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Keith Vaz: Will my hon. Friend pass on the thanks of the House to the Foreign Secretary for making the journey to Colombo? I know that he has just called for
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another ceasefire—he has sent a letter to all Members of the House—but in keeping with the spirit of the debate, can there be discussions between the usual channels to ensure that the House does not divide on the issue? The Liberal Democrat motion before the House is similar to the Prime Minister’s amendment. It would send a powerful signal, while our Foreign Secretary is in that country, if the House united behind one message.

Gillian Merron: I hear my right hon. Friend. I thank him and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) for their generous and gracious support of the Foreign Secretary, who is indeed in Sri Lanka on our behalf promoting our overriding priority, which is the prevention of further civilian death and suffering.

As the House has heard, the Foreign Secretary is in Sri Lanka with French Foreign Minister Kouchner. I spoke with the Foreign Secretary by phone this morning to receive an update. I can tell the House that in meetings with the President and others, the Foreign Secretary pushed hard for full UN and non-governmental organisation access to civilians in the camps and elsewhere. He visited some of the camps near Vavuniya in the north. While there, he told me of the disturbing accounts that he heard of families being forcibly separated as they tried to flee the fighting.

The Foreign Secretary also confirmed to me just how clear it is that the LTTE is preventing civilians from leaving the conflict zones. The use of civilians as human shields is abhorrent and must end.

Visits to Sri Lanka by the British and French Foreign Ministers, along with the visit earlier this week by the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), send a powerful message to the Sri Lankan Government that the plight of civilians is an issue of international concern. The visit by the cross-party group of MPs next week will do likewise.

Civilians have always been our No. 1 priority. I again thank the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton for his supportive remarks about the Prime Minister, who was the first Government leader to call for a ceasefire back in January.

We welcomed the two-day ceasefire that took place earlier this month, but it did not achieve the objective. It was not enough time, and the LTTE prevented all but 300 civilians leaving the conflict zone. Since then, the Prime Minister has spoken to the Sri Lankan President twice to make clear our profound concerns about the continuing situation. He called for an end to the fighting and for civilians to be allowed out to find the safety they deserve. The Sri Lankan President issued a statement a few days later, saying that the Government would

But that is also not enough. Only a full ceasefire will allow all civilians to leave the conflict zone and reach safety.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): All hon. Members will have noted what my hon. Friend and the Sri Lankan Government have said about stopping the barrage, heavy gun attack and bombing. Is she confident that that has stopped, however? Many Members believe that it has
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continued unabated. The much-vaunted use of small arms fire only has not taken place. There is duplicity from the Sri Lankan Government.

Gillian Merron: It is not possible to be confident, as my hon. Friend inquires, simply because the international presence on the ground is insufficient, as I will outline. The situation is difficult to verify, so much of the Foreign Secretary’s work has been to demand unfettered international access.

Adam Price: Given that the Sri Lankan Government and their military are implicated in the slaughter of their own citizens, possibly deceiving the world in doing so, at what point is it no longer acceptable for Sri Lanka to continue as a full member of the Commonwealth?

Gillian Merron: On the matter of the Commonwealth, our view, and the international view, is that it is better to keep engaging with the Sri Lankan Government. That is our way forward. Isolation will not produce the forward look that we need. Although the matter was not on the Commonwealth ministerial action group’s formal agenda, I took the opportunity to raise the UK Government’s concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka.

The Government’s second priority is to ensure that those civilians who escape the fighting get the help that they need. An estimated 180,000 people have managed to flee the fighting so far. They are in, or travelling to, internally displaced persons camps. The UK is helping to provide the equipment, food and water needed by those in the camps. Last week, the Prime Minister announced a further £2.5 million in humanitarian aid, bringing the UK’s contribution to £7.5 million. I assure the House that all of that is directed through international agencies and none goes through the Sri Lankan Government. The Sri Lankan Government’s obligation is to ensure unhindered and safe access for international aid, so that it gets to where it is needed. We have seen some progress in the past week, but more needs to be done. We call on the Sri Lankan Government to grant full access to international humanitarian agencies, which must be able to do their work and satisfy themselves over the arrangements for civilians leaving the conflict area.

The internally displaced persons camps must be apolitical and non-military, and deliver effective aid to traumatised people. Better access to medical facilities, food and drinking water must be provided, along with transparent registration processes. We were pleased about the arrival this weekend of 5,000 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tents, the transportation costs for which were covered by the United Kingdom Government. However, delays in getting Government clearance for those and many other things meant that people suffered unnecessarily. The camps must be run properly and be temporary. We will hold the Sri Lankan Government to their promise to return 80 per cent. of internally displaced persons to their homes by the end of the year.

