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There is increasing recognition of the urgency of the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka, so I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject at this crucial time. Concern about the situation is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, as the attendance at todays debate shows. It is also deeply felt among the large number of Sri Lankans who have settled in the UK. In London alone, there are more than 150,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, who since their arrival here have made and continue to make a distinguished contribution to our public life. Their concern about recent developments was made perfectly clear last Monday, when 6,000 of them marched on Parliament.
Those worries are increasingly finding an international voice. I note the recent comments by the European Commissioner for External Relations and by the UN Secretary-General, which clearly acknowledged the seriousness of the present situation. I also welcome the recent statement issued by my right hon. Friend Lord Malloch-Brown and by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), when he was an International Development Minister. That statement acknowledges the gravity of the situation. However, we need to say and do more.
The current humanitarian crisis must be understood in the context of two interrelated developments: first, the escalation of fighting, particularly since July, between Government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; and secondly the compulsory withdrawal of UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations, including all their staff, supplies and vehicles, from the northern Vanni region. That measure was issued on 8 September and came into force on 29 September.
Although this debate is on the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka, my remarks will focus on the Vanni region. That does not mean that suffering in Sri Lanka is confined to the Tamil-speaking areas. Like all hon. Members, I read with horror the news of two suicide bombings in Sri Lanka last week in which 30 innocent civilians lost their lives. I am sure that all hon. Members present will join me in condemning the slaughter of innocent civilians wherever and whenever that takes place. None the less, it is fair to say that the costs of war are concentrated in the Tamil-speaking areas of the north.
Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that until December of last year, about 70 lorries a day of humanitarian aid were going into the north and north-east; in September of this year, that figure fell to zero. Does that not precisely represent the scale of the humanitarian crisis now faced by the displaced people in the north and east of Sri Lanka?
The conflict in Sri Lanka has been as protracted as it is bloody. In a civil war that has spanned more than 25 years, as many as 200,000 lives have been lost. There is, however, reason to believe that the current spate of violence between Government forces and the LTTE in the north, particularly since July 2008, is worse than the conflict that preceded the 2002 ceasefire, and that the Government military campaign has become more brutal and indiscriminate. With that escalation in violence has come a deterioration in the humanitarian situation. I am talking about more than 4,000 people killed since 2006, tens of thousands injured and more than 220,000 displaced. I use the word displaced hesitatingly, because for me it does not really capture the seriousness of the situation. It seems to imply a minor and perhaps temporary inconvenience when it really means people being forced to leave their home and all their worldly possessions and abandon their livelihood and then finding themselves lacking adequate shelter, sanitation, clean drinking water and food to feed their children. For some 10,000 families, displacement means living in the open air, living under the trees.
Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady agree that included in the 250,000 innocent Tamil civilians are 40,000 children who are suffering now, and that the time has come for NGOs to be allowed back in to deal with humanitarian problems?
At the same time as the humanitarian situation has worsened, the agencies and bodies that were previously giving people food, offering medical treatment and providing families with things such as mosquito nets, bed linen and sleeping mats have been forced to leave. More and more people have come to rely on international agencies and NGOs to meet their most basic needs, and the compulsory withdrawal of UN and humanitarian agencies denies them that lifeline.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. The situation is a catastrophe now. Only today, the Pearaaru bridge was blown up by the Sri Lankan Government. That was the one route whereby humanitarian aid was being taken into Vanni. Is it not time for the British Government to act, either by themselves or in co-ordination with the European Union, to tell the Sri Lankan Government that they must stop the bombing of innocent Tamils?
I shall return to focusing on health care, particularly in relation to what my right hon. Friend has just mentioned. The conflict has not yet precipitated a large-scale epidemic, but with the start of the monsoon season, that remains a real threat, particularly if the violence is prolonged or conditions deteriorate further. Given what my right hon. Friend has said, we can expect that to be the case.
Against the backdrop of endemic shortages in medical supplies and staff, and with local facilities in the Vanni region already overstretched and struggling to cope
with the burden of war casualties, the role of international aid agencies in the provision of medical treatment becomes even more important. Forcing them to withdraw leaves the Tamils in the precarious position of facing increasing demand for medical treatment and falling capacity to meet that need. Only two weeks ago, Médecins sans Frontières was forced to withdraw from Kilinochchi, despite the fact that there are only 17 qualified doctors working in the whole of the Vanni region.
