Sri Lanka

Opposition Day — [10th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 3:49 pm on 29th April 2009.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 3:49 pm, 29th April 2009

We now move on to a debate on Sri Lanka, and I must advise the House— [Interruption.] Order. We have more serious business to deal with. Will those who are leaving please do so not en masse, but quietly, and let us get on with the next business. I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 4:17 pm, 29th April 2009

I beg to move,

That this House
is concerned that the fighting in Sri Lanka has already had a devastating effect on hundreds of thousands of civilians, with thousands killed and wounded, and many tens of thousands traumatised and suffering from lack of food, water and basic medicines;
believes there is a real danger of an even greater bloodbath in the next few days if a ceasefire is not immediately agreed between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam;
further believes that access is vital for humanitarian assistance, human rights monitors and members of the international media throughout the conflict zone and to all internally displaced persons, each of whom must, like every Sri Lankan citizen, have all their internationally recognised rights guaranteed;
calls for an immediate and permanent ceasefire and peace talks;
urges the Government energetically to continue and increase its efforts within the United Nations, European Union and Commonwealth and with others to broker a ceasefire;
and urges the Government to make it clear to all sides that those who are proved to have committed war crimes in this conflict will be in danger of arrest, prosecution and punishment wherever they go for the rest of their lives.

For once, it is welcome that the Foreign Secretary is not joining us for a Liberal Democrat Opposition day debate. Although we hope to hear from him in the House tomorrow on the subject of Sri Lanka, I am sure the whole House will wish him well— [Interruption.]

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. May I repeat what I said to the House? We have business to get on with now. It is important that the hon. Member addressing the House should be allowed to do so properly.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As I was saying, although we hope to hear from the Foreign Secretary tomorrow on the subject of Sri Lanka, I am sure the whole House will wish him well as he visits Sri Lanka today, with the French Foreign Minister, Mr. Kouchner, even if his Swedish counterpart, Mr. Bildt, has been outrageously prevented from accompanying them. This trip by Foreign Ministers to Sri Lanka is an important European initiative, and we hope that it will combine with the efforts of others, especially those of the Americans and the Indians, to make both sides in that bloody conflict reflect hard and deep before the current nightmare turns into a total catastrophe.

I hope our motion may even add just a little to the strength of the message that the Foreign Ministers can convey, especially to the Sri Lankan Government. We tried to word our motion in a way that could garner support from across the House, so it is slightly unfortunate that the Government could not refrain from tabling their own amendment. I hope that Ministers might reflect before 7 pm that if they decided not to press their amendment, it might be possible to unite all parties and send a unanimous message from the House of Commons.

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Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government would show themselves in a much better light and a much more powerful position if, just occasionally, they accepted that somebody else might have an idea which might be a good one and which they might support?

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. After what has just happened, the Government may want to reflect on that. Nevertheless, in this debate I want to try to bring the sides together, because during recent weeks and months I have worked with colleagues from all parties in the House in joint efforts to persuade our Government and others to go the extra mile for peace. With others, we have engaged closely with the British Tamil community and heard and felt its distress and its heartfelt angry demands for a ceasefire. That amazing British Tamil community has brought its protest to the steps of Westminster and Whitehall, and I believe that it has made its voice heard with dignity in a peaceful protest and in an effective manner. Sometimes, for many of us, it has been difficult to experience its raw emotion, visit the crowds in Parliament square and see its graphic pictures, and not ourselves become deeply emotional about its struggle for peace and justice.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Like me, the hon. Gentleman has visited the Tamil demonstration on a number of occasions and he will have seen the 200,000 people who marched through London a couple of weeks ago. Is he not astonished that the majority of the British media absolutely ignored the issue and refused to report it until the last few days? As a result of that the Tamil community feels a sense of anger and isolation.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The British media should be asking themselves some serious questions, because the scale of what is happening in Sri Lanka, and the scale of the protest here by British citizens, should have been reported.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

I just want to reinforce that intervention and, I am sure, the mood of the House. A couple of hours ago, my hon. Friend Mr. Burstow and I were with the head of human rights of the Commonwealth, and one of the three Tamils who were with us could barely speak because her relatives are in the part of Sri Lanka that is affected. She has no contact with them. For all she knows, her brother is dead; he is certainly out of contact. On top of the 70,000-plus who are recognised as having died before this year, and the at least 6,000 already officially this year, there are every day further losses to people in this country as well as in Sri Lanka.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is that emotion that we have all experienced from talking to our constituents that we bring to this debate. I will try to focus on the facts and the logic of the argument, but I hope that the House will bear with me if I too sometimes get quite passionate about this.

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Photo of John Battle John Battle Labour, Leeds West

I appreciate that, but to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, the Sri Lankan Government will not let the media in, and we must press for that. If I may say so in front of those on the Government Front Bench, I was disappointed to see that the Government amendment to the motion has omitted the point about ensuring that internationally the press have a presence and report what is going on. It is important that we campaign for that.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I agree, and that is why it is in the motion, and it is even worse. I am sorry if we are always going that bit further, but let us remember that the Sri Lankan Government are suppressing their own media in Colombo, the Sinhala media, because many Sinhalese people are ashamed of their Government and many in the Sinhalese media want to expose what that Government are doing.

What is happening in Sri Lanka? On a small coastal strip of land in a so-called no-fire zone near the town of Mullaitivu on the far north-east of Sri Lanka are the remaining Tamil Tiger forces, who may number as few as 200 seasoned fighters. With them on an area of land of around 5 square miles are a large number of civilians. Estimates vary. The Sri Lankan Government give a figure of around 20,000, but some agencies say it is 120,000. Whatever the figure, it is clear that the conditions for those people are extremely bleak—little food and water, limited medical supplies that are fast running out and totally inadequate shelter. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that in excess of 1,000 wounded require urgent treatment. It warns that there is an imminent danger of an epidemic and severe malnutrition. On one side of that human mass there is the sea, and on the other there is the Sri Lankan army. Although there are mixed reports about who is firing what, there seems little doubt that heavy shelling of the no-fire zones, which is where the civilians are, has taken place, and my hon. Friend Simon Hughes will, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, talk about the satellite evidence that he has seen.

There are credible reports that such bombardment is continuing, and there is a clear sense that the Sri Lankan army is preparing for a final offensive. How did we get here—to this battle, on this strip of land, with those tens of thousands of civilians caught up in the midst of the fighting?

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Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

My hon. Friend is making an important and powerful speech. He talked about the Sri Lankan Government's wish to achieve a final answer. Does he not agree that a final answer will not be achieved by the destruction of civilians and, indeed, the Tamil rebels, because millions of Tamils throughout the world will resent such a settlement? One cannot achieve a final settlement by military destruction.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

My right hon. Friend makes the point that I shall touch on later, and I am sure that other hon. Members will want to repeat it.

We got to this situation in the short term because of a military push, begun this January by the Sri Lankan army, that has seen it take the key towns of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu and the strategic causeway of the Elephant pass. In the fighting to take those towns, it is estimated that, this year alone, more than 5,000 civilians have been killed, including at least 500 children, and more than 12,000 people have been injured. That recent fighting is only the latest episode in a deep dispute that goes back many decades. Essentially, it is an ethnic dispute between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, with the inter-communal violence beginning with riots and pogroms dating back at least to the 1950s. The Tamil Tigers were formed in 1975, and the current civil war is widely considered to date from 1983. Since 1983, well over 70,000 people have lost their lives. On top of that, there has been a massive outpouring of refugees, with an estimated 450,000 internally displaced people, large numbers of people who have disappeared and even larger numbers who have fled abroad, including to this country.

Today is not the time for a full history of the dispute and conflict, nor a detailed analysis as part of some attempt to allocate blame and responsibility. The main demand of the motion, of the protestors and of the international community is for a ceasefire, now. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for ensuring that Britain was the first country to lead the global call for a ceasefire. Although I shall continue, with other MPs from all parts of the House, to push the Government to go further, I am grateful for the leadership that the Prime Minister has shown on this issue and for the courtesy that he has shown to me and other MPs in meeting us on several occasions.

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Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and, certainly, for bringing the issue to the House today. Does he not agree that one of our big obstacles is the attitude of Russia and China, in particular, to United Nations assistance and so forth?

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I shall touch on that very point in my remarks.

Despite my congratulations to the Prime Minister, the Minister will know that the Liberal Democrats, some Labour and Conservative MPs and, above all, Tamils throughout the world want the Government and the international community to do more—if necessary, much more—to achieve that ceasefire, pushing the diplomatic efforts to their very limits. Everyone who has studied the conflict recognises that obtaining a ceasefire now will be desperately difficult, but it is utterly vital if we are to avoid a massacre.

The Sri Lankan army clearly wants what it believes would be its final victory: to capture or kill all remaining Tamil Tigers and their leader, Prabhakaran, after 25 years of trying. The army believes that any massacre would be the Tigers' fault for not allowing civilians to leave, and it cites credible evidence that the Tigers have prevented civilians from leaving the coastal strip. But, the Tigers are committed not to surrender. It is a long-developed image or strategy that those hardened fighters wear cyanide vials around their necks to avoid capture.

The Tigers would probably argue that some of the civilians, at least, remain with them voluntarily for fear of what the Sri Lankan army might do to them. So we have, on one side, an army intent on crushing the Tigers and determined to avoid a ceasefire, and on the other, a small force, determined never to surrender, offering up proposals for a ceasefire but desperate for the civilians to remain with them as a human guarantee against the final attack.

At this dramatic hour, I believe that the international community, by hard argument and threats, has to persuade both sides to back away from the abyss of slaughter.

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

The hon. Gentleman was generous in his tributes to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary; may I pay tribute to him for the work that he and his colleagues have done on this issue? Does he agree that this is not just about the EU's role? Although, of course, we welcome the visit of the French Foreign Secretary, and our own, to Colombo, the Indian Government—they, too, have called for a ceasefire—also have a very important role to play. Any discussions among the international community must include the countries in the region.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are in danger of having lots of self-congratulation, but I congratulate him on the efforts that he has undertaken from the Labour Benches and with Indian politicians whom he knows. For all of us working on this, that is very important.

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Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Labour, Pontypridd

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said so far, but does he agree that it is very difficult for a state to put pressure on a non-state player, which is what the LTTE is? It has had a murderous history; it reinvented suicide bombings, and it has killed very many people. The Tamil people are ill served by it. I hope that he will tell us how such an organisation can be pressurised into some kind of constructive action other than the desperate act in which it is engaged of trying to ensure its own survival.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman as a former Foreign Office Minister, and I do not disagree with some of his remarks. His own Foreign Secretary has pointed out that democratic Governments have to abide by higher standards than such non-state actors, and I hope that he agrees with that.

The positive points that I want to make about how we can possibly get a ceasefire in this nightmare situation come not from the Liberal Democrats or the Government but from the International Crisis Group, which set out, only nine days ago, a set of sensible measures that I should like to share with the House.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I would like to make some progress, and then I will give way.

First, the ICG calls on the Sri Lankan Government to halt their offensive—a self-evident but crucial first step given that they hold the cards. Secondly, and diplomatically, it speaks of a "humanitarian pause", rather than a ceasefire—to make it easier for the Sri Lankan Government—of initially a two-week period, overseen by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. It is hoped that in those two weeks, relief supplies could be got to civilians who want to stay, and a humanitarian corridor could be established for all those wanting to leave. The ICG wants UN agencies to be able to undertake a proper and full assessment of how many civilians are left, and their needs, to ensure that the relief is sufficient and appropriate. Thirdly, it calls on the UN and the ICRC to be part of a process, unhindered by the Sri Lankan Government that would bring strong, international guarantees of safety to any civilians or Tamil Tigers prepared to lay down their arms and cross over into Government-controlled areas. That is key. It is only part of the answer, but if the international community can give those guarantees, it is more likely that at least some of the Tigers may cross over.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

Let me just finish this point.

Finally, the ICG says that the Tamil Tigers must allow civilians to leave the area—an obvious point with which I think all of us in the House would agree.

The ICG is in no doubt that all that would be difficult, partly for the reasons that Dr. Howells mentioned, and it talks about serious international pressure on both sides. It speaks of pressure on the Tamil Tigers from the Tamil diaspora, and there are signs that many in the diaspora want to put that pressure on them, because they have relatives who are the civilians at risk. It mentions pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, especially from Sri Lanka's international funders. It rightly says that they must be told that all non-emergency development funding will end if there is a bloodbath. That is an important financial sanction that they must be made aware of.

