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The civilians to whom I have referred are in constant fear for their lives; they also desperately need food, drinking water and medicines. The regular operation of
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the International Committee of the Red Cross ship, which makes deliveries and evacuates the wounded, depends fundamentally on security. That is another reason why the Sri Lankan Government must uphold their commitment to stop using heavy weapons.

The second crisis revolves around the conditions for civilians who manage to escape the fighting. We welcome the fact that more than 190,000 civilians, including more than 120,000 during the past four weeks, have been able to escape it and are now registered in the camps for internally displaced persons. The ability of the relevant agencies depends on the full co-operation of the Sri Lankan Government. Bluntly, that has not been forthcoming.

Owing to those concerns and others, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and French Foreign Minister Kouchner visited Sri Lanka on 29 April. They made it clear to the President and Foreign Minister that the protection of civilians must be paramount and that the conflict must end. Since their visit, and the welcome visit made by the cross-party group of MPs, made up of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne)—he sends his apologies for not being here today; he is speaking elsewhere—about the Sri Lankan crisis the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Buckingham (John Bercow), there has been some improvement in the issuing of visas to the staff of the humanitarian agencies and in those agencies’ ability to move around the country.

However, more needs to be done. We will continue to press for improved access for the humanitarian agencies to the internally displaced persons and for adequate supplies of food, water and medicines to reach those in need. We are also calling on the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that the screening of IDPs is carried out in a fully transparent way that respects human rights and the dignity of those involved.

The Sri Lankan Government also need to give free access to the international media. Let me be clear: what is needed is greater access and transparency, not less. As I have said in this place before, hon. Members across parties have been criticised and attacked by the Sri Lankan high commission for speaking out and expressing their legitimate concerns about the actions of the Sri Lankan Government. Such criticism of MPs who are doing their jobs legitimately on behalf of their constituents is wrong and unacceptable.

As hon. Members will know, the Government have led in mobilising international pressure to bring about an improvement on the ground. In January, the Prime Minister was the first world leader to call for a ceasefire, and he has since repeated that call directly to President Rajapaksa. The Foreign Secretary has made the same call in his numerous contacts with the Sri Lankan President and Foreign Minister, in public statements and in concert with others, notably the United States and France.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Bill Rammell: One last time.


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Mr. Love: The Indian elections are concluding on Saturday, and we need the new Indian Government to speak out on this matter. Not only that, but both Governments must speak out clearly in condemnation of countries such as China and Russia, which are impeding the progress of the United Nations attempt to resolve the dispute.

Bill Rammell: The issue of the Indian Government is at the fore of our concerns. Concerted international pressure is of paramount importance.

In recognition of the importance of internationalising the issue, we have led the calls of the G8 for an end to the conflict and the calls of EU Ministers for a ceasefire. Two days ago, an EU troika visited Sri Lanka, and the country will feature prominently at next week’s meeting of EU Foreign Ministers. We have also welcomed the engagement of the United Nations, including the personal involvement of the Secretary-General, with whom the Foreign Secretary has discussed Sri Lanka several times. My right hon. Friend has welcomed the Secretary-General’s statements and made it clear that we fully support the visits to Sri Lanka made by his representatives, including Sir John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and Walter K√§lin, the Under-Secretary-General with responsibility for internally displaced persons. In the face of some opposition from others, we have also supported their subsequent briefings to members of the Security Council.

As the Foreign Secretary made clear in New York on Monday, we strongly believe that the civilian situation in Sri Lanka merits the attention of the United Nations at all levels, including formal discussions by the Security Council. We welcome the important step taken by the Security Council yesterday in issuing its first official written statement on the worsening humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka. While he was at the UN, the Foreign Secretary had direct meetings with other members of the Security Council, UN officials and non-governmental organisations, to discuss Sri Lanka.

Despite opposition from some other members of the Security Council, we will continue to explore how to keep the Security Council actively engaged. That is the right thing to do; it will ensure that the spotlight of international attention remains focused on Sri Lanka and that the Sri Lankan Government can have no doubts about the international community’s concerns. After his visit to the UN, the Foreign Secretary went to Washington, where he discussed Sri Lanka with Secretary of State Clinton and others in the Administration. We welcome President Obama’s strong statement last night, which underlined again the force of international concern.

