I beg to move, That this House
do now adjourn.
I am pleased to have this opportunity today to debate the situation in Sri Lanka, and I am grateful to the right hon. and hon. Members present for their interest in this important issue. There has been mounting concern about the continuing violence and tragic displacement of people from their homes on that beautiful island. I want the House to know that this debate is the result of expressions of concern from right hon. and hon. Members. It is not, as some propagandists and partisan elements have claimed, a debate generated by any faction of Sri Lankan politics or by any lobbying organisations claiming to represent any part of the large Sri Lankan diaspora residing in Britain, pro or anti-LTTE.
I participated in a debate on Sri Lanka a year ago, when I expressed the hope that its Government and the LTTE—the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—would fulfil the commitments that they made at talks in Geneva in February 2006, which were the first talks for three years. The Government had pledged that no armed group or person other than Government security forces would carry arms or conduct operations. For its part, the LTTE had pledged to ensure that there would be no acts of violence against the security forces and the police.
Sadly, those commitments remain unfulfilled. We have over the past year seen worsening violence. Extra-judicial killings, disappearances, intimidation and violence by paramilitary groups are all too common. The violence has fuelled an atmosphere of extreme mistrust and polarisation, which has fuelled further antagonism and violence. Innocent civilians have borne the brunt. There are now more than 100,000 displaced persons in the eastern district of Batticaloa and hundreds more arrive every day. There have been more than 700 cases of missing persons in the Jaffna peninsular, and nearly 500 are still unresolved. There have been more than 50 abductions in Colombo in the past year, and nine media workers have lost their lives in recent months. In the past few weeks, bus bombings have killed dozens of people simply going about their daily business. These are despicable terrorist acts that are totally without justification.
The responsibility of the LTTE for violent acts over the years is well documented. It is a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000. The EU listed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation in May 2006. We have repeatedly urged the LTTE to move away from the path of violence. In the absence of a full renunciation of terrorism in deed and word, there can be no question of reconsidering its proscribed status. LTTE involvement in killings, torture, detention of civilians and denial of freedom of speech is a reality. The LTTE does not tolerate any expression of opposition and its continuing recruitment of child soldiers is a matter of great concern.
The ability of the LTTE to raise funds overseas helps to sustain its ability to carry out violent acts and reduces the incentive to move way from the path of violence. LTTE fundraising activity in the United Kingdom encourages war, not peace. It will not be tolerated, and I have recently met our security authorities to discuss how we can counter the bullying, threats and acts of fraud that are used regularly to extract money from the Tamil population and others in the country.
The LTTE is not the only source of violence in Sri Lanka, however. Civilians in Government-controlled areas regularly fall victim to brutal attacks by paramilitary groups, often acting with apparent immunity. Reports of the Government's links with the faction led by Karuna, a former LTTE commander, concern us a great deal. We believe Karuna and his faction to be responsible for extra-judicial killings, abductions, intimidation of displaced persons and child recruitment. Karuna's record is appalling, and we will be watching very closely whether he acts on his commitment to the United Nations to address the child recruitment issue. We will want to see clear evidence that he has delivered against his welcome promises. Karuna needs to go further and cease all acts of violence and intimidation against civilians.
There must be no question of the Government of Sri Lanka allowing Karuna to perpetrate those crimes. If they are serious in their desire to find paths to an inclusive, peaceful Sri Lanka that embraces all its peoples and cultures, they must disassociate themselves completely from all acts of abuse, terrorism, intimidation or torture, no matter who commits them or what agency encourages them.
"Karuna hasn't merely supported the LTTE cause, he has orchestrated support in the US"?
Before the Minister concludes his speech, will he answer two questions? First, what international co-ordination is there on intelligence to stop fundraising for the LTTE? Secondly, is there similar co-ordination to ensure that people such as Karuna, who have committed acts of terrorism, are brought to justice?
The hon. Gentleman is right: the list of crimes by this faction is long. We have been exchanging intelligence with a number of agencies in other countries. He will know that I cannot go into detail about that matter, although I can say that lately intelligence has indicated that there may be widespread fraud scams in the country. We are not certain about that, but they may be one of the sources of funding, at least part of which finds its way back to the LTTE and acts of terrorism.
Achieving peace is not going to be an easy task, and of course it is primarily for the Sri Lankan people to find a way forward. However, the international community can help. The Norwegians have had a central role in facilitating the 2002 ceasefire agreement, and the British Government applaud their efforts. It is obvious from recent events that the ceasefire is in trouble, if not shot to pieces. If it is adhered to and underpinned by the right conditions, however, it can still be a good base from which to launch a new peace initiative. The Norwegians have worked tirelessly and in difficult conditions to advance the cause of peace. As I said, they have our support. We value our regular consultations with them. The Norwegians tell us our commitment is valuable at this time. We support the work of the co-chairs—the US, the EU, Japan and Norway.
I cannot tell my hon. Friend whether that is true. I do not know; this is the first that I have heard of it, if it is the case. I will try to find out for him, and if I can find anything constructive, I shall write to him.
What is Britain doing to help with the search for peace? First and foremost, we are offering the benefit of our Northern Ireland experience. Sri Lanka is not Northern Ireland. It has a population of 20 million, which is more than 10 times that of Northern Ireland, and it is five times larger in area, but we think there are lessons from Northern Ireland that can be applied in a Sri Lankan context. For example, we learned the hard way that a focus on security can get us only so far. A lasting peace can come only if the underlying causes of conflict are addressed. In Sri Lanka, that means focusing on a credible framework for a negotiated settlement. An all-party conference will shortly present its findings on a constitutional way forward. I look forward to the publication of proposals for a framework for peace that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans, and to a constructive response to such proposals from the Sri Lankan Government.
Our Northern Ireland experience told us that peace will not happen until the parties to the conflict understand that nothing can be gained by continuing violence. A military victory for one side is very unlikely to produce a lasting political solution. Our experience tells us that an emphasis on the military inevitably means more war, rather than peace. A military victory is rarely winnable in the long run. Violence comes with too high a price. In Sri Lanka, we can see that such an approach brings suffering to the people, as human rights are eroded, the humanitarian situation deteriorates, a culture of impunity develops among the killers, extortionists and torturers, and mistrust between communities increases. That, in turn, damages Sri Lanka's image in the eyes of the world. We are doing all we can to get that message across.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise for arriving too late to hear the start of his speech. Unfortunately, the previous business ended rather suddenly and the debate began before I could get here.
My hon. Friend mentioned human rights. There is considerable concern in Sri Lanka and internationally about the human rights situation at the present time. Several international organisations have suggested that the only real solution is to set up a UN-sponsored human rights monitoring commission. How would the Government view such a body?
That suggestion is well worth considering. I will come to the question of a monitoring organisation in a minute. Of course, we already have one, and perhaps the best thing is to make that work rather than search for another one. However, it is certainly something that we could discuss.
High-level engagement is an essential part of our efforts to help with the search for peace in Sri Lanka. Last August, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister offered to share our experience of Northern Ireland with the Sri Lankan President, and he retains a close interest in events in Sri Lanka. I was particularly grateful that my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy visited Sri Lanka in November to convey his invaluable experience as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Accompanied by another expert in these matters from the Northern Ireland Office, Mr. Chris McCabe, he met the President, Ministers and members of civil society. He also met representatives of the LTTE; the lessons of peace can only work if conveyed to all parties to the conflict. We remain ready to talk to the LTTE if such contacts can help the cause of peace. The response in Sri Lanka to my right hon. Friend's visit was very positive. I know that the President shares my wish that he and Mr. McCabe will pay a return visit to the island, and I understand that preparations are already under way for that.
I was pleased to visit Sri Lanka for a second time in February this year. In my meetings with the President, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Secretary, I underlined the British Government's wish to help in the search for peace. I stressed that a military solution was not the way forward—a message that I repeated to an MP from the Tamil National Alliance. The President told me that he thought that our contact with the LTTE would be helpful. I visited Ampara in the east of the island and was pleased to meet representatives of local communities—not only Sinhalese and Tamil but Muslims. It will be important to take into account the views of the Muslim community in any final negotiated settlement. I heard from UNICEF about the reality of child abductions and the threats and intimidations suffered by other non-governmental organisations in the east of the island.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister in London in March. She reiterated Britain's commitment to peace and our willingness to get involved in that whole process. She spoke of the terrible humanitarian impact of the conflict on the civilian population and the need for both sides to do more to protect that population. She repeated the message that there can be no military solution to conflict. The Minister assured her that a credible framework for negotiated settlement would issue very soon.
I, too, apologise for arriving late, having been caught out by the business moving so swiftly.
I thank my hon. Friend for his focus on these issues; whenever we have asked to meet to discuss them, he has been ready to do so. One of the bars to a proper solution to this problem is the ban that remains on the LTTE. Has he had any further discussions with the Home Secretary about whether the Government would be prepared to lift that ban, so ensuring that all parties could be part of a discussion to bring peace to the island?
My right hon. Friend, through no fault of his own, missed that part of my speech. If he will forgive me, I will not go back over it but simply say that, for reasons that I tried to explain a little earlier, I have not met my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to discuss this matter; if I thought that it was a good idea I would certainly do so. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen met LTTE representatives in the north of the island, and we are prepared to meet LTTE representatives in Sri Lanka if it is considered that that will help the peace process. I hope that that is clear enough.
We are all apologising for lateness, but I was not as late as the others.
As we learned from Northern Ireland, individual issues can build up to create a sense of grievance. That is the case with regard to the proscription and non-recognition of the LTTE. Although there can be informal dialogue, nothing can substitute for more formal dialogue and recognition. Removing the ban would undermine one of the elements of the sense of grievance that contributes towards the conflict.
I take my hon. Friend's point, which is something that we have to consider. However, I have to tell him that, of all Members in this House, I am very much averse to recognising the legitimacy, if I could put it like that, of suicide bombers, murderers, torturers and rapists. I have been there twice and I have heard these stories myself many times, from NGOs and from Tamils themselves, as well as from Sinhalese and the Sinhalese Government. This has to be considered very carefully. As I tried to explain earlier, there is no silver bullet that will sort everything out. If we thought that that recognition would take matters forward, we would certainly be prepared to consider it very seriously—I give my hon. Friend that undertaking.
I must add my apologies for lateness.
The Minister clearly wants to ensure that there is a balanced discussion about this issue, and he is right because it is very serious. However, could not he lay out a review process and explain how he might talk to colleagues in this House and groups in this country, as well as to the people he and his colleagues have met on their visits to Sri Lanka, to determine the criteria? Some people in communities throughout this country and around this House feel that a one-sided approach is being taken and that a proper review process might ensure that a truly balanced approach is taken.
The hon. Gentleman is not to know this, but we have had quite a number of meetings with Tamil groups from around the country. As well as talking to the Sri Lankan Government, we have met all kinds of representatives. Let me assure him that this is a completely balanced approach. Securing this debate is part of that process, and I hope that he will contribute to it. Our approach seeks not to take sides either with the Sinhalese Government or with the LTTE but to try to use our good offices and our experience in Northern Ireland, among other places, to try to find ways in which it might be possible to help the Norwegians to make the ceasefire work, and then to take that peace process forward, put the issues on the table, and get everyone around the table to try to resolve the issue.
Some 60,000 people have died in this war so far, and perhaps 1 million people have been displaced. It is a very serious conflict by any standards in the world, and we are working very hard to try to resolve it, but, believe me, there is no easy way forward on this one—it will take a long time. This conflict has been going on for a very long time. Before you took your seat in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr. Deputy Speaker was telling me that he remembers it kicking off when he was out there in 1983—in fact, it was the day after he left; I do not know whether he was to blame.
We complement our high-level engagement with more practical assistance through a joint Department for International Development, Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office peace-building strategy for Sri Lanka. The focus includes people-to-people contacts between communities, mechanisms to provide early warning of potential for conflict, and development of civil society capacity to monitor conflict. We are involved in all those processes. We believe that quiet activity of that kind has an important role to play in these difficult times.
I know that many in the Sri Lankan diaspora have been pleased to see Britain's active involvement in Sri Lanka. We believe the Sri Lankan diaspora in Britain to be perhaps as great as 200,000 strong. It is important that we take into account their views and insights as we try to formulate a balanced policy on Sri Lanka. Right hon. and hon. Members present will understand that there is a wide range of views within the community on a way forward for peace and the role of Britain in Sri Lanka. We try to listen to all perspectives within the community, and we value those opinions and insights.
I congratulate the Minister on his balanced approach to a sensitive and difficult subject. He has been subject to calls during the debate to recognise the LTTE. Is not it difficult to do that when, for example, the organisation assassinated the Foreign Minister, who was an ethnic Tamil, in 2005? As long as organisations practise such blatant violence and disruption of civil society, it is difficult to give them the recognition that they crave.
The hon. Gentleman made that point well—I could not have made it more vividly.
The Tamil community has been especially concerned about deteriorating human rights in Sri Lanka. Its concern is understandable—many of its members have first-hand accounts of the difficulties that their friends and family face daily. Earlier, I spoke about the abductions, disappearances, intimidation and extra-judicial killings that have regrettably become commonplace. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have made our position clear to the Government of Sri Lanka. There has to be an end to the culture of impunity. Those responsible for human rights violations should be brought to justice.
We have welcomed the establishment of a President's commission and an eminent persons group to observe the commission's work. The British Government are funding the participation of Sir Nigel Rodley, an internationally respected professor of law, in that group. We shall continue to raise our concerns with the Sri Lankan Government.
Considerable concern and criticism have been expressed about the Sri Lankan Government's failure to support the commission in its essential work, with which the international community is involved through the eminent persons group. What action have the British Government taken to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government do everything that they can to help the commission in its work?
We have attempted, through all diplomatic channels, to clarify for the Sri Lankan Government our determination that the process should work. Sir Nigel Rodley is not somebody to mess around with. He is a serious person, who will not take part in the group if he believes that his investigations are being impeded in any way. We have great confidence in him and in the eminent persons group to see the matter through. We urge the Sri Lankan Government to make their rhetoric on the need for a proper investigative commission work on the ground. We shall continue to urge them to do that and facilitate that work wherever we can.
Britain is a great friend of Sri Lanka and the dire situation there is a matter of great concern to the Government. We are determined to work with the Government of Sri Lanka to bring peace. We are ready to talk to all parties to the conflict if that can help with the search for a solution. I have spoken of three things that need to happen to make peace possible. First, the parties to the conflict must accept that a military victory is neither possible nor a basis for a lasting solution. Secondly, there has to be a credible framework for a negotiated settlement—I hope that that can emerge from the work of the all-party conference. Thirdly, there must be respect for the human rights of all Sri Lankans and an end to the culture of impunity.
Britain stands ready to help the Sri Lankans find a peaceful solution to their conflict that will offer a bright future for all their citizens. I hope that the House will agree that the Government's commitment to peace in Sri Lanka at this difficult time has been genuine and that it will be sustained.
I congratulate the Minister on his calm and balanced introduction to the debate. We have had a good start to a debate on a subject that evokes passions. It is important to debate it in the House.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful island with a population of approximately 19.5 million people and it has been my pleasure to visit it. It is rightly a popular tourist destination—it has more than 600 miles of beaches, with resorts on the west, south and east coasts. It also contains deep jungle and mountain slopes, where high quality Ceylon tea is grown.
Sri Lanka has an ancient and historic civilisation, some of which I have explored through ruined cities and buildings such as palaces, dagobars and Buddhist temples throughout the island. I am conscious of the substantial archaeological interest in various sites, including Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa, Sigirya, Dambulla and Kandy, where the glory of the island's past can be witnessed at first hand.
I have been welcomed by the friendly people of Sri Lanka when I have visited. It is therefore especially sad, given its natural richness, that the troubles and deep divisions persist on that beautiful island. I note that the Minister visited in February. As he said, the problems have been going on for far too long. The dispute in Sri Lanka does not get as much international attention as it deserves when compared with Darfur, Somalia or Burma. That is a travesty, given the long-standing nature of the conflict.
Its recent history began in 1975, when a Tamil, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, began to form an extremist wing, which is now known as the Tamil Tigers—the LTTE. The Foreign Office estimates that, since that conflict began, nearly 70,000 people have been killed and perhaps more than a million people have been displaced. It is a major conflict in anybody's terms. In recent times, the conflict and death rates have escalated. In answer to a written parliamentary question from me earlier this year, the Minister said that there were 1,000 civilian deaths last year and 40 this January alone. I also note that some 64,857 internally displaced persons are in the process of being resettled. That is expected to happen by the end of July.
The conflict has brought untold misery to many more throughout the country who have been injured, displaced or lost loved ones. The international community should make renewed efforts to inject momentum into the peace process. As the Minister repeated several times, a political solution, agreed by all the parties involved in the dispute, is the only lasting answer to the problem.
To begin to resolve the conflict, both sides must recognise that that will not happen by military means. As the United Kingdom Government discovered in Northern Ireland, there must be a political solution. There will never be a military solution to the Sri Lankan problem.
Given the deeply ingrained feelings of mistrust on both sides, resolution is not an easy prospect, as the Minister said. Yet we should not stop trying. It should be our purpose today to discuss what we can do to facilitate the end of the violence in that beautiful country.
There is almost daily violence between the armed forces of the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. On Friday, three Sri Lankan navy personnel were killed by members of the LTTE in a gun battle in Trincomalee on the east coast. On Thursday, Sri Lankan army troops launched an attack on the rebel mortar position in the north-west of the country, where clashes the previous day left 23 combatants dead. The sad truth is that similar incidents happen every day and will probably continue to happen unless something is done to stop them.
