Sri Lanka

– in the House of Commons at 4:55 pm on 17th January 2008.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Khan.]

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 4:57 pm, 17th January 2008

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting for today's Adjournment debate my suggested subject of Government support for the peace process in Sri Lanka. I had previously applied for a debate on the subject, but it could not happen. Mr. Speaker has kindly acceded to my request to reinstate the debate today. Little did I know that the debate would be as timely as it has turned out; I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for understanding the appropriateness of this debate at this time.

It is sad—this year should have been one of great celebration for all the peoples of Sri Lanka. The 60th anniversary of the independence of Ceylon from the United Kingdom falls on 4 February. In normal circumstances, that would be an occasion for great celebration across that beautiful country. Furthermore, this year is the 30th anniversary of Sri Lanka's change to an executive presidency. In the same year, under that constitution, Tamil was recognised, with English and Sinhala, as an official language. The country's history suggests that there is much for celebration, but that is not how it has been in recent years.

Since I was elected to this place in 1983 there has been a state of emergency and a continuing difficulty that is most easily and sadly described as an effective civil war. It has continued month in, month out, and last year ended in sad circumstances—violence, attacks, deaths and a very dim prospect. Sadly, this year has begun equally badly in two senses. First, the Government, for reasons that I can understand but that are ultimately misguided, announced on 3 January that they were to terminate the ceasefire agreement that was entered into in 2002, and yesterday that ceasefire agreement ended. In parallel with that, over recent weeks there has been continuing violence, with attacks in the north and the south, the assassination of a Minister and of another Member of Parliament, and the killing of innocent people—people absolutely not part of the political process, including children—on bus journeys.

Let me make it absolutely clear that my view, like that, I imagine, of every single person in the House and elsewhere, is that violence is unacceptable, that killing other people in the pursuit of political ends is not the way forward, and that, as other places have learned—I welcome to his place Mr. Murphy, who had direct experience of this in our country, in Northern Ireland—there must be an alternative route that says that violence is put aside and people talk to each other until they reach a solution.

So we have a dear Commonwealth country, with huge friendship between all its peoples and our people, now entering its 32nd year of unrest and civil war. Let me give just two or three sentences of background—shared knowledge among people here, but more for the record than for our debate. It is a country of about 20 million people, or thereabouts, three quarters of whom—approximately; I am not trying to be overly precise—are from a Sinhalese background and an eighth of whom, about 3 million people, are from a Tamil background, with other smaller groups. Two thirds of the population are Buddhist by faith adherence, about 15 per cent. are Hindu, about 7.5 per cent. are Muslim, and slightly less than that are Christians and people of other faiths. In this country, we have, best estimates tell us, about 200,000, or probably nearer to a quarter of a million, people from Sri Lanka, almost equally divided between Sinhalese people and Tamil people, contributing wonderfully to our nation in every respect, in business, in teaching, in medicine, in the professions, in culture, in sport—just a fantastic contribution.

I have no vested constituency interest in this issue. I have friends who are Sinhalese and Tamil, but I do not have a huge Sri Lankan population in my bit of London, although friends in other parts of London have significant Sri Lankan populations. I am not doing this because I have 10 per cent. of my electorate to address and want to deal with their concerns.

Back in the '70s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was formed as a liberation struggle movement. We know, in general terms, what its history has been. It led to the fact that in 2001, in this Parliament, we proscribed it as an organisation in this country. In May 2005, the European Union took a similar view. As a result, one of the players—an organisation that is not going to go away, whatever the Government and other people may wish—is officially illegal in the eyes of the rest of the world. We are familiar with that in this country, as we similarly banned the Irish Republican Army—the IRA—and placed restrictions on Sinn Fein in all those past days in Northern Ireland.

Just over two years ago, we had the latest political resolution when, in a very hotly contested presidential election, current President Rajapakse was elected by a narrow majority of 50.3 per cent. to 48.3 per cent. over Ranil Wickremesinghe, with the two big coalition parties providing the two main candidates. This is a country where, as you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, people in high office have often had a very difficult time personally. One Prime Minister and one President have been assassinated, as have a Foreign Minister and many others. As in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, families who have been involved in politics have sadly been afflicted by killing and terrible personal experiences. No one would wish that on anyone. A coalition Government are in place, who reflect the view of the President, by and large. There is a majority who reflect his view.

In this House, we have sought, along with the Minister, who has always been extremely co-operative, and his fellow Ministers, to debate regularly how the Government and others in the UK can assist in the peace process. I pay tribute not only to the right hon. Member for Torfaen, but to people such as Dr. Fox, and other colleagues who have taken a consistent interest and sought to facilitate progress. Some of my colleagues who cannot be here today were with me yesterday at a meeting, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and for St. Ives (Andrew George). The former has constituents from Sri Lanka, and the latter does not, but they have taken a concerned interest and want proper development, economic success and prosperity for Sri Lanka. The Minister made the Government's position very clear at Foreign and Commonwealth questions last week. He called for the Sri Lankan Government to go down a different route to try to come to a peaceful and just conclusion. Sadly, that did not happen, and formally, as of yesterday, the ceasefire is at an end.

Last night, in the Grand Committee Room in Westminster Hall, there was a large gathering of the Tamil community. Colleagues from all three major parties met people to hear them express their concerns, which they did moderately but with great anxiety. I know that many of them have lost relatives; they have had family killed or injured. Many cannot get things through to their relatives, particularly if they are in the Jaffna peninsula in the north. At 4 o'clock today, a petition was presented to No. 10 expressing the concern of the Tamil community here that the ceasefire should be reinstated and that the peace process should continue.

During this period of catastrophe, according to the best figures available—Government figures that are not fundamentally disputed—70,000 people may have been killed and 1 million may have been displaced. On top of all that, as if it were not enough, the tsunami struck, and a further 30,000 or 40,000 people were killed on Boxing day just over three years ago; hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. This country desperately needs peace in order that it can have prosperity. I will not go through the litany of killing, but in the past two years probably 5,000 people have been killed—estimates vary—and that has continued, as I said, even in recent weeks.

I shall make a linked point before I come to my reflections and suggestions. I have been in touch with the Sri Lankan high commissioner here, and I am grateful for her considered response to my request for an accurate, up-to-date statement of the Sri Lankan position, to ensure that I was not misrepresenting it.

We have always had a good relationship, though a tense one, as we have debated the issues. According to independent reports, the economy is suffering as a consequence of what has happened there. There is growth in the economy, but the trade deficit has widened by 66 per cent. in a year, and exports have gone down. In November, imports went up, and stocks are going down. Probably some 1 million people are in poverty, mainly in areas affected most by the conflict. That situation will go on, and it is a worldwide phenomenon. On the BBC World Service this morning I heard someone reflect that it is always the case in the developing world that conflict absolutely and directly exacerbates poverty.

