Sri Lanka

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 2nd May 2007.

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Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting 4:15 pm, 2nd May 2007

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.