Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 24th March 2009.

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Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 11:00 am, 24th March 2009

I am grateful for the chance to debate an important matter. What is happening at the moment in Sri Lanka is an international humanitarian crisis, and the International Red Cross says that

"the humanitarian situation is deteriorating by the day."

Sri Lanka is, in many ways, a forgotten crisis. More than 3,000 people have been killed in Tamil areas of Sri Lanka since the end of January, and that is many more than the number who died in Gaza last autumn. Every day, 150,000 people are being shelled in the Sri Lankan Government's designated no-fire zone, and tens of thousands more are trapped in a thin strip of land—just 13 square miles—where the battles are taking place.

Despite those huge numbers, we must not forget that this is also a deeply personal tragedy. Every Friday, I hold an advice surgery for about five hours. As is the case for many MPs, barely a week goes by without me meeting constituents who have family members back home in the Tamil region of Sri Lanka. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict; the numbers are so big that the crisis is almost impossible to comprehend. Each week, I meet constituents face to face who tell me their stories and fears for their families, which makes a complex international crisis very personal.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

I would like to draw the hon. Lady's attention to a meeting that was held in my constituency a couple of weeks ago that was attended by nearly 600 Tamils. The meeting made clear the extent to which every person in that room had been affected by the conflict, either directly or through close families and friends.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, as would all hon. Members in the Chamber—their constituents have brought them here. The work of the Tamil community in Britain has tried to force this issue up the list of things that the Government are considering.

I have been trying to trace a number of constituents' relatives who are caught up in the conflict. Last week, I was told by the International Committee of the Red Cross that it is

"unfortunately, not able to carry out tracing in this area."

Throughout the debate, I hope that hon. Members will put themselves in the position of my constituents who have been told by the organisation that is most likely to be able to locate their families, "Sorry, we can't."

Britain's Tamil community is large and vibrant. It adds enormously to the economy and well-being of our country. There are approximately 250,000 Tamils within the M25. In my constituency, as I am sure in those of all hon. Members, they are hard-working, small business people; they are doctors or they are the people on whom we rely for the continuation and running of our cities.

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North

Does the hon. Lady agree that the efforts of the Tamil community in Britain to raise humanitarian aid during the past two weeks should be commended, and that the Sri Lankan Government should be pressured to ensure that desperately needed humanitarian aid gets through when it is delivered?

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The work of the Tamil community in highlighting a cause to which people tend to close their eyes has been admirable. The Tamil community in my constituency works hard. People send their kids to university in overwhelming numbers. At this time of year, they come to my surgery desperate for places in grammar schools in the London borough of Sutton—as a secondary modern girl, I often find that challenge difficult. One constituent came to me to say how outraged he was that the Government were discriminating against pupils from public schools getting places at Oxford and Cambridge. That was a Tamil sub-postmaster in my constituency who had managed to afford to send his daughter to Wimbledon High school. How many people of our community in similar circumstances would be in a position to do that? That shows the emphasis placed on education within the Tamil community.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

Not all of us have joined the debate because we have a large Tamil community within our constituency—I do not. I am here because I am a friend of Sri Lanka and I think that what is unfolding in that country, and has been doing so for years, is a situation of deep injustice. We need to recognise that although the country's Government may have a military victory, that is different to there being a military solution to the problem. We need to get back to a peace process.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his contribution to the debate and this cause. I am not as worthy as him. I became involved in this matter because my constituents came to see me in large numbers. I became even more concerned about Tamil young people—UK citizens who are often well-educated and in good jobs—who were frustrated by the feeling that nobody said anything about the plight of their friends and relatives. What are we saying to those young people if the British political system cannot take their concerns on board and democracy cannot work for them, as it does for other groups in our society?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

I thank the hon. Lady for initiating the debate. She will know that some of us have been arguing this case for years. That is not because we have many Tamil constituents, but because we have seen the danger for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka coming down the tracks. This is not a new issue for the international community, our Government, the EU or the Commonwealth. It has been obvious for many years that the Sri Lankan Government have not been willing to look after the Tamil people, and the treatment of those people has got worse and worse.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

The hon. Gentleman is correct. As we know, the situation is escalating, and every day more people are dying, or are injured and displaced. Individually and together, we have needed to exert huge pressure to get the profile for the issue that we have today.

The purpose of the debate is to call on our Government to exert all diplomatic efforts into ending the conflict. As the Sri Lankan Government have not been willing to end the conflict, I would like my Government to call for their suspension from the Commonwealth. The history of the conflict is long and bloody. There have been atrocities from both sides, but in recent months there have been consistent reports of what begins to look like genocide. The Sri Lankan Government have dropped cluster bombs on their own people. According to aid agencies, 1,000 amputees are desperate to be evacuated, but the Red Cross cannot get to them.

Meanwhile, civilians are being pummelled by artillery fire. The Government have been accused of using banned phosphorous weapons. They have attacked areas that have been designated as safe zones. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has complained that its staff are not able to secure unhindered access to civilians coming out of the conflict zone. It said that it was

"deeply concerned about the plight of tens of thousands of innocent civilians trapped inside the shrinking conflict zone, where ongoing shelling and aerial bombardments are taking place."

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is far too self-deprecating about the work that she has done to raise the profile of this issue. Does she agree that one of the reasons why so many hon. Members are asking the Government to look at sanctions is because of people such as Ann Veneman, the executive director of UNICEF, who says that there is an urgent need for access to provide humanitarian relief? There is a feeling that, unfortunately, the Sri Lankan Government are determined to act in such a way that we can only believe that genocide is occurring when, for example, there is bombing of so-called safe areas and havens.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has worked hard on this issue.

The UNHRC reports

"dire humanitarian conditions inside the area due to lack of essential goods and services like food and shelter, while medical care is said to be virtually non-existent."

It adds:

"The situation has worsened due to the ongoing heavy rains and winds, with most families living in flooded areas under damaged tarpaulin tents and under trees."

Of course, it has also complained about the actions of the Tamil Tigers or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil EelamLTTE. It describes

"harrowing tales of recruitment by the LTTE" and calls on

"both parties to the conflict to adhere to International Humanitarian Laws and...to stop the bloodshed and facilitate the safe passage of those trapped inside the conflict zone."

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Lady makes a powerful comment on how the Tamil people in the so-called safe zones are having to live. Is she aware that under some of the tarpaulin tents that people need to survive, there is extreme heat in the day and extreme cold at night? They have to build bunkers to escape the bombs of the Sri Lankan army. I have never heard of an intended encampment that has had to have bunkers.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that he has seen many videos and DVDs of people in those bunkers, which have been taken by very brave people in the area.

Amnesty International also criticises both sides. It has called for a truce and for humanitarian corridors to evacuate hundreds of thousands of trapped civilians, but it believes that the Sri Lankan Government need to answer accusations of war crimes and other breaches of international law. Amnesty says that that Government will allow displaced people to leave Government camps, even for emergency health care, only if they leave a family member in the camp as a safeguard against their escape, and that that policy violates the international legal prohibition against hostage taking. More significantly, Amnesty says that repeated shelling of the last working hospital in the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu—I apologise for my pronunciation—might constitute a war crime. It said:

"If the hospital was deliberately targeted...it would constitute a war crime. If the hospital was struck in the course of a disproportionate or an indiscriminate attack...this would also constitute a war crime".