As the Minister said, only five years ago the position appeared a great deal more positive, when the 2002 peace agreement brokered by the Norwegian-led peace envoy was signed on
"recognise the importance of bringing an end to hostilities and improving the living conditions for all inhabitants affected by the conflict... bringing an end to the hostilities is also seen... as a means of establishing a positive atmosphere in which further steps towards negotiations on a lasting solution can be taken."
Unfortunately, from that high water mark, it is clear that a solution in Sri Lanka is in desperate need of a positive atmosphere, demonstrated by the working of that peace accord.
I greatly welcome and appreciate the efforts of the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Murphy, who is present today. He visited the country in November and met not only members of the Sri Lankan Government but non-governmental organisations and senior members of the LTTE. His wealth of knowledge of how the Northern Ireland peace solution evolved should be invaluable to both sides of the conflict. I welcome the friendly way in which he felt able to discuss that matter with me. It has been a considerable help in understanding the problems of Sri Lanka.
I believe that the example of Northern Ireland is particularly pertinent when considering a solution in Sri Lanka. For a long time, the IRA pursued a violent military campaign to try to force the British Government to concede to its demands, yet it finally realised that the British Government and the British people would not buckle to its tactics. Thankfully, we have now seen an end to the IRA's campaign of violence. The LTTE and others should take their lead from the IRA and involve themselves in the political process. The simple reality is that no Government can or should give in to the demands of those who would kill and maim innocent civilians. The use of violence to make one's voice heard is unacceptable in a civilised society.
Independent reports of bombings, shootings, the recruitment of child soldiers by the LTTE have resulted, as we heard today, in the organisation becoming proscribed by the EU, the US, Australia and India. The LTTE seeks to justify its actions because it claims that it faces discrimination from the Sri Lankan Government, while also claiming that it is denied the right to an independent homeland. However, there is never justification for a campaign of aggression on the scale that we have seen.
Let me turn briefly to deal with the role that the Sri Lankan Government could play in this conflict. The Government are internationally recognised as the democratically elected Administration of the country. Equally, it cannot be said that the Sri Lankan Government have played no part in exacerbating the conflict. I think that the Sri Lankan Government's decision to close the main A9 road to Jaffna and leave it closed for such a long time was unhelpful and I know that many right hon. and hon. Members, including myself, called on the Government to open that road during the period that it was closed.
What makes the Sri Lankan Government's decisions unacceptable is that they have refused access to international aid agencies, which bring much-needed humanitarian relief to the people of that troubled north-east region. I know that the Minister met the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka and doubtless made that point to him. I also met him when he came here in early March and made precisely that point.
Political representation for the Tamil minority in Sri Lankan politics is another issue that needs serious consideration. If Sri Lanka is to be capable of creating a long-term and peaceful solution to its problems, engagement in an inclusive political process is essential.
The Tamil community has claimed for a long time that it faced discrimination by the Sinhalese establishment. It complains that it has been and continues to be marginalised and stopped from reaching positions of power. I believe that the Government of Sri Lanka should take that very seriously and should make every effort to rectify it and foster a lasting sense of understanding between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil population that will ultimately lead to peace. It must be made clear that the Tamil people will be allowed to share power and that their political involvement will be welcomed.
The best way for the Sri Lankan Government to defeat insurrection is to offer the Tamil people a peaceful and meaningful democratically accountable role in the Sri Lankan Parliament. Those affected by the conflict must be desperate for an alternative that will end violence, yet while no realistic alternative exists, the LTTE will continue to gain support from their populations. The Sri Lankan Government should seek to win hearts and minds in order to cut off support to that base and the extremists.
I welcome the actions of the Sri Lankan Government's security forces, including paramilitaries, but they must be careful that they are not seen to be abusing human rights. In that respect, I welcome the independent group of eminent persons, which Mr. Love mentioned, so ably chaired by the respected Indian judge, Mr. Bhagwati, as well as Sir Nigel Rodley and an EU representative. The work that this independent acceptable group could do would be commendable.
The international community is rightly concerned that the Sri Lankan Government have not necessarily addressed serious human rights abuses, including torture, being perpetrated by the LTTE against civilians. The Minister recognised today that the LTTE is accused by UNICEF and others of having recruited more than 6,500 children for its armed campaign. That is quite unacceptable. As the Minister told me in a written parliamentary answer:
"Officials regularly make clear that the use of child soldiers in Sri Lanka cannot be tolerated."—[ Hansard, 9 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 453-54W.]
I was very pleased to hear him restate that again today.
Similarly, the LTTE continues to make allegations against the Government. It recently accused them of killing 10 Indian fishermen who had strayed into Sri Lankan territorial waters. The Tamil Nadu state Government in India, however, confirmed that the LTTE was responsible for killing the Indian fishermen. Clearly, there is a certain amount of spinning and false propaganda.
How is it funded? I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that the weapons used by the LTTE have increased in sophistication. Indeed, it recently acquired a light aircraft with a range of 600 miles in which it was able to carry out a series of air strikes across the country, damaging an oil depot owned by Royal Dutch Shell and the Indian Oil Corporation. The LTTE hit the main airport in Colombo earlier this week and the flights of three international airlines—Cathay Pacific, Singapore and Emirates airlines—have been suspended. Evidence suggests that some of air raids were assisted by Canadian-trained Tamil engineers. With an economy that is heavily reliant on the tourist industry, the aims of the LTTE are obvious. It seeks to cripple the island's economy with its acts, harming the entire island's economic well-being.
Where does LTTE funding come from? The US State Department's annual country terrorism report, published on Monday, suggests that the LTTE finances itself from the Tamil diaspora based in North America, Europe and Australia, as well as by imposing "local taxes" on businesses operating in the areas of Sri Lanka that it controls.
As I said in my intervention, a chief fund raiser of the LTTE, Karunakaran Kandasamy, was arrested last week in the United States under charges of raising funds to support terrorism and fomenting terrorism in the United States. The assistant director of the FBI said:
"Karuna hasn't merely supported the LTTE cause, he has orchestrated support in the US."
In a similar case yesterday, the Australian federal police arrested two men under suspicion of diverting funds intended to go to victims of the 2004 Boxing day tsunami to the LTTE in order to buy arms.
In addition to those two cases, numerous others demonstrate that the LTTE has a sophisticated and complex international fundraising network. The Minister was right in his response to some of his Back Benchers that we would need to be incredibly careful about de-proscribing the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. I hope that the Minister who replies to the debate will be able to tell the House what efforts the British Government are making to work with the international community to root out those who would raise money for the LTTE and other terrorist groups.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech, and I accept the general thrust of his remarks. Will he confirm, however, that the Opposition would welcome discussions with the LTTE, and that they believe that it will be necessary to speak to them if we are ever to reach a settlement in this conflict?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that my speech has made it crystal clear that there will have to be a political process, and that, just as in Northern Ireland, that will occasionally involve talking—perhaps covertly—to people to whom one would not necessarily wish to talk. Without talking to the other side, we can never understand where they are coming from, how a solution might be reached, what areas of common agreement there might be or what the differences are. We need to work slowly on the differences until we reach a solution.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention; I did not know about that visit. Any such dialogue can only be helpful.
Further to the previous two points, it is also important to stress that the ceasefire agreement that was reached a few years ago was signed up to by the LTTE, who was very much engaged in talks with Prime Minister Wickramasinghe. It is only the election of the Rajapakse Government that has caused a big deterioration in the relationships. The hon. Gentleman is making some valid points about the shortcomings of the LTTE, but it was engaged in the peace process with the previous Sri Lankan Government, and it is important to put that firmly on record.
I have made it clear that I want to see an inclusive political dialogue, and there can be a dialogue only between two parties. That means that the Sri Lankan Government must also become fully engaged in the process. As the Minister and I have said repeatedly, there cannot be a military solution, so it is in the interests of the Government and the people of Sri Lanka that we promote this dialogue from all sides. Anything that the international community can do to foster and facilitate that will be a good thing. I do not want to get into the internal politics of Sri Lanka—that is not our business—but I urge the Sri Lankan Government fully to participate in the process.
Before I conclude, I want to consider the role of the Indian Government, who have a significant role to play in solving the problems in Sri Lanka. It is clear that there is support for the cause of the LTTE among the people in the nearest Indian province to Sri Lanka—Tamil Nadu. I asked the Minister what representations he and the Foreign Office had made to the Indian Government to determine how we might stop some of the funding.
I am sure that the House will join me in supporting the reinvigoration of the peace process and the Norwegian-led Sri Lankan monitoring mission—the so-called SLMN. We need to promote peace through this means. I also congratulate the co-chairs whom the Minister mentioned. However, a BBC news report on
"There was always the suspicion that the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government turned up"— to the peace talks in Geneva—
"only because of international pressure and without any real desire to talk peace...and a lack of progress seems to prove this."
I do not know whether that it true or not; that is the BBC's view. Suffice it to say that anything that the British Government and the international community can do to encourage the Norwegian-led peace process has to be a good thing.
There are some who say that Britain should take a stronger role. However, I believe that the position of Britain as the former colonial power opens us up to allegations of interfering in independent territories. Similarly, the large number of members of the Sri Lankan diaspora in this country makes if difficult for us to take a bilateral role. Of course we should encourage the Norwegian-led peace process and any UN peace process, and we should welcome the all-party report that is about to be presented in the Sri Lankan Government, but it would be wrong for the British Government to take a bilateral role.
To conclude, I have a number of questions, and I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State for International Development were able to answer them when he sums up. What further ideas do the British Government have to resolve the situation? How can the Sri Lankan monitoring mission be strengthened? In the Government's view, does it have adequate funding, resources and access to all sides in the debate? Do the Government have any plans, during our chairmanship of the Security Council, to raise the matter in the Security Council or General Assembly? What direct representations has the Minister or the Foreign Office made to the Indian Government, to whom I have just referred, regarding the advancement of the peace process or the funding to the LTTE from the main continent of India?
As I asked the Minister, is intelligence between the EU, United States, Australia and India being properly co-ordinated, and are the Government satisfied that all the necessary channels of communication are in place to do that? I want to ensure particularly that those who commit atrocities, who are well known, should be brought to trial, and that external funding to purchase the increasingly sophisticated weaponry that I have mentioned is halted, as it seems to me that it can only worsen the terrorist insurrection.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful island—some have called it the gem of the Indian ocean—with a wonderful, friendly, hospitable people, whose suffering as a result of this dispute is a monumental tragedy. It is the responsibility of anyone who has interests in the future prosperity and well-being of the people of Sri Lanka to ensure that their actions do not facilitate further violence. Above all, it is the duty of the international community to act in a co-ordinated way to help to facilitate a much-needed peace solution.
The hon. Gentleman has justifiably spent much of his speech criticising the LTTE and many of the outrages that it has perpetrated. The human rights record across the island of Sri Lanka is among the worst in the world. While he did say, in concluding his remarks, that all parties must recognise their responsibility, there was little in his speech that referred to some of the mistakes, not to say excesses, of the Sri Lankan Government, whose actions, over time, have produced a disproportionate number of Tamil civilian casualties.
I welcome that intervention. Of course, we should be totally even-handed. It is wrong for outside observers to criticise one party without examining the actions of the other. Of course, the Sri Lankan Government have committed faults, as I said, and the armed forces and special forces of the Sri Lankan Government have committed human rights abuses. The Sri Lankan Government must be clear that those are properly investigated, and anyone in a position of official power who has committed atrocities and human rights abuses should be brought to book and prosecuted too.
I hope that Jim Dowd will not think that the Opposition have a one-sided view; we certainly do not. Our sole objective in holding the Government to account today is to try to bring the hostilities to an end and return the island to its former status as a beautiful, prosperous, happy and safe place with which we can do business, with the diaspora in this country prospering too.
The interchange between Jim Dowd touched on the issue of human rights, and that must be set in the context of the 65,000 to 70,000 people who have perished on that island in about 30 years. I will deal with the Northern Ireland comparison later, but the two situations are uncannily similar in terms of the proportionate number of people who have died, been injured or been displaced: Northern Ireland has a population of approximately 1.5 million, and some 3,500 people died there.
When I visited the island in November I was struck, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State and the hon. Member for Cotswold said, by what a beautiful island it was, and how talented, courteous and decent the people were from whatever background they came—certainly to me personally, in my limited experience. Incidentally, I saw no examples of religious intolerance on that island. Travelling late at night from the airport to the capital city, we turned one corner and saw a statute of St. Anthony of Padua, and turned another corner and saw a Buddhist shrine. When I went to the north, I saw a cathedral at the end of a street, and the sacred cows of the Hindus walking in the same street. Of course, a substantial minority of Muslims also play an active role in the country.
I was struck by the fact that all those to whom I talked, whatever their background or experience, were very complimentary about our own country. I felt that, in accordance with the deep relationship between Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom and its people—not least, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister, the diaspora of 200,000 who live in our land—those on the island were still very sympathetic to us, as a country and as British people.
I want to say something about the small role that I played back in November, and to share my experiences with the House. The President of Sri Lanka had asked the Prime Minister if we could send someone to share our experiences of peacemaking in Northern Ireland with the Government and peoples of Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister asked me to go, as a former Minister of State and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, along with Chris MacCabe, political director of the Northern Ireland Office. My experience in Northern Ireland went back a dozen years; his went back nearly four decades. His experience, knowledge and expertise proved very important in our meetings.
During our visit I met the President, a number of Ministers and civil servants, the peace secretariats, non-governmental organisations, the armed forces, different political parties, bodies set up by the Government to consider the country's constitutional future and a panel of experts, and I travelled to the north of the island to talk at some length with the LTTE. In all those encounters, I met nothing but courtesy and friendliness. I also met representatives of the business community in Columbia, who are very important to the country's future regeneration.
The message that I tried to get across did not involve preaching to anyone, or telling the people of Sri Lanka what to do. That would have been entirely counterproductive. I think that the reason for the point we have reached in Northern Ireland—over the whole 10-year period of the peace process, and over the last few weeks in particular—is that the people of Northern Ireland themselves created the peace process and the peace settlement. Similarly, it is for the people of Sri Lanka to complete their own peace and political processes.
In many ways, I was in Sri Lanka to tell a story—a success story, I am delighted to say, and I am sure we are all delighted about it. I wanted to know whether people in Sri Lanka, within or outside politics, could look to us and Northern Ireland as an example in bringing peace to their country. The first message that I hoped to convey to the people and their representatives was one that had been given to them, only weeks before I went to Sri Lanka, by Mr. Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister-elect and the chief negotiator for Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland peace talks. He had gone to Sri Lanka and said what my hon. Friend the Minister has said: that no one can win the war in Sri Lanka, just as no one could win the war in Northern Ireland.
It is possible to continue such a war, of course. More people can die, more people can be injured and more people can be displaced. Ultimately, however, comes the realisation that a military solution is not possible. I say that without reference to either side: it applies across the board, like our tests on abuse of human rights, torture, and all the other terrible things that have happened in that country. I lay no blame on anyone. I simply say that, at the end of the day, military action leads nowhere.
How is it possible for those in Sri Lanka to look to our peace process in Northern Ireland, beyond that central message, and for peace to come to Sri Lanka? One answer is that there must be absolute parity of esteem, the phrase that we used in Northern Ireland. It means that all people must be treated equally, regardless of their past or who they might be. Every single idea or concept—some might be dotty, some good; it matters not—must be put on the table. Such inclusiveness had to apply not only to the constitutional settlement—that is being worked on in detail in Sri Lanka—but also to the issues of language, social and economic equality, human rights, freedom of information and all the other things that divide people. Such issues have divided people in Northern Ireland, and they do so in Sri Lanka, and none of them should be excluded from discussion.
Another lesson that can be learned is that there must be an international dimension to any solution in Sri Lanka. I pay tribute to our Norwegian friends, who have done a tremendous job in Sri Lanka in holding things together as best they can. They have often managed to engage in difficult circumstances where almost everybody was against them because they were in the middle. This House and the Government should pay tribute to the work that the Norwegians do, and we should also pay tribute to the co-chairs. When I was in Sri Lanka, I met the ambassadors of the EU, Japan, India and the United States, and our own high commissioner, who is doing a good job.
On the Norwegians and the peace process, does the right hon. Gentleman think that externalising the negotiations in Geneva is the right way forward, or would it be helpful to have one or two meetings in Sri Lanka itself? Does he have a view on that?
I have a view, but I would not want to propose it to either side in Sri Lanka as a solution to things. I suggest that the Northern Ireland peace process was ultimately successful because it was held in Northern Ireland. There was also international chairmanship from three different countries. People were constantly working on a peace process. Members will recall that people were elected to be negotiators in Northern Ireland, and that they were, in effect, locked up in Castle buildings in Belfast for almost three years, and they were paid, and had support, to do nothing but negotiate. It is important that there is that constant working at a peace process—as is the fact that in negotiations people inevitably come together. They have to come together because they are physically together and they are talking together.
That issue of talking is very important. My hon. Friend Mr. Love touched on that. Even at the most desperate times over the last 30 years in this country, there were lines of communication between those in Northern Ireland who were engaged in the strife there and our Government. We should read the history books about what happened over the past 30 years. At no time did the lines of communication cease. That is missing in Sri Lanka. The British Government and our allies should constantly press for there always to be a proper line of communication. There is a line of communication with the Norwegians, but another could be set up.
In Sri Lanka, I met the people who had been displaced in the eastern part of the island. That dramatically brought home the appalling tragedy for ordinary human beings of situations such as that in Sri Lanka. We are talking in this nice Chamber this afternoon, but the reality is that there are men, women and children who are constantly and severely suffering because of the lack of peace, and the lack of a proper peace process, such as there was in Northern Ireland.