The Government and international bodies, such as Amnesty and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, have a similar view as to what has happened in the peace process. There is not really any international dispute.

The agreement that was reached in 2002 followed unilateral efforts to hold a ceasefire for a month and see how that went. The ceasefire has been piecemeal and inconsistent, and of course, as everybody knows, it has not been universally respected. However, in the middle of it, suggestions for proper devolution were made. Proposals for an autonomous Tamil province or part of the country were on the table. I do not mean proposals for local government but a new constitutional settlement, such as, in some ways, we have achieved here, and as has happened in many other parts of the world. Things went well, but then the past President intervened and sacked people from various Ministries and progress stalled.

People keep hoping, but their hopes are repeatedly dashed. After the tsunami, people hoped that it might, paradoxically, be an incentive to get together but that was not to be. It is troubling that there is a universal view that, despite countries such as ours linking their development assistance to the peace process—the Government agreed a strategy in 2002 that was rightly clear about that—human rights have been poor. That remains a general understanding. The Foreign Office website states:

"The Sri Lankan government has taken steps to improve its very poor human rights records of the 1980s and the 1990s."

Yet records for recent years and months confirm that serious cause for concern remains.

Amnesty International's 2007 report states that the United Nations special rapporteur reported in March on a visit made some months previously and on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions. The rapporteur said that freedom of expression, movement, association and participation were threatened, especially for Tamil and Muslim civilians.

In May, the President appointed new people to the human rights commission, which then no longer appeared to fulfil its constitutional requirements or the international requirements for independence. In September, the supreme court ruled that there was no legal basis for the UN Human Rights Committee to hear cases from Sri Lanka. That was regrettable. As the year went on, international human rights bodies raised concerns about the escalating human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. That has been on the agenda at the Security Council.

I do not say that those leading the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam do not share responsibility, as insurgents, for the situation. However, it is clear from reports that Sri Lankan Government responses have not been confined to those acting militarily. They have intervened in the lives of civilians and gone far beyond what is internationally recognised as acceptable. I understand the provocation when suicide bombing happens and ships get blown up, but Sri Lanka spends $1 billion on defence—money that should logically be spent on development.

Amnesty International says that last year, humanitarian aid agencies were unable to reach many of those at risk in the north and east. From August, aid supplies to the north were obstructed by the closure of the Jaffna peninsula road and a sea blockade by the LTTE.

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Thanks
Best regards
Wijey Nagalingam

Submitted by nagalingam wijeyakumar

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns that, with the motorway remaining closed and the ceasefire having ended, the humanitarian crisis can only get worse? The international community must do something about that urgently.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I understand that the hon. Gentleman spoke at the same meeting as me last night, although he was there before me. The community was grateful that he was there. The A9, the main road to Jaffna, is the only appropriate and established thoroughfare for a huge community on the peninsula in the north. It has been closed for a long time; it was reopened but is now closed again. Last night I heard at first hand people saying that they could not get medical supplies, food or money through to their families in that part of the country.

The Sri Lankan Government say that although the road is closed, supplies can be delivered by boat and so on, but that is clearly not the experience of people here who talk to us. I do not mean that those people are inventing or imagining that, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the road needs to be reopened. Whatever the decision about the ceasefire this month, I cannot believe that it is beyond the competence of the Government and the LTTE to agree that the road can be opened and protected, so that people can go to their homes and supplies can reach people who live in the north.

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A

Thank you all
Arumugam Vivehananthan

Submitted by Arumugam Vivehananthan

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Earlier the hon. Gentleman mentioned the tsunami and the aid that went to its victims. I am sure that he is aware that there is still huge anger about the distribution of that aid and a feeling among those in the Tamil community in the north and east that they were deprived of necessary aid. Does he not think that there is still some point in pursuing that as part of confidence building?

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Yes I do. The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development might be able to help us on that matter. There is now independent confirmation that large amounts of the aid given have not gone where they were intended to go. That is a tragedy, given the absolute destruction caused in those areas. It must be right for there to be further investigation, conducted independently of the Sri Lankan Government, into where that money has gone, and for us to seek to liberate it to rebuild those communities. The hon. Gentleman is right about that.

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Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

I had the good fortune to go to Sri Lanka two years ago, specifically to see how aid money was being spent. Although I recognise all the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised—he is absolutely right—equally I recognise how difficult it was, in a war zone, to rebuild and replenish the badly damaged area in the north around Jaffna. I got the impression that a Sri Lankan Government body comprising a group of young people was working very hard indeed and achieving a sizeable success in replenishing some of those areas in the north. I understand the difficulties and concerns; none the less, I want to inject some balance and say that, judging by my investigations when I was there, the Sri Lankan Government seemed to be trying their very best under difficult circumstances.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I have not been back to Sri Lanka since the tsunami, so I cannot comment from experience on the ground, although I know that the Under-Secretary of State has been. I do not doubt that much work has been done by Sri Lankan Government agencies and international non-governmental organisations, but often—I do not know whether this was true of the Minister's visit—Ministers from other countries, international agencies or parliamentarians cannot go where they would like to go, because the Sri Lankan Government say that it is unsafe. People therefore end up going where it is possible to see good things happening. I have no idea whether Mr. Binley asked to go to Jaffna and the north, for example, and whether he was free to travel there—

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

He was. I am reassured by what he says; all I know is that there are internationally authenticated concerns that much of the money has not ended up where it should have ended up, as Jeremy Corbyn intervened on me to say. I am not attributing personal blame, but if that is happening, it is no good.

I have two final points of concern. There are still huge numbers of unlawful killings—it is not me saying that, but Amnesty. Several hundred extra-judicial killings were reported last year, which, as Amnesty makes clear, were carried out by forces of the Government, the Karuna group—a splinter group of the LTTE that is reportedly co-operating with Government forces—the LTTE and other armed opposition groups. We are not talking about one-side-of-the coin activity. The situation is complex, with many involved in taking people out of what they see as a political battle.

Both sides are also still recruiting child soldiers. Apparently the LTTE recruited 1,500 or so child soldiers a year ago, while more than 100 were reportedly recruited in Government-controlled areas in the east by the Karuna group. A special adviser to the UN reported in November—two months ago—that Sri Lankan Government forces had been actively involved in forcibly recruiting children. That is absolutely unacceptable. It is even more worrying if anyone connected to the Government or Government forces is involved. The world is trying to stop conflict, and in particular it is trying to ensure that it does not start with youngsters being brought in, as they are the most vulnerable people.