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, has also said that the Government's actions may

"constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law."

Amnesty has made other serious accusations against the Sri Lankan Government, saying that they have

"directly and indirectly been involved in disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and explicit intimidation of critics. They have also silenced dissent in the south of the country to crush critical voices."

It added:

"It's clear from the way in which the government has intimidated editors, like requesting that newspapers don't cover particular stories such as the humanitarian crisis, that there has been a concerted campaign to silence the media."

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

The hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way. I hope that when the Sri Lankan high commission in this country reads this debate, it will not seek to misinterpret what Members are saying. Does she agree that we are pressing for a ceasefire, for humanitarian aid to go in, and for the perpetrators of atrocities on whichever side, if necessary, to be brought before a war crimes tribunal?

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I absolutely agree, but many Members, perhaps including the hon. Gentleman, have been abused and insulted by the Sri Lankan high commission in the UK. Indeed, it recently suggested that my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore has a drug problem.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

I assure my hon. Friend that I do not have a drug problem, despite what the Sri Lankan Government say on their website. They have also suggested that I am embracing a terrorist regime, but I have been one of the main critics of the LTTE when I have stood up for Tamil people in the House. I have investigated whether it would be possible to sue the Sri Lankan Government for libel but, apparently, sovereign immunity means that I cannot. Bearing it in mind that the law does not allow us to hold that Government to account in the courts, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to bring pressure to bear on the Sri Lankan high commission to make sure that it stops these attacks on Members when we are simply doing our job.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Amnesty also says:

"There has been no proper accountability for the killings that have happened in the last two years, so there is impunity for the perpetrators."

Such breaches of human rights are not acceptable. Governments must live up to the very highest codes of behaviour, but the Government of Sri Lanka are not doing so. Earlier this month, I joined protesters and other MPs, many of whom are in the Chamber, at a meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, at which we called for Commonwealth Ministers to suspend Sri Lanka for its human rights abuses against the Tamil community. The group was established in 1995 to deal with serious or persistent violations of the Harare declaration. It is clear to me that Sri Lanka has violated the terms of the declaration, and it must be clear to everyone that it has violated the spirit of the declaration.

There is now an opening for a truce. At the weekend, in an interview with Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times, Balasingham Nadesan, the political leader of the Tamil Tigers, called for an urgent ceasefire. He said that the Tigers would enter negotiations with the Sri Lankan Government "without pre-conditions" and:

"We call for a ceasefire, loudly and clearly".

The Sri Lankan Government could grasp this opportunity of a ceasefire, or else face international opprobrium. If Sri Lanka does not take this opportunity, it will need to be forced to the negotiating table through diplomatic means. The British Government should simply state that Sri Lanka should be suspended from the Commonwealth, and the process of suspension should commence. That is the purpose of this debate—I hope that the Government will listen to the concerns of my constituents.

I hope also that the debate will offer an opportunity to highlight on the world stage the truly appalling state of affairs there. Sadly, the media have not taken much interest in the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, so it falls to us to draw attention to it. As Amnesty has said:

"One of the real concerns is that this is a war without witnesses...We just don't know what's been happening".

That is why Sri Lanka is, in many ways, a forgotten crisis. As I have said, 60 people a day are dying due to army bombardment in Tamil areas, and more people have been killed in the past five weeks than died in Gaza last autumn. I do not wish to diminish the importance and horror of what has happened in Gaza, and it is quite right that the conflict was front-page news and the first item on TV and radio bulletins for weeks on end, but there has been no such coverage of Sri Lanka. That is appalling, because astonishingly cruel things have been happening there and, as the Red Cross has said, things are getting worse.

The Sri Lankan Government do not allow independent monitors or members of the press into the affected areas, and journalists have been threatened or even murdered. Surely that is even more reason for the international media to report on this conflict. The media also have a hard time reporting in Zimbabwe and Gaza, but that usually hardens their resolve. When it comes to Sri Lanka, only a few notable exceptions print anything other than public relations material for the Government there. Award-winning war correspondent Marie Colvin is one such exception. She was attacked by Government forces when reporting in Sri Lanka and, as a result, suffered head and chest wounds and lost an eye. She spoke at a meeting of the all-party group on Tamils last week, and explained the dreadful conditions on the ground and the lengths to which the Government would go to wipe out their opponents.

However, for every Marie Colvin, there are dozens of papers with no coverage at all. As a daily reader of The Times, I was disgusted by its article last Friday complaining about demonstrations in which people waved Tamil flags. The article said that the Sri Lankan Government were unhappy about the flags being waved at demonstrations in countries such as Britain and that the people doing so represented terrorists from the Tamil Tigers. In fact, they did not, but that is beside the point. What is going on with a paper's sense of proportion when it prints stories about flags, but not about thousands of people being killed or displaced every month? Amnesty is right to say that this is a conflict without witnesses, and it is our role, as Members of Parliament, to provide a testimony. The Sri Lankan Government have done an amazing job of repressing dissent internally, and have done a brilliant PR job around the world. They are wiping out an ethnic minority and saying that the Tamils want a bloodbath so that there will be international intervention. They have also cowed the UN, which is now apparently afraid to speak out in case it is expelled from the conflict zone.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

The hon. Lady is making a strong case. Throughout the conflict, but especially at this stage, independent human rights monitors should be in the north and east of the country. Indeed, they should have been there for a long time. Does she agree that if the Tamil Tigers are prepared to enter negotiations, there should be no pre-conditions, as they have discussed? That is the only way in which any kind of progress will be made. Does she agree that negotiations should engage the whole Tamil community in the north and east of the country, not just the Tamil Tigers?

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Yes, I agree that all sides should be included in any negotiations. As The Sunday Times reported this week, the deputy leader of the Tigers has said there are no pre-conditions to their call for a ceasefire. What was not printed in the paper, but was certainly said to Marie Colvin, is that they would abide by and accept the outcome of a referendum of the people of Sri Lanka. That goes further than anyone could previously have anticipated.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend's flow. She mentioned that the Government of Sri Lanka have run a successful PR campaign, but does she agree that if Members of Parliament receive one more photograph—we seem to be receiving such photographs hourly—of a Government of Sri Lankan soldier cradling a Tamil child, it will have completely the opposite effect of that intended? I am starting to doubt seriously the veracity of that propaganda—not that I had an enormous amount of belief in it in the first place—because it there is simply too much and it is too indiscriminate.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I agree with my hon. Friend, but the unfortunate thing is that the Sri Lankan Government are tremendously successful at propaganda. I have gone around the House to ask Members from all parties to sign early-day motions asking for the suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth, but hon. Members in the Chamber would be amazed by the number of people who want nothing to do with the matter and do not want to talk about it. They believe that the Tigers are terrorists and therefore they are not willing to engage on the issue. The Sri Lankan Government have been incredibly successful at propaganda and that is why we have to be witnesses to what is going on and we have to say what is happening.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

On the Commonwealth issue, does my hon. Friend think that it is appropriate—I am sure that she does not, but I ask her so that she can comment on the matter—that Sri Lanka itself sits on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group? That is the very body that has to test whether a country is meeting the Harare principles and that could therefore opine on whether there should be a suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

My right hon. Friend is right. She has worked as hard as anybody on the issue—in fact, we worked together on the whole matter. It is so frustrating that this is happening—it is almost beyond words. People are not listening, and those speaking out almost feel as if they are in a dream, and like they are shouting and no voice is coming out. As I said, that is why we have to be witnesses.

