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11.23 am

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the debate. It is vital that we raise these issues, but I promise to be brief, Mr. Atkinson.

My constituents are, like those of the hon. Lady, concerned about their families and what is happening. We are the only voices who can put forward those concerns because, as has been said, our media are not doing so. With every other conflict of recent times, people have turned on the news and it has been a No. 1 or No. 2 item. However, I cannot remember the last time I have seen anything on any news bulletin about this issue. A tragedy is unfolding and innocent people are losing their lives.

Like the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), I have always spoken up against terrorism and will continue to do so. However, we are not talking about that; we are talking about innocent women, children and men being killed every day. The world seems to be saying nothing and is completely silent. I agree with the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden: pressure must be brought to bear on the Sri Lankan Government. If that pressure has to take the form of a suspension from the Commonwealth, and that is what it will take to get the message through that a ceasefire must happen now, so be it.

Particularly over the past few months, but also in the past few weeks, hon. Members from all parties have been calling for that ceasefire. We attended a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, and a number of us also met the Prime Minister to discuss the issue. Everyone is calling for a ceasefire, but it seems that the Sri Lankan Government are not taking a blind bit of notice of what anyone anywhere in the world is saying. That has to stop and it has to stop now. In four or six weeks’ time we cannot still be saying exactly the same thing, because a lack of action will mean that more innocent people have been dying.

My constituents, like those of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, come from all walks of life. However, a few weeks ago, they gathered to raise money and humanitarian aid to help the young people and those who are suffering so terribly. I sincerely hope that that aid is allowed through to the people who so desperately need it now. The world should hang its head in shame if it allows what is happening to continue.

Like the hon. Lady, I have spoken to colleagues about the matter, some of whom gave me the same response that she received. The high commission’s public relations machine has to be commended, because, like other hon. Members, I get e-mails from it perhaps two or three times a day. Some of the things that the Sri Lankan Government have said about anyone who dares to speak up about providing humanitarian aid for those who are suffering are deplorable. They should ashamed of what they have said about hon. Members who are purely doing their jobs and representing their constituents’ concerns about humanitarian issues. I hope that that is taken on board when they read the report of the debate. If they stop saying such things, they might find that people have a different opinion.

A wise man once said, “With whom can I talk peace, but my enemies?” He was right. I hope that the Sri Lankan Government will listen, talk peace and stop the
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carnage now. Perhaps there can then be a peaceful future for everyone in Sri Lanka and people will be able to live in harmony together. Perhaps they can be educated, have food on their tables, a roof over their head, hospital treatment when they need it, and motorways opened. If that can happen, we will have done some good in this House of Commons. I will end my contribution there, Mr. Atkinson, but I would like to apologise for the fact that at approximately quarter to 12, I have to go to a meeting that was arranged weeks ago. I apologise for having to leave at that time, but I felt it important to be here and say those few words.

11.27 am

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on not only securing the debate, but putting the case for action so eloquently. That is what is crucial about this morning. It is not just about a debate or words; it is a call for action. My hon. Friend has called for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Commonwealth. In recent weeks, there have been calls for our Government to seek a UN Security Council resolution. None of those things are happening. However, the Prime Minister is, I believe, the first world leader to call for a ceasefire. That call was very welcome and genuine. We were all pleased to hear that call, but it was some weeks ago, and we know that fine words and good intentions on the part of all of us here will not save a single life. The time for action is now.

We have outlined all the arguments and we must continue to do so, because the matter is not high enough up the political or media agenda to get the attention it so clearly needs and deserves. It is worth repeating some of my hon. Friend’s points. I refer particularly to the leaked report by the United Nations Office of the Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator that put the total minimum number of civilian casualties between 20 January and 7 March 2009 at 9,924, including 2,683 deaths. It was later conceded that the figure was likely to be a gross underestimate. Those are numbers, but if 2,683 people were lined up to greet us in Westminster Hall, we would see exactly what the number means—and that is just since 20 January.

This is a catastrophe, and we know that it is happening. We do see some images, but not enough. There is not enough of a sense of reality about the situation. If there were, I cannot believe that action would not be taken.

