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5 Feb 2009 : Column 1016

I am very concerned by the response of the Sri Lankan Government in denying responsibility for their own civilians. It flies in the face of earlier guarantees and clearly contravenes international law. The Sri Lankan Government have made it clear that civilians should move to the safe zone, but, as we have heard, civilians are not safe in the safe zone and we know that they are not being enabled to move to the safe zone. We have also heard reports of attacks on both civilians and international aid workers in the safe zone.

The situation is very difficult for all aid agencies and international NGOs, which have been forced out of the Vanni region along with journalists. There are now no “eyes of the world” to observe what is happening, and we fear that huge abuses are being perpetrated. We know that when international statespeople have tried to become involved—many eminent international figures have commented on the deteriorating human rights situation—they have been sharply criticised by senior Government officials. Some—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that the right hon. Lady’s time is up.

1.55 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I am delighted that we are speaking as one in the House today. The message to the Sri Lankan Government must be loud and clear: British parties of all colours demand a ceasefire, demand justice for the Tamil people, and demand that humanitarian assistance be allowed through. A very welcome voice is being heard from the House today.

Let me first praise the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) and the all-party delegation to the Prime Minister—of which I was a member—that she led last week. I also praise the Minister for the strong words that he used, and, indeed, praise the words of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). I disagreed with the hon. Gentleman on only one small issue: I still think that we need to argue for the ceasefire. He may be right in saying that the Sri Lankan Government will not heed our calls, but I nevertheless believe that we should make them loud and clear. Unless we do so, there is a danger not just that more civilians and soldiers will be killed, but that there will be massacres in the Vanni region, where there are hundreds of thousands of civilians and troops.

We really need that ceasefire, and I am delighted that the Government—in the form of the Prime Minister as well as the Foreign Secretary—have called for it. I am also delighted that the Foreign Secretary achieved, through his discussion with Secretary Clinton in the United States, a joint US-UK call for a ceasefire. However, I urge the Government to go further. As I said in a letter to the Prime Minister recently, they should go to the United Nations Security Council. We need the whole international community to speak as one. We need to work for that, because the Sri Lankan Government should be in no doubt about how the international community feels. I am aware of the dangers involved, because it is always difficult to get a resolution through the United Nations Security Council. That is why I think we should call on some of our international colleagues to recognise the significance of the situation.

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Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but it is also true that we are one of the big players in the United Nations. Even if we do not get a resolution through, it is important that one should be raised at the Security Council.

Mr. Davey: I agree, but let me identify some of the challenges that the Government face in trying to secure that resolution. The first comes from China. Britain and others have rightly reduced aid to Sri Lanka because of our opposition to some of its Government’s measures, not just recently but over a number of years, and the Chinese have filled the vacuum. They are now sending £500 million of aid to Sri Lanka. We must tell them that it is not acceptable to give that amount of aid to a Government who are breaking international law. We must tell them—presumably quietly—that what they need to do in order to make amends is vote for a Security Council resolution. I believe that, with the Chinese and the Americans, we will bring the French and the Russians along as well.

Other developments show how strong we need to be with the Government of Sri Lanka. The fact that the Iranians are sending £900 million of aid in soft loans, grants and cheap oil should tell us everything that we need to know about the current Sri Lankan regime: its biggest friends are in Tehran. Does Sri Lanka really want to put itself in that position? Does it want to isolate itself along with Iran? It used to be a fantastic country. It used to be more democratic. It used to uphold the rights of individuals and minorities. Now, through the way in which it is behaving both to its own people and internationally, it is putting itself in serious jeopardy.

Last March, the State Department of the United States issued a report accusing the Sri Lankan Government of attacking civilians and practising torture, kidnapping, hostage-taking and extortion with impunity. That is the nature of the regime, and our calls today should be loud and unequivocal.

Andrew George: One of the biggest obstacles, in my view, is Sri Lanka itself. On the last occasion when President Rajapaksa came to the United Kingdom, I was privileged to have an opportunity to ask him about the human rights situation there. He told me that national human rights organisations were simply a front for the Tamil Tigers, and that international human rights organisations were simply gun-running for the Tamil Tigers. With that psychology, he must realise that we have a major impediment to overcome.

Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and sometimes one feels powerless when such injustices are taking place, but it is our job in this House to make the case nevertheless.

Colleagues have talked about how the press have been restricted. Not only have they been prevented from reporting the fighting, but journalists have been killed—the editor of The Sunday Leader was murdered—and there have been attacks on CNN and the BBC, accusing them of partisan behaviour. That shows how low the Sri Lankan Government are stooping. Also, only recently they expelled non-governmental organisations providing humanitarian assistance in the north-east of the island from that area, which was despicable. The Sri Lankan
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Government are breaking international law in many ways, so the Minister was right to use such strong language. I simply urge him to do that more, and to go to the UN.