There is an issue to do with the diaspora which is also comparable to the Northern Ireland situation. We have talked about what happened in our case. One of the key reasons why the Northern Ireland process was successful was that the attitude of the Irish diaspora—in Australia and other countries to an extent, but most importantly in the United States—changed towards what should happen in Ireland. Nowadays, almost everybody in the USA—such as Irish-American politicians and business people—has signed up to the Good Friday agreement. If we can get the Sri Lankan diaspora across the world to have a similar frame of mind—if they begin to think that they can sign up to a process and then help the people of Sri Lanka economically and commercially—that will be a considerable improvement. However, that cannot happen unless there is a proper ceasefire.
The other great lesson that people across the world, and particularly in Sri Lanka, can take from our experiences in Northern Ireland is that a ceasefire has to be meaningful. Only when violence effectively ended in Northern Ireland did we see success. Of course, sporadic violence occurred, and to a certain extent it will continue to occur among criminal elements in Northern Ireland, but when the fighting stops and the ceasefire is effective, everything is possible. To me, that is the first and most important thing that should happen.
There is another, political issue. In the past 30 years in this Chamber, there has been a bipartisan approach and unanimity among all political parties on the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland. That has not happened in Sri Lanka, but we should applaud the fact that it is beginning to happen. If the political parties do not adopt a unified approach, the issue of peace will become a political football, which is the last thing that should happen.
During his trip to Sri Lanka, my right hon. Friend will have received delegations from the Muslim community and from Tamil communities who are not part of the Tamil National Alliance, who are concerned that their voices might not be recognised in the dialogue between the LTTE and the Government on a solution to the Sri Lankan problem. The experience in Northern Ireland shows that all the different political tendencies ought to be recognised in order to reach a solution. Does my right hon. Friend view that as an important part of making progress in Sri Lanka?
That is a vital part of the process. As part of the peace-making negotiations in Northern Ireland, the tiniest of the parties elected had exactly the same say in the process, even though their votes did not necessarily carry the same weight. The necessary will, trust and confidence also have to be there. They can sometimes take many months—even years—to develop, but will, trust, confidence, parity of esteem and the equality of treatment of everybody, whatever their views might be, are essential.
I hope to visit Sri Lanka in the not-too-distant future and to take part in telling the story of our peace process in Northern Ireland. I am reminded of something that Lee Kuan Yew said, which some Members might also remember. When he was building Singapore, he wanted his country to become something like Ceylon, as it was then called. Now, of course, it should be the aim of everybody in Sri Lanka to ensure that their country becomes as prosperous, dignified and civilised a country as any other in the world.
I very much welcome this debate and the contributions of the Minister and of Mr. Murphy, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, given their experience in these matters. I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend Mr. Moore, who wanted to be here but cannot. I am therefore happy to speak on behalf of my colleagues, and to do so in the light of my interest in these issues over many years, having had the privilege and opportunity of visiting Sri Lanka a few years ago. My hon. Friend Mr. Davey and other hon. Friends with London constituencies represent, as I do, significant numbers of people from Sri Lanka from all the different communities. Many colleagues in the House are in the same position, so we have direct day-to-day knowledge of the experiences of our Sri Lankan constituents, who have lived out war and peace, death and bereavement. Constituents of mine have lost sisters and other direct family members.
This issue is very important to the United Kingdom. Sri Lanka is connected to us through huge links of history. It was not only a colony with which we had a trading background; there have been very positive relations following the Labour Government's granting of independence to Sri Lanka and the first former colonies after the war. Sri Lanka then evolved into a republic, and since then many commercial, travel, cultural and sporting links have been established. My only light-hearted comment on this issue is to commiserate with Sri Lanka on not, in the end, pulling off victory in the cricket world cup final in the West Indies.
Absolutely—says a Scot. Thank goodness the competition comes around again once every four years.
I wish to start by making two points, one from a constituency perspective and one from the historical perspective. First, I became involved in Sri Lankan issues because people came to see me about them. I knew about the history of the issues from the books, but soon after I was elected some Tamils came to see me. They wanted, as proud people in national groups who do not have autonomy do, to have the pride of running their own place. The Minister of State has strong Welsh links, as I do, and the Welsh are proud of their heritage. The Labour Government have given Wales more independence and we will celebrate that in the elections for the Welsh Assembly tomorrow. Further power will be given to the Assembly and I hope that, one day, it will become a Welsh Parliament. Colleagues from Scotland have celebrated the fantastic devolution to Scotland of its own Parliament and powers of decision making. The Tamils told me that they wanted to make their own decisions, too, and that is a laudable and honourable objective.
I was sympathetic to the Tamils' case and, over the years, I have met them and talked to people who have been sympathetic to all aspects of the struggle, including the peaceful and the military, just as in the past hon. Members have been sympathetic to people who took peaceful and non-peaceful routes in South Africa to try to get justice for their people. As people who are far more eminent than any of us, such as Archbishop Tutu and President Mandela, have said, one may never agree with people using violence, but one can understand why they sometimes do. I understand why some people decided that they had no recourse other than violence, and I have met some people who had taken that view.
A few years ago, I visited Anton Balasingham, the No. 2 in the LTTE who had settled in this country. He died a few months ago and his funeral was in north London. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton and I went to meet him because, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen said, the way forward is through dialogue with people on all sides.
I have been to the high commission of Sri Lanka and I have met Ministers when they have visited, and I have always tried to keep open the dialogue. However, the view of the Sri Lankan Government and officialdom has sometimes been that I must be a supporter of the Tamil Tigers and take the terrorists' view. I have never taken the terrorist view that taking arms and killing people is the solution. However, unless one recognises that the people who are in that position have the same right to put their case and unless they are engaged in the process—as Northern Ireland showed they have to be—there will be no peace. It is no good going back over the terrible history of Sri Lanka in the past 60 years, with the assassinations of Prime Ministers, Presidents and Foreign Ministers and people living by the bullet and suicide bombers. That cannot be used now as a justification for not talking to people, because that will mean that no progress will be made.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that he and I have often attended Tamil events in Trafalgar square. Does he agree that the non-recognition of the LTTE's presence in Britain is not helpful? We need to develop a dialogue, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy outlined after his visit. The declaration that the organisation is illegal has angered many people and does not help to bring about a peace process. That is not to say that those people approve of the violence, but they do want dialogue.
Speaking for myself, I share that view. I understand why the organisation was proscribed, but I agree that it has been more unhelpful than helpful. The proscription of organisations gives people a further cause to take up arms. I remember when Sinn Fein could not be heard to speak—its representatives were banned by the Conservative Government. Did that reduce support for Sinn Fein? Of course it did not. Did it make it go quiet? No. In fact, it gained support. Banning people makes them go underground. I am sure that the UK and the EU as a whole would benefit from the unbanning of the LTTE if that were to be part of a package of movement towards peace on all sides.
I understand where the hon. Gentleman is going with his argument, but the remarks of my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy about keeping communication channels open reminded me that Conservative Home Secretaries met representatives of the Provisional IRA, even when that organisation was banned. Does he agree that face-to-face contact and open lines of communication are more important than headlines about banning organisations?
I do agree. In Northern Ireland, the conversation was sometimes carried on through intermediaries. History shows that conflicts are resolved only by communication, often conducted by people who used to hold high office and who are slightly freer when they leave it. Those people may often not be well known public figures.
In that context, I want to pay a particular tribute to the Norwegian Government. London's Norwegian church is in my constituency, and I have had dealings with the community over many years. The Norwegian Government have been assiduous in offering their services in these matters, and they have done great work. I hope that they and other members of the international community will be given the opportunity to do more in the future. In the past, it has often been people outside Sri Lanka who have been able to facilitate communication and bring people together.
I turn now to the make-up of Sri Lanka, which is understood by everyone here, but not by everyone outside. The Minister told us that the island has a population of about 20 million, of whom about three quarters are Sinhala. Of the rest, about 13 per cent. are Tamil and about 5.5 per cent. are Muslim, with smaller groups making up the total. However, it should be noted that people in the various Sinhala, Tamil or other communities do not all share the same opinion about matters.
Three languages—Sinhalese, Tamil and English—are the most commonly spoken. Nearly two thirds of people are Buddhist, but there are significant Hindi, Muslim, Christian and other communities.
From the early days of independence, Sinhala nationalism became the flavour of the Sri Lankan Government, and Buddhism was given a particular status. We in Britain must not be hypocritical about that, as protestant Anglican Christianity has a similar status here. I consider that to be unhelpful in our modern age, and believe that no denomination or faith should have special status here. The situation in Sri Lanka is certainly not helpful: if there is to be progress, it must be accepted that all peoples, major languages and faiths deserve equal recognition.
I hope that the Sri Lankan Government understand that, although I know that they, like Governments in India, often depend on nationalist votes. However, if Sinhala nationalism can be justified, so can Tamil nationalism. An accommodation between the two sides needs to be reached.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again, and I shall try not to trespass on his patience. He is giving the House the history of what is a sad, tragic but utterly beautiful island, yet many of my Tamil constituents tell me that the first Governments after independence were made up of people from all communities, representing all strands of opinion in all parts of the island. The unity Government were destroyed not by a Tamil national movement, but by the sort of movement that he has described, which was not based in either the north or the east of the island.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Sri Lanka became independent in 1949, nearly 60 years ago. The great consensus was broken in 1956, when Solomon Bandaranaike was elected
"on a wave of Sinhalese nationalism", in the words of the BBC. At that time, Sinhala was made the island's sole official language and other measures were introduced to bolster Sinhalese-Buddhist feeling.
That is how the problem started. After independence, the majority Government said, "We are the bosses now, and no one else will get a look in." That Government represented two thirds of the people, and a 70 per cent. religious majority. The votes that were cast reflected that, as did the make-up of the Sri Lankan Parliament. As the situation in Sri Lanka in 1956 did not resemble the situation in Northern Ireland now, where there is a guarantee of participation across the communities, the island's Government have been able to impose their will on minorities. Only in 1976, 20 years later, was the LTTE formed in response. Eventually, Tamils in the north and east, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula and along the north-east coast, said, "We want our place, too. You've given us enough stick for 20 years." Since then, the Tamils have given as good as they got.
All the independent monitoring shows that the fault lies on both sides. I absolutely condemn suicide bombers, the use of child soldiers and the terrible violence, but let us remember that it started with the majority oppressing the minority. Unless there is recognition of that fact—what Tutu, Mandela and others call peace and reconciliation based on putting right injustices—there will be no progress.
If the hon. Gentleman checks, I think he will find that the issue started somewhat earlier, with the treatment of the plantation Tamils in the early 1950s, which should have been a sign of the problems to come—the majority language and the legislation to which he referred.
Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is right. He and I are roughly the same age and it was at about the time we were born that the Indian Tamil workers were disfranchised and the problems started, but the really heavy Government reaction came a few years later and it was much later before the LTTE responded.
Bluntly, unless the Government of Sri Lanka, under whichever President or Prime Minister, understand that without autonomy in defined areas and self-government—there is a debate about how that is defined, but the LTTE has said that it is willing to look at options other than independence—there will be no progress to a solution. It will not happen. Obviously, the solution has to be negotiated locally, just as negotiations on the concept of devolution of power to Northern Ireland were needed before there could be a breakthrough. There was rising nationalism in Scotland—less in Wales, although there was military action even in Wales, with the Welsh Liberation Army and little bomb blasts such as the one in Tryweryn. Apart from Northern Ireland, which was a big thing, we experienced only little things in this country, but they show that unless there is recognition of the need for autonomy there cannot be progress.
The Government of Sri Lanka must not run away from the need to accept that there will have to be autonomy and a democratic process. The people must be allowed to vote freely and decide which parts of Sri Lanka should have self-government. If Ukraine, which I respect greatly, can give self-government to Crimea and life can go on, Sri Lanka must give self-government to the Tamils, where they want it.
Of course, that does not mean that all the people in Tamil areas will be Tamils, just as in Northern Ireland communities are not confined to particular areas; Tamils will live in Colombo, just as Sinhalese will live on the east coast and in the north. There must be access. The roads have to be open so that people can travel. There must be no no-go areas. However, we have to make sure that the Government of Sri Lanka understand that they will not make progress unless they accept the principle of self-government.
What is the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the LTTE's commitment to democracy? The apparent absence of that commitment must be an inhibiting factor in ceding independence or autonomy to the Tamils.
I do not know the up-to-date position, I have not recently had a conversation with the Tamil leaders. From the point of view of the Sri Lankan Government, if I was seeking peace I should be terribly frustrated. The ceasefire agreement was broken and recent incidents are unacceptable. The lessons of Northern Ireland are that we just have to keep on going. As Stephen Pound said, the helpful things are the conversations and initiatives behind the scenes, such as those taken by Norway, and, sometimes in the past, the Indian Government or the British Government. Dr. Fox was positive and proactive when he was a Minister. I hope that the Commonwealth will do more and take more responsibility.
It is not encouraging when there is yet another suicide mission or bombing, but all the independent objective advice shows that there have been faults and terrible actions on both sides. Therefore, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen so wisely said, it is no good going back over history all the time. We have to move on.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what position he and his party are adopting? Is he really saying to the Sri Lankan Government that there ought to be an independent Tamil-led area within Sri Lanka, or would it be part of a federated or confederated process? What did he envisage when he made his remarks?
I can be very specific. Our view as a party—it is my view also—is that the conflict will be brought to an end only by direct negotiations between the Government and LTTE and by the reaching of a political settlement that allows for a suitable degree of autonomy for Tamil people within a peaceful and secure Sri Lanka. We have not argued for an independent Tamil Eelam. We have argued for negotiations about autonomy between the Tamil representatives and the Government. That autonomy will have to be negotiated, because it has to be respected. It is absolutely not for me, from here, to prescribe whether there should be a federal state or a confederal state, but I am absolutely clear that a unitary state with no proper devolution beyond what has been offered so far will not work. Things have to go further.
Of course there is local government in Sri Lanka and there has been devolution. There have been proposals on the table in the past, but that is no good if the President says that there will have to be a unitary state, in the old-fashioned sense of one state with no subdivisions. Our view is that there should be a suitable degree of autonomy within a peaceful, secure and stable Sri Lanka. If later the Tamil people voted for independence in a free election—unharassed and without any pressure—that would be a separate issue and would raise other issues. The world would have to accommodate that through proper international recognition processes.
My party has supported both Conservative and Labour Governments in their efforts to achieve peace and it has supported the international peace processes. The Liberal Democrats share the sense of urgency that has been expressed. As was said, we now have an additional responsibility, together with the international community, to make further efforts to get the peace process back on track. We can express a view here, but unless there is a formal process in which people are engaged, there cannot be progress.
Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the process instituted by the Government of Sri Lanka to draw on the views of all of the political parties among the Sinhalese community to try to seek a consensus, as the Government say, on a proper mechanism to devolve power as part of a settlement?
I do. There is lots of good practice. As we all know, lots of countries in the world are having to think about how to accept the devolution of power in different ways. The French and the Spanish have done it. The Germans started it after the war. The Canadians are another example. These are difficult, tense issues, and there is lots of world experience. We have done it in the United Kingdom. People's national identity becomes more important, so they want more power.
I have Tamil constituents, as do many of us in the House. My next meeting with the high commissioner will take place next week, with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton. We both also have colleagues who are councillors in our boroughs. He will speak about his. I have a councillor colleague who is our deputy mayor in Southwark. She is a Tamil and a Christian. She has supported the battle for self-determination. She is not a terrorist. People like that in this country, who have been supporters of the struggle, often have a pretty hard time because of a very ungenerous view—I am choosing pretty mild words—by the Sri Lankan authorities. I regularly get messages that people who take that view and are active in politics in Britain will be charged, arrested or locked up. I just say, "Look, if you think that people in this country have broken the law, arrest and charge them, but you can't win the argument in this country by seeking to suppress the voices of dissent." People of all views in the Sinhala and Tamil communities must be allowed to say their piece. Perhaps that will not be popular with the Government of Sri Lanka. Many of us are not popular with our Governments from time to time, but, in a democracy, people are allowed to express dissident opinions.
I hope that there will be a slightly more balanced view in this country so that all people of peace and good will, including the politicised ones who want justice and have members of their families who have been killed, may see peace come in their lifetime. Like others, I want to go back to Sri Lanka and see a peaceful country in which all people can be proud of their community, faith and background and in which the terrible bloodcurdling litany of death and destruction over 20 years or more will have ended. I hope that Britain will always step up to the plate, as the Minister has indicated we will, and realise that we have a huge responsibility for our friends. In that way, I hope that we will all have peace soon.
I have never visited Sri Lanka. My knowledge of the problems in Sri Lanka stems from my experience as the MP for Tooting for the past two years and as a councillor for Tooting ward between 1994 and 2006. There is a large Tamil diaspora in Tooting. In my experience, the Tamil community has helped to regenerate Tooting town centre and contributed to Tooting's vibrancy. It has also brought cultural enrichment to our community in Tooting and Wandsworth.
Members of the community first came to the area as asylum seekers. Many of them became refugees and went on to become nationals. Most of them then became British citizens. They are proud to be Tooting Tamils. Tooting has a vibrant and well-used temple: the Sivayogam temple on Upper Tooting road. The White Pigeon charity on Upper Tooting road does a great deal of charitable work in Sri Lanka. The Tamil rehabilitation organisation is on Garratt lane. The South London Tamil welfare group, Wandsworth Tamil welfare association and many other groups do a tremendous amount of work not only in the community in Tooting, but in Sri Lanka. In my contribution I will articulate the concerns that those groups have raised with me. My experience of Sri Lanka comes through the eyes of my constituents, many of whom come to my surgeries to seek help and still have family members and loved ones in Sri Lanka.
