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29 Apr 2009 : Column 950

We all believe that that is stupid and nugatory, but I suspect that we will have a very limited window of opportunity to bring real pressure to bear on the Sri Lankan Government after they have achieved their so-called military victory. That is because—this is my final point—the pressure will be off them then, with the international media moving on to some other horror story elsewhere in the world. The British Tamil community, quite rightly, will expect more of us, but it is at that point that the British Government will really have to engage with the Sri Lankan Government.

Ironically, I think that the Sri Lankan Government will be at their weakest then. In wishing to achieve a military victory they have ignored all the negative aspects, such as the fact that they are in serious financial difficulties, and that may be what allows us to exert some pressure.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend he is making a very prescient and powerful speech. Does he agree that, in the similar conflicts that took place in South Africa and Rwanda, one of the important parts of the peace process was the establishment of some form of truth and reconciliation committee? That worked very well in South Africa, and also in Rwanda, where the Gacaca court system was used for that purpose. The result has been that people caught up in the conflict have been brought back into the democratic, peaceful process.

Mr. Simpson: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I am not trying to be a Jonah, but I believe, sadly, that there will be a lot more violence, and a lot more innocent people killed, before we reach that stage. I think that we are in for a long haul.

I congratulate the Government and those of our colleagues who have worked so hard on the matter. We need to keep up the pressure on the Sri Lankan Government through the spotlight of media attention, but we must also think about what will happen when they declare their pyrrhic military victory, because the Tamils are not going to go away.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the House that the 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches comes into operation now. Bearing in mind the numbers of colleagues who wish to contribute to the debate, and if everyone is to be heard, I hope that speeches will not be too much extended by interventions.

5.23 pm

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): It is relevant to remind ourselves that we are talking about up to 6,500 people killed since January. The fact that even official accounts now put the number above 5,000 gives us a little perspective.

I worry when I hear talk about more violence. There may well be, but it is very important that we stand here and say that there must not be. I also worry that, although none of us approves of what is happening, we almost seem to be saying, “We can’t stop the Sri Lankan Government. This is internal to that country, so they reject everything that we say, the envoys that we send, and even the Swedish Foreign Minister. That’s not fine, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”

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I do not accept that there is nothing we can do about what is happening in Sri Lanka. I am very relieved that our Foreign Secretary is in Sri Lanka, and I pay tribute to him for making the trip at this crucial point in time. I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) that this is an important point in time. If Sri Lanka is on the verge of a bloodbath, there could not be a more important time for our Foreign Secretary to be there, making it absolutely clear that what is happening is not acceptable.

Sri Lanka must move to a permanent ceasefire. We attach no preconditions to the negotiations that must follow; it is not for us to do so. However, it is right that we and the international community call for an immediate, permanent ceasefire, and for negotiations to start—negotiations involving all parts of the community in Sri Lanka, as has been said. I am pleased that our Prime Minister was the first international Government leader to call for a ceasefire. That is important leadership, and many others need to follow suit. I have no doubt that that was critical to ensuring that India made clear its view that a ceasefire was required. Our Government have made huge moves that have had a huge impact, but we are still not where we need to be.

A lot has been said about the UN, and I, too, have made it clear that there should be a UN Security Council resolution. Through all the debates, I think that we have all come to understand that China and Russia are obstructing international efforts to reach agreement. We are well past the point at which it could be said to be unhelpful to identify where the problem comes from, in terms of ensuring that the international community can act. To go back to my first point, if we are not to say, “Well, there’s nothing that we can do; Governments get to do these things in their own country”, and are instead to say, “This is a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe, and it is completely and utterly wrong”, we have to act through the UN. Therefore, it is right that we should identify where the problem is.