That leads me to our third priority: to find a long-term political solution to the conflict.

Mr. Davey: This is a small point, but why 80 per cent. by the end of the year? A huge number of people are being kept in these camps, so why? Are the Government asking the Sri Lankan Government and the Sri Lankan army that question?

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Gillian Merron: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but the reason is that this is about what is possible in putting the infrastructure in place and demining. This will not be the end of the story, but it is about being realistic about meeting and assisting to meet things in that way.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary is in Sri Lanka urging an urgent ceasefire. I realise that the Minister is coming to this in her speech, but does she accept that a ceasefire is not in itself enough to prevent a resurgence of fighting at some point in the future? There has to be a political engagement with all the representatives of all shades of Tamil opinion; otherwise, a ceasefire would merely postpone the horrors of today to the disasters of tomorrow.

Gillian Merron: I absolutely agree with the assessment set out by my hon. Friend, because he rightly says that although conventional military action could be drawing to a close, an end to the fighting does not mean an end to the conflict. The Sri Lankan Government must know that some LTTE members will simply switch to guerrilla warfare to continue their fight. As we have heard today, there can be no military solution to this conflict; there can only be a political one. Ultimately, it is for the Sri Lankans themselves to resolve this conflict. That is why the UK and others have for years pressed the Sri Lankans to begin a political process that takes into account the legitimate aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka—the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims and others. The Sri Lankan Government must show the boldness and vision necessary to find a lasting solution to more than 25 years of conflict.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The Minister is right to say that although the Sri Lankan Government crave a military victory, there is a big difference between that and a military solution—that will clearly not be delivered as a result of the actions in which they are engaged at the moment. She seems to be saying that peace is a process rather than a single event. What practical contribution have the UK Government been offering in recent months and years to a peace process? It is clear that both sides must engage in order to achieve the long-term sustainable peace that we all crave, and that the whole of the Tamil community needs to be fully engaged in that kind of political process.

Gillian Merron: I am coming on to discuss the role of the international community, so I shall just take the next intervention.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): The Minister and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) were right to say that what happens in the medium and long term is what will matter most. For now, may I ask the question about the emperor’s clothes, as it were? Do we believe that the LTTE can be left controlling populations and holding territory in the short term?

Gillian Merron: The answer to that question is that we need to be thinking about what we can do in the international community in order to make progress. To repeat a point, it is important to say to the Sri Lankan Government that even if they think that a military
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solution is an answer, they must consider the day after the end to that, when they think the military solution has delivered the result. Our concern is that no thought, no planning and no preparation is being done.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Gillian Merron: I shall give way to my hon. Friend, but then I shall make some progress.

Mr. Love: Just to remind the House, there are three sides involved in this; we ought not to forget the Muslim community, which has distinct needs in the Sri Lankan context. The Sri Lankan Government will argue that they already have a process under way—the All Party Representatives Committee. It is important for the international community to convince the Sri Lankan Government that that process does not have Tamil community support, and that if we are actually to get a peace process under way, we need to bring all sides—all shades of Tamil opinion—into it.

Gillian Merron: As I have just said, and am happy to reiterate, the answer can be the answer only if it brings together all communities. There is no other way forward.

The UK is working with the international community to build a co-ordinated international response, which is, of course, the most powerful way forward. The UK has taken a leading role in bringing Sri Lanka on to the international community’s agenda. We have closely co-ordinated with others, particularly the US, France and India, and the Foreign Secretary has issued joint statements with the French and Americans. We have played an active role in securing renewed calls by the EU Foreign Ministers and the G8 to ensure that civilians are protected.

With regard to the UN, we welcome the personal focus that the UN Secretary-General has given to Sri Lanka, and his statements on the plight of civilians. We have also supported the separate visits to Sri Lanka by the UN representatives for humanitarian affairs and for internally displaced persons, as well as by the Secretary-General’s chef de cabinet. It is important that they were able to see the appalling situation for themselves.

Despite opposition, we have successfully worked for these representatives to give informal briefings to the Security Council. The UN has a vital role to play in keeping the spotlight of international concern and action focused on Sri Lanka. We believe that a UN Security Council resolution would be an effective demonstration of the views of the international community. However, as right hon. and hon. Members will know, not all permanent members of the Security Council believe that it is appropriate for the Council to discuss this issue. Without the agreement of all permanent members, we cannot get a resolution. My real concern is that if we went forward with a resolution and it was vetoed, we would have an even worse situation, because the Sri Lankan Government would simply say, “The UN has agreed with us that no action should be taken”. That would not be a good outcome for the people of Sri Lanka.

