& the Struggle for Tamil Eelam
UK Parliament Proceedings on Sri Lanka
Westminster Hall, London
Wednesday 7 June 2000
Mr. Simon Hughes M.P. (Southwark,
North and Bermondsey)
"...As in all other places, we cannot pretend that
there are not different communities with their own aspirations which will
want to re-assert their differences until self-determination is achieved. As
a result, there has been, effectively, a continuing attempt by each
community to assert its predominance. There is a form of
proportionality in the election system, but the Government have a pro-Sri
Lanka majority and want to preserve the unity of Sri Lanka. They have used
the armed forces, in no uncertain terms, to do that...The north of Sri Lanka
is effectively a no-go area. The Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres and
other agencies have, I understand, almost no presence there because the
Government of Sri Lanka will not allow many of them in. They will not allow
people in because they regard their presence as likely to prevent continuing
military action. We cannot tolerate a position in which relief agencies are
unable to go in, evaluate what is needed and take action..."
Mr. Edward Davey M.P. (Kingston and
".... export licences for arms, .. is an area in which the
Government need to be rather less active. It is unfortunate that some export
licences have been granted since the election. Will the Minister assure us
that his Government will grant no more arms export licences? Indeed, I hope
that he will go further than that. My hon. Friend spoke about the recent
amazing thaw in relations between the Colombo Government and Israel, and
explained how that is tied up with the purchase of jet aircraft and other
arms supplies. The defence budget in Sri Lanka is now projected to rise to 6
per cent. of gross domestic product, which dwarves the amount spent on
health and education. That extra money will go towards buying jets from
Israel. Has the Minister--or his colleagues--had discussions with
representatives of the Israeli Government or, indeed, of the American
Government to prevent such escalation? A large, expensive introduction of
new arms cannot be in the interests of peace..."
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington,
difficult for people who have been resident in the United Kingdom all their
lives with families who have been so resident to understand how painful it
is when a member of one's family simply disappears and there is no
possibility of locating him or her because there is no Red Cross access.
Indeed, there is no way of knowing what has happened. It is assumed that the
person is dead, but one can never be quite sure. That constant pain that
goes through the lives of many people, mainly from the Tamil community,
throughout the world. There is an enormous Tamil diaspora in all parts of
the world. Those concerned are often high achievers who are making an
enormous contributions to their communities here, throughout Europe, in the
United States, Singapore and many other places.
We should recognise that there is a strong human feeling, both for people in
this country and, obviously, for those in Sri Lanka. I became involved in
the issue in 1983 when I was first elected to this place. Riots took place
in Colombo during the European summer..."
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)
"... the main
(aspect) is always the supply of arms. In 1998 alone, 56
SIELs--standard individual export licences--for heavy machine guns,
projectile launchers and sub-machine guns were granted to Sri Lanka. I must
question that again and again when we see what is happening in that country.
Those must all have been used in some way for internal repression. What does
the phrase mean? It is meaningless in this situation, and the Government
must provide some clarity. There is no European Union or UN arms embargo on
Sri Lanka, so the arms are flowing in there..."
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and
"...One of the main political issues in Sri Lanka is the emergency
regulations imposed by the President on 3 May. It is believed that the
Government's objective was to block reporting critical of the war,
particularly at a time when 25,000 Government troops were trapped in the
Jaffna peninsula... I hope
that in the Minister's response, he will take the opportunity to join us in
condemning those draconian regulations, which limit the freedom of
association and the freedom of the press, and allow for detention without
trial for up to a year. That, coupled with the restrictions on political and
trade union meetings, is deeply worrying in the run-up to the elections..."
The Minister of State, Foreign and
Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain)
"...The human cost of the conflict has been awful.
More than 60,000 people have been killed, many more have been injured or
maimed, and there are hundreds of thousands of refugees, both inside and
outside Sri Lanka. Those are the people who have been directly affected.
...Approximately 200,000 people in this country have their roots in Sri
Lanka. It pains us to see what is happening there. We cannot stand idly by
and watch yet another humanitarian disaster unfold in a country with which
we have such close ties... It was because of our concerns about the
continued impact of the fighting on civilians and on the prospects for peace
that we pushed for a statement by the European Union on the deteriorating
situation. The statement was issued on 15 May and called upon the Sri Lankan
Government and the LTTE to cease hostilities and begin negotiations
immediately, with a view to securing a peaceful resolution to the
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark,
North and Bermondsey):
I am very glad to have the opportunity of a debate on the civil war in Sri
Lanka, although I am sad that we need to have such a debate. I am grateful to
the Minister for his attendance. Coincidentally, he and I were last together at
the lunch given by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the high commissioner
of Sri Lanka before his departure, so we were able to speak together to people
with an interest just a few days ago.
I should like to declare my interest. It starts with nostalgia: when I was a
little boy, the story that I was told very often was how my mother gave up the
chance of an appointment to be on the British forces staff in Kandy to marry my
dad. I think that the ultimatum my dad gave her was "there or me". My mother
always said that she regretted, at least up to 49 per cent., making the choice
to marry my dad and not go to what was then Ceylon. But from then on, my family
always had an interest and an aspiration to go there.
Sri Lanka became independent just over 50 years ago and was recognised as one
of the world's beautiful and historic countries. We in Britain increasingly felt
that we had strong links with Sri Lanka. I retained my nostalgic interest until
I moved to London and gradually met more and more people from all the different
communities in Sri Lanka. I got to know their character and their contribution
here, as well as the deep sense of despair and desperation of many about what
was going on at home. That led, over the following years, since I have been in
the House, to an increasing interest and a desire to do something to help the
process of peacemaking in Sri Lanka.
At the beginning of last year, I went to Sri Lanka for the first time. I
arrived on new year's day with Simon Hunt, who works with me here, and with a
Sri Lankan Sinhala party colleague of ours, Dai Liyanage, who has recently
finished his year as mayor of Medway. The visit was also made with the
encouragement of the Tamil community in this country, whose headquarters in
London had moved into my constituency. I have been often to Eelam house and
talked to people there.
So I come to this debate with historical interest, the experience of having
been to Sri Lanka and increasing concern that the country, which has huge
opportunity and possibility, is frustrated at nearly every turn by the civil war
which has effectively been going on, unbroken, since 1983. That in many ways
handicaps a country that would naturally be so outgoing, effervescent,
fun-loving and enriching--and I am not just talking about the cricket. I should
add that I have enjoyed nearly all the recent Sri Lankan contributions to
cricket, although the last match that I witnessed, not very far from here, was
not a great English success. [Interruption.] The Minister, with at least
two partisan interests, no doubt has to split his allegiance somewhat.
The point about cricket may be superficial, but it is representative. The
country wants to contribute internationally in all sorts of ways, but often it
cannot do so to the full.
At International Development questions the other day, I asked the Secretary
of State what her Department's priorities in Sri Lanka were for this financial
year. Her answer was this:
"Finding a lasting solution to the long-running conflict is the major
priority in reducing poverty in Sri Lanka.--[Official Report, 3 May
2000; Vol.349, c.130.]"
She sent me the country strategy paper produced by the Department for
International Development at the end of last year. This well-written document
makes it clear that although poverty exists, there is little "extreme" poverty.
