Sri Lanka

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:20 pm on 30th April 2009.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary 12:20 pm, 30th April 2009

I am grateful to Mr. Hague for his broad support for the calls that we have been making. It is notable that they have been echoed right across the House, and that can only be a good thing. He almost asked 46 questions on his own, never mind leaving room for 46 in the whole session, but I shall try to run through as many answers as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that there are continued reports about the use of heavy weaponry since Monday, when the first announcement was made by the Government of Sri Lanka that heavy weaponry would not be used. I deliberately did not refer to those reports in my statement, because at this stage they are only reports and it is very important that we get to the bottom of the facts. However, I am absolutely clear that the international community has been assured—very clearly and in definitive terms—by Sri Lanka's President and Defence Secretary and others that heavy munitions as well as aerial and naval bombardments will not be used. In that context, credible evidence that they have been used would have very serious repercussions for the relationship between Sri Lanka and the rest of the world.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the end of heavy combat operations meant that civilians in the conflict zone were somehow safe. I cannot give him that assurance but, as he intimated, the Sri Lankan Government's efforts to capture the leadership of the LTTE will continue, with the result that the danger of civilians being caught in crossfire will remain.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the aid agencies. There was a delivery on Monday, and a further one yesterday. A 1,000-tonne ICRC vessel is waiting to make another delivery, but the way that shipments are unloaded means that that takes three or four days. The fact that there is not the security to allow that to happen has been a major focus for us. I know that the House will have seen that the ICRC has put out a very strong statement today setting out its concern about the situation, and that tallies with what I have reported this morning.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon's team, which was the product of talks that his chief of staff, Mr. Nambiar, held with the Sri Lankan Government nearly two weeks ago. It was reported to the UN Security Council that a team would be allowed into the conflict zone to assess the humanitarian needs. In addition, however, and rather separately from what the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, the team would try to make provision for civilians to leave. That mission is now being denied by the Sri Lankan Government, and in fact they are saying that there never was any agreement for a UN Secretary-General mission to go to the area.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there was any rational explanation for Sri Lanka's rejection of that assistance. The Sri Lankan Government have said that the team would not be safe in the conflict zone, but it is obviously a source of great concern that something could be reported to the UN Security Council as an agreement but then not followed through. The UN Secretary-General's determination last Thursday after I spoke to him to dispatch the team to Colombo shows that the UN sees no practical obstacles to its reaching the area.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the return of 80 per cent. of people in IDP camps to their places of origin by December, and I think that the most important thing is to get a proper schedule. The main practical obstacle is the number of mines that exist in the country. The Sri Lankan Government want help with demining, but they must make sure that there is proper access if that help is to be forthcoming.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to mention the humanitarian problems in Sri Lanka as a whole, and that is a problem to which we have referred in written and oral statements to the House before. The killing of journalists is notable among those problems, and all friends of Sri Lanka will be concerned to ensure that its democratic heritage is upheld, because this is a time when Sri Lanka needs its democracy more than ever.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the involvement of the UN. He will know that Britain, France and the US raised the issue at the UN last week, under any other business. We have not yet been able to get it on to the formal agenda of the UN. The blockage does not come only from the two countries that he has mentioned, but obviously the New York special session on the middle east on Monday week will be an opportunity at least to try to take the agenda forward.

We are duty bound to look extremely carefully at the situation on the ground should any plan be presented to the IMF board. It is a basic tenet of the work of the IMF that any money should be put to good use, and that requires taking a close look at the situation on the ground, which is what we will do.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that Members of this House as well as the Government have approached the Commonwealth Secretary-General about Sri Lanka. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, the prospects of progress in that sphere are rather limited by the make-up of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, and its practice of taking action only against countries that suspend their own democracy.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Sri Lanka's need for allies in the future. That is evident from the scale of the humanitarian crisis with which it has to deal. Certainly my message and that of Foreign Minister Kouchner to President Rajapaksa yesterday was that Sri Lanka needed its friends and the international community, but the only way to keep them was to live up to the standards expected of a democratic Government.

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