|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Louise Arbour is the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. Last year, the Sri Lankan Government agreed that she should visit the island, and her time there was very productive. We understand that Sri Lankas Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights has a memorandum of understanding with the UN, but it is widely accepted internationally that that Governments withdrawal from the ceasefire meant that the monitoring mission conducted by Norway and the Scandinavian countries could no longer be effective. That makes it even more urgent that we find a
way to monitor human rights and collect the evidence that will bring violators to justice.
A representative from Sri Lankas Muslim community visited me last week to express the considerable concern that exists about what is happening to Muslims, especially in the east of Sri Lanka. In addition, the desperate worries felt by members of the Tamil diaspora in this country for their families and relatives in Sri Lanka have been expressed at meetings in this House over many months. The only way forward is to establish proper human rights monitoring in Sri Lanka, and it has been widely accepted around the Chamber today that the UN is the proper body to carry that out. I therefore hope that the Minister will tell the House what pressure he is exerting to secure the UNs involvement in that respect. People in Sri Lanka and around the world need to be reassured that something is being done.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, especially as I have already made a speech in the debate, but he has made a point that needs clarifying. Last years visit to Sri Lanka by the UNs Louise Arbour was welcome, but one visit is not the same as having a permanent UN representative stationed in the country. The UN representative in Nepal has been successful precisely because he is permanently on hand to deal with things when they go wrong.
Mr. Love: I accept that entirely. I did not intend to give the impression that I was asking for only the odd visit, as of course I believe that we need a permanent mission in Sri Lanka. The mission would need to be run independently through the UN, as that would give everyone the assurance that they seek.
The second matter about which I want to speak is the ceasefire agreement. Like other hon. Members, I was very saddened by the Sri Lankan Governments decision to withdraw from it. Various reasons have been suggested for that withdrawal, and I have a degree of sympathy with some of them. For example, it has been claimed that the ceasefire had given the LTTE a chance to rearm, to conscript children and young people and to perpetrate acts of terrorism.
However, I was interested to read recently that new reasons were being given for the Sri Lankan Governments withdrawal from the ceasefire, and one was that the agreement was seriously flawed. I think that everyone would accept that the document was not perfect, but the circumstances in which it was drawn up may have rendered that impossible. People were trying to make progress, and drawing up the ceasefire agreement was intended to be only the start of the process and to give momentum to it. We all understand that the reason why the ceasefire has not been as successful as we hoped is that that momentum was lost. In addition, the security forces were always understandably concerned about the layout. However, we have to ask why those issues are being raised now. That is the concern felt by this House and the international community.
One of the criticisms advanced to which I am slightly more sympathetic is that the ceasefire agreement was
only with the LTTE. Representatives of the Muslim community come to me saying that they want to be involved in the peace process. Members of the Tamil community who are not sympathetic to the aspirations of the LTTE say that they want to be represented as well. The example of Northern Ireland shows that all the representatives who speak on behalf of sections of the community are needed if agreement is to be reached. I therefore have sympathy with that view.
Mr. Binley: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that there is another group of people who need to be represented and protected and whose lifestyles need to be massively improved. They are the 160,000 people who are the product of the series of wars, fighting actions and so onthe people of Puttalam, the forgotten people of Sri Lanka. I do not want them to be omitted from this debate or from the Ministers work. Their situation is a scar on humanity generally. I hope that the Minister will remember those 160,000 people and that in his discussions with the Sri Lankan Government, he will include their plight and the hope that something can be done about it.
Mr. Love: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Again, I remind the House that the LTTE decided that it no longer wanted the Muslim community to be part of the polity that was created in the north of the island, and many members of that community became internally displaced as a result. I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentlemans comments, which reaffirm that we need to include democratic representatives of all parts of all the communities if we are to reach a solid, permanent and sustainable solution.
Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I listened carefully to his comments on the imperfections in the ceasefire agreement, but does he not agree that what any party to that agreement should have done in response to those imperfections is propose a better ceasefire agreementa more inclusive one, if that would be betternot withdraw unilaterally from the extant agreement? To do the latter is a counsel of despair, not a counsel of hope.
