Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

With five minutes to go, it is difficult to cover all the issues. Some other equipment matters were raised. Noble Lords have discussed the wisdom or otherwise of aircraft carriers. Our problem with equipment is that we will always want the best of everything. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, talked about which fast jet we need. However, different vehicles have different attributes. We must ensure that we get the best value for money and work with partners where we can, and learn from the urgent operational requirements that sometimes getting something relatively simple and straightforward that we can build on later can be of great benefit even though that is not often how we do things.

I was asked specifically about the A400M. That contract is causing us considerable concern, as it is for

30 Apr 2009 : Column 379

our partner nations. We are worried about this and seeking to make progress. We cannot allow a gap in our capabilities and are therefore exploring a number of options including the procurement or lease of additional C17s or C130Js, or extending the life of some of our C130Ks. The issue is causing concern, but will not be solved by this country alone.

In the few minutes remaining, I will say a word about our Armed Forces and our work on the service command paper issues. I remind the House that this was a first: an unprecedented piece of cross-government work, bringing together all the issues affecting our service personnel. It is important to remember the two key principles upon which it was based. First, no disadvantage should flow from service in our Armed Forces. Secondly, in certain circumstances, it is right and proper for our Armed Forces to be treated in a special way, particularly when they have been injured in the course of duty.

We are investing in a whole range of issues and working with other government departments and devolved Administrations. On accommodation, for example, the Chancellor announced last week that £50 million will be brought forward to build new MoD houses to tackle the legacy of underinvestment in that area, which is important. The pay review board is out, and people will welcome that settlement. Health was mentioned today. The noble Baroness, Lady Emerton, said that the Defence Medical Welfare Service was not well known. She makes it very well known on many occasions in these debates. Others have spoken of the fantastic service at Headley Court. It is significant that the chair of the Healthcare Commission said recently that there is absolutely no question that personnel injured in battle have a better chance of survival than ever before, and that this is entirely due to the efficient and innovative care delivered under exceptionally difficult circumstances.

That is something that we should be and are doing—as, indeed, we are doing more on mental health. It is important to recognise that the community-based veterans’ pilot health schemes are important and could show us the way forward. As with mental health generally, this has been a neglected area in the past and a great deal of attention has been paid to it since.

Lastly, on recognition, the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, mentioned the reception in the House of Lords and the fantastic response of colleagues, although she said that they were sometimes surprised. We have all welcomed the tremendous public turnout at the homecoming parades and civic receptions. That is a tangible expression of the public support and appreciation of our Armed Forces. We all have a responsibility to ensure that there is no dislocation and that the public understand that our Armed Forces are working in order to help and protect them. We also all have a responsibility to the families of our armed servicemen.

I welcome a debate of this kind. It has been timely. In many ways, it has united this House in appreciation of and respect for the work of our Armed Forces.

3.07 pm

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, first, I express my gratitude to the Minister for the conscientious way in which she has responded to the debate. As she

30 Apr 2009 : Column 380

rightly said, it has attracted considerable interest and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. I have heard every speech except for just a couple; I will certainly read those, particularly as I have been told that they said nice things about me.

I am not surprised that a lot of people wanted to take part in the debate. That underlines our present deep concern. Many noble Lords have said that this was an appropriate time for this debate and have alluded to the events in Basra this morning, and the recent developments with the Prime Minister’s Statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Statement on the reserves referred to by my noble friend Lord Attlee. Against this background, I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, launched the theme of a need for a strategic defence review. That, in different forms with different words, was picked up widely around the House. There is now absolutely no question that we face a serious situation, undoubtedly made even more grave by the current financial position. However, as I said in my opening remarks, we went into this financial problem already in a difficult situation. The challenges are there.

This debate was about our Armed Forces. Everybody has paid tribute to their courage, fortitude and achievements. In those circumstances, and in recognition of that, we owe it to them to ensure that the policies, provisions and the circumstances in which they operate are the very best that we can provide for them to do their outstanding work. Against that background, with great appreciation for all those who have taken part, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Sri Lanka


3.09 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, with permission I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with your permission I will make a Statement about the civilian crisis in Sri Lanka. I returned this morning from a visit there with the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner. I regret that the Sri Lankan authorities declined to allow our Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, to join us. Our visit to Sri Lanka was prompted by our increasing concern for civilians in the north of the country, particularly the plight of the civilian Tamil population. There are in fact two crises: that of the civilians trapped in the conflict zone as the Government enter the final stage of their fight with the LTTE terrorists, and that of the tens of thousands of civilians who have crossed over the front line in recent days.

