Sri Lanka

Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs written statement – made at on 2 April 2009.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

Together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, I would like to update the House on the current situation in Sri Lanka, our continuing concern and the action we have been taking.

The fate of civilians caught up in the fighting in the north of Sri Lanka between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is the most pressing concern. It is vital that they are able to move away from danger to safety.

The last remaining territory held by the LTTE continues to shrink. Currently it measures less than 20 square kilometres. Since January more than 60,000 internally displaced persons (EDPs) have left the conflict area and moved into Government-controlled territory. Over 10,000 have moved within the last week. But credible reports suggest that well over 100,000 remain trapped within the conflict zone. These civilians have been displaced numerous times over the past 18 months and are living under constant threat from the continued heavy fighting. Despite the lack of verifiable reporting from the conflict area there are credible reports of civilians being killed and wounded every day, including in the 'no fire zone'. We condemn the killings of civilians in the strongest possible terms and continue to urge all parties to take action to avoid further civilian casualties. Both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and ensure the protection of civilians at all times.

It was our concern for civilians that led my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to call for a ceasefire on 14 January. I have since repeated that call on numerous occasions: in phone calls with both the Sri Lankan President and Foreign Minister; in public statements; and in concert with other countries.

We renew that call today for an urgent humanitarian ceasefire. We call on the LTTE to allow the remaining civilians to leave the conflict area and to desist from enforced recruitment of civilians. But the actions of the LTTE cannot excuse any failings by the Sri Lankan Government to meet the higher standards naturally expected of democratic Governments in a conflict.

We have also been active with partners in the EU, the UN and the Commonwealth. Following discussions at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 23 February, EU foreign ministers publicly called for a ceasefire and made clear their concern for civilians trapped by the fighting. Sri Lanka continues to be discussed within the EU and we support a proposed EU high-level troika to Sri Lanka at the earliest opportunity.

At the UN we have been working for some time to ensure that the Security Council is fully briefed on the situation in Sri Lanka. We supported the visit by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, to Sri Lanka in February and his subsequent briefings to the Security Council. We also welcome the continued engagement by the UN Secretary-General who has made clear his views on the deteriorating situation. This involvement by the UN means that the Government of Sri Lanka can be in no doubt about the concerns felt by the international community over the humanitarian situation.

At the recent meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, although Sri Lanka was not on the agenda, we nevertheless took the opportunity to raise our concerns over developments in Sri Lanka, particularly the humanitarian crisis.

In addition to calling for a ceasefire we continue to call for unhindered access for humanitarian agencies to the civilians displaced by the fighting, including those still trapped in the conflict area. There is an urgent need to increase the quantity and frequency of food and medical shipments to those affected by the fighting. Humanitarian agencies—specifically the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross—also need unhindered access to enable independent observation of the security screening of civilians and the running of the IDP camps. It is vital that these camps are temporary and that the IDPs are returned to their homes as early as is safely possible. We urge the Government of Sri Lanka to abide by its public commitment to return 80 per cent of IDPs by the end of the year.

The appointment by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, of my right hon. Friend Des Browne as his Special Envoy to Sri Lanka was a measure of the UK's commitment to contribute to an improvement in the humanitarian situation and to the search for a sustainable political solution to the conflict. It should be seen as such. We have been disappointed that the Government of Sri Lanka continues to reject the appointment, despite earlier assurances from the President that his Government would engage with an envoy. We will continue to press the Sri Lankan Government to reconsider. In the meantime my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun will engage with representatives of other countries, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations, parliamentarians and community representatives with an interest in Sri Lanka.

As well as upping our diplomatic efforts we have also been taking practical steps to contribute to an improvement in the situation. Since September 2008 the Department for International Development (DFID) has committed £5 million of humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka. Of this sum, more than £4 million has already been allocated in support of agencies providing protection and assistance work for IDPs. This includes £835,000 that DFID has transferred this week to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and to the International Organisation for Migration. A sum of £915,000 pounds is being held in reserve so that we can continue to respond immediately to further needs as they arise.

We recognise that the LITE is a terrorist organisation and that the Government of Sri Lanka has a need to root out the threat from terrorism. But the over-riding need is for an immediate end to the tragic humanitarian crisis. We want to see an end to the conflict and a serious drive to achieve a sustainable political settlement that takes fully into account the legitimate concerns of all Sri Lanka's communities—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. As part of this process the Government of Sri Lanka needs to tackle seriously the problem of human rights violations and the culture of impunity that underpins it. We urge the Government to ensure that all violations, including recent attacks on the media, are thoroughly investigated so that those responsible are brought to justice. The Government will continue to engage with political parties across all communities in Sri Lanka to support progress in all of these areas.