The group also speaks of pressure on both sides, to be delivered to their leaders in clear statements by the wider international community, making it clear that

"they are liable to be held personally accountable for breaches of international humanitarian law".

In other words, the world has to use the strongest possible threats of future financial and legal sanctions on the leaders of both sides unless they step back from the brink.

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Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government; Culture, Media and Sport; Defence; Transport)

Do the financial sanctions to which the hon. Gentleman is referring include the possibility of the UK voting against the $1.9 billion loan proposal for Sri Lanka that is currently in front of the International Monetary Fund?

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next paragraph. I want to seek an assurance from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in her response, that the Government will oppose any proposal for that $1.9 billion loan that is put to the IMF—I do not believe that it has formally been put to it yet. It would be quite wrong to make such a loan at the moment. The IMF should seek the guarantees that we are all seeking, that our reasonable humanitarian demands be met.

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Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that so far, the Sri Lankan Government have proved themselves utterly impervious to whatever representations and arguments are advanced to them? Indeed, they go out of their way to insult and libel those who criticise them. Does he also agree that one of the most important things for the civilians who are able to get out is that they are kept in decent, humane conditions, not in appalling conditions in what can only be described as concentration camps, which the Sri Lankan Government will not allow them to leave?

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I agree on both points. The Sri Lankan Government have sought to curb free speech among democratically elected politicians in this House by harassing us and calling us white Tigers. They have also harassed councillors and political activists for speaking out in favour not of one side but of the human rights of all Sri Lankan civilians. That is not acceptable.

I hope that the whole House shares our view that the time has come for total clarity from the international community about the personal and political implications for all the leaders if they do not stop the fighting. That is why our motion asks our Government to

"make it clear to all sides that those who are proved to have committed war crimes in this conflict will be in danger of arrest, prosecution and punishment wherever they go for the rest of their lives."

It is those words that make our motion much stronger than the Government's amendment. I hope that the Foreign Secretary is making it clear to the Sri Lankan Government, at least in private, and to any representatives of the LTTE whom he meets, that if the fighting continues and the feared bloodbath occurs, leaders on both sides risk being personally prosecuted for war crimes.

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

As well as trying to secure an end to the fighting, surely the priority must be to alleviate some of the worst suffering. Some 100,000 people have managed to escape the fighting into camps in the past week, but perhaps 50,000 remain. Is it not incumbent on the Sri Lankan Government to allow all the international agencies into the relevant areas to offer whatever assistance they can, which is vitally needed at the present time?

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I shall come to the camps of internally displaced people towards the end of my remarks, but I wish first to continue to discuss how we can get a ceasefire, which is the immediate problem. With that ceasefire, we could get more humanitarian assistance for those who are suffering.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

I know that my hon. Friend has been reflecting on whether the term "genocide" should be applied to this situation. Has he come to any conclusion about that?

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

Not yet, but I shall wish to ask the Minister a few questions about that, because I know that it concerns many Members.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I shall let the right hon. Lady in, as she has worked very hard on this issue.

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Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I appreciate that. I simply wanted to reiterate that no one here—none of us who has worked on the issue—supports violence or fighting. I know that that is the hon. Gentleman's view. We want a permanent ceasefire. The previous ceasefire led to negotiations and it is important to recognise that the LTTE did not walk away from them, thus ending the ceasefire. I believe that we can get negotiations that include everybody who needs to be involved and commit ourselves, as the Foreign Secretary has done, to a political solution. There is no military solution to the problem—it must be political. That must involve everybody. The Government of Sri Lanka have shown no commitment to a ceasefire, yet the LTTE have called for one on numerous occasions.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The right hon. Lady is right. When Prime Minister Wickremanayake was in power in Colombo in 2002, he ensured that the ceasefire agreement was concluded. A massive change occurred only when he was voted out of office—by only 200,000 votes; many Tamil people did not vote—and President Rajapakse's party came to power. Many Sinhalese, including many Sinhalese politicians, want to pursue the path of peace. No one in the House is taking sides. I believe that we are united in opposition to human rights abuses and violence, whoever perpetrates them.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I will give way, but then I shall make some progress. I give others who want to intervene that warning now.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

The hon. Gentleman hinted at the view that the Sri Lankan Government and other forces in Sri Lanka are promulgating: that somehow Britain is trying to tell them how to run the country. I believe that there is unanimity in the House that our role in any dispute in which we are not a direct partner is to uphold international human rights standards. That is the duty of any democratically elected politician; it is at the heart of the motion and the amendment.

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Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North

As Mr. Dismore said, the Sri Lankan Government do not seem to be listening to anybody. Although we hope that the Foreign Secretary and France's Foreign Secretary achieve a ceasefire, if they do not and the Sri Lankan Government continue not to listen, has not the time come for a suspension from the Commonwealth until they listen?

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

We need to consider all those sorts of sanctions. President Rajapakse, his brother and his Cabinet appear to be unwilling to listen. As I have said, they need to understand that there are consequences if a so-called Government behave in that way.

I wanted to discuss the United Nations because I have been saddened by the failure to achieve a resolution and demand for a ceasefire at the UN. In public and in private, I have urged our Government to push hard for one. We have had a friendly debate, and the Prime Minister has argued forcefully with me that the danger of a veto by at least one of the permanent five members of the Security Council—I assume Russia—means that he will not pursue such a strategy. However, I wonder, given the stark reality in Sri Lanka, whether Russia or China might be persuaded at least to abstain. Des Browne may be able to enlighten the House, given that he was recently at the United Nations, about the possibility of that. It would be fantastic because individual countries threatening future sanctions could, through a United Nations Security Council resolution, turn into the powerful voice of the world speaking as one.

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Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Labour, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, although, given that he invited the intervention, I suppose he needed to give way.

I join other hon. Members in complimenting the hon. Gentleman on his introduction to the debate and on the fact that we are holding it. I hope to catch the Deputy Speaker's eye and make a short contribution later.

The hon. Gentleman is right that I was in the United Nations building recently. I engaged with many people, and told some that I would respect their privacy, so I will not talk about them. However, on the hon. Gentleman's precise point, I was in the presence of our ambassador to the United Nations and members of the UK mission with ambassadors of at least one of those countries to which he referred, if I can put it that way.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that, from extensive recent experience of diplomacy in conflict and post-conflict situations, I am satisfied that our people in New York could not do any more to generate the flexibility that we need from those who are not like-minded with us on the issue to get it before the Security Council in some fashion or another, if he understands what all that means.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's dilemma in wanting to intervene briefly but finding it very difficult to do so because the matter is so complicated, but let me tell the House that there is already a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches and a number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. One hon. Member's intervention can cost another hon. Member a speech. I do not want to curtail debate in any way, but I just hope that all hon. Members will remember that. If the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to catch my eye later, perhaps he would be better off making his remarks then, rather than proceeding now.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be third time lucky.

Just four years ago—I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to reply to this point in his remarks—the United Nations committed itself to the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. We have to start making that mean something. In this case it surely means that the United Nations would have international legitimacy in acting. However, if this case is another example of where the United Nations does not act, I fear that it will add to a history that is not good for its credibility. I am not suggesting that we may see a failure that is comparable to what happened in Rwanda, but we could get close.

If genocide is not already occurring, as many allege that it is, there must be a fear that it could occur. I understand that the legal definition of the crime of genocide contained in articles 2 and 3 of the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide is very tight. Many mass killings that have taken place round the world, and which we condemn in the strongest terms, would not fit that definition of the crime of genocide. Yet Professor Francis Boyle, a professor of international law at the university of Illinois, believes that there may already be a case, and he has some credibility, because he won two orders from the World Court using the genocide convention in relation to the former Yugoslavia. I would therefore like the Minister to tell the House whether the Foreign Office has sought or is prepared to seek legal opinion on whether what is happening constitutes genocide. It is incumbent on us as a signatory to the convention to do that at least.

I do not think that the wider international community has made its voice heard nearly loudly enough on the issue, or that it has used all the tools to get the ceasefire. The Commonwealth, which was mentioned earlier, has been too quiet. We are told that it is working "below the radar". I only hope that it is being as direct as it needs to be. I also hope that the Commonwealth does not come to regret not opting for the route of public pressure. As for the Indian Government, their recent change of heart is welcome. It is good that they now appear to be asking the Sri Lankan Government to hold off, but that has come rather late and does not have a lot of credibility for many Tamils in Britain and around the world. I would therefore like to hear from the Minister what else the Government are planning to do to persuade other Governments to join the Europeans and the Americans in urgently building a bigger and far more determined international coalition to stop the bloodshed.

We also need to remember in this debate that many people outside the immediate conflict zone are suffering greatly. Indeed, within the Vanni region there are a large number of camps established by the Sri Lankan military to hold civilians escaping the fighting and others displaced by the months—indeed, years—of conflict. Some estimates suggest that internally displaced people in the Vanni region alone number more than 180,000. We hear that the Foreign Secretary is today visiting one of the so-called welfare villages near the town of Vavuniya. I hope he is asking some tough questions about what is happening in those camps, because there is credible evidence that the rights of Tamil civilians in them are being seriously restricted.

Last night, I was e-mailed by one of my Surbiton constituents, Mrs. Dashora, who fled here in 1983. She told me that three of her family members had recently gone to a camp near Vavuniya, and that they had reported to her that the situation was, if anything, worse. There was little food, and there were severe restrictions behind barbed wire, with families separated and no contact with the outside world except for those who had some sort of telephone.

We understand that the Sri Lankan army is trying to screen the displaced people in the camps, to weed out any Tamil Tigers, but the stories that we are getting about that screening—and, indeed, the evidence from Tamil refugees who have come to this country following previous outbreaks of violence—fill me with alarm. That is why our motion says that

"access is vital for humanitarian assistance, human rights monitors and members of the international media".

People might wonder why Tamils feel as they do about these army camps; it is because of the history of such camps for displaced people in previous outbreaks of fighting. The Sri Lankan army has promised to resettle all displaced people, but that simply has not happened in the past. Thousands of Tamils were kept in camps such as these for years and prevented from returning to their villages because the army had designated 30 per cent. of the Jaffna peninsula and coastline a militarily sensitive zone. We must press for international oversight of all these camps.

I have not spent much time today detailing the history, attributing blame, setting out a long-term solution to the conflict or second-guessing what will happen after either the bloodbath that we fear or the ceasefire we crave. But I will make one personal and one political point on these matters before concluding. Personally, I have developed some great friendships in the Tamil community in my constituency. That has not been difficult; Tamil people are among the kindest and most cultured people I have ever met. It has also been necessary for me to get to know many Tamils, because they have needed my help, primarily with the Home Office. Through that work, I have heard some horrific stories of torture and of gross violations of human rights. Such people included Tamils who never supported, and never wanted to support, the LTTE, until the LTTE became, in the eyes of the majority of Tamils, the only real voice left to the Tamil people.

So I accept that, over the past 12 years, I have heard most about this conflict from one side. Yet I and other colleagues in the House have always focused, straight and true, on the human rights of every Sri Lankan citizen. I am not, as was discussed earlier, a white Tiger. It just seems to me that many ordinary Tamil people have suffered appallingly over the decades at the hands of some Sinhala politicians who have opted for the nationalist, ethnic path all too readily.

This brings me to my political point on what must happen now. President Rajapakse must propose, for discussion with the Tamils, a constitutional programme including devolved autonomy, protection of minority rights and economic development for the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, at the very least. Why? Because his military solution is not a solution. Only negotiations and peaceful politics can produce a solution. Defeating the Tigers in the coastal strip round Mullaitivu will not solve the dispute. A bloodbath would only sow the seeds of bitter hatred and violent struggle for many more years to come.

In moving the motion tonight, let me be clear about why the ceasefire is so important. Yes, it is about stopping the killing now, but it is also an essential ingredient for getting the permanent and just peace that all sides must surely want. Without the ceasefire, this struggle might continue through 25 more years of killing.

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p

can this man look up genocide in the dictionary and then speak about the SL government. They are trying to get rid of a terrorist organisation (remember IRA??? only multiply the terror 100 times).

Do you know what the word means???

Do you know that there are thousands of Tamil people living the the north under the SL government rule, peacefully and happily!!! Because they don't have the LTTE intimidating them into submission??

you should look at the facts and not get carried away by the British LTTE's propagana.

