Previous Section Index Home Page

I also welcome the pledge of an extra £2.5 million from the UK Government to help with the humanitarian crisis, but I urge them to do all they can to ensure that the aid actually gets to the people. Reports from my constituents’ families in Sri Lanka suggest that this humanitarian aid is not getting through to the people. It has been of great concern to me that the Sri Lankan Government have not allowed international aid agencies, apart from the Red Cross, into the conflict zone since late summer last year.

More than 250,000 Tamil civilians are trapped in the war zone having fled their homes after shelling, and today we hear further reports that the one hospital in the war zone is being subject to sustained shelling and the dropping of cluster bombs on it. The UN, overnight, reported that 52 civilians had been killed and 80 wounded, some inside a “safe zone”. A UN spokesperson said that the Puthukkudiyiruppu—PTK—hospital in the war zone was evacuated after 16 hours of shelling. A dozen patients were killed in the shelling. Both sides deny that they are responsible, but reports suggest that air strikes were used and only the Sri Lankan army has such a capability. The attacking of hospitals and the killing of patients with cluster bombs is an obscene outrage, and those responsible need to be brought to account and punished.

The international community and the whole world need to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to end these attacks on civilians and to enter into a new
5 Feb 2009 : Column 1023
dialogue, so that a new round of peace talks can begin and a just settlement can be reached that recognises the legitimate rights of the oppressed Tamil people of Sri Lanka.

2.18 pm

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): What I recognise in this debate compared with the Adjournment debate that took place at the end of the Session before Christmas is a very changed atmosphere; unfortunately, our tolerance towards what has being going on with the Sri Lankan Government has come to an end.

Many hon. Members representing London constituencies —south London constituencies in particular—attended two separate meetings, one with the Foreign Secretary and the other with the Prime Minister. I was genuinely impressed by the Government’s very real concern to secure, by any appropriate means, a ceasefire in Sri Lanka; there was realism as to the leverage that the Government have and the need to work, and importance of working, with European partners and other powers around the world. It was prescient of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to have those meetings with us before the large crowd of 100,000 British people marched past this place last Saturday. It is no wonder that there should have been such a strong showing of concern. The attendance was much greater than the Metropolitan police had anticipated, but 100,000 is their estimate of the number who attended.

No wonder so many turned up when we hear stories of the Government of Sri Lanka suggesting that civilians move to so-called safe zones where they are then killed by actions by the Sri Lankan army. No wonder people are concerned when hospital compounds that include paediatric wards and intensive care units are shelled. In those circumstances, it is no wonder that so many Members of Parliament are in their places today and are keen for the appropriate leverage to be applied. Appropriate work has been done with our European partners on suspending European Union grants, but other sanctions may be required to ensure that further action is taken.

The Sri Lankan Government still appear to be of the view that they can secure an unconditional surrender. The use of that term makes me very concerned about what the next steps will be in the treatment of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. There is a real danger that some dreadful retribution will be meted out by the Government on the Tamil people—Tamils who are not terrorists, but simply the fellow countrymen of the Sri Lankan Government, who have pursued the foolish policy of waging war on their own people.

2.22 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I shall try to be brief, because it has become obvious that we are more or less unanimous on this issue, which is unusual even on a subject as serious as this. I welcome the Minister’s opening remarks. His message will be welcomed by all my constituents who have contacted me about this issue. A significant number of Tamils live in north and east London and, like many other Members who represent that area, I have received many representations about the situation in Sri Lanka.

5 Feb 2009 : Column 1024

As far as the immediate crisis is concerned, it is obvious, unfortunately, that the Government of Sri Lanka see this as a fight to the end and a way to eliminate the LTTE. The Government do not seem to care what else happens as they try to do that. That is why we see the indiscriminate shelling and bombing of areas that the Government know contain huge numbers of civilians. Even though a safe area was declared, there was no way for people to reach it, so it was an utterly pointless declaration. The Government are not interested in a ceasefire, because they see this as an opportunity, and that is why pressure from outside is so important.

Above all, we need a ceasefire and we need international observers and non-governmental organisations to be allowed into the north and east of the country. The message about the ceasefire has to be conveyed again and again to the Government of Sri Lanka. As other hon. Members have suggested, we should think seriously about sanctions. For years, the Government there have not been interested in listening to any criticism. I remember some years ago speaking at a rally in Trafalgar square and the day after there was someone outside Downing street holding a placard saying that I was a terrorist and asking the Prime Minister to do something about me—

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gerrard: I would rather not do so, because I want to be brief and allow other hon. Members to speak.