It says that groups of extreme poor exist in the conflict zones, but that
resolution of the war is the first priority in reducing poverty, and that for
future stability, the fundamental causes of chronic conflict in Sri Lanka also
need to be addressed. The country, with its huge potential for economic
development, is perpetually thwarted by the endemic conflict within its borders.
I should like to give some statistics. The population of Sri Lanka is between
18 and 19 million people. About three quarters are Sinhala and about 18 per
cent. are Tamil. Some 7 per cent. of the population are Muslims, of Moorish
extraction, and there are small Burgher, Malay and Veddas communities. The
Sinhala community is effectively Buddhist--about 70 per cent. of the population
are Buddhist. That is very important--Buddhism is written into the constitution,
as pre-eminently important, which I respect. I had helpful and constructive
discussions with some Buddhist religious leaders when I was there.
The Tamil community is effectively Hindu--15 per cent. of the population is
Hindu. Then, 8 per cent. is Christian, and there is a Muslim population of 8 per
cent. too. Sinhala is the predominant language, and Tamil the minority language.
Interestingly, the language that is the great link between both communities is
English. I was told very clearly by everyone that the development of English in
Sri Lanka is a unifying feature and is not perceived as a colonial or
ex-colonial contribution at all.
When I was there, I confirmed how much the politics of Sri Lanka is dynastic.
Some families have been in power for generations--the current President's mother
is still the Prime Minister, for example. That means that there is a
determination for the Sinhala to defend the unity of the country, because it is
the centre of their world tradition. There is also a desire for independence
among many of the Tamils. That is not the universal Tamil view, but there is a
huge desire for self-determination, and that will not go away.
As in all other places, we cannot pretend that there are not different
communities with their own aspirations which will want to re-assert their
differences until self-determination is achieved. As a result, there has been,
effectively, a continuing attempt by each community to assert its predominance.
There is a form of proportionality in the election system, but the
Government have a pro-Sri Lanka majority and want to preserve the unity of Sri
Lanka. They have used the
armed forces, in no uncertain terms, to do that.
The Tamil community, some of them through the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam, has grown and, at different dates,
has been more or less effective in occupying territory and resisting
Government intervention. In effect, it controls much of the northern part of Sri
Lanka, especially the Jaffna peninsula--the area in which the Tamils are most
The result of that conflict is that both sides are so committed to their own
resolution that it is clear that neither will win the conflict outright. The
Government will not manage to suppress or eradicate the Tamil freedom
fighters--they will not go away. Likewise, the
Tamil Eelam Liberation Tigers are unlikely to able to take over and hold,
without contradiction or challenge, the Tamil Eelam territory in the north and
the east that they espouse. There has to be a way to mediate and accommodate
Sri Lankan politicians say that they want to try to achieve peace through
but often they act and speak in ways that undermine that exercise. However,
I do not seek to cast aspersions on the good faith of politicians. I understand
the huge historical baggage that exists and the huge pressure from the
communities that people represent. I realise how difficult it must be for the
President, for her mother, the former Prime Minister, as for previous
Presidents, to deliver a peaceful solution.
My first proposition to the Chamber--especially to the Government--is that we
must do more to bring about discussion, negotiation and
resolution of this conflict which has taken probably 60,000 lives. For
reasons that I shall give, it is almost a forgotten civil war. However,
it is a devastating, painful and absolutely awful conflict, with the most
horrible casualties. It is the responsibility not only of Sri Lanka, but of
the Commonwealth and the international community.
Yesterday, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife
(Mr. Campbell) reminded me that Kofi Annan had said that we must now be more
concerned with the sovereignty of the individual in the world than with the
sovereignty of the state. We must say to the Sri Lankan Government clearly, but
in friendship and support,
that the resolution of this conflict is not only for them; the rest of us
have a duty and an interest, and should be involved.
That is true not least because many people in the United Kingdom were born in
Sri Lanka and have links with that country. According to the last census,
about 40,000 permanent residents of the UK were born in Sri Lanka. That
number is growing. Furthermore,
many people from Sri Lanka seek asylum in this country and many are
accepted--although I shall raise a point on that matter later in my speech. My
London colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and
for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who are in the Chamber, have many Sri
Lankans in their constituencies--as do I. Colleagues elsewhere in London and
beyond regularly have dealings with Sri Lankan members of our community--both
Tamil and Sinhalese. They contribute hugely in Britain--in business, medicine,
the caring services, local authorities and so on. I pay tribute to that enormous
contribution; we value it greatly.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful argument that the international
community should have an even greater involvement in the internal problems
of Sri Lanka. What is his view of the recent calls from the European
Parliament for the matter to be brought before the UN Security Council? Is
that a helpful intervention? Will it make any contribution to the peace
Mr. Hughes: I am
grateful to the hon. Lady for her interest. I have a specific proposal to make
on that point, but I also note that colleagues in the House are increasingly
lending support to a proposal made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy
(Mr. Llwyd) that a UN peacekeeping force should be sent to Sri Lanka. It is not
only the European Parliament, but colleagues in this House, across the party
divides, who are asking for something to be done.
The direct answer to the hon.
Lady's question is that I welcome the proposal that the UN should take a greater
interest. I think that the UN would be ready to do so, were it not for the fact
that the Sri Lankan Government have always made it clear that they would not
welcome external intervention. That is why I make an alternative proposition.
When my colleagues and I
visited Sri Lanka, we were determined to explore the ways in which a peace
process could be developed. Before I left, I talked to people who might be
players--with the knowledge of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Sri
Lankan high commission and the Tamil community in London. Following those
discussions, the Norwegians have offered--and been accepted--to lead the
facilitation process. They see their role as being at the disposal of the
Government and all other parties. They will talk to all parties, but they do not
see themselves as the people who will come up with proposals and solutions. I
Given this position, will the
Minister consider what initiatives it might be appropriate for him to take?
Would he consider holding consultations with the Norwegian embassy? Could the
Commonwealth meet--in some appropriate form--to decide whether to make
representations to Sri Lanka? For evident reasons, it may be that the
Commonwealth, rather than the UN, is the best mediating body.
There are some additional
reasons for that. India has a
direct interest--as it always has had--although it is unlikely to want to
make another military intervention because of its previous experience.
Australia, New Zealand and the south Asian Commonwealth countries have
commercial and other interests.
Many Sri Lankans work and travel in Australia. There are many good reasons
for Commonwealth interest. The highest proportion of Sri Lankans abroad live in
Commonwealth countries--not only in the UK, but in Canada, for example.
Will the Government think
positively, within the context of the Commonwealth, about supporting the
Norwegian initiative and about putting that matter higher on the agenda? Before
the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park and I were discussing
the fact that we need to move from what seems to be almost a passive position to
one that is more proactive. After nearly 20 years of civil war--and there is no
point in beating about the bush,
it is a civil war--we can no longer say that the matter is one on which only
the Sri Lankan Government can set the ground rules.
My assistant, Simon Hunt,
Councillor Liyanage and I met various people in Sri Lanka. The enormity of the
conflict was brought home further to us when, after our return, we learned that
two of those people whom we met were later assassinated.
One was killed in the very car in which we had travelled with him a few months
before. Those people--from different perspectives--were trying to do
something to bring about the peace process.
In Sri Lanka, people live in
perpetual fear of assassination if they are involved in the political process.
