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28 Oct 2009 : Column 113WH—continued

We are currently reminded daily, by the proceedings in the Hague, of the inhumanities and terrible occurrences in the Balkans. In the meantime, the international community seems to be standing by while similar things go on in Sri Lanka. It causes despair in anyone with any regard for human rights. I do not know whether I have a single Tamil constituent. However, I have several Tamil friends and am a friend of anyone whose human rights are degraded in the terrible manner that is causing the suffering in Sri Lanka. We know of the camps and that there is apparently a process under way to weed out the Tamil Tigers. No one knows how it works. The Red Cross is not allowed to go there. Still, after months of the process, there have been few, if any, releases. We now
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know that the Government will allow some day passes, in a limited area, in Mannar. Surely, someone who can be given a pass can be out for the rest of his life, not just a day.

Awful things are transparently happening, and we in the international community are expected to swallow that nonsense. We know about arbitrary detention, and I shall not deal with that. We also know about the inability to trace relatives and the lack of protective mechanisms in the camps. The whole scenario, and the fact that it is allowed to happen in a Commonwealth country, is a disgrace. The situation in the camps is getting worse by the day, and we should bear in mind the onset of the monsoon period. The lack of access to proper medical care grieves me as well.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) said about the horrible acts under the Nazi regime. Events in Sri Lanka are not quite on the same level, but they are fast getting there, and the international community should say enough is enough. It should be baring its teeth to that evil Government who are acting in a way that is totally incompatible with anyone's notion of human rights. It is high time that we used every possible diplomatic avenue that is open to us. I agree that, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) wisely said, GSP plus should be the first thing to go. Let us go for that without delay. In the meantime, let us urgently suspend the Sri Lankan Government from the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is meant to be one of the nations that observe standards. The things that are happening are not the standards of the Commonwealth.

3.22 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the debate, Dr. McCrea; I was tied up on constituency matters. If the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) had any Tamil constituents, they would have been in touch. They are the most communicative community that this country has, and that is what is brilliant about them. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) for what she has done and does, and for obtaining today's debate, which has provoked a flurry of briefings and advice, not least from the Sri Lankan high commission, which has once again furnished us with its version of the current situation and facts pertaining in Sri Lanka.

I shall be very brief, so that others get to speak. I was first elected to the House in June 1983. In July 1983, there were riots in which many Tamil people ended up in refugee camps. There was terrible bloodshed and an outbreak of the fighting that has, essentially, gone on ever since. One could read in this Chamber now the debate that took place in the House in July 1983, and, sadly, it would not sound out of place; it would sound much the same as what hon. Members have been saying this afternoon. I have watched the situation and worked with many people from Sri Lanka over many years, and I have constantly been appalled at the level of violence, the amount of displacement and the killings. Huge efforts were made, particularly by the Norwegian Government, to bring about a long-term sustainable peace. Unfortunately, those efforts were not successful. Many others have tried to bring about such a peace, without success.

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Not so long ago, we all witnessed on global television the final acts, when the Sri Lankan military moved in on the Tamil positions: brutality and killings, a huge number of deaths, the displacement of large numbers of people and the destruction of their homes. Then followed the triumphalism of the Sri Lankan army and the declarations of a national victory. That is not a good sign for reconciliation or a harmonious island of Sri Lanka in the future. The presence of large numbers of people in the refugee camps is frankly horrific. They are not in refugee camps; they are in prison camps. That is what those places are in reality. They cannot leave or be communicated with unless they have permission, and the sense of displacement and anger in the Tamil community around the world is palpable. It must be addressed.

So what do we do? Sri Lanka is a member of the Commonwealth and a trading partner. It seems to carry on getting tourists and all the trade that it wants. I recognise that sanctions cause people hardship, but if that is the only instrument that is left to bring recognition of and reasonableness towards the Tamil people, it is a policy that we must pursue. I therefore have no hesitation in supporting that approach. In the humiliation of the Tamil people in the camps, their poverty and displacement and all the privations that they now suffer lie the seeds of tomorrow's conflict, and the one after. All that will be created by the present policy is another version of the LTTE. It is utterly counter-productive, apart from being illegal in human rights law. I have also been looking at the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. It is regrettable that the United Nations Human Rights Council could not see that when it voted at the special meeting on this subject in September.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. It is not a question of being anti-Sri Lanka. It is a question of being pro-human rights, pro-peace, pro-justice and ensuring that the Tamil people have their place, their rights, their language and their identity. That is what brings harmony. Denial of that identity brings tomorrow's death and conflict.

