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2.41 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): If fine words and knowledge could bring an end to the conflict, it would end after this debate. There are Members
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on both sides of the Chamber who speak far better and far more knowledgeably than I, but with every word uttered, I become more frustrated on behalf of all the UK Tamils who live in my constituency and the constituencies of other hon. Members. I become more concerned about what young Tamil British people will think about our ability to spread our ideas of democracy and free speech if we cannot take action against the Sri Lankan Government.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and his team of Ministers to go and see, in the next few minutes, how we could bring about the suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth. We need to do something that hurts. The Sri Lankan Government clearly believe that within the next few days, they will have sorted out the Tamil Tigers and that the Tamil problem will, for them, be over. However, as so many Members have said, it is only just beginning; we know that from our own history. We need to do something large and bold. We need to take a step.

I thank the members of my Government who have worked so hard in the past few weeks, following pressure from us Back Benchers. There are so many problems in the world, and how many friends do the Tamils have? Sri Lanka is not a large country, and there is not a great deal of publicity, which frustrates Tamils very much, whereas the Sri Lankan Government have so many big and important friends. On behalf of the Tamil community and all the Tamils who live in my constituency, I ask my Government to do what they can to get the Sri Lankan Government suspended from the Commonwealth.

2.43 pm

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to say a few words. I will try to be brief so that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), who is the chairman of the all-party group on Sri Lanka, can say a few words. It is clear and important that today in the House we heard strong words of criticism from the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), and from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), on the unfolding humanitarian crisis. That must be important to the Sri Lankan Government, and to our Tamil constituents, who feel the oppression.

As early as last April, it was quite clear that the Sri Lankan Government’s next push would be to do what they have since done. I had the privilege of visiting Sri Lanka as a member of the all-party group last year. The reason why I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk was that we saw some progress in the east, even before the provincial council elections. We went to Jaffna, although our high commission tried to persuade us not to. Walking down the high street, we had the chance to meet some people who lived there. It is absolutely clear that Jaffna is, to all intents and purposes, a prison camp. There is a continuing problem there. Although the Sri Lankan Government think that they will have a military victory, there will be no victory unless there is a political solution.

The Tokyo quartet is absolutely right to say to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, “Lay down your arms to make sure that there is no loss of life.” The Minister may well take on board the points made about
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pressure at the UN and the need for an envoy, but the Sri Lankan Government must commit to an immediate ceasefire, too. They must ensure safe passage not only for the poor innocent people currently affected by the conflict, but for those who come to the ceasefire table and for the UN human rights mission. Will the Minister consider speaking to the Sri Lankan Government about a process that we learned in Northern Ireland—the de Chastelain de-armament process, which is binding on both sides—to accompany the ceasefire?

Looking ahead, the eastern model may not be perfect, but it could be the basis for a solution. The Government must be made to realise that there cannot be a military victory in any credible international sense. A victory without a political solution for all Sri Lankans will be worthless. Without a negotiated solution and universal suffrage, the economic, cultural and political resentments of the Tamil community which have fuelled the conflict will remain unresolved and nothing will have been gained.

I urge the Minister in his representations to consider not just the call for an immediate ceasefire, but for the measures that must accompany it. I listened to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who dismissed my point about sanctions. In other parts of the world we have seen sanctions hurt the very people we want to help. We must ensure that any sanctions that we impose hurt the people we intend to hurt.

2.46 pm

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): May I add my voice to those heard from all parts of the House, including from the Minister, calling in the strongest possible terms for the Sri Lankan Government to do everything they can to minimise the humanitarian disaster that we are beginning to see unfolding in the north of the island? Yesterday, according to the UN, 52 innocent civilians died. Many hon. Members have spoken about the 250,000 Tamils trapped between opposing forces. We have heard about the so-called safe area, yet all the evidence suggests that that is currently being bombed, with excuses for that being made on both sides. Even the one hospital available for those innocently wounded in the conflict has been bombed and has had to close.

The Sri Lankan army seems determined, as many hon. Members have said, to eradicate the LTTE. That is perhaps not surprising, given the history of the conflict. However, that appears to have blinded the army and, more important, the Government to the plight of innocent civilians in that part of the country. On the other side, Amnesty is reporting today that a convoy of 300 innocent wounded civilians, including 50 children, was prevented from leaving the area by the LTTE. The first thing we all need to agree on is the urgent need for humanitarian relief. That should combine a corridor to allow innocent civilians to get out of the trap in which they are caught with a UN assistance mission to provide food and medicines to people in the north of the island.

Let me deal briefly with three issues. Many hon. Members have commented on the growing climate of intolerance of any form of criticism, characterised by the comments from the Sri Lankan Defence Minister in recent days about the irresponsible behaviour of the BBC and CNN. If his intervention were not bad enough, we have seen the recent attacks on journalists, the media and even human rights activists in Sri Lanka. Many
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people have died in mysterious circumstances or have left the country because of the climate of intolerance, and we hear daily of the abduction, detention and disappearance of people on the island. I urge the Minister to raise the issue at the highest level. There must be independent investigation to root out why such human rights abuses are happening.