It is not only in the north, the Vanni or the Jaffna peninsula that those
matters impose. In Colombo, the police and armed forces are everywhere. In
effect, the city and the country are under a martial law regime, because the
Government consider that that is necessary. When an assassination attempt was
made on the President just before the election, thousands of people were rounded
up and arrested. Thousands of people are held in detention. That is the sort of
place it is at present.
I also want to put to the
Minister a proposal about humanitarian issues which lies in the area of
responsibility of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park, the hon. Member
for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and others. The areas of conflict in Sri
Lanka are almost unique in that they do not benefit from the humanitarian
support that other places would receive in similar circumstances. The north of
Sri Lanka is effectively a no-go area. The Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres
and other agencies have, I understand, almost no presence there because the
Government of Sri Lanka will not allow many of them in. They will not allow
people in because they regard their presence as likely to prevent continuing
military action. We cannot tolerate a position in which relief agencies are
unable to go in, evaluate what is needed and take action.
I qualify my remarks because
information is difficult to come by,
but disease is apparently rife, many injured people are apparently not being
treated and supplies, such as penicillin, that would normally be allowed in
are sometimes not allowed in because it is felt that they might assist the Tamil
freedom fighters. That is not acceptable. It is also not acceptable that the
civilians who are not involved in the conflict are not allowed to leave. They
are effectively being held as prisoners of the civil war. I want us to consider
how better the international community can ensure that the humanitarian aid and
support that is needed reaches the areas of Sri Lanka in which there is
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and
Surbiton): Is my hon. Friend aware that
food aid was used as a weapon of war against refugees in the Vanni? Will
he tell us how he thinks the British Government could put pressure on the
Government in Colombo to ensure that such action never happens again?
Mr. Hughes: My
hon. Friend makes another point
in the litany of points about what is being used as a method of war. It must
be possible for the international community to exert pressure. I am sure that
the Minister and his colleagues will be sympathetic to the idea of negotiating
so that we can ensure that food, water and drugs, for example to prevent
malaria, get to where they are needed. When people need hospital treatment that
cannot be provided, they should be taken out of the region. I shall not go
through the litany of the United Nations obligations, but I know that many of
them seem to be broken or are not being upheld.
I gather--again I cannot say
the number of people in Sri Lanka who have disappeared and cannot be traced is
the second highest in the world. According to human rights agencies, it is
second only to Iraq.
A linked issue is that the
press has been censored in a way that has not happened in Sierra Leone or Kosovo
to the same extent.
There has been a much more effective ban that has prevented information from
In that context, will the
Minister answer a further point?
Arms export licences have been granted to arms exports to Sri Lanka. The
normal rule is that such arms must not be used for the purposes of internal
repression. How do we know that they are not being used for repression if no one
can get into the areas of conflict to see what is happening? We cannot be
certain that they are not being used for that purpose. I am not criticising the
Government precisely or saying that I know for certain that the arms are being
used for repression, but information from around the world and not just from
Tamil sources confirms that foreign arms are being supplied. For example, it is
not coincidental that Sri Lanka has recently restored diplomatic relations with
Israel. Will the Minister give us a specific statement on past, present or
future supplies of military equipment and hardware? What mechanisms are in place
to ensure that no abuse of that equipment takes place?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the exchange that he had with the Secretary of
State for International Development. He said that he was pleased with her
response and with the position paper that was sent to him. He raised with
the right hon. Lady the question of arms sales to Sri Lanka and she said
that she would write to him. Has he received a reply and will he tell us
what she said on the subject?
Mr. Hughes: I do
not think that I have yet received the reply, but I will copy it to colleagues
when I do. I am a bit circumspect because the reply may have arrived, but I have
not seen it. However, I raised the matter some time ago, so I will check to see
whether any reply has been received and pursue the matter with the Department.
It is important that we are not wittingly or unwittingly involved in anything
that adds to what is already a desperate situation,
where there are mass graves, many people are unable to leave and
human shields have been used.
I appreciate that my next
point relates to a matter that the Minister should pass on to his colleagues in
other Departments. One of the consequences of the civil war is the
number of people who have left Sri Lanka to come to this country to seek asylum.
Because of the work, in particular, of Tony Paterson, who is a specialist in
immigration cases, I want to express concern about the way in which this country
has handled those cases.
According to last year's Home
Office statistical bulletin, the Home Office granted asylum to 3 per cent. of
Sri Lankan asylum seekers on initial consideration and 1 per cent. more were
granted exceptional leave to remain. The applications of the other 96 per cent.
were refused outright. However, after hearings by the adjudicators, 48 per cent.
of those who appealed had their appeals allowed. Therefore, once the
adjudicators considered the cases, nearly half of the applicants were allowed
into this country when only 4 per cent. were allowed in initially. Those, I
believe, are the worst figures for the ratio between the initial decision and
appeal for the applicants from any country in the world. Someone must examine
what is happening.
I believe that the people who
take the decisions do not properly use the information available to the country
assessment civil servants. There is no joined-up government between the
caseworkers and the information. There is a further serious point. People
receive a standard reply when their application is turned down. It says:
"Regarding any ill-treatment which you may have sustained whilst in
detention, the Secretary of State is aware of reports of continuing abuses
of human rights by members of the Security Forces in Sri Lanka and concerns
about the impunity of those responsible. However, he understands that the
government of Sri Lanka, and in particular, the President herself, are
firmly resolved to improve the country's human rights record . . . human
rights training programmes for the Security Forces have been set up . . .
the Government has undertaken to prosecute those responsible for human
rights violations . . . the Secretary of State is satisfied that the
Government has taken genuine steps to address this issue."
Our officials appear regularly to conclude that it is safe for someone from
Jaffna to return to Sri Lanka, because he can live in Colombo. I have been to
Colombo and life is not safe or secure there. Is it acceptable to say to a Sri
Lankan from Jaffna that it is fine to return because he or she can live in
As I suggested to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East
Fife, that is like telling him that his asylum application has been dealt with
and, even though we know that he cannot return to North-East Fife, the Scilly
islands are a nice place to live, and he could go there. It is not acceptable to
tell people to go to the other end of a country where they have no family or
roots and where they are not part of the community. Will the Minister ask the
Home Office to undertake an inquiry into the processing of the asylum
applications of people from Sri Lanka and to make sure that those who consider
the cases do not give the fatuous and unacceptable reply that it is safe for
them to return to a place that is less risky than the one from which they came
or to one where, in theory, the Government are in control?
Other colleagues want to
contribute. We do not have enough debates about Sri Lanka, which is a friend and
Commonwealth country, so I am glad to be having this one. The Sri Lankan
Government must sometimes think that those of us who get exercised about such
issues are all allied to the Tamil cause, but I hold no exclusive brief for
either community. However, I am sympathetic to the idea that
there must be a better process for self-determination
and that there must be a solution that gives the
much greater autonomy and self-government sought by the Tamil people. The
Government in Sri Lanka
have not delivered that for 50 years.
We cannot stand aside and
watch as tens
of thousands more people are killed and injured. We have a responsibility to
Sri Lankan residents in this country but, more importantly, we have a
responsibility to a poor country which is in need of international community
support and which should not have a terrible drain on its own resources. I hope
that there can be an initiative that urgently will bring the parties to the
table. There are difficulties every time elections loom--indeed, a parliamentary
election looms later this year--and political tensions mount. However, I hope
that another peacemaking initiative can be made as soon as is humanly possible
and that all parties in Sri Lanka understand that that is not just their
responsibility. The rest of us have a responsibility, and the Sri Lankans are
responsible to the rest of us for ensuring that peace, not more years of
conflict, is brought to that beautiful country.
Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I pay
tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr.
Hughes) for securing this debate and for his tireless work in trying to bring
about peace in Sri Lanka. He undertook such work during his recent visit, as
well as before and since. I also pay tribute to the remarkably balanced and fair
way in which he presented his case.
I shall try to follow my
hon. Friend's example. I have an interest in the issue following a visit by some
of my constituents to one of my advice sessions. To my discredit, I knew little
of what was going on in Sri Lanka before their visit. They told me about the
tragedy taking place in that lovely island and talked me through the experiences
of their families. One family in my constituency has lost loved ones in Sri
Lanka: some have disappeared and some have been murdered.
That is the background
to my interest in the issue, which also informs my approach to it. I therefore
apologise if my argument is slightly less balanced than that of my hon. Friend.
However, I agree with many of his points, especially his plea to the Government
to take a more active role in the peace process. He is right to suggest that the
Norwegian initiative is the way forward. It has the greatest chance of success
and I believe that the Government support it. Will the Minister tell us how the
Government intend to give that initiative active backing?
My hon. Friend said that
the election in August may create difficulties. However, it also creates
opportunities, as outside sources could give parties contesting the election an
indication that a commitment to the peace process would be in their interest.
The previous Government did a good job in ensuring that all parties contesting
elections signed up to a peace process. The constitutional package put forward
by the Kumaratunga Government in the approach to the August elections may not be
liked by some in the Jaffna peninsula, but they are trying to get wider support
for it, especially from the United National Party, which is the main opposition
party. I hope that, in becoming more active in the peace process, our Government
will push that further and suggest that more parties should try to commit
themselves to that package prior to the election. That may be difficult, as
nothing is easy in any peace process. However, such measures could underpin the
Sri Lankan peace process, although I accept that the Government may have others
My hon. Friend referred
to export licences for arms, which is an area in which the Government need to be
rather less active. It is unfortunate that some export licences have been
granted since the election. Will the Minister assure us that his Government will
grant no more arms export licences? Indeed, I hope that he will go further than
My hon. Friend spoke about the recent amazing thaw in relations between the
Colombo Government and Israel, and explained how that is tied up with the
purchase of jet aircraft and other arms supplies.
The defence budget in Sri Lanka is now projected to rise to 6 per cent. of gross
domestic product, which dwarves the amount spent on health and education.
That extra money will go towards buying jets from Israel. Has the Minister--or
his colleagues--had discussions with representatives of the Israeli Government
or, indeed, of the American Government to prevent such escalation? A large,
expensive introduction of new arms cannot be in the interests of peace.
My hon. Friend spoke
about the press and raised the media embargoes sometimes imposed by the Colombo
Government. We are told that those embargoes have been lifted recently: we shall
wait and see. I wish to encourage the Colombo Government to remove them
permanently and ensure that the international community can report events there
fully so that we can monitor on the ground whether the Sri Lankan Government are
meeting their United Nations and international obligations on aid, medical
supplies and so on.
We cannot lay the lack
of coverage of the dispute only at the door of the Colombo Government. The wider
media are to blame, as they have stepped back from reporting it and have not
tried hard enough to get to the truth. Of course, there are difficulties but, in
other international conflicts, certain broadcasting stations, channels and other
media outlets have tried hard to get to the truth. However, they are not so
willing to do so in this area. It is incumbent on all media outlets, such as the
BBC, CNN and others, to ensure that the terrible tragedy of the civil war is
exposed to an international spotlight so that it moves up the political agenda.
In many ways, the media's role is more important than that which we are playing
here. If they gave the conflict greater coverage and it became a more important
priority for the Foreign Office, that might create a greater sense of activism
in the Government.
I conclude on one point
that is directly relevant to my constituents. If Jaffna falls, as is possible in
the next few weeks, there is real concern that there will be a backlash against
the members of the Tamil minority living in the rest of the island. We know that
55 per cent. of Tamils in Sri Lanka live in the Sinhala south. It is to the
credit of the Colombo Government that despite the war that is going on there and
despite suicide bombers, for example, such a backlash has not been allowed to
happen so far. I am not saying that there are not abuses of human rights and I
am not saying that it is easy to be a Tamil living in Colombo, but there has not
been a major ethnic backlash.
If Jaffna falls, the
situation will be much more difficult. The Colombo Government must prepare for
that possibility, and the British Government must give their support to them in
that respect. If Jaffna falls in the next few days, we must ensure that Tamil
citizens living in the rest of the island are not attacked in any way. We must
ensure also that their civil rights are fully protected by the Colombo
I say that passionately
on behalf of my constituents. Many people living in Kingston and Surbiton have
loved ones who are living in Colombo or in the rest of Sri Lanka. They expect
the British Government to make representations in the strongest way possible.
They expect also that the Colombo Government will respect the rights of their
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I apologise
for missing the first few minutes of the speech of the hon. Member for
Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), and I thank him for securing the
debate. Like other Members, I have some constituents who come from Sri Lanka.
Over the years, I have been involved in many asylum cases, divided family cases
and cases of missing persons from Sri Lanka.
It is difficult for
people who have been resident in the United Kingdom all their lives with
families who have been so resident to understand how painful it is when a member
of one's family simply disappears and there is no possibility of locating him or
her because there is no Red Cross access. Indeed, there is no way of knowing
what has happened. It is assumed that the person is dead, but one can never be
quite sure. That constant pain that goes through the lives of many people,
mainly from the Tamil community, throughout the world.
There is an enormous Tamil diaspora in all parts of the world. Those
concerned are often high achievers who are making an enormous contributions to
their communities here, throughout Europe, in the United States, Singapore and
many other places.
We should recognise
that there is a strong human feeling, both for people in this country and,
obviously, for those in Sri Lanka.
I became involved in the issue in 1983 when I was first elected to this
place. Riots took place in Colombo during the European summer. In a sense, the
riots were a continuation of the
civil strife between the Sinhala and Tamil communities that had gone on before,
particularly from 1958 onwards. I went to Sri Lanka in 1984, shortly after
the 1983 riots. I will never forget the sight of many Tamil people holed up in
the Hindu college in Colombo, which was the only safe place for them. If ever
there were internal refugees, they were in that category. There are many more
internal refugees in Sri Lanka.
There is not time this
morning to go into the full history of everything that has ever happened in Sri
Lanka, but clearly there was manipulation by colonial Governments in the past
between the Tamil and Sinhala communities. That was fairly normal in most
British colonies throughout the world. It was a method of government.
Tamil people on tea estates in central Sri Lanka were treated appallingly.
There has been systematic
discrimination against certain people, particularly Tamil people, for a long
time. That background has led to the current crisis.
I have spent hours in
discussions with people from the Sinhala community and from the Sri Lankan
Government. I have also had discussions with representatives of the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam and other Tamil groups,
especially in Geneva last August when I was at the United Nations human rights
session. In a sense, one can understand the strong feelings that both sides
express. The national pride that is exemplified in many of the statements made
by the Sri Lankan Government is understandable.
They do not want foreign interference
or outside influences. They say that they will sort the issue out. Also involved
is the integrity of Sri Lanka. Issues of
national self-determination quickly come to the fore.