China and Russia are obstructing international efforts to reach agreement, but where the UN Security Council fails to act to maintain international peace and security, a provision exists to overcome disagreement among its five permanent members, namely the “Uniting for Peace” resolution. It enables an emergency special session of the General Assembly to be called for by a procedural resolution of the Security Council, which, unlike substantive resolutions, cannot be vetoed by any of the five permanent members. I am not an expert on the UN, and I have had to do a bit of research to discover those technicalities and means of progressing things there, but the “Uniting for Peace” resolution seems to offer a way forward, if it is not possible to get the kind of resolution for which hon. Members on both sides of the House have been calling.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Lady on the stand that she is taking on behalf of the members of the Tamil community who are spread across the borough of Enfield. The Under-Secretary of State said that she would not want the Government to be in a worse position as a result of a failed UN Security Council resolution. Can the right hon. Lady think of a worse position than the one that the Tamil community are in, as they face slaughter?

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Joan Ryan: That is an important point to take on board, but we have to consider whether a failed UN Security Council resolution would be interpreted by the Government of Sri Lanka as a form of approval of their behaviour. Equally, I agree with the hon. Gentleman: how could things be much worse for the Tamil community? That is why I think that, however much blocking there is at the UN, it is time to find a mechanism to open up the issue there. It is time to point to those permanent members of the Security Council that are, through their behaviour, allowing the human rights catastrophe to happen. They are preventing the UN from fulfilling its role, remit, and international obligations, and so are preventing the rest of us members who are party to those obligations from fulfilling ours. If the “Uniting for Peace” resolution offers a way forward, I urge the Minister to look at it. Although we have problems with two permanent members of the Security Council, there are many others to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and other hon. Members have spoken in recent days and weeks. Those countries support our disapproval of what is happening in Sri Lanka and are trying to force the Sri Lankan Government to reach an immediate ceasefire. It undermines the Secretary-General’s position if his call for a ceasefire is completely ignored, if not brushed aside. I therefore hope that that will be looked at.

I should like to make a point about the application for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The Sri Lankan Government, as we have heard, has applied for an emergency support loan from the IMF of $1.9 billion, and they appear to believe that they should be able to receive that without any conditions. To agree to an IMF loan to a Government who have perpetrated gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law would be a breach of the UK’s international obligations, so that is another avenue through which our Government can bring pressure to bear on the Sri Lankan Government. We should provide aid, but it is completely wrong to do so against the backdrop of a Government who have spent 25 per cent. of their gross domestic product on arms. They are not at war with anybody—they are, however, at war in their own country—and have gone to the IMF for a loan. That is not what an IMF loan is supposed to be about, and I hope that we will do all that we can to stop that being made available.

To return to the point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, there is no military solution. The Sri Lankan Government may think that they are going to achieve military success, but it will not be a victory. No Government can achieve military victory over their own people, and all the people of Sri Lanka deserve a settlement that will be just and lasting and that gives everyone in that country the rights that they deserve as citizens of that country. The Sri Lankan Government should not dismiss out of hand all the calls for a ceasefire and all the offers of a ceasefire. I accept that they and others have reservations about dealing with everyone in peace negotiations. I accept, too, that there has been violence on both sides. As I have said, no one in the Chamber condones violence or fighting: we want an immediate and permanent ceasefire; we want peace; and we want negotiations. We set no preconditions—we have no right to do so—but it is not unreasonable to make those demands.

29 Apr 2009 : Column 953

One might ask whether we have any right to make demands of another Government. I believe that we do when human rights are under threat and a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes. Those are exactly the circumstances in which we have the right to make those demands. We make them here as a Parliament representing hundreds of thousands of British citizens who are Tamil people desperately concerned about their families and friends. We have that right as members of the UN. We must see that ceasefire, and we need it now. That is what the Foreign Secretary has called for again today, and I wholly support his making that visit and that call.

5.34 pm

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I want to acknowledge in particular the importance of the Tamil community in making sure that the international community finally gives a high priority to the suffering of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

Last week, I was privileged to go with three members of the Tamil community to Strasbourg to meet the EU External Relations Commissioner, Mrs. Ferrero-Waldner. I was joined by Members of the European Parliament, and we were all acting in a cross-party capacity, rather than representing one particular party. It was evident from that conversation that, at that time, the issue was not a priority on the agenda of the meeting of Foreign Ministers that was to take place on Monday. We have now progressed so far that our Foreign Secretary and the French Foreign Minister are in Sri Lanka tackling the problem directly. I congratulate the British, French and Czech Governments on making sure that the subject moved so rapidly up the agenda and gained the priority that it deserved. I also congratulate those young Tamils, whose eloquence made a significant difference on that day. The Tamil community fired up the political world not only here, but in other European capitals. That has been extraordinary, and we should recognise the role that they played.

