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The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that there are continued reports about the use of heavy weaponry since Monday, when the first announcement was made by the Government of Sri Lanka that heavy weaponry would not be used. I deliberately did not refer to those reports in my statement, because at this stage they are only reports and it is very important that we get to the bottom of the facts. However, I am absolutely clear that the international community has been assuredvery clearly and in definitive termsby Sri Lankas President and Defence Secretary and others that heavy munitions as well as aerial and naval bombardments will not be used. In that context, credible evidence that they have
been used would have very serious repercussions for the relationship between Sri Lanka and the rest of the world.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the end of heavy combat operations meant that civilians in the conflict zone were somehow safe. I cannot give him that assurance but, as he intimated, the Sri Lankan Governments efforts to capture the leadership of the LTTE will continue, with the result that the danger of civilians being caught in crossfire will remain.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the aid agencies. There was a delivery on Monday, and a further one yesterday. A 1,000-tonne ICRC vessel is waiting to make another delivery, but the way that shipments are unloaded means that that takes three or four days. The fact that there is not the security to allow that to happen has been a major focus for us. I know that the House will have seen that the ICRC has put out a very strong statement today setting out its concern about the situation, and that tallies with what I have reported this morning.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to Secretary-General Ban ki-Moons team, which was the product of talks that his chief of staff, Mr. Nambiar, held with the Sri Lankan Government nearly two weeks ago. It was reported to the UN Security Council that a team would be allowed into the conflict zone to assess the humanitarian needs. In addition, however, and rather separately from what the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, the team would try to make provision for civilians to leave. That mission is now being denied by the Sri Lankan Government, and in fact they are saying that there never was any agreement for a UN Secretary-General mission to go to the area.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there was any rational explanation for Sri Lankas rejection of that assistance. The Sri Lankan Government have said that the team would not be safe in the conflict zone, but it is obviously a source of great concern that something could be reported to the UN Security Council as an agreement but then not followed through. The UN Secretary-Generals determination last Thursday after I spoke to him to dispatch the team to Colombo shows that the UN sees no practical obstacles to its reaching the area.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the return of 80 per cent. of people in IDP camps to their places of origin by December, and I think that the most important thing is to get a proper schedule. The main practical obstacle is the number of mines that exist in the country. The Sri Lankan Government want help with demining, but they must make sure that there is proper access if that help is to be forthcoming.
The right hon. Gentleman was right to mention the humanitarian problems in Sri Lanka as a whole, and that is a problem to which we have referred in written and oral statements to the House before. The killing of journalists is notable among those problems, and all friends of Sri Lanka will be concerned to ensure that its democratic heritage is upheld, because this is a time when Sri Lanka needs its democracy more than ever.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the involvement of the UN. He will know that Britain, France and the US raised the issue at the UN last week, under any other business. We have not yet been able to get it on to the formal agenda of the UN. The blockage does not
come only from the two countries that he has mentioned, but obviously the New York special session on the middle east on Monday week will be an opportunity at least to try to take the agenda forward.
We are duty bound to look extremely carefully at the situation on the ground should any plan be presented to the IMF board. It is a basic tenet of the work of the IMF that any money should be put to good use, and that requires taking a close look at the situation on the ground, which is what we will do.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that Members of this House as well as the Government have approached the Commonwealth Secretary-General about Sri Lanka. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, the prospects of progress in that sphere are rather limited by the make-up of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, and its practice of taking action only against countries that suspend their own democracy.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about Sri Lankas need for allies in the future. That is evident from the scale of the humanitarian crisis with which it has to deal. Certainly my message and that of Foreign Minister Kouchner to President Rajapaksa yesterday was that Sri Lanka needed its friends and the international community, but the only way to keep them was to live up to the standards expected of a democratic Government.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I too congratulate my right hon. Friend on undertaking this initiative along with the French Foreign Secretary. It shows the priority given by the UK and French Governments to achieving a ceasefire. I refer my right hon. Friend to his letter to Members yesterday. He outlined three priorities, the first of which was to bring the conflict to an end. We all recognise that that is the most important initiative if we are to undertake the two further priorities that he outlined. My right hon. Friend said that he would be going to the UN and meeting the American Secretary of State over the weekend. Can he outline some of the discussions that he is likely to have and what initiatives he will put to them to ensure that we achieve that objective at the earliest possible time?
David Miliband: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has a long-standing interest in this issue. The discussions will focus on the items that we all agree are essentialthe humanitarian crisis and how to get access for the UN agencies and their aid, but also how to fashion a halt to the fighting, and then in the longer term to ensure that some kind of political process is developed to respect all Sri Lankas minorities. I will discuss that with Secretary Clinton tonight.