Further, you should use your words wisely.

help SL get rid of LTTE, if you can't, don't hinder them!!!!

Submitted by pathma thavagnanam

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 4:54 pm, 29th April 2009

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and add:

"strongly supports the efforts of the Government within the United Nations, the European Union, the G8 and other international bodies to bring about an end to the conflict in Sri Lanka, to open the way for an international humanitarian relief effort and to promote a process of political reconciliation;
welcomes the £7.5 million the Government has already committed to the relief effort;
supports the Foreign Secretary's joint visit to Sri Lanka with his French counterpart;
endorses the Government's calls for the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to declare an immediate ceasefire and to allow the civilians trapped in the No Fire Zone to leave unhindered, facilitated by the UN;
urges both parties to the conflict to allow full and unrestricted access for humanitarian aid to be safely delivered;
supports the Government's efforts to persuade the government of Sri Lanka to allow international oversight of all internally displaced persons, including a transparent registration process and improved conditions within the camps with better access to food, water and medical facilities;
urges the government of Sri Lanka to allow freedom of movement in and out of the camps so that families separated by the conflict can be reunited;
and endorses the Government's efforts to persuade the government of Sri Lanka to initiate a process of political reconciliation with all speed as the only way of ensuring a lasting peace between the communities."

I can assure the House that the Government have tabled this amendment simply in order to set out the full scale of international concern and action.

I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have worked tirelessly on behalf of their constituents to draw attention to the truly appalling humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka, and I shall endeavour to be as concise as possible, as I am keen to hear their contributions to today's debate.

We value the Tamil community and the important contribution that it makes to British society. The demonstrations here in London and elsewhere across the world show the understandable depth of feeling in a community where, as we have heard, many have seen their friends and relatives killed or injured in the conflict, or remain concerned about the safety of their loved ones.

The conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers—is, as we know, in its 26th year. Definitive figures are not available, but that conflict shocks us all in that it is widely believed to have claimed more than 70,000 lives. Even more shocking is the fact that the United Nations estimates that, since January, 400 civilians have died every single week.

As is the nature of long-running wars, the weight of suffering is felt most acutely by civilians—men, women and children who did not and do not choose to go to war, and certainly have no wish to die. For every one of those 70,000 lives lost, the lives of many others have been shattered. This is the human cost of that conflict.

Even today, about 50,000 civilians remain trapped between rebel Tamil forces on one side and the Government forces on the other. They are caught in a conflict zone of just 5 square miles, with nowhere to hide. No army could possibly wage a war in that small an area, containing that many civilians, without causing many deaths.

The LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and do everything possible to protect civilian lives. So we call on the Sri Lankan Government to call a ceasefire and on the LTTE forces to allow civilians to leave the no-fire zone.

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

Will my hon. Friend pass on the thanks of the House to the Foreign Secretary for making the journey to Colombo? I know that he has just called for another ceasefire—he has sent a letter to all Members of the House—but in keeping with the spirit of the debate, can there be discussions between the usual channels to ensure that the House does not divide on the issue? The Liberal Democrat motion before the House is similar to the Prime Minister's amendment. It would send a powerful signal, while our Foreign Secretary is in that country, if the House united behind one message.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I hear my right hon. Friend. I thank him and Mr. Davey for their generous and gracious support of the Foreign Secretary, who is indeed in Sri Lanka on our behalf promoting our overriding priority, which is the prevention of further civilian death and suffering.

As the House has heard, the Foreign Secretary is in Sri Lanka with French Foreign Minister Kouchner. I spoke with the Foreign Secretary by phone this morning to receive an update. I can tell the House that in meetings with the President and others, the Foreign Secretary pushed hard for full UN and non-governmental organisation access to civilians in the camps and elsewhere. He visited some of the camps near Vavuniya in the north. While there, he told me of the disturbing accounts that he heard of families being forcibly separated as they tried to flee the fighting.

The Foreign Secretary also confirmed to me just how clear it is that the LTTE is preventing civilians from leaving the conflict zones. The use of civilians as human shields is abhorrent and must end.

Visits to Sri Lanka by the British and French Foreign Ministers, along with the visit earlier this week by the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend Mr. Foster, send a powerful message to the Sri Lankan Government that the plight of civilians is an issue of international concern. The visit by the cross-party group of MPs next week will do likewise.

Civilians have always been our No. 1 priority. I again thank the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton for his supportive remarks about the Prime Minister, who was the first Government leader to call for a ceasefire back in January.

We welcomed the two-day ceasefire that took place earlier this month, but it did not achieve the objective. It was not enough time, and the LTTE prevented all but 300 civilians leaving the conflict zone. Since then, the Prime Minister has spoken to the Sri Lankan President twice to make clear our profound concerns about the continuing situation. He called for an end to the fighting and for civilians to be allowed out to find the safety they deserve. The Sri Lankan President issued a statement a few days later, saying that the Government would

"end the use of heavy calibre guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties."

But that is also not enough. Only a full ceasefire will allow all civilians to leave the conflict zone and reach safety.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

All hon. Members will have noted what my hon. Friend and the Sri Lankan Government have said about stopping the barrage, heavy gun attack and bombing. Is she confident that that has stopped, however? Many Members believe that it has continued unabated. The much-vaunted use of small arms fire only has not taken place. There is duplicity from the Sri Lankan Government.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

It is not possible to be confident, as my hon. Friend inquires, simply because the international presence on the ground is insufficient, as I will outline. The situation is difficult to verify, so much of the Foreign Secretary's work has been to demand unfettered international access.

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Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government; Culture, Media and Sport; Defence; Transport)

Given that the Sri Lankan Government and their military are implicated in the slaughter of their own citizens, possibly deceiving the world in doing so, at what point is it no longer acceptable for Sri Lanka to continue as a full member of the Commonwealth?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

On the matter of the Commonwealth, our view, and the international view, is that it is better to keep engaging with the Sri Lankan Government. That is our way forward. Isolation will not produce the forward look that we need. Although the matter was not on the Commonwealth ministerial action group's formal agenda, I took the opportunity to raise the UK Government's concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka.

The Government's second priority is to ensure that those civilians who escape the fighting get the help that they need. An estimated 180,000 people have managed to flee the fighting so far. They are in, or travelling to, internally displaced persons camps. The UK is helping to provide the equipment, food and water needed by those in the camps. Last week, the Prime Minister announced a further £2.5 million in humanitarian aid, bringing the UK's contribution to £7.5 million. I assure the House that all of that is directed through international agencies and none goes through the Sri Lankan Government. The Sri Lankan Government's obligation is to ensure unhindered and safe access for international aid, so that it gets to where it is needed. We have seen some progress in the past week, but more needs to be done. We call on the Sri Lankan Government to grant full access to international humanitarian agencies, which must be able to do their work and satisfy themselves over the arrangements for civilians leaving the conflict area.

The internally displaced persons camps must be apolitical and non-military, and deliver effective aid to traumatised people. Better access to medical facilities, food and drinking water must be provided, along with transparent registration processes. We were pleased about the arrival this weekend of 5,000 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tents, the transportation costs for which were covered by the United Kingdom Government. However, delays in getting Government clearance for those and many other things meant that people suffered unnecessarily. The camps must be run properly and be temporary. We will hold the Sri Lankan Government to their promise to return 80 per cent. of internally displaced persons to their homes by the end of the year.

That leads me to our third priority: to find a long-term political solution to the conflict.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

This is a small point, but why 80 per cent. by the end of the year? A huge number of people are being kept in these camps, so why? Are the Government asking the Sri Lankan Government and the Sri Lankan army that question?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but the reason is that this is about what is possible in putting the infrastructure in place and demining. This will not be the end of the story, but it is about being realistic about meeting and assisting to meet things in that way.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary is in Sri Lanka urging an urgent ceasefire. I realise that the Minister is coming to this in her speech, but does she accept that a ceasefire is not in itself enough to prevent a resurgence of fighting at some point in the future? There has to be a political engagement with all the representatives of all shades of Tamil opinion; otherwise, a ceasefire would merely postpone the horrors of today to the disasters of tomorrow.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I absolutely agree with the assessment set out by my hon. Friend, because he rightly says that although conventional military action could be drawing to a close, an end to the fighting does not mean an end to the conflict. The Sri Lankan Government must know that some LTTE members will simply switch to guerrilla warfare to continue their fight. As we have heard today, there can be no military solution to this conflict; there can only be a political one. Ultimately, it is for the Sri Lankans themselves to resolve this conflict. That is why the UK and others have for years pressed the Sri Lankans to begin a political process that takes into account the legitimate aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka—the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims and others. The Sri Lankan Government must show the boldness and vision necessary to find a lasting solution to more than 25 years of conflict.

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Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

The Minister is right to say that although the Sri Lankan Government crave a military victory, there is a big difference between that and a military solution—that will clearly not be delivered as a result of the actions in which they are engaged at the moment. She seems to be saying that peace is a process rather than a single event. What practical contribution have the UK Government been offering in recent months and years to a peace process? It is clear that both sides must engage in order to achieve the long-term sustainable peace that we all crave, and that the whole of the Tamil community needs to be fully engaged in that kind of political process.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I am coming on to discuss the role of the international community, so I shall just take the next intervention.

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Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

The Minister and Mr. Davey were right to say that what happens in the medium and long term is what will matter most. For now, may I ask the question about the emperor's clothes, as it were? Do we believe that the LTTE can be left controlling populations and holding territory in the short term?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

The answer to that question is that we need to be thinking about what we can do in the international community in order to make progress. To repeat a point, it is important to say to the Sri Lankan Government that even if they think that a military solution is an answer, they must consider the day after the end to that, when they think the military solution has delivered the result. Our concern is that no thought, no planning and no preparation is being done.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I shall give way to my hon. Friend, but then I shall make some progress.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

Just to remind the House, there are three sides involved in this; we ought not to forget the Muslim community, which has distinct needs in the Sri Lankan context. The Sri Lankan Government will argue that they already have a process under way—the All Party Representatives Committee. It is important for the international community to convince the Sri Lankan Government that that process does not have Tamil community support, and that if we are actually to get a peace process under way, we need to bring all sides—all shades of Tamil opinion—into it.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

As I have just said, and am happy to reiterate, the answer can be the answer only if it brings together all communities. There is no other way forward.

The UK is working with the international community to build a co-ordinated international response, which is, of course, the most powerful way forward. The UK has taken a leading role in bringing Sri Lanka on to the international community's agenda. We have closely co-ordinated with others, particularly the US, France and India, and the Foreign Secretary has issued joint statements with the French and Americans. We have played an active role in securing renewed calls by the EU Foreign Ministers and the G8 to ensure that civilians are protected.

With regard to the UN, we welcome the personal focus that the UN Secretary-General has given to Sri Lanka, and his statements on the plight of civilians. We have also supported the separate visits to Sri Lanka by the UN representatives for humanitarian affairs and for internally displaced persons, as well as by the Secretary-General's chef de cabinet. It is important that they were able to see the appalling situation for themselves.

Despite opposition, we have successfully worked for these representatives to give informal briefings to the Security Council. The UN has a vital role to play in keeping the spotlight of international concern and action focused on Sri Lanka. We believe that a UN Security Council resolution would be an effective demonstration of the views of the international community. However, as right hon. and hon. Members will know, not all permanent members of the Security Council believe that it is appropriate for the Council to discuss this issue. Without the agreement of all permanent members, we cannot get a resolution. My real concern is that if we went forward with a resolution and it was vetoed, we would have an even worse situation, because the Sri Lankan Government would simply say, "The UN has agreed with us that no action should be taken". That would not be a good outcome for the people of Sri Lanka.

The matter of war crimes is very important. This conflict has been taking place in the shadows due to the limited international presence. Actions must be fully investigated, and if war crimes have been committed they should be identified. But, as in all conflicts, it is difficult for investigations to be made while the conflict is ongoing. Under international law, the primary burden for investigation rests on the authority against whose forces allegations of war crimes are made.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

What is the Minister's view on the role of the Commonwealth and how effective it has been so far? Can she think of any circumstances in which Sri Lanka should host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2011?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I have already mentioned the Commonwealth and my input on the Commonwealth ministerial action group. We continue to work with the international community, including the UN, the EU and the Commonwealth, to alleviate the situation in Sri Lanka.

