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5 Feb 2009 : Column 1010

The Government of Sri Lanka must do more. They need to reach out to the different communities, build their confidence and demonstrate real commitment to reaching an inclusive political end to the conflict. Reaching a political solution now is in the Sri Lankan Government’s interests. We also urge the LTTE to renounce terrorist methods and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to participate in a democratic political process to resolve the conflict. The LTTE should be doing all that it can to protect civilians at a time when Sri Lankan Tamils are suffering the worst effects of the conflict. We call on those who have influence with the LTTE also to encourage it to enter the democratic mainstream.

An important part of any political solution will be the establishment of effective systems and structures to protect the rights of all Sri Lankans. We continue to be concerned about the use of child soldiers by paramilitary groups, the culture of ethnic discrimination and the reports of abductions, disappearances and extra-judicial killings of civilians. The fact that prosecutions for such abuses are rare is feeding a dangerous culture of impunity. The Government of Sri Lanka clearly have a direct responsibility to tackle all human rights violations. Only by ensuring that full and thorough investigations into such violations are followed by successful prosecutions of those responsible will the Government strengthen the rule of law and tackle this corrosive culture of impunity.

Overall, the past month has demonstrated how serious the human rights situation remains. Media freedom has been under particular threat throughout January. A senior editor was murdered in Colombo in broad daylight, another was assaulted and the broadcasting centre of an independent TV station was destroyed by a well-armed gang. No one has yet been charged with any of these terrible crimes.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is it not important for the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Sri Lanka as soon as possible so that they can see at first hand what is going on and have face-to-face meetings with the President of Sri Lanka?

Bill Rammell: The immediate priority is to allow the humanitarian agencies unfettered access, in order to bring relief to the people. A range of direct channels of communication to the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE are being pursued to try to get the message across about the urgency of the situation.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): My hon. Friend has described the climate of fear that exists throughout Sri Lanka. Has he impressed on the Sri Lankan Government the fact that they should not simply label every Tamil voice a white tiger and refuse to have a dialogue with them? The Government must engage with the more moderate parts of the Tamil community, in Sri Lanka and internationally.

Bill Rammell: There is a great deal of force in what my hon. Friend says. I referred earlier to the need for a political solution and a political dialogue with representatives of all the communities, and that has to be a key part of the way forward.

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Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for being so helpful to hon. Members who are concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka. Since 2006, 14 media workers have been unlawfully killed and, in the past two years, more than 20 journalists have left the country under threat. A climate of impunity has developed. The Sri Lankan Defence Minister has even accused the BBC and other international organisations of having a bias against the Government. Surely something must be done about this. Will my hon. Friend take the matter up with the Sri Lankan Government at the highest level?

Bill Rammell: I agree that the culture of impunity is wrong. It is extraordinarily corrosive, and it is undermining confidence. That is the message that my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have communicated.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD) rose—

Bill Rammell: I will give way, but this must be the very last time, as I am conscious of the number of Members who wish to speak.

Andrew George: I am grateful. I do not think all of us will have the opportunity to speak, so an intervention is possibly the best way to make my point. I support the Minister’s statement, but will he acknowledge that there is no such thing as a military solution in Sri Lanka? That is something that the Government there appear not to understand. Given the influence that the British Government have, will he please impress on the Sri Lankan Government the importance not only of humanitarian aid but of having independent human rights observation and independent arbitration of the many issues that will have to be resolved in the months and years ahead?

Bill Rammell: I agree emphatically that there cannot be a military solution, and that there needs to be a political one.

Recent attacks on the media are likely to have been carried out by extreme nationalist elements who have been encouraged by recent military progress in the north to take action against those perceived as traitors. We are urging the Sri Lankan Government to take firmer action to discourage the dangerous mood of ethnic nationalism, and to take clear-cut and rigorous action to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. It is unacceptable for the Government of Sri Lanka not to do this.

While discussing human rights, it is appropriate to mention here the concerns that some hon. Members have expressed to me about the tone and substance of their contacts with representatives of the Sri Lankan Government. For the record, let me say unequivocally that every Member of this House has the absolute right to speak out in the interests of their constituents.

In conclusion, we want to see an end to this terrible conflict that has already claimed too many lives and gone on for far too long. The situation is unacceptable. We will do everything in our power to prevent more deaths, but ultimately it is for the Government and people of Sri Lanka to bring this about.