There have been numerous detailed reports about torture in police custody and so on, but my final point on this report is that an international commission of inquiry was announced by the President in September to investigate abductions, disappearances and extra-judicial killings. In the end, however, it was changed to being a national investigation with an international observer group. There are real concerns about the independence of the information gathering and assessment involved.

I guess that that is why, at the end of the year, some pretty robust statements were made by independent bodies. The programme director of Amnesty International for the Asia Pacific region said this month:

"The withdrawal of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, in addition to the downgrading of the National Human Rights Commission by the International Co-ordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions which has brought its credibility into question, leaves a vacuum in independent investigation and monitoring of human rights abuses."

Norway, the United States, Japan and the European Union have also made clear their unhappiness at what has happened in connection with the ending of the ceasefire. I am grateful that our Government have made their position clear in that regard. I am also grateful that Norway, which has played an absolutely central role throughout by seeking to be a peacekeeper, to arbitrate and to initiate, is still willing to do that. I had the privilege of meeting the man who had led that exercise when he was passing through London just before Christmas, and I want to thank him and his team, and the Norwegian Government, for continuing to offer their assistance in very difficult circumstances.

I want to reflect on what the Sri Lankan Government have told me, to ensure that I am not in any way misrepresenting it. They have a view that the position of the LTTE, and the more extreme Tamil position, is to create a mono-ethnic, mono-political separate state. Some hold that view, but in my opinion it can never be possible in this world to have mono-ethnic mono-political states. Look at the history of the Balkans; look at anywhere else. No state is going to be like that; it is not a sustainable option.

Many people hold a different view, which is that self-governance within a federal, or confederal, solution is a viable option. Countries flourish, blossom and grow under such systems. India and Pakistan are examples of such states, as are—nearer to home—many of the European Union countries. One has to try to reflect the different aspirations and views involved. The negotiations looked as though they were going down that road and becoming much more realistic. It is unlikely that the support of the Sri Lankan Government would be won by an argument for the secession of part of the country to become a separate Tamil nation state. That is not a credible option under the present constitutional settlement. It must be likely, however, that people could be persuaded by the argument for a new constitution that could confer autonomy for the Tamil people. Yes, there would have to be a referendum, and independent political decisions would have to be taken, but that must all be possible. Within such a self-governing part of Sri Lanka, there would of course have to be freedom for other people to have their human rights acknowledged, whatever their faith, background or interests.

The Sri Lankan Government responded to the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees by saying that they were awaiting the proposals of the all-party representatives' committee that they set up a year ago. They are doing that, and I welcome it. They are due to report next week. That might be a branch that is worth clinging on to, in order to start climbing back on to a more secure part of the tree. I do not know what the report will say, or how credible it will be, but I recognise that it is clearly important. I hope that it will provide a positive and constructive way forward.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point there. My understanding is that the United Nations Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner would prefer to have an independent UN presence in Sri Lanka the whole time. There seems to have been a long period in which the Sri Lankan Government have employed delaying tactics to try to head that off. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that we should still use our good offices at the UN to insist on an independent UN presence?

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I absolutely do think that; it was going to be the last of my suggestions for the Government. The UN is absolutely clear that unless independent agencies can go where they want to in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Government will not be believed by the international community. I appreciate that it can be difficult in times of war and hostility, but it is also about allowing independent relief organisations and independent reporting by valid and respectable press people. I am not talking about people with a partisan view, but respectable international journalists with credibility.

The Sri Lankan Government make a point—and it is not a good point—in their reply to the statement issued by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:

"The Government wishes to take this opportunity to reiterate its intention to continue the existing dialogue with the UN High Commissioner, with the intention of obtaining assistance the government may require to strengthen domestic mechanisms including the National Human Rights Commission, so that its functions including the investigation and reporting of alleged Human Rights violations could be efficaciously discharged. The government remains committed to strengthen domestic mechanisms, and wishes to avail itself of this opportunity to restate its opposition to the proposal made by the UN High Commissioner to establish UN field presence in Sri Lanka for monitoring and reporting. The government is of the view"— they come on to a very odd argument here—

"that the proposal has not been made applying objectively laid down transparent criteria adopted by the international community and does not reflect the actual ground situation. Furthermore, objective and accurate reasoning which would necessitate the implementation of such a mechanism has not been given by the UN High Commissioner. Thus the proposal is totally unacceptable to the Government of Sri Lanka."

I have to say that without international adjudication and verification, the Sri Lankan Government will not be regarded as acceptable. I understand the arguments about sovereignty, but if they are trying to win credibility in the world after 30 years of civil war, the UN must be represented in the country and able to go about its business there. The Sri Lankan Government must change their view on that.

The statement to the UN High Commissioner ended by saying:

"The government wishes to state that, its decision to end the CFA would not be reversed and would be implemented as previously stated, in the best interest of the country and its people", concluding that,

"with the assistance of its... security forces, the Government of Sri Lanka would take all necessary measures".

However, the Sri Lankan Government apparently do not believe that a solution by force is the way forward. That being the case, I hope that they will recognise that they must find another way to have dialogue with the LTTE. Given that the co-chairs of the peace process are willing to help, and that the Government of Sri Lanka affirm that they are willing to help, given that the Government are saying that they want a negotiated solution and that a ceasefire agreement is not necessary for such a solution, given that this report is going to the President on 23 January, given that the Government say that they continue to value and uphold Norway's role, and given that they acknowledge that we could assist through our good offices to get all the minority communities to negotiate, it seems to me that it all demands a context where there is no violence or aggression.

I know that we are about to change the high commissioner in Sri Lanka, and I know that there have been some difficulties about our representation, but I hope that the Minister will soon be able to tell us that, with the support of colleagues on all sides of the House and because of the seriousness of the situation, the Government will increase their efforts to ensure that all parties in Sri Lanka have some grounds for confidence. The Government must make it absolutely clear that to be critical of the Sri Lankan Government's position is not a way of endorsing the activities of the LTTE, but a way of reflecting that until all stakeholders in the outcome are around the table and all parties have the ability to exercise some political power, there will be no justice—and without justice, we will not get the peace.

I hope that the Government will be robust in helping the Commonwealth and the United Nations to be engaged, which was the request of the community to which I spoke last night. We need to be robust in ensuring that the north is opened up again, and that the Government of Sri Lanka are in no doubt that the present position is unacceptable. Peace is more urgent now than ever.