Our No. 1 goal is the protection of civilian lives. Both sides must do the right thing by those they claim they are fighting for. We will be unstinting in our efforts to press the Sri Lankans to ensure that they meet their obligations under international law. Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister with responsibility for Asia, will meet the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister next week to continue this effort. We will not waver until the lives of the innocent are no longer under threat and lasting peace has been brought to this troubled country.

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Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:14 pm, 29th April 2009

I congratulate Mr. Davey on introducing this short debate. I also want to congratulate all members of the Government on the efforts that they have made over the past few months in a very difficult situation. All Members of the House cannot but be moved by the despair of the British Tamil community, highlighted by the demonstration outside Parliament, over what is happening to their friends and relatives.

This is the third time that this subject has been debated in the past two or three months. We had a debate on 5 February and another on 24 March, and powerful speeches were made by hon. Members from all parties. Hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to speak for half an hour, reiterating all the points that have been made. I merely want to try to emphasise two or three points, tying together—as I see it—the problems of achieving an immediate ceasefire and a somewhat longer-term solution. This situation has been bedevilled on both sides by extremists who have used terror and counter-terror, with truces declared and broken, to further their particular political interests. That has happened recently with both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE.

Enormous efforts have been made by individual Governments and by the international community to attempt to force both sides to come to a ceasefire. At different stages, neither side has found it in their interests to do so. That is not to say that the efforts that have been made have been nugatory and should not have been attempted. An important, powerful point concerns the way in which this House, on the whole, has spoken with one voice. That has had an impact—although not a particularly great one—on the Sri Lankan Government. Apart from anything else, I think that they thought that they had had a more sophisticated public relations campaign over the past few months.

The immediate problem is not only to achieve a ceasefire but to bring in humanitarian aid to those people who are now concentrated in camps to which there is limited access. There are tens of thousands of them and I think that the fear of many outside observers is that the Sri Lankan Government intend to weed out people from those camps whom they regard as terrorists. It is very important that we not only have international observers there but members of the media, including members of the media in Sri Lanka.

Of course, a ceasefire is also required to prevent the final overrun of the last bit of territory held by the LTTE, where tens of thousands of innocent civilians are suffering from both sides. The Sri Lankan Government are still using aerial weapons, artillery and air strikes. We know that from the UN representative. Equally, as the former Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Dr. Howells, pointed out, the LTTE armed wing is made up of a particularly vicious and nasty bunch of people. They have forcibly put young people into their fighting groups and used civilians as screens. We should not absolve ourselves from that.

I am not trying to be negative, but I do not genuinely believe that the Sri Lankan Government will agree to a ceasefire. I think that they believe that they are so close to achieving a military victory that they will do anything to stop one. I do not think that there is anything that the international community or the British Government can do to force them not to achieve that military victory, as the Sri Lankan Government see it. That is not to say that I do not think that we should shout from the rooftops about what they are doing. The problem that they face, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, is that that military victory will be pyrrhic. They will achieve a military victory but they will immediately face the problem of dealing with the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. They will probably then come under enormous pressure and will feel that they have to give in to international observers and the United Nations. We should be thinking now about what pressure we can bring at that point and what we want to demand of the Sri Lankan Government.

As other hon. Members have said, in every conflict that we can think of, this kind of military victory will result in the surviving members of the LTTE carrying out terrorist acts, not only in Sri Lanka but worldwide, on a scale the likes of which the Sri Lankan Government have not yet seen. So what I urge colleagues to think about is that we continue to maintain the pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, through the sort of action that the Foreign Secretary has been carrying out. We must also recognise that the Sri Lankan Government are incredibly sensitive and touchy about what they believe is white, colonial interference in their internal affairs. For example, the appointment of Des Browne as a special envoy was effectively negated by them. In addition, they have refused permission for the Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, to enter Sri Lanka, for reasons that seem very much based on interference—in other words, the Sri Lankan Government believe that they are defending their right.

We all believe that that is stupid and nugatory, but I suspect that we will have a very limited window of opportunity to bring real pressure to bear on the Sri Lankan Government after they have achieved their so-called military victory. That is because—this is my final point—the pressure will be off them then, with the international media moving on to some other horror story elsewhere in the world. The British Tamil community, quite rightly, will expect more of us, but it is at that point that the British Government will really have to engage with the Sri Lankan Government.

Ironically, I think that the Sri Lankan Government will be at their weakest then. In wishing to achieve a military victory they have ignored all the negative aspects, such as the fact that they are in serious financial difficulties, and that may be what allows us to exert some pressure.

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

My hon. Friend he is making a very prescient and powerful speech. Does he agree that, in the similar conflicts that took place in South Africa and Rwanda, one of the important parts of the peace process was the establishment of some form of truth and reconciliation committee? That worked very well in South Africa, and also in Rwanda, where the Gacaca court system was used for that purpose. The result has been that people caught up in the conflict have been brought back into the democratic, peaceful process.

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Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I am not trying to be a Jonah, but I believe, sadly, that there will be a lot more violence, and a lot more innocent people killed, before we reach that stage. I think that we are in for a long haul.

I congratulate the Government and those of our colleagues who have worked so hard on the matter. We need to keep up the pressure on the Sri Lankan Government through the spotlight of media attention, but we must also think about what will happen when they declare their pyrrhic military victory, because the Tamils are not going to go away.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I remind the House that the 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches comes into operation now. Bearing in mind the numbers of colleagues who wish to contribute to the debate, and if everyone is to be heard, I hope that speeches will not be too much extended by interventions.

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Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North 5:23 pm, 29th April 2009

It is relevant to remind ourselves that we are talking about up to 6,500 people killed since January. The fact that even official accounts now put the number above 5,000 gives us a little perspective.

I worry when I hear talk about more violence. There may well be, but it is very important that we stand here and say that there must not be. I also worry that, although none of us approves of what is happening, we almost seem to be saying, "We can't stop the Sri Lankan Government. This is internal to that country, so they reject everything that we say, the envoys that we send, and even the Swedish Foreign Minister. That's not fine, but there's nothing we can do about it."

I do not accept that there is nothing we can do about what is happening in Sri Lanka. I am very relieved that our Foreign Secretary is in Sri Lanka, and I pay tribute to him for making the trip at this crucial point in time. I agree with Mr. Davey that this is an important point in time. If Sri Lanka is on the verge of a bloodbath, there could not be a more important time for our Foreign Secretary to be there, making it absolutely clear that what is happening is not acceptable.

Sri Lanka must move to a permanent ceasefire. We attach no preconditions to the negotiations that must follow; it is not for us to do so. However, it is right that we and the international community call for an immediate, permanent ceasefire, and for negotiations to start—negotiations involving all parts of the community in Sri Lanka, as has been said. I am pleased that our Prime Minister was the first international Government leader to call for a ceasefire. That is important leadership, and many others need to follow suit. I have no doubt that that was critical to ensuring that India made clear its view that a ceasefire was required. Our Government have made huge moves that have had a huge impact, but we are still not where we need to be.

A lot has been said about the UN, and I, too, have made it clear that there should be a UN Security Council resolution. Through all the debates, I think that we have all come to understand that China and Russia are obstructing international efforts to reach agreement. We are well past the point at which it could be said to be unhelpful to identify where the problem comes from, in terms of ensuring that the international community can act. To go back to my first point, if we are not to say, "Well, there's nothing that we can do; Governments get to do these things in their own country", and are instead to say, "This is a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe, and it is completely and utterly wrong", we have to act through the UN. Therefore, it is right that we should identify where the problem is.

China and Russia are obstructing international efforts to reach agreement, but where the UN Security Council fails to act to maintain international peace and security, a provision exists to overcome disagreement among its five permanent members, namely the "Uniting for Peace" resolution. It enables an emergency special session of the General Assembly to be called for by a procedural resolution of the Security Council, which, unlike substantive resolutions, cannot be vetoed by any of the five permanent members. I am not an expert on the UN, and I have had to do a bit of research to discover those technicalities and means of progressing things there, but the "Uniting for Peace" resolution seems to offer a way forward, if it is not possible to get the kind of resolution for which hon. Members on both sides of the House have been calling.

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Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on the stand that she is taking on behalf of the members of the Tamil community who are spread across the borough of Enfield. The Under-Secretary of State said that she would not want the Government to be in a worse position as a result of a failed UN Security Council resolution. Can the right hon. Lady think of a worse position than the one that the Tamil community are in, as they face slaughter?

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Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

That is an important point to take on board, but we have to consider whether a failed UN Security Council resolution would be interpreted by the Government of Sri Lanka as a form of approval of their behaviour. Equally, I agree with the hon. Gentleman: how could things be much worse for the Tamil community? That is why I think that, however much blocking there is at the UN, it is time to find a mechanism to open up the issue there. It is time to point to those permanent members of the Security Council that are, through their behaviour, allowing the human rights catastrophe to happen. They are preventing the UN from fulfilling its role, remit, and international obligations, and so are preventing the rest of us members who are party to those obligations from fulfilling ours. If the "Uniting for Peace" resolution offers a way forward, I urge the Minister to look at it. Although we have problems with two permanent members of the Security Council, there are many others to whom my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh and other hon. Members have spoken in recent days and weeks. Those countries support our disapproval of what is happening in Sri Lanka and are trying to force the Sri Lankan Government to reach an immediate ceasefire. It undermines the Secretary-General's position if his call for a ceasefire is completely ignored, if not brushed aside. I therefore hope that that will be looked at.

I should like to make a point about the application for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The Sri Lankan Government, as we have heard, has applied for an emergency support loan from the IMF of $1.9 billion, and they appear to believe that they should be able to receive that without any conditions. To agree to an IMF loan to a Government who have perpetrated gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law would be a breach of the UK's international obligations, so that is another avenue through which our Government can bring pressure to bear on the Sri Lankan Government. We should provide aid, but it is completely wrong to do so against the backdrop of a Government who have spent 25 per cent. of their gross domestic product on arms. They are not at war with anybody—they are, however, at war in their own country—and have gone to the IMF for a loan. That is not what an IMF loan is supposed to be about, and I hope that we will do all that we can to stop that being made available.

To return to the point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, there is no military solution. The Sri Lankan Government may think that they are going to achieve military success, but it will not be a victory. No Government can achieve military victory over their own people, and all the people of Sri Lanka deserve a settlement that will be just and lasting and that gives everyone in that country the rights that they deserve as citizens of that country. The Sri Lankan Government should not dismiss out of hand all the calls for a ceasefire and all the offers of a ceasefire. I accept that they and others have reservations about dealing with everyone in peace negotiations. I accept, too, that there has been violence on both sides. As I have said, no one in the Chamber condones violence or fighting: we want an immediate and permanent ceasefire; we want peace; and we want negotiations. We set no preconditions—we have no right to do so—but it is not unreasonable to make those demands.

One might ask whether we have any right to make demands of another Government. I believe that we do when human rights are under threat and a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes. Those are exactly the circumstances in which we have the right to make those demands. We make them here as a Parliament representing hundreds of thousands of British citizens who are Tamil people desperately concerned about their families and friends. We have that right as members of the UN. We must see that ceasefire, and we need it now. That is what the Foreign Secretary has called for again today, and I wholly support his making that visit and that call.

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Photo of Susan Kramer Susan Kramer Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park 5:34 pm, 29th April 2009

I want to acknowledge in particular the importance of the Tamil community in making sure that the international community finally gives a high priority to the suffering of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

Last week, I was privileged to go with three members of the Tamil community to Strasbourg to meet the EU External Relations Commissioner, Mrs. Ferrero-Waldner. I was joined by Members of the European Parliament, and we were all acting in a cross-party capacity, rather than representing one particular party. It was evident from that conversation that, at that time, the issue was not a priority on the agenda of the meeting of Foreign Ministers that was to take place on Monday. We have now progressed so far that our Foreign Secretary and the French Foreign Minister are in Sri Lanka tackling the problem directly. I congratulate the British, French and Czech Governments on making sure that the subject moved so rapidly up the agenda and gained the priority that it deserved. I also congratulate those young Tamils, whose eloquence made a significant difference on that day. The Tamil community fired up the political world not only here, but in other European capitals. That has been extraordinary, and we should recognise the role that they played.

I turn briefly to the welfare camps; I am trying not to use the full amount of time that I have been allotted. I talked yesterday with some of the humanitarian agencies, which obviously have long-standing contacts in Sri Lanka. Hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have quoted the numbers said to be going to the welfare camps. The report back is that the situation is horrendous. The Sri Lankan Government have long been in denial that many civilians were involved. Consequently, there is a shortage of absolutely everything and the system is completely overstretched, creating a present and imminent humanitarian crisis.

