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Mr. Love: We must send the message that we are friends of Sri Lanka but that we cannot stand back and watch as this crisis unfolds. We cannot do nothing. Yes, there is expertise within the UN, the EU and the
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Commonwealth, and that ought to be used. The hand of friendship is offered and we hope that the Sri Lankan Government will take it up.

The UN must be seen to be doing more. It is not just a case of, “Let’s have these discussions behind closed doors.” We have to say publicly, within the forums of the United Nations, that we as a Government and we as a Parliament stand out against what is happening in Sri Lanka and that we will do our utmost, publicly as well as privately, to stop it.

My final point, which was raised earlier, is that ending the humanitarian crisis is only the first move. If we do not want to find ourselves in another humanitarian crisis two, three or five years down the road, as has happened before in Sri Lanka, we need a viable peace process. The first thing that we need is a ceasefire, and one now would enhance the prospect of a proper peace process. The process itself is incredibly important and I think that our experience in Northern Ireland has a great deal to offer on how that process should be carried out. Most importantly, the peace process must have international support. Britain, India, the United States and the United Nations must be entirely behind it, and should ensure that it encapsulates all the populations in Sri Lanka and all the different political trends.

There are moderate Tamils as well as Tamils who support the LTTE: the opinion held by the Muslim community is very different from other views, and there is a range of political opinion even in the Sinhala community. All that has to be taken on board, but if we can bring those people together, there is a real prospect for peace.

6.40 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): May I start by thanking every right hon. and hon. Member who has contributed to this truly great debate? It has highlighted what I think is common cause across this House—that there should be peace and justice in Sri Lanka for all the people of that troubled island. The debate has been about trying to make sure that we help facilitate our Government in their efforts to do everything that they can to make that a reality. That can happen only through international action of the sort described by so many hon. Members in their speeches this evening.

Our purpose has been merely to bring the matter before the House today. We do not intend to seek a Division at the end of the debate, as we want to get the House to speak with one voice on this matter. That is why we drafted the motion as we did. We tried to set out the issues in plain language, in a motion that was direct and to the point and which addressed the concerns of the people of Sri Lanka. Those concerns are shared by many of our constituents, and they have represented them powerfully to us over many years, months and weeks, as the situation has worsened in that country.

We need to make it clear to the Sri Lankan Government that a ceasefire is absolutely essential, and that it must happen now. We have to make it clear to the LTTE that it must not stand in the way of anyone seeking to escape from the absolute nightmare that people are currently living in. We must also emphasise that there can be no solution of a military nature to the conflict in Sri Lanka. In the end, military action simply sows the seeds of bitterness and ensures that there can be no reconciliation whatsoever in that country.

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The Sri Lankan Government may be able to win a war on the battlefields, but they will not be able to win in the end. Every shell fired, every bomb dropped and every rocket launched simply causes the last shreds of international support and goodwill that the Sri Lankan Government ever had to be lost. That is why the ceasefire is essential—a point made time and again by hon. Members from all parties across the Chamber.

However, access is also essential—for relief organisations, as many hon. Members have argued so powerfully, and for human rights organisations and the international media. The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) was right to highlight that part of our motion. There is an urgent need for the international media not just to arrive in Sri Lanka and report on the carnage, but to stay and report on the process that builds peace in the future. That must be essential, not least in the light of the Sri Lankan Government’s reputation for suppressing their own media and access for media from other countries. I believe that only two countries in the whole globe have worse records when it comes to ensuring access for the media.

Day by day, the humanitarian crisis has worsened. As the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) made clear in her speech, what is unfolding is not just a crisis but an absolute catastrophe. The Minister noted in her opening remarks that 50,000 Tamil civilians are trapped in just 5 square miles. They are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea by an army set on a military objective that has no regard for the civilians in its sights. Those civilians are under fire, and they are sitting targets; it is no wonder, then, that so many of them are coming out injured, or that so many are dying.

The ones who escape face the prospect of the welfare camps, which are little more than concentration camps. Given the history of the Sri Lankan Government’s intent not to settle people afterwards, what is the future for those who eventually wind up in those camps? There must be free and unfettered access to the camps, both for them and for the relief and human rights organisations as well. We need food and medicine, and we need human rights to be respected. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) was absolutely right to raise concerns about the growing numbers of people who are said to be disappearing from the camps.

Simon Hughes: I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that the real fear is that at the end of whatever is happening now, people will not be allowed home to their villages, their fishing and their communities. The fear is that there will be some “reorganisation” of north-east Sri Lanka. Those people must also be allowed to go home—to go to where they came from.