Everybody has asked whether there will be a military victory. One is undoubtedly possible, but the important point is that that would not be the end of the violence; all independent opinion tells us that. The Sri Lankan Government have not dealt with the underlying causes of the conflict: the real grievances felt by the Tamil community and the aspirations that are rarely discussed in Government circles. I have been saddened that the call for a ceasefire has not been met with any support from either side, but I am particularly sad that the Government have rejected the opportunity to negotiate with the other side so that the situation could move forward from being a military conflict to being a peace settlement. That needs to happen, otherwise there will be guerrilla warfare again and terrorist activity might even intensify. The reality is that the conflict will not occur only in the north of the island; it will be taken to all quarters of it, and that cannot be right.

There is a need for a political solution, which is more urgent now because of recent events. There is a climate of bitterness and enmity, even greater than before, because of what has happened in the north of the island. Inevitably, that has polarised opinion. That is not the fertile soil on which we can build a peace process. The Sri Lankan Government tell us that there will be elections, but those are almost certain to be boycotted. They will have—

2.52 pm

One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24A).

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Afghanistan and Pakistan

2.52 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I beg to move,

Few subjects are more important in foreign policy today than security and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Few subjects are more pressing, and few are more complicated. That is why the Government have initiated this debate and why I look forward to contributions from both sides of the House—not just today, but throughout the year ahead.

This is an important moment for this debate. Pakistan is struggling to deal with its turbulent tribal areas, and Afghanistan faces presidential and provincial elections this year. As NATO approaches its 60th-anniversary summit in April, it faces important questions about its performance and rationale. Furthermore, the new United States Administration are reviewing their approach to both Pakistan and Afghanistan—and, critically, looking at their approaches to those two countries together.

Today I met special envoy Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a man of enormous diplomatic distinction. I warmly welcome his appointment and his strong commitment to working closely with the United Kingdom. I hope that the House will understand if I am not in my place at the end of this debate; I shall be meeting General David Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, or Centcom, and a key decision maker on American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The subject of this debate is the challenge posed by Afghanistan and Pakistan together; the two countries need to be seen together. A mix of violent extremist groups poison the tribal belt on both sides of the Durand line. There are intimate connections between the insurgency in Helmand and that in Waziristan, and between the criminals, spoilers and terrorists who operate in Kandahar and Quetta, Peshawar and Nangahar. A combined and comprehensive approach is needed. However, the responses in each country have to be different. In Afghanistan, a UN-mandated, NATO and EU-supported international effort—military and civilian—helps the Government. In Pakistan, the international community must play a different role in supporting the new, democratic Government in their response to violent extremism.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is not part of the problem the fact that Pakistan does not see the world as we do? To a large extent, Pakistan is fixated on its conflict with India and does not consider the insurgency in Afghanistan and its northern territories to be as important as we do.

David Miliband: There is merit in that argument. When I have met the leaders of Pakistan during my four visits over the past 18 months, I have made the point that the modern, mortal threat to Pakistan comes from the terrorism within its own borders. The Government’s and the military’s attention to those problems is imperative.

Our overriding objective in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to deny al-Qaeda a base from which to launch attacks of the kind that we saw on 11 September 2001. That means, first, reducing the insurgency on both sides of
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the Durand line to the level where it is unable to overwhelm Afghan or Pakistani forces; secondly, preventing core al-Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan—it must be defeated in Pakistan’s tribal areas as well—and thirdly, ensuring that Afghanistan remains a legitimate state and becomes more effective and able to handle its own security.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con) rose—

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con) rose—

David Miliband: I am spoilt for choice between two such distinguished right hon. and learned Gentlemen. If the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) will allow me, I will take an intervention from my predecessor.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the difficult conclusion that he reached on that immediate question.

While I very much agree with what the Foreign Secretary said about the main objective in Afghanistan being to deny al-Qaeda the opportunity ever to use the country as a base again, will he specifically endorse the welcome recent comments by the Secretary of Defence Robert Gates in the United States, who said, probably for the first time, that we must lower expectations about nation building, not because those objectives are not desirable but because they cannot be realised in the short to medium term?

David Miliband: I would say two things about that. First, I rather think that Secretary Gates was endorsing an approach to this issue that has been outlined by the Prime Minister and me over the past year and a half. I think that he talked about not trying to build Valhalla in Kandahar; last year, I spoke about trying not to think that genteel British suburbia would be built in Kabul. There is unanimity on that point.

Secondly, it is important to say that in both Pakistan and Afghanistan the sustenance of a democratic state is one of the primary steps towards nation building, so I would not want to get into too strong a distinction. However, I completely agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we should set our objectives at the right level. If people have any sense of inflated expectations, which has not come from this country, I would invite them to visit Afghanistan and Pakistan and realise what the real agenda is.

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way. I always take my lead from my erstwhile neighbour in Edinburgh, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).