The purpose of the visit was twofold: first, to highlight the need to bring the conflict to an end in a way that minimises further civilian casualties; and, secondly, to press the need for a long-term political settlement that meets the aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka. Foreign Minister Kouchner and I met

30 Apr 2009 : Column 381

President Rajapakse, Foreign Minister Bogollagama, the leader of the Opposition and Tamil and Muslim mainstream politicians. I am grateful for the way the Sri Lankan Government facilitated our visit. We were briefed by the heads of the main UN agencies and the ICRC. We also visited a government-run camp for internally displaced people at Vavuniya and visited a field hospital donated by the French Government. I heard a number of personal testimonies from recent arrivals in the camp.

The fog of war makes it difficult to be certain of the facts of the present situation. That is compounded by the lack of access for international agencies and the media. I heard widely different estimates of the number of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone. Government estimates ranged from 6,000 to 20,000; the UN, ICRC and most others reckon that there were at least 50,000, and some thought that the number could be as high as 100,000. Whatever the truth, it is clear that significant numbers remain, living under appalling conditions, undernourished and in fear for their lives. I heard reports of civilians hiding in trenches to escape the shelling and of horrific injuries. I also spoke to people in the IDP camps who recounted how the LTTE had forced them to stay in the so-called no-fire zone against their will, and shot at them when they tried to flee.

We were told that 30 tonnes of food were delivered to the conflict zone between 1 April and 27 April, apparently enough to feed 60,000 people for just one day. A further ship delivered limited supplies during our visit. The ICRC has only been able to send in very limited medical supplies, despite having plentiful stocks in Sri Lanka. The block on deliveries of food and medical supplies hinges on security. To deliver these essentials to those innocent civilians trapped in the conflict zone, there needs to be safety. Ships take time to unload and the pauses provided by the Sri Lankan Government have not been long enough. As the House knows, the Government of Sri Lanka declared an end to combat operations on 27 April; the President and Defence Secretary confirmed that to me personally and in definite terms. Those commitments must be upheld.

In our discussions with the President and the Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner and I made it clear that the protection of civilians must be paramount. We emphasised that if the LTTE had any heart at all, it would let the civilians leave the conflict zone. As G8 Foreign Ministers said in their statement of 25 April, we were very clear that the time for the conflict to end is now. We were briefed in detail by the Sri Lankan authorities on their humanitarian relief efforts outside the conflict zone. We welcomed that exchange of information, the extensive work that was under way and the commitments made. Nevertheless, some of what we were told contradicted the information given to us by the international humanitarian agencies.

According to the UN, 161,765 Tamils have left the conflict zone since October last year, including 119,000 in the last 10 days. This is very welcome, but the numbers have seriously challenged the Sri Lankan authorities. The UN agencies were frustrated that the

30 Apr 2009 : Column 382

Government appear to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of them and of others trying to assist the Government in dealing with this crisis. The agencies lack any access to IDPs until they have already been through a preliminary screening process, and do not have full access to the camps; visas and authorisations to move people and goods into and around the country are too limited. Meanwhile, people are not being allowed out of the camps and many families have been separated. Some men, alleged to be LTTE cadres, have been taken from families and placed in so-called rehabilitation camps. All of this reinforces the need for full and unhindered access by the UN and other agencies.

We therefore returned again and again in our talks to five specific needs in respect of the humanitarian situation: first, for visas to be issued to international humanitarian staff swiftly; secondly, for travel permits for staff working on approved projects inside Sri Lanka; thirdly, for full access to IDPs as soon as they have crossed the front line and monitoring of all stages of screening; fourthly, for a proper resettlement programme with specific deadlines to fulfil the Government’s commitment to 80 per cent of IDPs resettled by year’s end; and, fifthly, to allow the distribution of sufficient food and medicine to meet the needs of civilians trapped in the conflict zone. We were promised intensive follow-up by the Sri Lankan Government and we will continue to engage with them on those issues.

At present, the Sri Lankan Government are engaged in a war without witness in the north of the country. Civilians have fled the terror of the LTTE, but are afraid of what awaits them at the hands of the Government and unsure whether they will ever be allowed to return home. We were given assurances by the Sri Lankan Government that they had nothing to hide; we responded that it could therefore only be to their benefit to work with the international community in a fully transparent way. By giving UN agencies and international NGOs the freedom to operate to capacity in all areas, the Sri Lankan Government would bring much needed relief to many thousands of traumatised people, but also bring the confidence of the international community.

