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The initial problem was that when the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun asked people to tell their stories, the crowd drew around but the military were there. The first exchanges were extremely inhibited, with a brigadier interrupting an interpreter and challenging what that interpreter was saying. We got away and asked the military to stand back, which they did, and asked people about their experiences. Many of those
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people had escaped from the conflict zone at the point at which the Sri Lankan army had breached the bund that had been built around it. Something like 165,000 people were reputed to have walked out and been taken into the camps.

I can and should report what people said. They were grateful to the Sri Lankan army for giving them the opportunity to escape and were glad to be out of the conflict zone. In response to direct questions, they said they had not left earlier because the LTTE had basically said, “If you try to leave, you will be shot.” They had evidence of people who had tried and who had been shot at. That is an objective fact.

However, if that is the whole story, why not let the international community in, in the numbers that are necessary, to help to deliver the supplies that are not being fully provided? Why not give the media the opportunity that we had and let them in to see and hear those stories for themselves? That is the message to the Sri Lankan Government. They cannot issue denials and protestations while keeping the country closed and expect people not to believe the counter-argument. They have lost the propaganda war. The way to justify their behaviour is to open the country up to proper public scrutiny.

Simon Hughes: Were my right hon. Friend and his colleagues able to ask whether humanitarian aid—food, medical supplies and water—could be allowed into the conflict zone now, and what the Government’s objection was to that?

Malcolm Bruce: Of course, that is exactly the question we asked. Some of the supplies had been getting in. The fundamental problem, and the Under-Secretary may be able to confirm this, was that the agencies—the UN and others—experienced bureaucratic delays affecting, for example, what trucks they could take in and the visa processes. As a result, a variety of equipment and expertise was poised to go in, but not getting there. It is not true to say that nothing was there, but it was not arriving fast enough and not on the scale that was needed. Of course, it was not open to international scrutiny, which is the merit of what needs to be concluded.

Mr. Dismore: The right hon. Gentleman described the conditions in the camps, but there have been many accounts of young men—presumably considered to be LTTE suspects—being screened out from the camps even before they get there. Does he have any idea whether that is going on, and in particular what is happening to those young men and whether they are being taken away?

Malcolm Bruce: I am grateful for that intervention, because we asked that question. The local authorities conceded that several thousand people had been taken out of the camps to a nearby technical college where they were being screened and put through to rehabilitation. Apart from whatever that implies, the problem is that people were not given access or information about what was happening, which was causing more distress. To be honest, some people understood the motivations, but were not satisfied because they could not get in touch with others. One woman was in tears: she had a phone number but no access. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Central tried to facilitate that communication.

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Those are the kinds of things that international agencies can help to achieve and support. The issue one has to consider is that if there is to be a long-term future for Sri Lanka as a successful democratic country, there must be proactive measures to integrate and provide support and rights for every member of the community. A passing observation was that in the north the elements of the police force and army that were visible were entirely Singhalese. There was no significant Tamil representation.

Those are the long-term solutions which should be sought, and which we wanted to discuss constructively with the Sri Lankan Government. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun has made it clear that the delegation would be willing to revisit Sri Lanka and engage in such discussions if the Sri Lankan Government were willing for that to happen. But for those who have been engaged in the debate and the conflict for decades, there is a huge legacy of bad faith and bad treatment that prevents the Sri Lankan Government’s assertions about their conduct and stance from being credible.

The message is simple. If the Sri Lankan Government do not want to end up as a pariah, isolated from the international community, the answer is “Let the international community in, let the observers in, let the media in, stand by your claims in public, and then you might be rehabilitated. Your refusal to take such action will only lead people to draw the obvious conclusions that you so deeply resent.”

1.31 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): The Sri Lankan Government believe that we will not do anything. They believe that Governments around the world make statements but are not prepared to back them up. They believe that the United Nations will talk and not pass a resolution. They believe that the Commonwealth will talk and not suspend them, and may even allow them to hold a Commonwealth conference when it perceives all this as being over in 2011. They are not looking for our good opinion. They are not looking for all of us to be united. They want to be secure in the knowledge that we are happy to make statements and do nothing. A bully does not stop because you ask him to; a bully stops because you force him to.

We are simply seeing hundreds and thousands of people dying, starving to death on our watch. We are looking at the failure of all the institutions that Members hold dear. What is the UN worth if it can see people doubly amputated on a beach and not pick them up and remove them? What is the point of a Commonwealth that does nothing about a country that is prepared to bomb its own people and then insult everyone’s intelligence by suggesting it is not doing that?

The Minister may think there is not enough evidence to prove that the Sri Lankan Government are currently bombing their own people, and he may be the only person in the world who thinks that, because we all know that it is happening. The newspapers know it is happening, and the UN knows it is happening. The point is, what are we going to do about it?