In conclusion, I should say that for the past 25 years the conflict has inflicted dreadful damage on Sri Lanka and its citizens. The fighting now has to stop and the lives of civilians have to be safeguarded. There can be no military solution to the conflict; lasting peace can come about only through an inclusive process that takes fully into account the legitimate aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. How the conflict ends will have a direct bearing on the prospects for longer-term peace in the country. The Sri Lankan Government must win the peace as well as the war, and that will be the continuing focus of this Government’s activity, together with international partners, in the coming days and weeks.


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12.47 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): This is the latest in a series of debates in the House about the worsening situation in Sri Lanka. I say straight away that what the Minister said about the fate of the refugees in the so-called no-fire zone beggars imagination. That so many people should be attempting to live in such a small area—let alone under fire—is absolutely horrific. We should bear that in mind.

The Conservative party has supported the Government’s initiatives to help resolve the fighting. I commend the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), who told me last night that he would be unable to be here. I also commend the other colleagues on their recent visit to Sri Lanka and the information that they gathered; no doubt some of them hope to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to update the House.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman’s support for UK Tamils and the British Government extend to a Member from his own party, who only on Monday suggested that water cannon be used against the Tamil demonstrators in Parliament square?

Mr. Simpson: All hon. Members must be responsible for their individual thoughts; I certainly do not support what was said at all. I say with great respect to the hon. Lady that, on the whole, there is amazing consensus on both sides of the House on this issue. Now is not the time to raise such issues; I have made the Conservative Front-Bench position perfectly clear in all the debates. Indeed, in a few minutes I shall comment on what has happened in respect of the demonstration.

Since we last debated this issue, the situation has got demonstrably worse for civilians in the no-fire zone. The Sri Lankan Government had made a commitment not to use heavy weapons, but the recent bombardment of the last hospital appears to show that that commitment has been breached.

As I am sure that hon. Members will recognise, the use of heavy weapons includes close air support, artillery and mortars. In a battle zone, the use of high-velocity firearms—self-loading rifles and pistols—is bad enough, let alone artillery fire. I press the Minister to say what independent evidence there is to place in front of the Sri Lankan Government, who appear to be in denial. I recognise that in a war zone, as this is, it is possible to make mistakes; we have seen that on occasions involving NATO forces in Afghanistan. However, I think that most people believe that this was a clear breach by the Sri Lankan Government, who should be told that not only the military commanders but the political leaders may well be held to account, as they should be, in the international court of opinion and, indeed, international law.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman emphasised the small parameters within which refugees are located. Surely it is absolutely reckless, and leads towards allegations of war crimes, to use those sorts of weapons in such a small area, where it is inevitable that innocents will be injured, maimed and killed.


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Mr. Simpson: It is not only morally wrong, but stupid. If one has surrounded an area, there is a fair chance that if one starts lobbing artillery shells around one will get overshooting and might kill and injure some of one’s own troops. Without being facetious, it is, as Talleyrand might have said, more than a crime—it is a mistake. Sadly, it is one of many mistakes that the Sri Lankan Government have made.

As the Minister said, in excess of 140,000 civilians are now in IDP camps. Although the conditions in those camps are not as bad as in some that hon. Members have visited in other parts of the world, such as Darfur, they are not good, and they are not open to proper international inspection or to the media. What evidence do the Government have as regards the accusation made by several people who have had access to the camps that the Sri Lankan Government are weeding out young Tamils, not only directly because they are thought to have been active on the military side, but because they are young men, and they have gone into a category that I can only call “the disappeared”? Are we any closer to being able to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to respond to the request by the United Nations, the UK Government and other Governments for greater access to the camps?

On the demonstration in Parliament square by the British Tamil community, I would like to support the Minister’s comments. I think, on the whole, that although they have inconvenienced large parts of London, they have been within the natural bounds of such demonstrations. Given that many of them have relatives who have been killed, injured or wounded, or are under threat of all three, there is a natural emotion there.

Following the demonstrations, the debates that we have had in this House, and the formal requests made by the Government to the Sri Lankan Government, is there any evidence that the Sri Lankan Government have in any way moderated any of their policies? I said in our last debate, although I did not wish to be a Jonah, that I feared that they are not open to any persuasion at all. Indeed, I get the impression from colleagues who have recently returned from Sri Lanka that, if anything, they become even more intransigent in having these legitimate points put to them—although that is not a reason for us not to do it. The House should recognise—this is not to undermine the activities that have been undertaken—that, sadly, there seems to be no evidence that the Sri Lankan Government are prepared to moderate their policies. I suspect that that is because they still believe that in a matter of days or weeks they will have gained a military victory over the LTTE. However, as the Minister and other hon. Members have said, they will win the narrow military war but lose the peace; this will rebound on them.

