Sri Lanka

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 14th May 2009.

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 12:31 pm, 14th May 2009

I emphatically understand the frustration of people who want the conflict to be brought to a conclusion. The reality is that, despite our best efforts, the conflict is still going on. I say that to describe the scale of the challenge that we face, but in no way do I mean that we will stop our unstinting efforts to try to bring the conflict to a conclusion.

The civilians to whom I have referred are in constant fear for their lives; they also desperately need food, drinking water and medicines. The regular operation of the International Committee of the Red Cross ship, which makes deliveries and evacuates the wounded, depends fundamentally on security. That is another reason why the Sri Lankan Government must uphold their commitment to stop using heavy weapons.

The second crisis revolves around the conditions for civilians who manage to escape the fighting. We welcome the fact that more than 190,000 civilians, including more than 120,000 during the past four weeks, have been able to escape it and are now registered in the camps for internally displaced persons. The ability of the relevant agencies depends on the full co-operation of the Sri Lankan Government. Bluntly, that has not been forthcoming.

Owing to those concerns and others, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and French Foreign Minister Kouchner visited Sri Lanka on 29 April. They made it clear to the President and Foreign Minister that the protection of civilians must be paramount and that the conflict must end. Since their visit, and the welcome visit made by the cross-party group of MPs, made up of my right hon. Friend Des Browne—he sends his apologies for not being here today; he is speaking elsewhere—about the Sri Lankan crisis Malcolm Bruce, my hon. Friend Mr. Sarwar and the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Buckingham (John Bercow), there has been some improvement in the issuing of visas to the staff of the humanitarian agencies and in those agencies' ability to move around the country.

However, more needs to be done. We will continue to press for improved access for the humanitarian agencies to the internally displaced persons and for adequate supplies of food, water and medicines to reach those in need. We are also calling on the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that the screening of IDPs is carried out in a fully transparent way that respects human rights and the dignity of those involved.

The Sri Lankan Government also need to give free access to the international media. Let me be clear: what is needed is greater access and transparency, not less. As I have said in this place before, hon. Members across parties have been criticised and attacked by the Sri Lankan high commission for speaking out and expressing their legitimate concerns about the actions of the Sri Lankan Government. Such criticism of MPs who are doing their jobs legitimately on behalf of their constituents is wrong and unacceptable.

As hon. Members will know, the Government have led in mobilising international pressure to bring about an improvement on the ground. In January, the Prime Minister was the first world leader to call for a ceasefire, and he has since repeated that call directly to President Rajapaksa. The Foreign Secretary has made the same call in his numerous contacts with the Sri Lankan President and Foreign Minister, in public statements and in concert with others, notably the United States and France.

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