During the 11 years I have been in the House, I have never spoken in a debate on an international issue. I am not somebody who would ever regard themselves as a House of Commons person. I find the environment quite pompous and I think that people speak for too long—just as I am currently doing. However, today I fully understand the importance of people speaking out and saying something here independently. If we do not do so, who will? We must put every pressure that we can on the Government, who have acted swiftly over the past few weeks and months, to do more. If we do not ask them to do more, who will? This Parliament has to say that the conflict needs a truce.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to raise an issue that affects many of my constituents. I hope that the Government will do their best to shame the Sri Lankan Government into a ceasefire, and if they do not stop fighting, our Government should begin the process of expelling Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth. I hope that the media will pay attention to this forgotten conflict and that my constituents will hear that their families are once again safe and sound.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Order. I inform hon. Members that we normally start the wind-ups about midday. I see that about six Members wish to speak, so perhaps they could bear in mind the advice of Siobhain McDonagh and keep their speeches short.

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North 11:23 am, 24th March 2009

I congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on securing the debate. It is vital that we raise these issues, but I promise to be brief, Mr. Atkinson.

My constituents are, like those of the hon. Lady, concerned about their families and what is happening. We are the only voices who can put forward those concerns because, as has been said, our media are not doing so. With every other conflict of recent times, people have turned on the news and it has been a No. 1 or No. 2 item. However, I cannot remember the last time I have seen anything on any news bulletin about this issue. A tragedy is unfolding and innocent people are losing their lives.

Like Mr. Dismore, I have always spoken up against terrorism and will continue to do so. However, we are not talking about that; we are talking about innocent women, children and men being killed every day. The world seems to be saying nothing and is completely silent. I agree with the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden: pressure must be brought to bear on the Sri Lankan Government. If that pressure has to take the form of a suspension from the Commonwealth, and that is what it will take to get the message through that a ceasefire must happen now, so be it.

Particularly over the past few months, but also in the past few weeks, hon. Members from all parties have been calling for that ceasefire. We attended a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, and a number of us also met the Prime Minister to discuss the issue. Everyone is calling for a ceasefire, but it seems that the Sri Lankan Government are not taking a blind bit of notice of what anyone anywhere in the world is saying. That has to stop and it has to stop now. In four or six weeks' time we cannot still be saying exactly the same thing, because a lack of action will mean that more innocent people have been dying.

My constituents, like those of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, come from all walks of life. However, a few weeks ago, they gathered to raise money and humanitarian aid to help the young people and those who are suffering so terribly. I sincerely hope that that aid is allowed through to the people who so desperately need it now. The world should hang its head in shame if it allows what is happening to continue.

Like the hon. Lady, I have spoken to colleagues about the matter, some of whom gave me the same response that she received. The high commission's public relations machine has to be commended, because, like other hon. Members, I get e-mails from it perhaps two or three times a day. Some of the things that the Sri Lankan Government have said about anyone who dares to speak up about providing humanitarian aid for those who are suffering are deplorable. They should ashamed of what they have said about hon. Members who are purely doing their jobs and representing their constituents' concerns about humanitarian issues. I hope that that is taken on board when they read the report of the debate. If they stop saying such things, they might find that people have a different opinion.

A wise man once said, "With whom can I talk peace, but my enemies?" He was right. I hope that the Sri Lankan Government will listen, talk peace and stop the carnage now. Perhaps there can then be a peaceful future for everyone in Sri Lanka and people will be able to live in harmony together. Perhaps they can be educated, have food on their tables, a roof over their head, hospital treatment when they need it, and motorways opened. If that can happen, we will have done some good in this House of Commons. I will end my contribution there, Mr. Atkinson, but I would like to apologise for the fact that at approximately quarter to 12, I have to go to a meeting that was arranged weeks ago. I apologise for having to leave at that time, but I felt it important to be here and say those few words.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North 11:27 am, 24th March 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh on not only securing the debate, but putting the case for action so eloquently. That is what is crucial about this morning. It is not just about a debate or words; it is a call for action. My hon. Friend has called for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Commonwealth. In recent weeks, there have been calls for our Government to seek a UN Security Council resolution. None of those things are happening. However, the Prime Minister is, I believe, the first world leader to call for a ceasefire. That call was very welcome and genuine. We were all pleased to hear that call, but it was some weeks ago, and we know that fine words and good intentions on the part of all of us here will not save a single life. The time for action is now.

We have outlined all the arguments and we must continue to do so, because the matter is not high enough up the political or media agenda to get the attention it so clearly needs and deserves. It is worth repeating some of my hon. Friend's points. I refer particularly to the leaked report by the United Nations Office of the Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator that put the total minimum number of civilian casualties between 20 January and 7 March 2009 at 9,924, including 2,683 deaths. It was later conceded that the figure was likely to be a gross underestimate. Those are numbers, but if 2,683 people were lined up to greet us in Westminster Hall, we would see exactly what the number means—and that is just since 20 January.

This is a catastrophe, and we know that it is happening. We do see some images, but not enough. There is not enough of a sense of reality about the situation. If there were, I cannot believe that action would not be taken.

The most important thing that has happened recently is the offer that was made at the weekend. In fact, it was more than an offer. As has been said, the political leader of the Tamil Tigers, Balasingham Nadesan, pleaded for a ceasefire, and I understand that less than three weeks ago a ceasefire offer was put on the table, again by the Tamil Tigers, but was rejected out of hand by Sri Lanka. The excuse is made by the Sri Lankan Government that they made offers a year or more ago that were not taken up. That does not make it okay not to listen to a ceasefire offer now. Given the number of people who are dying or being injured, a ceasefire is required immediately. If it was right for the Sri Lankan Government to suggest some time ago that there should be a ceasefire, surely it must be right for them to take up such offers now. It is completely contradictory to ignore the pleadings for a ceasefire, in the face of the situation and the suffering.

An important point that is worth noting—it has been made by several Members—is the willingness to enter negotiations without preconditions. I do not understand how Sri Lanka can refuse that offer. It gives our Government every possible opening to put on as much pressure as they can, and to urge other Governments around the world—not least the Government of India, who should be playing a much more high-profile role in this matter—to put pressure on the Government of Sri Lanka.

Undoubtedly, if the evidence could be collected, we would see that war crimes are being committed. The Government of Sri Lanka have unambiguously and wilfully failed to meet their obligations. The Geneva convention states:

"In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives."