I turn briefly to the welfare camps; I am trying not to use the full amount of time that I have been allotted. I talked yesterday with some of the humanitarian agencies, which obviously have long-standing contacts in Sri Lanka. Hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have quoted the numbers said to be going to the welfare camps. The report back is that the situation is horrendous. The Sri Lankan Government have long been in denial that many civilians were involved. Consequently, there is a shortage of absolutely everything and the system is completely overstretched, creating a present and imminent humanitarian crisis.

The second set of issues to which the humanitarian agencies tried to draw my attention is that rumours are rife that people going to the camps are disappearing— young men are disappearing, presumably thought to be possible members of the LTTE who have taken off their uniform; and young women are disappearing, and the rumour is that they are providing, shall I say, comfort services. Whether that is true or not, the issue will enflame the Tamil people in both Sri Lanka and the diaspora, and it underscores the importance of stressing to the British Government and others that the UN and the ICRC must become responsible for supervising all stages of the screening process when people enter and leave the camps. That must be documented and there
29 Apr 2009 : Column 954
must be the appropriate database. If not, rumour will be so out of control that it will be very difficult to secure any benefits when there is some degree of ceasefire.

Barry Gardiner: I agree entirely with the powerful point that the hon. Lady is making. She will know that there is a history of the United Nations High Representative on human rights being denied access in the pursuit of investigations of wholesale abuses and mass graves that have been found over the past decade in Sri Lanka as a result of atrocities perpetrated by the Sri Lankan army. The point that she makes about the rumours that are rife lends credence to all that has gone before, and indicates that it is not safe for civilians who are still within the zone to hand themselves over to the Sri Lankan forces and to go into the camps. That presents a severe humanitarian problem, on which we must force the Sri Lankan Government to act by allowing transparency in what is going on in those camps.

Susan Kramer: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about transparency. It must be made clear to the Sri Lankan Government that there is no loss of face in bringing in the international community. That is not a presumption of guilt. It is part of the structure for creating peace out of conflict.

With reference to the camps, it is crucial that people are resettled as quickly as possible. One number we have not heard today is that of the more than 300,000 displaced people who are in camps as a result of the conflict prior to 2002—people who have not been able to return home because of the high-security camps established in the east of the country. That cannot be repeated in the valley, or we will find ourselves with a long-term and constantly festering problem in Sri Lanka. That will take international community pressure to achieve—offers of international help for demining are a good example—as well as the provision of resources. Humanitarian organisations tell me that the scale of the problem is bigger than that of the tsunami in Sri Lanka—the number of families involved and the need for shelter, for livelihood support, for infrastructure reconstruction and for dealing with trauma post-crisis.

Mr. Love: Not long after 2002, when the ceasefire was implemented and things began to go somewhat off the rails, the international community came together and offered a large sum of money on the basis that a ceasefire and a peace process could begin and be completed. Is that something that the international community could consider to get things moving in Sri Lanka?

Susan Kramer: I agree that money must come with conditions and money will be needed. Again, I do not consider that to be some violation of the dignity of any Government. There must be freedom of access and freedom of movement, and those standards of humanitarian law and international law have to be restored.

It is evident in this crisis that the suffering will have been for no point at all if it does not lead to a permanent solution in Sri Lanka. That means that the conversations must begin as immediately as possible on the underlying grievances. As was said earlier, that applies as much to the Muslim community as it does to the Tamil community—to all minority communities in Sri Lanka. There has been a move by the Sri Lankan Government
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towards a Sinhala Buddhist bias, which has had the effect of denying other communities their proper rights and role: equal opportunity, freedom of language and freedom of religion. Only if the structure is put in place to achieve a pluralistic society will these long-standing communities—the Tamil community has been for centuries a kingdom on the lands of Sri Lanka—have the kind of resolution that is needed and, as others have said, we will be able to prevent the development of the ongoing sense of terror that comes of grievances that are not addressed either by the home Government or by the international community.