In the longer term, the issue is how we reach a political solution. I fear that the Government, if they are able to occupy militarily all the areas that have been controlled by the LTTE, will not be interested in looking for a political solution. They will think, “That’s it, we’ve won.” Whether that will stop a return to guerrilla warfare by the LTTE is another matter, but even if that happens, we will not have a political solution. Enormous pressure needs to be applied from outside. We know the history of arbitrary detentions and disappearances, and other human rights abuses that have gone on and on without anyone being held responsible. That is why, in the end, we need a political solution that recognises the rights of the Tamil people. Without outside pressure and influence, that will not happen. We have to keep the need for a political solution high on our agenda, and consider what we can do through an envoy or mediation. We cannot impose a solution, but we should do whatever we can to encourage it. The message to the Government of Sri Lanka should be clear: they need to make progress towards a political solution.

2.26 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Our task in the medium term is to try to help people come to terms with history. There is no way of writing up the Sri Lankan issue without pointing fingers one way or another.

To the Sri Lankans we can say that we recognise that the Sinhalese and the Tamils share the island and, although there can be only one military Government in the country, there must be space for autonomy in terms of economic, cultural and political development.

It is necessary for the Sri Lankan Government to start saying more openly now how they will provide the space for the Tamils to be represented and have their voices heard, to avoid the feelings of second-class citizenship that have inspired much of the past.

5 Feb 2009 : Column 1025

One of my contemporaries, Rajiv Gandhi, was a victim of this conflict because he sent a peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka from India, and that led to his assassination. I pay tribute to him and to the journalists, whether from the Sinhalese elite—such as the editor of The Sunday Leader—or others, who have died because they tried to make information available that some wished to keep obscured.

We know, from imprecise parallels with the violence in Gaza, what can be experienced by civilian populations in areas subject to a change in military control. Most of us accept that there will be a change of military control in that north-east corner of Sri Lanka. The Tokyo quartet is right to ask for an immediate ceasefire to allow people to get away from areas of fighting, and to point out to the Tamil Tiger leaders that there is no point in continued military resistance. They should be told not to make the people around them suffer while the transition takes place.

I understand the views of most people in this conflict. We cannot do a great deal but in the short term we can aim to save lives and, in the medium term, we can provide the space for some kind of political development so that people can go on trying, however valiantly, imprecisely or unsuccessfully to begin with, to create an island that can contain all the ethnicities that are there.

2.28 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I want to speak on behalf of my constituents who are members of the Milton Keynes Tamil forum. I also want to mention another Sri Lankan community in Milton Keynes, the Sri Lankan Muslim community. It is very small but has an equal interest in a Sri Lanka that recognises all its minorities.

I want to draw attention in particular to an interest of a significant section of the Tamil community, and indeed the wider community, in Milton Keynes. It is an orphanage that has been funded for a great many years by members of all communities in Milton Keynes. It is supported by the Hope Outreach UK charity, which is run by a Tamil GP in Milton Keynes, Dr. Sam Muthuveloe. After it was damaged in the tsunami, the orphanage was rebuilt thanks to contributions from many people in Milton Keynes. It is managed by the Anglican Church, but was bombed by Sri Lankan air force bombers, fortunately after the girls had been evacuated to another area. However, the Government did not know that it was empty when they bombed it.

My contacts in Milton Keynes have been in direct contact with Foreign Office staff about the girls in the orphanage, because nobody knows where they are. They moved from the original orphanage to Visvamudu and then moved eastwards towards the safe area. For the last week, nobody from outside has known where those girls are. There are about 80 of them and my constituents are extremely concerned about their safety. Anything further that the Government can do to try to locate these Sri Lankan orphans and to get them to safety would be greatly appreciated.

I want to make two more points. One is about the so-called safe areas that the Government have created and the way in which the Sri Lankan Government keep saying that the civilians can come out and separate themselves from the LTTE and they will be safe. Regrettably, because of the things that have been happening to
5 Feb 2009 : Column 1026
Sri Lankan Tamils elsewhere in Sri Lanka, at least with the Sri Lankan Government’s collusion if not their active participation, the civilians in the north do not feel that they can trust the Government with their safety. That is part of the reason they are not coming out. Of course they are not safe under bombardment, but they are not confident that they would be safe in the hands of the Sri Lankan Government either, particularly since my understanding is that almost all the men who come out are suspected by the Sri Lankan Government of being actively involved with the Tamil Tigers and are therefore under particular threat of harm.

It is incredibly important that the Sri Lankan Government understand that they have to be seen as a protector of all their citizens and should not just assume that every Tamil is in league with the Tamil Tigers, because they are not, even though all Tamils would, of course, want their individual rights to be respected.

My second point, which has not yet been made, is about the way the Sri Lankan Government had clearly been planning this onslaught for some time and had, for several years, been indulging in what might be called a massive shopping spree to upgrade their arms so that they were ready to take on the Tamil Tigers. Members of this House have been asking our Government for some time why the Sri Lankan Government were spending so much money on accumulating arms. We have asked them to look at the arms export process and to take into account what one might call disproportionate military expenditure, which might lead one to suspect that a Government were intending to use those arms for external aggression or internal repression. I know that such an approach is more difficult than dealing with it when it is going on, as it is now, but I would be grateful if the Government could take this point away and think about using their military intelligence, if I can put it that way, to try to perceive when a Government might be trying to build up their capacity to be used in a way that we would not support—the Sri Lankan Government have done so.