When talking to the
LTTE and other Tamil groups, I hear them express
feelings of injustice and discrimination. Against that background, there is
brutality of the war. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey
talked about roughly 60,000 being dead. I have no reason to dispute that figure.
I do not know how accurate it is any more than the hon. Gentleman does, but a
massive humanitarian disaster has happened throughout Sri Lanka. There have been
suicide bombers and assassinations. Many of us know people who have died as a
result of their involvement in the conflict and their desire for peace. I think
of the huge efforts that Neelean Tiruchelvam made to bring about peace, for
which he was assassinated.
We must reflect on the
military methods that have been used. Since the early 1980s, when the conflict
reached a new intensity, arms sales to Sri Lanka have been taking place. Many
arms brokers have made a great deal of money out of the conflict. The latest
delivery of Israeli KFIR planes to Sri Lanka means that the Sri Lankan air force
will be able to undertake high-level bombing of Tamil positions. It will be able
to fly above the anti-aircraft positions that the LTTE holds. As far as I am
aware, the LTTE does not have any air cover.
We are either in a
situation of turning the corner and bringing about a ceasefire and a peaceful
solution to the issue, or we are into a fight to the death. Many of the soldiers
in the Sri Lankan army are deeply demoralised by the process of the war and by
what has gone on. Having lost brothers and families in the war, they have little
inclination to continue. They will either withdraw from the Jaffna peninsula in
almost the style of the USA from Saigon, or there will be a fight to the death,
in which event air cover will be used and there will be heavy bombardment of
many Tamil positions. As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey)
said, the majority of Tamil people do not live on the Jaffna peninsula or in the
north-east area; they live in the rest of the country. In that context, one
fears for the future.
There is enormous
rhetoric from both sides. The LTTE says that it will not negotiate on any terms.
It claims that it is on the threshold of a military victory. There is rhetoric
from Sinhala chauvinist politicians to the effect that they are not prepared to
concede anything. The run-up to an election is always a dangerous time.
Chauvinist politicians will make the most of alleged military inefficiencies and
defeats, for example, and pledge to fight their way through to the death. That
is a terrifying prospect.
Parliament--and the UK
as a former colonial power--has some responsibility for the antecedents of the
conflict. What do we do about it? I understand that the Government have
attempted to promote a resolution at the UN. No doubt my hon. Friend the
Minister will explain that. I understand also that the Russians and the Chinese
were unhappy about such a move and threatened to veto any proposed UN
involvement or resolution.
In a sense, we are left
with the Norwegian efforts. I applaud and admire Norway for its patience and
involvement. It has been a far more effective involvement in many instances than
that which the US will ever muster. The Norwegians proceed quietly, patiently
and persistently. High-profile visits from US Under-Secretaries of State are not
necessarily an enormous help.
One always has half an
eye on the economic interests of the powers that are promoting peace. I suspect
that the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, of which Sri Lanka
is a member, will try in the long term to turn Sri Lanka into a tiger economy.
Many US companies see that as a basis for their operations in south Asia. They
see it also as the basis for the development of free-market economies in that
area. We must be slightly sceptical about US involvement.
Our immediate message
must be that we are horrified by the loss of life in Sri Lanka and that we are
terrified by the prospect of a fight to the death in the near future, with all
that that would mean. We therefore must support what Norway is trying to do. We
must insist that the Sri Lankan Government allow all necessary humanitarian aid
to go in as quickly as possible. The embargo on medicines going into the Jaffna
peninsula is outrageous. By any stretch of the imagination, it is not
acceptable. Unfettered access for the International Committee of the Red Cross
must be allowed.
censorship in the media and political control over methods of expression is no
way to defend a democracy. Therefore, the early-day motions that we have tabled
on that subject are particularly welcome.
We must say to the
British Government and to others, "Please stop all arms supplies to the region."
The normal rule is that any arms supplies carrying an end user certificate
cannot be used for internal repression. There is no external threat to Sri
Lanka. Those weapons are and can be used only as part of the prosecution of the
war internally within Sri Lanka, so there is a strong case for an international
There are many signs
that the peace talks that Norway is promoting will achieve something and,
indeed, that the LTTE is prepared to negotiate, but it must be a peace with
honour. There must be an understanding of the integrity--parity of esteem is a
good way of describing it--of both communities in bringing about any solution. I
look forward to what the Minister has to say in response. I hope that the
Government fully support what Norway is trying to achieve and will persist with
trying to gain some United Nations involvement. However, UN involvement can come
only if there is some understanding from both sides.
It may be that, if the
Norwegian efforts prove fruitful, there will be a role for the UN in monitoring
a ceasefire. It may become involved, but, if we are looking at a war where there
will be victors and defeated, I fear for the human rights of minorities on both
sides of any devolved Government who emerge in Sri Lanka.
It is a tragedy which
the world's media have not covered with anything like the degree of intensity
that they should have done. It has cost the lives of tens of thousands of
people. Unless the peace talks come to some good end, thousands more young lives
will be lost in a war that should never have been started and could be stopped.
The way forward must be respect both within and between both communities, and
recognition that they will both have to live on the island in future, whatever
form of devolved government is set up.
The idea of a single
unitary state with no form of devolution is not an option. There must be some
agreement on that and some acceptance of the right of self-determination and
self-government within the island of Sri Lanka by the Tamil people. That is the
only way to bring about a long-term and lasting peace.
Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I shall be brief.
I congratulate my hon.
Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on raising
the debate, which is of great concern to us all. As he says, many of us have Sri
Lankans living in our constituencies. Sadly, the war in Sri Lanka is, as he
said, a forgotten war. In the world today, there are an awful lot of forgotten
civil wars. Some of them--indeed, a lot of them--are hangovers from the old
colonial days, when, for administrative ease, two distinct peoples were slapped
together and ruled as one. That happened with Sri Lanka, with the Tamils in the
north and the Sinhala in the south.
I do not think that there
are any natural resources involved; the Minister may be able to tell us. Often,
one cause of civil war is that there are natural resources in one spot and
everyone is trying to get at them, but I do not think that that is the case in
In the early 1980s, Sri
Lanka was a success story. Child mortality was falling rapidly. The number of
children in education was very high. Literacy rates among adults in Sri Lanka
are about 95 per cent. I have no idea what the rates among the children are, but
Sri Lanka was not a third-world country, or considered to be a developing
country in that sense. However, now, with $850 million a year, which is nearly 8
per cent. of its GDP, being spent on the war effort, education and health
spending is tumbling. That will have a serious consequence for future
generations of Sri Lankans. Despite that, the war rages on.
There are two
main aspects, but the main one is always the supply of arms. In 1998 alone,
56 SIELs--standard individual export licences--for heavy machine guns,
projectile launchers and sub-machine guns were granted to Sri Lanka. I must
question that again and again when we see what is happening in that country.
Those must all have been used in some way for internal repression. What does
the phrase mean? It is meaningless in this situation, and the Government must
provide some clarity. There is no European Union or UN arms embargo on Sri
Lanka, so the arms are flowing in there.
On the other hand, the
other half of the equation, the Tamils, have become a fearsome guerrilla force
built on arms trafficking and child soldiers. They have mastered the art of
dealing in the world's small arms markets. They buy from the Ukraine, Bulgaria
and North Korea, no doubt helped by European arms brokers.
