Sri Lanka — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 22nd April 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Spokesperson for International Development, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 3:30 pm, 22nd April 2009

To ask Her Majesty's Government what measures they are taking with the international community to bring about a ceasefire in Sri Lanka.

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister telephoned President Rajapaksa on 20 April to call for a renewed pause in fighting to allow civilians to leave. Since the UK first called for a ceasefire in January, the EU, the US, France and others have joined us in making similar calls. The Foreign Secretary and I remain actively engaged with our international counterparts and the United Nations in pressing for a renewed pause in the fighting.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Spokesperson for International Development, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Surely the UN has a duty to protect trapped civilians in this kind of circumstance, so what more can be done to secure a ceasefire so that aid can be got in and people led to safety? Should not the alleged atrocities on both sides be subject to investigation under international humanitarian law? Unless these grievances are addressed in full, there will be no peace in Sri Lanka in the future.

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, I certainly think that the UN is conscious of its responsibilities in this area. The Secretary-General dispatched his chief of staff to visit Colombo in recent days precisely to try to secure improved UN access to the civilians caught up in this fighting. Secondly, I completely agree with the noble Baroness that it is enormously important that this conflict, which has been taking place in the shadows due to the limited international presence, should be fully investigated and that, if war crimes have been committed, they should be identified.

Photo of The Bishop of Portsmouth The Bishop of Portsmouth Bishop

My Lords, the Tamils are an ancient people and the conflict, which has ethnic as well as religious overtones, is not a modern one. Will the Government be as vociferous as possible in repudiating the language used by the President of Sri Lanka in describing this as a "war on terror"? Many people in this House and beyond regard that as a very unfortunate piece of modern jargon, coined by the former President of the USA.

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, I share the view that "the war on terror" is a much abused and overused phrase. Obviously, this is a quarrel that has ancient roots. It is also an extremely violent quarrel, with appalling things being done by both sides.

Photo of Lord Eden of Winton Lord Eden of Winton Conservative

My Lords, I declare a personal interest in Sri Lanka. Is it not most important that the leaders of the LTTE call not only for a ceasefire but for an immediate halt to all suicide bombings, in so far as that lies within their control? Secondly, will the Sri Lankan Government be encouraged in talks to construct a framework that will result in an a degree of autonomy for the Tamil north and to ensure that Tamils will not be excluded from employment anywhere in Sri Lanka just because they are Tamils?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister spoke to President Rajapaksa on Monday and asked that there be humanitarian access and a pause in hostilities. He also asked that a cross-party UK delegation be allowed to visit and is dispatching a DfID Minister tomorrow to assess the humanitarian situation. As he said in another place today, the key to a solution is, as the noble Lord said, political. This conflict will not be ended by military means and it is extraordinarily important that, once this phase of conflict comes to an end, a comprehensive political framework is indeed put in place to ensure rights for Tamils and a degree of self-government of their own affairs.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson for the Home Office

My Lords, the Minister has referred to the conversation with President Rajapaksa twice. Just now he said that President Rajapaksa has invited an all-party parliamentary mission. Have any steps been taken to consult the leaders of the Opposition about putting together the mission so that it is ready to go when arrangements are made at that end? The Minister also mentioned the UN's consciousness of its responsibilities. Now that 122,000 people have escaped from the no-fire zone, is it possible for UNICEF, the WHO and so on to gain access to those refugees? What steps are being taken at the UN to mobilise resources to deal with the crisis?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the noble Lord rightly brings to our attention the immediate humanitarian situation. The events of the past few days have been hard for the UN humanitarian agencies on the ground in Sri Lanka to follow, as they have been for those of us much further away, but those events have been extraordinary, as the success of the Sri Lankan military in piercing the Tamil Tiger cordon around the civilians has led to a massive exodus of people. There is a dispute about exactly what numbers have exited and huge concerns about collateral damage to civilians, with potential violence by both sides. My right honourable friend Des Browne visited New York on Monday to lobby hard for a strengthened UN humanitarian and, if possible, Security Council response. As to the noble Lord's first question, I spoke with both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary this morning about what would be the appropriate arrangements to begin to identify such a cross-party delegation.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister cannot fail to be aware of the Tamils demonstrating outside these buildings. Does he agree that it is understandable that they are anxious about what is happening to their friends and relations whom they have left behind in Sri Lanka? Will he tell the House what Her Majesty's Government are doing to inform the leaders of the demonstrations what the Government can do—there is not an awful lot except talk—and try to reassure them that we are doing our best?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, a potential human tragedy is unfolding outside the building at the moment. A young man is now in an advanced stage of a hunger strike and we are extremely concerned about his health. We have sought through the MPs who represent significant numbers of Tamils, including some of those outside at the moment, to communicate with them. We have intensive contacts with leaders of the Tamil community and we have tried to inform them both of what we are doing and of the situation on the ground, but in this situation the interpretation of events has become highly polarised and partisan, with fundamental disagreements about what is happening on the ground in Sri Lanka.