My right honourable friend for Kilmarnock and Loudoun will be taking up the invitation of President Rajapakse to visit Sri Lanka as part of a cross-party group of MPs next week, and will pursue those five points. The other members of the group will be the right honourable Member for Gordon and the honourable Members for South Down, for Buckingham and for Glasgow Central. I share the gratitude of my right honourable friend for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that they have agreed to take part in this important visit. I will be visiting New York on 11 May and will pursue further UN involvement in the crisis. I will be discussing with Hillary Clinton and other like-minded colleagues how we can work more closely together to find a way to bring the fighting to a stop.

I am grateful to all Members of the House who contributed to the debate yesterday. No one should underestimate the murderous damage done to Sri Lanka over the past 26 years by the LTTE, or the sheer hatred felt for its leadership. That is recognised

30 Apr 2009 : Column 383

in the international community. But while terrorist organisations work by killing people, democratic Governments exist to protect them. That is why the fighting in Sri Lanka must end now. The LTTE is apparently cornered and trapped, having inflicted grievous suffering on the people of Sri Lanka, primarily Sinhalese and Tamil but also Muslims. How the conflict is ended will have a direct bearing on the prospects for long-term peace in the country. The Government must win the peace as well as win the war. That will be the continuing focus of this Government's activity, hand in hand with international partners, in the days and weeks ahead”.

3.19 pm

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Foreign Secretary in another place. The Conservative Benches share his deep concern about the desperate humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka and the suffering of innocent civilians who have been trapped by the fighting. We reiterate his calls for a lasting ceasefire. It was surely right for the Foreign Secretary to travel to Sri Lanka with the French Foreign Minister. In the words of the Red Cross—here I declare an interest as being a vice-president and a former working member for more than 30 years—the situation in the north of the country is “nothing short of catastrophic”. Civilians trapped in the tiny enclave are desperately short of food, water and medical care and remain in the firing line. The United Nations estimates that as many as 6,500 civilians may have been killed and another 14,000 wounded in the Government’s offensive this year.

I would like to raise three sets of questions relating to the Minister’s three points on the humanitarian crisis, the efforts to secure a ceasefire and the long-term prospects for a political solution in Sri Lanka. We welcome the additional UK humanitarian aid for Sri Lanka that the Minister has outlined. According to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 50,000 people are still trapped in the conflict zone, which has shrunk to less than 10 square kilometres. Is he fully satisfied that the Sri Lankan Government have heeded international calls to show the maximum possible restraint in their operations in the area?

There seems to be some confusion regarding the use of heavy weapons by the government forces. Can the noble Lord assure the House that the Sri Lankan Government have heeded international calls to stop all use of heavy weapons in the fighting zone, and that it has been possible to verify this? For the record, is he confident, too, that no UK-supplied defence equipment or technology has been used in attacks on civilians during the conflict, and have efforts been made to ascertain this? Have the Sri Lankan Government agreed to permit aid convoys to reach the fighting zone by road, which we understand has not been possible since 20 January?

We strongly support the UN Secretary-General’s decision to dispatch a humanitarian team to the conflict zone, and support his call for the mission to be allowed into the area as soon as possible. Has that been

30 Apr 2009 : Column 384

possible? Aid workers have told UNHCR that some of the people in the camps have not eaten for days, and cite growing problems of hunger, lack of transport to move the sick to hospitals and a shortage of medical personnel. Has the Foreign Secretary raised these issues with the government officials whom he met in Sri Lanka? Can the noble Lord update the House as regards the 13 UN staff members who have been prevented from leaving IDP camps despite repeated promises from the Government that they will be released?

My second set of questions concerns the efforts to secure a ceasefire. Does the noble Lord see a need for formal UN Security Council involvement—for example, a UN resolution—to persuade both sides to lay down arms? Earlier today, the Foreign Secretary said to my right honourable friend the shadow Foreign Secretary that he would speak to the US Secretary of State, Mrs Hillary Clinton, today. I wonder whether he has spoken to her yet and what the outcome of those discussions was. What discussions have the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister’s envoy had with the Commonwealth about using that organisation’s weight and influence to encourage Sri Lanka to end its operations and bring about a long-term ceasefire, called for by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Human Rights Watch?

Thirdly and finally, does the Minister agree that there can be no military solution to this conflict, and that the only way forward is a negotiated settlement that satisfies the concerns and legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans and preserves democracy in the country? What assurances has he received from the Sri Lankan Government about their commitment to such a political process? Has he received any indication from the Sri Lankan Government that they will be prepared to accept the UK’s nominated special envoy? Are the Government confident that the envoy is able to make a meaningful contribution to resolving the conflict without acceptance by the Sri Lankan Government?

