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 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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