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24 Mar 2009 : Column 37WH—continued

As this is a debate about the Commonwealth, I should like to ask three simple questions about whether we cannot get the organisation to be much more proactive. Historically, it has been willing to take action against a member Government when they have broken the Commonwealth’s principles, which are that member Governments allow democracy and human rights across their territories. First, why at the Commonwealth meeting on 4 March did the Minister present—I think—represent the UK, rather than the Secretary of State or a Minister of State? There was considerable criticism that we were
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not represented at a higher level during the meeting of the Heads of Government and Government representatives at Marlborough house.

Secondly, what specific initiatives have the British Government taken to seek to get the Commonwealth to be much more proactive—to achieve the ceasefire, the access to humanitarian aid, free journalism and, because there has been an invitation, the assurance that any British or other Commonwealth MP who goes to Sri Lanka can go wherever they feel they need to go? Finally, is the Minister sympathetic to the view that I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton will express, similar to those from all parts of the House, that there must be a specific initiative by the Commonwealth, showing that it is a serious organisation that takes membership seriously? It is not an organisation without principles or rules, and those of us who are keen supporters of it believe that it must show its colours and its principles. If it does not do so now, for the people of Sri Lanka, it will not be an organisation worth belonging to. They must be shown that the relationship between Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth means something, and the Commonwealth must stand up and take international responsibility.

11.48 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I first spoke about the problems in Sri Lanka in this very Chamber, during the debate about the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on human rights. Since then, things have got worse not better, and, if action had been taken then, it would have saved thousands of lives. Thousands of people have been maimed and tens of thousands have been made homeless. The position has simply got worse.

Contrary to what the Sri Lankan Government say, I do not hold a brief for the LTTE, but I do for the Tamil people—the innocent women, children and old folk who have been bombarded by the Government and, for that matter, penned in by the LTTE and not allowed to escape. I surveyed the Tamil people who live in my constituency, and what came out loud and clear was their fear and worry for the relatives in Tamil areas whom they are unable to contact.

I am not going to go on about all the humanitarian problems, because my hon. Friends have described them graphically and far better than I could; save to say, we should recognise the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations. Its brief yesterday recorded the fact that a second ICRC worker had been killed by shelling—the second in less than three months. What amazes me is the attitude of the Sri Lankan Government, who say, “You’re either with us or against us, and if you’re against us, look out.”

I mentioned earlier in an intervention that I had been badly libelled by the Sri Lankan Government on their website, but unfortunately I cannot take any legal action against them. I raised the matter with the Speaker, but he has no powers to take action against them. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, in replying to the debate, will make it clear that he will be taking these issues up with the Sri Lankan high commission to stop Members of Parliament being subject to such abuse and libels, because I know that I am not the only one. All we are doing is standing up for humanitarian causes.

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I am concerned about the Sri Lankan Government’s attitude towards my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), who was put forward by the UK Government as our special representative to try to broker progress. I am afraid that I have to inject a slight party political point here, because I have seen the reported remarks of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who seems to be endorsing wholeheartedly the Sri Lankan Government’s campaign against the Tamil areas. I hope that the Conservative party spokesman will dissociate himself from his party’s Front Bencher’s remarks, which are unfortunate to say the least and are, at worst, encouraging this genocide. We must have a common front in favour of humanitarian relief and a ceasefire, and we need real progress to try to sort these problems out.

We need a ceasefire and I hope that our Government will maintain the pressure in that regard. We need access for humanitarian relief from both non-governmental organisations and Governments. Most importantly of all, we have to recognise the underlying political cause of what is going on and what has been the problem for more than 25 years—indeed, going back to when Sri Lanka, which was then Ceylon, gained its independence from the British Empire. The fact remains that no political solution has so far been offered to the just demands of the Tamil people for self-determination. They are entitled to have their say in their own future, but the Sri Lankan Government have denied them that consistently, ever since the foundation of the state. That has, ultimately, led to the creation of the LTTE and its campaign against the Sri Lankan Government.

Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend talks about there being an absence of a political solution. Does he agree that for at least the first three years of Sri Lanka there was a political solution and a multi-party, multi-faith, multi-ethnic Government in place and that it was the deeply regretted rise of Sinhala nationalism that shattered that consensus?

Mr. Dismore: Unfortunately, nationalism throughout the world has played its part in causing such conflicts.

We have to recognise the right of the Tamil people to self-determination, whatever happens, because even if the LTTE is defeated in the traditional military way as part of this campaign it will not go away; it will simply revert to traditional forms of terrorism and we will see more bombings and assassinations, regrettable though that may be, throughout Sri Lanka and possibly further afield. That is no answer. There is no military solution to this problem. There has to be a political recognition of the rights of the Tamil people. Part of that process must involve the calls that my hon. Friends have made for action by the United Nations and the exclusion of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth. Sri Lanka has already lost its place on the UN Human Rights Council—quite rightly so—but that is far less than what is required to try to bring home to it the scale of the problem.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister give us an absolute assurance that no armaments from the UK are being supplied to the Sri Lankan Government at all?

