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We know from our own experience that the process of devolution is not easy, and it continues to be difficult, but the whole process regarding the committees business has not been easy. The committee has been bedevilled by those who oppose a peace
process and have attempted to derail its work, and it has been hindered by a lack of consensus between the main parties. The Tamil National Alliance was not invited to participatea big mistake, in my view. The committee is due to present its final recommendations in a little over a week. We think it important that those recommendations go beyond the current constitutional provisions to protect minority rights. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) for drawing the Houses attention to the fact that all minorities have to be protected and represented. We have called on the President urgently to take a bold and courageous lead from this foundation to set out a framework for a just solution within a united Sri Lanka that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans. The international community will be watching carefully, and we do not want to see another false dawn.
I do not believe that those in the LTTE who advocate the use of murder and terrorism represent the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka and around the world. The LTTE must renounce terrorism and demonstrate a real commitment to democratic principles if it is to be regarded internationally as a legitimate political movement. There needs to be a full debate among the Tamils, free of intimidation and polarisation, on what an acceptable political settlement might look like for the Tamil people. The message that we have for the Government of Sri Lankathat there can be no military solution to this appalling conflictapplies equally to the LTTE. Some Tamils argue that the military pursuit of self-determination is generated by a sense of despair that their grievances will never be addressed in a united Sri Lanka. It is vital that the Government of Sri Lanka allay those fears and give them hope. For Sri Lanka to find a way forward, we need to see signs of genuine good will from the Government to any proposals for devolution that might emerge and a readiness on the part of disillusioned Tamils to contemplate alternatives to self-determination. Without generating trust and confidence, that will not happen.
The withdrawal of the Sri Lanka monitoring mission can only add to deep concern about the human rights and humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. As we have heard, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Sri Lanka recently. She said that Sri Lanka had many of the elements needed for a strong national protection scheme. She was, however, alarmed at the weakness of the rule of law and the prevalence of impunity for those abusing human rights. I have not heard the word impunity tonight, but it is a very important one. That sense of impunity on the part of gangsters, warlords and people who call themselves freedom fighters to murder, torture and kidnap, is something that no civilised country, or the international community, can put up with. She criticised the absence of credible systems of public accountability for the vast majority of these deplorable incidents and the general lack of confidence in the ability of existing Government institutions to safeguard against the most serious human rights abuses. Surely that must be the first duty of any Government in any sovereign state in the world.
The high commissioner stated that the current human rights protection gap was not solely a question
of capacity. She stressed the need for independent gathering of information on credible allegations regarding human rights, not just in areas controlled by the Government but including areas controlled by the LTTE. She underlined her deep concern at LTTE violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including the recruitment of children, forced recruitment and abduction of adults, and political killings. We definitely support the calls for a much more effective UN human rights monitoring presence on the island, and I was glad to hear hon. Friends and hon. Members advocate that policy, because it is very important.
The human rights crisis in Sri Lanka is not a figment of the international communitys imagination, as some who vilify human rights defenders in Sri Lanka would have us believe. The crisis is real. The LTTE, the Karuna factionthe Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikaland the Government all share responsibility. There is an urgent need to address the culture of impunity that persists. The case for an expanded presence and mandate in Sri Lanka for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights can only be stronger following the departure of the Sri Lanka monitoring mission.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey spoke of the understandable concerns of the Tamil community about the plight of Tamils in north Sri Lanka. Their inability to reach relatives on the north of the island, or even to communicate with them, should trouble us greatly. I can assure the House that we attach great importance to listening to all perspectives across the Sri Lankan diaspora about that and many other matters. Foreign Office officials meet diaspora groups on a regular basis. Tamil community groups have suggested, following the recent arrests of LTTE supporters in the UK, that they no longer feel free to express their opinion on the conflict and the plight of the Tamils. I will say this: the community is free to assemble in a legal, orderly manner to express its concerns; it did just that last July in Trafalgar square, and it has done so in recent days.