On any reading of the situation, we could not say that the Government of Sri Lanka are meeting those obligations, given their indiscriminate attacks and use of cluster bombs, multi-barrel rocket launchers and white phosphorous. Indeed, the Sri Lankan Government have publicly abrogated their duty to protect civilians. On 2 February, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order stated:

"While the Security Forces accept all responsibility to ensure the safety and protection of civilians in the Safety Zones, they are unable to give such an assurance to those who remain outside these zones. Therefore, the government, with full responsibility, urges all civilians to come to the Safety Zones".

Of course, we have heard time and again in recent weeks of the bombing of safety zones and hospitals. Indeed, the last hospital has now been bombed and is no longer operating. We have had reports of casualties on the beaches, and feet blown off by land mines. Those aid agencies that are there and are able to operate have to choose between the most severely injured and the badly injured, and have to leave the badly injured lying on the beach. That cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered humane treatment.

This is a humanitarian crisis and a violation of human rights. It is beyond our imagining, but we must try to put ourselves in that place, because no one is speaking up for those people. They have no voice, but, surely, giving them a voice is one of our first responsibilities.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, I have people coming to my surgery about this issue. I do not have a large Tamil population, but those families who do come to my surgery are absolutely frantic. They do not know whether their family and friends are displaced, injured or, worse, dead. They have no contact whatsoever, but they know what we know and what the world chooses to ignore about severely injured people lying on beaches.

Sometimes when we explain such things or speak about genocide, people say that we are using purple prose, or embellishing in some way. They say that we should not use the word "genocide" because it is a serious charge. Yes, it is the most serious of charges, but I believe that, unfortunately, we can use such terms in this situation. Our description of the horror, fear, injuries and deaths of innocent Tamil people and what they are suffering is not purple prose. Mr. Davey outlined the horror and fear of people who have to survive day to day—if they manage to survive. That is a reality. We stand here in comfort and warmth and discuss the situation, but we do not see any action. We need action.

I understand the argument that is being made in the Chamber—that it would be worse if we did not get a UN Security Council resolution than if we did. I believe that it was the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, who said at the last Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs questions that Russia would veto such a resolution, or was making it clear behind the scenes that it would do so. There is a discussion to be had as to whether we should be opening this up. We should be speaking to Russia through diplomatic channels. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister cannot comment on that—perhaps it is happening and he is not able to go into much detail. However, I want to put it on the record that many Members of Parliament and others—Professor Boyle, for instance, who recently circulated a paper—feel that it might be about time to put the matter on the agenda or at least to have a discussion about it, instead of allowing Russia, if Russia is the problem, to hide behind the fact that it is not on the agenda. I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend and his colleagues are having such discussions.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Opposition Whip (Commons)

Hon. Members have made a powerful case for suspending Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth, and there has been talk of the Harare declaration. Of course, Zimbabwe has been suspended from the Commonwealth with very little effect. I wonder whether suspension from the Commonwealth only really makes sense as a stepping stone and a rallying point to a UN resolution, and whether in practical terms—other than giving voice to a subject that does not have a proper voice in the UK—it would not actually be that substantive to the Government of Sri Lanka unless it led to the next stepping stone, which would be a full UN resolution.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes my case for me, and I agree with him. Suspension from the Commonwealth is an important step, and the Commonwealth is an important organisation. It is hugely respected by its members and those outside it. Such a move would be a stepping stone, but an important one. An important organisation consisting of a group of countries that work together would be saying, "We will not tolerate this in our midst. This is not acceptable." Sri Lanka would be told that it must desist from such activity, stop genocidal warfare and sue for peace. That would be an appropriate thing for the Commonwealth to do. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My case is that suspension would be an important step but it cannot be the only measure because, of itself, it might not bring the results that we need. That is why the UN is so important and why we need to move the debate on to this issue. Even if it does not go to the Security Council at this time—although I think that it possibly should—we should be having the debate.

We have been wary of moving towards such a debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said, the UN seems to have been cowed and we all seem to be wary of raising the issue with the UN, but does that not show that this is a testing time for the UN and that it needs to take up the issue? The Sri Lankan Government have attempted to reject a special representative appointed by our Prime Minister, on the ground that they were not consulted—as if they are consulted on the ministerial appointments or any other appointments that the Prime Minister makes. It is an outrageous argument. We have seen them do that, and the UN needs to take steps. Whatever the UN may be, it can do more than it is currently doing, and I want our Government to push it to do just that.

The Sri Lankan Government have accepted that there is no political solution; they have said as much themselves. So, if there is no political solution, what are they doing perpetrating—pushing forward—the war? I do not deny that the Tamil Tigers have also committed atrocities, and none of us present would defend them, but, they are asking for a ceasefire and it is for the Sri Lankan Government to respond. If they do not do so now, and they say that there is no political solution, why are they prosecuting the war? What is the purpose? Why are journalists not allowed into the Vanni region? Why are aid agencies, which are so badly needed, not allowed in? If the Sri Lankan Government have nothing to hide, why do they not allow in those who need to go there to assist people and let the eyes of the world see what is happening? Why is that not happening now? The Sri Lankan Government cannot complain if we condemn them and assume that the situation is worse than they say it is, if they will not let people see for themselves.

We have four immediate goals. We want Sri Lanka suspended from the Commonwealth for the reasons that I have given; a ceasefire; a UN monitoring mission to be given unfettered access to the country; and a resumption of peace negotiations. Those things must happen now. Finally, aid agencies must be allowed in to help those people on whose behalf we stand here today and raise our voices—the people who are innocent and suffering, the people of the future. There is no military solution to the situation, but if there is no political solution, there will be no end to it.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Order. Four hon. Members wish to speak, and the winding-up speeches should start in about 20 minutes, so, by my mathematics, that means about five minutes each.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 11:42 am, 24th March 2009

I shall keep to that, Mr. Atkinson, and I am very grateful to Siobhain McDonagh for initiating the debate.

On 26 February, I received, as others may have, a message from the Bishop of Mannar, passing on a message from a parish priest in northern Sri Lanka, who said that the bishop

"requested me to communicate this message to you all.

Sri Lanka's army is massacring Tamils. About 300 Tamils were mutilated and those people were thrown into camps. Heavy shelling takes place on the innocent civilians.

From Mullaithevu two elderly priests were allowed to come out on mercy grounds. These aged catholic priests witness the gruesome suffering of civilians.

These priests say that the army is pouring bombs on safer zones.

Kindly insist that International monitoring committee monitor the so called safer zones.

Both Sri Lanka and LTTE are recruiting small boys and girls. Parents are crying.

If the Indian government wishes it can stop the war. Kindly put more demands on the Indian government not to support the Sri Lankan Army.

Due to lack of medical personnel and medicine most of the innocent civilians are dying. If the war is continued the Tamil race will be destroyed completely".

The message goes on in that vein.

Just the other day, on 13 March, I had an update, as colleagues will have done, from the hugely respected United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and its representatives. I shall be selective in quoting from its long and full report, but it says that

"some agencies are yet to be given access to the sites"— the holding sites for people—

"limiting the level of assistance that can be provided...tens of thousands remain trapped inside a 45 square kilometre area."