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Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon Rosie Winterton, Minister of State), Department for Transport 5:29 pm, 17th January 2008

I congratulate Simon Hughes on securing this important debate. As he said, it is very timely for all the worst reasons. Like him, I observed the deterioration at the end of last year and the beginning of this, and asked for a debate to be held this week. That is how important it is at this moment.

I think the best thing that those of us who are in the Chamber now can do is demonstrate our united support for our Minister, and for the work that he must do in trying to bring together the international community to tackle three immediate interlinked tasks: stemming the recent increase—again—in violence, returning people to talks about peace, and ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches those who need it.

As I think Members will agree, the Minister already has a pretty good track record for demonstrating his commitment to peace in Sri Lanka. He has worked with great application and patience for longer than most in trying to bring about peace in the country. He was instrumental in securing our very full debate on this subject in May last year. I wish him the greatest success in the work that he will do in the coming days, and he has my full support.

I want to reiterate what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said about the many links that our country has with Sri Lanka, and the interest that all Members take in the subject as a result. There are all the historical and political issues mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but the crucial current issues that make us interested in the country involve the Sri Lankans in all our communities, whom he also mentioned. He is right: people from Sri Lanka have come to this country, enriched our lives, and reached positions of great influence. I think of engineers, lawyers and doctors in my constituency, and of friends of mine who came from Sri Lanka originally. I think, too, of the civic links that we have with Sri Lanka throughout the country.

Last autumn I sat down in a school in my constituency, Walton high school, and listened to students who told me about taking part in the world challenge in Sri Lanka last summer. Twenty students and teachers from the school joined students and staff from 13 other schools around the country, establishing links with Sri Lankan schools. It is at that people-to-people level that we in this country feel such great concern to learn of an eruption of greater violence, and the human tragedy and greater instability that it is creating in Sri Lankan society. I am sure that we all feel a determination that that should stop.

I know the Minister will agree that we are speaking of a country of great beauty, and a people of great talent. They have so much to offer the rest of the world and so much to gain for themselves if they can secure the political stability and get the democratic structure right, and if there can be tolerance between groups in their society. There is so much for them to gain, and there is so much being lost while the violence and disagreements that we are witnessing continue.

I wish my hon. Friend the Minister the greatest success in the important days that lie ahead.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 5:33 pm, 17th January 2008

I am grateful to you for allowing me to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am also grateful to Simon Hughes, not only for securing this timely debate but for allowing me and others to intervene briefly.

We know from our debate last May that what we say in the House is scrutinised very carefully in the Sri Lankan Parliament. Indeed, an entire debate was held there on our debate in May. I believe that one or two unfortunate comments were made in the debate, and that the wrong impression was left after it; so I think that we must be very careful. We must recognise that there is a democratically elected Government in Sri Lanka. It is not perfect, but it is better than some of the alternatives.

It is on a note of sadness that we are here today at the time of a recent upswing in violence, as indeed was the case when we last debated the subject. Every death on either side increases the suspicion on both sides, and I call for all parties to exercise restraint.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Special Envoy for Forestry

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that while we would, of course, wish there to be forbearance on both sides, it was the Sri Lankan Government who unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire agreement in January this year?

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I was coming on to that, and it is an important point, but we must be very temperate and careful in what we say in these debates.

The recent history of the LTTE—the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—started in 1983-84. That was a time of considerable trouble in Northern Ireland, and I do not think that anybody then would have predicted that the Irish Government would give up article 3 of its constitution claiming sovereignty over the north, or that some of the principal leaders of both sides would be sitting in a democratically elected devolved Parliament in the Province of Northern Ireland with, as we hope, the peace process going forward. Therefore, while I take on board the remarks of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about the black nature of Sri Lanka's future, with good will on both sides it is not impossible that we could move to a peaceful solution. The hon. Gentleman put his finger on precisely the right button when he called for a confederate solution—a solution whereby there is a devolved Government of the Tamil areas with considerable autonomy, but under the sovereign Government of an elected Sri Lankan Parliament. I can envisage such a solution in times to come.

I agree with Barry Gardiner that it was unfortunate that the Sri Lankan Government abrogated the peace agreement unilaterally, and I had a discussion with the high commissioner this morning in which I made that very point. The agreement might not have been perfect, but it did

"recognise the importance of bringing an end to hostilities and improving the living conditions for all inhabitants affected by the conflict", and it further agreed that

"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."

I hope that all people of good will would agree that everybody should share that aspiration. I hope that the Sri Lankan Government and all the Tamil factions will be able to get together around a table and start negotiating because, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, there has to be a political solution. That was the one message from Northern Ireland: there could never be a military solution. There will never be a military solution to the Sri Lankan Government's problems.

I was delighted to receive an assurance from the high commissioner this morning—she allowed me to say this in the debate—that her Government are absolutely committed to finding a political solution. I hope and believe that that is so, in which case the different sides must get around the table and talk.

It is unfortunate that the international monitoring commission has been withdrawn. The considerable efforts of the Norwegians are proving difficult not only because they cannot monitor a ceasefire that does not take place, but they cannot monitor the process either. I made the point to the high commissioner this morning that it is important that we get some form of international monitoring under United Nations auspices in the country, so that accusations and counter-accusations can be verified by a completely independent body or individual.

When I went to Nepal, there was a powerful United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative there; he was a Brit—a Scot—and he was widely respected by all sides and was able to act as an interlocutor where the Nepalese Government were unable to go. We should be looking for that sort of model for Sri Lanka.

Mr. Murphy is sitting in his place, and I wish to pay great tribute to him. I hope that he is able to go back to Sri Lanka, because he was widely respected by all sides and was able to talk to all sides. He was also able, modestly and patiently, to give all sides the benefit of his experience, which is characteristic of him. I hope that he will be able to revisit that beautiful island shortly, and that his good offices will begin to help the peace process again.

Mention has been made of the All Party Representative Committee report due to be handed to President Rajapakse on 23 January. It will be interesting to see what the committee comes up with, whether it is independent and whether it will move things forward. I truly that it will, because all-party talks are the route we should take.

Both sides must recognise that in this type of dispute—the parties in Northern Ireland were in exactly the same position, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen knows only too well—people have to abandon the positions that they hold, although that might not be comfortable. The Tamil Tigers might have to recognise things and do things that they do not want to do. If there is to be a lasting peace process, it must be just that; both sides must recognise each other's position and recognise that they cannot just adopt the status quo.

It is not the Government, the armed forces or the LTTE who suffer, but the innocent civilians who get caught up in all this. I made it clear it to the high commissioner that the bombing the other day of the base at Kilinochchi was not acceptable. Bombing one's own people, even if one thinks that one is bombing an LTTE base, is unacceptable, because bombing cannot be that precise that it hits only one's opponents.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

What was the high commissioner's response when the hon. Gentleman raised that concern with her?