The second set of issues to which the humanitarian agencies tried to draw my attention is that rumours are rife that people going to the camps are disappearing— young men are disappearing, presumably thought to be possible members of the LTTE who have taken off their uniform; and young women are disappearing, and the rumour is that they are providing, shall I say, comfort services. Whether that is true or not, the issue will enflame the Tamil people in both Sri Lanka and the diaspora, and it underscores the importance of stressing to the British Government and others that the UN and the ICRC must become responsible for supervising all stages of the screening process when people enter and leave the camps. That must be documented and there must be the appropriate database. If not, rumour will be so out of control that it will be very difficult to secure any benefits when there is some degree of ceasefire.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I agree entirely with the powerful point that the hon. Lady is making. She will know that there is a history of the United Nations High Representative on human rights being denied access in the pursuit of investigations of wholesale abuses and mass graves that have been found over the past decade in Sri Lanka as a result of atrocities perpetrated by the Sri Lankan army. The point that she makes about the rumours that are rife lends credence to all that has gone before, and indicates that it is not safe for civilians who are still within the zone to hand themselves over to the Sri Lankan forces and to go into the camps. That presents a severe humanitarian problem, on which we must force the Sri Lankan Government to act by allowing transparency in what is going on in those camps.

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Photo of Susan Kramer Susan Kramer Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about transparency. It must be made clear to the Sri Lankan Government that there is no loss of face in bringing in the international community. That is not a presumption of guilt. It is part of the structure for creating peace out of conflict.

With reference to the camps, it is crucial that people are resettled as quickly as possible. One number we have not heard today is that of the more than 300,000 displaced people who are in camps as a result of the conflict prior to 2002—people who have not been able to return home because of the high-security camps established in the east of the country. That cannot be repeated in the valley, or we will find ourselves with a long-term and constantly festering problem in Sri Lanka. That will take international community pressure to achieve—offers of international help for demining are a good example—as well as the provision of resources. Humanitarian organisations tell me that the scale of the problem is bigger than that of the tsunami in Sri Lanka—the number of families involved and the need for shelter, for livelihood support, for infrastructure reconstruction and for dealing with trauma post-crisis.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

Not long after 2002, when the ceasefire was implemented and things began to go somewhat off the rails, the international community came together and offered a large sum of money on the basis that a ceasefire and a peace process could begin and be completed. Is that something that the international community could consider to get things moving in Sri Lanka?

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Photo of Susan Kramer Susan Kramer Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

I agree that money must come with conditions and money will be needed. Again, I do not consider that to be some violation of the dignity of any Government. There must be freedom of access and freedom of movement, and those standards of humanitarian law and international law have to be restored.

It is evident in this crisis that the suffering will have been for no point at all if it does not lead to a permanent solution in Sri Lanka. That means that the conversations must begin as immediately as possible on the underlying grievances. As was said earlier, that applies as much to the Muslim community as it does to the Tamil community—to all minority communities in Sri Lanka. There has been a move by the Sri Lankan Government towards a Sinhala Buddhist bias, which has had the effect of denying other communities their proper rights and role: equal opportunity, freedom of language and freedom of religion. Only if the structure is put in place to achieve a pluralistic society will these long-standing communities—the Tamil community has been for centuries a kingdom on the lands of Sri Lanka—have the kind of resolution that is needed and, as others have said, we will be able to prevent the development of the ongoing sense of terror that comes of grievances that are not addressed either by the home Government or by the international community.

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Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 5:42 pm, 29th April 2009

I am 49 years of age, I have been an elected politician for 27 years and my political and personal lives tell me that when someone is bullied, they must stand up and shout, no matter what minority they are part of and no matter what the chances of success might be.

What disappointed me about the contribution of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was that it undermined and belied the bravery that our Foreign Secretary is showing by visiting Sri Lanka and making a stand when other people and organisations around the world will not. He is making a stand when other diplomats—his advisers in the Foreign Office—tell him not to go. Whatever the outcome of his visit, he will always have my support for his decision to break the logjam in every international organisation that is not prepared to stand up and do something.

I could paper my walls with the letters that I have had saying, "We don't like to stand up. We like to do things under the radar." That is not the way to deal with the Sri Lankan Government. We all know that diplomacy will not shift the Sri Lankan Government. Only the loud opprobrium of the world, in whatever way it can happen, will do that. Brave people can achieve great things. Organisations that decide to turn away, not look, not see and be mealy-mouthed, will not save one life.

My Easter recess was spent out on Parliament square with a group of people who showed great bravery and great desperation. They did things with which I sometimes did not agree, but their motivations are first class and their attempt to bring this matter to the world's attention has been incredibly successful. Despite the little media coverage over the past few weeks, it is 100 per cent. more than before and 100 per cent. more than all of us have managed to achieve. I applaud the protestors on their success, but now it is our time for us to make our stand. It may not be successful and we may fail, but we have to try, because we all know that, when this is all over, we will see more dead, injured and displaced people than we currently understand. It should not happen on our watch. Our responsibility is to do something, to stand up and to be brave.

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Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North 5:45 pm, 29th April 2009

I join others in paying tribute to our Prime Minister, who has met the all-party group on Sri Lanka on two occasions, and to the Foreign Secretary, who met the all-party group and a packed room of Tamils; I do so because of the situation's severity. This is our third debate in the Chamber, there have been numerous debates in Westminster Hall and many words have been spoken by all parties. We all want a ceasefire, an end to the killing of innocent people, humanitarian aid, non-governmental organisations to be allowed in and peace for all in Sri Lanka.

The truth is, however, that we have not got anywhere. There is a reason for the protests in Parliament square, and I, like Siobhain McDonagh, who spoke before me, went over there during the Easter recess to meet the protestors. They have my admiration for the dignified way in which they have tried to conduct themselves. There have been times when I have not agreed with everything that has transpired, but they have been trying out of desperation, because they do not know what else to do. They feel let down, which is why my constituents in Ilford, North come to me and say that they are worried about whether their relatives are alive or dead, and whether they are being humiliated. We hear reports, as Susan Kramer said, and I do not know what is true, but I have seen video evidence that seems to show that atrocities are taking place daily.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden rightly said that we have to be the voice. We have to be the voice of the people who elected us, and whose relatives are losing their lives daily and being herded around like cattle. If we cannot be that voice, we should all hang our heads in shame, because we betray the people whom we are here to represent. I also agree with the hon. Lady that whether we succeed is not in our gift; the Sri Lankan Government will not listen to us if we say, "We want a ceasefire", because they do not seem to care what any of us say. The minute that we open our mouths and say anything that they do not like, they portray us all, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, as backing terrorists. But I say once again, as I have said in previous debates, that I do not support terrorism from any side in any shape or form. I support innocent people trying to live their lives with dignity.

The time has come for us to continue to speak out for people who are not able to voice their concerns, because they are not being listened to. If the Sri Lankan Government will not listen—whether it be to the United Nations, the European Union or the Commonwealth—and introduce a ceasefire, the time will have come for their suspension from the Commonwealth. A veto may not succeed in the United Nations, because someone may stop it, but at least it will exist. Will it make the situation worse? Will the Sri Lankan Government say that it gives them a mandate? They do not have a mandate to do anything; no one has a mandate to kill innocent people.

We cannot stand by and allow that to happen, so together across all parties we are fighting to stop it. Let us continue that fight, and let us help the people across the road, and the people in Sri Lanka who are being killed every day. If we do not, we should bow our heads in shame, because we will have let them down.

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Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Labour, Kilmarnock and Loudoun 5:49 pm, 29th April 2009

I think that everybody in this House feels the weight of the nature and scale of the suffering in Sri Lanka and believes that it has been endured for far too long.

When making my contribution, I will observe the time constraints set down by the Chair. I heard what Mr. Simpson said, and I do not intend to repeat all the statistics that Mr. Davey ably rehearsed to illustrate the scale of the challenge that faces us.

Members of Parliament across the Chamber have rightly paid credit to other Members for their contribution to this growing campaign, which has made some contribution to where we are today, although there is still a long journey to be travelled before we can be satisfied with what any of us have achieved. I want to pay special tribute to my right hon. Friend Joan Ryan and my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh, who, since the middle of February, when I agreed to be the Prime Minister's special envoy to Sri Lanka, have constantly been at my ear doing just what they have done today—speaking out passionately, eloquently and with a great degree of humanity about this issue, but at the same time ingeniously trying to find ways in which the whole process move towards the sort of conclusion that we all desire.

It is because we all feel the weight of responsibility in the current situation that I agreed to the Prime Minister's request to act as the special envoy to Sri Lanka. In doing so, I followed in the distinguished and capable footsteps of my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, who was appointed special envoy to Sri Lanka at the request of the Sri Lankan Government in 2006. He was entirely the right person to be appointed, because he was—I hope that he does not mind my describing him in this way—a workhorse in the Northern Ireland peace process and did a lot of the work for the Government and for others that people did not see. He was welcomed in Sri Lanka by those on both sides of the conflict; his presence there was celebrated. He spelled out in meetings—I have read the records—the steps that needed to be taken for a lasting peace and for the resolution of this conflict, which has continued for far too long.

The lessons learned by those of us who have been involved in trying to resolve conflicts not only in Northern Ireland, but elsewhere, still apply.

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Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Labour, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

If my hon. Friend will excuse me, I do not intend to use the whole of my 10 minutes and will therefore not take any interventions.

All hon. Members know from our experience of debates, particularly on Northern Ireland, exactly what we need to do to create an inclusive peace process that has no preconditions attached to it, respects the rights and aspirations of all parties in a diverse community, and leads to a lasting peace. I had no illusions about my ability to resolve decades of conflict, but I wanted to make a small contribution in that context on the island of Sri Lanka. I have felt frustrated by my inability to do that thus far, but I have never given up on the opportunity to do so at some stage, if I stick at it.

Now there is a greater challenge—a humanitarian crisis and a situation that can be resolved only by a ceasefire and agreement to the conditions that I understand the Sri Lankan Government have agreed with John Holmes, Walter Kaelin and all those who have intervened with them and have been accepted on the island to discuss the matters that Members have raised about international supervision, conduct, and care of the people who come out of the conflict zone.

If hon. Members present, and those who hear this speech otherwise, will forgive me, I do not intend to rehearse all the steps that need to be taken, because I agree with what everybody has said. I want to say that the Sri Lankan Government have invited me to go to Sri Lanka with an all-party group of Back-Bench Members of Parliament. Those who have agreed to come with me are distinguished, serious and well-qualified Members of this House; I will not identify them because I have not agreed with them that I can do so. In any event, the applications for visas are with the Sri Lankan Government as I speak, and I want to ensure that they are processed and that we get to go.

I close by saying that I intend to go with that group to Sri Lanka to deliver on behalf of the House the message that it agrees today. I agreed to be the Prime Minister's special envoy to work with and for the Government but not be of the Government, but I am a Member of this House. For that reason, I hope that the parties' Front-Bench teams can get together and discuss what we are debating today, and give us a message that we can take to Sri Lanka that does not have behind it the division implied by a vote in this House. It will be much better if we speak with one voice, which we do. In five or 10-minute speeches one Member might give slightly different emphasis from another, and connections with people in our constituencies or elsewhere might rightly cause us to deliver certain messages, but we all agree about this.

We should speak with one voice and empower the small group of people from all parties who have bravely and readily agreed to come with me next week to deliver a very strong message. In that way, perhaps we can be one institution that says to the Sri Lankan Government and the people in the conflict, "This killing must stop, and there are very simple steps that can be taken to allow all of you to emerge from this with dignity and live in peace."

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 5:56 pm, 29th April 2009

I thank Des Browne for his contribution, for the efforts that he has already made, for working with colleagues in all parts of Parliament and for facilitating some of the Tamil community going to speak directly to people of influence in the European Union, the American State Department and Administration and, almost certainly within two days, the United Nations. They are very grateful, and his efforts are much appreciated.

Unlike some colleagues, although not others, I do not come to this matter because of a great constituency obligation, as I have almost no Tamil constituents. I come to it because when I was elected 25 years ago, I was alert to the fact that there was a fundamental constitutional problem in Sri Lanka that, unless it was resolved politically, could lead to the sort of crisis that we are in. When it became independent, the majority community built in its Sinhala Buddhist majority constitutionally. It did not accept that Sri Lanka should be a pluralist country of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Burghers, Tamils and Sinhala. It did not understand that India is the great country that it is because it had understood that point just over the water, and because it is a secular state where people can rise to the highest office irrespective of their religion and where there is devolution to its various states. I saw that there was a potential problem, and those of us who have been in the House together for those 25 years know that history has borne that out.