The report says that the people leaving the area

"have described the dire conditions there, caused by severe overcrowding, serious food shortages, poor sanitation and no medical facilities."

And the UNHCR says that the LTTE has prevented many people from leaving.

We are all trying to confront a situation in which the Government of Sri Lanka appear to be absolutely impervious to the criticisms of their own people and of others. The Government look as if they are beyond rational response. When the Defence Secretary, who is the brother of the President, said, as he did on 2 February, that all criticism of the Government was treason; when the army commander insisted, at the same time, that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese Buddhist country, not a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation; but when many people of many races and faiths have been there for centuries, no wonder the international community is having difficulty winning the argument with the Government. Our plea, from all parts of the House, to the British Government is that they seek to do more, without discrediting what they have done so far. The UK must continue bilateral representations with the Sri Lankan Government.

I should like the Minister to tell us what has happened since the European Union Council of Ministers came to a view in February and came up with a unanimous recommendation. I should also like to know whether it is now time to follow the suggestion of Joan Ryan, which others support, including my hon. Friend Mr. Davey, that we put the issue on the agenda at the United Nations.

As this is a debate about the Commonwealth, I should like to ask three simple questions about whether we cannot get the organisation to be much more proactive. Historically, it has been willing to take action against a member Government when they have broken the Commonwealth's principles, which are that member Governments allow democracy and human rights across their territories. First, why at the Commonwealth meeting on 4 March did the Minister present—I think—represent the UK, rather than the Secretary of State or a Minister of State? There was considerable criticism that we were not represented at a higher level during the meeting of the Heads of Government and Government representatives at Marlborough house.

Secondly, what specific initiatives have the British Government taken to seek to get the Commonwealth to be much more proactive—to achieve the ceasefire, the access to humanitarian aid, free journalism and, because there has been an invitation, the assurance that any British or other Commonwealth MP who goes to Sri Lanka can go wherever they feel they need to go? Finally, is the Minister sympathetic to the view that I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton will express, similar to those from all parts of the House, that there must be a specific initiative by the Commonwealth, showing that it is a serious organisation that takes membership seriously? It is not an organisation without principles or rules, and those of us who are keen supporters of it believe that it must show its colours and its principles. If it does not do so now, for the people of Sri Lanka, it will not be an organisation worth belonging to. They must be shown that the relationship between Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth means something, and the Commonwealth must stand up and take international responsibility.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon 11:48 am, 24th March 2009

I first spoke about the problems in Sri Lanka in this very Chamber, during the debate about the Foreign Affairs Committee's report on human rights. Since then, things have got worse not better, and, if action had been taken then, it would have saved thousands of lives. Thousands of people have been maimed and tens of thousands have been made homeless. The position has simply got worse.

Contrary to what the Sri Lankan Government say, I do not hold a brief for the LTTE, but I do for the Tamil people—the innocent women, children and old folk who have been bombarded by the Government and, for that matter, penned in by the LTTE and not allowed to escape. I surveyed the Tamil people who live in my constituency, and what came out loud and clear was their fear and worry for the relatives in Tamil areas whom they are unable to contact.

I am not going to go on about all the humanitarian problems, because my hon. Friends have described them graphically and far better than I could; save to say, we should recognise the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations. Its brief yesterday recorded the fact that a second ICRC worker had been killed by shelling—the second in less than three months. What amazes me is the attitude of the Sri Lankan Government, who say, "You're either with us or against us, and if you're against us, look out."

I mentioned earlier in an intervention that I had been badly libelled by the Sri Lankan Government on their website, but unfortunately I cannot take any legal action against them. I raised the matter with the Speaker, but he has no powers to take action against them. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, in replying to the debate, will make it clear that he will be taking these issues up with the Sri Lankan high commission to stop Members of Parliament being subject to such abuse and libels, because I know that I am not the only one. All we are doing is standing up for humanitarian causes.

I am concerned about the Sri Lankan Government's attitude towards my right hon. Friend Des Browne, who was put forward by the UK Government as our special representative to try to broker progress. I am afraid that I have to inject a slight party political point here, because I have seen the reported remarks of Dr. Fox, who seems to be endorsing wholeheartedly the Sri Lankan Government's campaign against the Tamil areas. I hope that the Conservative party spokesman will dissociate himself from his party's Front Bencher's remarks, which are unfortunate to say the least and are, at worst, encouraging this genocide. We must have a common front in favour of humanitarian relief and a ceasefire, and we need real progress to try to sort these problems out.

We need a ceasefire and I hope that our Government will maintain the pressure in that regard. We need access for humanitarian relief from both non-governmental organisations and Governments. Most importantly of all, we have to recognise the underlying political cause of what is going on and what has been the problem for more than 25 years—indeed, going back to when Sri Lanka, which was then Ceylon, gained its independence from the British Empire. The fact remains that no political solution has so far been offered to the just demands of the Tamil people for self-determination. They are entitled to have their say in their own future, but the Sri Lankan Government have denied them that consistently, ever since the foundation of the state. That has, ultimately, led to the creation of the LTTE and its campaign against the Sri Lankan Government.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

My hon. Friend talks about there being an absence of a political solution. Does he agree that for at least the first three years of Sri Lanka there was a political solution and a multi-party, multi-faith, multi-ethnic Government in place and that it was the deeply regretted rise of Sinhala nationalism that shattered that consensus?

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

Unfortunately, nationalism throughout the world has played its part in causing such conflicts.

We have to recognise the right of the Tamil people to self-determination, whatever happens, because even if the LTTE is defeated in the traditional military way as part of this campaign it will not go away; it will simply revert to traditional forms of terrorism and we will see more bombings and assassinations, regrettable though that may be, throughout Sri Lanka and possibly further afield. That is no answer. There is no military solution to this problem. There has to be a political recognition of the rights of the Tamil people. Part of that process must involve the calls that my hon. Friends have made for action by the United Nations and the exclusion of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth. Sri Lanka has already lost its place on the UN Human Rights Council—quite rightly so—but that is far less than what is required to try to bring home to it the scale of the problem.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister give us an absolute assurance that no armaments from the UK are being supplied to the Sri Lankan Government at all?

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 11:53 am, 24th March 2009

I am grateful for the opportunity to comment in this important debate. The message that will have gone out clearly from this debate is that no hon. Member in this Chamber supports the violence. There have been condemnations of the LTTE as well. However, the most important thing, as Siobhain McDonagh said, is that we Members of Parliament must bear witness to oppressed minorities wherever they exist in the world. It is important to recognise that the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is being oppressed by its Government.

First, I want to press the Minister and ask what action the Government are taking to impress on the Sri Lankan Government the need for capacity for evacuation for innocent women, children and men. He cannot have been deaf to the comment made by the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross only last weekend:

"The capacity for evacuation is far below the need...We have to decide to take the casualties who are more badlv injured and leave behind the ones who are less badly injured", or leave behind people who are not injured at all who are then unwittingly used as human shields. The Tamil community is being abused in that way. The Government need to take direct action in respect of the Sri Lankan high commission in London to impress on it the need to allow the evacuation of innocent Tamil citizens.