Mr. Love: In my view, the ceasefire that has just been broken was the only game in town. I accept the criticisms that have been made. Even when it was signed, it was criticised by both sidesindeed, by all sides, both internationally and in Sri Lanka. However, having a ceasefire agreement can be the basis for progress. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) said, it is only on the basis of a ceasefire that one can move forward. When there is no longer a ceasefire, the first priority must be to create one before seeking political progress.
Given the concern that has been expressed this evening about the decision to withdraw from the ceasefire agreement, I want to know what steps the UK Government have taken to press the Sri Lankan Government regarding their intentions. What political capital is there behind the prospect of further negotiations to re-establish, if not the same ceasefire agreement, then another to replace it?
On the peace process, to repeat what the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said, the Government of Sri Lanka have reassured me that they
are in favour of a negotiated solution. They point to the all-party conference, which a number of Members mentioned.
The all-party conference, which should produce its recommendations on 23 January, has been running for more than a year and a half. I must say as an interested outside observer that it has not always gone smoothly. Some of the recommendations from individual political parties are not likely to command support across the community, and I hope that the Sri Lanka Government will not feel bound by such recommendations. It is important that they take the initiative and do what they feel is most appropriate to bring the parties together and start dialogue on a ceasefire agreement again, in order to move towards peace.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, although I came to listen and learn, not to make a contribution. Hon. Members have spoken several times about the lessons learned from Northern Ireland, and the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) spoke about hope, but trust is also key. Alongside the ceasefire, a decommissioning process will be needed. One of the key things that allowed us to move from military to political action in Northern Ireland was the outside intervention of de Chastelain, who brought trust to the decommissioning process. Such a process needs to be included in the all-party conferences recommendations, so that the communities can begin to trust each other as well.
Mr. Love: I agree. One hopes that Norway and the international community can help to play that role. I hope that one of the urgent issues for discussion after the all-party conference reports will be exactly thathow to start building confidence among the different communities and how to get people to sit down to sign. A ceasefire can be signed only if there is some confidence in it and in the political process that will follow. We need to create that confidence. The international community has a big role to play in doing so.
Mention has been made of Norways role as facilitator continuing even when the monitoring mission ends. The international community also has a role in trying to start dialogue between sides, as has been said. That is critical. One of my biggest concerns is that there appears to be no dialogue, public or private, between the Tamil National Alliance, which is represented in Parliament, and the Government of Sri Lanka. That is of considerable concern. There also seems to be no dialogue with the Muslim community, which recently left the Government coalition. That is another worry. The international community has a role to play in trying to re-establish dialogue, whether private or public.
As part of the international community, what is the United Kingdom doing with other countriesincluding Japan, the United States and India, Sri Lankas closest neighbourto start the dialogue that will lead to a ceasefire agreement and, hopefully, a peace process? As has been said, we have a unique role to play. We are the former colonial power and have large Tamil and Singhalese communities living in our country. The UK knows Sri Lanka probably better than any other country in the international community, and we as a Parliament need reassurance that the Government are doing everything that they can to resolve the bitter differences on that island.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing the debate and on a consistent interest in Sri Lanka over many years. He and I have attended many wet weekends in Trafalgar square to discuss the plight of the people of Sri Lanka, and I congratulate him on that.
The history of Sri Lanka since 1983 and even back to 1958 has been one of almost unremitting tragedy. I was first elected to the House in 1983. The riots broke out at that time. Large numbers of Tamil asylum seekers came to the United Kingdom and to other European countries at that time. The loss of life goes on and on. There are generations of people who have never known anything but a state of war in their countryyoung people growing up who have never known anything other than bombardments and all the accompanying problems.
I echo the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). There is a massive peace dividend to be had, not just for the Tamil people but for the Sinhala people, the Muslim people and everybody else across the whole country. If a ceasefire can be renegotiated and put in place, followed by serious negotiations that can bring about a long-term and lasting settlement, everybody will be a lot better off. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey pointed out, if a country the size of Sri Lanka, with all the problems that it hasand it also has huge opportunitiesspends £1 billion a year on arms, plus all the expenditure made by all the other groups, that is money denied to development, education and housing.
Until the breakdown of community relations, Sri Lanka probably had the best record of education, health care, literacy levels and all the other indices that one would care to measure across the whole of Asia. It also had a sophisticated intellectual society and sophisticated political development and process. All that has imploded and collapsed, which is tragic to see.
