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I welcome the Government’s actions, and the supplying of some 5,000 tents and of provisions directly to internally displaced persons through the UNHCR, as well as the extra £2.5 million that is going in through the international agencies, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) says, we must press for others in the international community to join in that activity, so that real international pressure can be brought to bear on humanitarian grounds. The Government of Sri Lanka must be put under intense international
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pressure to allow the UN to help with the evacuation and support of civilians now. That includes the setting up and running of the necessary provisions for internally displaced persons by the international community. That happens in every other conflict in the world, and it should be possible for it to happen now without insulting anyone’s political kudos.

My second point is about the media. The Liberal Democrat motion draws attention to the role of the media, and I slightly regret that the amendment does not do so. Perhaps that was just an oversight. The motion states that

I am usually incredibly critical of the way the media carry on, but in conflicts the courage of the international media can sometimes help to defuse the conflict and bring about a ceasefire faster because of what they report. I also think that the media should have access to all internally displaced persons and to the camps that have been set up to look after them.

The Government’s amendment to the motion accepts the need to

It also rightly refers to the need for

and urges

which we are not seeing in the so-called villages at the moment—

I hope that the Foreign Secretary, who is visiting Sri Lanka, will bring pressure to bear in relation not only to humanitarian aid but to media access throughout the system. Those two provisions should go together. I would also say to the media that, if and when they get in, they should not just go there for a day and report the crisis of the day. They should remain there to follow the process through, and to show that those who have become sad victims of this crisis through no fault of their own are being properly protected and looked after.

Of course we all need to work together and to push for a process of political reconciliation and lasting peace and justice, but I draw attention—the hon. Member for Richmond Park referred to this—to the International Crisis Group. It suggested that the international reconstruction and development assistance, which could include the International Monetary Fund loan that Sri Lanka has applied for, should have conditions attached and that those conditions for development aid IMF loans should be related to the Colombo Government’s providing a basic level of human security, ending the impunity in relation to human rights violations and introducing an empowering process of devolution that includes provincial councils as part of a genuine democratic political transformation.

Yes, Sri Lanka is 75 per cent. Sinhalese, 18 per cent. Tamil and 7 per cent. Muslim, but if there is to be some settlement, all those parties must be included or there will be no future and no way forward. That is an agenda
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that international development assistance can help with. We must ensure that there is humanitarian assistance now—tents, yes, but also food, water aid and medical aid—and we must work to get the media in there and stay in there.

When we work together and look at the reconstruction work afterwards, perhaps that development of devolution, which should include the minorities, will consider some new politics that might not be unique to Sri Lanka and might open up a political agenda that allows a proper political conversation with Sri Lanka to take place.

6.16 pm

Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate, which I hope will have an impact on the terrible humanitarian disaster that is unfolding in north-east Sri Lanka among hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians at this very moment.

Hon. Members from the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, which I chair, have already made excellent contributions, but I want to convey to the House the message that the all-party group has been giving for many months to the Government of Sri Lanka, the UK Government and the international community. I congratulate everyone who has contributed and supported the group—not only today, but in the past—and had meetings with the Tamil community and institutions all over Britain, in the European Union and in the United Nations. I also congratulate the Prime Minister and the Ministers concerned on taking the initiative and winning the confidence of the community.

With more than 100,000 Tamil civilians still within the conflict zone, it is vital that an urgent, immediate and permanent ceasefire is established. More than 6,500 innocent civilians have been killed in the last three months, according to the United Nations—more than in the Gaza conflict. The Government of Sri Lanka also announced that they were stopping attacks with aircraft, artillery and heavy weapons, but reports today indicate that those attacks are still ongoing and innocent civilians are continuing to be killed.

As has been said, we stand accused. We receive e-mail messages and letters accusing us of being Indian Tigers, black Tigers, white Tigers—

Keith Vaz: Brown Tigers.

Mr. Sharma: My right hon. Friend tells me that there are references to brown Tigers as well. That is the accusation, but we should look at the role of communities here and the Tamil community in general. On 11 April, we had more than 150,000 people marching in London, without any violent incident. Peaceful marches have taken place. Only last week, we held a meeting in my constituency, which was attended by more than 300 people. I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to address the meeting, at which representatives of all the communities—the Indian community, the Pakistani community, the Bangladeshi community—were present. Everybody was talking about a peaceful solution to the problem in that region.