I have no illusions about China’s putting any pressure on Sri Lanka. China has its own way with its minorities and it probably thinks that the Sri Lankan Government are doing rather a good job, but I wonder whether we could be doing more with the Indian Government. They are, at least, adjacent to Sri Lanka and have an interest in stability in the region. We could enlist their support in trying to get the Sri Lankan Government to see sense and to start pursuing a political solution, not a military one.

2.33 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Yesterday was Sri Lanka’s national day. It is a human tragedy almost beyond words that 61 years after that country gained its independence from the UK, independence day was unable to be a cause of celebration for all the peoples—the Sinhala majority, the large Tamil minority, the significant Muslim population mentioned by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), the Burgher population and people of all the great world faiths on that beautiful island.

I have taken an interest in Tamil issues in this place and outside it for more than 20 years, but not because I have a huge Tamil constituency—I do not. One Tamil
5 Feb 2009 : Column 1027
organisation has been based by my constituency, although it is not now, but I have some Tamil friends as well as Sinhala friends, and I have known all along that without a generous recognition by the Government of Sri Lanka that they had to govern with all the people and to work out a new constitutional settlement, there would not be peace in that island. We are talking today about a quarter of a million civilians—perhaps more—who are in a terrible state and may be trapped, and about a Tamil population of millions, both at home and abroad. The voices that are heard here are for them.

Last weekend, 100,000 or more people took part in a demonstration here, which shows the strength of the link that Sri Lanka has with this country. We have a particular responsibility, as we were the colonial power in Sri Lanka for 150 years. It was from us that Sri Lanka gained independence, and it is now a key member of the Commonwealth led by our own Head of State. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Sri Lankan diaspora around the world are looking to those other countries in which Tamils and other Sri Lankan people live to influence the outcome in that country.

Tom Brake: Does my hon. Friend agree that hon. Members who speak out in this House on this issue do so to condemn equally the atrocities committed by both sides, to further humanitarian aid ambitions and to ensure that there is a peaceful solution? We do not condone terrorism: we are implacably opposed to it.

Simon Hughes: Absolutely. Many of us have been accused of being supporters of the Tamil Tigers, but I have never supported terrorism as a way forward in Sri Lanka. My appeal is to the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE to renounce arms, but the Tamils will do so only if they have confidence that they will be protected. Just as the Sri Lanka Government may not have confidence in many Tamils, for reasons good or bad, so many Tamils will not have confidence in the Government. I am afraid that that is the position on the ground, and that is why the international agencies and organisations such as the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross and others need to be present. Only with them there can there be any confidence in the north of Sri Lanka that there can be fair treatment.

We are thousands of miles away, and we are not the only ones concerned about these matters. I received an e-mail on 3 February, which stated:

The Sunday Leader newspaper is regarded as the best independent paper in Sri Lanka, and its last editor has been referred to several times. He was assassinated in January, just the other day. An editorial that he had written—published posthumously—made it clear that he suspected that he might well be assassinated. In it, he owned up to being a friend of the President, so it was not a personal attack. He wrote:

People who have lived all their lives in Sri Lanka are calling out to us, and the journalist I have just quoted gave his life in the cause of independence and freedom.

I wish to join colleagues in unanimously making the strongest possible statements about the situation in Sri Lanka. First, a ceasefire should be accepted immediately, as should the presence of the UN and the relief agencies. In addition, there needs to be a free press: Sri Lanka has the second worst record on press freedom in the world, behind only Eritrea.

Secondly, there has to be a reference to the UN, the Commonwealth and other bodies, so that the international community can make their voices clearer. There may be a case for reference to the International Criminal Court. At least one Sri Lankan Minister is an American citizen, and there may be a war crimes issue to be dealt with.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West, rightly made the point that the Indian Government could be hugely influential. Many people in Tamil Nadu who are Tamil by definition are about to vote in the Indian general election. They are an important part of the make-up of democracy in India. We should have a try with China and Iran, too, however difficult and unproductive that may be.

Above all, we have to keep focused on the fact that a political solution will be needed. The current position is what Northern Ireland would be like if only Protestants were ever to play a part in the constitutional future of the Province. We know how foolish that idea was, and the situation there is different now. Unless Tamil people have a proper part in the future, and can determine their own part and their level of autonomy, there will not be peace. My call, and that of colleagues, is for the people of Sri Lanka at home and abroad to make it clear that the current politics of the Sri Lankan Government will never succeed. The Sri Lankan Government should realise that they need to be as magnanimous as other failing dictatorships have been; and that until they are, they will not have peace on their island. This is probably the most important issue facing the Commonwealth, and one of the most important facing the United Nations.

Next Section Index Home Page