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11.53 am

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to comment in this important debate. The message that will have gone out clearly from this debate is that no hon. Member in this Chamber supports the violence. There have been condemnations of the LTTE as well. However, the most important thing, as the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, is that we Members of Parliament must bear witness to oppressed minorities wherever they exist in the world. It is important to recognise that the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is being oppressed by its Government.

First, I want to press the Minister and ask what action the Government are taking to impress on the Sri Lankan Government the need for capacity for evacuation for innocent women, children and men. He cannot have been deaf to the comment made by the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross only last weekend:

or leave behind people who are not injured at all who are then unwittingly used as human shields. The Tamil community is being abused in that way. The Government need to take direct action in respect of the Sri Lankan high commission in London to impress on it the need to allow the evacuation of innocent Tamil citizens.

Secondly—the Sri Lankan Government should hear this—mercy missions are on their way from the community and from international organisations. I cite the mercy mission ship that could land in Vanni if the Sri Lankan Government allowed it to do so. Surely, if that Government had any humanity towards their citizens they would allow that ship to dock, for it has on it representations from the international community. This is not a ship that could in any way be called a front for terrorism; it would deliver much-needed food and medical aid to that area. The UK Government must stand up and make a representation to the Sri Lankan high commission on that point, as so many hon. Members who have contributed to this debate have done today.

Thirdly, the Sri Lankan Government may be cautious about what Balasingham Nadesan said at the weekend, but unless they take the brave step towards a ceasefire, accept that the offer might be genuine and does not contain preconditions, and come to the table, there will be no political solution. The political solution is the only way forward, because a military solution cannot ever win. Equally, with a ceasefire, it should be incumbent on the Sri Lankan Government to accept international validation on certain points.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made some telling remarks about the role of the Commonwealth, and all hon. Members in the Chamber will be listening to what happens.

Fourthly, post-action and post-ceasefire, the UK Government must impress on the Sri Lankan Government that the ceasefire must include not only the LTTE, but all sections of the Tamil community. There is a role for the Tamil National Alliance, and other democratic people, in that process. Equally, the UK Government could suggest to the Government of Sri Lanka—tied in with
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their request for a ceasefire and the threat of suspension from the Commonwealth—that there could be a genuine international reconstruction fund. For if the Tamils are to be able to play a full part in the life of Sri Lanka, they will need not only the political solution but the economic solution. An international reconstruction fund would be a part of that process and the Commonwealth could lead it. If not, our Government should lead the process of putting that fund in place.

I am aware of your strictures, Mr. Atkinson. Like so many other hon. Members I could speak for rather longer. I hope that the Minister will respond to those four points.

11.57 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the debate and on her remarks. Both she and the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) have been tireless in their campaigning in recent weeks and months and it has been a pleasure to work with them to put forward the Tamil case, and the case for human rights and a ceasefire.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden shares my anger and the anger of my Tamil constituents and the whole Tamil diaspora, and she is frustrated that nothing seems to be happening. The killing seems to be going on and the humanitarian catastrophe seems to be getting worse, even in the safe areas, as she so graphically described. We have these debates and we ask questions, but I say to the Minister that the frustration is getting deeper every day. People keep hearing about the communities with which they have connections back through the generations being devastated and about family members disappearing and being killed. We have to speak out, and the Government have to speak out far more than they have done to date.

I commend the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary on the comments that they made a few weeks ago and for calling for a ceasefire. However, that call has fallen on deaf ears, so we urgently need to take more action.

No doubt colleagues have received many reports—not just PR from the Sri Lankan high commission—from Tamil constituents and campaign bodies, and from people who are in the Vanni. One of the most graphic reports that I have received is entitled “Voice of the Voiceless and Helpless People of the Vanni”. It talks about the horrific conditions in the so-called safe area. It seems that the Sri Lankan Government have set up not a safe area, but a concentration camp, which they are even prepared to shell. That cannot go without huge criticism from the British Government and the international community. It is a crime, and we must speak out loudly against it.

I hope that the Government will take three concrete actions. First, they have not exerted enough pressure through the Commonwealth, which can often act behind the scenes and put moral pressure on Ministers of other Governments. My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said that at the recent meeting in London, the British Government were represented by only a Parliamentary Under-Secretary. The Government could have done more, given that Sri Lankan Government representatives were here in London.