As hon. Members have said, over the past four months fighting has continued to rage between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the LTTE. The 2002 ceasefire agreement that was signed by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE now seems like years ago. It is worth remembering that up to 2002, the civil war in Sri Lanka had claimed the lives of at least 64,000 people, most of whom were civilians. Men, women and children were indiscriminately killed or seriously injured.
The Sri Lanka monitoring mission made some progress. As Simon Hughes commented, Norway deserves tributes for the role that it has played, but the US Government, the EU, Japan, the Indian Government and ourselves have also played a big role.
Many of us have used the BBC as our source of reference. It estimates that 4,000 more people, mainly Tamil civilians, have been killed in Sri Lanka since late 2005, when violence began to escalate once again, bringing the total number of people killed since the outbreak of civil war to 68,000. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for reminding us of the history of Sri Lanka and where any blame for the civil war should be apportioned.
Hon. Members will be aware that although the LTTE was a party to the 2002 ceasefire agreement, it was—and still is—proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000 in the UK. The US and India have also proscribed the LTTE and declared it to be a terrorist organisation. In mid-May 2006, the European Parliament passed a resolution in support of declaring the LTTE a terrorist organisation. On
I accept that in the UK it is open to the LTTE to challenge proscription using the route set out in the Terrorism Act, and I understand that when the Home Secretary recently met Tamil groups he made it quite clear that any challenge would have to be made via that route. I take on board the serious points made by my hon. Friend the Minister, and it is right that they should be addressed. However, may I tell the Government and colleagues that there is a perception among the Tamil diaspora of double standards? The House of Commons Library note states, in the context of violence:
"The main protagonists are the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE."
There is a belief that only the LTTE has been penalised. The Tamil diaspora cannot be confident that the EU is an impartial broker, following its declaration that the LTTE is a terrorist organisation, and there are fears that that will seriously weaken the Sri Lanka monitoring mission.
Colleagues will know from other debates in the Chamber going back many years the arguments about one man's terrorist being another man's freedom fighter. Concerns have been raised by my constituents about a dirty tricks campaign that is being waged against the Tamil diaspora in the UK. We have all seen—and it has already been mentioned—the press coverage on
"Our evidence does not suggest that there is a definite link with Sri Lankan gangs."
There is a perception in the communities of the Tamil diaspora that allegations and aspersions can be made without their having any recourse to try to clear their name. We should understand their frustration, and colleagues have articulated the snowballing of perceived unfairness, whether real or not, leading to other forms of discomfort and actions that we all condemn.
We are not taken in by anybody's spin or attempt to subvert what we hope will be the even-handed treatment of all the members of the Sri Lankan diaspora in this country, whether they are Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil. We are very well aware that all sides are pretty adept at using propaganda to further their own ends. We were not born yesterday, and we did not come in on a pineapple boat from Sri Lanka. We know exactly what is going on and we are watching it very carefully. We will make sure that we are even-handed and that everyone receives fair treatment.
My hon. Friend has made many important statements on the Floor of the House, and the statement that he has just made is so important that it needs to be underlined. My Tamil friends, neighbours and constituents have been agonisingly hurt by the statement that there is some sort of terrorist funding scam operating at petrol stations. It is crucial that my hon. Friend put that lie to bed, and it is important, too, that we recognise that many members of the Tamil community work extremely hard in petrol stations. We should be grateful to them for their hard work and their contribution to the economy, and we should not seek to spin them into an atmosphere of blame.
I am extremely grateful for that intervention from my friend and hon. Friend. I deliberately made a point in my introduction about the cultural enrichment that the Sri Lankan community has brought to Tooting and London, as well as the regeneration to which it has contributed. What impact do those press reports have on community cohesion, if labels about the Tamil community are so easily thrown around?
Colleagues have referred to atrocities in Sri Lanka, and they are right that the blame rests with all parties—there is no single party that can be completely exonerated. However, we must not ignore the fact that impartial international organisations objectively confirm the atrocities that have been committed. The UN working group on disappearances commented in December 2005 that
"of more than 12,278 cases of disappearances in Sri Lanka submitted to the government, 5,708 remain unclarified and this is the highest number of disappearances in the world next to the case of Iraq with 16,517 disappearances."
The problem of internally displaced persons and refugees has been mentioned by many of my colleagues. The Tamil-speaking population of Sri Lanka has, by percentage, one of the highest rates of internally displaced people in the world today. Most of them have been bombed out of a number of locations. Most estimates show that more than one third of the remaining Tamil-speaking population on the island are displaced and living in makeshift camps and welfare centres. In addition, many others have recently fled to India, which has already had hundreds of thousands of refugees from past periods of the conflict and from the tsunami.
The Tamil diaspora represents one third of the Tamils from Sri Lanka and now numbers over 1 million persons. The camps for the IDPs are in deplorable condition, owing to lack of food, water, sanitation, medical care, schooling and adequate shelter. Some of the IDPs are housed in schools, making the schools for those local communities unusable. In a moving contribution, my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, mentioned the impact that visiting the IDPs had had upon him.
In its report in December 2005, the United Nations committee against torture commented on the atrocities in Sri Lanka, and in March 2006 the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions submitted a powerful report. Finally, in relation to independent corroboration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated clearly and unequivocally in December 2006, in a powerful report that I recommend to all colleagues:
"There is an urgent need for the international community to monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka as these are not merely ceasefire violations, but grave breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law . . . In the latest phase of its ethnic conflict, now more than 20 years old, Sri Lanka has witnessed a re-emergence of some of its most frightening ghosts: disappearances, abductions and killings by unidentified gunmen."
In Tooting, the White Pigeon charity, which does a tremendous amount of invaluable work in Sri Lanka, tells me that a few weeks ago White Pigeon's prosthetic technical workshop was bombed and destroyed by the air force in the Mullaitivu district. The charity also tells me that the ongoing daily bombing by the air force is adding many new physical disabilities to the people with whom it works in the Tamil communities.
I am told by the Tamil rehabilitation organisation in Tooting that there are 160,000 people whom it is helping who have no food and lack water and shelter. Mr. Clifton-Brown spoke about the A9 road, which is a main road into the northern province that has been blocked since August 2006. The blockage has prevented clothes, medicine and food from getting to people in Jaffna.
The UK and Sri Lanka have a special historical relationship. Until 1948, Sri Lanka was part of the British empire, and since 1948 and Sri Lanka's independence, it has been part of the Commonwealth. Sri Lanka also has a special relationship with the Labour party. It was a Labour Government who gave Sri Lanka its independence. We have a special role to play in helping Sri Lanka in its current troubles. I call on my Government to use our special relationship to persuade all the parties and factions to recommit to the 2002 agreement.
I agree that terrorism and violence, whether state-sponsored or not, can never be the way to achieve a negotiated solution in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. I am aware that the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen has done and will continue to do may lead the way to progress being made. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister confirmed that any advice and help that we can give, based on our experiences in Northern Ireland, will continue.
The international players must square a circle, as Simon Hughes commented. Although they accept that extensive autonomy for the north-east is the only realistic basis for a sustainable peace, they do not wish to reward the LTTE for its actions over the past few years. Once again, there are lessons that can be learned not only from Northern Ireland, but perhaps from South Africa. I am pleased that the Home Office has looked again at how we treated asylum seekers, and I welcome the fact that Sri Lanka has at last been taken off the white list of safe countries. Its inclusion in the list was causing my constituents and those of other hon. Members huge problems.
An early return to negotiations is crucial. I ask our Government to continue to use all the levers, public and private, at their disposal to alleviate the suffering of all the Sri Lankan people, so that peace and tranquillity can return to that beautiful island once again.
It is a great privilege, Madam Deputy Speaker, to be called to speak in this debate, which is on a very important subject. It would be possible to take the Panglossian view that the affairs of Sri Lanka have no impact on us and are a matter of local concern for that country on which we can turn our backs, but that would be not only immoral, but blinkered. I therefore welcome this debate and I congratulate the Minister on the tone in which he opened it. I was particularly moved by the speech made by Mr. Murphy, whom I wish every success in his work. I was also impressed by the tone struck by my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown, who spoke for the Opposition.
What always concerns me in such debates is where we should strike the balance between what it is right and proper for the British Parliament to say and where matters must be left to local populations to determine for themselves. I am thinking, for example, of the parallel debate about Kashmir—a matter that I am convinced must be left to the Pakistani and Indian Governments to resolve for themselves, and on which it is wrong for us to start prescribing solutions. I am nervous about some of what has been said in this debate so far today. I am not even sure that the Liberal Democrats are right to have gone as far as they have done in prescribing a solution. The people of Sri Lanka must have the opportunity to determine for themselves what they want to happen.
In that context, I fully support the calls that have been made for dialogue, which is clearly an important part of the process, as we saw in Northern Ireland. This period has, however, been an extraordinarily violent one in Sri Lanka's history. There have been some 4,000 dead since 2005 and 70,000 or so dead since the violence began in 1983. To put that in context, leaving Iraq on one side, about 7,000 deaths a year occur in the world because of terrorist-related activities. One can see how big an issue the violence is in international terms.
I intervened on Simon Hughes to inquire about the LTTE's commitment to democracy. Perhaps I did not explain myself clearly. I have severe reservations about whether the LTTE is seriously committed to a democratic process. Its leader is on the record as wanting to establish a one-party independent Tamil state without democratic elections. I see in the LTTE an organisation that is led by a very dangerous individual whose techniques and ruthlessness have caused great concern. Although I share the views expressed by all hon. and right hon. Members in saying that dialogue is important, I question whether the LTTE is an organisation that is capable of holding such dialogue. I hope that I am wrong; I would like to be so. In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, I pointed out that our deputy high commissioner in Sri Lanka will tomorrow be engaging in dialogue with the political wing of the LTTE. I hope that that dialogue is profitable and constructive, but I worry about what we are dealing with in the LTTE. It is a sophisticated and well-equipped organisation, uniquely so for a terrorist organisation—and I regard it as a terrorist organisation that can fight on land, on sea and in the air, although it is wrong to describe it as having an air force; I think that there is one light aircraft —[ Interruption. ] I am told that there are five aircraft, but they have significantly enhanced its fighting capabilities.
Unless the conflict in Sri Lanka is dealt with, not only will it place an intolerable burden on the people of that war-torn country, but there will be a danger that the LTTE's techniques will act as an inspiration for other so-called freedom fighters elsewhere in the world and other terrorist groups.
I am also nervous about the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold about the role of the Indian Government in the dispute. We have been very careful about involving India in this matter. I have in my hands a map from the Tamil Nadu Liberation Front. It is a map of greater Tamil Nadu, which of course takes into its compass most of the southern states of India, as well as north and east Sri Lanka. We remember what happened last time India involved itself, in a military sense, in the affairs of Sri Lanka—it led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
The hon. Gentleman is aware, though, that there are 60 million Tamil people living in south India, and there are also large numbers of refugees from Sri Lanka living in India. India therefore has an involvement whether it wishes to or not, because it has to take account of its neighbour.
Of course, that is a geopolitical point with which one cannot argue. However, India has to play its cards with great care. It will find it difficult, for similar reasons to those that often make it difficult for Britain to intervene in post-colonial situations. In a way, the dispute has its roots in the British colonial handling of this troubled island.
We all recognise that India's involvement in this problem is very sensitive, as well as what happened in the past when it became involved militarily. Nevertheless, as Mike Gapes pointed out, there is a big Tamil population in Tamil Nadu, and there is a suspicion that a lot of support of one kind or another, particularly financial, comes from that state. If we are to try to defeat this terrorist problem, it is important that the international community should include the Indian Government in discussions and intelligence-sharing.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I sincerely hope that that process is already happening.
Fundraising is an important issue for the LTTE. Two Tamil fundraisers were recently prosecuted in Australia, which is causing great controversy in the Tamil community there. The purposes of their fundraising activity must be properly established by due judicial process in Australia. It is unhelpful to see people who are, I am sure, perfectly honourable Tamil nationalists attacking the Australian Government for daring to challenge those people's fundraising activities. When I think of the recent protests in Paris and Zurich by Tamil communities in France and Switzerland, I worry about the presumption that anyone who dares to attack the LTTE is in some sense attacking the Tamil people. I do not see that connection. Similarly, those who dared to attack Sinn Fein were not attacking the Catholic cause in Northern Ireland.
The fact is that violence is always wrong morally, and also politically, because it never produces the outcome that one seeks. When we attack the LTTE for its violence, we are doing so for sound reasons. It is in the Tamil people's own interests that the LTTE abandon its violence. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey that the blame is far from being on one side. I have here the Human Rights Watch report on human rights in Sri Lanka, which graphically details the shortcomings of the LTTE and of the Sri Lankan Government.
That is a conundrum. I have to say that I support the Government in allowing the organisation to remain proscribed. It is difficult to see how an organisation that takes part in such abhorrently violent activities—for example, it uses child soldiers as part of its campaign of violence—can be anything other than proscribed. The LTTE has an opportunity to demonstrate a much greater understanding of the challenges that that poses to Governments such as ours. I would welcome it were the Government able to lift that restriction, but I do not see how they can in the current environment.
The key point is the trend in the escalation in violence. One can make a comparison with the IRA and Sinn Fein, which became far more formally linked in with the peace process in Ireland after taking clear steps to show that they were withdrawing from their previously violent past.
We are in a chicken-and-egg situation. I fully understand my hon. Friend's point. It is always difficult to decide who should make the first move in a dialogue for peace.
My intervention on Mr. Murphy about proscription was important. The Sri Lankan Government encouraged him to talk to senior representatives of LTTE and the Tamil community. If such peace negotiations can take place in Sri Lanka, it is much easier. When organisations are not proscribed, it is easier for a peace process to take place.
I note my hon. Friend's comment, which speaks for itself.
I do not want Sri Lanka to become a political issue in the United Kingdom through the presence of a significant diaspora. That diaspora is here because of the violence. Its members have been driven away from their island and are effectively refugees from that dreadful violence. It is a wonderful community, which does a huge amount for us. Estimates of its size vary between 150,000 and 200,000. Reference has been made to the work its members offer on petrol station forecourts, but they do much more than that. A phenomenally high proportion of the Tamil community—some 2,500—work as doctors in the national health service. They do a great deal for us and we should be grateful to them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important messages that we can send today is that there must be a ceasefire? Innocent people who have not done anything to anyone are being killed on a daily basis and that must stop now.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is vital that both sides take courageous steps to achieve the ceasefire that we all crave. I have no axe to grind, except that when I hear of a death in the name of politics I am angry. I worry that today we have heard criticism of the Sri Lankan Government for closing roads to the north and east of the country, thus inhibiting reconstruction after the dreadful tsunami. My reading of the behaviour of the LTTE in those areas is that it, too, inhibits reconstruction. It suits such a group to keep people in some subjugation and blame others for their misfortune. That is a familiar technique of tyrants through the ages. Although I deplore any action by the Sri Lankan Government that makes reconstruction more difficult, the LTTE inhibits the process, and that may suit its political objectives.
I want to emphasise my concern about human rights more broadly in Sri Lanka. I referred to the Human Rights Watch document, which—as far as I can see—sets out objectively and fairly the problems on both sides. It is a powerful account. I note that the Archbishop of Canterbury is visiting Sri Lanka next week. The Christian community in that country suffers considerable persecution at the hands of the Government.
The current edition of the Foreign Office human rights report mentions Sri Lanka's anti-conversion laws and moves
"to consolidate the position of Buddhism by constitutional amendment and legislation that would control 'unethical conversion', in part through criminal sanctions. The bill, which appears to undermine the guarantees of religious freedom enshrined in the Sri Lankan constitution and to be inconsistent with Sri Lanka's international human rights obligations, is still being debated."
Things may have moved on since the report was written. It continues by saying that
"there have been consistent and credible reports of harassment, intimidation, destruction of property and occasional violence against Christians over the last three years... Sri Lankan authorities' lack of capacity to protect Christians and members of other faiths, and their failure to prosecute those responsible for inciting and committing violent acts" are highlighted. That is an especially worrying example of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka that are firmly at the door of the Sri Lankan Government. For even-handedness, we must understand that there are problems on both sides.
We must be careful about imposing—or being seen to or wishing to impose—specific solutions to any internal conflict in a sovereign state from these Benches in the United Kingdom. However, we need to convey a clear message that terror begets only terror, and violence begets violence. That is an iron rule of politics and history. In a world hungry for peace, as we all are now, it is my view that if the LTTE could bring itself to renounce its terrorist activities and take the first brave steps to peace, it would find that respectability would follow remarkably quickly on the heels of such a brave and right decision.
It is always a pleasure to follow Peter Luff because of his great interest in sub-continent matters. It always interesting to hear what he has to say about countries other than India, in which he has a particular interest. I did not agree with everything in his contribution and in my contribution I will explain where I disagree. What is significant, however, is that for the first time we are debating these issues in Parliament today.
Had it not been the eve of local elections in other parts of the country—other than London—the Chamber would probably not have a majority of London Members in their places. I realise that many members of the Tamil community live within London and the M25 area, but they also live in other parts of the country—Leicester being one where many members of the Tamil community have settled.
I want to pay a special tribute to the Minister for the Middle East. This date was originally chosen for a discussion between him and more than 60 MPs who had shown an interest in Sri Lankan issues, particularly in what is happening to the Tamil community. I think that he was surprised at the level of interest and he decided, of his own volition, to put to the Leader of the House the view that there should be a debate today. That has proved to be a much better way of dealing with these matters—having an open debate involving as many MPs as possible on the Floor of the House.