An open debate is needed within the Tamil community on what a just political solution might look like as an alternative to the target of breaking the sovereign state of Sri Lanka into two parts. I say that because we have witnessed terrible events in Pakistan during the past two weeks. Many of us recall not just the horrors of the separation of India and Pakistan that occurred in 1947-48, and the millions who died, but the terrible events when what was East Pakistan, and is now Bangladesh, broke away from Pakistan. Those can be terrible moments, and bring terrible conflicts. Millions can die, and we do not want to see that in Sri Lanka. There must be another way, and we have heard many suggestions in the debate of what might happen. The diaspora must be able to play a more constructive part in bringing peace to Sri Lanka.
I know that the hon. Gentleman particularly wants to focus on British assistance for a peace process in Sri Lanka, and he has kindly acknowledged the recent efforts of the Government in this regard. I visited Sri Lanka twice last year. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen also visited a year or so ago, and we sought to offer the benefit of our Northern Ireland experience.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) asked what happens to the money that was placed in the hands of the Government in the aftermath of the tsunami. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development has visited the country, and he has maintained great vigilance in monitoring British aid to Sri Lanka for post-tsunami reconstruction and other humanitarian works. I made a point on my last visit of making sure that I got out to the east of the island to see some of that reconstruction work, bedevilled as it is by the ongoing conflictthere is no question about that.
A lasting peace can come only if the underlying causes of conflict are addressed, and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey made that point time and time again. Peace will not happen until the parties to the conflict understand that nothing can be gained from continuing violence. Some in Sri Lanka did not welcome our involvement. We regret the fact that they did not understand, or chose not to, that our aim has been simply to do what we can to help the Sri Lankans find a way forward. We have no ulterior motives. We remain ready to help with the search for peace in Sri Lanka.
What can we do specifically at this difficult time? I have been asked that question a number of times tonight. We have to continue to work with international partners to make it clear that there cannot be a military solution, and to work for a cessation of hostilities. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, a new ceasefire must be constructed as quickly as possible if we are to make progress.
We must press the Government of Sri Lanka to address the grievances of Tamils through a credible and sustainable political solution. We must urge the LTTE to change. We continue to make available the benefit of our Northern Ireland experience, press all concerned to safeguard human rights and humanitarian space and combat any notions of impunity for those guilty of abuses and murder.
We must encourage the diaspora to play a bigger role in the search for peace. We must try to learn the lessons of five years of the ceasefire agreement. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and others said that it was not perfect but a basis for peace and moving forward. We should learn lessons from that.
We must work quietly and patiently behind the scenes with all the communities and with civil society in Sri Lanka to sow the seeds of a future resolution of the conflict. Members of organisationsnon-governmental organisations and othersmust be confident that they will not be kidnapped or murdered as they go about their work. That is vital.
The end of the ceasefire agreement is confirmation that we have entered a dangerous new phase in Sri Lanka. The Government and the LTTE both appear to believe that they can achieve their aims through military means. We believe that they are wrong.
Barry Gardiner: Given the threat that my hon. Friend mentioned of the escalation of violence, will he hold discussions with hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence about cutting any military assistance to the Sri Lankan Government to try to ensure that such an escalation cannot happen?
Dr. Howells: I assure my hon. Friend that we would not supply anyone with arms or dual use material that we perceived to be valuable in any military conflict such as the one that we are considering. There may be instances of humanitarian equipment, for example, de-mining equipment, being needed. Laying mines is an atrocity and an abuse of human rights and we do everything that we can to try to help clear them.
The Sri Lankan Government, having ended the ceasefire, bear a heavy responsibility to deliver their commitment to produce a just political solution that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans. That must happen soon.
The LTTE needs to embrace democratic principles, encourage an open debate on what a just political solution for the Tamils might resemble and commit to pursuing its aims through peaceful means. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, the use of terrorism and murder since 1983 has brought only misery and suffering to many innocent people in Sri Lanka. It continues to do so.
Britain remains ready to help. The international community has to stay engaged to help Sri Lanka find a way back to a sustainable peace process. Protection of human rights in Sri Lanka will remain a high priority for the international community with, we hope, a more prominent role for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Moreover, it should be guaranteed the security required to undertake its work.
When President Rajapakse launched the APRC 18 months ago, he spoke of the need to take the necessary bold steps to put an end to dashed hopes and aspirations and lost opportunities. I hope that, this year, which marks the 60th anniversary of Sri Lankan independence, the president will take a bold lead to achieve just that. I remind him that the world is watching and waiting.