Sri Lanka

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 12th June 2009.

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Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 2:33 pm, 12th June 2009

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come to that point later in my speech.

The conditions in the camps have not improved, and with the monsoon season on its way there is an even higher risk of disease. I hope that Britain can lead the way in calling for urgent humanitarian action now. Although the fighting is officially over, humanitarian assistance is needed now more than at any other time in the past six months.

The Government there have claimed that conditions are improving, but if that is true they have no reason to fear the presence of independent monitors or reporters, and if conditions are worsening, they have a greater reason to need the help of independent aid agencies. Many people fear that Sri Lanka's claim about improving conditions in the camps is just a way to prevent external agencies from showing the world what is really going on. It is illogical for there still to be heavy restrictions on the media, aid agencies and human rights groups entering the camps now that the war is over. I hope my hon. Friend will comment on the need for independent monitoring of the camps in his reply. I hope he will also comment on the need to ensure the safety of civilians and even former LTTE cadres.

In order to achieve a long-term peace, there must be reconciliation, and that means treating people with respect. It is not right to intern mass populations, and civilians must be allowed to resettle as soon as possible. Interning mass populations breaches the rule of law and Governments should not be permitted to repress minority populations through the use of long-term internment. Again, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that this can be achieved only with independent monitoring.

As a gesture, the Sri Lankan Government should allow the mercy mission ship to unload its humanitarian cargo. This would show the world the kind of magnanimity that we are looking for. I understand that the ship is said to have the wrong paperwork and cannot be allowed to dock, but in reality Sri Lankan officials have been on board and know that the cargo is purely humanitarian. Given the exceptional need for humanitarian assistance, the Sri Lankan Government would earn a lot of respect around the world if they allowed an exception to the usual rules and permitted the ship to unload its cargo. Such a gesture would be much appreciated, whereas not allowing it to unload simply looks mean and unnecessarily nasty. I have written to the Sri Lankan high commission asking Sri Lanka to permit the ship to unload and I hope it will show that it has a heart.

I also want to take this opportunity to call on Sri Lanka to show heart over the case of doctors who looked after the sick and dying in the conflict zone. A group of doctors who worked in the conflict zone are being held on suspicion of collaboration and could be in detention for a year or more before being tried. Many people are concerned that the doctors should not be treated like this, and feel that they are in fact heroes rather than criminals. They have not been heard from since they were detained, but their work during the conflict has been widely praised. They treated patients in makeshift health facilities in the war zone. They undoubtedly helped to save many lives, and the UN has described them as "heroic". However, they were also a source of embarrassment to the Government.

As journalists and independent monitors were banned from the conflict zone, the doctors became one of the few available sources of news about the fighting. They told the world that shelling had in fact come from the Government side and had indeed killed civilians. Sri Lanka, however, has accused the doctors of spreading falsehoods and has implied that doctors were not really looking after civilians at all, accusing them of supporting the Tamil Tigers instead.

Sri Lanka wants the world to believe that not a single civilian died in its final offensive, but few people believe that. Imprisoning the doctors would help to hide an inconvenient truth. I hope that our Government will therefore do all within their power to ensure that the doctors are treated well and receive independently verifiable justice. I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that the Government are doing all they can to help the doctors.

I have spoken to Ministers about Sri Lanka many times. The Foreign Secretary has shown extraordinary resolve in his efforts to help Tamils caught up in the conflict. Britain has, in my view, gone as far as any Government in working for peace and a solution to this humanitarian crisis. Our Government have repeatedly called for a political solution that establishes a meaningful role for Tamil and other minorities in national political life. Unfortunately, the UN has not covered itself in glory. The Security Council made strong statements, but we all know that words are not enough and there has been no action because Russia, China, Japan and Vietnam prevented it.

The cause of the Tamils has been my first foray into international relations and has been particularly depressing. Thousands are dead; many hundreds of thousands are homeless. They need our help now and I hope that the Government will do all they can to reassure Britain's Tamils, and everyone else around the world who believes in decency and values in foreign affairs, that we are on their side.

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