The Minister is, in my view, a special and exceptional Foreign Office Minister—not the usual type that we get. He is prepared—I have seen him operate—to listen to views without necessarily taking the Foreign Office line. On this issue, he has been particularly concerned to listen to the views of hon. Members, to understand them and to relate them to his own experience when he visited Sri Lanka. I thank him for his special interest. His remit is so large, as he has to look after at least a third of the world—he would probably say the most interesting third of the world. On the two issues where I have engaged with him—Yemen and Sri Lanka—he has been very forthright and listened very carefully to what I said. I thank him for his interest in what is happening there.
I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy. In all my discussions with members of the British Tamil community, I have found that they are full of praise for the work that he has done. As we heard today, he has not taken sides on the issues, but has focused the British Government on a particular problem. I am grateful—and I think that we are all grateful—for the fact that he has brought to bear his vast experience of Northern Ireland, which must have been just as complicated as the situation in Sri Lanka.
Apart from his day job, which he mentioned, he has allowed himself to go over to Sri Lanka in order to be the eyes and ears of our Prime Minister and to report back on these issues. I hope that we can formalise his role. He may not want that, but I think that it would be a good idea if the Government looked to formalise his role so that it was no longer just on an ad hoc basis. He could be given formal envoy status, which would allow him to play the role that we all would like to see this Parliament get involved with.
On Monday, we established the House's first ever all-party Tamil group. I was privileged to be elected chair of the group; Simon Hughes was elected vice-chair; Mr. Pelling was elected secretary; Susan Kramer was elected treasurer, as was Angus Robertson, in his absence in Scotland. That shows that it really is an all-party group, because all parties are represented in this cause.
The group was determined not to be just like any other all-party group. We were determined to take the issue forward, and on that basis we agreed three things. First, at the end of September a delegation of all party members should visit Sri Lanka, particularly areas under the control of the Tamil Tigers, to engage in a dialogue in a positive and constructive way. We also agreed to invite the chief negotiator for the Tamil Tigers to visit the United Kingdom and to come to Parliament so that we could hear his views on what is happening.
The third thing that we agreed was to hold a summit meeting here in July at which all the various parties could participate as a means of exploring how to take the issue forward. Although we have not had a debate of this kind in the House before, listening to the experience of so many right hon. Members and hon. Members reminds me that we have had many such discussions outside Parliament. It really is time to make progress, rather than simply discussing these issues from time to time as we do now.
My hon. Friend Mr. Khan pointed out that we are also concerned with the Tamil community here, and that that is what drives us. Many of us are interested in foreign affairs, but what drives us as constituency MPs is our constituents coming to see us in our surgeries, at public meetings and at various projects in our constituencies to point out the contribution that the British Tamil community has made. When my hon. Friend mentioned the Tooting Tamils, I thought that that made them sound so British that they could be a local football club. They are as British as you and I, Madam Deputy Speaker, and they make a full contribution to this country. They contribute to the economy and to the national health service, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire pointed out. Almost 2,500 Tamils work in the NHS, not just as GPs and other doctors; one of the leading pre-natal surgeons is based in a hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting.
The British Tamils have become first-class contributors, and they therefore deserve to have us debate these issues in the House. For the reasons mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, they are constantly aware of what is happening to their friends and relatives in Sri Lanka. That is why they deserve to hear these issues discussed, and to have them taken forward, rather than just discussed in the usual parliamentary way.
I was present at a very useful meeting that the British Tamil forum had with our Home Secretary, who reminded us of the phrase—I cannot remember who said it originally, but I am sure that someone here will know—"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". I am sure that it was not the Home Secretary's phrase; he was merely reminding us of it. This was in the context of a discussion on how to lift the ban. I firmly believe that the ban on the Tamil Tigers—certainly as regards the way in which they operate in this country—should be lifted as soon as possible.
The proscription by the Government of various organisations in 2001 happened because of certain events that were occurring worldwide at the time, and we reacted by imposing that ban on a number of organisations, including a Sikh organisation that operated from my constituency. I know that Governments sometimes have to react in a knee-jerk manner, but six years have now passed and it is time to reconsider the ban and to look at ways in which we can help to ensure that the dialogue proceeds.
I know that that is different from what the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire suggested, because he believes that we cannot hold discussions with people unless they renounce violence. As we have heard from colleagues on both sides of the House, however, without such discussions we would never have reached the stage at which we could look with mild amusement at a photograph of Rev. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness—with EU President Barroso in the middle—sharing a joke. Other right hon. and hon. Members who have had to sit through debates on Northern Ireland, as have I, would never have believed that possible even a few years ago. However, thanks to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and many others, it has become possible. It is possible to move on, but we cannot move on unless we have a dialogue, and we cannot have a dialogue if we proscribe and ban the groups involved.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many members of the Tamil community who have absolutely no interest in terrorism and who do not even consider themselves to be members of the LTTE are inhibited from speaking out because they are afraid of being tagged with the terrorist label? At a meeting that my hon. Friend Mr. Davey and I attended recently, there had to be a police presence because those people were so afraid that they would engender enmity from the community by holding that meeting.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is wrong for such people to be treated in that way and to feel that fear. Whoever is spinning that fear—whether it be the Sri Lankan Government or others—should stop. Participating in the British political process is the right of every British citizen. Contrary to the view that those people are here as asylum seekers or refugees—an idea that has been mentioned—they are members of the settled community. Clearly, some are asylum seekers or seeking refugee status, but others are very well established here, and they should feel able to be open about their involvement in political meetings and the British political process. We need to make sure that that happens.
It is therefore important that we take a lead, for the reasons mentioned by other Members. We have a responsibility, the historical ties with our country are profound and, as we have heard, this country gave independence to Sri Lanka. We have a special bond and relationship because of the large community living here and because of our previous responsibilities. We should seize the moment. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen is going to Sri Lanka again, and I hope that the Minister of State will also visit in the near future, as he started a process that he ought to continue. If he does continue that process, whenever he visits, that would be useful.
To reassure my right hon. Friend, I can tell him that I will shortly go back to Sri Lanka, and I hope to join my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy there so that we can take whatever measures are necessary to try to push the process forward.
I am delighted to hear that. When I met my hon. Friend, he said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen was his best friend in the House. Sri Lanka is a good place for best friends to meet, and if they manage to move the process forward, it will be good business for best friends to conduct.
I make the point with considerable trepidation, but my right hon. Friend referred to the British Government "giving" independence to Sri Lanka. May I tell him that several of my constituents who have heard me use that expression have said that they would much prefer the wording to be that the British Government "returned" independence to Sri Lanka? I make no criticism of my right hon. Friend, whose record is impeccable, but perhaps we should consider using that verbal figuration on the Floor of the House.
On the subject of correction, may I correct myself? I was seeking to convey to the House not that such people were refugees or asylum seekers, but that they had been driven from Sri Lanka against their will, often because of discrimination, persecution or violence, and many of them would prefer to have lived their entire lives in Sri Lanka, rather than being here.
On another subject, is the right hon. Gentleman convinced—
The hon. Gentleman is allowed to make a correction, but not another speech in the middle of mine.
We have heard the shocking statistics and it is right that we should repeat them again and again: 80,000 internally displaced people; 900,000 children, 15 per cent. of the total child population, living in conflict-affected areas, and more than 300,000 directly affected by the conflict. The figures have varied between different Members' speeches, but I have been given the figure of 68,000 lives claimed by the war since 1983, with 4,000 deaths since November 2005, and, according to the United Nations, more than 300,000 civilians displaced by the renewed fighting as of April 2007. We need to take account of those shocking statistics if we are to make progress.
Yesterday, the Sri Lankan President unveiled proposals to abolish the executive presidency, adopt a bicameral parliamentary system and ensure that both the police and the armed forces are more multi-ethnic. That, however, does not deal with the basic problems that have created the present difficulties. All ethic groups should be treated equally, and they and their values should be respected. I hope that those proposals signal a change, but I do not think that the change will happen unless we move it forward.
I mentioned the Tamil Tigers and the ban that we imposed on them. I hope very much that the LTTE will be able to challenge that ban. When we met the Home Secretary he said that one challenge had been successful, so they are in new territory, but they certainly have my support in their desire for a lifting of the ban. We heard that the Minister would be visiting Sri Lanka, and that is terrific.
The right hon. Gentleman has spoken of our role here. We represent many members of the Tamil diaspora in our constituencies: there is a large Tamil community in south London, for instance. The right hon. Gentleman has also raised the important issue of abuse of human rights, which has occurred on all sides—and, indeed, within each side. But another reason for debating this subject is our real interest in the success and prosperity of Sri Lanka, and in sharing in the great growth that has taken place in the south Asian economies. We have a global strategic interest in Sri Lanka. The Chinese are investing there, and perhaps taking their own approach to the balance of power in that part of south Asia. The United Kingdom therefore has a self-interest in Sri Lanka's enjoyment of peace and prosperity.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is the new secretary of the all-party parliamentary Tamil group. His points are extremely valid.
The debate is to be wound up by the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend Mr. Thomas, who is currently sitting next to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner. Both their constituencies contain large numbers of British Tamils.
When we consider the issue of international aid, I want to know whether when we give aid to Sri Lanka, as we should, the point is made to the Sri Lankan Government that it is important for that aid to reach the people whom it is intended to reach. While we support the Government in the aid process, they have a responsibility to ensure that a dialogue begins.
If we have achieved anything this week in setting up the all-party group and debating this issue on the Floor of the House, I hope that we have created the climate and conditions for dialogue: dialogue between Tamil groups, including the Tamil Tigers, and the Sri Lankan Government; dialogue between Tamil groups and the international community; and, indeed, dialogue between the Foreign Office and the Home Office. I was very surprised to hear from the Minister of State that he had not had a chance to meet the Home Secretary to discuss these issues—through no fault of his own, no doubt; I am sure that, given his Foreign Office responsibilities, his diary is awful. But I hope that he will meet the Home Secretary, because the issue affects both the Foreign Office and the Home Office. I hope it will be recognised that dialogue is the only way in which to bring peace to a troubled but beautiful island.
It is a great privilege and pleasure to follow Keith Vaz.
I am very pleased that the House has taken the opportunity to debate such an important subject. With so many conflicts around the world, and with our own armed forces engaged in so many places overseas, it is sometimes easy to overlook the ongoing difficulties in countries such as Sri Lanka. I compliment those on both Front Benches for taking such a conciliatory tone in their speeches, and concluding that there must be dialogue and a ceasefire. Although Mr. Murphy is not present at the moment, I want to say what a pleasure it was to listen to such an authoritative contribution as his.
The difficulties in Sri Lanka have arisen for a number of reasons, not the least of them being the ethnic, cultural and religious divisions between the Tamil and Singhalese communities. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE is fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamil people. Tension between the Tamil and Sinhalese people has existed for many years, but a full-scale conflict has developed since the early 1980s, with armed groups operating in the north-east of the island, the area mainly populated by the Tamil minority. As we have heard, in the past 20 years some 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict and many more have been maimed and injured; almost 1 million people have been displaced from their homes. There remains the ever-present threat to many ordinary citizens of kidnap and murder, both of which have been a continuous feature of the conflict.
It is important to remember that atrocities have been committed by both sides. When in 1983 riots resulted in the death of 2,000 Tamils, it was suggested by many that some of the blame lay with the Sri Lankan authorities. On the other hand, the LTTE has long recognised that fear and devastation can be caused by suicide bombers. It has used that deadly tactic on many occasions, maiming and killing hundreds of people—often innocent people.
However, despite all the terror one thing is clear: both sides have demonstrated a capacity for peace. They did so when both sides approached the Norwegians to negotiate a ceasefire in February 2002. Unfortunately, that ceasefire now lies in tatters and the resumption of hostilities on both sides has led to some 4,000 people being killed over the past two years. There have been particularly worrying developments in the past few weeks; there is a real danger that Sri Lanka might end up in a state of civil war. Recent military pushes by the Sri Lankan army have led to the recapture of much of the Tamil-occupied land in the north and east of the island and, encouraged by its success, the army might well be preparing for another major offensive.
It is noteworthy that on
"Sri Lankan Officials ordered Norway's Ambassador, who is trying to mediate a resumption of peace negotiations, to cancel a trip to the Tamil Tiger rebels' northern strongholds for security reasons."
The report went on to speculate that that was likely to mean that a major military push by Government forces was imminent.
Many contributors to the debate have spoken of the ban on the LTTE acting as a barrier to dialogue. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that some of the main people involved in the peace negotiations—the Norwegians—are engaged in dialogue with the LTTE and the Government. We must take comfort and heart from that.
One of the reasons the Norwegians are still in such good standing is that Norway is not part of the European Union so it is not collectively responsible for the ban. Countries that have not taken the same view as the EU and the United States are likely in some respects to be more acceptable in the short term to assist in the process.
I am grateful for that contribution. It could be said that we have both angles covered, as the Norwegians are independent but they are also co-sponsors who have the support and assistance of the EU, the USA and Japan.
If the Sri Lankan army is considering an extra push in the north-east of the island, that is a worrying development as it will lead to further suffering and loss of life. If the advances are resumed, it is likely that the LTTE will wish to reply in kind, and it could be years before there is a reduction in the violence.
Meanwhile, the LTTE has started making deadly air strikes on both Government troops and the infrastructure of Colombo. There have recently been strikes on an oil depot and on the main airport in the capital city, timed to coincide with the cricket world cup final. The Foreign Office website describes the situation in Sri Lanka as "no peace no war", but the brutal reality is that since the 2002 ceasefire the conflict has resumed and is in danger of escalating to a much greater scale. The ceasefire needs to be rekindled and the international community must make every effort to secure it.
Britain has a historical connection, of course, with Sri Lanka, and we should do whatever we can to bring peace to the island. I am mindful, however, that some former colonies are wary of British involvement in their now independent countries, which is why our involvement should be handled with sensitivity, helping as is necessary and appropriate. The Norwegians, operating with the support of the USA, Japan and the European Union, successfully negotiated the February 2002 ceasefire. They deserve our utmost praise and respect, and we should offer them all the support that they need and want from us. The ceasefire may have collapsed, but to the Norwegians' credit they have continued to maintain good links with both sides in the conflict, which may lead to further peace proposals.
We should also use our position in the international arena to encourage other countries to press both sides for peace. Britain has considerable influence in the United Nations by virtue of being a permanent member of the Security Council. Although we might sometimes have disagreements with our European Union counterparts, we still have influence in the Union. Nor should we forget our many friends in the Commonwealth, who should also be urged to press for peace.
India, too, has a major role to play in this conflict, not least because of its proximity to Sri Lanka and its own large Tamil population in Tamil Nadu. As India heads toward becoming a 21st-century superpower, it is important that it be included in the peace negotiations because of its own vested interest and its global and regional influence, which is increasing daily.
The hon. Gentleman might well be aware of recent opinion polls in Sri Lanka suggesting that there is greater trust in India's performing the role of an international good partner than in any other country in the world.
For that reason—as well as for the reasons of India's proximity and of Tamil Nadu—it is important that India is involved in any talks that take place. However, given that Norway is leading the way and has been successful in the past, it should continue in that vein, but with the support of any country that has the trust and confidence of the Sri Lankan people. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enlightening the House about that opinion poll.
We have successfully brought peace to Northern Ireland, a community previously riven by internal hatred and conflict. The bombs and bullets of just a decade ago have been laid to rest. Republicans and Unionists may not yet have forgiven and forgotten every single grudge and grievance from those troubled times, but they have stopped killing. We can share our experience of nurturing that peace process with the Sri Lankan Government and with the LTTE. As I said earlier, it was a pleasure to hear the right hon. Member for Torfaen discuss that very issue. However, before all these things can happen, both sides in the conflict must take action to stop the killing and mistrust. The LTTE must cease its attacks and the use of child soldiers and suicide bombers.
There is also concern about overseas funding for the LTTE. Reference has been made to the arrest in Australia of two people suspected of seeking to divert funds raised for the tsunami disaster on Boxing day 2004, for the purpose of purchasing weapons for the LTTE. Perhaps in his reply the Minister could give us an assurance that the funds that were sent from Britain after the tsunami were subject to checks to ensure that they were not diverted. I would also ask the Minister to comment, to the extent that he has the information to do so, on the written reply to my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown on
The Sri Lankan Government must also take action. To start with, they could ensure equality for all their people, as previous contributors to the debate have mentioned, whether they be Tamil or Sinhalese. The Government should also stop their roadblocks, especially on the A9 highway to Jaffna. Only yesterday I was talking to someone from Sri Lanka who was very concerned that his sister in Jaffna is not having even one meal a day because of that roadblock, which is stopping medicine, food and clothing reaching the people of Jaffna, many of whom are innocent in the conflict.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as the Under-Secretary of State for International Development will reply to the debate, it might be an opportunity for him to state that the British Government, working with the various non-governmental organisations in the area, are making forceful representations to reopen the blockaded road? As the hon. Gentleman said, the impact is devastating and is destroying communities that have historically been well-to-do, but are now in absolute poverty and dire crisis.
I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution and she makes a valid point. I hope that the Minister will be able to say what the Government are doing to ensure that the misery and suffering that the blockade is causing ceases. If we are to have a ceasefire, we need dialogue, and that can happen only if the misery and suffering abate.
The Sri Lankan Government must also ensure that rogue elements in their army are not acting independently against Tamils. Not only is that wrong and a violation of the human rights treaties that the Government of Sri Lanka signed up to, but it provokes and encourages the LTTE to seek revenge. As has been proved time and again around the world, not least in Northern Ireland, a cessation in violence has to be a precursor to productive peace talks. A negotiated settlement through peaceful means is the only way forward for both parties if they wish to see their people prosper.