The most important thing that has happened recently is the offer that was made at the weekend. In fact, it was more than an offer. As has been said, the political leader of the Tamil Tigers, Balasingham Nadesan, pleaded for a ceasefire, and I understand that less than three weeks ago a ceasefire offer was put on the table, again by the Tamil Tigers, but was rejected out of hand by Sri Lanka. The excuse is made by the Sri Lankan Government that they made offers a year or more ago that were not taken up. That does not make it okay not to listen to a ceasefire offer now. Given the number of people who are dying or being injured, a ceasefire is required immediately. If it was right for the Sri Lankan Government to suggest some time ago that there should be a ceasefire, surely it must be right for them to take up such offers now. It is completely contradictory to ignore the pleadings for a ceasefire, in the face of the situation and the suffering.

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An important point that is worth noting—it has been made by several Members—is the willingness to enter negotiations without preconditions. I do not understand how Sri Lanka can refuse that offer. It gives our Government every possible opening to put on as much pressure as they can, and to urge other Governments around the world—not least the Government of India, who should be playing a much more high-profile role in this matter—to put pressure on the Government of Sri Lanka.

Undoubtedly, if the evidence could be collected, we would see that war crimes are being committed. The Government of Sri Lanka have unambiguously and wilfully failed to meet their obligations. The Geneva convention states:

On any reading of the situation, we could not say that the Government of Sri Lanka are meeting those obligations, given their indiscriminate attacks and use of cluster bombs, multi-barrel rocket launchers and white phosphorous. Indeed, the Sri Lankan Government have publicly abrogated their duty to protect civilians. On 2 February, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order stated:

Of course, we have heard time and again in recent weeks of the bombing of safety zones and hospitals. Indeed, the last hospital has now been bombed and is no longer operating. We have had reports of casualties on the beaches, and feet blown off by land mines. Those aid agencies that are there and are able to operate have to choose between the most severely injured and the badly injured, and have to leave the badly injured lying on the beach. That cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered humane treatment.

This is a humanitarian crisis and a violation of human rights. It is beyond our imagining, but we must try to put ourselves in that place, because no one is speaking up for those people. They have no voice, but, surely, giving them a voice is one of our first responsibilities.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, I have people coming to my surgery about this issue. I do not have a large Tamil population, but those families who do come to my surgery are absolutely frantic. They do not know whether their family and friends are displaced, injured or, worse, dead. They have no contact whatsoever, but they know what we know and what the world chooses to ignore about severely injured people lying on beaches.

Sometimes when we explain such things or speak about genocide, people say that we are using purple prose, or embellishing in some way. They say that we should not use the word “genocide” because it is a serious charge. Yes, it is the most serious of charges, but I believe that, unfortunately, we can use such terms in this situation. Our description of the horror, fear, injuries and deaths of innocent Tamil people and what they are suffering is not purple prose. The hon. Member for
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Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) outlined the horror and fear of people who have to survive day to day—if they manage to survive. That is a reality. We stand here in comfort and warmth and discuss the situation, but we do not see any action. We need action.

I understand the argument that is being made in the Chamber—that it would be worse if we did not get a UN Security Council resolution than if we did. I believe that it was the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who said at the last Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs questions that Russia would veto such a resolution, or was making it clear behind the scenes that it would do so. There is a discussion to be had as to whether we should be opening this up. We should be speaking to Russia through diplomatic channels. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister cannot comment on that—perhaps it is happening and he is not able to go into much detail. However, I want to put it on the record that many Members of Parliament and others—Professor Boyle, for instance, who recently circulated a paper—feel that it might be about time to put the matter on the agenda or at least to have a discussion about it, instead of allowing Russia, if Russia is the problem, to hide behind the fact that it is not on the agenda. I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend and his colleagues are having such discussions.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Hon. Members have made a powerful case for suspending Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth, and there has been talk of the Harare declaration. Of course, Zimbabwe has been suspended from the Commonwealth with very little effect. I wonder whether suspension from the Commonwealth only really makes sense as a stepping stone and a rallying point to a UN resolution, and whether in practical terms—other than giving voice to a subject that does not have a proper voice in the UK—it would not actually be that substantive to the Government of Sri Lanka unless it led to the next stepping stone, which would be a full UN resolution.