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1.38 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I concur with nearly everything the Minister said. One of the most depressing aspects of this debate is that the war—and it is a war—has been going on since 1983. I suspect that the Sri Lankan Government are probably their own worst enemy, as was suggested earlier. They might believe that this final military campaign will end the war and they will achieve total victory, but our own history is littered with far too many examples to show that, although there will be a military victory and they will occupy the last areas held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, we will then see a new form of war that will probably be conducted in a much more ferocious and violent way. It is up to us, who regard ourselves as friends of the Sri Lankan Government, to persuade them of the undoubted errors of their ways.

Keith Vaz: I welcome the bipartisan approach that is being taken here today. That is different from the debates that we have had in the past. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is a matter not only of achieving a ceasefire, but of commencing a peace process immediately afterwards? Does he also agree that Britain has an important role to play, as we have in the past, in ensuring that the peace talks get going as quickly as possible?

Mr. Simpson: I agree absolutely with the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, the history of the conflict is one of stop-start peace negotiations, during which it is possible to allocate blame at different times to both sides. The House will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), when he was a Foreign Office Minister in 1997, actually brokered a ceasefire and an agreement, which held for a considerable period. There are examples from both sides of the House of attempts to get the ceasefire moving.

My assessment is that, at the moment, it is not in the narrow military interests of Sri Lanka’s Government to allow what everybody has been asking for. They genuinely believe that the war will be finished within the next two or three weeks, so they are going to endure the pressures, the criticisms and the pleas from the international community, and particularly the British Government, to accede to the suggestions that have been made, whether it be to let in the international media, to allow humanitarian aid, or whatever. It is in the Government’s interests not to do that, whereas it is obviously in the LTTE’s interests desperately to hope for a ceasefire to prevent, as it were, the final endgame.

Mr. Love: Is not the fallacy in the Sri Lankan Government’s position the fact that the legacy of enmity and bitterness created in the north of the island and the polarisation of opinion will militate against the conditions in which a peaceful settlement can actually be agreed?

Mr. Simpson: I fear that the hon. Gentleman may well be right, but I also want to put on record, as I suspect did the Minister, the view that dreadful wrongs have been done on both sides. In trying to take a view on who is right and wrong, we should remember that at different times, both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government have decided to end a ceasefire. However noble the cause that the LTTE sees itself as defending, it
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needs to be recognised that it has indulged in some appalling terrorist atrocities: it is an incredibly effective terrorist organisation, which has provided an example of terrorist methods for many other such organisations. However much it believes in its cause, we must remember that the LTTE assassinated a Sri Lankan president and was involved in the assassination of the Prime Minister of India, so the fear and loathing felt by the majority population is understandable. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

My only hope lies in the possibility that if, at the end of two or three weeks, the Sri Lankan Government see that they have won a victory, there will be some voices within that Government calling to open up new negotiations. However, I could well understand it if the LTTE, having suffered such a humiliating defeat, decided not to engage in them and ratcheted up the terrorism.

The objective of all of us and of the British Government is, as the Minister said, to put as much pressure as possible over the next two or three weeks on the Sri Lankan Government to carry out the humanitarian action that is required. Indeed, it is in that Government’s best interests to do so, as they will eventually have to come to terms with international opinion. Secondly, we should protest as much as we can when the media are attacked or intimidated by either side; we must make certain that we have an absolutely fair balance. Finally, we should spell out to the Sri Lankan Government the types of ultimate sanction that the international community could impose. A number of organisations could do that.

I shall not speak further, as I know that many hon. Members have constituency interests to raise. The situation is appalling. I fear that the Sri Lankan Government, for military reasons, will not give way on the issues we have raised. Nevertheless, it is crucial that we continue to press them.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I know that my hon. Friend is a military historian. It is important to be clear that, however the Sri Lankan Government see the position militarily, there can be no international credibility in a purely military victory—indeed, that will not be a victory. Anything that happens militarily must be accompanied by solutions that involve suffrage for the Tamil community. Should we not say to the Sri Lankan Government that the model established for the eastern provincial council elections, whatever its imperfections, provides a way forward, in that it involves the Tamil community in the suffrage process?