Sri Lanka as a country has enormous potential for the future. The people involved in the conflict need to recognise that the future of their country lies in investing in its future prosperity and not in bombs and bullets. In the 21st century, the world's centre of gravity is moving from Europe and the Atlantic to the south and the east. Sri Lanka needs to ensure that by continuing its conflict, it does not miss out on the opportunities that this century will bring for all the people in that region.
Recent history has shown time and again that most conflicts are eventually resolved by dialogue. The LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government have a simple choice. They can either continue the conflict, with many more people suffering and dying on both sides, and decide to engage in dialogue at some future point, or they can engage in productive talks now and prevent the needless suffering and death that are the immediate alternatives.
It really is time for both sides to engage in dialogue, to have a ceasefire and to ensure that peace once more reigns in that beautiful island. I thank the House for listening.
I bring to this debate no expertise, and I have not been fortunate enough to have a holiday in Sri Lanka. However, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, who has set up the all-party group, and I hope and trust that I will be able to participate in it.
Like many other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, a very significant number of my constituents arrived in this country as asylum seekers and refugees from Sri Lanka. They now belong to the Tamil community that thrives in Lewisham, and in my constituency of Lewisham, Deptford in particular. As others have said, the families are settled British citizens, and they bring a great sense of commerce and endeavour to our communities. They run not only petrol stations but convenience shops, and play various roles in the NHS and the IT industry. Members of the Tamil community make an extremely valued contribution, and I very much support their work. They also bring a sense of culture to my area, which I especially enjoy. I should like to mention Vani fine arts, where young children are taught to play the sitar. It is the most wonderful experience to be at one of their concerts.
However, the Tamil community has a great and continuing sense of grievance, and members of it have made me aware of that for the two decades that I have represented the area in this House. In that time, I have seen blood-curdling films of the terrible atrocities committed against Tamils in Sri Lanka, and I have sometimes felt completely unable to suggest any way out of that terrible conflict.
My feeling about the situation in Sri Lanka was the same as that I felt about Northern Ireland for many years. As a mere politician, I felt that I could not propose a way forward, but the breakthrough that came in 2002 was a great relief to the Tamils in this country. Sri Lanka is a place of great diversity, and the news that a peace process was under way was appreciated by people of many faiths.
For quite a while, no political meetings were held in my constituency to discuss the situation in Sri Lanka. On looking back, and having read the excellent paper produced by the Library, it is clear that Sri Lanka has a history of absolute discrimination, with the minority being oppressed by the majority ever since independence. That oppression is so deep-rooted that, as with our experience with Northern Ireland, the beginning of a peace process is not seen as likely to produce a result in a short time. If the Sri Lankan Government had been more determined and committed to the peace process, or if the LTTE had shown more flexibility, it is possible that more success could have been achieved.
I was therefore very distressed and alarmed when last summer the Tamil community in my area asked for another political meeting to discuss the appalling outbreaks of violence that had taken place. I went to that meeting and heard about the many grievances that people had. I also heard the horror stories about what people in Jaffna had suffered. There was a lack of food and medicine in the city, and people who previously had been entirely self-sufficient were now relying on people from Britain to get to them the drugs, money and so on that they needed. It is a matter of enormous concern to me, as it is to all Members who have contributed today, that the violence has continued to escalate and to add to the terrible toll of previous decades.
It would appear that the hardliners on both sides are now in the ascendancy. I have been reading the catalogue of events that took place between January and April. The army has made significant progress in the east. Many towns and villages that were controlled by the LTTE are apparently now under the administration of the Karuna faction, which Human Rights Watch has alleged continues to recruit child soldiers, like its erstwhile allies in the LTTE. Defence expenditure, in a country that can hardly afford it, reportedly rose by 30 per cent. in 2006. The LTTE's capacity to retaliate has not entirely diminished, either. In recent weeks, as we have heard, it has shown that it has acquired some air capability by launching two aircraft attacks.
I shall repeat what many colleagues have said today. Recent estimates suggest that about 4,000 more people have been killed in Sri Lanka since late 2005, bringing the total killed since the outbreak of the civil war to 68,000. In addition, many people have suffered injuries that will affect the rest of their lives, and tens of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes and are no longer able to carry on a normal existence.
We are all grateful for the Norwegian-led peace efforts and I pay tribute to them. It is incredibly important that the Norwegians stay in Sri Lanka and that they do not take sides. It is also important that both sides in the conflict—the Government and the LTTE—have said that they would be willing to return to negotiations, although in truth we do not see that there is much prospect of that at the moment. That is why we all encourage the efforts of the UK Government, and particularly those of my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy.
I want to ask Ministers some questions that have been put to me by my constituents. I asked one in a formal parliamentary question last year about aid following the tsunami. In October, I received a detailed reply from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development about the amount of aid and where and on what it was to be disbursed. I hope that in his winding-up speech he will tell us how that aid was distributed. As others have said, it is critically important for us to know that the aid was distributed fairly to the people most in need and that aid destined for Tamil areas was not impeded by the Government or the LTTE. I hope my hon. Friend can give us some assurance about that.
A point made by one my constituents was that we should not supply aid at all in the prevailing situation in Sri Lanka. I disagree with that view, so I hope that my hon. Friend can tell the House why it is important that we continue to give aid and that the aid is—we hope—used effectively.
My hon. Friend speaks with the great authority of a constituency representative of many members of the Sri Lankan community. Like her, I have had visits from community representatives who have noted that Her Majesty's Government in fact withheld 50 per cent. of the aid agreed, because the final delivery mechanism could not be guaranteed. Does my hon. Friend agree with me and many representatives of the community that we should withhold the entire aid package until we can guarantee that it will reach the people for whom it is intended and not subsidise those who may be oppressing them?
I take the points that my hon. Friend has raised very seriously, because this is a real debate. I just remarked that I did not agree with the proposition that aid should be stopped, but in deciding which of us is making the right argument I will be dependent on the Minister's response at the end of the debate. We need to know where the aid is going and how it is being used to know whether we can justify continuing it. If we cannot justify that, we need to think about what other mechanisms exist. Could we use multilateral aid or other institutions? Are there vehicles through which some assistance could be given? I look forward to my hon. Friend's contribution.
My next point is perhaps not for my hon. Friend, but for those in government. I want to refer to another issue raised by my constituents: export licences. Inquiries that I have made reveal that £7 million-worth of arms were licensed for delivery to Sri Lanka in the last quarter for which figures are available. The licences were for, for example, armoured all-wheel drive vehicles, components for heavy machine guns, components for military distress signalling equipment, and many other types of equipment, including military aircraft ground equipment and communications equipment, and small arms ammunition. All of that is military equipment that could conceivably be used in the conflict. I know that our Government have obeyed the rules—the EU and the national criteria by which we agree export licences. There is no question of wrongdoing. However, the issue has been raised by members of the Tamil community and I ask the Minister to consider whether those export licences and similar licences should continue when a live conflict is clearly under way in the country.
Constituents have asked me to raise other points, both for our Government and, in particular, for the Government of Sri Lanka. Other Members have referred to the need to ensure that there is effective human rights monitoring. We know that there is a culture of impunity in the country, that the police do not investigate, and that charges are dropped. It is critical that the many disappearances are properly investigated and that the extra-judicial killings, which everyone knows go on in Sri Lanka and which are undertaken by both Government forces and funded paramilitaries, are investigated.
Many people have spoken today about the need to recognise the LTTE. There are people in my community who believe that that is very important and that it should be done. It is critical—whether or not it is recognised—to enter into dialogue. That is one thing that is constantly being demanded of our Government by my Tamil community. People think that the Government should be more proactive and should somehow try to engage more with all sides. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East tell us of the efforts that he is making in that regard and give us the assurance that those efforts will continue and apparently increase.
Another point that my constituents have asked me to raise relates to the need for the Sri Lankan Government to demonstrate their commitment to a peace settlement by withdrawing to the 2002 ceasefire positions. There is a need to support Amnesty International's call to "play by the rules", to investigate the murders and abductions of politicians, many of whom were sympathetic to the Tamil cause, and to investigate extortion and the abduction of Tamil business people by the paramilitaries and armed forces. The Sri Lankan Government should not force civilians to settle in areas of conflict as human shields against their will. The armed forces should be vacated from people's houses and compensation should be paid for those people's suffering. Those guilty of war crimes should be brought to the International Court of Justice. My constituents also make a plea to us and to the rest of the European Community not to curb the peaceful and democratic activities of Tamils living in the diaspora.
I have particularly been asked to raise those points in today's debate. I have done so in tribute to members of my Tamil community, to the contribution that they make in our society and to their entirely justified search for justice and equality for the people of their community in their home country, which is where many of them would wish to be and where many of them have family and friends. I know that all of us would want proper respect in that country for all minorities and religions. We have learned lessons with such pain in Northern Ireland, and we want to see the same kind of positive result that we are about to enjoy in these islands. I thank the Ministers for making this enormously important debate possible. There has been unanimity in the House on the fact that human rights are indivisible and apply to all nations.
As the hon. Lady knows, the presidential commission is investigating several of the allegations that she has mentioned and is being observed by the international group of eminent persons, to which I referred in my speech. Does she support that process? Is it not essential that the process is thorough and that it concludes as soon as possible?
Of course I would be supportive of that process. There will always be a range of views on how such investigations and inquiries are best carried out. However, we have a mechanism in place; let us see whether it can work and produce real accountability and conclusions that the international community can sign up to and support.
We should call on all sides to resume the ceasefire. This might not be total war, but it is in no way peace. The process must be restarted effectively.
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I tell the House that Back-Bench speeches have been averaging 16 minutes. If the Minister is to be given sufficient time to answer the points raised in the debate, it would be helpful if that average were brought down a little so that all the remaining Members who are seeking to catch my eye may contribute to the debate.
I will certainly take note of your comments, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Like many Members who have spoken, I have constituents with deep concerns, many of whom have come to my surgery to express their worry about what is happening to many of their relatives in Sri Lanka. Some of them are Tamils, but my Ahmadiyya Muslim community has recently expressed concerns about the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. I agree with a point made by my hon. Friend Peter Luff: it is easy for us to give our views on what should happen in Sri Lanka. I intend to cite the concerns that my constituents have expressed to me, although I will perhaps fall short of saying what should be done, except by noting that a diplomatic and non-violent solution will be needed to find a long-term way out of the tragic situation in Sri Lanka.
There is no doubt that Sri Lanka has suffered as a country for a number of decades and that it continues to do so. Some 3,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict since the resumption of armed hostilities in 2006. As hon. Members have said, 68,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict. There is no doubt that that has brought immense personal hardship to many people who have been displaced across the country—some 0.5 million in Sri Lanka have been displaced as a result of the conflict. I want to refer in particular to the tsunami, which added another 140,000 displaced people to the total of 0.5 million. Many of us who were aware of the troubles in Sri Lanka hoped that that tragedy on Boxing day 2004 would bring the country together and provide a common humanitarian cause so that people could set aside political differences and focus on what was required for the good of the whole country. It is unfortunate that, in retrospect, that did not happen, and I am concerned about what that means for, dare I say, ordinary Sri Lankans caught up in the conflict. Constituents who come to see me are particularly concerned about falling literacy rates among Sri Lankan children, whose education is constantly disrupted.
As we have heard, there are many human rights problems, and the Human Rights Watch briefing to which reference was made earlier in the debate provides a great deal of evidence of an increase in communal violence between different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, which is a matter of deep concern. The tsunami was a particular tragedy for Sri Lanka, because there was a ceasefire in 2002. Again, to make a comparison with Northern Ireland, I believe that the economic prosperity that resulted from political stability was one of the main reasons why people in Northern Ireland were not prepared to go back to the conflict, bombs and violence of the past. It is truly unfortunate that the tsunami may well prevent that bedding-down or entrenching of the economic development and benefits across Sri Lanka that might have made people less quick to become involved in armed conflict as a result of what they regarded as oppression.
I do not think that there is a military solution to the problems in Sri Lanka. Surely, what must happen is a return to the ceasefire and discussion. That has proved to be the way forward in Northern Ireland, which is close to many of our hearts, and it is almost certainly the way forward in Sri Lanka. Democracy is surely the route through which people across the country can air their concerns, and it will enable Sri Lanka to recover in both economic and humanitarian terms after the tsunami and its effects. There is no doubt that that is the only route by which Sri Lanka can take advantage of the massive opportunities for economic growth in that part of the world. I can only hope on behalf of my constituents, who have many relatives in Sri Lanka—many of them do extremely valuable jobs in our community but they would almost certainly like to be able to do them in their original community in Sri Lanka with their own families—that if our debate has done nothing else today, it has highlighted our concerns as a neighbour on the planet as well as our desire to work with Sri Lanka and all the groups there to see an end to the situation and the violence that so many people who live there face on a day-to-day basis.
I am extremely pleased that we have had this debate this afternoon, as it is a long, long time since there was a debate on Sri Lanka in the House. Like many other hon. Members who have come to the Chamber to take part, I have a very significant number of Tamil constituents who, over the years, have talked to me about their concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka. Of course, it is a long-standing problem, and in its present form the violence goes back over 20 years. The serious violence that occurred in 1983 was one of the factors that led to many members of the Tamil community coming to this country. There have been periods of hope, and as a result of the good work of the Norwegian Government there have been ceasefires. The ceasefire that was put in place in 2002 with high hopes clearly has not lasted and is in serious trouble.
I shall not labour the points that have already been made—that the only way a solution will be reached is through negotiation, and that that must involve the LTTE. There is no question about that. A solution will not be reached without negotiations that involve the LTTE. That is true whether that organisation is recognised or banned in the UK. Reference has been made to keeping lines of communication open. I think it is not particularly helpful that the LTTE is banned, although I am under no illusion about some of the things that it has done and still does, such as the involvement of child soldiers, about which we have heard. I have met people and I know members of the Tamil community in the UK who are here as refugees because of the LTTE. There are two sides to the story.
Does my hon. Friend share the frustration of many of my constituents that there seems to be a belief that there is an equivalence between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE? People talk about two sides of the argument. One is the state. The other is a small group of people in the north and east of the island. There is no equivalence. The two are not analogous.
That is an important point, which I had intended to deal with. Let me develop it now, as it has been raised. There is talk of being even-handed and looking at both sides of the question, but we are dealing on one side with a Government who have signed up to international conventions—in relation to human rights, for example. One should expect standards from a Government which one does not necessarily expect from a guerrilla organisation or an organisation described as a terrorist organisation.
It is no excuse for a Government to point to the activities of the LTTE and say, "Well, if the LTTE behaves like this, we have to take action." It is no excuse at all for a Government to be involved in breaches of human rights and point to the activities of the LTTE. Governments sign up to international conventions about how they will behave, and over the years there has been significant evidence that the Sri Lankan Government have not always lived up to the conventions to which they are signed up.
On that important point, speakers have mentioned the analogy with Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, in almost all respects, the British state did not behave against the international conventions. If we press on the Sri Lankan communities the Northern Ireland parallel, surely that should speak volumes to the Sri Lankan Government. If they behaved as the British Government behaved, abiding by the rules, they would be more likely to succeed.
That message is right. If we look back at the history of Northern Ireland over the years, we could find some examples where we did not behave according to conventions, but it did not do us any good when that happened. That is the message that must be put across.
I have been labelled an LTTE supporter in the past, and been told that I was supporting terrorists. I am well aware of things that the organisation has done of which I do not approve. I am convinced, as I am sure are other hon. Members, that money is being raised in this country which goes to the LTTE. Whether or not the story about the petrol stations is true, I am sure that I am not the only person who has heard the stories of taxing, whereby people are more or less required to contribute money. That happens, and let us not be under any illusion or pretend that it does not. The bottom line, however, is that there will be no settlement and solution unless the LTTE is involved in developing them and in the negotiations. The Tamil politicians in Sri Lanka, and the Members of Parliament who are members of the Tamil National Alliance, which I know is sometimes described as an LTTE proxy, but comprises elected Members of Parliament, will say exactly that—that the LTTE is the body that represents the view of the majority of Tamils.
There has been long-standing evidence of the disregard for human rights in Sri Lanka to which my hon. Friend Stephen Pound drew attention, and the failure to live up to basic human rights standards. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whom my hon. Friend Mr. Khan quoted, has made the same point. The commission that has been established to look into extra-judicial killings and disappearances is welcome, but concerns have been expressed that there are shortcomings in the national legal system that could hamper the commission's effectiveness. Previous commissions have made recommendations, but they have not been put into effect. The commission should be looking not only at individual responsibilities for acts that may be regarded as crimes, but at the broader patterns and the context in which such acts occur. It is no good merely looking at the individual case if nothing then happens to change the overall context.
The overall context at the moment is extremely worrying. There is no question but that there has been very serious deterioration in the situation over the past year or so. Relief organisations are expressing concern, and the Red Cross has recently told us that there are up to 120,000 displaced civilians in the Batticaloa district. Just in the past week or two, more than 40,000 people have fled their homes in that district. We have heard the claims about restrictions on humanitarian provision, as the A9 road has been closed, which is preventing essential medicines and humanitarian aid from getting through. Human Rights Watch and others have expressed concern that the Sri Lankan authorities are using threats and intimidation to compel civilians who fled recent fighting to return home when it is far from safe for them to do so. Those are not the actions that one would expect from a Government; one would not expect anybody to be forced to return home when they feel it is unsafe to do so.