I think that the Minister
says that I say this every week--but I now have to say it daily: when will we
get some legislation to control the arms trade, and arms brokers in particular,
before the world descends into chaos? What has happened to the EU resolutions to
combat the excessive accumulation of light weapons? Landmines are used on both
sides. What pressure have we put on Sri Lanka to sign the anti-personnel
landmine treaty? What steps have we taken to condemn the use of child soldiers
in the north? A lot of questions need answering.
We do not know how many
tens of thousands of people have lost their lives in the war, but I know that
there are 270,000 displaced children out of a total of 1 million displaced
people. They are living in extreme poverty. They have nothing. They have had all
their documentation taken away. I saw the same thing in Rwanda. People cannot
prove who they are now. They are no one. They have no evidence to show where
they came from or who they are, and no access to education and health care.
As we have heard, access
to those people is difficult because the Sri Lankan Government block access to
the north. One of the excuses about the delivery of aid is that the Tamil Tigers
will misappropriate the aid and use it for themselves, and it will not go to the
people--yet the Department for International Development has spent �7 million
per annum in Sri Lanka over the past few years, half of which is spent on relief
and half on education and reconciliation. It is channelled through
non-governmental organisations, but how is it getting to the north?
What is our policy on
development and humanitarian aid in situations of conflict? The situation in Sri
Lanka differs from that in Sudan. Aid is not given to the north because it will
be misappropriated, but the aid still goes to the south, where the perpetrators
of the violence in the north are. I do not understand what the Government policy
on aid is. I am puzzled by what they do in many other countries in the world,
particularly Sudan. When will we persuade the Sri Lankan Government to help the
displaced people and to allow the NGOs in?
The Tamils in south-west
London whom I met in February asked me--and I will ask the Minister on their
behalf--to call for sanctions on arms sales, more monitoring of human rights in
Sri Lanka, relief for the displaced people, and ultimately expulsion from the
Commonwealth. I support all those demands except the last. I do not think that
that would help. I think that Sri Lanka needs to remain in the Commonwealth and
that Commonwealth leaders should put pressure on Sri Lanka to negotiate a
settlement. Like many other hon. Members, I urge our Government to take a more
vigorous and proactive role in the future to achieve some peace in that poor
country, through the European Union and the United Nations.
Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): We have
had an interesting debate, which was movingly introduced by the hon. Member for
Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) with a guide not only to his family
history, but to his developing awareness of the problems in Sri Lanka. He spoke
of the development of Sri Lanka and the questions that he has raised in the
House about what is going on in that country. I urge him to press the Secretary
of State for International Development for a response to the questions that he
posed on 3 May, as I am rather distressed to find that to date he has not
received a response.
The hon. Members for
Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and for
Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) made valuable contributions, a common theme of which
was a criticism of the press for failing to highlight sufficiently the terrible
goings-on in Sri Lanka.
It is therefore with a
heavy heart that I tell hon. Members that during the debate, I received a
message from outside the Chamber that BBC news and other media have a breaking
story from Sri Lanka of a Cabinet Minister and at least nine others who have
been assassinated today. The story was posted on the BBC at 9.36 am, and I know
that the Minister of State will have news of this sad bombing and assassination.
I hope that when he sums up, he will give us the latest information.
I am sure that the
entire House sends its commiserations and condolences to the families of those
who have been brutally murdered. We do not yet know the details, but we hope
that the information will be forthcoming from the Foreign Office before the end
of the debate. Today in Sri Lanka it is War Heroes day. One assumes that the
bombing is a result of the events held in Colombo by the Government.
The conflict in Sri
Lanka is a continuing story of violence and endless war. Like all hon. Members
who have spoken this morning, we, too, want a political settlement, an end to
the crisis and a return to normality and peace. The international community has
rightly been engaged in the search for a solution. Mention has been made of
Norway, but India and the United States have also made great efforts to broker a
peace--sadly, largely to no avail.
When the Conservatives
were in government, we called for a directly negotiated settlement between the
Sri Lankan Government and the Tamils. Despite recent visits by the United States
Under-Secretary of State, Thomas Pickering, and the Norwegian deputy Foreign
Minister, Raymond Johansen, who have reiterated those calls, the military
situation has deteriorated rapidly and the offers of mediation by the Indian
Government have failed to gain momentum with either side.
Earlier this year the
importance of securing a peaceful outcome was highlighted during the visit of my
right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the leader of the
Conservative party, who, as chairman of the International Democrat Union,
chaired the executive meeting that was held in Sri Lanka in March. During that
meeting, we as fellow Conservatives welcomed the membership of the United
National party, which has joined the Asia-Pacific Democrat Union, one of the
regional bodies of the IDU. At the same time, the UNP took up observer status at
the IDU, which will lead to full membership at the next IDU party leaders
conference in 2002.
Sri Lanka has gained
an important new link with the international community through the inclusion of
the UNP in that group. Now there is yet another opportunity of a forum in which
Sri Lankans can pursue the shared values of democracy and freedom, which is
essential for the resolution of the conflict.
During the IDU's
executive meeting, there was an opportunity for some of the widespread problems
experienced during the presidential elections to be aired. That led to a call,
which we support, for the placing of independent monitors at an early stage in
the forthcoming general election, to which the hon. Member for Southwark, North
and Bermondsey referred. I hope that the Minister will support us in asking the
Sri Lankan Government to issue early invitations to observers, particularly from
the Commonwealth, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the European Union.
I understand that when
the leader of my party was there, nothing served as a more graphic example of
the troubles in Sri Lanka than the bomb attack that took place during the IDU
meeting. Again, the atrocity resulted in enormous loss of life and a huge number
of injuries. Like the bomb today, it demonstrates the need to find a solution to
the on-going problem.
The hon. Member for
Kingston and Surbiton was generous enough to acknowledge the efforts of the
Conservative Government. I single out the efforts made by my hon. Friend the
Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), when he was a Minister, to promote the
bipartisan approach that we seek. I believe that it was called the Liam Fox
agreement, and has been promoted in Sri Lanka, not least by the opposition
party. Part 1 of the agreement was signed by the Sri Lankan President. I should
be interested to hear what steps the Minister and the Foreign Office have taken
to build on that agreement.
There will be no
winners in the war. It is an impossible war. There must be a negotiated
settlement leading to a bipartisan solution. I hope that the Minister will let
us know, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey pressed him to
do, what active role has been played in the three years of the Government's
Mr. Simon Hughes:
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). The leaders of
the Tamil liberation movement rightly accept the premise of that
agreement--that if there is to be a settlement, negotiation must take place
and there must be a bilateral view among the parties of government. It is no
good reaching agreement with one party and then discovering that another
party which might come to government is not bound by it. I understand that
there is a general view, certainly in the opposition, that that is the way
to proceed. There have been talks between the President and the leader of
the opposition. They must be as one in their agreement, so that genuine
negotiations can take place. That is the only way forward.
The hon. Gentleman makes a logical and powerful point, and I look forward to
hearing the Minister's response. I thank the hon. Member for Southwark, North
and Bermondsey for his kind remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for
Woodspring. I am sure that my hon. Friend will read those with interest.