3.27 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): The debate is coming towards its end and it is difficult not to repeat some of what has been said, but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), I have been involved in issues to do with Sri Lanka since I was first elected in 1992 and I cannot remember in all that time a worse year than this for what has happened there: the fighting at the beginning of the year, and having people coming to see me whose families, friends and relatives were trapped in Wanni, and who did not know what was happening to them. Many still do not know what is happening to them. The point has been made already that we do not have, but should have, information about who is in the camps.

I want to emphasise a point about conditions in the camps, which has been mentioned, but perhaps was not stressed as much as it should have been, and that is what will happen very shortly when the monsoon arrives. We are rapidly heading for a humanitarian disaster in the camps. If the monsoon rains arrive and there is flooding in the camps, so that latrines are flooded, there will be disease and people will die in significant numbers. There
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is a disaster on the horizon if the camps are left in their present condition, with the number of people currently in them.

There has already been discussion in this debate about what the Tamil people ask for, and the response of the Sri Lankan Government. No Government who claim to be democratically elected, a member of the Commonwealth and the United Nations, and to be signed up to international conventions should be able to ignore international opinion, as the Sri Lankan Government have been doing. It is not anything new. Over the years people have been arrested or have disappeared and there have been emergency regulations to allow detention without trial. Those things, we know, have gone on for years. That is what astonishes me about the reaction from the Conservative Front Bench this afternoon and the suggestion that we should not use pressures such as GSP plus. If we are not prepared to use such tactics-

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gerrard: The hon. Gentleman will have his opportunity to speak in a moment; I want to conclude. If we do not use what pressures we can with the Government of Sri Lanka-not allowing preferential trade, stopping arms sales and all the sorts of thing that we have used with other regimes-we will not see the political progress that every one of us wants. Only with that political progress will we reach a solution.

Dr. William McCrea (in the Chair): I will give one minute to Tom Clarke before we start the winding-up speeches.

3.30 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Thank you, Dr. McCrea. I shall choose two points from the speech that I was going to make. Incidentally, many of them have been covered in the excellent introduction. My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) set the tone, and it is fair to say that it is a tone of anger. We are angry about what is going on and that it has taken so long even to get where we are.

I will make two points before I sit down in the minute that I have. Even ignoring the terrible problems in Sri Lanka-the poverty, the fact that women are not free in any sense, the sex attacks on children and so on-it is a country that is supposed to be conducting an election in 2010. I put it to the Opposition spokesman as well as my hon. Friend the Minister that we must beware of those elections and ensure that they are free, fair and transparent. Nothing else will be acceptable to the international community.

3.32 pm

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): It has been an excellent debate, with contributions from all parties. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), who opened with a powerful speech containing moving examples of detainees' life in the camps. I will not go through each of the contributions, but some have been excellent.

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I will, however, pick out the contribution of the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), who mentioned Auschwitz. Like him, I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau this summer. The visit made me particularly aware that one key problem was that people at the time did not have a full grasp of exactly what was happening. The Government of the day made propaganda films giving a generous view of what was going on in the camps, but an example of what was happening in one camp was in no way a summary of what was happening in all the other camps. I know that the Minister was in Sri Lanka recently with the BBC, but whatever he saw, it is vital that what happens in every single camp is exposed. If there were nothing to hide, journalists and politicians from all parties out there, including the Opposition, would get into every camp.

More recently, I went to visit the camps in Darfur at Nyala. At that time, the Sudanese Government were also saying that there was absolutely nothing to worry about in certain camps, but when individuals saw the facts on the ground, it was easy to see that there was. Women were being abused in the camps, torture was being carried out by-

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I apologise for arriving late; I had another engagement that I could not get out of. I met with Tamils from my constituency and the west midlands with my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) a week or so ago. The state of the camps-flooded now, let alone when the monsoon comes-was absolutely shocking. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is appalling that Sri Lanka, once one of the most respected members of the international community, is keeping 260,000 people in what are effectively Government-run internment camps?

John Barrett: I certainly agree. We have all, no doubt, had an update from the Sri Lankan high commission, but on one hand we have its response, and on the other-I admit to an interest as a fully paid-up member and supporter of Amnesty International-we have a completely different point of view. We also have first-hand evidence of exactly what has happened from people with family and friends detained out there.

When the Minister sums up, will he address the questions raised by many people, including at Amnesty? The camps remain overcrowded and lacking in basic sanitation facilities, with water cascading through tents and sewage overflowing. Will he give us a report of what he saw and what can be done to ensure, as we hope, that people will be released in the immediate future, and that they have access to basic facilities and humanitarian rights until that time?