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

Some parts of my conversation should not necessarily be in the public domain. I am merely reporting to the House the points that I made to the high commissioner in the same manner as I am now, so that they can be heard in this House.

I call for restraint on all sides, because innocent civilians are the ones who suffer. We want this beautiful island to go forward as a democracy and as a full member of the Commonwealth. It has a wonderful future if peace can prevail. Its economy and tourism are fantastic; it has fantastic jungles, mountains and archaeological sites, all of which need to be generally open to the world. The island has a huge amount to contribute, and I believe that with good will peace could prevail.

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Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 5:42 pm, 17th January 2008

I am grateful for the comments of Mr. Clifton-Brown. I share the views of my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney and Simon Hughes, who ably opened this debate. We are grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to speak briefly on an important issue.

When we last debated this issue, I recalled the visit I made to Sri Lanka just over a year ago. I was given absolute access to anywhere I wanted to go, including the LTTE-controlled parts of the island and the LTTE's headquarters. I met its second in command, who has recently been killed. That brought it home to me how difficult and tragic the times now are in Sri Lanka. The assassinations of Ministers, Members of Parliament and innocent members of the public are all too redolent of what we experienced in our country over 20 or 30 years.

The answer is obviously a political one. All the hon. Members who have spoken mentioned the importance of a political solution. There is no military solution to this problem. The Sri Lankan Government have said that, and I am sure that everybody involved in the peace process in Sri Lanka would echo it. Most interestingly, from a Northern Ireland point of view, that was also Martin McGuinness's message when he went to talk to people in Sri Lanka some time ago. As he is now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, he told both sides in Sri Lanka that there could not be a military solution and that the war simply could not be won by either side. That has to underpin everything that we do as a Government and a country to help in Sri Lanka. My hon. Friend the Minister would be the first to say that we have a special reason to intervene in this case. We were, after all, the colonial power for many years, and we are also in the same Commonwealth of nations.

It is not beyond the wit of the international community, in its different forms, to intervene in this terrible conflict, which, in some respects, appears to have been forgotten. The co-chairs of the peace process, the Norwegians, have played an excellent role, and we have played our part, too, but it strikes me that the international community must make a special effort to ensure that the ceasefire is restored.

I regret, like everybody else, the end of the ceasefire, even though it was not particularly effective. Nevertheless, it has to be replaced. It is certain that we would not have had peace in Northern Ireland without a proper ceasefire that was recognised by all sides. When a ceasefire is established in Sri Lanka, policed and monitored by the international community, we will be on the way to success. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have some ideas about how to take forward the proposals.

Most importantly, people in Sri Lanka need hope. In a few months' time, it will be the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. This time 10 years ago, when I was Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, there was a murder every night. Everybody in Northern Ireland thought that the process had collapsed and was dead. In a matter of months, because of the effort of the international community and everybody involved, we signed that historic agreement. I am sure that those lessons can be learned in Sri Lanka and that we will pay an important role in that.

We have an excellent new high commissioner in Colombo; I know that he will play an important role. The opportunity to discuss the subject that the collapse of today's business has given us will be welcomed by all people who feel good will towards that beautiful country. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister concludes the debate, he will say that there is some possibility that the UK Government will intervene in this important matter.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton 5:47 pm, 17th January 2008

I congratulate Simon Hughes on the measured and balanced speech with which he opened the debate. I was struck by the contrast between today's debate, the tone of which has been rather consensual, and our last debate on the subject. I suspect that in the months since that debate we have learned a great deal more about the situation in Sri Lanka, and so members of all parties can come to similar conclusions on how we will try to make progress.

Without wishing to repeat what has been said, I think that we recognise that this is a long, drawn-out conflict. It started in the early 1980s and since then more than 70,000 people have died. However, today, more than at any point over the past five years, we face the prospect of a return to civil war. That is why the debate is apposite. It is important that we should concentrate and try to get the Government to do more to stop that decline to civil war.

I do not want to go over the ground that has been covered, but I want to mention three things. Human rights have been a primary concern. Anyone who reads the reports on the subject from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or any other body will be only too aware that there has been an explosion in the number of human rights violations. Perhaps that is understandable, as there has been a decline in relations between the different communities. Of course, the decision to withdraw from the ceasefire agreement has not helped.

The Sri Lankan Government say that they are committed to human rights and they have taken some measures to deliver that commitment; they have set up a commission of inquiry and begun investigations into 17 violation cases. As has been noted, they have also established an eminent persons group, one of whom is an eminent lawyer from this country, but there is still considerable disappointment at the lack of progress.

There are also concerns about how the investigations are being conducted. The backdrop is that so far there have been no prosecutions at all for human rights violations, and that has raised anxiety about whether the mechanism that has been adopted is likely to inspire trust—among people on the island of Sri Lanka and in the wider international community—that those guilty of human rights abuses are being brought to justice.

Louise Arbour is the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. Last year, the Sri Lankan Government agreed that she should visit the island, and her time there was very productive. We understand that Sri Lanka's Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights has a memorandum of understanding with the UN, but it is widely accepted internationally that that Government's withdrawal from the ceasefire meant that the monitoring mission conducted by Norway and the Scandinavian countries could no longer be effective. That makes it even more urgent that we find a way to monitor human rights and collect the evidence that will bring violators to justice.

A representative from Sri Lanka's Muslim community visited me last week to express the considerable concern that exists about what is happening to Muslims, especially in the east of Sri Lanka. In addition, the desperate worries felt by members of the Tamil diaspora in this country for their families and relatives in Sri Lanka have been expressed at meetings in this House over many months. The only way forward is to establish proper human rights monitoring in Sri Lanka, and it has been widely accepted around the Chamber today that the UN is the proper body to carry that out. I therefore hope that the Minister will tell the House what pressure he is exerting to secure the UN's involvement in that respect. People in Sri Lanka and around the world need to be reassured that something is being done.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, especially as I have already made a speech in the debate, but he has made a point that needs clarifying. Last year's visit to Sri Lanka by the UN's Louise Arbour was welcome, but one visit is not the same as having a permanent UN representative stationed in the country. The UN representative in Nepal has been successful precisely because he is permanently on hand to deal with things when they go wrong.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I accept that entirely. I did not intend to give the impression that I was asking for only the odd visit, as of course I believe that we need a permanent mission in Sri Lanka. The mission would need to be run independently through the UN, as that would give everyone the assurance that they seek.

