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Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Lady on obtaining the debate, which is on a very important subject. I have Tamil constituents who are still seeking information about loved ones in that country and about where they are today. Does she agree that we now need publication of the names of everyone who is being detained in the camps and that those people should get the legal access and support that they ought to have, so that they can challenge the Government's decision to keep them in detention?
For hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians, six months on from the end of the conflict, life in the camps is worse than ever. Quite how bad life is in the camps is difficult to establish. We know that it is bad. We know that there are severe water shortages. We know that whole families are forced to share 20 litres for a couple of days, that there is not enough water to drink and that civilians who have struggled out of battle zones are now forced to bathe in the water alongside the buffaloes.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does the right hon. Lady agree that, if the Sri Lankan Government are so confident that everything in the camps is going as well as they suggest, they should allow the international media in so that they can see for themselves whether what the Sri Lankan Government are saying is true?
Joan Ryan: We all agree with that point, and throughout the duration of the conflict we made the same point. At no time over recent years have the international media been able to gain access to the areas where Tamil people predominantly lived or to what was happening in the conflict, and now the same is true of the camps.
There is not enough food. We know that not just from the haunting images of malnourished children and pitifully thin old men and women that recall camps of an earlier age, but from reports from local hospitals. Their records show us that since May alone, more than 1,000 civilians have died from malnutrition-related complications. We know that sanitation facilities are primitive. Elderly women are forced to crouch over latrine pits, and families share stinking, overflowing toilets. We know that health facilities are under-resourced, overstretched and totally incapable of meeting the needs of the people detained in the camps, so people die of treatable diseases and women are forced to give birth under the trees and in front of strangers.
"I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scene I have seen."
That echoes what I have been told by my constituents whose friends and families are trapped in the camps. Just yesterday, I spoke to a woman whose sister and three nephews are, she believes, being held in the camps. She could not tell me for sure because she has not heard
from them since last January, when Government forces took control of the village where they lived. Since then, there has been nothing-not a single phone call or letter. There has been no information whatever. Her voice broke as she described her sister and her nephews, the youngest of whom she has never met. A man from my constituency told me about his five-year-old niece and 18-month-old nephew, who recently left a camp. I am talking about a little girl who had to help to dig her father's grave with her bare hands, because her family had to flee before they had time to bury him properly, and a little boy who spent his second summer fighting the malaria that he caught in the Government camp.
Therefore, we know that things are bad, but we cannot know exactly how bad because, as we have already said, the Government of Sri Lanka will not let independent monitors or aid agencies into the camps. This Minister is therefore part of a select group of people who have been granted permission to visit the camps-so select, in fact, that even the International Committee of the Red Cross, for instance, has not been allowed in since July. Nor are the Opposition parties. On Monday, I and other hon. Members met Professor Jayawardena, a Member of the Sri Lankan Parliament. He told me that members of Opposition parties in Sri Lanka have been denied permission to visit the camps. He is not a Tamil. He does not have a large Tamil electorate. He is deeply concerned about human rights.
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): The right hon. Lady mentions constituents both here and in Sri Lanka, but it can sometimes help to give the view of Sinhalese constituents. Although it is a challenging question, it is worth asking. An e-mail criticising what I said at the rally last weekend, stated:
"All you care about is the nearly 50,000 Tamil votes in Croydon."
Joan Ryan: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We need to stress time and again that it is about human rights. When the human rights of one are threatened, the human rights of all are threatened. It is right that we should raise our voices on behalf of those whose human rights are being ridden over roughshod. That is so whether they are Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim or whatever. The point is well made. Indeed, Professor Jayawardena, in saying that he is not a Tamil and does not have a large Tamil electorate, is pointing out that this is about the human rights of Sri Lankan people who are Tamils.
The humanitarian situation has worsened, and ever more people are having to rely upon international agencies and NGOs for the most basic of needs. The Sri Lankan Government are denying them that lifeline. They are denying people food, medical treatment and sleeping mats. The Government of Sri Lanka tell us that certain agencies are allowed in-but only the agencies that they choose and only on the terms that they dictate. In addition to their vital humanitarian functions, those agencies are indeed the eyes of the world. The Sri Lankan Government have deliberately prevented outside scrutiny of the camps, leaving camp residents vulnerable to abuse. Reports from the camps of abductions, disappearances, extra-judicial killings and intimidation continue.
