Sri Lanka

Part of Opposition Day — [10th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:06 pm on 29th April 2009.

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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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