As someone who strongly supported our involvement in Afghanistan in 2001, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether we have now reached the time when we must recognise the elephant on the doorstep? We are fighting a war in the south-east part of Afghanistan which, in the end, we cannot win. Our objective of setting up a transparent democracy is sinking into the mire of corruption in Kabul. Is it not time that we fundamentally reassessed our involvement in Afghanistan?

5 Feb 2009 : Column 1034

David Miliband: If the right hon. and learned Gentleman means that we should withdraw from our commitments to Afghanistan, I do not agree with that fundamental reassessment. It is clear from my experience, and that of everyone I have talked to, that the withdrawal of British and other international forces would lead to the collapse of Afghanistan’s first democratic Government and to the overwhelming of the Afghan state, with very serious consequences. After all, Afghanistan is the incubator of choice for al-Qaeda. For that reason, we have a central national interest in sustaining the ability of the democratic Government in Afghanistan to defend themselves. The critical point, as I shall try to explain, is that we are not in Afghanistan to create a new colony; we are there to enable the Afghan people, the Afghan Government and the Afghan state to defend themselves.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that the Foreign Affairs Committee is about to begin an inquiry into Pakistan and Afghanistan; no doubt he and Ministers will give evidence to us in coming months. He mentioned the Durand line. Does he agree that one of the fundamental problems in the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is that the Afghan Government do not accept that border and there is almost open movement between the two countries, which makes it almost impossible to deal with the problem of terrorism and insurgency on both sides?

David Miliband: I would certainly say that disputes over the Durand line get in the way of the sort of co-operation that is necessary. However, as I shall say later, the fact that President Karzai and President Zadari have broken the taboo of the past eight years and are now working together, rather than pointing fingers at each other, is one of the important steps forward that has happened in the past six or seven months.

Having outlined what I see as the objectives, it is important to pay tribute—with the support of the whole House, I am sure—to the soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and women who risked their lives for the mission in Afghanistan. It is also important to recognise the efforts of British diplomats and aid workers who have risked their lives, although under the protection of the armed forces. The armed forces in Afghanistan serve with unflinching courage and professionalism, which I have seen for myself, and they are a credit to the nation. It is right to salute not just their courage but their sacrifice. Some 143 members of the armed services tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan. Their friends and family need to know that the country will never forget them or their loved ones. It is also important to recognise the sacrifices of the Afghan army and police, and of the Pakistani army and frontier corps, as well as the thousands of ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis who have lost their lives in the conflict.

Today, I want to address the Government’s view of the current situation and of the future. The insurgency is changing its shape, but not receding. In parts of each country, the sense of security for ordinary people, as well as for coalition forces, is deteriorating. In Afghanistan, the insurgents are increasingly relying on asymmetric tactics. There has been a fourfold increase in the use of improvised explosive devices in Helmand province over the past year. The Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies reported more than 2,000 terrorist, insurgent and sectarian
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attacks there last year. It was the most violent year in the FATA—the federally administered tribal areas—in Pakistan’s history.

In Afghanistan, corruption is widespread and is not receiving the treatment it needs. Elections have been set for August, but political uncertainty remains over that debate. Our commitment is to support credible elections in Afghanistan. In that context, I am pleased to commit a further £10.6 million to support the elections, predominantly funded by the Department for International Development, in addition to the £6 million that we have already provided. Our contribution will support election operations run by the independent election commission in Afghanistan.

On the economic front, Afghanistan remains an extremely poor country. Despite growth in recent years, more than half the population still live on less than $1 a day, and last year Pakistan saw its currency tumble and inflation soar. There is, however, another side of the ledger. As I indicated, the lead of Presidents Karzai and Zardari has led to improved cross-border co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I heard for myself from General Kayani about the new co-operation between coalition forces and the Pakistani forces in the northern part of the FATA.

Over the past year in Helmand, we have seen the Afghan authorities, with our support and encouragement, retake three districts: Musa Qala in the north, Garmsir in the south, and Nad-e ’Ali in the centre. The number of districts under Government control has doubled, and more than half the population of the province are now under the jurisdiction of the legitimate Afghan Government for the first time. A dynamic new Interior Minister, Hanif Atmar, has been appointed and is at last starting to deal with the state of his ministry and critically, the police service that it supervises.

Meanwhile, opium cultivation is down 19 per cent. on last year. The number of poppy-free provinces has risen to 18, covering more than half the country’s provinces, and the legal Afghan economy continues to grow, helped by the record $21 billion of assistance pledged in Paris last June. The benefits of that growth are still very patchy, but today 6 million children are in school, compared with only 2 million in 2002. Many more people have access to basic health care and child mortality rates are falling.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): On overseas development aid, when the International Development Committee was there in 2007-08 to produce our report, one of the facts put to us was that the US was spending six times as much on aid as the UK, but achieving only twice the impact on the ground. With the new wish to engage in Afghanistan on the part of the United States, it is the time to work. We are seeing some straws in the wind, with the US beginning to see the UK approach as more effective in the delivery of aid in the more stable parts of Afghanistan.

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