As to what can be done, I understand perfectly well that we as a Government are not in a position to dictate solutions to the Governments of any other countries. The solution will be achieved in the end through negotiation and through the people of that country, the LTTE and its Government. I was interested to hear what my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy and the Minister had to say about the initiatives that are being taken, in which we can export experience. It is also perfectly legitimate for us to express our opinions on the initiatives that are being suggested. I have read the recent reports about the devolution proposals unveiled by the Sri Lanka Freedom party. It seemed to me that the proposals were highly unlikely to lead to a solution. In fact, they will probably be regarded as a step backward, as they implied devolution of power at a very local level, rather than any significant devolution of power that would give any real autonomy to a region or province. The proposals seem a step backward in respect of some of the suggestions made a few years ago, and it would not be helpful to the peace process if they were pursued. It is not for me to say what the detail of any solution should be, but it will not last if it does not give a significant degree of autonomy to the north and east provinces—the parts of the country with very significant Tamil populations.
We must carry on with the initiatives that the Minister talked about in his opening remarks. We must offer our experience and support, but send a clear and consistent message to both sides—the Government and the LTTE—that there is not a military solution to this problem. I am worried about the attitude of the Sri Lankan military, who seem to think that they are on the way to crushing the LTTE and that just another push will do it. If that is their mindset, I am afraid that things will get far worse than they are now. That is the important message that we have to send.
I agree with almost every word that Mr. Gerrard said. It is absolutely crucial that we send a message from this House that we are jointly resolved on the need to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, particularly as regards their growing view that there could be a military solution to this problem. I hope that Members on both sides of the House reject that idea.
Sri Lanka has often appeared to me to be the forgotten tragedy in the world. We hear a great deal about theatres of war such as Darfur and Zimbabwe—of course, they are appalling—but Sri Lanka has been going on, like a running sore, for many years. It has not received the attention that it deserves from this House—that is why I welcome this debate, which has been partly stimulated by Keith Vaz, and congratulate the Government on holding it. This subject has also been forgotten by the British media, and I hope that the BBC and Fleet street will give it the coverage that it deserves.
Like other Members, I come to this debate as a constituency MP having listened to my Tamil constituents' concerns over many years. In engaging with them, we have the wonderful experience of learning about the Tamil culture and seeing how Tamils contribute so positively to British society. One of the highlights of my year is going to Kingston's institute of tamil culture and seeing the children play their instruments, dance, sing and tell jokes in Tamil—I get them translated for me. Sometimes it goes on for rather a long time, but it is always very enjoyable. When we engage with them properly and listens to their concerns, we hear stories of tragedies. When I have spoken to them at political meetings, I have always taken the view that we should approach this on a human rights basis, with equality across the communities. Like the hon. Member for Walthamstow, I have been accused of being an LTTE sympathiser, but I reject that utterly. I have always tried to take a balanced approach. The idea that in this House and in this country we can suggest a solution that we can somehow impose on people is clearly nonsense.
When we talk to Tamil constituents and say that we want to take a balanced, human rights approach, we cannot help but feel their anger, frustration and pain, because they have families who have been killed, they have seen killings themselves, and they look at communities of theirs that have been devastated by the violence. It is impossible, as a constituency MP, not to listen to those stories, and not to share their concern and anger.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the deep frustrations in the Tamil community, rightly or wrongly—it may be an unfair statement—is the feeling that because of the war on terror the British Government and other European Governments do not have the same energy and will to resolve their problem because, first, they have higher priorities, and secondly, they are very hesitant about being associated with conversations with anyone who carries the label "terrorist" anywhere near their name?
My hon. Friend makes the point clearly. To be fair to the Government, and although I heard only the second half of the Minister's speech, for which I apologise again, I was pleased to hear about the initiatives that he and his colleagues are taking. I am sure that they have the support of hon. Members of all parties. However, like my hon. Friend Susan Kramer, I urge him to go further and not be put off by the label "terrorists", which can pollute a proper debate about the policy towards a country.
Most of the Tamils to whom I speak do not support the LTTE. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, many of them are fleeing violence that the LTTE perpetrated against them, their families and communities. The Tamil community is, of course, varied. Let us be clear: some people support the LTTE, often reluctantly, because they feel that it is the only organisation that can voice their concerns and represent the Tamil community. Some believe that they have no alternative. Let us be honest and say that that is partly because the LTTE has stamped out some of the alternative Tamil political organisations, again with acts of terror. The LTTE has therefore almost created a monopoly. Nevertheless, for many people, it represents a true voice of the Tamil community's demands. Those voices should be listened to and their anger heard.
One must apply proper standards to the Sri Lankan Government. I have read UN report after UN report, Amnesty International report after Amnesty International report, as well as reports from Human Rights Watch and the International Bar Association, which show that the Sri Lankan Government are not fulfilling the requirements of civil rights and due process or their legal responsibilities. The emergency regulations allow for the most incredible abuses of civil and human rights, primarily against the Tamil population. We must bear that in mind in the debate.
I want to make four quick points. First, let us consider the suffering of the civilian population in the east and north. People have commented on the A9 and its closure by the Sri Lankan Government. That is critical. The lack of food and medical supplies, especially in the Jaffna peninsula, causes great hardship, and I cannot understand why the Sri Lankan Government continue to set their face against international pressure. I am told that that was a sticking point at the Geneva peace talks, and that the Sri Lankan Government walked away from them last autumn because of the demand to reopen the road. To me that was a legitimate demand from the Tamil side, and I hope that it will be realised. I refer hon. Members to early-day motion 955 in my name and that of my hon. Friends, in which we press for the A9 to be reopened for humanitarian reasons.
My second point is directed at the Sri Lankan authorities. Like my hon. Friends the Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Richmond Park, I have been challenged when I have raised such issues; I have also seen colleagues challenged. Councillor Yogan Yoganathan on Kingston council, a former mayor of the royal borough, has been labelled an LTTE sympathiser and supporter simply because, like hon. Members, he wanted to speak out about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. I believe that the Sri Lankan authorities, possibly through their representatives in this country, are trying to prevent people from speaking out—to prevent freedom of speech. We must convey a message that we will debate such issues in this country, that that is our democratic right, and that the Sri Lankan authorities should accept it and not try to intimidate people who speak out by trying to label them LTTE sympathisers or terrorists. I hope that the Government will make the point that that is unacceptable in their discussions with Sri Lankan representatives in this country. I intend to do that when I meet the Sri Lankan high commissioner, as I shall shortly.
My third point relates to the Home Office, to which one or two other hon. Members have referred. Let me tell hon. Members a story from one of my advice surgeries a few months ago. I met a gentleman who was claiming asylum—for the second time, as he had failed the first time. He had been returned, re-arrested, detained and tortured again. I learned from talking to his lawyer that his case was not an isolated one. This country has been sending back as failed asylum seekers a number of people who went through that experience. Some managed to escape again and tried to claim asylum again; others have disappeared; still others have been killed.
I ask Ministers on the Treasury Bench tonight to take the message back to the Home Office to be particularly careful when considering asylum claims from Sri Lankan citizens. These stories are simply unacceptable and we must ensure that bona fide claims for asylum are considered with real care, particularly given the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that merely the act of seeking asylum on the part of many people from the Tamil community in Sri Lanka would render them liable to all kinds of dangers if they were forcibly returned? In that sense, would it not be better not to return people forcibly to Sri Lanka?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. This is a cleft stick for the Government. False claims are false claims, but I have seen too many cases where bona fide claims for asylum have been rejected. Despite making the strongest possible representations, people have been returned, sometimes never to be heard of again.
My final point relates to the ban. Keith Vaz rightly suggested that it was counter-productive. It may well be. I hope that the Minister can develop the response that his colleague gave me when I asked about the possibility of a process for reviewing the ban. Can the Government be a little clearer about how they could involve Members in looking at the issue again? They should do so, for the following reason.
When the statutory instrument was originally passed proscribing the LTTE, it was one of more than 20 organisations named in it. There was no single debate about the LTTE, just one debate on the whole statutory instrument. We did not have 20-odd separate votes after 20-odd separate debates—just one. Of course those regulations included a number of organisations that really needed to be proscribed, as the whole House agreed, but I believe that there is a debate—a legitimate debate—about whether the LTTE should be proscribed, and it ought to be heard. The process that proscribed the LTTE in the first place was inadequate. That, in itself, is an argument in favour of a review at the very least.
Just so that my hon. Friend is clear, I am sure he remembers that that was a point that we made at the time, and beforehand; it is not a point that we have thought up later. We said then that if a step as serious as banning organisations is to be taken, there must be a process in this place to look into the evidence for each case separately, one by one. We have argued that consistently, and I hope that the Government have at last come to understand it.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend.
Sri Lanka has the potential to be one of the powerhouses of Asia, and the world. Just three decades ago, it was held up as a model society. Professor Amartya Sen used to write in glowing terms that here was—dare I say it?—a socialist economy and society that had managed to reduce infant mortality, improve literacy and achieve many other key indicators of human progress. Sri Lanka had done a tremendous job. However, the strife that we have seen over the past 30 years has, unfortunately, seen the society go backwards and social progress reversed.
I am sure that those achievements can be regained—but what it will take to do that is peace. It will take Governments such as ours and the European Union putting even more pressure than they have hitherto on both parts of the island to come together. The biggest aid package that we could ever give to the island would be to help it to promote peace. It would no longer need our support or aid—it is more than capable of becoming prosperous by itself, without a pound of aid—if we helped it to restore peace. I am delighted to see that a Minister from the Department for International Development is to respond to the debate, and I hope that his Department, working with the Foreign Office, can give Sri Lanka that aid.
When the tsunami occurred, I hoped that it would help to stimulate peace and reconciliation, because the response to it was building on the ceasefire agreement that had been working, particularly under Prime Minister Wickramasinghe. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Some of the negative voices from the old Kumaratunga regime, and subsequently from the Rajapakse regime, had their way, and we have seen a deterioration in the situation ever since.
When we were considering how individual MPs and communities in this country could help, one project that I was delighted to support was the fish and ships scheme. Many fishermen had lost their boats, and their livelihoods, as a result of the tsunami, but some British people living in Sri Lanka got together with the fishermen and the communities and said, "If we supply you with ships and get you contracts with British supermarkets for your fish, that will help to revive your economy." And that has happened.
If we help people in such ways, Sri Lanka can be a wonderful place again. But there is a precondition: peace. Let us not wait another five or 10 years before the House again debates this issue and puts pressure on the Government to do more. Let us keep coming back to the subject again and again, because the cause of peace in Sri Lanka deserves our attention, and deserves to be one of the key issues to which we pay attention.
First, I should like to apologise for not being here for the opening speeches. This debate started earlier than expected, and I was chairing a Select Committee evidence session on Iran.
I am speaking in two capacities: as the MP representing a constituency with a large Sri Lankan Tamil community and as the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I am in an unfortunate position, in that the Committee is publishing a report on south Asia on Friday, but it is embargoed so I cannot quote from it— [ Interruption. ] Yes, I am holding it in my hand. I can at least refer to the evidence. The report examines the whole regional context, but we have of course touched on the serious situation in Sri Lanka.
Before I refer to the report, however, I should like to place on the record the fact that I agree with most of the contributions that I have heard today, and certainly with what Mr. Davey said about the cultural contribution of the Tamil community. We have a chariot festival in Ilford every year, and the community contains temples and prosperous businesses. The area of my constituency around Ley street has become a centre of the Tamil community, enriching and enlivening the cultural life of the borough of Redbridge.
Given the contribution that most Tamil people in the UK make, it is tragic that many of them are suffering grievously because of what is happening to their relatives and friends in Sri Lanka. A letter was faxed to me two days ago in which one of my constituents says:
"I am deeply grieved at the deplorable state of affairs at the moment, especially the disappearance of innocent civilians. A pathetic state of affairs, indeed, for an agreement which once looked so promising, but five years since it came into effect, the Ceasefire Agreement is almost defunct."
I could go on. Other Members have reported many similar things. The sad thing is that the hope for the co-operation that might have resulted following the terrible tsunami, and the possibility of building on the ceasefire agreement have clearly gone backwards. In the past few months, we have all no doubt received from our constituents pictures of the consequences of the air raids and the bombing of civilian areas, and of people who have died in many parts of Sri Lanka. At the same time, terrorist actions and criminal activities are going on, and the population in many areas is suffering grievously as a result.
I am not asking my hon. Friend to reveal anything in the report due out on Friday, but does he agree that it is important to give all the support that we can to the International Committee of the Red Cross in trying to trace some of the missing people? Such anguish is caused to families here whose loved ones have disappeared and are possibly dead but who receive no news because of either the collapse of communications in Sri Lanka or the refusal to divulge information. International agencies are therefore required to help out.
I agree. We also need to support all the international institutions, the UN processes that have been mentioned, the attempts made by individual Governments, and the attempt of my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, whom I had the great pleasure of serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary during the Northern Ireland peace negotiations when the Labour Government were first elected. Nobody could be better qualified to try to assist the process in Sri Lanka, but I wish him luck because the complexities of the politics in Sri Lanka are even worse than those in Northern Ireland. Therefore, no easy solution can be reached.
The violence has had an enormous economic impact, as has been mentioned. Sri Lanka's growth and economic development has been held back, and its once successful tourist industry has been harmed—it would be harmed even more if the BBC were to give some coverage to the appalling situation in Sri Lanka. Our media do not give the conflict in Sri Lanka the coverage that some other conflicts receive. Some of my constituents who demonstrated outside the House of Commons a few months ago were enraged that the hundreds of people complaining about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka received no coverage whatever. It is interesting to ask why. The reason might be the malign role of the LTTE and the image that it gives the community. I am an advocate not of the LTTE, but of my constituents and those who have suffered from the terrible things going on in their country.
Reference has been made to the number of people in refugee camps, the internally displaced people and the refugees who have gone all over the world in the Tamil diaspora. Human rights abuses have been committed on both sides. Many people in Sri Lanka today have suffered as a result of the recruitment of children into terrorist organisations. From evidence given by Human Rights Watch to our Committee and information from other sources, it has become clear that the Karuna faction, which was previously with the LTTE and has gone across to fight on behalf of the Sri Lankan Government, has been recruiting children for its forces and carrying out terrible crimes. The LTTE has also recruited children, and the tactic has been used in the conflict for many years. That is completely against all the international norms and conventions, and we need to denounce that loudly and press for the practice to end.
As has been mentioned, the Norwegians have tried hard to get a political solution over the years. But the situation today requires renewed international efforts. Along with the efforts of our Ministers and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, I hope that the Government of India will use whatever influence they have. We must bear in mind the sensitivities, especially given that a Prime Minister of India was assassinated as a result of involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict. Politicians in India might therefore be a bit wary of getting too involved. Nevertheless, if India aspires to be a regional power and player, and certainly if it aspires to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it has a role to play in thinking more about how it might assist in achieving a solution to the conflict on the island to its south.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is speaking, given that he chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. I think that I am right in saying that Sri Lanka does not feature in the report that his Committee has just produced, which deals with human rights matters around the world and covers what happened last year. Will he take the issues we have raised back to the Committee, and ensure that Sri Lanka is raised in next year's report?
Our human rights report did not refer to every country in the world. We tried to highlight a few instances in which we thought the Government's report was inadequate or required further comment. As we were conducting an inquiry on south Asia and would be publishing our report at about the same time, we felt that duplication was unnecessary. However, when our report is published on Friday it will contain comments about human rights in Sri Lanka.
I am sure that my Committee colleagues will consider what we do in future human rights reports, but I cannot commit my Committee. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is a democratic Committee whose 14 members make collective decisions. I hope we will examine the situation in Sri Lanka in the round in the coming year.
I believe that this conflict deserves much greater attention. I believe that there is a role for our Government and for Parliament in trying to facilitate dialogue and a political solution, but I also believe that tactics such as blowing up buses, assassinating political leaders and bombing villages cannot be excused, justified or apologised for, whoever employs them. I therefore believe that members of the various communities—the diaspora, and those in Sri Lanka—who are concerned about these issues must try to find the best way of returning to a political solution.
As other Members have said, we must get back to politics. Only politics, dialogue and negotiation will provide a solution. The slow, difficult processes in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen—and many other Members in all parts of the House—played a part for the many years that it took to secure agreement in Northern Ireland will be needed again in Sri Lanka. We must all maintain international support for that approach, just as we received support from the United States, the European Union and the international community.
I congratulate the Government on making time for the debate. The fact is that Parliament has been rather remiss when it comes to Sri Lanka, especially in view of the number of people who have died and the fact that the conflict has been ongoing since 1983.
I pay tribute—as we all seem to be doing—to my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner and to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, who will reply to the debate. Both played a prominent role in Sri Lankan affairs before they became Ministers, and—as has already been mentioned—both their constituencies contain significant Tamil communities.
I want to make a number of points in the limited time available to me. The first concerns the drift back to war that has been going on for some time. Almost immediately after the ceasefire agreement in 2002, despite six rounds of talks that seemed to be very positive—the LTTE discussed prisoner exchanges and was going to drop the idea of an independent state—by 2003 the LTTE had pulled out, suggesting that it had been sidelined. That resulted in a serious loss of momentum. It was nearly four years before the next major effort was made to bring the two communities together, and although they met in February 2006 and agreed to meet again in April, that subsequent meeting never took place. I pay tribute to Norway for its unsuccessful attempt to bring the two communities together in Oslo in June that year.
There are many reasons for the failure of those efforts, but I shall cite three that I consider particularly important. In October 2003, there was an interim self-governing agreement. Unfortunately, that split the Sinhalese community, and in subsequent parliamentary elections the United National party, which was more sympathetic than some others to finding agreement, was defeated. A consequence of that defeat was that the LTTE and the Tamil community began to wonder about the limitations of the peace process in delivering genuine change for them.