One of the main political
issues in Sri Lanka is the emergency regulations imposed by the President on 3
May. It is believed that the Government's objective was to block reporting
critical of the war, particularly at a time when 25,000 Government troops were
trapped in the Jaffna peninsula. The early-day motions tabled on the issue have
been mentioned in the debate. One was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for
Windsor (Mr. Trend).
I hope that in the Minister's
response, he will take the opportunity to join us in condemning those draconian
regulations, which limit the freedom of association and the freedom of the
press, and allow for detention without trial for up to a year. That, coupled
with the restrictions on political and trade union meetings, is deeply worrying
in the run-up to the elections.
prevention of terrorism legislation, which has been in place for most of the
past 20 years, is also a denial of civil liberties. The more recent
draconian measures are to be deplored, but so are the earlier measures.
Mrs. Gillan: I
was not implying that the earlier legislation was less problematic. However, the
developments are disturbing, especially in the run-up to the elections. They
send the wrong signals. What representations have the Minister and the Foreign
Office made to the Sri Lankan high commissioner? Does the Minister believe that
the regulations run counter to the recent European Union note, which requested
that Sri Lanka show respect for human rights? Does he believe that the
regulations contravene the United Nations charter on human rights? If so, what
action does he propose to take?
It is not unreasonable to
conclude that the Sri Lankan Government are trying to shut down political debate
and handicap the opposition in an attempt to cover up some of the defeats that
they have suffered, primarily through poor political leadership and apparent
Sri Lanka needs free and fair elections. That is an important issue in many
parts of the world. How can the United Kingdom contribute to the process and
support conditions in which free and fair elections can take place?
I should like to know the
Minister's response to the European Union proposals. That has already been
requested during the debate. As the Minister knows, the European Parliament has
called for European members of the United Nations to introduce the subject for
discussion before the Security Council of the UN. That caused a furore in
Colombo, where a senior Foreign Office official perceived such a discussion as
the precursor to the development of what he described as a mess such as those in
Bosnia or Sierra Leone. Does the Minister believe that the EU demands are
helpful and justified? Does he support them? If so, how will he pursue them?
We all want an end to the
conflict, which has consumed thousands of innocent lives. I appreciate that
numbers are always doubtful, but the latest reports state that some 62,000
people have already been killed in the conflict. I hope that the Minister will
explain what commitment the Government will make to applying diplomatic
pressure, thus contributing to a solution and hastening the end of a seemingly
endless and pointless war.
The Minister of State, Foreign and
Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain):
I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr.
Hughes) for raising this subject and for the timely opportunity to respond to
his speech. It allows me to make the first ministerial statement on Sri Lanka
for seven years. I readily acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's involvement with Sri
Lanka, his family's connection with that country and the expert knowledge with
which he spoke today. Madam Speaker also has a long and close association with
the island. That underlines the importance that Britain attaches to the people
of Sri Lanka.
I welcome the opportunity
to express the Government's deep concern about the tragic situation in Sri
Lanka, which was so well described by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington,
North (Mr. Corbyn), by the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and for
Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), and by the hon. Member for Chesham and
Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), with whose speech I agreed to a large extent. We are
especially worried about the fighting on the Jaffna peninsula. The hon. Member
for Southwark, North and Bermondsey urged us to do more. We are doing a great
deal, which I shall explain.
I shall outline what we
are doing, together with our international partners, to try to encourage a
peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. However, I shall first
bring hon. Members up to date, as the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham
invited me to do, with the appalling incident that took place today. As we have
been speaking, reports have reached us about a suicide bomb near Colombo. The
Minister for Industrial Development, C. V. Gunaratne, and at least 10 others
have been killed, and several people have been seriously wounded at a memorial
parade to commemorate War Heroes day. The British Government condemn such acts
of terrorism in the strongest terms, and extend the deepest sympathy to the Sri
Lankan Government and to all the families of those who have been killed and
injured. I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members.
It is a tragedy that Sri
Lanka, a country with such huge potential, should have been blighted for so long
by civil strife. I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and
Bermondsey when he described the conflict as, to some extent, the world's
forgotten civil war. The human cost of the conflict has been awful. More than
60,000 people have been killed, many more have been injured or maimed, and there
are hundreds of thousands of refugees, both inside and outside Sri Lanka. Those
are the people who have been directly affected.
Indirectly, the conflict
has touched many more: the families of the victims, those who have remained in
poverty because of the damage that has been done to Sri Lanka's economic
development, and, as has already been said, the distortion of the economy into
one that is arms directed rather than one that provides humanitarian relief and
decent public services for its citizens. Young Sri Lankans, both Sinhalese and
Tamils, have been forced to leave their country to find new lives overseas.
Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North):
I am especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way to
me, because I could not be here earlier as I had to attend a constituency
engagement. I would dearly have liked to participate more fully in the
The Minister spoke
of refugees and people who have been displaced by the conflict. Will he join
me in expressing anxiety about the Sri Lankan Government's refusal to allow
a ceasefire during the current conflict in the peninsula, although the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam offered one, to permit the 15,000 civilians
who were there to leave the area? I believe that the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees condemned that refusal. What representations did
our Government make to the Sri Lankan Government on that specific point?
Mr. Hain: I agree
with my hon. Friend.
We made strong representations to the Sri Lankan Government, who were wrong to
refuse to agree a ceasefire to allow such an exodus. The scale of the human
disaster has been dreadful. The conflict has had a huge economic cost, not only
in the money that has been spent on the war effort, but in the work that has not
been done, and the opportunities that have been lost due to lack of investor
confidence. The war has held back Sri Lanka when that country should have been
forging ahead to the benefit of all its citizens.
Our anxiety about the dreadful
situation is compounded by two factors. First, Sri Lanka is a good friend. It is
not a distant island about which we know nothing or care little. On the
contrary, Britain has had a long and close relationship with Sri Lanka for more
than 200 years. Our bilateral relations are excellent, with strong links in many
Approximately 200,000 people in this country have their roots in Sri Lanka. It
pains us to see what is happening there. We cannot stand idly by and watch
yet another humanitarian disaster unfold in a country with which we have such
The second factor is the
unshakeable belief that Sri Lanka's ethnic problems cannot be resolved by
military means. Seventeen years of conflict have made it abundantly clear that,
to put it bluntly, the war is unwinnable. I agree with the hon. Member for
Southwark, North and Bermondsey about that. We are not alone in the
international community in that view, and many in Sri Lanka share it. The cycle
of violence, which has afflicted Sri Lanka for so long, must be broken if peace
is to have any chance of taking root. For those reasons, we have long called for
a lasting solution through a political settlement.
Since the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam launched their
"Unceasing Waves" offensive against Sri Lankan forces last November, they
have occupied the Vanni and
the strategic Elephant pass entrance
to the Jaffna peninsula. While the battle ebbs and flows from day to day, the
LTTE are close to Jaffna town, which they last occupied in 1995. In the past
week, there have been reports that Sri Lankan forces are counter-attacking.
There have been heavy casualties on both sides. The intensity of fighting has
diminished in recent days, but the future of Jaffna remains uncertain. However,
I must stress to the Chamber that, in the absence of reliable information, our
assessment cannot be definitive.
There are also up to half a
million civilians, the vast majority of whom are Tamil, trapped in the war
zone--an area the size of Buckinghamshire. Although both sides have advised
civilians to move away from the areas of fighting to safety, international
non-governmental organisations believe that a
significant number of civilians are trapped by the fighting. A curfew is in
place, which not only hinders the movement of civilians, but hampers the aid
agencies trying to help those displaced by the fighting.