The distinction between foreign and domestic policy has nowadays become blurred. A growing number of our citizens live simultaneously in many homelands. What happens in Sri Lanka yesterday may well have an impact on Britain today. This means that we have to take into account that our own domestic policy has to be foreign policy as well. Again, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. In the same spirit, I hope he will continue to keep the House informed through Oral and Written Statements.

3.25 pm

Baroness Northover: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. The Foreign Secretary’s visit to Sri Lanka is very welcome, although I am sorry that the Swedish Foreign Minister was not given a visa. I am glad that it is to be followed up by the cross-party delegation of MPs, including my right honourable friend Malcolm Bruce, chair of the International Development Select Committee.

Does the noble Lord agree that it is extraordinary how little the international community has been able thus far to protect the civilians trapped between rebel

30 Apr 2009 : Column 385

and government forces? Surely this is a case where the UN has a duty to protect. How, in practice, can this be carried through in such circumstances? What role can international humanitarian law play here? Both sides are accusing each other of atrocities. What independent investigation of possible atrocities might be undertaken and would the UK Government support it? Does the Minister agree that both sides should be warned that they are personally accountable in this area? What will be done to ensure that things do not now spiral into revenge killings?

It is appalling that the UN humanitarian organisations and the media have been so restricted. As the noble Lord pointed out, it is surely in the interests of the Sri Lankan Government to allow them through, given the claims that they themselves have made. This is yet another conflict where accounts from one side simply do not tally with the other and we must rely on the neutrality of the UN and ICRC. Given what the Sri Lankan Government have said about a ceasefire, what plans are there for getting civilians out and aid in? The Tamil Tigers should immediately allow civilians to leave and cease forced recruitment. Civilians and fighters who agree to lay down their arms need strong international guarantees of their safety. Only international supervision, unhindered by the Government, can provide the necessary level of protection.

Some have expressed a fear of genocide. Is Britain meeting all its obligations under the 1948 Convention on Genocide, given that these accusations have been made? The UN and the ICRC must become responsible for supervising all stages of the screening process when people enter and leave any IDP camps. This must be fully documented. We hear some very worrying stories. What will be done to ensure that people can then return home and that areas will not, for example, be designated as militarily sensitive zones, to which people cannot return?

As we look at points of pressure, what is happening to put pressure on the LTTE to let civilians go? What further pressure can be put on the Sri Lankan Government, who, as the noble Lord said, are not a terrorist group but a Government with particular responsibilities? What is the Government’s position on Sri Lanka’s request for a significant IMF loan? Surely Sri Lanka must first listen to the reasonable humanitarian requests of the international community.

What discussions has the Minister had with other Governments to produce a package of other financial sanctions, such as the end to all non-emergency development aid, which might be imposed on the Government of Sri Lanka if they fail to listen, as has been suggested by the International Crisis Group and others? Beyond that, does he agree, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said, that no lasting peace will be possible if the concerns of both communities are not addressed? What plans are there for full international engagement to ensure that a just peace follows the bloodshed of this period? Without that, Sri Lanka will continue to be extremely unstable, which is in no one’s interests, from whichever community they come.

30 Apr 2009 : Column 386

3.30 pm

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, I thank both noble Baronesses for their statements. I shall try to respond to the many questions they have posed with the caveat used by the Foreign Secretary of the “fog of war”. Frankly, much of the detail of this conflict, such as the number of casualties or whether war crimes have been committed, is very hard to establish at the moment. The international agencies, not having the degree of access that they might normally have in such a situation, are forced to make guesstimates and to acknowledge that on certain issues they do not have enough information on which to offer a judgment.

On the number of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone, although the Government believe that the number may be as low as some thousands, and perhaps up to 6,000, the United Nations believes that the figure is more than 50,000 and has said so publicly. There is no agreement even on the size of the remaining civilian problem. Certainly the Foreign Secretary and his French counterpart urged the maximum restraint on the Government of Sri Lanka and they have just announced that there would be an end to the use of heavy weapons. That issue came up in the two Foreign Secretaries’ meeting with the Sri Lankan defence minister, where it was observed that suspending the use of these weapons came as a surprise because people thought that they had already stopped using them. There is continued uncertainty about exactly the type of fighting that is going on. The Government insist that it is now in a last-phase operation and others allege that there is still very heavy fighting.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page