Even more worrying than conditions in the camps that we know of are those in the camps that we do not-the secret camps, whose existence the Sri Lankan Government refuse to confirm, whose conditions are impossible to monitor and whose detainees are held incommunicado and without access to family members or legal advice. We know that the danger of serious human rights violations increases substantially when detainees are held in locations that are not publicly known, and where proper legal procedures and safeguards are not in place. Even a cursory glance at the history books shows that.
Amnesty International believes that there could be as many as 10 unofficial and unacknowledged detention sites in the country, although the number could of course be much higher; we simply do not know. However, we know that the camps are illegal and a crime against humanity. Let us be in no doubt on that point: civilians have an unambiguous and unqualified right to free movement, and a right to liberty now and not when the Sri Lankan Government get around to it.
The reasons that the Sri Lankan Government give for such detention are simply a smokescreen-an excuse for the collective punishment of the Tamil people. The Government say that they need to screen the Tamils to ensure that none of them are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Why is it that six months on from that screening process only 5,000 civilians have been released? Why are the Government continuing to incarcerate pregnant women, small children and the elderly?
The Sri Lankan Government say that it is unsafe for the Tamils to leave because many of the areas they came from are mined, as we heard from the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer). That is simply not true; not all the areas were mined, and many of those detained in the camps could stay with friends or relatives far from any mined areas. Those who genuinely have nowhere to go could choose to stay in the camps, but that choice would be theirs. The Government of Sri Lanka must give the Tamil people their freedom-and they must give it to them now.
Time after time, the Government of Sri Lanka have promised to release civilians, but their promises come to nothing. In May, President Rajapaksa said that 80 per cent. of civilians held at the camps would be released within 180 days. Six months on, and about 5,000 civilians have been released. The Government of Sri Lanka tried to inflate the figure by transferring people to other camps and classifying them as having been released. However, the reality is clear: only a tiny fraction of those detained in the camps have been released.
Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way, and I apologise for not being here at the start of her speech. It was due to commitments that I had with an all-party group.
The right hon. Lady is speaking about the Sri Lankan Government honouring their commitments. Will she say how important it is that they do not simply shift their goals from 180 days to the end of the year, with only 100,000 being resettled by the end of the year? There needs to be a firm commitment not only to their own version of resettlement; they need to make a commitment that people will be able to go back to their homes as soon as possible.
Joan Ryan: I agree. I was about to make that point. Indeed, this month the Minister for Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services cut the estimate in half, saying that the Government plan to release only 100,000 by Christmas.
The Government of Sri Lanka say that they are doing their best, but their best is not nearly good enough. I say that enough is enough-enough of the Sri Lankan Government's evasions and half-truths; enough of their inaction and obfuscation; and enough of the suffering of the Tamil people. The longer they are detained in those inhuman prisons, the more difficult it will be to achieve what every Sri Lankan-Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim alike-wants: a lasting peace in Sri Lanka.
Each extra day that the Tamil people are forced to live in those camps will serve further to alienate the Tamil community and exacerbate divisions; it will create bitterness at a time when reconciliation is more important than ever. As frustration grows and tensions rise, conflict is already beginning to break out in the camps. Report after report over the past few weeks has detailed the escalating conflict between the inhabitants of the camps and the military guards. As the camps grow ever more crowded, and as the monsoon season arrives, the conditions will worsen and the habitants will become ever more desperate.
If the monsoon brings water pouring into the tents, it will be an entirely man-made disaster. It was the Government of Sri Lanka who built the camps on flood-prone areas. It was the Government of Sri Lanka who rounded up hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children and imprisoned them in camps designed to be only a temporary shelter, and built to hold only half the number of people that currently live there. Lest we forget, it is the Government of Sri Lanka who refuse to let them leave.
However, if the fault lies with the Sri Lankan Government, so too does the solution. They have it within their power to release the civilians and begin a process of reconciliation that will build a peaceful and just Sri Lanka. It is the responsibility of the British Government to do all that they can to encourage that process, so I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I can tell him that the Tamil community know that our Government have led and are leading international efforts to secure a just and lasting solution in Sri Lanka. I welcome the fact that the Government did not support Sri Lanka's application for a $2.6 billion loan from the IMF. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to give us a little more detail about the nature of those efforts, particularly about the work of our officials in Brussels, who are currently considering Sri Lanka's access to the EU market.