It is difficult to be sure how
many are affected, but there could be as many as 150,000 people. It is one of
the most serious situations in the world.
Water and sanitation appear to be the major problems.
Government authorities and NGOs are trying to address those problems, but access
to the areas affected by the conflict is difficult. The difficulties faced by
the civilian population are therefore very real.
It would not be helpful to
speculate on what might happen next in Jaffna, but continued fighting would add
to the death toll on both sides, both civilian and military. Further heavy
fighting would also delay the start of negotiating a political settlement of the
It was because of our concerns about the continued impact of the fighting on
civilians and on the prospects for peace that we pushed for a statement by the
European Union on the deteriorating situation. The statement was issued on 15
May and called upon the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE to cease hostilities
and begin negotiations immediately, with a view to securing a peaceful
resolution to the conflict.
The EU reminded both sides of
their responsibility to ensure the safety of the civilian population in conflict
zones, in particular on the Jaffna peninsula. The EU joined the UN
Secretary-General in urging both parties to co-operate with the Norwegian
Government in their endeavours to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the
conflict. I should add that Kofi Annan, in his statements of 9 and 24 May,
expressed concern about the humanitarian consequences of the recent upsurge in
fighting. He, too, urged both sides to avoid placing civilian lives at risk.
We have taken that matter up
with the Sri Lankan Government, and the LTTE is also well aware of our position.
They know that the safety of civilians is of paramount importance and that we
call on them to abide by international humanitarian and human rights law and to
look after prisoners. We also call on the LTTE not to carry out attacks against
its Tamil opponents. We cannot forget the killings and abuses of human rights
that occurred when the LTTE last occupied Jaffna, in particular those against
members of the minority Muslim community.
The eyes of the international community are on the LTTE.
A peaceful resolution of the
conflict in Sri Lanka is vital, and Britain stands ready to help in the search
for peace if both sides want us to play such a role. Far from being passive, as
the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for Kingston and
Surbiton suggest, we are proactive, and I shall explain how. We have held
discussions to make it clear that we welcome and support the Norwegian
facilitation efforts. Let me take this opportunity to say that we recognise the
importance of India's role in the search for peace, as the key player in the
region. We welcome India's willingness to provide humanitarian assistance, if
requested, and we are in close touch with the Indian Government.
As I said earlier, Sri Lanka is
a good friend. We support
its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The precise terms of any
settlement are a matter for the people of Sri Lanka, but they will have to
respect the rights and aspirations of all communities, including those that the
LTTE claims to represent.
We welcome President
Kumaratunga's firm commitment to a negotiated settlement and her attempts to
reach consensus with the opposition United National party and other political
parties, including the Tamil parties, on some form of devolution package to put
to the LTTE. The constitutional status quo is neither politically desirable nor
viable. We also welcome the undertaking given by the leader of the opposition,
Ranil Wickremesinghe, to put aside political differences to try to achieve a
bipartisan position on a future constitutional framework. Those are important
steps forward, and we have been encouraging them.
I pay tribute to President
Kumaratunga. She is a brave woman who commands our respect. I also pay tribute
to one of my predecessors, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), whom the
hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned, for the efforts that he made in
1997 to persuade the president and the opposition leader to adopt a bipartisan
approach to the peaceful resolution of the conflict. We continue to take forward
the Fox agreement. I welcome the Leader of the Opposition's recent visit, during
which he adopted a similar position; it was a valuable visit.
The process of negotiation will not be easy, as we know from our experience
in Northern Ireland. Both sides will need to show patience and flexibility as
talks get under way. They will need to make compromises. After 17 years of
bitter conflict, it is wholly unrealistic to expect negotiations to be concluded
quickly. It will take time to build up trust between the two sides.
I agree with the hon. Member for
Chesham and Amersham in reiterating the last point in the EU statement. We
strongly regret the restrictions on civil liberties and press freedom under the
emergency regulations introduced by the Sri Lankan Government. The EU called on
them to lift the restrictions as soon as possible. Therefore, I welcome the
lifting of restrictions on political meetings and processions on 2 June and the
easing of the censorship rules for the foreign media on 5 June. I hope that that
first step towards lifting the emergency regulations will soon be extended to
the local media as well, as has been suggested by the Sri Lankan Minister
responsible for the media.
We will continue to raise civil
liberties and human rights concerns with the Sri Lankan authorities, although we
they have taken steps to improve their human rights record. Our high
commissioner in Colombo has provided funding to several NGOs that promote
good governance and democracy.
LTTE has been responsible for serious human rights violations. We condemn
the terrorist attacks in Colombo and elsewhere, which have killed and wounded
many innocent civilians, including President Kumaratunga herself. On the points
made by the hon. Member for Richmond Park, we are strongly opposed to the LTTE's
continued use of child soldiers, despite a 1998 commitment to the UN special
representative for children and armed conflict not to use children under 18
years of age in combat.
Much diplomatic activity is
taking place to try to bring about a cessation of hostilities and create the
conditions for peace. I assure the Chamber that the Government, while happy for
now to play a supporting role in the search for peace, remain in close and
regular contact with the key international players. I have held discussions with
the Indian deputy Foreign Minister, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign
Secretary has held discussions with the Indian Foreign Minister. They undertook
to keep in touch with us on the subject.
On 24 May, I held a meeting in
London with my Norwegian counterpart, Raymond Johansen, as I did with his
predecessor a few weeks before. I was keen to hear his impressions of the
situation and we shared a perspective on it. We continue to keep in close touch
and stand ready to help. We have kept in regular contact with the Sri Lankan
Government. I have met, among others, leading bishops from Sri Lanka, who are in
touch with a range of bodies, including the LTTE.
Mr. Simon Hughes:
The Minister may not have time to deal with everything now, but I ask him to
ensure that if he cannot give us answers on the arms issues now, answers
will be given, and publicly. Specifically, will he consider the idea that
Britain should make it clear to the Sri Lankan Government that there must be
international access to all parts of Sri Lanka, both to make the facts and
the public's views clear and to facilitate the solution, in terms both of
peace and of a new constitutional settlement?
Mr. Hain: Indeed,
I am very content to do that. I am about to respond to the points about arms,
but first I shall respond to the issues raised about relief. I shall ask my
right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to
provide a detailed reply, a copy of which can be placed in the Library. We have
made representations to Sri Lankan Government about the restrictions that have
been placed from time to time on relief supplies into the Vanni, and we shall
continue to do so.
On the detailed points about
asylum seekers, which are obviously of concern, I shall ask my ministerial
colleagues in the Home Office to reply in detail, taking account of the points
that hon. Members have made, and to place a copy of the reply in the Library.
I understand the points that
several hon. Members have made about arms sales. Our policy is very clear: we
approve arms export applications only
if they do not involve arms that could be used for internal repression or
external aggression. However, Sri Lanka has an elected Government who have
legitimate defence needs. Again, I shall write in detail to the hon. Member for
Southwark, North and Bermondsey and place a copy of my letter in the Library.
We are discussing with the EU, the dispatch of election monitors to monitor the
parliamentary elections later this year. Although we have held discussions
with our colleagues--the Indians, those in the United States and others--to try
to reach a common position at the UN, we were unable to do so, but we continue