Mr. Burstow: That point is absolutely central. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) acknowledged, in opening the debate, the leadership that the Prime Minister has given, and the leadership that the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) has shown in his work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. We wish him Godspeed on the journey that he is to make with other hon. Members in the cross-party delegation. We hope that it achieves its objectives.

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If one talks to Tamils in Parliament square, either today or on any other day on which they are there demonstrating, and one will determine the anger and frustration at the slowness with which the international community is moving on the issue. So how can it be right, as has been mentioned in the debate, that the International Monetary Fund is considering a loan of £1.9 billion to Sri Lanka? I hope that when the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), winds up the debate, he will tell the House that any such loan will, at the very least, have preconditions placed on it to do with securing unfettered access for the UN and other agencies that need to go about their work on behalf of the common good.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton also asked about genocide, and asked the Government to seek a legal opinion. As a signatory to the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, surely the Government should do just that. I hope that the Minister can give us a positive response on that point.

Barry Gardiner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burstow: I really cannot, because I want to give the Minister at least 10 minutes to respond to the debate. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), referred in her speech to the Commonwealth ministerial action group, and to the fact that she raised the issue with it, which is welcome. Cannot the Government go further and ensure that the issue is an item on the group’s agenda, and commission the Commonwealth to undertake human rights reports and an analysis of the situation?

The right hon. Member for Enfield, North, made an important point about the humanitarian crisis. She raised the question of how the issue could be brought forward at the United Nations, given the obstacle of China and Russia. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for International Development will respond to the novel reading of the rules that the right hon. Lady offers, and that it might provide a creative way of getting matters debated at the UN. In our motion, the Government are urged

I hope that the House can say that clearly to everyone here tonight, and I hope that the Minister can make that clear, too.

The debate has been not about dividing the House, but about unity of purpose, and that purpose is clear. We need to make it clear to the Sri Lankan Government that we must have a ceasefire and a process of genuine political dialogue that delivers the peace and justice that every person on the island of Sri Lanka deserves. That is what the debate is about. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to the questions that I have posed.

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6.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): First, I would like to thank colleagues from across the House for their thoughtful and powerful contributions to this timely and important debate. I am glad to hear that we are to unite behind one motion, so that the sentiments that have been expressed by Members in all parts of the House will ring out loud and clear from this Chamber. I will use my remarks to address some of the issues that have been raised, and to restate the severity of the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. I should also like to reassure the House and the Tamil diaspora in the UK that we are sparing no effort to bring relief to those affected, and are working with the international community to push all parties to find a long-term, sustainable solution to the conflict.

However, as several speakers have pointed out, including the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), the suffering of the people of Sri Lanka will not end with the fall of the remaining strongholds of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. We and the international community have continued to make it clear that there can be no military solution, and we have called time and again for a ceasefire. As I discussed with the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), lasting peace in Sri Lanka will come about only through a fully inclusive political process that takes into account the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lanka’s communities—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslim.

I should like to put on the record the Government’s response to concerns expressed in the debate about genocide. We will call for an early investigation as to whether crimes have been committed against civilians.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the Minister for giving the House that assurance. May I confirm that we will not divide on our motion, but will accept and support the Government’s amendment, because of the Minister’s statement about ensuring that there will be an early investigation of war crimes, and because the Government amendment is clear on the ceasefire demand, and because our aim is to unite the House tonight?

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which are on the record, and will be noted not only in the Chamber but right across the world.

Barry Gardiner: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Foster: I should like to make a little more progress, as there are issues that I need to address.

I was in the north of Sri Lanka only two days ago, and I saw for myself the conditions in which some of the 180,000 displaced people are living in the camps that have been set up around Vavuniya. About 113 of them have arrived in the past 10 days, and they are exhausted and traumatised. Many of them have travelled for two days without any food or water to reach the camps. While I was there, I met several people who described to me the terrible conditions in the area from which they had come, and they expressed genuine hope and desire that one day soon they would be able to return to their homes and be reunited with their families.