Secondly—the Sri Lankan Government should hear this—mercy missions are on their way from the community and from international organisations. I cite the mercy mission ship that could land in Vanni if the Sri Lankan Government allowed it to do so. Surely, if that Government had any humanity towards their citizens they would allow that ship to dock, for it has on it representations from the international community. This is not a ship that could in any way be called a front for terrorism; it would deliver much-needed food and medical aid to that area. The UK Government must stand up and make a representation to the Sri Lankan high commission on that point, as so many hon. Members who have contributed to this debate have done today.

Thirdly, the Sri Lankan Government may be cautious about what Balasingham Nadesan said at the weekend, but unless they take the brave step towards a ceasefire, accept that the offer might be genuine and does not contain preconditions, and come to the table, there will be no political solution. The political solution is the only way forward, because a military solution cannot ever win. Equally, with a ceasefire, it should be incumbent on the Sri Lankan Government to accept international validation on certain points.

Simon Hughes made some telling remarks about the role of the Commonwealth, and all hon. Members in the Chamber will be listening to what happens.

Fourthly, post-action and post-ceasefire, the UK Government must impress on the Sri Lankan Government that the ceasefire must include not only the LTTE, but all sections of the Tamil community. There is a role for the Tamil National Alliance, and other democratic people, in that process. Equally, the UK Government could suggest to the Government of Sri Lanka—tied in with their request for a ceasefire and the threat of suspension from the Commonwealth—that there could be a genuine international reconstruction fund. For if the Tamils are to be able to play a full part in the life of Sri Lanka, they will need not only the political solution but the economic solution. An international reconstruction fund would be a part of that process and the Commonwealth could lead it. If not, our Government should lead the process of putting that fund in place.

I am aware of your strictures, Mr. Atkinson. Like so many other hon. Members I could speak for rather longer. I hope that the Minister will respond to those four points.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 11:57 am, 24th March 2009

I congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on securing the debate and on her remarks. Both she and Joan Ryan have been tireless in their campaigning in recent weeks and months and it has been a pleasure to work with them to put forward the Tamil case, and the case for human rights and a ceasefire.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden shares my anger and the anger of my Tamil constituents and the whole Tamil diaspora, and she is frustrated that nothing seems to be happening. The killing seems to be going on and the humanitarian catastrophe seems to be getting worse, even in the safe areas, as she so graphically described. We have these debates and we ask questions, but I say to the Minister that the frustration is getting deeper every day. People keep hearing about the communities with which they have connections back through the generations being devastated and about family members disappearing and being killed. We have to speak out, and the Government have to speak out far more than they have done to date.

I commend the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary on the comments that they made a few weeks ago and for calling for a ceasefire. However, that call has fallen on deaf ears, so we urgently need to take more action.

No doubt colleagues have received many reports—not just PR from the Sri Lankan high commission—from Tamil constituents and campaign bodies, and from people who are in the Vanni. One of the most graphic reports that I have received is entitled "Voice of the Voiceless and Helpless People of the Vanni". It talks about the horrific conditions in the so-called safe area. It seems that the Sri Lankan Government have set up not a safe area, but a concentration camp, which they are even prepared to shell. That cannot go without huge criticism from the British Government and the international community. It is a crime, and we must speak out loudly against it.

I hope that the Government will take three concrete actions. First, they have not exerted enough pressure through the Commonwealth, which can often act behind the scenes and put moral pressure on Ministers of other Governments. My hon. Friend Simon Hughes said that at the recent meeting in London, the British Government were represented by only a Parliamentary Under-Secretary. The Government could have done more, given that Sri Lankan Government representatives were here in London.

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

My hon. Friend and I have discussed whether we should join the calls for Sri Lanka's suspension from the Commonwealth, because that would be a major move and the Commonwealth traditionally uses behind-the-scenes moral pressure. We have come round to the point of view of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden. We must begin that process, and the leader of my party, my right hon. Friend Mr. Clegg, has agreed to write to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth today asking for an immediate inquiry into the action of the Sri Lankan Government and whether it is compatible with Commonwealth membership, the Harare principles and so on. That inquiry needs to be set up as the start of the process for Sri Lanka's suspension, and I hope that the Minister will join my right hon. Friend in that call to Commonwealth leaders. There should be an investigation, and it should happen now.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate because I was at a constituency meeting. I suggest that we should set a time limit. A deadline should be set for peace talks to start, and if they do not start, Sri Lanka should be removed from the Commonwealth.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The inquiry should not be long and drawn out. It should take place urgently—within days and weeks, not months.

I have argued—I wrote to the Prime Minister about this several weeks ago—that the real action should be at the United Nations Security Council. It is all very well calling for a ceasefire, but if our representatives in New York will not table a resolution for the international community to vote on, we are just bandying words. I have clashed swords with the Foreign Secretary on this because, as the right hon. Member for Enfield, North said, excuses are being made for not tabling such a resolution. We are told that a failed resolution would somehow strengthen the Sri Lankans and that that would be worse. How could it be worse? How could the situation be worse than it is now? We should table that resolution and put pressure on Russia and China. Let them vote against our resolution. Let us expose them for supporting the Sri Lankan Government and the violence. Let us lead the international community in calling for a ceasefire. Diplomatic weasel words about failing at the Security Council are no good. That is the proper body for addressing such matters. A huge amount of killing is taking place, and the international community needs to speak out. When Mexico recently tried to put the matter on the Security Council's agenda, some countries, including Britain, prevented it from happening. That is simply not good enough.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I apologise for arriving half way through the winding-up speeches. I share the deep frustration that is felt and I, too, have constituents who are extremely angry about the situation in Sri Lanka, but I want to probe the hon. Gentleman on the process in the UN. Does he accept that unless the P5 collectively and unanimously, or at most with one or two abstentions, agree a form of words, his proposal is simply a gesture? It may make him feel better—it may make my constituents feel better—but it will not lead to a Security Council resolution unless Russia and China can be persuaded at least to abstain.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We would send a huge and important signal from Britain, the US and others. Let us remember that when the British Government tabled a resolution on Zimbabwe at the Security Council, they knew that China would veto it, so let us not be told that we are asking for gestures. The British Government rightly said that we should hold China to account, and we should be saying that about Sri Lanka to other P5 members. We should be holding other members of the international community to account for not speaking up for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

My hon. Friend knows that I agree with him, and he may like to inquire of the Minister what representations we have made bilaterally to China and Russia to ensure that they are feeling the pressure so that Sri Lanka knows that there is no hiding place. Only when the European Union, the Commonwealth and the UN hold Sri Lanka up for examination will it get the message that it must change its ways.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

My hon. Friend is right. The Minister should tell us today what diplomatic efforts Her Majesty's Government have made to secure unanimous support from the P5 and others for such a resolution. It is no good giving us excuses. We want to know that the whole strength and force of the Government's diplomatic effort is to secure that resolution. At the moment, we have no sense or feeling that that is happening, and that is simply not good enough.