Mr. Love: Should it not also be incumbent on Government, this Parliament and the international community to communicate to the Sri Lankan Government that even when the conflict is over, people will be held to account for what happened during it?

Mr. Simpson: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am pleased that the Minister stated formally at the Dispatch Box that the Government have support for potential war crimes investigations. The Sri Lankan Government will obviously have to live with that. I
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would add that members of the LTTE, who are using civilians in the war zone and executing people who want to leave, also face the prospect of international prosecution.

What further effective pressure can we bring to bear in the immediate future on the Sri Lankan Government and, interestingly, on the LTTE? Does any country or organisation have any influence over the LTTE?

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Does my hon. Friend think that a representation to the Indian Government following the result of the general election in India will result in their possibly being able to exercise more influence on the Sri Lankan Government?

Mr. Simpson: I recognise that this is a matter of judgment for our Government, but I would like to think that, with the general election effectively over, there may be an opportunity for the British Government to make representations to the Indian Government, who, as my hon. Friend rightly said, may be able to have some influence on the situation.

The Minister referred to the welcome news that, crab-like, the United Nations Security Council has moved from a position whereby several members were effectively saying that what was going on in Sri Lanka was an internal matter to a hardening up of that position. Do the Government intend to have any further discussions or conversations with individual members of the Security Council? On the question of whether we should put down a resolution, I accept that that is, again, a matter of judgment. On balance, I feel that if we were to put down a resolution knowing that it would be vetoed, that might look good in terms of publicising a negative view of one or other members of the Security Council. My view at this moment is that the Sri Lankan Government would regard that as a great plus and it would make them even more intransigent, but I accept that circumstances may change.

In broad terms, Conservative Members still actively support the Government’s policy on this. We recognise that the British Tamil community are suffering greatly emotionally. Although all we can do in this House is debate the situation, we would still like to think that we are, in many respects, giving support to the people who have relatives out there suffering. I hope that the Sri Lankan Government will, little by little, recognise that they are isolated internationally and that, as a consequence of the latest United Nations resolution, they may be isolated even further.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Mr. Speaker had imposed an eight-minute time limit on Back-Bench contributions, but since then further Members have indicated a wish to contribute to the debate. I therefore regret to say that in order to try to accommodate everyone, I will reduce Back-Benchers’ speaking time to six minutes.

12.59 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I thank the Minister for his opening speech, which accurately described the situation and what needs to be done. The
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efforts of the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and others have been leading the international community. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that we urge him to do even more; nevertheless, he and his colleagues deserve credit for what they have done.

I also thank the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), whose remarks were also helpful. It is important that we make this a cross-party matter as much as possible, because this is such a serious situation. Tens of thousands of civilians are facing shelling and the prospect of being victims in a bloodbath, or of being starved to death or dying from an epidemic. We have to come together to send the loudest possible signal that the Sri Lankan Government have to act like a proper, democratic Government and abide by the rule of law.

The problem, of course, is that the Sri Lankan Government have not been listening. Despite all the efforts of the Foreign Secretary, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, who have made their position clear, President Rajapaksa has not been listening. So we have to work out what else we can do to prevent this human catastrophe and get them to listen.

In his intervention, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said the two key things that we have to stress time and again to the Sri Lankan Government, and it was good that the Minister confirmed that that was precisely what the Government have been doing. We must make it clear to the Sri Lankan Government that if they do not behave properly and avoid this human catastrophe, they will be isolated, and that we will work the hardest to isolate them both as a Government and as individuals. On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, we must also make it clear that we will hold them to account. They have to hear that message from everybody.

It would be a lot better if the whole world—the United Nations—were coming together to make that statement. We have had that debate, and to be honest I have probably shifted my position. We probably should not table a resolution until we know that it is not going to be vetoed. However, I should like to know—I do not know whether the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), will feel free to answer this when he responds to the debate—what pressure we are putting on China in particular. The more I have examined the matter, the more I have found that it is the Chinese who are the real block, although they were hiding behind the Russians earlier. The Chinese have a massive vested interest because, as I said in a previous debate, China is now the biggest donor of aid to Sri Lanka, and while India and western Governments have refused to sell weapons to the Colombo Government, it has been the Chinese who have been supplying those weapons.


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