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Many thousands of civilians remain trapped in the conflict zone—the exact number is unknown—living in constant fear for their lives, in the most basic conditions. The conditions on that tiny strip of land, less than 5 square miles in size, were described by people on the ground as “absolute chaos and mayhem”. Civilians are trapped in constant fighting, and throughout the area, every humanitarian need remains unmet. The situation is deteriorating rapidly. Furthermore, there is repeated evidence that the LTTE is forcibly recruiting civilians, including children, to fight, as well as using lethal force to stop them escaping the conflict zone. The House will agree that such behaviour is utterly unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

There is almost no international presence in the conflict zone. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the only international humanitarian agency that has been able to operate in LTTE-controlled territory. Since September, it has evacuated 11,500 casualties and their carers by sea in difficult circumstances and at considerable risk to its own staff and volunteers. There are plans to evacuate a further 1,500 people in the coming days. While I was in Sri Lanka on the Government’s behalf, I paid tribute to them and all those involved in providing humanitarian support in the region. DFID will continue to provide financial support to the ICRC to enable it to continue its life-saving work.

Another rapidly growing humanitarian case load consists of the internally displaced persons who have managed to escape the conflict, and are held in camps. Once they arrive, civilians are held under military control, with freedom of movement within, but not outside, the camps. Although humanitarian agencies have been working hard to provide for the needs of those people, the Sri Lankan Government were not fully prepared for the most recent influx, and there remain huge unmet needs for shelter, water, food and medical assistance.

While we welcome the Sri Lankan Government’s efforts to improve living conditions in the camps over the past few days, there is no room for complacency, and it is clear that much more needs to be done to ensure that all basic needs are met. The camps are far from ideal, but in the words of the civilians I met on Monday, they offer safer and better conditions than they experienced in the conflict zone. However, I have to put it on the record that the restrictions placed on access for humanitarian agencies by the Sri Lankan Government has meant that the response has fallen short of what is needed. The international agencies are ready to respond, but continued restrictions on personnel and supply chains are causing further unnecessary suffering. We have consistently lobbied the Sri Lankan Government to allow full and unrestricted access for humanitarian agencies, and we will continue to do so.

Specifically on access, we are calling for an immediate humanitarian pause in hostilities to stop the terrible daily suffering and loss of life, and to facilitate the safe and dignified exit of all civilians from the conflict zone; the immediate re-starting of food and other relief shipments, especially medical supplies, to those trapped in the conflict area; greatly increased UN and international presence in the conflict area; a continuous and permanent international presence at both the Omantai and Killinochchi screening points to ensure protection for those IDPs who have escaped; unhindered access to IDP camps in Government-controlled areas for NGOs, the UN and
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donors, and an immediate lifting of restrictions on personnel and supplies; and for the Government of Sri Lanka to uphold international principles of internal displacement at screening sites and in camps.

Barry Gardiner: Before my hon. Friend concludes his remarks, will he pay tribute to those in Parliament square who have been bringing the crisis to our attention, and particularly to the young man, Parameswaran, who has been on hunger strike? Does he agree that the unity in the House is a fitting tribute to what has been achieved and that it should now result in the end of that hunger strike?

Mr. Foster: The House will speak today loudly and clearly with a single voice, but I saw too much suffering and misery on my visit to Sri Lanka and the camps to allow me to wish for any further suffering by Tamil people here in the United Kingdom.

In addition to the access requirements that we have been calling on the Government of Sri Lanka to provide, it is essential that they live up to their own commitment to allow 80 per cent. of the IDPs to return to their homes by the end of the year. It is important that those camps are temporary. The humanitarian community should focus only on emergency assistance until safe and sustainable returns are possible. We as a Government stand ready to support in practical ways the early resettlement of civilians.

The UK has taken a range of practical actions to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the conflict. Since September last year, DFID has allocated £7.5 million of humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka. This money has been used to support the work of agencies best able to provide direct assistance on the ground. I repeat the assurance given by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that all UK funding that has been provided goes directly to neutral and impartial agencies to save lives and reduce suffering.

We have in place in Colombo an expert humanitarian adviser, who is able to steer the humanitarian response in close co-operation with other key donors there. I can announce today a further allocation of £550,000 to United Nations Operations to provide emergency shelters for 1,400 households, together with water and sanitation provision for at least 11,500 IDPs. This leaves us with about £2.6 million on hand to respond rapidly to developing needs on the ground.

In conclusion, the United Kingdom remains committed to supporting progress towards a lasting peace in Sri Lanka. We recognise that there can be no military solution to the conflict, and that a sustainable peace will be reached only when all sides take it upon themselves to lay down their arms and engage in constructive dialogue. The UK will continue to work with international partners to convince the Government of Sri Lanka to step up their efforts to pursue such a practical political process.

In the meantime we will work to avert the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding. We will continue to support efforts to bring relief to those affected by the conflict, and together with the international community, we will continue to urge all sides to live up to their commitments under international humanitarian law that is designed to protect civilians and allow safe passage out of the conflict zone.

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Question (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question, put and negatived.

Question (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


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