Last night when I met many from the diplomatic community, I found one of the remarkable things was that high commissioners and ambassadors from countries around the world wanted to talk about how they could join the coalition for change in Sri Lanka. There is a real sense in the international community that there needs to be a coherent and focused engagement. When I spoke to Foreign Minister Bildt this morning on his way to Washington, he was clear that he wanted to remain engaged despite the denial of a visa to him.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD):
May I start by wholeheartedly thanking the Foreign Secretary for making his trip to Sri Lanka and reporting
back to the House immediately on his return? He has clearly read at least some of the debate that we had in the Chamber yesterday, and I hope that he finds the unity that we achieved and the tributes paid to him in his absence a small reward for his efforts. However, I also know that the rewards that he and all of us really seek are a ceasefire, humanitarian assistance and a settlement that brings peace and justice to all in the island of Sri Lanka.
The Foreign Secretary said in his statement that he was promised intensive follow-up by the Sri Lankan Government. Can he say what that actually means in terms of the timetable for enabling humanitarian assistance to get through, for media access and for the access of UN monitors, which is so important? He may also have noted the calls yesterday in the House for a major increase in diplomatic pressure on the political and military leaders on all sides, on top of what he is already doing, in order to secure a ceasefire. For example, surely we should be using the proposed IMF loan as leverage, telling the Sri Lankan Government that unless they listen to the reasonable humanitarian requests of the international community, that loan will not be forthcoming. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with other Governments, especially Japans, about producing a package of financial sanctions, such as an end to non-emergency development aid, that will be imposed on the Government of Sri Lanka if they fail to listen to the humanitarian requests?
Can the Foreign Secretary confirm a pledge that the Government made in the House yesterday that they support an early investigation into all allegations of war crimes and crimes against international humanitarian law? Has that message been conveyed to both sides? If not, will he ensure that all leaders in the conflict are reminded directly that there can be consequences, including personal consequences, to their actions?
The right hon. Gentleman will also know it has been alleged that what is happening in Sri Lanka amounts to genocide. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office yet sought legal advice on whether that is what might be happening? If not, can he now request that such advice is sought?
Can the Foreign Secretary make special arrangements for all Members of the House, from all parties, who have worked so hard on this issue to be fully briefed by the FCO over the next few crucial days, weeks and months so that we can provide as much information as possible to our constituents who have families and friends who are suffering in Sri Lanka?
I am grateful for the interest that the hon. Gentleman has taken in this issue and for the spirit of unity that he has sought to help to develop. I think that that can be sustained. The timetable for the intensive work started this morning. Sri Lankan time is four and a half hours ahead of us, but as I left the Foreign Minister last night in Colombo, he was clear that he would be attending to this as a matter of urgency. He had cancelled various trips and was focusing on it. We will continue to engage. Meetings are planned by people in the country, and I will be making sure that they happen. Some of them are still to be scheduled, but time is of the essence. That is why there is a sense of real
urgency about this work and why the bold statement by the ICRC today is further testimony to the need for urgent action.
As I said in response to an earlier question, any IMF programme needs to be credibly implemented. That depends on the situation on the ground. We will look carefully and with due diligence at any proposals by the IMF authorities to take forward the suggestion of the Government of Sri Lanka that they want an IMF loan.
I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Japan on Tuesday morning. Obviously, Japan is an important player; it is a co-chair as well as a generous donor. In all the work that we do, we shall be concerned to avoid harm to the citizens of Sri Lanka of any community and to make sure that they do not lose out but, in saying that Sri Lanka needs its friends, it is implicit that it must uphold the standards of behaviour expected by its friends. I believe that that is important.
I stand four-square behind what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said last night at the close of the debate. Our standing position is that any allegations of war crimes by any side in any conflict need to be urgently, independently and credibly investigated, and that remains the case in this conflict. As it happens, the focus of the aid agencies yesterday morning, and of the UN, is on the immediate issues, for obvious reasons that I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands, but I am happy to reaffirm the position of the Government on war crimes.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): A British Foreign Secretary must be incredibly busy. I would like to just say to my right hon. Friend how proud I am of him for changing his diary and travelling thousands of miles in search of peace. The whole House is grateful for what he has done.
Echoing the sentiments of the shadow Foreign Secretary and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), I suggest that the IMF loan is important. In his conversation with Hillary Clinton this evening, I hope that my right hon. Friend will convey to her the feelings of the whole House on the matter. In all his conversations and the huge efforts that he is making, please will he not forget the Indian Government? It is vital that we keep in touch with the Foreign Minister of India. I know that India is in the middle of elections, but it has a crucial role to play in ensuring that there is peace in this troubled island. I thank my right hon. Friend again for all that he has done.
David Miliband: I am extremely grateful for the heartfelt thanks from my right hon. Friend although, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said, there will be no reward for any of us unless there is some alleviation of the suffering in Sri Lanka. I know that that is very much my right hon. Friends position as well because he has campaigned long and tirelessly on this issue.