I am conscious that other Members wish to speak, but I want to make one final, and very serious, point. In international discussions, too many countries hide behind the idea that they are democracies; they think that as they have elections and voting, they are somehow beyond the law, but they are not. Democracies are not beyond the law, particularly when they abuse the rule of law, allow minorities to be attacked and attack civil liberties and human rights. In my view, that makes them non-democracies. Sri Lanka has a proud history as a fantastic democracy and country. In the early ’70s, it was not just a beautiful island—many parts still are beautiful—but it reduced infant mortality and increased adult literacy to levels not seen even in our country. In the past, democracy in Sri Lanka produced fantastic achievements. That is why what is happening now is so tragic. It is betraying its own history, as well as its own people.

Today, this House should be absolutely strong—I am looking forward to hearing Members’ contributions—and the Government should have our full support as long as they take this argument to the Sri Lankan Government and take the message to the international community.

2.2 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Since the end of last year, the eyes of the world have been on Gaza and southern Israel. There have been humanitarian aid appeals, debates in the House and statements from Ministers. However, while everyone focused on that area, a nasty, vicious, unremitting offensive was launched in north-east Sri Lanka at the end of last year, and I, like other Members who represent Tamil communities, have been inundated with letters and e-mails demanding that our Government take action. An appalling humanitarian catastrophe has unfolded almost unseen because the Sri Lankan Government have forbidden journalists to go there to report it. There has been a full-scale war with little or no respect for the human rights of the civilians, all of them Tamil, who are trapped in the battle—a battle for survival for the LTTE, and a battle for conquest for the Sri Lankan Government.

Three-hundred thousand civilians are trapped, and hundreds have been killed and injured in Vanni. There has been aerial and artillery bombardment, and there are allegations that cluster bombs have been used. There have been human rights violations by both sides—I spoke about them in the House during the debate on human rights and the Foreign Affairs Committee report on 18 December. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported on 28 January:

The Sri Lankan Government claim that they have established safe zones, but civilians have been killed in them by their artillery. A hospital doctor reported that 1,000 shells fell around his hospital. Internally displaced people from Vanni are kept in compulsory camps in Jaffna. People have repeatedly been displaced with
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inadequate food, shelter or medicine. Civilians face extreme risks in the safe zones from indiscriminate fire. On 28 January, the American Ceylon mission at Suthanthirapuram was bombed; 17 people were killed and 39 injured, including three orphans. At the time the Government of Sri Lanka had declared the area a neutral zone. On 30 January, the UN Secretary-General called on the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that civilians fleeing from Vanni were treated in accordance with international standards. Clearly, that has not been the case.

Journalists have been excluded, there have been increasing attacks on the media, and Lasantha Wickramatunge, editor of The Sunday Leader, was recently assassinated. Fourteen media people have been killed in the past three years, and others have been detained or tortured or have disappeared. Yet these crimes are not being investigated.

We should not absolve the LTTE, as it has been guilty of human rights abuses. A 24-vehicle convoy arranged by the Red Cross and the UN to transport 300 wounded and 50 children was stopped from leaving. The LTTE has been guilty of forced labour and forced recruitment, including of child soldiers. It has prevented civilians from leaving, forcing them into Mullaitivu, the LTTE controlled area, effectively as human shields, in violation of the laws of war. The Bishop of Jaffna, Dr. Nayagam, said on 25 January:

A ceasefire is desperately needed. The real responsibility for what is going on lies with the Government of Sri Lanka. There is no doubt about that; they launched this cruel offensive. We must use all the levers available to us to demand a ceasefire from the Sri Lankan Government. In the interim, there must be more safe zones and humanitarian corridors. The ICRC and the UNHCR must have full access, as must journalists. We must demand respect for the Geneva convention by both sides, particularly in relation to captured prisoners of war and civilians.

We need to look at our humanitarian aid effort. We have given £2.5 million, on top of the £2.5 million given last year. That is less than one tenth of the amount that we have committed to Gaza, and the situation in Sri Lanka is as bad, if not worse.

We must take action to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government. Sri Lanka should be suspended from the Commonwealth for its repeated breaches of human rights week after week, month after month, and year after year. We should end the EU generalised system of preferences-plus scheme, which gives beneficial trade arrangements to Sri Lanka. The preferences are dependent on Sri Lanka’s compliance with human rights, but Sri Lanka has broken every rule in the book.

Stephen Hammond: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that we need to be very careful that any sanctions imposed do not hurt more the communities that we are seeking to help? There is evidence that taking action in respect of GSP-plus will potentially harm the Tamil community as much as anyone else. That would be unfortunate.

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Mr. Dismore: I find it very hard to see how the Tamil community could be hurt any more than by having 300,000 people trapped in a declining pocket, exposed to artillery fire, indiscriminate bombing and attacks from the Sri Lankan Government.

The Sri Lankan Government say that they will get a military victory over the LTTE, but the Tamil issue will not be resolved by bombs, shells, grenades and bullets. The underlying grievances of the Tamil people will remain. We have to foster a political solution through reconciliation. That will be difficult, given the hatred that has been engendered by this vicious assault and by a war that has gone on for 25 years. There must be recognition of the Tamil’s demand for the right of self-determination. If the LTTE is defeated in this military offensive, it will not go away; the fighting will continue in a different form, as we have seen so many times around the world. That fighting will continue until the Tamils are properly and effectively politically empowered, and have a voice in their own country, and are able to run and have a say in their own affairs.