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Keith Vaz: The Foreign Secretary is in Colombo, and the House is united—I have not heard a single speech against what the Government are doing with the support of Opposition parties. It would send out the best message if the House did not divide on a particular motion, and in a unified way supported one resolution for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka and proper humanitarian aid to the Tamil community.

Mr. Sharma: I thank my right hon. Friend. The only way is to send a clear message to the Sri Lankan Government and other institutions and countries supporting them that Great Britain’s Government and parliamentarians are united on the ceasefire and giving humanitarian aid to that part of the world, and support to find a peaceful solution.

The Government of Sri Lanka, by announcing this week that they will no longer carry out air strikes and artillery shelling, have admitted doing things that they had previously denied. The refusal to accept both the Prime Minister’s special envoy and now the Swedish Foreign Minister shows that they have something to hide. Under the cover of fighting terrorism and rescuing civilians, they are showing a wanton disregard for their own civilian citizens and for United Nations and international humanitarian standards.

The strongest international pressure should be put on the Government of Sri Lanka to call an immediate ceasefire, for humanitarian aid to be allowed into the conflict zone through the offices of the United Nations, and for a negotiated settlement to be worked out that meets all the legitimate demands of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.

I must raise one other point: some Members have said that the Indian Government have changed their mind a little late. Being of Indian background and understanding the politics of that region, I understand the comment, but the Indian Government’s intentions were always clear when they demanded the ceasefire and asked for peaceful negotiations and asked for all parties to get around the table for discussion. I congratulate the Indian Government on taking the initiative, and sending their officers to negotiate with the Government of Sri Lanka for a peaceful solution. With the presence of our Foreign Secretary in Sri Lanka, and a message going from here, I hope that the whole community’s support will bring a peaceful solution.

6.23 pm

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Briefly, as I know that other Members wish to speak, I want to add my voice and that of my party, Plaid Cymru—I am sure the Scottish National party would also want to do so—to the strong, unified and unequivocal message that I am sure we will send from the House. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tamil people and want an end to the terrible atrocity that is being committed.

We have a responsibility. Under our watch, the Sinhala and Tamil kingdoms were integrated, and the constitution was created that did not enshrine proper, equal rights for the Tamil people. It is right and proper that the House is shouldering its responsibility to the Tamil people, and saying that we will not stand by and allow such things to happen. It is important that we send that message.

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Although it is important that we speak clearly and condemn what is happening to the Tamil people, words are not enough—they sometimes need to be backed up by action too. Will the Minister confirm that the United Kingdom will declare that we will not allow the International Monetary Fund loan to go forward at this time and that we will insist that the Commonwealth upholds the standards of democracy that are surely the definition of a commonwealth? If the Sri Lankan Government are not prepared to listen to the voices of the international community, clearly the Commonwealth will have to take appropriate steps and suspend their membership.

Will the Minister also say that we will review the situation on arms export licences from the United Kingdom and the European Union, because we will certainly not allow any further deaths to occur, and that we will take all the steps necessary to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government realise their responsibility to their citizens and our fellow human beings, whom we wish to support in every way that we can?

6.25 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this debate, and I am sorry that I was not able to be here from the beginning. I have been a Member of this House for 17 years, throughout which I have been involved in debates and discussions about Sri Lanka, largely because of the significant Tamil community in my constituency. I can think of times during those 17 years when we thought that there was hope that there might be a solution and a move towards a peaceful settlement. I can also think of times when we expressed lots of concern about extra-judicial killings and disappearances, but I simply cannot recall a worse situation than what is happening now.

I see people in my constituency who have families, relatives and friends in Vanni, but who do not know what has happened to them, cannot get in touch with them and are afraid that they are dead. That is a dreadful situation for someone to be in, and nothing that I can say can offer any real comfort to those people. The people who are out there in Parliament square and the people who have been getting in touch with every one of us are making some clear and simple demands—they are demands that have been echoed by almost every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate. The demands relate to the need for a permanent ceasefire, not a temporary one; the need for humanitarian aid to get through; and the need for the people who are in the camps to be allowed to move and not be trapped in them.

Of course, there is a longer-term political agenda about a political solution, but every day that passes, with this situation continuing, will make that longer-term political solution ever more difficult to achieve because of the mistrust that is being engendered by what is happening. No Government who claim to be democratically elected should be able to ignore those very clear and simple demands in the way that the Government of Sri Lanka have been doing. They have ignored what we have said, what has been said internationally and what has been said by member states of the United Nations and by the EU. We cannot accept that all that is being ignored, and we must get clear and strong messages across to that Government. I am glad that the Foreign Secretary is in Sri Lanka and that my right hon. Friend
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the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), who has been appointed as special envoy, will go there. I hope that strong messages will be delivered.