Secondly, 35,000 people were killed as a result of the tsunami and Members know from debates in this House that there was no direct aid to Tamil areas; it had to be filtered through the Government. There was an agreement between the Government and the LTTE: the post-tsunami operational management system or PTOMS. However, that was challenged in the supreme court, and consequently the aid was slow in getting through and the Tamil community began to wonder whether its suffering caused by the tsunami was being recognised.
The third reason was the assassination of the Foreign Minister, Mr. Kadirgamar. Although it is widely assumed that that was carried out by the LTTE, no one has claimed responsibility. That has further deepened the hostility between the communities.
The drift into war became a slide after April 2006. The new Government of the Sri Lanka Freedom party came under pressure from the more nationalist smaller parties to take a tougher response to the negotiating process. The LTTE abandoned any prospect that peace would be delivered, and returned to the low intensity insurgency of some years before. There was also the defection of the Karuna faction, which felt that it was not being listened to within the LTTE, and the belief of many in the military and the Sri Lankan Government that they could exploit that split. The consequence of all of that is that some believe that there can be a military solution. We should make it clear—every Member who has spoken has done so—that there is no military solution. That is not only because the LTTE remains much stronger than many people think, especially in the north of the island, but because, as we have seen in recent weeks and months, it still has the ability to disrupt Sri Lanka and to fight back when necessary. Because we should not underestimate the LTTE, it is crucial that the international community starts to bring the two communities together.
We have talked a lot about Norway and some Members have been critical, but Norway cannot succeed alone. It needs the help of the international community. That was clear from what happened to the Sri Lanka monitoring mission. The LTTE said that it had to get out of its areas, and it had to retreat back to Colombo and remove monitors who were from European Union countries. The international community has a role to play, and it must do more.
I apologise, but I shall not take interventions as I only have two minutes.
In recent months countries and organisations such as Canada, the European Union and the United States have taken tougher action in respect of the LTTE; Canada, for example, has joined others in proscribing it. I do not want to get into the arguments for and against taking such action, but we should clearly state that we cannot defeat it militarily and neither can we do so by banishing it from the political system. It has to be possible to bring it in. There has to be a political solution to the problem and that must include the Tamil community—a solution cannot be achieved without it. That requires critical and sustained international engagement. My major plea is that the British Government must call on the international community to do more. Some time ago, the international donors talked about putting pressure on in terms of international donations. Many countries give debt relief to Sri Lanka. Are we asking whether that is getting through to all the people in Sri Lanka to ease all of its problems? We need answers to such questions.
I wanted to go into greater detail than time allows on the human rights situation, which is extremely bleak. There is an intensification of the dirty war that mainly impacts on civilians in the north and east of the country. Child recruitment continues on both sides, and there have been more than 700 abductions and disappearances in recent months. Emergency regulations have effectively been turned into prevention of terrorism legislation that contains sweeping powers and is not accountable to the political process. Of course, the LTTE has gone further in rejecting the possibility that the peace process can deliver for it.
So the reality is that the situation has not been bleaker than this for many years. The reality is also that only the international community can make a real difference in bringing the two sides together. I make the plea that I am sure everyone else is making. Although the British Government may not play the main role, in many ways they have a unique role because of our membership of the Security Council, our historical role in Sri Lanka and our membership of the EU. All those factors can be brought to bear to ensure that we do the most important thing: bring the two sides together, reintroduce the ceasefire agreement and get the political process under way.
This has been a serious and considered debate that has reflected the Government's profound concern at the situation facing the people of Sri Lanka. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East began the debate by setting out a range of steps that we have taken. He deliberately chose to initiate this debate precisely to allow Members to raise the issues that we know many constituents are concerned about. He confirmed not only that he has visited Sri Lanka, but that he is due to do so again.
My hon. Friend was followed by Mr. Clifton-Brown, who spoke for the Opposition. In a wide-ranging speech, he made a series of points and asked a number of questions, not the least of which concerned the role of India and the potential of British discussions with the Indian Government regarding the situation in Sri Lanka. I can confirm that such discussions are ongoing, and that my hon. Friend is due to visit India shortly to continue them in person. I will come to the other questions that the hon. Gentleman asked in due course.
We were then treated to the contribution of my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, who brought his considerable experience of Northern Ireland matters to this debate. I welcome the fact that he has visited Sri Lanka, and that his interest continues and he is willing to travel again to that country to share the benefit of and reflect on his experience. His forthcoming visit, timed as it will be to coincide with the visit of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who will bring the Government's perspective to the situation in Sri Lanka, will be particularly important. My right hon. Friend made a particularly important point about the Northern Ireland process. The lessons learned from Northern Ireland have a particular read-across to the situation in Sri Lanka. He referred to the importance of parity of esteem, as he put it: the need to develop mutual respect across the divides that haunt Sri Lanka.
My right hon. Friend was followed by Simon Hughes, who touched on the concerns of many of his constituents and made a series of wide-ranging points that I will come to in due course. He was followed by my hon. Friend Mr. Khan, who, among the various points that he made, was the first Member to highlight the wide-ranging contribution of Sri Lankans to the cultural and economic life of our country, and to many of our constituencies, towns and cities.
Peter Luff made an especially important point about the need for courage from the leaders of the key groupings in Sri Lanka to offer leadership towards a peace process, given the scale of the conflict and the number of lives that have been lost. It is important that that leadership is offered.
My right hon. Friend Keith Vaz brought his considerable interest and involvement to the debate, and highlighted the need to ensure that the aid that we offer to Sri Lanka is well targeted. I will say more about that point later.
Mr. Vara gave justified recognition to the considerable contribution of the Norwegian Government. I pay particular tribute to the Norwegian Minister, Erik Solheim, who has been diligent about maintaining his country's support for the peace process in Sri Lanka in a difficult period. The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the considerable humanitarian needs in the country, and I shall describe how my Department is trying to mitigate the scale of that need.
The hon. Members for Putney (Justine Greening) and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), and my hon. Friend Mr. Love also made heart-felt points about the opportunity that the tsunami appeared to pose for bringing the sides together. I visited Sri Lanka most recently in June 2005, having also travelled to Aceh in Indonesia, where the tsunami was indeed a catalyst for bringing all sides together. However, by June 2005, it was beginning to become clear that the moment had passed when the force and devastation of the tsunami could have offered a route back into the peace process in Sri Lanka. The conflict was already beginning to return to the state it was in before 2002.
My hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard rightly highlighted the concerns in his constituency and across the UK about the level of human rights abuse in Sri Lanka. In acknowledging the importance of the presidential commission that has been established to look into the issue, he rightly highlighted the need to go further and to ensure that the recommendations of the commission are implemented and deliver tangible improvements in the human rights situation in that country.
My hon. Friend Mike Gapes brought to our debate his considerable experience as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We look forward with interest to the publication of his Committee's report on Friday. He made the point that more media attention could justifiably be paid to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Perhaps the publication of the Committee's report will provide an opportunity for that greater media engagement.
In addition, some extremely astute and important interventions were made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and by the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes).
I know that concern about what is happening in Sri Lanka goes beyond those hon. Members who have been able to attend today's debate. I have received representations from my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Claire Ward), for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), for Brent, South (Ms Butler), and for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). I also know that this debate will be noted widely across the UK by people in the Sri Lankan Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim communities. I know from my own constituency of the profound concern about the situation in Sri Lanka.
I first had the privilege of visiting the country in October 2002, at a time of great hope in the peace process, when people were very optimistic about what was happening. I travelled to Jaffna, which must be one of the most beautifully sited cities in the world, in the company of a Tamil friend from my constituency, and I saw his tears at the scale of the devastation in the city where he grew up and was educated. Since then, and like many other hon. Members, I have heard about the frustration that many people from our Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese communities feel about the situation in Sri Lanka. That frustration has to do with the prospects for peace, the worsening humanitarian situation and the impact that the conflict is having on development, human rights and on the recovery from the tsunami.
As my hon. Friend the Minister set out, the desire for peace and progress has to come from inside Sri Lanka itself. Our Prime Minister has made clear to President Rajapakse our willingness to help, and I hope that the House will agree that my hon. Friend's visits to the country, the discussions held by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers with visiting Ministers from Sri Lanka, and the engagement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen show the extent of our commitment to help the people of Sri Lanka move forward. However, I repeat that the peace process must begin in Sri Lanka itself.
All Governments, and especially democratically elected Governments, have the responsibility for defending their countries against terrorism. The Sri Lankan Government are no exception, although they also face the considerable challenge of delivering a peace settlement that will meet the aspirations of all Sri Lanka's different groups.
The last time that the House had the opportunity to reflect on the situation in Sri Lanka as we have done today was in the aftermath of the tsunami. At the time, there was considerable concern about the scale of the displacement and loss of life that had taken place. In today's debate, we have heard about the continued concern in the period since the tsunami, so I will set out in some detail what my Department and the Government more generally have been able to do in response.
Have the Sri Lankan Government given any indication that they understand what the Labour Government, to their credit, have understood in respect of Britain—that people can be kept happy only if they are given power and self-government? Has there been any recognition of that in communications from the Sri Lankan Government since Labour has been in office?
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, in a little while I shall deal with matters such as the fact that the President has set up all-party talks about a possible settlement offer.
I was talking about the effects of the tsunami. By the beginning of 2006, almost all the children in the areas affected were attending school. Not surprisingly, the situation has deteriorated since then, and school attendance in the north and east is now severely affected by the security situation.
Almost all families that were still in our camps now have access to much sturdier transitional shelter. More than 70 per cent. of families are back in their own homes, and more than 75 per cent. of people have regained their livelihoods. Moreover, progress is being made with the building of improved education and health facilities. We had anticipated that this year major infrastructure programmes would forge ahead and that the pace of progress in building permanent housing would pick up. However, Members will not be surprised to learn that the resurgence of the conflict has had serious consequences for the reconstruction effort and for development more generally, particularly in the north and east of the country.
We committed aid of about £7 million immediately after the tsunami struck. About £500,000 is outstanding. We set that money aside to try to help to develop the capacity of the north-east provincial council to lead the recovery process, but the money is unspent because of the impact of renewed conflict. Other money we gave is being well spent, as I saw on my visit to the Ampara district in June 2005. I visited a Tamil rehabilitation organisation camp where money we gave the Adventist development and relief agency was helping to provide water tanks and carriers for some of the 5,000 displaced families in the district.
We contributed about £250,000 to World Vision UK to help fund the distribution of food and basic shelter materials to more than 120,000 people in Sri Lanka. We gave aid to help the Save the Children Fund in the distribution of food, shelter, household items and water purification material to about 100,000 families across Sri Lanka, including in the north and east. We also helped to fund the UN operation in Sri Lanka. The UN led the international response to assist the Government of Sri Lanka and we helped to fund its capacity to do so.
Whatever the form of the final settlement to the ethnic conflict that is scarring Sri Lanka, it must emerge through inclusive negotiations between representatives of the different communities, as Members have said. That will mean making difficult compromises, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire pointed out. Some people in Sri Lanka may prefer not to make those compromises, believing that a military solution is a better option. Bluntly, as has been said in all the contributions, a military solution is not the better option. Twenty-four years of fighting in Sri Lanka have shown that neither side is capable of a total military victory. Even if a military solution were possible, a settlement imposed following a military victory would be a source of considerable resentment and future conflict; it would not have the makings of a genuinely sustainable peace.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey asked about our conversations with the Sri Lankan Government. The all-party committee initiated by President Rajapakse provides an opportunity to reach a consensus, especially among southern politicians, on what devolution might look like in the Sri Lankan context. We welcome that initiative and hope that the final proposal for devolution will be ambitious in its efforts to accommodate the aspirations of all Sri Lankans.
There are constant rumours that if consensus is reached but negotiations do not take place the Sri Lankan Government will go ahead without agreement. What would be our Government's reaction in that case?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me if at this stage I do not speculate on an unknown outcome. As I have said, a solution in Sri Lanka will have to be reached through negotiation and compromise, and I hope that that message is well understood.
Many Members touched on the humanitarian situation, reflecting on the impact of the conflict on the civilian population. Much of the recent fighting has occurred in heavily populated areas of the east. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced over the past year. Recent reporting by UN agencies suggests that malnutrition remains a real concern for many living in internally displaced person camps. Those camps are not the places of refuge that they should be from the killings and political abductions that are scarring Sri Lanka.
In the north, the situation in Jaffna is particularly grim. It is a city of 600,000 people and it remains cut off from the rest of the country. We agree with the co-chairs of the peace process—the EU, Norway, Japan and the United States—that there should be
"immediate, permanent and unconditional opening of the sea and road routes"— the A9 has been referred to—
"for humanitarian convoys of essential supplies."
As the intensity of the fighting has increased, the space for humanitarian agencies to operate in has become much more constricted. Both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE have a responsibility to ensure that humanitarian agencies are able to get full access to civilians in need of support. Crucially, they should respect the neutrality of humanitarian agencies. Seeing humanitarian agencies as legitimate targets for vilification because they support peace may jeopardise the security of their staff.
According to figures compiled by Reuters, Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world for humanitarian workers to operate. In 2006, 23 were killed, 17 of them in a terrible murder near Trincomalee in August. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and numerous non-governmental organisations for the selfless work that they do in Sri Lanka.
I join the tribute that the Minister has paid to United Nations agencies that are working on the island. He talked about the need to open land routes, in particular, in an area that is battered by conflict. Is not one possible solution to ask the United Nations Security Council whether there could be a peacekeeping force just for that route, to keep it open for humanitarian aid? Is that one possible way forward?
I will come later to the question of the UN and the discussions that we have been having through it. We have made it clear that access is necessary by road and sea. I take this opportunity again to urge the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka to recognise that they have a responsibility to facilitate access for humanitarian and development agencies. That is a responsibility on the Government of Sri Lanka, but it is also one that the LTTE must recognise.
I touched on what we as a Government have been able to do to respond to the humanitarian needs. In September last year, we contributed $1 million to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross for their response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Sri Lanka. An assessment mission has recently returned again from Sri Lanka and we will assess the recommendations in its summary report in the next few weeks with a view to considering what else we can do to help mitigate the impact.
Much has been said about human rights. As a number of hon. Members have said, in areas under LTTE control, there is no tolerance of dissent or of freedom of expression. The LTTE needs to develop its role as a credible partner for peace. It cannot continue to persecute Tamils just because they have opposing views. As my hon. Friend Jim Dowd made clear in one of his interventions early on, there have been credible reports that members of the Government security forces have been involved in extra-judicial killings and there have been repeated allegations that some civilians detained during large anti-terrorist operations have disappeared. I know of concerns from my own constituency case load, as well. It appears that anti-LTTE paramilitary groups have also been engaged in violence and intimidation. Despite promising to do so, the Government of Sri Lanka have not succeeded in preventing those armed groups from operating in Government-controlled areas. There are allegations of collusion by the security forces.
The four leading international players in the peace process—the co-chairs—have made it clear that they believe that both parties have failed to deliver on their responsibilities in that respect, including on the commitments made at the Geneva meeting in 2006. We share that view and the concern that has been raised in the House about the serious restrictions that have been put on freedom of expression, with journalists and newspaper distribution agents being intimidated and, in some cases, killed.
I asked the hon. Gentleman several questions during my speech, notably whether the UK Government were taking any new initiatives to solve the peace process, especially involving the United Nations. Will he say something about that before he concludes?
I will indeed. However, first let me highlight the fact that the Foreign Minister and two other democratically elected Members of Parliament have been killed in the past two years. Many ordinary people have been reported as disappeared or simply killed.
The hon. Member for Cotswold asked me about the UN, as did the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. Last year, Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, felt that the unfolding human rights situation was so serious that she called on the international community to continue to monitor it. She said that the events were not just ceasefire violations, but grave breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law. That is why we continue to seek a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. We want discussions to take place there so that we can help to build a framework for peace and increase confidence on all sides in Sri Lanka.
As I indicated, we welcome and support the establishment of the international independent group of eminent persons, which will monitor domestic investigations into human rights abuses. However, the group, on its own, is not enough. The investigations must be rigorous and fast. They must help to ensure that more of the perpetrators of human rights abuses are brought to justice.
I am sure that the House will agree that one of the most abhorrent human rights abuses is the continued recruitment of children to fight. Both the LTTE and the Karuna faction have given undertakings that they will stop the practice, but evidence, including that from UNICEF, suggests that both organisations continue to force children to fight.
The hon. Member for Cotswold asked whether the Sri Lanka monitoring mission could be strengthened. We agree that it has done an excellent job in often difficult circumstances. I hope that the LTTE will once again co-operate with the mission and allow monitors from EU member states to return.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton asked about debt relief and the UK's decision to pay thus far only half the outstanding debt relief tranche for 2006. We believe that that sent a clear message to the Sri Lankan Government about our concerns. The outstanding payment will be made only when consultations have concluded with the Sri Lankan Government. Those consultations will, in particular, involve discussions about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. When the high commissioner met the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister last week, they discussed debt relief and our concerns about human rights. The high commissioner urged the Sri Lankan Government to respond to and address our concerns. Further debt relief payments cannot be made until that happens.
Many hon. Members asked what else the Government could do in addition to the considerable efforts that we are already making. Our top political and developmental priority in Sri Lanka is supporting peace building. The Department works closely with our colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence and with those whom support the Prime Minister. We combine our operations in the country, and we are using funds from the global conflict prevention pool to support a series of programmes that will help to bring the sides together, slowly to try to create the conditions for a sustainable peace.
Sri Lanka is a country of huge but unfulfilled potential. We want a peaceful solution to the conflict. That solution must be one with which all the people and communities in Sri Lanka feel comfortable. It must enable the society to become more prosperous and healthier. We will continue to be engaged in the search for peace in Sri Lanka.