Sri Lanka — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:19 pm on 30th April 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Shadow Minister, International Development, Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs 3:19 pm, 30th April 2009

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Foreign Secretary in another place. The Conservative Benches share his deep concern about the desperate humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka and the suffering of innocent civilians who have been trapped by the fighting. We reiterate his calls for a lasting ceasefire. It was surely right for the Foreign Secretary to travel to Sri Lanka with the French Foreign Minister. In the words of the Red Cross—here I declare an interest as being a vice-president and a former working member for more than 30 years—the situation in the north of the country is "nothing short of catastrophic". Civilians trapped in the tiny enclave are desperately short of food, water and medical care and remain in the firing line. The United Nations estimates that as many as 6,500 civilians may have been killed and another 14,000 wounded in the Government's offensive this year.

I would like to raise three sets of questions relating to the Minister's three points on the humanitarian crisis, the efforts to secure a ceasefire and the long-term prospects for a political solution in Sri Lanka. We welcome the additional UK humanitarian aid for Sri Lanka that the Minister has outlined. According to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 50,000 people are still trapped in the conflict zone, which has shrunk to less than 10 square kilometres. Is he fully satisfied that the Sri Lankan Government have heeded international calls to show the maximum possible restraint in their operations in the area?

There seems to be some confusion regarding the use of heavy weapons by the government forces. Can the noble Lord assure the House that the Sri Lankan Government have heeded international calls to stop all use of heavy weapons in the fighting zone, and that it has been possible to verify this? For the record, is he confident, too, that no UK-supplied defence equipment or technology has been used in attacks on civilians during the conflict, and have efforts been made to ascertain this? Have the Sri Lankan Government agreed to permit aid convoys to reach the fighting zone by road, which we understand has not been possible since 20 January?

We strongly support the UN Secretary-General's decision to dispatch a humanitarian team to the conflict zone, and support his call for the mission to be allowed into the area as soon as possible. Has that been possible? Aid workers have told UNHCR that some of the people in the camps have not eaten for days, and cite growing problems of hunger, lack of transport to move the sick to hospitals and a shortage of medical personnel. Has the Foreign Secretary raised these issues with the government officials whom he met in Sri Lanka? Can the noble Lord update the House as regards the 13 UN staff members who have been prevented from leaving IDP camps despite repeated promises from the Government that they will be released?

My second set of questions concerns the efforts to secure a ceasefire. Does the noble Lord see a need for formal UN Security Council involvement—for example, a UN resolution—to persuade both sides to lay down arms? Earlier today, the Foreign Secretary said to my right honourable friend the shadow Foreign Secretary that he would speak to the US Secretary of State, Mrs Hillary Clinton, today. I wonder whether he has spoken to her yet and what the outcome of those discussions was. What discussions have the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister's envoy had with the Commonwealth about using that organisation's weight and influence to encourage Sri Lanka to ends its operations and bring about a long-term ceasefire, called for by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Human Rights Watch?

Thirdly and finally, does the Minister agree that there can be no military solution to this conflict, and that the only way forward is a negotiated settlement that satisfies the concerns and legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans and preserves democracy in the country? What assurances has he received from the Sri Lankan Government about their commitment to such a political process? Has he received any indication from the Sri Lankan Government that they will be prepared to accept the UK's nominated special envoy? Are the Government confident that the envoy is able to make a meaningful contribution to resolving the conflict without acceptance by the Sri Lankan Government?

The distinction between foreign and domestic policy has nowadays become blurred. A growing number of our citizens live simultaneously in many homelands. What happens in Sri Lanka yesterday may well have an impact on Britain today. This means that we have to take into account that our own domestic policy has to be foreign policy as well. Again, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. In the same spirit, I hope he will continue to keep the House informed through Oral and Written Statements.