I spoke to Foreign Minister Mukherjee last week, and although he is in the middle of the election campaign, he has given important priority to this issue. As my
right hon. Friend says, India is a vital player when it comes to change in Sri Lanka. Notwithstanding the challenges of the election campaign, I spoke to the Indian high commissioner in Colombo last night. He reiterated the Indian Governments concern, and I reiterated that I would soon be in touch again with Foreign Minister Mukherjee, becauseelection campaign, or no election campaignthis is obviously a matter of high concern to the Indian Government.
Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): May I join colleagues from both sides of the House in thanking the Foreign Secretary for what he is trying to achieve for peace? I have taken on board everything that he said about the Commonwealth committee, but has the time not come, as people are dying every day, to call for Sri Lankas suspension from the Commonwealth?
David Miliband: I totally understand the sense of frustration that the hon. Gentleman feels, given that the circumstances are indeed dire in Sri Lanka. As he knows, the Commonwealth has only ever suspended countries on the basis of the violation of its democratic norms, which are at the heart of the rather ironically titled Harare declarationirony is not really a strong enough word, but the House will know what I meanand that may be a good or a bad precedent, but that is the fact of how the Commonwealth works. Sri Lanka is one of the members of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, which works only by consensus, and that is why the secretary-general has appointed to the limits of what the Commonwealth can do in this area. Obviously, we have a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting coming up, but frankly that is too far away, given the immediate needs that exist, and that is why it is right that we pursue progress via other channels at the moment.
Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for making the trip that he has just made and for acting to protect innocent civilians in Sri Lanka. I hope that other leading politicians and statespeople around the world will see that as an example that it is important to stand up and be counted, and we are grateful that he has done that on behalf of the whole House.
My right hon. Friend referred to the statement of 27 April and the Government of Sri Lanka saying that they had ended combat operations. I wonder whether he could say a little bit more about whether we can have confidence in that, particularly given that we have not achieved a ceasefire.
May I press another point with my right hon. Friend? I am pleased that he is going to the UN shortly, but despite the difficulties of achieving a UN resolution for the reasons that we have discussed before, it is very important that we continue every diplomatic effort possible with all members of the Security Council to make it absolutely clear that if it is not possible to achieve a resolution because of the veto, the overwhelming majority of that councils members totally support such a resolution if achieving one is possible.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard on this issue. I wish that a large majority of the UN Security Council supported action on the issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun made the rather important point when I met him last week that, when he was in
New York last week, all the demonstrations happening there were outside the buildings of countries that supported UN action. I fear that that number is not very large and certainly not large enough, but she can be assured that I will continue to work with all countries around the world on the issue.
The first question that my right hon. Friend asked was about the commitment to end so-called combat operations, or heavy mortar fire and the use of naval and air power. What I and Foreign Minister Kouchner said to the President and what we repeated to the Foreign Minister was that there could be no greater word of honour placed by the President and Defence Secretary of a country to two visiting Foreign Ministers but that the use of such weaponry will end. That is why, given that the stakes are so high on that word being its bond, we ensure that we bottom out all reports before we comment on them. The consequences could not be more serious for a country to promise that it will not use heavy weaponry and then to do so. That is why all reports or rumours need to be investigated. Equally, it is incumbent on me to be careful before making accusations that are not wholly well founded and well researched.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): May I echo the words of thanks of other hon. Members to the Foreign Secretary and the comments made from both Front Benches that there is clearly fault on both sides in the dispute? The Foreign Secretary will be well aware that the humanitarian crisis for innocent Tamil civilians concerns the whole House. Although we take on board his comments that he was assured that the Sri Lankan Government had nothing to hide, given the blockages at the UN can he tell us what confidence he has that the Government of Sri Lanka will react to international pressure, particularly on the five points that he outlined and especially on the humanitarian visas given to outside organisations?
David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I will not start giving percentages, marks out of 10 or grades of confidence, but those five issues are much higher on the agenda today than they were on Tuesday, before Foreign Minister Kouchner and I went. Tragically, for some Tamil civilians it is too late. That should drive us forward, to ensure that no time is lost on following through on these issues. It is very important that we recognise that democratic Governments are held to higher standards than terrorist organisations. I made that point in my statement. It recurs in a number of parts of the world where democratic Governments may feel frustration at the limits that are imposed on them in how they conduct their operations, but those limits are imposed for very good reason: if we do not defend the values that we are meant to uphold in the way that we attack terrorism, we fall to standards that we should not even consider. The fact that the LTTE is preventing civilians from leaving the combat zone says everything that we need to know about where its interests lie, but it is vital that the Government of Sri Lanka rise above thatthey need to find a way that builds a peace as well as wins the war, and we are trying to work with them to achieve that.
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