We must bring about a proper arrangement to achieve a political solution to a war that has gone on for far too long, claimed far too many lives, and destroyed far too many homes. I hope that the Minister will do all he can to bring about what all Members on both sides of the House want, by putting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to stop this offensive, to stop killing people and to start talking.

2.8 pm

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I join the thanks to the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) and other members of the all-party group who facilitated the meetings with both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister last week. I believe that the meetings have produced dividends and that things are pointing in the right direction, so it is to be hoped that we can bring about what everyone in this House has called for with a united voice.

I fear that the Sri Lankan Government used events elsewhere in the world to camouflage their own attack. They knew that the eyes of the world—including of the media—would not be on Sri Lanka, and they took that as an opportunity to conduct this offensive. My constituents, like those of other Members, are frightened to the core about what is happening to their relatives. They do not know whether they are dead or alive or injured; they cannot get any contact, and that is of great concern to them. It is therefore vital that all of us are their voices today; we must say to the Sri Lankan Government that this is not acceptable.

There must be a ceasefire now. It must be immediate because if it is not, how many more thousands of innocent women, children and men will be killed every day in the coming weeks until the Sri Lankan Government, who wrongly think that a military option is the way forward, stop what they are doing? There must be a ceasefire and it is vital that it happens now. Whatever the means that need to be brought to bear, be it the United Nations, the Commonwealth or the meetings that the Foreign Secretary had with Secretary Clinton earlier this week, they must start to bear dividends, because if they do not, lives will continue to be lost in
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the Tamil community in Sri Lanka on a daily basis. If that happens, all of us in the western world should hang our heads in shame.

We face a number of different problems. We have heard about the 75,000 people who have been killed—the figure I had was 70,000, so I am distressed to hear of the reassessment to 75,000—and the 250,000 people who have been displaced. Non-governmental organisations must be allowed into Sri Lanka now. I welcome the suggestion made by Labour Members that a new special envoy should be appointed to replace the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), because that is vital and I hope that that comes to fruition quickly.

We have a duty to prevent the loss of any innocent life. As I have said in debates on other issues and other conflicts around the world, any loss of innocent life, on any side, is a tragedy. We are duty-bound to do something about this. What really holds fear for me is the fact that hospitals are being bombed and innocent people are being caught in the middle of a conflict. They want to live their lives in peace and harmony, as the rest of us do elsewhere in the world.

The only solution to this situation is a political one that gives the Tamil community the right to have a say in and govern their own lives, and to live in freedom. If that does not happen, I fear that other Members of Parliament in decades to come will be in this Chamber having exactly the same debate as we are having—we must do everything we can to prevent that from occurring. It is vital that this debate of such importance has taken place; I, too, feel that the Leader of the House should be complimented on providing time for it. It is vital that when we go away from here, we leave more than just our words.

I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I conclude by saying, as I said in an intervention, that the Sri Lankan Government should be ashamed of themselves for seeing everyone in this Chamber today as a terrorist because of our wish to stand up for people’s rights. What we are not is what they accuse us of being. We wish to see human life being saved and people living in safe harmony and in a democracy.

2.12 pm

Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this much-needed debate. It gives me the opportunity to tell the House of the terrible circumstances in which the Tamil people of Sri Lanka are living. The story of those sad and terrible circumstances is one that I have been hearing for years from hundreds of my Tamil constituents who have family members under military bombardment from the Sri Lankan Government even as we speak.

As chair of the all-party group on Tamils, I have had the opportunity to meet many Tamil MPs and leaders to hear about the tragedy of the Tamil people’s plight, and to discuss the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka with Members from all sides of this House. It has been difficult to get the message to a wider audience, but through this debate, the continued demonstrations and campaigning by UK Tamils and the increased awareness of the world’s media, the appalling situation that innocent Tamil civilians find themselves in is becoming clear and the pressure for an immediate ceasefire and a long- term, just and peaceful settlement of this conflict is growing.

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Keith Vaz: Is it not important that we should also examine the laws governing proscription, because some campaigning organisations that wish to campaign on behalf of those who are suffering in Sri Lanka are prevented from doing so because of proscription?

Mr. Sharma: I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention and I agree with him.

The Sri Lankan Government are seriously mistaken if they think they can resolve this problem through military means. After 25 years of conflict, it is clear that there is no military solution. A peaceful negotiated long-term settlement that enshrines the rights of the Tamil people in a federal constitution that devolves real power to the Tamils is desperately needed. All parties need to agree to an immediate ceasefire and get back to the negotiating table. Norway, the broker of the 2002 to 2005 ceasefire, and India, Sri Lanka’s neighbour, need to be brought back into the picture to help bring about a lasting peace. I have used my own contacts with the Indian Government and Parliament to help in this regard and will continue to do so. It is in the interests of India and all the other neighbouring countries for there to be a resolution of this long-running conflict and for there to be regional stability.

I pay tribute to the efforts made by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development to get an immediate ceasefire and to help tackle the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the conflict zone in the north-east of the island. I welcome yesterday’s joint statement issued following the meeting between the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and the Foreign Secretary, which emphasised that

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