in Northern Ireland were in exactly the same position, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen knows only too well—people have to abandon the positions that they hold, although that might not be comfortable. The Tamil Tigers might have to recognise things and do things that they do not want to do. If there is to be a lasting peace process, it must be just that; both sides must recognise each other’s position and recognise that they cannot just adopt the status quo.

It is not the Government, the armed forces or the LTTE who suffer, but the innocent civilians who get caught up in all this. I made it clear it to the high commissioner that the bombing the other day of the base at Kilinochchi was not acceptable. Bombing one’s own people, even if one thinks that one is bombing an LTTE base, is unacceptable, because bombing cannot be that precise that it hits only one’s opponents.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): What was the high commissioner’s response when the hon. Gentleman raised that concern with her?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Some parts of my conversation should not necessarily be in the public domain. I am merely reporting to the House the points that I made to the high commissioner in the same manner as I am now, so that they can be heard in this House.

I call for restraint on all sides, because innocent civilians are the ones who suffer. We want this beautiful island to go forward as a democracy and as a full member of the Commonwealth. It has a wonderful future if peace can prevail. Its economy and tourism are fantastic; it has fantastic jungles, mountains and archaeological sites, all of which need to be generally open to the world. The island has a huge amount to contribute, and I believe that with good will peace could prevail.

5.42 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): I am grateful for the comments of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). I share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who ably opened this debate. We are grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to speak briefly on an important issue.

17 Jan 2008 : Column 1177

When we last debated this issue, I recalled the visit I made to Sri Lanka just over a year ago. I was given absolute access to anywhere I wanted to go, including the LTTE-controlled parts of the island and the LTTE’s headquarters. I met its second in command, who has recently been killed. That brought it home to me how difficult and tragic the times now are in Sri Lanka. The assassinations of Ministers, Members of Parliament and innocent members of the public are all too redolent of what we experienced in our country over 20 or 30 years.

The answer is obviously a political one. All the hon. Members who have spoken mentioned the importance of a political solution. There is no military solution to this problem. The Sri Lankan Government have said that, and I am sure that everybody involved in the peace process in Sri Lanka would echo it. Most interestingly, from a Northern Ireland point of view, that was also Martin McGuinness’s message when he went to talk to people in Sri Lanka some time ago. As he is now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, he told both sides in Sri Lanka that there could not be a military solution and that the war simply could not be won by either side. That has to underpin everything that we do as a Government and a country to help in Sri Lanka. My hon. Friend the Minister would be the first to say that we have a special reason to intervene in this case. We were, after all, the colonial power for many years, and we are also in the same Commonwealth of nations.

It is not beyond the wit of the international community, in its different forms, to intervene in this terrible conflict, which, in some respects, appears to have been forgotten. The co-chairs of the peace process, the Norwegians, have played an excellent role, and we have played our part, too, but it strikes me that the international community must make a special effort to ensure that the ceasefire is restored.

I regret, like everybody else, the end of the ceasefire, even though it was not particularly effective. Nevertheless, it has to be replaced. It is certain that we would not have had peace in Northern Ireland without a proper ceasefire that was recognised by all sides. When a ceasefire is established in Sri Lanka, policed and monitored by the international community, we will be on the way to success. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have some ideas about how to take forward the proposals.

Most importantly, people in Sri Lanka need hope. In a few months’ time, it will be the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. This time 10 years ago, when I was Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, there was a murder every night. Everybody in Northern Ireland thought that the process had collapsed and was dead. In a matter of months, because of the effort of the international community and everybody involved, we signed that historic agreement. I am sure that those lessons can be learned in Sri Lanka and that we will pay an important role in that.

We have an excellent new high commissioner in Colombo; I know that he will play an important role. The opportunity to discuss the subject that the collapse of today’s business has given us will be welcomed by all people who feel good will towards that beautiful country. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister
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concludes the debate, he will say that there is some possibility that the UK Government will intervene in this important matter.

5.47 pm

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on the measured and balanced speech with which he opened the debate. I was struck by the contrast between today’s debate, the tone of which has been rather consensual, and our last debate on the subject. I suspect that in the months since that debate we have learned a great deal more about the situation in Sri Lanka, and so members of all parties can come to similar conclusions on how we will try to make progress.

Without wishing to repeat what has been said, I think that we recognise that this is a long, drawn-out conflict. It started in the early 1980s and since then more than 70,000 people have died. However, today, more than at any point over the past five years, we face the prospect of a return to civil war. That is why the debate is apposite. It is important that we should concentrate and try to get the Government to do more to stop that decline to civil war.

I do not want to go over the ground that has been covered, but I want to mention three things. Human rights have been a primary concern. Anyone who reads the reports on the subject from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or any other body will be only too aware that there has been an explosion in the number of human rights violations. Perhaps that is understandable, as there has been a decline in relations between the different communities. Of course, the decision to withdraw from the ceasefire agreement has not helped.

The Sri Lankan Government say that they are committed to human rights and they have taken some measures to deliver that commitment; they have set up a commission of inquiry and begun investigations into 17 violation cases. As has been noted, they have also established an eminent persons group, one of whom is an eminent lawyer from this country, but there is still considerable disappointment at the lack of progress.

There are also concerns about how the investigations are being conducted. The backdrop is that so far there have been no prosecutions at all for human rights violations, and that has raised anxiety about whether the mechanism that has been adopted is likely to inspire trust—among people on the island of Sri Lanka and in the wider international community—that those guilty of human rights abuses are being brought to justice.

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