The second matter about which I want to speak is the ceasefire agreement. Like other hon. Members, I was very saddened by the Sri Lankan Government's decision to withdraw from it. Various reasons have been suggested for that withdrawal, and I have a degree of sympathy with some of them. For example, it has been claimed that the ceasefire had given the LTTE a chance to rearm, to conscript children and young people and to perpetrate acts of terrorism.

However, I was interested to read recently that new reasons were being given for the Sri Lankan Government's withdrawal from the ceasefire, and one was that the agreement was seriously flawed. I think that everyone would accept that the document was not perfect, but the circumstances in which it was drawn up may have rendered that impossible. People were trying to make progress, and drawing up the ceasefire agreement was intended to be only the start of the process and to give momentum to it. We all understand that the reason why the ceasefire has not been as successful as we hoped is that that momentum was lost. In addition, the security forces were always understandably concerned about the layout. However, we have to ask why those issues are being raised now. That is the concern felt by this House and the international community.

One of the criticisms advanced to which I am slightly more sympathetic is that the ceasefire agreement was only with the LTTE. Representatives of the Muslim community come to me saying that they want to be involved in the peace process. Members of the Tamil community who are not sympathetic to the aspirations of the LTTE say that they want to be represented as well. The example of Northern Ireland shows that all the representatives who speak on behalf of sections of the community are needed if agreement is to be reached. I therefore have sympathy with that view.

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Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that there is another group of people who need to be represented and protected and whose lifestyles need to be massively improved. They are the 160,000 people who are the product of the series of wars, fighting actions and so on—the people of Puttalam, the forgotten people of Sri Lanka. I do not want them to be omitted from this debate or from the Minister's work. Their situation is a scar on humanity generally. I hope that the Minister will remember those 160,000 people and that in his discussions with the Sri Lankan Government, he will include their plight and the hope that something can be done about it.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Again, I remind the House that the LTTE decided that it no longer wanted the Muslim community to be part of the polity that was created in the north of the island, and many members of that community became internally displaced as a result. I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's comments, which reaffirm that we need to include democratic representatives of all parts of all the communities if we are to reach a solid, permanent and sustainable solution.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Special Envoy for Forestry

My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I listened carefully to his comments on the imperfections in the ceasefire agreement, but does he not agree that what any party to that agreement should have done in response to those imperfections is propose a better ceasefire agreement—a more inclusive one, if that would be better—not withdraw unilaterally from the extant agreement? To do the latter is a counsel of despair, not a counsel of hope.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

In my view, the ceasefire that has just been broken was the only game in town. I accept the criticisms that have been made. Even when it was signed, it was criticised by both sides—indeed, by all sides, both internationally and in Sri Lanka. However, having a ceasefire agreement can be the basis for progress. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy said, it is only on the basis of a ceasefire that one can move forward. When there is no longer a ceasefire, the first priority must be to create one before seeking political progress.

Given the concern that has been expressed this evening about the decision to withdraw from the ceasefire agreement, I want to know what steps the UK Government have taken to press the Sri Lankan Government regarding their intentions. What political capital is there behind the prospect of further negotiations to re-establish, if not the same ceasefire agreement, then another to replace it?

On the peace process, to repeat what Mr. Clifton-Brown said, the Government of Sri Lanka have reassured me that they are in favour of a negotiated solution. They point to the all-party conference, which a number of Members mentioned.

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I thought for a second that I had hit the gong. I shall be brief in order to allow the Minister plenty of time to respond.

The all-party conference, which should produce its recommendations on 23 January, has been running for more than a year and a half. I must say as an interested outside observer that it has not always gone smoothly. Some of the recommendations from individual political parties are not likely to command support across the community, and I hope that the Sri Lanka Government will not feel bound by such recommendations. It is important that they take the initiative and do what they feel is most appropriate to bring the parties together and start dialogue on a ceasefire agreement again, in order to move towards peace.

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Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, although I came to listen and learn, not to make a contribution. Hon. Members have spoken several times about the lessons learned from Northern Ireland, and Mr. Murphy spoke about hope, but trust is also key. Alongside the ceasefire, a decommissioning process will be needed. One of the key things that allowed us to move from military to political action in Northern Ireland was the outside intervention of de Chastelain, who brought trust to the decommissioning process. Such a process needs to be included in the all-party conference's recommendations, so that the communities can begin to trust each other as well.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I agree. One hopes that Norway and the international community can help to play that role. I hope that one of the urgent issues for discussion after the all-party conference reports will be exactly that—how to start building confidence among the different communities and how to get people to sit down to sign. A ceasefire can be signed only if there is some confidence in it and in the political process that will follow. We need to create that confidence. The international community has a big role to play in doing so.

Mention has been made of Norway's role as facilitator continuing even when the monitoring mission ends. The international community also has a role in trying to start dialogue between sides, as has been said. That is critical. One of my biggest concerns is that there appears to be no dialogue, public or private, between the Tamil National Alliance, which is represented in Parliament, and the Government of Sri Lanka. That is of considerable concern. There also seems to be no dialogue with the Muslim community, which recently left the Government coalition. That is another worry. The international community has a role to play in trying to re-establish dialogue, whether private or public.

As part of the international community, what is the United Kingdom doing with other countries—including Japan, the United States and India, Sri Lanka's closest neighbour—to start the dialogue that will lead to a ceasefire agreement and, hopefully, a peace process? As has been said, we have a unique role to play. We are the former colonial power and have large Tamil and Singhalese communities living in our country. The UK knows Sri Lanka probably better than any other country in the international community, and we as a Parliament need reassurance that the Government are doing everything that they can to resolve the bitter differences on that island.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 6:05 pm, 17th January 2008

I shall be brief, as I can see the Minister champing at the bit, ready to reply to the debate. We want to hear what he has to say.

I congratulate Simon Hughes on securing the debate and on a consistent interest in Sri Lanka over many years. He and I have attended many wet weekends in Trafalgar square to discuss the plight of the people of Sri Lanka, and I congratulate him on that.

The history of Sri Lanka since 1983 and even back to 1958 has been one of almost unremitting tragedy. I was first elected to the House in 1983. The riots broke out at that time. Large numbers of Tamil asylum seekers came to the United Kingdom and to other European countries at that time. The loss of life goes on and on. There are generations of people who have never known anything but a state of war in their country—young people growing up who have never known anything other than bombardments and all the accompanying problems.

I echo the points made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy. There is a massive peace dividend to be had, not just for the Tamil people but for the Sinhala people, the Muslim people and everybody else across the whole country. If a ceasefire can be renegotiated and put in place, followed by serious negotiations that can bring about a long-term and lasting settlement, everybody will be a lot better off. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey pointed out, if a country the size of Sri Lanka, with all the problems that it has—and it also has huge opportunities—spends £1 billion a year on arms, plus all the expenditure made by all the other groups, that is money denied to development, education and housing.