The matter of war crimes is very important. This conflict has been taking place in the shadows due to the limited international presence. Actions must be fully investigated, and if war crimes have been committed
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they should be identified. But, as in all conflicts, it is difficult for investigations to be made while the conflict is ongoing. Under international law, the primary burden for investigation rests on the authority against whose forces allegations of war crimes are made.

Tom Brake: What is the Minister’s view on the role of the Commonwealth and how effective it has been so far? Can she think of any circumstances in which Sri Lanka should host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2011?

Gillian Merron: I have already mentioned the Commonwealth and my input on the Commonwealth ministerial action group. We continue to work with the international community, including the UN, the EU and the Commonwealth, to alleviate the situation in Sri Lanka.

Our No. 1 goal is the protection of civilian lives. Both sides must do the right thing by those they claim they are fighting for. We will be unstinting in our efforts to press the Sri Lankans to ensure that they meet their obligations under international law. Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister with responsibility for Asia, will meet the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister next week to continue this effort. We will not waver until the lives of the innocent are no longer under threat and lasting peace has been brought to this troubled country.

5.14 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on introducing this short debate. I also want to congratulate all members of the Government on the efforts that they have made over the past few months in a very difficult situation. All Members of the House cannot but be moved by the despair of the British Tamil community, highlighted by the demonstration outside Parliament, over what is happening to their friends and relatives.

This is the third time that this subject has been debated in the past two or three months. We had a debate on 5 February and another on 24 March, and powerful speeches were made by hon. Members from all parties. Hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to speak for half an hour, reiterating all the points that have been made. I merely want to try to emphasise two or three points, tying together—as I see it—the problems of achieving an immediate ceasefire and a somewhat longer-term solution. This situation has been bedevilled on both sides by extremists who have used terror and counter-terror, with truces declared and broken, to further their particular political interests. That has happened recently with both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE.

Enormous efforts have been made by individual Governments and by the international community to attempt to force both sides to come to a ceasefire. At different stages, neither side has found it in their interests to do so. That is not to say that the efforts that have been made have been nugatory and should not have been attempted. An important, powerful point concerns the way in which this House, on the whole, has spoken with one voice. That has had an impact—although not a particularly great one—on the Sri Lankan Government.
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Apart from anything else, I think that they thought that they had had a more sophisticated public relations campaign over the past few months.

The immediate problem is not only to achieve a ceasefire but to bring in humanitarian aid to those people who are now concentrated in camps to which there is limited access. There are tens of thousands of them and I think that the fear of many outside observers is that the Sri Lankan Government intend to weed out people from those camps whom they regard as terrorists. It is very important that we not only have international observers there but members of the media, including members of the media in Sri Lanka.

Of course, a ceasefire is also required to prevent the final overrun of the last bit of territory held by the LTTE, where tens of thousands of innocent civilians are suffering from both sides. The Sri Lankan Government are still using aerial weapons, artillery and air strikes. We know that from the UN representative. Equally, as the former Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), pointed out, the LTTE armed wing is made up of a particularly vicious and nasty bunch of people. They have forcibly put young people into their fighting groups and used civilians as screens. We should not absolve ourselves from that.

I am not trying to be negative, but I do not genuinely believe that the Sri Lankan Government will agree to a ceasefire. I think that they believe that they are so close to achieving a military victory that they will do anything to stop one. I do not think that there is anything that the international community or the British Government can do to force them not to achieve that military victory, as the Sri Lankan Government see it. That is not to say that I do not think that we should shout from the rooftops about what they are doing. The problem that they face, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, is that that military victory will be pyrrhic. They will achieve a military victory but they will immediately face the problem of dealing with the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. They will probably then come under enormous pressure and will feel that they have to give in to international observers and the United Nations. We should be thinking now about what pressure we can bring at that point and what we want to demand of the Sri Lankan Government.

As other hon. Members have said, in every conflict that we can think of, this kind of military victory will result in the surviving members of the LTTE carrying out terrorist acts, not only in Sri Lanka but worldwide, on a scale the likes of which the Sri Lankan Government have not yet seen. So what I urge colleagues to think about is that we continue to maintain the pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, through the sort of action that the Foreign Secretary has been carrying out. We must also recognise that the Sri Lankan Government are incredibly sensitive and touchy about what they believe is white, colonial interference in their internal affairs. For example, the appointment of the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) as a special envoy was effectively negated by them. In addition, they have refused permission for the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, to enter Sri Lanka, for reasons that seem very much based on interference—in other words, the Sri Lankan Government believe that they are defending their right.

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