There are serious problems of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. They have been brought to the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and to the UN Human Rights Council. I have been in Geneva when many such representations were made. Although I acknowledge the replies given by the
Sri Lanka High Commission in the UK and the views of the Sri Lankan Government that they should conduct their own human rights process, the time has passed for that.
There must be a permanentthat is, for as long as necessaryindependent UN representation in Sri Lanka that can go to all parts of the community, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen was able to do, and verify abuses of human rights wherever they occur and whoever has caused those abuses. There is no alternative solution as the start of a confidence-building process.
The Minister should give all the encouragement he can in support of the efforts of the Norwegian Government and others to get the ceasefire back in operation as quickly as possible. That must be followed quickly by serious peace negotiations with the LTTE and with every other group in the society as a whole. If there is merely a ceasefire and nothing changes other than a cessation of the worst kinds of violence, the factors that provoked and promoted the violence in the first place will still exist. A longer-term peace process must be promoted.
My final point is that made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. Historically, Sri Lanka has been occupied by colonial powers, latterly by Britain. The British record all over the world was often one of almost deliberately provoking conflict between different linguistic and different ethnic groups. There is a legacy of that in many former colonies around the world and its price tends to be the collapse of societies. However, it is possible for there to be a multilingual, multi-ethnic society on one island and degrees of autonomy within the national state framework. Such things are possible. If we do not achieve them, what is the future for Sri Lanka? It is another 30 years of war, another 30 years of bombardment and another 30 years of damage to peoples lives.
I hope that the Minister can help with getting the ceasefire back on track. Above all, I hope that the Sri Lankan Government recognise that those of us who take up the cause of human rights and speak up for the cause of Tamil refugees are not anti-Sri Lankaquite the opposite. We are pro-Sri Lanka, because we want peace and justice for all the people of that island.
The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells):
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this timely debate. I pay tribute to him for his work and interest over many years on behalf of all Sri Lankan people. Like him, I welcome the presence in the Chamber tonight of right hon. and hon. Members from both sides who are passionate about this subject. I am thinking especially of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who has devoted considerable energy and courage to the peace process in Sri Lanka. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow,
West (Mr. Thomas) was here until a short while ago, and he has been using his great expertise and a lot of his time on the issue. I pay tribute to his work as well.
Let me begin by condemning unreservedly, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey did, yesterdays terrorist attack on a bus in Uva province. It killed as many as 30 people and injured more than 60. It is the latest example of a deeply worrying cycle of violence that has brought misery to Sri Lankans from all communities. Like everyone in the House, I am sure, I extend my deepest sympathies to the families of the victims. I want to express the Governments condemnation and loathing of the continuing use of murder and terrorism as tactics in trying to further political aims.
We are fortunate tonight; what was likely to have been a half-hour Adjournment debateI talked to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about ithas turned into a full-blown debate longer than many scheduled debates in which I have been involved. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the impact of the Government of Sri Lankas decision to abrogate the ceasefire agreement. The end of an internationally brokered agreement is a matter of great regret and like the hon. Gentleman I pay tribute to the tireless work of the Norwegian facilitators and the Sri Lanka monitoring mission, often in extremely difficult circumstances. I applaud the continuing commitment of Norway and the other co-chairsthe US, the EU and Japanto working for peace. Their task remains Herculean.
The hon. Gentleman asked me last week about what could be done to restart negotiations. We should not underestimate the serious obstacles to that on both sides. Following the end of the ceasefire agreement, the Sri Lankan Government appear determined to inflict a military defeat on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the LTTE. In November, Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, called on Tamils to rise up for the liberation of Tamil Eelam. There is little substance around which to base negotiations, but the international community must clearly continue to stay engaged, stop the violence and help Sri Lanka build a credible environment for a sustainable peace process.
Having chosen to end the ceasefire arrangement, the Sri Lankan Government have a clear responsibility to live up to their commitment to address the grievances of the Tamil people. In July 2006, the Government of Sri Lanka gave an all-party representative committeethe APRCthe job of drawing up a framework for settlement. The committee made a promising start in its interim report more than a year ago by advocating that the province should be the unit of devolution and that a second chamber would help ensure power sharing for the minorities at the centre.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|