While Sri Lanka so brazenly abuses the rights of its citizens, it is inconceivable that the EU should renew GSP plus-the generalised system of preferences. It is surely time for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Commonwealth and removed from the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group when it next meets in November.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD):
As always, I appreciate the right hon. Lady's efforts and the fact that she is specific about some of the solutions. Will she join me in asking Ministers to be really clear over the next few days, before the Commonwealth conference next month, that the British
will not support Sri Lanka as a host country for the conference to be held in two years' time? We should make that clear in advance, saying that it would be unacceptable to many of our Commonwealth colleagues. We cannot set human rights standards and invite people to promote them when some in our own backyard clearly have a bad record.
Joan Ryan: I am sure that the Minister heard what the hon. Gentleman said, but I agree that it is completely incompatible to hold a Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka given all that has been said, and the situation that exists.
We need to send a clear message to the Government of Sri Lanka that the continued detention of Tamil civilians will have serious consequences for Sri Lanka's relationship with the international community. However, we must have a united front. The whole House must speak with one voice in its condemnation of the treatment of Tamil civilians and in its appeal for their immediate release. The number of Members present this afternoon demonstrates the level of concern felt on both sides of the House, which is why so many of us were disappointed by the comments that were made last week in the House by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), when he appeared to support the Government of Sri Lanka's application for preferential access to our markets.
On that precise point, I hope that we can be clear. The EU extends preferential access to its markets to developing countries under a number of very clear conditions. Beneficiary countries must comply with 27 international agreements on human rights issues. Sri Lanka does not meet those conditions and is, therefore, not eligible for GSP plus. I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to clarify the position of the Conservative party on that matter.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this debate. She and her colleagues must be very careful about calling for the Sri Lankan Government to be punished by the ending of trade preferences with Europe, because she will have to explain how the Sri Lankan Government will be able to afford to rebuild the infrastructure to enable the Tamils to return. If they cannot afford it because they are bankrupt, she is punishing both the Government and those who have been hurt by the dispute, and she must be able to explain that.
Joan Ryan: I regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity to state his party's support for ending GSP plus status to Sri Lanka and to condemn its human rights record. I can explain why I call for the preferential status to end. There is a line to be drawn, and that line stands when human rights are being trashed and people are losing their lives. People are subject to abductions, rape, torture, extra-judicial killings and the most appalling living circumstances. They are in camps that are surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. That is where I draw that line.
The hon. Gentleman is concerned that the Government of Sri Lanka should be able to afford to restructure and resettle Tamil communities. However, they are able to do that because the solution lies in their hands. They can stop the abuse of human rights and then they will not be subject to calls for the ending of GSP plus and for other sanctions to be taken. The solution lies with the Government of Sri Lanka, and not with them having preferential access to our markets when their human rights record is appalling.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): It is exactly as my right hon. Friend is saying. When everything else fails-exhortations, appeals to humanity and international representations-there is nothing left for us but economic sanctions. The Sri Lankan Government seem to think that they can act with impunity, so let us send them a message: "Release the people from the camps, end the human rights abuses and we will assist in the rebuilding of the country."
Siobhain McDonagh: Does my right hon. Friend agree that over the past few weeks, we have seen an increasing number of abusive phone calls and e-mails precisely because of the report on GSP plus? For the first time in more than six months, the Sri Lankan Government are on the run on this one, thus providing real leverage to achieve progress for the people in the camps in Sri Lanka.
Joan Ryan: I absolutely agree with the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I should like to pay tribute to both of them for their commitment on this issue over a long period of time. I am sure that the Minister and everyone else have heard what they have had to say.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sorry that the right hon. Lady is trying to play politics in the way that she is. All parties condemn all the human rights abuses; it is a question of how we achieve our ends. I say to her again, if the Sri Lankan Government's economy is completely bankrupt, how will the country be able to afford to rebuild the infrastructure? She must explain that if she is going to accuse us of asking such questions of her Government. How will the Sri Lankan Government be able to afford the infrastructure?
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