United Nations

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:45 pm on 10th June 2009.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 4:45 pm, 10th June 2009

I shall be brief so that the Minister has sufficient time to reply to the debate. I thank and congratulate Simon Hughes on securing this debate.

The situation in Sri Lanka is obviously terrible. We must reflect on how the UN has reacted in that respect. I am not here to be critical of the British Government. Indeed I have had meetings with the Foreign Secretary, and the matter has been raised countless times in the House by a large number of Members who have been extensively and effectively lobbied by their concerned constituents. I thank the Foreign Secretary for going to the Security Council and to Sri Lanka and for doing his best to bring about a ceasefire and some kind of humanitarian resolution to this crisis. Therefore, my point is not to be critical of the British Government.

Serious issues, however, must be addressed. First, as I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, in terms of the UN charter and the universal declaration of human rights, it is quite clear that there are serious deficiencies in what is happening in Sri Lanka. After making a statement, visiting Sri Lanka and calling for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid, it is unfortunate, to put it mildly, that the Secretary-General should be ignored by the majority of the Security Council, and because of the veto system, that is essentially the end of that.

My second point concerns the Human Rights Council. I have attended meetings of the Human Rights Commission in the past and the Human Rights Council on behalf of the non-governmental organisation Liberation. I found the Commission to be quite cumbersome, but it did give quite a lot of space and working areas to a number of other organisations and NGO groups. I was concerned that with the establishment of the Human Rights Council, the NGOs would be driven out of the frame. I was assured by Louise Arbour and others that that was not the intention. I do not believe that it ever was her intention, or the intention of those who set it up. None the less, the voice of civil society has effectively been diminished and diminished in the Human Rights Council. If someone is in a country in which there is a serious attack on the human rights and liberties of individuals, they need to have a civil society voice that can bypass their Government and go to the United Nations. If that voice is choked off, the UN is less effective. It is quite clear in the founding principles of the UN and all its agencies that there is a civil society component in what the United Nations does. I am interested in hearing the thinking of the Minister on that and on enhancing the role of civil society organisations at the Human Rights Council.

As for the current situation in Sri Lanka, there are at least 250,000 people in what the Sri Lankan Government euphemistically refer to as refugee camps, but which, in reality, are prisons. People are not free to come and go. Disturbing reports talk about the treatment of individuals in those places and about the lack of visits. It is very clear that there is no access by independent observers or by the media. The well-grounded suspicion is that when those camps are finally closed the inmates may not be allowed to return home. No guarantees have been given. They may well be sent to another place. A humanitarian aid ship off the coast of Sri Lanka has been denied access to Sri Lanka to bring in its voluntarily collected aid.

We applaud and thank the Department for International Development for the very large amount of aid that it has provided through NGOs to try to help people through this humanitarian crisis, but there must be transparency. Sri Lanka is a member of the United Nations, a member of all the appropriate UN agencies and a signatory to all the appropriate international declarations. It must abide by them and allow these poor people, who were bombed in the war and now, unfortunately, are suffering and starving in the camps, to get the aid that the rest of the world wants to get to them. It is not right that a coalition at the Human Rights Council and the Security Council can effectively override the very decent humanitarian instincts of many senior UN officials who want to help people and do their jobs properly.