There have been reports that the military are blocking release attempts by the civilian Administration, as well as reports of torture. Has the Minister had any evidence of that, and what pressure can his Government apply to end it? There have also been reports of releases from the camps that were in fact transfers to other, unnamed camps where displaced people have been subject to re-screening by local authorities. Will he enlighten us about what he believes to be the numbers in the camps, how many camps there are and exactly where those people are who have been allegedly released? Have they just been transferred?

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With the monsoon season approaching, we are at a critical time. It is right that we are having this debate to ask what more can be done to avoid a humanitarian disaster following the political upheaval. This debate is not about the justification for the Sri Lankan Government's action against the Tamil forces, or the future political settlements that will be essential for a long-term restructuring of the country. Of more immediate concern is the fate of those 250,000-plus refugees still detained in Government-run internment camps.

It has now been almost five months since the war's end. It is unacceptable that so many people are still essentially prisoners of war when the war is supposed to be over. Even now, the Government continue to restrict access for aid organisations and impose strict limits on what work they can do in the camps. Journalists are not allowed into many camps, with only the rarest of exceptions. Anyone looking at the official Government photographs of the camps could be forgiven for thinking that living conditions were of the highest standard.

I notice that the Sri Lankan high commissioner's statement said that the President had written a letter to the Tamils calling this

in their lives, when they were

At Auschwitz and Birkenau, people walked into the gas chambers with a letter promising them a hopeful future. I hope that what is happening in the camps does not mirror what happened in Poland. We must have immediate, open and free access for politicians and journalists in order to know that that is not the case.

Based on other reporting and inside information from the camps, a picture emerges of chronic overcrowding, fraying tents and latrines not up to the task. During late September, visiting UN Under-Secretary-General Lynn Pascoe expressed strong concern about how few of the displaced had been able to return home and the fact that the rest are detained against their will. Despite their internationally recognised right to leave the camps, they are not simply displaced; they are detained.

I know that the Minister was recently allowed access to the camps, and I look forward to his assessment of both the humanitarian conditions in the camps and the political likelihood of resettlement being allowed in line with the agreed time scale, which already seems to be slipping. President Rajapaksa has reiterated his plans to resettle 70 to 80 per cent. by the end of the year, but I think that we can all agree that that looks highly unlikely given the slow progress to date.

Mr. Pelling: The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said that it was important that we also discuss what sanctions and leverage we have. Again to use my constituent as a proxy to argue the Sinhalese case:

What leverage does the hon. Gentleman think we as a nation have over the Sri Lankan Government?

John Barrett: I think that we have economic leverage. The GSP plus has already been mentioned as one lever that can be pulled. I think that we can press at every level to ensure that both economic sanctions and pressure
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can be used in all international bodies, so that people get their human rights. It is not just an argument about what might be happening to individual constituents. As has been mentioned, there are constituencies, such as mine, with very few Tamils. It is a question of international human rights.

I am sure that other hon. Members would agree with the statement of the Minister with responsibility for Africa, Asia and the UN last month that there would be no more aid for displacement camps apart from emergency funding. However, with the monsoon season fast approaching, it looks as though many civilians will face the rains in the camps. Will the Minister comment on the tents provided by the UN, which are not up to standard, unlike those provided by the Chinese Government? Tents that will withstand the rains are needed.

I will draw my remarks to a close because I want the Minister to have ample time to deal with my questions and those of other hon. Members. Although we may be able to appreciate the Sri Lankan Government's desire to identify former Tamil Tigers, who may stay in the camps, we must make it clear to them that detaining thousands of innocent people is not an acceptable way to achieve any security goal. The Sri Lankan Government may have inflicted defeat on the Tamil Tigers, but Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic country and the Tamil population must be part of its future. The danger is that the treatment of Tamils in the camps will undermine the prospect of a long-term peaceful settlement in a country where peace has been sadly lacking.

3.41 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea, and I welcome the Minister to our debate. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) for securing this important and timely debate.

The events in Sri Lanka since its Government launched the final stages of their major assault have been truly appalling, as all who witnessed them would testify. It is a war marked by the ferocity of its violence and by its propaganda. I join Stephen Rapp, the US ambassador at large for war crimes issues, in calling for all humanitarian abuses by both sides to be fully and independently investigated as part of the reconciliation process. It is clear from today's debate that any investigation into the deaths and disappearances of internally displaced persons inside the camps must be full, open, transparent and internationally monitored.

There has been intense interest in this subject in the House. A look at Hansard reveals that there was a topical debate on 5 February, an Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on 24 March, a debate in the Chamber on 20 April and a Conservative Opposition day debate on 14 May. I can think of few conflicts in which we have had no military involvement that have prompted so much impassioned and constructive debate in the House.

Tragically, the end of hostilities has not resulted in the end of suffering. On 27 August, to mark 100 days after the end of the fighting, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, declared:

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