5.42 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I am 49 years of age, I have been an elected politician for 27 years and my political and personal lives tell me that when someone is bullied, they must stand up and shout, no matter what minority they are part of and no matter what the chances of success might be.

What disappointed me about the contribution of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was that it undermined and belied the bravery that our Foreign Secretary is showing by visiting Sri Lanka and making a stand when other people and organisations around the world will not. He is making a stand when other diplomats—his advisers in the Foreign Office—tell him not to go. Whatever the outcome of his visit, he will always have my support for his decision to break the logjam in every international organisation that is not prepared to stand up and do something.

I could paper my walls with the letters that I have had saying, “We don’t like to stand up. We like to do things under the radar.” That is not the way to deal with the Sri Lankan Government. We all know that diplomacy will not shift the Sri Lankan Government. Only the loud opprobrium of the world, in whatever way it can happen, will do that. Brave people can achieve great things. Organisations that decide to turn away, not look, not see and be mealy-mouthed, will not save one life.

My Easter recess was spent out on Parliament square with a group of people who showed great bravery and great desperation. They did things with which I sometimes did not agree, but their motivations are first class and their attempt to bring this matter to the world’s attention has been incredibly successful. Despite the little media coverage over the past few weeks, it is 100 per cent. more than before and 100 per cent. more than all of us have managed to achieve. I applaud the protestors on their success, but now it is our time for us to make our stand. It may not be successful and we may fail, but we have to try, because we all know that, when this is all over, we will see more dead, injured and displaced people than we currently understand. It should not happen on our watch. Our responsibility is to do something, to stand up and to be brave.

5.45 pm

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I join others in paying tribute to our Prime Minister, who has met the all-party group on Sri Lanka on two occasions, and to the Foreign Secretary, who met the all-party group and
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a packed room of Tamils; I do so because of the situation’s severity. This is our third debate in the Chamber, there have been numerous debates in Westminster Hall and many words have been spoken by all parties. We all want a ceasefire, an end to the killing of innocent people, humanitarian aid, non-governmental organisations to be allowed in and peace for all in Sri Lanka.

The truth is, however, that we have not got anywhere. There is a reason for the protests in Parliament square, and I, like the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who spoke before me, went over there during the Easter recess to meet the protestors. They have my admiration for the dignified way in which they have tried to conduct themselves. There have been times when I have not agreed with everything that has transpired, but they have been trying out of desperation, because they do not know what else to do. They feel let down, which is why my constituents in Ilford, North come to me and say that they are worried about whether their relatives are alive or dead, and whether they are being humiliated. We hear reports, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) said, and I do not know what is true, but I have seen video evidence that seems to show that atrocities are taking place daily.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden rightly said that we have to be the voice. We have to be the voice of the people who elected us, and whose relatives are losing their lives daily and being herded around like cattle. If we cannot be that voice, we should all hang our heads in shame, because we betray the people whom we are here to represent. I also agree with the hon. Lady that whether we succeed is not in our gift; the Sri Lankan Government will not listen to us if we say, “We want a ceasefire”, because they do not seem to care what any of us say. The minute that we open our mouths and say anything that they do not like, they portray us all, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, as backing terrorists. But I say once again, as I have said in previous debates, that I do not support terrorism from any side in any shape or form. I support innocent people trying to live their lives with dignity.

The time has come for us to continue to speak out for people who are not able to voice their concerns, because they are not being listened to. If the Sri Lankan Government will not listen—whether it be to the United Nations, the European Union or the Commonwealth—and introduce a ceasefire, the time will have come for their suspension from the Commonwealth. A veto may not succeed in the United Nations, because someone may stop it, but at least it will exist. Will it make the situation worse? Will the Sri Lankan Government say that it gives them a mandate? They do not have a mandate to do anything; no one has a mandate to kill innocent people.

We cannot stand by and allow that to happen, so together across all parties we are fighting to stop it. Let us continue that fight, and let us help the people across the road, and the people in Sri Lanka who are being killed every day. If we do not, we should bow our heads in shame, because we will have let them down.

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