The Sri Lankan Government believe they will get their loan from the International Monetary Fund, and who here is prepared to say that when they start defaulting on their loans the IMF will not back down? They
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believe that nothing will happen, and we have to prove that something will. That means that if there are demonstrations outside, we must encourage the Tamil community to take the action that they feel they need to take. It means we must not suggest that it is a good idea to use water cannon on people, or that this constitutes an inconvenience and not a priority for us.

We have responsibilities as Members, but we also have responsibilities as consumers. Why is it that a company such as Marks and Spencer, one of the most respected companies in the country, can spend a fortune using Sri Lankan suppliers, and no one says anything? How many companies in this country happily use Sri Lanka, and no one knows? How many people have shares in those companies, while making statements against the Sri Lankan Government?

We have learned from our past international endeavours that it takes peoples and individuals to stand up to some of these mighty organisations, whether we are talking about Barclays bank in the case of apartheid or about any other company. We need to come together and, argue constructively, not only with the UN and the Commonwealth but with our own companies, as consumers, about what they are continuing to do. I hope we can do that in the coming weeks.

We have to ask what is the biggest single thing we can do to cause a shock to the Sri Lankan Government. Is there any point in Britain’s retaining an ambassador in Sri Lanka? What is that mission doing there? Is it saving anyone, is it protecting anyone, or it is giving succour to the Sri Lankan Government? I am absolutely confident that if the countries that have made the biggest statements—Britain, France or America—decided to remove their ambassadors, we would see change. The question is, how much do we care, and how much do we want to see change?

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The debate will end in less than half an hour. I ask Members, if they all want to contribute, to try to reduce the length of their contributions even further.

1.35 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who spoke with an integrity, passion and eloquence that will have been admired by Members on both sides of the House.

Like the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), I was a member of the five-person delegation to Sri Lanka that was led by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). I was pleased to be part of that, and did it on the basis that I had no previous Sri Lankan footprint. To my knowledge, I do not have a significant number of Tamils in my Buckingham constituency. What I do have is a passionate interest in international affairs, human rights and the need to avoid, or minimise, conflict. I want, very briefly, to say something abut the Sri Lankan Government, about the camps that we visited, and about the future for the country as a whole.

Let me be clear, like the right hon. Member for Gordon: the Government of Sri Lanka are still fundamentally in denial. They were given to ostentatious
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and bellicose denunciations of all and sundry who had dared to criticise them. They were extraordinarily rude, and inappropriately so, about the Foreign Secretary. They took umbrage at our raising critical evidence against them. For example, when I mentioned, during a meeting with the President, the UN’s satellite photography, which appeared to repudiate the notion that they had stuck to their 12 February commitment not to deploy heavy weaponry, the President’s response was both to complain bitterly about UN spying and to rant at me about adopting a neo-colonialist posture. The House will not be surprised to learn that I was not intimidated by the rant, or indeed impressed by it, but rant it nevertheless was, and it will not do. We are entitled to hold that Government to account.

We underlined the imperative of a ceasefire. We said that heavy weaponry must not be used. We said, “You cannot secure a military victory, and if you think you are behaving properly in the face of a considerable body of evidence to the contrary, glasnost must apply. Open up; let people witness what is taking place; allow the international aid agencies, and in particular the media, to inspect the territory and judge for themselves whether you are behaving properly.”

Let me next say something about the camps. We visited two zones of a camp called Menik Farm, which had been established only about a week earlier. Tents were more or less universally provided and everyone was housed, albeit in extremely spartan conditions. There was anecdotal evidence of a reasonable number of latrines and some evidence of a decent water supply, but much more needed to be done about sanitation.

I was horrified to be told by students receiving tuition in business studies and by their tutor—this was at 4 o’clock in the afternoon—that they had not had a single thing to eat in the course of the day. That is lamentable and unsatisfactory, and must be changed without delay.

What the right hon. Member for Gordon said was true. When we asked individuals in the camps, independently of each other and in the absence of any military personnel—whom we had told, in language that would not be acceptable in Parliament, that they needed to absent themselves from the scene—why they had not escaped from the conflict zone earlier, those people, to a man and a woman, volunteered that they had been prevented from doing so by the LTTE on pain of being shot dead, and that they knew of others who had been. The position needs to be put on the record: the LTTE is a pretty poisonous force. But we were not there to stand up for the LTTE. We were there to have discussions, to observe the situation for ourselves and to challenge the Government of Sri Lanka, and we make no apology for doing that.