We know that there have been further disasters since then, such as the tsunami. We know that the Sri Lankan Government have gradually committed more of their budget, which they need for schools, education and other things, to defence and internal security—I believe that it is currently about 20 per cent. It became obvious over the past few years that the situation would become worse when, as colleagues have said, Louise Arbour of the United Nations and the international press were asked to leave. It became obvious when almost all the international relief agencies were asked to leave, with only the International Committee of the Red Cross and Caritas having any significant presence in the north, and when the editor of the Sunday Leader was assassinated and nobody was brought to book. Nobody has been brought to book for a succession of assassinations. The result was becoming more obvious.

As friends in all parts of the House have said, there is now a crisis in Sri Lanka—a catastrophe before our eyes in a fantastically talented, beautiful, cultured place. However, it is a crisis also for the international political system. The pleas of Joan Ryan and Siobhain McDonagh, for whom I have great respect, those of friends in the Conservative party, those of my hon. Friend Mr. Davey and all my colleagues and those of the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun in New York reflect the fact that the systems have not moved in time to deliver the outcome. That is not good enough. The world cannot go on letting any Government, let alone the Government of a so-called democracy and a country that is part of the Commonwealth, behave in such a way, so alienating and suppressing their minority that they build up hostility potentially for generations.

Like others, I have spent heart-aching moments across the road in the past three and a half weeks since 6 April. I have been over the road every day bar two, and I was in the United States with three young British Tamils on one of those. I have in my hand a letter written by the students who came on to the streets as a result of what was happening in Sri Lanka. They were not organised; they were not a group that formed part of the existing structure of the Tamil community. The young people came on to the streets because they could not stand it any more. They made five simple requests. I shall repeat them because they are so simple, yet so fundamental.

The letter is dated 13 April. It states:

"Dear HM's Government and its citizens,

As students, we request that you fulfil our and"— they name the young man who remains on hunger strike in Parliament square today—

"Subramanian Parameswaran's requests, which are:

1. An immediate and permanent ceasefire by government troops, the LTTE and any others engaged in military action in Sri Lanka.

2. Immediate and continuing access to all parts of Sri Lanka by representatives of the United Nations or any organisation chosen by them before and after the ceasefire.

3. Immediate access to all parts of Sri Lanka by the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international humanitarian aid agencies.

4. Immediate access to all parts of Sri Lanka by independent representatives of the international press.

5. An opportunity for all the Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka freely to express their opinion about their future in a referendum which would take place with independent international observers."

Those are not the pleas of irrational and unreasonable people. When I spoke to the young people and their friends, they added to their absolute priority—the ceasefire—immediate access so that the human rights of all are protected, as my hon. Friend Susan Kramer and others said.

I have spoken to humanitarian workers who have been asked to leave the north. They said that the whole of the north is effectively a detention camp. I have an e-mail, written on 24 April, from one of the bishops of the Church in the north. It simply states:

"The suffering and hardship that the... 30,000 IDPs are undergoing after arriving in Vavuniya are beyond human expression."

I want to request specific things that add to but do not dissent from the unanimous and strong views that have been expressed here. It is important to urge the UN to continue to do more—let me reinforce the voices that have called for that. The UN must not only hear reports, but take a view. It has a right to intervene to protect minorities around the world, and it must do that.

The EU has important levers. It has been asked whether it can help with financial support through the GSP—generalised system of preferences—plus, which is a method of helping with textile concessions to the garment industry. We must not let the EU help Sri Lanka if Sri Lanka does not participate properly in the international community.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to allow others time to speak.

We are grateful to the secretary-general of the Commonwealth for seeing us. The Commonwealth must convene its ministerial action group and make it clear that Sri Lanka must uphold human rights. The Commonwealth says that its members must do that, and it must effect that. It is as nothing if it does not take a stand at such moments of crisis.

As Keith Vaz said, India and the United States—I was privileged to be in the State Department and with White House officials last week—are probably the two countries that are most able to exercise influence. We pray that they take every opportunity to use their influence now, not only to get the ceasefire, but the protection, the human rights observation and the international relief that is needed.

It would be completely unacceptable if the International Monetary Fund loan was granted in the present circumstances. I am not worried about the technicalities of the rules, but to give £1.9 billion to Sri Lanka in these circumstances would be completely unacceptable, and other non-emergency funding must not go there either.

I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton said. The Americans are clear, as we must be, that anybody who has committed war crimes should expect to be brought to trial and treated in a way that gives justice to all. The evidence is there—I have seen it—that heavy armaments have been shelling in the civilian zone and it will prove that the Sri Lankan Government, as well as others, are guilty of those sorts of crimes.

There will need to be peace and a political process in the future, and it will need to recognise the Tamil people's claim to self-government. In the end, nothing else will be acceptable. However, just as people in this country, in Canada and in the Lebanon have understood these issues, so must Sri Lanka understand them too.

Unless we respond effectively now, the international community of young people and the Tamils around the world, who include some of the brightest and best in this country, will not just have found us wanting in their hour of need; they will have found the international community failing. Unless we show that politics can work, we will be failing them and failing politics.

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Photo of John Battle John Battle Labour, Leeds West 6:06 pm, 29th April 2009

I welcome this debate and would like to say a word of thanks to the Liberal Democrats for choosing this topic this afternoon. After 26 years and perhaps more than 70,000 dead—400 a week—we all have some responsibility both for not raising the profile of the issue much earlier and more often and for not pressing for action.

I speak not as a person who has many Tamil families in their constituency; rather, I come to this debate from the viewpoint of international development, human rights and campaigning for basic justice and peace. We have failed to raise the issue's international profile. As well as passing resolutions at the UN, we ought to be pressing the UN on behalf of the international community to get in there.

I want to make two points about taking action. One is to do with humanitarian aid and assistance, which Susan Kramer mentioned, and the other is about the media. Not that long ago in this Chamber we discussed the crisis in Burma. What did we all do, in all parts of the House? We pressed for international action to get humanitarian aid to Burma, despite the Burmese authorities saying no, and it happened—it happened to a limited extent, but it did happen. The press are not there, but the aid got through.

We have to take the crisis seriously as a humanitarian crisis. We have seen reports since January 2008, when the ceasefire collapsed. We have seen violence and conflict and the death and immiseration of thousands, and still too many people are affected. The rumour is that 100,000 people are still trapped in the conflict zone, cluttered in makeshift shelters and completely exposed to the crossfire right now. That is a humanitarian crisis. We should not wait for the politics to be sorted out. Instead, we need the UN to get in there and, in a sense, interfere and stop what is happening by ensuring that civilians are protected, because that is what we and the UN should be about.

The Sri Lankan army moved on the northern towns that were controlled by the Tamil Tigers, but the rumours are that some 50,000 civilians are still trapped there. When the Sri Lankan army moved into Mullaitivu, 250,000 civilians were driven out into the neighbouring countryside. Hundreds were killed, but it is reported that those people are still desperate, without any resources whatever. That is precisely the sort of situation that the humanitarian agencies of the UN ought to deal with, by getting in there, interfering and mixing it to ensure that those people are properly protected.

More worryingly, the International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that 250,000 civilians have received no humanitarian aid at all since 29 January. Still no safe corridors have been properly negotiated for those civilians to be evacuated. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, the Sri Lankan Government claim that they are setting up so-called welfare villages for internally displaced persons, but they are not monitored and there are fears that they will be more like Government detention centres than humanitarian aid camps. Practical support and help is therefore needed in those areas. It is reported that there are 180,000 Tamils in or waiting to enter the camps for internally displaced persons, many of whom are women and children and many of whom are maimed and damaged. They are victims of shelling and warfare and they need humanitarian assistance in the form of practical medical help and support, and food and water, now.

Yesterday, it was reported that a British surgeon working for Médecins sans Frontières said that 320 people had turned up at a hospital with 40 places. The health systems are being overwhelmed by the damage caused by this conflict. As a result, the victims of land mines, shells and shrapnel are turning up at hospitals and not getting any assistance whatever.

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

As has been mentioned, when the United Nations seeks to intervene in a humanitarian way—the visit of Sir John Holmes is an example—all it gets is condemnation from the Sri Lankan Government. That is why we must have a resolution from the UN, to give the international community the authority to act. What this Government have done is superb, but we need the UN's imprint if we want the Sri Lankan Government to listen.

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Photo of John Battle John Battle Labour, Leeds West

I completely agree; this is not an either/or. Of course, if any action is to be taken by the UN, resolutions need to be passed. It is time for the international community to hold hands and to say that this is a humanitarian crisis. We might not be able to sort the politics out tomorrow, but we need to act now because of the humanitarian issues. That means that, in practice, there needs to be unrestricted access for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Such aid was delivered in Burma, and in East Timor during the conflict some years ago, as a result of the UN's arranging for ships to be parked off the coast or near the ports. I made suggestions about that in the House at the time. That could happen in Sri Lanka now.

I welcome the Government's actions, and the supplying of some 5,000 tents and of provisions directly to internally displaced persons through the UNHCR, as well as the extra £2.5 million that is going in through the international agencies, but as my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz says, we must press for others in the international community to join in that activity, so that real international pressure can be brought to bear on humanitarian grounds. The Government of Sri Lanka must be put under intense international pressure to allow the UN to help with the evacuation and support of civilians now. That includes the setting up and running of the necessary provisions for internally displaced persons by the international community. That happens in every other conflict in the world, and it should be possible for it to happen now without insulting anyone's political kudos.

My second point is about the media. The Liberal Democrat motion draws attention to the role of the media, and I slightly regret that the amendment does not do so. Perhaps that was just an oversight. The motion states that

"access is vital for humanitarian assistance, human rights monitors and members of the international media throughout the conflict zone".

I am usually incredibly critical of the way the media carry on, but in conflicts the courage of the international media can sometimes help to defuse the conflict and bring about a ceasefire faster because of what they report. I also think that the media should have access to all internally displaced persons and to the camps that have been set up to look after them.

The Government's amendment to the motion accepts the need to

"persuade the government of Sri Lanka to allow international oversight of all internally displaced persons".

It also rightly refers to the need for

"a transparent registration process and improved conditions within the camps with better access to food, water and medical facilities" and urges

"the government of Sri Lanka to allow freedom of movement in and out of the camps"— which we are not seeing in the so-called villages at the moment—

"so that families separated by the conflict can be reunited".

I hope that the Foreign Secretary, who is visiting Sri Lanka, will bring pressure to bear in relation not only to humanitarian aid but to media access throughout the system. Those two provisions should go together. I would also say to the media that, if and when they get in, they should not just go there for a day and report the crisis of the day. They should remain there to follow the process through, and to show that those who have become sad victims of this crisis through no fault of their own are being properly protected and looked after.

Of course we all need to work together and to push for a process of political reconciliation and lasting peace and justice, but I draw attention—the hon. Member for Richmond Park referred to this—to the International Crisis Group. It suggested that the international reconstruction and development assistance, which could include the International Monetary Fund loan that Sri Lanka has applied for, should have conditions attached and that those conditions for development aid IMF loans should be related to the Colombo Government's providing a basic level of human security, ending the impunity in relation to human rights violations and introducing an empowering process of devolution that includes provincial councils as part of a genuine democratic political transformation.

Yes, Sri Lanka is 75 per cent. Sinhalese, 18 per cent. Tamil and 7 per cent. Muslim, but if there is to be some settlement, all those parties must be included or there will be no future and no way forward. That is an agenda that international development assistance can help with. We must ensure that there is humanitarian assistance now—tents, yes, but also food, water aid and medical aid—and we must work to get the media in there and stay in there.

When we work together and look at the reconstruction work afterwards, perhaps that development of devolution, which should include the minorities, will consider some new politics that might not be unique to Sri Lanka and might open up a political agenda that allows a proper political conversation with Sri Lanka to take place.

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Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 6:16 pm, 29th April 2009

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate, which I hope will have an impact on the terrible humanitarian disaster that is unfolding in north-east Sri Lanka among hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians at this very moment.