Until the breakdown of community relations, Sri Lanka probably had the best record of education, health care, literacy levels and all the other indices that one would care to measure across the whole of Asia. It also had a sophisticated intellectual society and sophisticated political development and process. All that has imploded and collapsed, which is tragic to see.

There are serious problems of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. They have been brought to the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and to the UN Human Rights Council. I have been in Geneva when many such representations were made. Although I acknowledge the replies given by the Sri Lanka High Commission in the UK and the views of the Sri Lankan Government that they should conduct their own human rights process, the time has passed for that.

There must be a permanent—that is, for as long as necessary—independent UN representation in Sri Lanka that can go to all parts of the community, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen was able to do, and verify abuses of human rights wherever they occur and whoever has caused those abuses. There is no alternative solution as the start of a confidence-building process.

The Minister should give all the encouragement he can in support of the efforts of the Norwegian Government and others to get the ceasefire back in operation as quickly as possible. That must be followed quickly by serious peace negotiations with the LTTE and with every other group in the society as a whole. If there is merely a ceasefire and nothing changes other than a cessation of the worst kinds of violence, the factors that provoked and promoted the violence in the first place will still exist. A longer-term peace process must be promoted.

My final point is that made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. Historically, Sri Lanka has been occupied by colonial powers, latterly by Britain. The British record all over the world was often one of almost deliberately provoking conflict between different linguistic and different ethnic groups. There is a legacy of that in many former colonies around the world and its price tends to be the collapse of societies. However, it is possible for there to be a multilingual, multi-ethnic society on one island and degrees of autonomy within the national state framework. Such things are possible. If we do not achieve them, what is the future for Sri Lanka? It is another 30 years of war, another 30 years of bombardment and another 30 years of damage to people's lives.

I hope that the Minister can help with getting the ceasefire back on track. Above all, I hope that the Sri Lankan Government recognise that those of us who take up the cause of human rights and speak up for the cause of Tamil refugees are not anti-Sri Lanka—quite the opposite. We are pro-Sri Lanka, because we want peace and justice for all the people of that island.

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Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 6:10 pm, 17th January 2008

I congratulate Simon Hughes on securing this timely debate. I pay tribute to him for his work and interest over many years on behalf of all Sri Lankan people. Like him, I welcome the presence in the Chamber tonight of right hon. and hon. Members from both sides who are passionate about this subject. I am thinking especially of my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, who has devoted considerable energy and courage to the peace process in Sri Lanka. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend Mr. Thomas was here until a short while ago, and he has been using his great expertise and a lot of his time on the issue. I pay tribute to his work as well.

Let me begin by condemning unreservedly, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey did, yesterday's terrorist attack on a bus in Uva province. It killed as many as 30 people and injured more than 60. It is the latest example of a deeply worrying cycle of violence that has brought misery to Sri Lankans from all communities. Like everyone in the House, I am sure, I extend my deepest sympathies to the families of the victims. I want to express the Government's condemnation and loathing of the continuing use of murder and terrorism as tactics in trying to further political aims.

We are fortunate tonight; what was likely to have been a half-hour Adjournment debate—I talked to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about it—has turned into a full-blown debate longer than many scheduled debates in which I have been involved. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the impact of the Government of Sri Lanka's decision to abrogate the ceasefire agreement. The end of an internationally brokered agreement is a matter of great regret and like the hon. Gentleman I pay tribute to the tireless work of the Norwegian facilitators and the Sri Lanka monitoring mission, often in extremely difficult circumstances. I applaud the continuing commitment of Norway and the other co-chairs—the US, the EU and Japan—to working for peace. Their task remains Herculean.

The hon. Gentleman asked me last week about what could be done to restart negotiations. We should not underestimate the serious obstacles to that on both sides. Following the end of the ceasefire agreement, the Sri Lankan Government appear determined to inflict a military defeat on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the LTTE. In November, Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, called on Tamils to rise up for the liberation of Tamil Eelam. There is little substance around which to base negotiations, but the international community must clearly continue to stay engaged, stop the violence and help Sri Lanka build a credible environment for a sustainable peace process.

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Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My hon. Friend will pardon me for not giving way; I have an enormous amount of ground to cover.

Having chosen to end the ceasefire arrangement, the Sri Lankan Government have a clear responsibility to live up to their commitment to address the grievances of the Tamil people. In July 2006, the Government of Sri Lanka gave an all-party representative committee—the APRC—the job of drawing up a framework for settlement. The committee made a promising start in its interim report more than a year ago by advocating that the province should be the unit of devolution and that a second chamber would help ensure power sharing for the minorities at the centre.

We know from our own experience that the process of devolution is not easy, and it continues to be difficult, but the whole process regarding the committee's business has not been easy. The committee has been bedevilled by those who oppose a peace process and have attempted to derail its work, and it has been hindered by a lack of consensus between the main parties. The Tamil National Alliance was not invited to participate—a big mistake, in my view. The committee is due to present its final recommendations in a little over a week. We think it important that those recommendations go beyond the current constitutional provisions to protect minority rights. I pay tribute to Mr. Binley for drawing the House's attention to the fact that all minorities have to be protected and represented. We have called on the President urgently to take a bold and courageous lead from this foundation to set out a framework for a just solution within a united Sri Lanka that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans. The international community will be watching carefully, and we do not want to see another false dawn.

I do not believe that those in the LTTE who advocate the use of murder and terrorism represent the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka and around the world. The LTTE must renounce terrorism and demonstrate a real commitment to democratic principles if it is to be regarded internationally as a legitimate political movement. There needs to be a full debate among the Tamils, free of intimidation and polarisation, on what an acceptable political settlement might look like for the Tamil people. The message that we have for the Government of Sri Lanka—that there can be no military solution to this appalling conflict—applies equally to the LTTE. Some Tamils argue that the military pursuit of self-determination is generated by a sense of despair that their grievances will never be addressed in a united Sri Lanka. It is vital that the Government of Sri Lanka allay those fears and give them hope. For Sri Lanka to find a way forward, we need to see signs of genuine good will from the Government to any proposals for devolution that might emerge and a readiness on the part of disillusioned Tamils to contemplate alternatives to self-determination. Without generating trust and confidence, that will not happen.