The third point that I wish to make concerns the future. The Government of Sri Lanka are still obsessed with complaining about people waving banners and flags in Parliament square. We explained to them the principle and practice of the operational independence of the police. I remember saying to Foreign Minister Bogollagama that the idea that just because people demonstrate or wave a flag—even of a proscribed organisation—it would be justified for the police to wade in and round them up, or fire tear gas or water cannon at them, is for the birds, as that is simply not reasonable or proportionate. There has to be a constitutional blueprint for a sustainable future for all the people of
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Sri Lanka. The idea that there can be a military victory—that the LTTE can be wiped out and that the problem can be physically removed and that will be the end of the matter—is nonsense on stilts, and the Government of Sri Lanka need to be clear about that.

I went there, as others did, trying to be relatively impartial by taking note of the evidence but not seeking to take sides. However, I say to those who have much more experience on this subject than I do that since we came back the situation has got worse: the killing has continued, civilians have suffered, and there have been indiscriminate attacks. Unless the Government of Sri Lanka very quickly and in short order recognise the scale of international anger and change their behaviour, it will be inevitable that the multilateral institutions on which we depend for civilisation will assert themselves to take the strongest possible action against the regime. It is in the regime’s hands to behave properly or to face the consequences.

1.41 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Like many other Members, I am here to voice the feelings of my Tamil constituents; a wave of anger, despair and almost desperation has swept over them. I have held constituency meetings, and hundreds of people have turned up. I have also received vast volumes of letters sharing examples of lost relatives, people butchered and maimed, and more now stranded on a beach and being shelled by the Sri Lankan Government. There is not a Tamil family in my constituency who have not been touched. Kandiah Mylvaganam, a friend of mine who has been pictured with me, went to Sri Lanka a few months ago to try to find a relative. He was hurt and became ill, but when he went to a medical station there were not sufficient drugs so he died—he never came back. That highlights why there is such deep anger. No wonder so many people came to Parliament square; they felt no one was listening to them. I support them; I have been out there with many Members in absolute support of that demonstration. Now, however, the world has begun to listen, and the question on the lips of all of them is: “Why can’t you stop the killing? Why can’t you stop the butchering that is going on?”

I pay tribute to what Ministers have done and the diplomacy, but when I go out and talk to my Tamil constituents and tell them that diplomacy takes time, that is incomprehensible to them—especially when 100,000 people are perched on a beach and being shelled by the Sri Lankan Government. I feel that now is the time for decisive action.

The Sri Lankan Government are not going to move. This is a brutal, belligerent regime that is resisting all pressure. In the United Nations, there is the usual international game playing to do with spheres of influence and future strategic and military positioning. I think we have gone beyond that stage now. As we have seen fairly recently, if we cannot get UN multinational action, we now take unilateral action. In the past, we have looked for coalitions of the willing to invade places. Well, why cannot we have a coalition of the willing for peace? Why do we not now bring together our partners and make a clear statement of offering to broker a peace deal and to give the Sri Lankan Government 48 hours?
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If they do not abide by that, let us start on a programme of action, which should include breaking off all diplomatic links, as talking to them is not working so what is the point of that? We should send back their representatives and bring back our diplomats. We should isolate them diplomatically, as has been said.

We should also isolate them economically. If that means imposing sanctions, then so be it, and if it comes down to sequestration of Sri Lankan money, wealth and industrial investments in this country, let us do that to show them we mean business.

I also think there is now sufficient evidence to justify an inquiry into war crimes. We should be saying to representatives of the Sri Lankan Government, “If you pass through our state, we will arrest you on suspicion of that. We believe that war crimes are taking place, and we take that so seriously that we will detain you if necessary to bring you to trial.”

Creative action is needed as well. The Tamil community has made the attempt to send a ship with aid. Why do not we, as a coalition of the willing for peace, send flotillas, and send in flights and if necessary drop aid? Even if we have to perch ships from various countries carrying aid near the shore and then send in aid and assistance to the beaches, we should do that. At the same time, we should send in human rights advisers, and observers and reporters, so we can tell the world what we are doing and what is happening there.

The word “genocide” has been mentioned. Most members of my Tamil community believe genocide has taken place, and I must concur with them now because of the numbers of those who have died and been injured, and because of the targeting, in this small area, of this community. We cannot stand by. We need creative and decisive action, and we need it now.

1.45 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): May I say four sentences? First, I pay tribute to the gentleness and courtesy of the demonstrators in Parliament square; there have been times when I have tried to get through when they have been having a big demonstration, and they have always made way and been understanding.

The LTTE must be asked to stop, which basically means they must surrender; there is no military way forward for the LTTE in the current circumstances, and I hope that the Tamil communities in Sri Lanka, India and around the world will say to it, “You have not got our support in maintaining a military resistance or offensive, and this has got to stop.”

I say to the Sri Lankan Government—although I do not have the same expertise in these matters as some of my colleagues—that they will be held accountable for the way they treat those who have come out from the enclave and those who are in the enclave.

I also want to say that the Government have been treating this issue seriously and properly, and I pay tribute to them for that.

1.46 pm

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