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[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

My hon. Friend and I have discussed whether we should join the calls for Sri Lanka’s suspension from the Commonwealth, because that would be a major move and the Commonwealth traditionally uses behind-the-scenes moral pressure. We have come round to the point of view of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden. We must begin that process, and the leader of my party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), has agreed to write to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth today asking for an immediate inquiry into the action of the Sri Lankan Government and whether it is compatible with Commonwealth membership, the Harare principles and so on. That inquiry needs to be set up as the start of the process for Sri Lanka’s suspension, and I hope that the Minister will join my right hon. Friend in that call to Commonwealth leaders. There should be an investigation, and it should happen now.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate because I was at a constituency meeting. I suggest that we should set a time limit. A deadline should be set for peace talks to start, and if they do not start, Sri Lanka should be removed from the Commonwealth.

Mr. Davey: The inquiry should not be long and drawn out. It should take place urgently—within days and weeks, not months.

I have argued—I wrote to the Prime Minister about this several weeks ago—that the real action should be at the United Nations Security Council. It is all very well calling for a ceasefire, but if our representatives in New York will not table a resolution for the international community to vote on, we are just bandying words. I have clashed swords with the Foreign Secretary on this because, as the right hon. Member for Enfield, North said, excuses are being made for not tabling such a resolution. We are told that a failed resolution would somehow strengthen the Sri Lankans and that that would be worse. How could it be worse? How could the situation be worse than it is now? We should table that resolution and put pressure on Russia and China. Let them vote against our resolution. Let us expose them for supporting the Sri Lankan Government and the violence. Let us lead the international community in calling for a ceasefire. Diplomatic weasel words about failing at the Security Council are no good. That is the proper body for addressing such matters. A huge amount of killing is taking place, and the international community needs to speak out. When Mexico recently tried to put the matter on the Security Council’s agenda, some countries, including Britain, prevented it from happening. That is simply not good enough.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for arriving half way through the winding-up speeches. I share the deep frustration that is felt and I, too, have constituents who are extremely angry about the situation in Sri Lanka, but I want to probe the hon. Gentleman on the process in the UN. Does he accept that unless the P5 collectively and unanimously, or at most with one or two abstentions, agree a form of words, his proposal is simply a gesture? It may make him feel better—it may make my constituents feel better—but it will not lead to a Security Council resolution unless Russia and China can be persuaded at least to abstain.

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Mr. Davey: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We would send a huge and important signal from Britain, the US and others. Let us remember that when the British Government tabled a resolution on Zimbabwe at the Security Council, they knew that China would veto it, so let us not be told that we are asking for gestures. The British Government rightly said that we should hold China to account, and we should be saying that about Sri Lanka to other P5 members. We should be holding other members of the international community to account for not speaking up for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend knows that I agree with him, and he may like to inquire of the Minister what representations we have made bilaterally to China and Russia to ensure that they are feeling the pressure so that Sri Lanka knows that there is no hiding place. Only when the European Union, the Commonwealth and the UN hold Sri Lanka up for examination will it get the message that it must change its ways.

Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend is right. The Minister should tell us today what diplomatic efforts Her Majesty’s Government have made to secure unanimous support from the P5 and others for such a resolution. It is no good giving us excuses. We want to know that the whole strength and force of the Government’s diplomatic effort is to secure that resolution. At the moment, we have no sense or feeling that that is happening, and that is simply not good enough.

Finally, I suggest to all hon. Members that we should group together and ask for a meeting with the Indian high commissioner to the United Kingdom. That may be difficult for India, which has elections later this year. The Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata party have different views, but the situation is so urgent and significant that those diplomatic niceties should be put aside. If the Government will not do that, Members of Parliament should ask the Indians to exercise their influence—they are incredibly influential in this area. India’s history regarding the Sri Lanka problem is tragic, but it is time to use our offices to address the matter.

Joan Ryan: I am concerned about the tone of some of the comments. I want to put it on record that although I want my hon. Friend the Minister to talk to us about representations to the UN and to ensure that we explore all possibilities—I do not want anything to be ruled out—I do not believe that any Government have spoken up to the same degree as the British Government and the Labour Prime Minister. Their pressure has been the only pressure. We should support it and build on it, not undermine it, and I ask the leadership of all parties to do so together.

Mr. Davey: Not only do I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady, I have paid tribute to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. However, it is no good them calling for a ceasefire, as they did a few weeks ago, with no action. We need action now, and I do not regret anything that I have said today.

This matter should be one of the top foreign policy issues facing the Government, and it should involve the efforts of not just the Minister, but the Foreign Secretary
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and the Prime Minister. They should provide leadership in the Commonwealth, the United Nations and the European Union to put pressure on the Government in Colombo. I hope that the Minister will assure us that that has been happening without us being aware of it, or that it is about to happen.

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