Hon. Members from the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, which I chair, have already made excellent contributions, but I want to convey to the House the message that the all-party group has been giving for many months to the Government of Sri Lanka, the UK Government and the international community. I congratulate everyone who has contributed and supported the group—not only today, but in the past—and had meetings with the Tamil community and institutions all over Britain, in the European Union and in the United Nations. I also congratulate the Prime Minister and the Ministers concerned on taking the initiative and winning the confidence of the community.

With more than 100,000 Tamil civilians still within the conflict zone, it is vital that an urgent, immediate and permanent ceasefire is established. More than 6,500 innocent civilians have been killed in the last three months, according to the United Nations—more than in the Gaza conflict. The Government of Sri Lanka also announced that they were stopping attacks with aircraft, artillery and heavy weapons, but reports today indicate that those attacks are still ongoing and innocent civilians are continuing to be killed.

As has been said, we stand accused. We receive e-mail messages and letters accusing us of being Indian Tigers, black Tigers, white Tigers—

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Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

My right hon. Friend tells me that there are references to brown Tigers as well. That is the accusation, but we should look at the role of communities here and the Tamil community in general. On 11 April, we had more than 150,000 people marching in London, without any violent incident. Peaceful marches have taken place. Only last week, we held a meeting in my constituency, which was attended by more than 300 people. I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to address the meeting, at which representatives of all the communities—the Indian community, the Pakistani community, the Bangladeshi community—were present. Everybody was talking about a peaceful solution to the problem in that region.

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

The Foreign Secretary is in Colombo, and the House is united—I have not heard a single speech against what the Government are doing with the support of Opposition parties. It would send out the best message if the House did not divide on a particular motion, and in a unified way supported one resolution for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka and proper humanitarian aid to the Tamil community.

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Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

I thank my right hon. Friend. The only way is to send a clear message to the Sri Lankan Government and other institutions and countries supporting them that Great Britain's Government and parliamentarians are united on the ceasefire and giving humanitarian aid to that part of the world, and support to find a peaceful solution.

The Government of Sri Lanka, by announcing this week that they will no longer carry out air strikes and artillery shelling, have admitted doing things that they had previously denied. The refusal to accept both the Prime Minister's special envoy and now the Swedish Foreign Minister shows that they have something to hide. Under the cover of fighting terrorism and rescuing civilians, they are showing a wanton disregard for their own civilian citizens and for United Nations and international humanitarian standards.

The strongest international pressure should be put on the Government of Sri Lanka to call an immediate ceasefire, for humanitarian aid to be allowed into the conflict zone through the offices of the United Nations, and for a negotiated settlement to be worked out that meets all the legitimate demands of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.

I must raise one other point: some Members have said that the Indian Government have changed their mind a little late. Being of Indian background and understanding the politics of that region, I understand the comment, but the Indian Government's intentions were always clear when they demanded the ceasefire and asked for peaceful negotiations and asked for all parties to get around the table for discussion. I congratulate the Indian Government on taking the initiative, and sending their officers to negotiate with the Government of Sri Lanka for a peaceful solution. With the presence of our Foreign Secretary in Sri Lanka, and a message going from here, I hope that the whole community's support will bring a peaceful solution.

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Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government; Culture, Media and Sport; Defence; Transport) 6:23 pm, 29th April 2009

Briefly, as I know that other Members wish to speak, I want to add my voice and that of my party, Plaid Cymru—I am sure the Scottish National party would also want to do so—to the strong, unified and unequivocal message that I am sure we will send from the House. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tamil people and want an end to the terrible atrocity that is being committed.

We have a responsibility. Under our watch, the Sinhala and Tamil kingdoms were integrated, and the constitution was created that did not enshrine proper, equal rights for the Tamil people. It is right and proper that the House is shouldering its responsibility to the Tamil people, and saying that we will not stand by and allow such things to happen. It is important that we send that message.

Although it is important that we speak clearly and condemn what is happening to the Tamil people, words are not enough—they sometimes need to be backed up by action too. Will the Minister confirm that the United Kingdom will declare that we will not allow the International Monetary Fund loan to go forward at this time and that we will insist that the Commonwealth upholds the standards of democracy that are surely the definition of a commonwealth? If the Sri Lankan Government are not prepared to listen to the voices of the international community, clearly the Commonwealth will have to take appropriate steps and suspend their membership.

Will the Minister also say that we will review the situation on arms export licences from the United Kingdom and the European Union, because we will certainly not allow any further deaths to occur, and that we will take all the steps necessary to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government realise their responsibility to their citizens and our fellow human beings, whom we wish to support in every way that we can?

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Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 6:25 pm, 29th April 2009

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this debate, and I am sorry that I was not able to be here from the beginning. I have been a Member of this House for 17 years, throughout which I have been involved in debates and discussions about Sri Lanka, largely because of the significant Tamil community in my constituency. I can think of times during those 17 years when we thought that there was hope that there might be a solution and a move towards a peaceful settlement. I can also think of times when we expressed lots of concern about extra-judicial killings and disappearances, but I simply cannot recall a worse situation than what is happening now.

I see people in my constituency who have families, relatives and friends in Vanni, but who do not know what has happened to them, cannot get in touch with them and are afraid that they are dead. That is a dreadful situation for someone to be in, and nothing that I can say can offer any real comfort to those people. The people who are out there in Parliament square and the people who have been getting in touch with every one of us are making some clear and simple demands—they are demands that have been echoed by almost every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate. The demands relate to the need for a permanent ceasefire, not a temporary one; the need for humanitarian aid to get through; and the need for the people who are in the camps to be allowed to move and not be trapped in them.

Of course, there is a longer-term political agenda about a political solution, but every day that passes, with this situation continuing, will make that longer-term political solution ever more difficult to achieve because of the mistrust that is being engendered by what is happening. No Government who claim to be democratically elected should be able to ignore those very clear and simple demands in the way that the Government of Sri Lanka have been doing. They have ignored what we have said, what has been said internationally and what has been said by member states of the United Nations and by the EU. We cannot accept that all that is being ignored, and we must get clear and strong messages across to that Government. I am glad that the Foreign Secretary is in Sri Lanka and that my right hon. Friend Des Browne, who has been appointed as special envoy, will go there. I hope that strong messages will be delivered.

I have a final point to make on delivering a strong message. I have looked at the Order Paper and examined the motion tabled by the Liberal Democrats and the amendment tabled by the Government, and I do not see a great deal of difference between them. There are some small differences in emphasis, but I could happily vote for either one of them. What I do not want to happen is a Division on one or other of them. If we are serious about sending a clear message from this House of Commons to the Government of Sri Lanka, and everyone else there, about what we want to see happen, it will not help if we have a Division on one or other of these motions. That would be used to suggest that this House is not united in demanding a ceasefire, free access for international organisations to the area and to the camps for internally displaced persons, and freedom of movement for the population. I plead with Front-Bench spokesmen to come to an agreement on the motions, because frankly we could agree to either.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton 6:30 pm, 29th April 2009

I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on tabling the motion. This is a timely and important debate. I also congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part in it. We have sung from the same hymn sheet, and it is important that we send the message that this Parliament is as one over what confronts us in Sri Lanka at the moment. An acute humanitarian disaster is unfolding.

Like my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard, I have been involved in Sri Lankan issues for some time. I have visited the island on several occasions. Since 1983, the country has experienced bitter divisions and conflicts, but I cannot remember a situation as grave as the one we face today. Many people have been able to escape from the conflict area, but while there is no outside verification, no human rights organisations, no humanitarian relief and no one to tell us what is going on, we can only assume the worst. Of course, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that shelling continues and the LTTE continues to hold people, some voluntarily and some against their will. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 70,000 innocent civilians are still trapped in the area. As the Parliament of a country on friendly terms with Sri Lanka, we must speak out as boldly as we can about the issue.

I congratulate the House on being united on the issue. I also wish to pick up the point made that we would not send the right signal to Sri Lanka should we be forced into a Division at the end of the debate. It is critical that, having spoken with one voice, we act with one voice. So we must not divide tonight on motions that are very similar in many ways. I hope that that plea will be heeded. Speaking out is only part of the issue. We must also be seen to be doing things.

Several things have been raised on which I wish to comment. First, I understand that there are reasons why the Commonwealth would suspend one of its members. That has been done in the past, but there have been voices suggesting that such action would not be appropriate at this point. However, in the past when there have been difficulties between the Commonwealth as an organisation and an individual member, a group of other Commonwealth countries with close connections to the offending party have sent a delegation to make it clear how the Commonwealth feels about the issue. I believe that that could be done on behalf of the Commonwealth, particularly if that group of countries were led by India, which has enormous influence in Sri Lanka.

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

I was present at a meeting with the Commonwealth secretary-general arranged by the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). It seems that Sri Lanka has put in a bid to host the Commonwealth summit in 2011. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be totally inappropriate for Sri Lanka to be asked to host that after all that it has done to its own people?

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question and agree wholeheartedly. We have to send a very clear signal from all sorts of directions, one of which is the Commonwealth. While this conflict continues and while the Commonwealth continues to stand out against the actions of the Sri Lankan Government there can be no place for honouring them with the ability to hold that conference.

I think that there is a role for the Commonwealth. At this stage, that role might not involve suspending Sri Lanka from membership, but action must be taken and the Commonwealth definitely has a role to play.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned the option of action through the European Union. Of course, the Sri Lankan Government are incredibly sensitive about the GSP plus process. I know that because on my last visit, and in subsequent discussions with the high commissioner and others, I learned that the rag trade, if I can call it that, is extremely important to Sri Lanka. Access to the European Union through the GSP process is critical to the future of the economy of Sri Lanka. GSP does not relate only to trade; it relates to human rights standards as well. They are set as a precondition before GSP plus can be granted. The Sri Lankan Government are sensitive to that issue and I think that we ought to think of using those provisions at this time.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

I want to reinforce the hon. Gentleman's point about international co-operation. I hope he agrees that the Sri Lankan Government need to accept that friends—other world countries and other Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, India and the UK—have huge experience of sorting out problems in multiracial, multi-ethnic communities. We all used people from outside to help with that. It is not a threat, but a mechanism. We must send a message that says, "Do not be afraid of this. It is a way of resolving the problem that has dogged you since independence."

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

We must send the message that we are friends of Sri Lanka but that we cannot stand back and watch as this crisis unfolds. We cannot do nothing. Yes, there is expertise within the UN, the EU and the Commonwealth, and that ought to be used. The hand of friendship is offered and we hope that the Sri Lankan Government will take it up.

The UN must be seen to be doing more. It is not just a case of, "Let's have these discussions behind closed doors." We have to say publicly, within the forums of the United Nations, that we as a Government and we as a Parliament stand out against what is happening in Sri Lanka and that we will do our utmost, publicly as well as privately, to stop it.

My final point, which was raised earlier, is that ending the humanitarian crisis is only the first move. If we do not want to find ourselves in another humanitarian crisis two, three or five years down the road, as has happened before in Sri Lanka, we need a viable peace process. The first thing that we need is a ceasefire, and one now would enhance the prospect of a proper peace process. The process itself is incredibly important and I think that our experience in Northern Ireland has a great deal to offer on how that process should be carried out. Most importantly, the peace process must have international support. Britain, India, the United States and the United Nations must be entirely behind it, and should ensure that it encapsulates all the populations in Sri Lanka and all the different political trends.

There are moderate Tamils as well as Tamils who support the LTTE: the opinion held by the Muslim community is very different from other views, and there is a range of political opinion even in the Sinhala community. All that has to be taken on board, but if we can bring those people together, there is a real prospect for peace.

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Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Chief Whip (Commons) 6:40 pm, 29th April 2009

May I start by thanking every right hon. and hon. Member who has contributed to this truly great debate? It has highlighted what I think is common cause across this House—that there should be peace and justice in Sri Lanka for all the people of that troubled island. The debate has been about trying to make sure that we help facilitate our Government in their efforts to do everything that they can to make that a reality. That can happen only through international action of the sort described by so many hon. Members in their speeches this evening.

Our purpose has been merely to bring the matter before the House today. We do not intend to seek a Division at the end of the debate, as we want to get the House to speak with one voice on this matter. That is why we drafted the motion as we did. We tried to set out the issues in plain language, in a motion that was direct and to the point and which addressed the concerns of the people of Sri Lanka. Those concerns are shared by many of our constituents, and they have represented them powerfully to us over many years, months and weeks, as the situation has worsened in that country.