Mr. Simpson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our history and the history of the world are littered with instances where majorities have tried to impose an undemocratic system on a minority. There is ultimately a solution, as history shows: it involves driving the minority out completely. That, I suspect, will prove impossible in Sri Lanka, and I think that some elements within the Sri Lankan Government and within the majority recognise that. Although the situation is dark and one has great reason to be pessimistic, we should nevertheless continue our best efforts to reach a solution that successive British Governments have worked so hard to achieve.

Several hon. Members rose

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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a six-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

1.46 pm

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): I start by welcoming the Minister’s statement, which clearly indicated the Government’s view and, I hope, the pressure that they and all our partners will bring to bear on the Government of Sri Lanka. I also welcome the cross-party approach expressed by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). The main political parties and others have pursued a cross-party approach for some time in the all-party Tamils group.

It is worth recalling that the people who are really suffering are the Tamil community both in Sri Lanka and here in the diaspora. Tamil constituents come to see me, absolutely frantic that they cannot make any contact with their friends and family. They do not know what has happened to their loved ones, or even whether they are alive, injured or, worse still, dead. We have a real responsibility because of our history with Sri Lanka, because we speak for our own constituents and a huge Tamil community of British citizens, and because of our deep concern about the current situation.

A recent report by the Genocide Prevention Project highlighted Sri Lanka as one of eight red alert countries where genocide or mass atrocities are under way or at risk of breaking out. I do not think that any of us can afford to ignore such an alert. We have said many times in the aftermath of genocide that we could have seen it coming and that we could and should have done more to prevent it. We must say and do more to prevent it from happening in Sri Lanka.

Keith Vaz: I thank my right hon. Friend for organising a meeting last week with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, in which these matters were raised. Does she agree that now is the time for the Government to appoint an envoy to succeed the current Secretary of State for Wales, who did the job extremely well? It is important that we send out a signal, and the appointment of an envoy is one way of doing so.

Joan Ryan: I very much agree. We had two very useful meetings with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and we are certain of their commitment to do more. I agree with the idea of appointing a special envoy, as envoys provide an important link and are able to form close relationships, to follow the situation and to report back directly to the Prime Minister. Such a role is important, so I hope that an appointment will be announced very soon.

We have heard the figures and know that 250,000 people are trapped. The most worrying aspect is that the Government of Sri Lanka have denied any responsibility for the safety and well-being of civilians who are still in the war zone. Lakshman Hulugalle, director of the Government media centre in Sri Lanka, has said that

Yes, they can. I repeat: yes, they can. That is an outrageous statement, which demonstrates that the Sri Lankan Government are abandoning their responsibilities.

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There has been a huge number of civilian injuries and deaths. I believe that the estimate of at least 70,000 deaths has been updated to at least 75,000 and is increasing. We know that more than 10,000 people have been injured and that there are 220,000 displaced people. We know that more than 10,000 people have been injured, and that there are 220,000 displaced people. This is no longer a crisis; it is by any measure a catastrophe.

Human Rights Watch has said:

Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, has said:

He added:

In contrast, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told the media

and added:

I think that that signifies a complete abrogation of a national Government’s responsibilities.

Only yesterday, United Nations sources indicated that many reports were coming in of the use of cluster bombs in the safety zone. With my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), I raised that very matter with the Sri Lankan high commission, but the high commission, and all Government sources in Sri Lanka, regard any sort of question as an attack. Their attitude is “If you are not with us, you are agin us.” There is no room for anyone even to question what is happening in Sri Lanka. The high commissioner—showing what I am afraid I would call almost a lack of respect—rubbished our suggestion, implying that we were simply foolish victims of propaganda and unable to make our own judgments on these matters. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has said that it is

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady share my concern about the fact that whenever any Member on either side of the House speaks up for the Tamil people and refers to their plight, the automatic, default reaction of the Sri Lankan Government is to accuse us all of being terrorists for doing so?

Joan Ryan: I entirely share that concern. I have been subjected to exactly that approach myself, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, ever since we first opened our mouths on this issue.

The tragedy is that this was so preventable. It has been coming for such a long time that we could see it happening. Now is the time to be brave: we must not lack courage now. This may be the very last opportunity for us to insist on a ceasefire before we see many, many more thousands of people killed or injured.

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