Finally, I suggest to all hon. Members that we should group together and ask for a meeting with the Indian high commissioner to the United Kingdom. That may be difficult for India, which has elections later this year. The Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata party have different views, but the situation is so urgent and significant that those diplomatic niceties should be put aside. If the Government will not do that, Members of Parliament should ask the Indians to exercise their influence—they are incredibly influential in this area. India's history regarding the Sri Lanka problem is tragic, but it is time to use our offices to address the matter.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I am concerned about the tone of some of the comments. I want to put it on record that although I want my hon. Friend the Minister to talk to us about representations to the UN and to ensure that we explore all possibilities—I do not want anything to be ruled out—I do not believe that any Government have spoken up to the same degree as the British Government and the Labour Prime Minister. Their pressure has been the only pressure. We should support it and build on it, not undermine it, and I ask the leadership of all parties to do so together.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

Not only do I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady, I have paid tribute to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. However, it is no good them calling for a ceasefire, as they did a few weeks ago, with no action. We need action now, and I do not regret anything that I have said today.

This matter should be one of the top foreign policy issues facing the Government, and it should involve the efforts of not just the Minister, but the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. They should provide leadership in the Commonwealth, the United Nations and the European Union to put pressure on the Government in Colombo. I hope that the Minister will assure us that that has been happening without us being aware of it, or that it is about to happen.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 12:09 pm, 24th March 2009

I congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on securing this debate, and on how she put forward her views. Only a few weeks ago, on 5 February, we debated Sri Lanka in one of the aptly named topical debates.

The immediate issue that has been brought forward by all hon. Members is how to ensure the safety of the tens of thousands of people caught up in what is effectively a fighting zone—the so-called no-fire zone/safe zone. Both sides have been guilty of the indiscriminate and discriminate use of violence. I say "indiscriminate" because if the Sri Lankan army is using area weapons such as assault from the air and artillery fire, it will kill large numbers of people in a very densely populated zone. I mean discriminate violence in the sense that so-called prisoners are shot by the Sri Lankan armed forces and, equally, the LTTE has ended up shooting people that it has tried to force into fighting units. This is a human tragedy on a vast scale and our immediate problem is how to bring pressure to bear not just on the Sri Lankan Government but on the LTTE to make certain that the civilians are evacuated and protected.

As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden and Joan Ryan mentioned, the LTTE has come to the table suggesting that it wants a ceasefire, with no conditions attached to it. The sadness is that both sides have played that game over the years. Both sides have tended to propose a ceasefire when they have perhaps been at a point of weakness and want to bring the other side to the table. However, there are powerful arguments now for the Sri Lankan Government to recognise that they have the LTTE on the ropes and that, in terms of not only domestic public opinion but international public opinion, they should show a degree of magnanimity and produce a ceasefire that puts the LTTE on the back foot.

It seems to me that, as other hon. Members said, the Sri Lankan Government are determined militarily to destroy the LTTE. There is no doubt that the reason for their refusal to allow in a UN force and most international media and for the constraints that have been placed on the non-governmental organisations is that they believe that if there is one final push, the LTTE will be militarily destroyed. However, as many hon. Members pointed out, that military victory will not produce the lasting settlement that they want. History is littered with examples of that. Mr. Dismore pointed that out. My experience from teaching this to British armed forces over many years is that the tube of toothpaste is squeezed in a different direction. There will be a new generation of Tamil Tigers, who will end up fighting by unconventional warfare against the Sri Lankan Government and, more importantly, their people, not only in Sri Lanka but worldwide, and on a scale that we have not seen so far. They will escalate that on a scale that will be quite frightening.

I urge the Sri Lankan Government to think very seriously about that. The irony is that in the next two or three weeks they will undoubtedly achieve that military victory, in that they will capture the final strongholds of the LTTE, but they will actually snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We should be thinking of how we persuade the Sri Lankan Government that they are about to achieve a tactical victory that is in fact a strategic defeat.

Let me explain where I disagree with hon. Members. At one level, I am impressed by the fact that the Sri Lankan Government have put out vast amounts of PR and publicity, just as the Tamil Tigers have, but I have not found it very sophisticated. If I were advising the Sri Lankan high commissioner, I would say, "The one way you do not go about influencing the debate in the House of Commons is by defaming hon. Members. You try to produce arguments that will convince them that at the very least you have some arguments on your side."

The Sri Lankan Government have damaged their case by refusing entry to the area of combat for journalists and they have an ambivalent attitude towards aid workers. At least the British can speak from experience on this matter. I suspect that if we had decided in the long conflict in Northern Ireland to do just that, we would have lost what in effect was a conflict 20 or 30 years' ago. We would have certainly lost any form of support from within Ireland, southern Ireland, or indeed in the United States of America. In their own interests, I urge the Sri Lankan Government to reconsider. However, we should bear it in mind that it is not exactly easy for a journalist or an aid worker to have operated in the zones controlled by the LTTE, either. Putting aside those moral issues, I have sympathy for any Government who are fighting unconventional warfare when they have to reach a moral bar that is often far higher than that of the unconventional side.

I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond to the debate, so I shall briefly pull some thoughts together about what is to be done.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will not, because I have very little time left.

The first question is how to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to allow the media and aid workers into the area now, that it is in their own interests to do so and that by not doing so, they are, ironically, aiding the LTEE. That should be our first priority, and I hope that the United Kingdom Government are doing that. Secondly, we should pressure them to evacuate civilians. Again, it is in their own public relations interest to evacuate civilians outside that area. Thirdly, we need to persuade them to let in a UN observer mission. If the Sri Lankan Government are convinced that they have right on their side and that the other side does not have right on its side, they should have nothing to fear from bringing in a UN observer mission. We should say to them that if they are unable to do all that, ultimately there may be a resolution at the United Nations Security Council and if they are unable to convince some of their own friends not to veto that, they will be facing serious problems.

The fourth point concerns the role of the UK Government. I support what other hon. Members have said: the UK Government, unlike some Governments, have, on the whole, taken an honourable lead in attempting to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, but also to mediate between the Government and the LTTE. There is a long history—

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Please, I have just two more points to make.

The proposal to send in a UK special envoy, Des Browne, was vetoed. Where are we on that now? Is the right hon. Gentleman's name still on the table? Have the Sri Lankan Government given any indication of the terms on which they might allow him in?

The final point concerns the role of the Commonwealth. It does seem strange that in the Commonwealth ministerial action group, the Government were represented only by a junior Minister. There may have been very good logistical reasons why the Foreign Secretary or the Minister of State could not be at that meeting, but given its importance in terms of policy towards Fiji, let alone towards Sri Lanka, I find that strange. Perhaps the Minister will answer that question.

The message that the Sri Lankan Government should take from this debate, as they should have from the previous debate, is the unity of purpose within Parliament on this issue. They should also take from it the message that they are, ironically, damaging their case by the actions and policies that they are carrying out and that although they will succeed in the short term—there is no doubt about that—they will create such a hurricane of violence that their long-term hopes for a peaceful democratic Sri Lanka will not be realised.

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 12:18 pm, 24th March 2009

May I start by genuinely congratulating my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh on securing and leading the debate? She has been consistent in her advocacy on behalf of her Tamil constituents. I saw that at first hand when I addressed a meeting of a group of her constituents whom she brought to Westminster. I know that she will continue to make that case.

