Sri Lanka

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 6:31 pm on 2nd May 2007.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Party Chair, Co-operative Party 6:31 pm, 2nd May 2007

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.

My hon. Friend Joan Ruddock also described the considerable role of the Sri Lankan community in her constituency and rightly dwelt on the scale of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka at present.

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.