Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:27 am on 24th March 2009.

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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.