Commonwealth Meeting and the Philippines

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 3:39 pm on 18th November 2013.

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Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 3:39 pm, 18th November 2013

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. Let me start by saying that all our thoughts are with the people of the Philippines as they struggle to deal with the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. Thirteen million people have been affected by the typhoon, over 4 million of them children; nearly 3 million have lost their homes and, as the Prime Minister said, thousands are believed to have lost their lives, including a number of British citizens. The pictures we have seen are of terrible devastation. As so often happens when disaster strikes anywhere in the world, the British people have reacted by reaching deep into their pockets: so far, £35 million has been donated by the British public through the Disasters Emergency Committee. I also want to thank our forces on HMS Daring and HMS Illustrious for the work they are doing to help with disaster relief, and to commend the leadership of the Prime Minister and the International Development Secretary in providing £50 million in aid. We need to see the same from other countries, as the UN appeal has only a quarter of the funds it needs. Therefore, may I ask the Prime Minister what actions the Government are taking to encourage other countries to commit and free up resources as quickly as possible to the Philippines, so that this UN aid target is met? Serious damage sustained to airports, seaports and roads continues to present major logistical challenges for the emergency response, so may I ask the Prime Minister what steps are being taken to ensure that humanitarian relief is reaching those in very remote and isolated areas who have been worst affected by the typhoon?

On the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting —CHOGM—we welcome the communiqué’s conclusions on global threats and challenges, on programmes promoting Commonwealth collaboration and, of course, on development. At its best, the Commonwealth summit gathers together 53 countries seeking to promote common values, including democracy, accountability, the rule of law and human rights. I believe that this House is united in our abhorrence of terrorism and in recognising that what happened in Sri Lanka, particularly towards the end of the conflict in 2009, when tens of thousands of innocent civilians were murdered, totally fails the test of those values.

It was for that reason that, at the 2009 Commonwealth summit, the last Labour Government blocked the plan for Sri Lanka to host the summit in 2011. As the current Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs:

The UK made clear…during the 2009 CHOGM...that we would be unable to support Sri Lanka’s bid to host in 2011.”

Those are the words of the Foreign Secretary. Delaying the hosting of the summit until 2013 was to allow time for the Sri Lankan Government to show progress on human rights. This has not been the case; indeed, things have got worse, not better. I say to the Prime Minister that when he attended the summit in 2011, he could have acted precisely as the Labour Government of 2009 had done and brought together a coalition to block Sri Lanka’s hosting the Commonwealth summit in 2013.

Let me ask the Prime Minister a series of questions. First, the Deputy Prime Minister said in May to this House that

“if the Sri Lankan Government continue to ignore their international commitments in the lead up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, of course there will be consequences.”—[Hansard, 15 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 634.]

Can the Prime Minister tell us: what were those consequences for the Sri Lankan Government? Secondly, at the summit on Friday, the Prime Minister called for the Sri Lankan Government, as he said, to initiate an independent inquiry by March into allegations of war crimes. But by Sunday, President Rajapaksa had already appeared to reject this. The UN human rights commissioner called two years ago for an internationally-led inquiry, and we have supported that call. Is not the right thing to do now to build international support for that internationally-led process?

Thirdly, after this summit the Sri Lankan President will be chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years—that includes attending the Commonwealth games. Did the Prime Minister have any discussions at the summit with other countries about whether President Rajapaksa was an appropriate person to play that role? Finally, the Prime Minister of Canada and the Prime Minister of India decided not to attend this summit. In explaining his decision, Prime Minister Harper said:

“In the past two years we have...seen...a considerable worsening of the situation.”

Accepting the good intentions of the Prime Minister, were not Prime Ministers Harper and Singh right to believe that the attendance of Heads of Government at CHOGM would not achieve any improvement or prospects for improvement in human rights within Sri Lanka? Indeed, the summit communiqué failed even to reference the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka.

The legacy of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka is in contradiction to the good traditions of the Commonwealth. We believe we cannot let the matter rest. Britain must do what it can to ensure that the truth emerges about the crimes that were committed, so that there can be justice for those who have suffered so much. When the Government act to make that happen, we will support them.