The withdrawal of the Sri Lanka monitoring mission can only add to deep concern about the human rights and humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. As we have heard, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Sri Lanka recently. She said that Sri Lanka had many of the elements needed for a strong national protection scheme. She was, however, alarmed at the weakness of the rule of law and the prevalence of impunity for those abusing human rights. I have not heard the word "impunity" tonight, but it is a very important one. That sense of impunity on the part of gangsters, warlords and people who call themselves freedom fighters to murder, torture and kidnap, is something that no civilised country, or the international community, can put up with. She criticised the absence of credible systems of public accountability for the vast majority of these deplorable incidents and the general lack of confidence in the ability of existing Government institutions to safeguard against the most serious human rights abuses. Surely that must be the first duty of any Government in any sovereign state in the world.

The high commissioner stated that the current human rights protection gap was not solely a question of capacity. She stressed the need for independent gathering of information on credible allegations regarding human rights, not just in areas controlled by the Government but including areas controlled by the LTTE. She underlined her deep concern at LTTE violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including the recruitment of children, forced recruitment and abduction of adults, and political killings. We definitely support the calls for a much more effective UN human rights monitoring presence on the island, and I was glad to hear hon. Friends and hon. Members advocate that policy, because it is very important.

The human rights crisis in Sri Lanka is not a figment of the international community's imagination, as some who vilify human rights defenders in Sri Lanka would have us believe. The crisis is real. The LTTE, the Karuna faction—the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal—and the Government all share responsibility. There is an urgent need to address the culture of impunity that persists. The case for an expanded presence and mandate in Sri Lanka for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights can only be stronger following the departure of the Sri Lanka monitoring mission.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey spoke of the understandable concerns of the Tamil community about the plight of Tamils in north Sri Lanka. Their inability to reach relatives on the north of the island, or even to communicate with them, should trouble us greatly. I can assure the House that we attach great importance to listening to all perspectives across the Sri Lankan diaspora about that and many other matters. Foreign Office officials meet diaspora groups on a regular basis. Tamil community groups have suggested, following the recent arrests of LTTE supporters in the UK, that they no longer feel free to express their opinion on the conflict and the plight of the Tamils. I will say this: the community is free to assemble in a legal, orderly manner to express its concerns; it did just that last July in Trafalgar square, and it has done so in recent days.

An open debate is needed within the Tamil community on what a just political solution might look like as an alternative to the target of breaking the sovereign state of Sri Lanka into two parts. I say that because we have witnessed terrible events in Pakistan during the past two weeks. Many of us recall not just the horrors of the separation of India and Pakistan that occurred in 1947-48, and the millions who died, but the terrible events when what was East Pakistan, and is now Bangladesh, broke away from Pakistan. Those can be terrible moments, and bring terrible conflicts. Millions can die, and we do not want to see that in Sri Lanka. There must be another way, and we have heard many suggestions in the debate of what might happen. The diaspora must be able to play a more constructive part in bringing peace to Sri Lanka.

I know that the hon. Gentleman particularly wants to focus on British assistance for a peace process in Sri Lanka, and he has kindly acknowledged the recent efforts of the Government in this regard. I visited Sri Lanka twice last year. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen also visited a year or so ago, and we sought to offer the benefit of our Northern Ireland experience.

My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn asked what happens to the money that was placed in the hands of the Government in the aftermath of the tsunami. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development has visited the country, and he has maintained great vigilance in monitoring British aid to Sri Lanka for post-tsunami reconstruction and other humanitarian works. I made a point on my last visit of making sure that I got out to the east of the island to see some of that reconstruction work, bedevilled as it is by the ongoing conflict—there is no question about that.

A lasting peace can come only if the underlying causes of conflict are addressed, and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey made that point time and time again. Peace will not happen until the parties to the conflict understand that nothing can be gained from continuing violence. Some in Sri Lanka did not welcome our involvement. We regret the fact that they did not understand, or chose not to, that our aim has been simply to do what we can to help the Sri Lankans find a way forward. We have no ulterior motives. We remain ready to help with the search for peace in Sri Lanka.

What can we do specifically at this difficult time? I have been asked that question a number of times tonight. We have to continue to work with international partners to make it clear that there cannot be a military solution, and to work for a cessation of hostilities. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, a new ceasefire must be constructed as quickly as possible if we are to make progress.

We must press the Government of Sri Lanka to address the grievances of Tamils through a credible and sustainable political solution. We must urge the LTTE to change. We continue to make available the benefit of our Northern Ireland experience, press all concerned to safeguard human rights and humanitarian space and combat any notions of impunity for those guilty of abuses and murder.

We must encourage the diaspora to play a bigger role in the search for peace. We must try to learn the lessons of five years of the ceasefire agreement. I was pleased that my hon. Friend Mr. Love and others said that it was not perfect but a basis for peace and moving forward. We should learn lessons from that.

We must work quietly and patiently behind the scenes with all the communities and with civil society in Sri Lanka to sow the seeds of a future resolution of the conflict. Members of organisations—non-governmental organisations and others—must be confident that they will not be kidnapped or murdered as they go about their work. That is vital.

The end of the ceasefire agreement is confirmation that we have entered a dangerous new phase in Sri Lanka. The Government and the LTTE both appear to believe that they can achieve their aims through military means. We believe that they are wrong.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Special Envoy for Forestry

Given the threat that my hon. Friend mentioned of the escalation of violence, will he hold discussions with hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence about cutting any military assistance to the Sri Lankan Government to try to ensure that such an escalation cannot happen?

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Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I assure my hon. Friend that we would not supply anyone with arms or dual use material that we perceived to be valuable in any military conflict such as the one that we are considering. There may be instances of humanitarian equipment, for example, de-mining equipment, being needed. Laying mines is an atrocity and an abuse of human rights and we do everything that we can to try to help clear them.

The Sri Lankan Government, having ended the ceasefire, bear a heavy responsibility to deliver their commitment to produce a just political solution that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans. That must happen soon.

The LTTE needs to embrace democratic principles, encourage an open debate on what a just political solution for the Tamils might resemble and commit to pursuing its aims through peaceful means. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, the use of terrorism and murder since 1983 has brought only misery and suffering to many innocent people in Sri Lanka. It continues to do so.

Britain remains ready to help. The international community has to stay engaged to help Sri Lanka find a way back to a sustainable peace process. Protection of human rights in Sri Lanka will remain a high priority for the international community with, we hope, a more prominent role for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Moreover, it should be guaranteed the security required to undertake its work.

When President Rajapakse launched the APRC 18 months ago, he spoke of the need to take the necessary bold steps to put an end to dashed hopes and aspirations and lost opportunities. I hope that, this year, which marks the 60th anniversary of Sri Lankan independence, the president will take a bold lead to achieve just that. I remind him that the world is watching and waiting.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Six o'clock.

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