I also congratulate Mr. Simpson, who leads for the Opposition, on striking absolutely the right tone in a constructive and thoughtful contribution, probing the Government in a difficult set of circumstances. One of the blunt realities is that we cannot just mandate actions on behalf of a Government in a different country.

Let me place emphatically on the record the Government's clear view that Members of this House have an absolute, unequivocal right to speak up on behalf of their constituents. Spurious personal attacks on the character of individual Members by any high commission or embassy in this country are not only wrong and unacceptable, but completely counter-productive in advancing the cause of those involved, and I can assure hon. Members that we will send that message loudly and clearly to the Sri Lankan high commission.

The ethnic conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE has reached a critical phase, and the UK Government are extraordinarily concerned about the grave humanitarian situation and particularly about the fate of the large numbers of civilians caught up in the fighting.

As many hon. Members in the Chamber who are extremely knowledgeable about the situation know, the conflict in Sri Lanka has been raging for more than 25 years and has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 Sri Lankans. The dramatic advances by the Government forces since January have claimed the lives not only of Sri Lankan soldiers and LTTE cadres, but, most shockingly, of innocent civilians, including women and children.

The lack of independent reporting from the conflict area makes it impossible to obtain definitive figures. However, the UN estimates that more than 2,600 civilians have been killed and more than 7,200 have been injured since 20 January alone. Those figures are truly appalling. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden that nothing justifies what happened in Gaza, but the figures in this case are more significant. Given the conflict that is taking place, there has not been enough attention in the international media.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently said that

"certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law."

There are more civilian casualties every day, including those who were killed or wounded when a hospital, which had been declared a no-fire zone, was repeatedly hit by shells over a number of days in February. As I made clear in the House when Sri Lanka was last debated on 5 February, we expect and urge the Government of Sri Lanka fully to investigate any allegations of abuses by their forces. We would support a full and independent investigation into all concerns about war crimes, including the shelling of the hospital and other civilian deaths.

Hon. Members have understandably voiced concerns about accusations that Government forces have used cluster bombs and resorted to indiscriminate bombing, and we have raised those allegations with the Sri Lankan Government. Although they have stated that they do not use cluster munitions, we have made very clear to them our strong opposition to the use of such munitions and to indiscriminate bombings. We condemn the killings of civilians unequivocally and in the strongest possible terms, however they happen, and we have urged all parties to the conflict to avoid action against civilians.

We are now at a critical phase. The last remaining territory held by the LTTE measures less than 30 sq km, and large numbers of civilians—internally displaced persons—are trapped in that area. Since January, more than 40,000 IDPs have left the conflict area and moved into Government-controlled territory. Estimates of the numbers who remain vary from 70,000 according to the Sri Lankan Government to 200,000 according to the UN. These people have been repeatedly displaced over the past 18 months each time the front line has moved.

We have rightly been critical of the actions of the Sri Lankan Government, and I have just made that clear again. However, it has become increasingly clear that the principal reason why more IDPs have not left the conflict area is that the LTTE is forcibly preventing them from doing so. A number of NGOs working in northern Sri Lanka have publicly stated that that is happening. The UN has also condemned the LTTE for forcibly recruiting civilians, including women and children. We must attack that on all fronts and we must express our concerns to the Sri Lankan Government. I urge anyone with influence and with access to the LTTE to put those concerns forward.

Civilians have been under direct threat not only from the fighting, and there is enormous concern about the ability to get aid into the area. Much more needs to be done about that. It was because of our concerns about the humanitarian situation in the conflict area that the Prime Minister first called for a ceasefire on 14 January and wrote to President Rajapakse. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary followed that up by telephoning the President and urging him to declare a humanitarian ceasefire. We have been consistent in advancing that cause in all forums.

We have also rightly been releasing resources. Given the urgency of the situation, we have allocated a further £2.5 million—on top of the £2.5 million that we committed in October 2008—to support the efforts of humanitarian agencies in Sri Lanka. We have also sent a Department for International Development humanitarian expert to bolster the capacity of our high commission in Colombo to deal with the unfolding humanitarian situation. Stephen Hammond asked about the post-conflict situation. The international community will inevitably need to assist with reconstruction efforts in communities affected by the conflict, and we will certainly play our part in such efforts.

We have not been working on this issue alone. One very helpful development in recent weeks was the joint statement by the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State in the United States Government, which called for a "temporary no-fire period". The co-chairs group—the US, the EU, Japan and Norway—has also called for the delivery of humanitarian aid and for the LTTE to discuss ways of ending the current hostilities.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I thank my hon. Friend for the forthright way in which he is presenting the Government's case. I also apologise to you, Mr. Williams, for arriving very late for the debate. We have reached a critical point in Sri Lanka. Reference was made earlier to the importance of India and the influence that it can bring to bear on the Government of Sri Lanka. Will my hon. Friend take up with the Indian Government the possibility of a joint initiative to bear down on the Sri Lankan Government so that they recognise the coming humanitarian disaster?

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My hon. Friend has anticipated my very next sentence, because I was going to highlight the fact that the Indian Foreign Minister has visited Sri Lanka to discuss the humanitarian situation with the President. We continue to talk and work with the Indian Government on the issue.

We have also been working with a wide range of multilateral forums. EU Ministers have called for a ceasefire. The key issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden was the Commonwealth, and although Sri Lanka was not on the formal agenda of the Commonwealth ministerial action group meeting this month, it was nevertheless rightly discussed.

The issue of our level of representation at that meeting has been raised. It was absolutely right that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs was present. She is the Minister responsible for our relations with the Commonwealth, and I can assure hon. Members that she emphatically articulated the concerns that have been raised. She took the opportunity to brief CMAG and expressed our concerns about the humanitarian situation and the safety of civilians caught up in the fighting. She stressed the need for a humanitarian ceasefire to allow civilians to move to safety and for full access by the international humanitarian agencies. She also called attention to the letter that we had received from 11 hon. Members expressing their concerns about the Government of Sri Lanka and calling for Sri Lanka's suspension from the Commonwealth. CMAG did not call for a suspension, because there has not been an unconstitutional overthrow of democracy—rightly or wrongly, that has been the basis for previous suspensions. Nevertheless, we have rightly raised our concerns in CMAG and directly with the Commonwealth secretariat.

The second key bone of contention that has been raised in the debate is the role of the UN. At the Security Council, we have sought discussion and regular briefings about the situation in Sri Lanka. We welcomed the visit to Sri Lanka in February by John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. However, if we took a resolution to the Security Council, the reality is that we would not get the nine votes that were necessary or that it would be vetoed.

That brings me directly to the criticism from Mr. Davey, who leads for the Liberal Democrats. He talked about diplomatic weasel words, and if international diplomacy is just about feeling good about ourselves and what we say, that is the point that needs to be made. However, if we actually want to make an impact, we have to take a different course of action. My real concern is that if we went forward with a Security Council resolution and it was vetoed, we would no longer have the status quo, but an even worse situation, because the Sri Lankan Government would simply turn around and say, "The United Nations has agreed with us that no action should be taken."