I have a final point to make on delivering a strong message. I have looked at the Order Paper and examined the motion tabled by the Liberal Democrats and the amendment tabled by the Government, and I do not see a great deal of difference between them. There are some small differences in emphasis, but I could happily vote for either one of them. What I do not want to happen is a Division on one or other of them. If we are serious about sending a clear message from this House of Commons to the Government of Sri Lanka, and everyone else there, about what we want to see happen, it will not help if we have a Division on one or other of these motions. That would be used to suggest that this House is not united in demanding a ceasefire, free access for international organisations to the area and to the camps for internally displaced persons, and freedom of movement for the population. I plead with Front-Bench spokesmen to come to an agreement on the motions, because frankly we could agree to either.

6.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on tabling the motion. This is a timely and important debate. I also congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part in it. We have sung from the same hymn sheet, and it is important that we send the message that this Parliament is as one over what confronts us in Sri Lanka at the moment. An acute humanitarian disaster is unfolding.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), I have been involved in Sri Lankan issues for some time. I have visited the island on several occasions. Since 1983, the country has experienced bitter divisions and conflicts, but I cannot remember a situation as grave as the one we face today. Many people have been able to escape from the conflict area, but while there is no outside verification, no human rights organisations, no humanitarian relief and no one to tell us what is going on, we can only assume the worst. Of course, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that shelling continues and the LTTE continues to hold people, some voluntarily and some against their will. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 70,000 innocent civilians are still trapped in the area. As the Parliament of a country on friendly terms with Sri Lanka, we must speak out as boldly as we can about the issue.

I congratulate the House on being united on the issue. I also wish to pick up the point made that we would not send the right signal to Sri Lanka should we be forced into a Division at the end of the debate. It is critical that, having spoken with one voice, we act with one voice. So we must not divide tonight on motions that are very similar in many ways. I hope that that plea will be heeded. Speaking out is only part of the issue. We must also be seen to be doing things.

Several things have been raised on which I wish to comment. First, I understand that there are reasons why the Commonwealth would suspend one of its members. That has been done in the past, but there have been voices suggesting that such action would not be
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appropriate at this point. However, in the past when there have been difficulties between the Commonwealth as an organisation and an individual member, a group of other Commonwealth countries with close connections to the offending party have sent a delegation to make it clear how the Commonwealth feels about the issue. I believe that that could be done on behalf of the Commonwealth, particularly if that group of countries were led by India, which has enormous influence in Sri Lanka.

Keith Vaz: I was present at a meeting with the Commonwealth secretary-general arranged by the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). It seems that Sri Lanka has put in a bid to host the Commonwealth summit in 2011. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be totally inappropriate for Sri Lanka to be asked to host that after all that it has done to its own people?

Mr. Love: I thank my right hon. Friend for that question and agree wholeheartedly. We have to send a very clear signal from all sorts of directions, one of which is the Commonwealth. While this conflict continues and while the Commonwealth continues to stand out against the actions of the Sri Lankan Government there can be no place for honouring them with the ability to hold that conference.

I think that there is a role for the Commonwealth. At this stage, that role might not involve suspending Sri Lanka from membership, but action must be taken and the Commonwealth definitely has a role to play.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned the option of action through the European Union. Of course, the Sri Lankan Government are incredibly sensitive about the GSP plus process. I know that because on my last visit, and in subsequent discussions with the high commissioner and others, I learned that the rag trade, if I can call it that, is extremely important to Sri Lanka. Access to the European Union through the GSP process is critical to the future of the economy of Sri Lanka. GSP does not relate only to trade; it relates to human rights standards as well. They are set as a precondition before GSP plus can be granted. The Sri Lankan Government are sensitive to that issue and I think that we ought to think of using those provisions at this time.

Simon Hughes: I want to reinforce the hon. Gentleman’s point about international co-operation. I hope he agrees that the Sri Lankan Government need to accept that friends—other world countries and other Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, India and the UK—have huge experience of sorting out problems in multiracial, multi-ethnic communities. We all used people from outside to help with that. It is not a threat, but a mechanism. We must send a message that says, “Do not be afraid of this. It is a way of resolving the problem that has dogged you since independence.”

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