Joan Ryan: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes my case for me, and I agree with him. Suspension from the Commonwealth is an important step, and the Commonwealth is an important organisation. It is hugely respected by its members and those outside it. Such a move would be a stepping stone, but an important one. An important organisation consisting of a group of countries that work together would be saying, “We will not tolerate this in our midst. This is not acceptable.” Sri Lanka would be told that it must desist from such activity, stop genocidal warfare and sue for peace. That would be an appropriate thing for the Commonwealth to do. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My case is that suspension would be an important step but it cannot be the only measure because, of itself, it might not bring the results that we need. That is why the UN is so important and why we need to move the debate on to this issue. Even if it does not go to the Security Council at this time—although I think that it possibly should—we should be having the debate.

We have been wary of moving towards such a debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said, the UN seems to have been cowed and we
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all seem to be wary of raising the issue with the UN, but does that not show that this is a testing time for the UN and that it needs to take up the issue? The Sri Lankan Government have attempted to reject a special representative appointed by our Prime Minister, on the ground that they were not consulted—as if they are consulted on the ministerial appointments or any other appointments that the Prime Minister makes. It is an outrageous argument. We have seen them do that, and the UN needs to take steps. Whatever the UN may be, it can do more than it is currently doing, and I want our Government to push it to do just that.

The Sri Lankan Government have accepted that there is no political solution; they have said as much themselves. So, if there is no political solution, what are they doing perpetrating—pushing forward—the war? I do not deny that the Tamil Tigers have also committed atrocities, and none of us present would defend them, but, they are asking for a ceasefire and it is for the Sri Lankan Government to respond. If they do not do so now, and they say that there is no political solution, why are they prosecuting the war? What is the purpose? Why are journalists not allowed into the Vanni region? Why are aid agencies, which are so badly needed, not allowed in? If the Sri Lankan Government have nothing to hide, why do they not allow in those who need to go there to assist people and let the eyes of the world see what is happening? Why is that not happening now? The Sri Lankan Government cannot complain if we condemn them and assume that the situation is worse than they say it is, if they will not let people see for themselves.

We have four immediate goals. We want Sri Lanka suspended from the Commonwealth for the reasons that I have given; a ceasefire; a UN monitoring mission to be given unfettered access to the country; and a resumption of peace negotiations. Those things must happen now. Finally, aid agencies must be allowed in to help those people on whose behalf we stand here today and raise our voices—the people who are innocent and suffering, the people of the future. There is no military solution to the situation, but if there is no political solution, there will be no end to it.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. Four hon. Members wish to speak, and the winding-up speeches should start in about 20 minutes, so, by my mathematics, that means about five minutes each.

11.42 am

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I shall keep to that, Mr. Atkinson, and I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for initiating the debate.

On 26 February, I received, as others may have, a message from the Bishop of Mannar, passing on a message from a parish priest in northern Sri Lanka, who said that the bishop

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The message goes on in that vein.

Just the other day, on 13 March, I had an update, as colleagues will have done, from the hugely respected United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and its representatives. I shall be selective in quoting from its long and full report, but it says that

the holding sites for people—

The report says that the people leaving the area

And the UNHCR says that the LTTE has prevented many people from leaving.

We are all trying to confront a situation in which the Government of Sri Lanka appear to be absolutely impervious to the criticisms of their own people and of others. The Government look as if they are beyond rational response. When the Defence Secretary, who is the brother of the President, said, as he did on 2 February, that all criticism of the Government was treason; when the army commander insisted, at the same time, that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese Buddhist country, not a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation; but when many people of many races and faiths have been there for centuries, no wonder the international community is having difficulty winning the argument with the Government. Our plea, from all parts of the House, to the British Government is that they seek to do more, without discrediting what they have done so far. The UK must continue bilateral representations with the Sri Lankan Government.

I should like the Minister to tell us what has happened since the European Union Council of Ministers came to a view in February and came up with a unanimous recommendation. I should also like to know whether it is now time to follow the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), which others support, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), that we put the issue on the agenda at the United Nations.

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