We need to make it clear to the Sri Lankan Government that a ceasefire is absolutely essential, and that it must happen now. We have to make it clear to the LTTE that it must not stand in the way of anyone seeking to escape from the absolute nightmare that people are currently living in. We must also emphasise that there can be no solution of a military nature to the conflict in Sri Lanka. In the end, military action simply sows the seeds of bitterness and ensures that there can be no reconciliation whatsoever in that country.

The Sri Lankan Government may be able to win a war on the battlefields, but they will not be able to win in the end. Every shell fired, every bomb dropped and every rocket launched simply causes the last shreds of international support and goodwill that the Sri Lankan Government ever had to be lost. That is why the ceasefire is essential—a point made time and again by hon. Members from all parties across the Chamber.

However, access is also essential—for relief organisations, as many hon. Members have argued so powerfully, and for human rights organisations and the international media. John Battle was right to highlight that part of our motion. There is an urgent need for the international media not just to arrive in Sri Lanka and report on the carnage, but to stay and report on the process that builds peace in the future. That must be essential, not least in the light of the Sri Lankan Government's reputation for suppressing their own media and access for media from other countries. I believe that only two countries in the whole globe have worse records when it comes to ensuring access for the media.

Day by day, the humanitarian crisis has worsened. As Joan Ryan made clear in her speech, what is unfolding is not just a crisis but an absolute catastrophe. The Minister noted in her opening remarks that 50,000 Tamil civilians are trapped in just 5 square miles. They are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea by an army set on a military objective that has no regard for the civilians in its sights. Those civilians are under fire, and they are sitting targets; it is no wonder, then, that so many of them are coming out injured, or that so many are dying.

The ones who escape face the prospect of the welfare camps, which are little more than concentration camps. Given the history of the Sri Lankan Government's intent not to settle people afterwards, what is the future for those who eventually wind up in those camps? There must be free and unfettered access to the camps, both for them and for the relief and human rights organisations as well. We need food and medicine, and we need human rights to be respected. My hon. Friend Susan Kramer was absolutely right to raise concerns about the growing numbers of people who are said to be disappearing from the camps.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that the real fear is that at the end of whatever is happening now, people will not be allowed home to their villages, their fishing and their communities. The fear is that there will be some "reorganisation" of north-east Sri Lanka. Those people must also be allowed to go home—to go to where they came from.

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Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Chief Whip (Commons)

That point is absolutely central. My hon. Friend Mr. Davey acknowledged, in opening the debate, the leadership that the Prime Minister has given, and the leadership that Des Browne has shown in his work as the Prime Minister's special envoy. We wish him Godspeed on the journey that he is to make with other hon. Members in the cross-party delegation. We hope that it achieves its objectives.

If one talks to Tamils in Parliament square, either today or on any other day on which they are there demonstrating, and one will determine the anger and frustration at the slowness with which the international community is moving on the issue. So how can it be right, as has been mentioned in the debate, that the International Monetary Fund is considering a loan of £1.9 billion to Sri Lanka? I hope that when the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Mr. Foster, winds up the debate, he will tell the House that any such loan will, at the very least, have preconditions placed on it to do with securing unfettered access for the UN and other agencies that need to go about their work on behalf of the common good.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton also asked about genocide, and asked the Government to seek a legal opinion. As a signatory to the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, surely the Government should do just that. I hope that the Minister can give us a positive response on that point.

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Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Chief Whip (Commons)

I really cannot, because I want to give the Minister at least 10 minutes to respond to the debate. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Gillian Merron, referred in her speech to the Commonwealth ministerial action group, and to the fact that she raised the issue with it, which is welcome. Cannot the Government go further and ensure that the issue is an item on the group's agenda, and commission the Commonwealth to undertake human rights reports and an analysis of the situation?

The right hon. Member for Enfield, North, made an important point about the humanitarian crisis. She raised the question of how the issue could be brought forward at the United Nations, given the obstacle of China and Russia. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for International Development will respond to the novel reading of the rules that the right hon. Lady offers, and that it might provide a creative way of getting matters debated at the UN. In our motion, the Government are urged

"to make it clear to all sides that those who are proved to have committed war crimes in this conflict will be in danger of arrest, prosecution and punishment wherever they go for the rest of their lives."

I hope that the House can say that clearly to everyone here tonight, and I hope that the Minister can make that clear, too.

The debate has been not about dividing the House, but about unity of purpose, and that purpose is clear. We need to make it clear to the Sri Lankan Government that we must have a ceasefire and a process of genuine political dialogue that delivers the peace and justice that every person on the island of Sri Lanka deserves. That is what the debate is about. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to the questions that I have posed.

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Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for International Development 6:48 pm, 29th April 2009

First, I would like to thank colleagues from across the House for their thoughtful and powerful contributions to this timely and important debate. I am glad to hear that we are to unite behind one motion, so that the sentiments that have been expressed by Members in all parts of the House will ring out loud and clear from this Chamber. I will use my remarks to address some of the issues that have been raised, and to restate the severity of the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. I should also like to reassure the House and the Tamil diaspora in the UK that we are sparing no effort to bring relief to those affected, and are working with the international community to push all parties to find a long-term, sustainable solution to the conflict.

However, as several speakers have pointed out, including Mr. Simpson, the suffering of the people of Sri Lanka will not end with the fall of the remaining strongholds of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. We and the international community have continued to make it clear that there can be no military solution, and we have called time and again for a ceasefire. As I discussed with the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend Mr. Thomas, lasting peace in Sri Lanka will come about only through a fully inclusive political process that takes into account the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lanka's communities—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslim.

I should like to put on the record the Government's response to concerns expressed in the debate about genocide. We will call for an early investigation as to whether crimes have been committed against civilians.

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Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving the House that assurance. May I confirm that we will not divide on our motion, but will accept and support the Government's amendment, because of the Minister's statement about ensuring that there will be an early investigation of war crimes, and because the Government amendment is clear on the ceasefire demand, and because our aim is to unite the House tonight?

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Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for International Development

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which are on the record, and will be noted not only in the Chamber but right across the world.

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Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for International Development

I should like to make a little more progress, as there are issues that I need to address.

I was in the north of Sri Lanka only two days ago, and I saw for myself the conditions in which some of the 180,000 displaced people are living in the camps that have been set up around Vavuniya. About 113 of them have arrived in the past 10 days, and they are exhausted and traumatised. Many of them have travelled for two days without any food or water to reach the camps. While I was there, I met several people who described to me the terrible conditions in the area from which they had come, and they expressed genuine hope and desire that one day soon they would be able to return to their homes and be reunited with their families.

Many thousands of civilians remain trapped in the conflict zone—the exact number is unknown—living in constant fear for their lives, in the most basic conditions. The conditions on that tiny strip of land, less than 5 square miles in size, were described by people on the ground as "absolute chaos and mayhem". Civilians are trapped in constant fighting, and throughout the area, every humanitarian need remains unmet. The situation is deteriorating rapidly. Furthermore, there is repeated evidence that the LTTE is forcibly recruiting civilians, including children, to fight, as well as using lethal force to stop them escaping the conflict zone. The House will agree that such behaviour is utterly unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

There is almost no international presence in the conflict zone. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the only international humanitarian agency that has been able to operate in LTTE-controlled territory. Since September, it has evacuated 11,500 casualties and their carers by sea in difficult circumstances and at considerable risk to its own staff and volunteers. There are plans to evacuate a further 1,500 people in the coming days. While I was in Sri Lanka on the Government's behalf, I paid tribute to them and all those involved in providing humanitarian support in the region. DFID will continue to provide financial support to the ICRC to enable it to continue its life-saving work.

Another rapidly growing humanitarian case load consists of the internally displaced persons who have managed to escape the conflict, and are held in camps. Once they arrive, civilians are held under military control, with freedom of movement within, but not outside, the camps. Although humanitarian agencies have been working hard to provide for the needs of those people, the Sri Lankan Government were not fully prepared for the most recent influx, and there remain huge unmet needs for shelter, water, food and medical assistance.

While we welcome the Sri Lankan Government's efforts to improve living conditions in the camps over the past few days, there is no room for complacency, and it is clear that much more needs to be done to ensure that all basic needs are met. The camps are far from ideal, but in the words of the civilians I met on Monday, they offer safer and better conditions than they experienced in the conflict zone. However, I have to put it on the record that the restrictions placed on access for humanitarian agencies by the Sri Lankan Government has meant that the response has fallen short of what is needed. The international agencies are ready to respond, but continued restrictions on personnel and supply chains are causing further unnecessary suffering. We have consistently lobbied the Sri Lankan Government to allow full and unrestricted access for humanitarian agencies, and we will continue to do so.

Specifically on access, we are calling for an immediate humanitarian pause in hostilities to stop the terrible daily suffering and loss of life, and to facilitate the safe and dignified exit of all civilians from the conflict zone; the immediate re-starting of food and other relief shipments, especially medical supplies, to those trapped in the conflict area; greatly increased UN and international presence in the conflict area; a continuous and permanent international presence at both the Omantai and Killinochchi screening points to ensure protection for those IDPs who have escaped; unhindered access to IDP camps in Government-controlled areas for NGOs, the UN and donors, and an immediate lifting of restrictions on personnel and supplies; and for the Government of Sri Lanka to uphold international principles of internal displacement at screening sites and in camps.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

Before my hon. Friend concludes his remarks, will he pay tribute to those in Parliament square who have been bringing the crisis to our attention, and particularly to the young man, Parameswaran, who has been on hunger strike? Does he agree that the unity in the House is a fitting tribute to what has been achieved and that it should now result in the end of that hunger strike?

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Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for International Development

The House will speak today loudly and clearly with a single voice, but I saw too much suffering and misery on my visit to Sri Lanka and the camps to allow me to wish for any further suffering by Tamil people here in the United Kingdom.

In addition to the access requirements that we have been calling on the Government of Sri Lanka to provide, it is essential that they live up to their own commitment to allow 80 per cent. of the IDPs to return to their homes by the end of the year. It is important that those camps are temporary. The humanitarian community should focus only on emergency assistance until safe and sustainable returns are possible. We as a Government stand ready to support in practical ways the early resettlement of civilians.

The UK has taken a range of practical actions to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the conflict. Since September last year, DFID has allocated £7.5 million of humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka. This money has been used to support the work of agencies best able to provide direct assistance on the ground. I repeat the assurance given by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that all UK funding that has been provided goes directly to neutral and impartial agencies to save lives and reduce suffering.

We have in place in Colombo an expert humanitarian adviser, who is able to steer the humanitarian response in close co-operation with other key donors there. I can announce today a further allocation of £550,000 to United Nations Operations to provide emergency shelters for 1,400 households, together with water and sanitation provision for at least 11,500 IDPs. This leaves us with about £2.6 million on hand to respond rapidly to developing needs on the ground.

In conclusion, the United Kingdom remains committed to supporting progress towards a lasting peace in Sri Lanka. We recognise that there can be no military solution to the conflict, and that a sustainable peace will be reached only when all sides take it upon themselves to lay down their arms and engage in constructive dialogue. The UK will continue to work with international partners to convince the Government of Sri Lanka to step up their efforts to pursue such a practical political process.

In the meantime we will work to avert the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding. We will continue to support efforts to bring relief to those affected by the conflict, and together with the international community, we will continue to urge all sides to live up to their commitments under international humanitarian law that is designed to protect civilians and allow safe passage out of the conflict zone.

Question (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question, put and negatived.

Question (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House strongly supports the efforts of the Government within the United Nations, the European Union, the G8 and other international bodies to bring about an end to the conflict in Sri Lanka, to open the way for an international humanitarian relief effort and to promote a process of political reconciliation; welcomes the £7.5 million the Government has already committed to the relief effort; supports the Foreign Secretary's joint visit to Sri Lanka with his French counterpart; endorses the Government's calls for the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to declare an immediate ceasefire and to allow the civilians trapped in the No Fire Zone to leave unhindered, facilitated by the UN; urges both parties to the conflict to allow full and unrestricted access for humanitarian aid to be safely delivered; supports the Government's efforts to persuade the government of Sri Lanka to allow international oversight of all internally displaced persons, including a transparent registration process and improved conditions within the camps with better access to food, water and medical facilities; urges the government of Sri Lanka to allow freedom of movement in and out of the camps so that families separated by the conflict can be reunited; and endorses the Government's efforts to persuade the government of Sri Lanka to initiate a process of political reconciliation with all speed as the only way of ensuring a lasting peace between the communities.'.

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