As with medical services, so too with food supplies. I know that, at the end of September, the British Tamils Forum took up that issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury, in his previous capacity as an International Development Minister. Forced to leave their homes and jobs, thousands are now unable to earn a living. That, coupled with rising food pricesthey have risen by 50 per cent. this year aloneand a shortfall in the domestic supply of rice, which is the staple food of islanders, means that the Tamils face a severe food shortage and the prospect of malnutrition and even starvation, without even the assistance of international aid agencies, on which they could previously rely for food.
If the situation in the Vanni region is almost unremittingly bleak, so too are its future prospects. Figures that I have obtained from Save the Children indicate that more than 30,000 schoolchildren from 154 schools have been displaced and denied any prospect of an education or a future. They have been denied access to schooling and care that was previously provided by international aid agencies, and I fear that another generation will grow up knowing nothing but the grim reality of war.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate and on her speech. Although we are seeing a catastrophe unfold and we need urgent action both from the British Government and the international community in putting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, this is a story that many of us have watched unfolding for several years now, with the Sri Lankan Governments unwillingness to allow human rights groups to monitor the undermining of human rights in the Tamil communities and Tamil area of the island. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is time that the British Government take a much stronger line against the Colombo Government on their failure to allow even human rights monitoring of the conflict in the north and east of the island?
Joan Ryan: We are here today to urge the British Government to say and do more. That is undoubtedly the truth, but I also think that the British Government have raised their voice on these matters and it is incumbent on all parties in the House to do that together. It is clear that we are on the brink of catastrophe. That is why the timing of the debate is very important. If the international aid agencies cannot do so, who will ensure that the Tamils have somewhere to sleep, something to eat, access to health services and some security? I fear that it will not be the Government of Sri Lanka, as the hon. Gentleman points out.
I am grateful to the high commissioner for providing me with an accurate and up-to-date briefing on the situation. I was pleased to note his acknowledgement that the conflict cannot be solved through military means. He also reaffirmed his full commitment to finding a lasting political solution. I know that hon. Members endorse that position as being eminently sensible, and that point has been made time and again in previous debates.
None the less, it seems to me that the Sri Lankan Governments priority is not to address the humanitarian situation or to work to restore the ceasefire but, on the back of the their military successes in the east, to achieve a decisive military victory in the north. Forced withdrawal can be understood only in the broader context of what Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group have described as
a quite deliberate and sustained government campaign to vilify and intimidate international agencies and their staff.
That the press is not free in Sri Lanka is well known. Dissenting voices are frequently subject to harassment, physical attacks and even assassination. Less well known is the fact that international aid agencies are subject to similar pressures. In preparing for todays debate, I spoke with a number of aid agency representatives, and I was shocked but not surprised by their reluctance to speak out publicly on the situation in the north, in part for fear of Government reprisals. However, in addition to their vital humanitarian functions, the agencies act as the eyes of the world. In August alone, some 1,750 people in the Vanni contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross to make allegations of human rights abuses.
Provoked by suicide bombs, freed from the constraining gaze of the international community and emboldened by their apparent successes in the east, I fear that the Government of Sri Lanka may have deceived themselves into believing that they can press home their advantage with a decisive military victory in the north, and thereby achieve a permanent solution. However, there can be no military solution. Until the underlying political grievances are addressed, some form of violent resistance is almost certain. The Government of Sri Lanka cannot indefinitely control and pacify the Tamil areas in the north.
The only long-term solution will be a political one, achieved through inclusive political negotiations that satisfy the legitimate aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka. In short, it means genuine devolution to the Tamil-speaking areas in the north and the east. Genuine negotiations can begin only when a ceasefire has been established, so restoration of the ceasefire must be an urgent priority for the Government of Sri Lanka.
On 30 September, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), then a Minister in the Department for International Development, had a meeting with members of the Tamil forum about the crisis in Kilinochchi. The Government said that they wished to send aid, including the vital snake bite serum, directly to that area. If that cannot be provided through NGOs, it must be provided through local Tamil organisations. Does my right hon. Friend believe that that is the way to proceed?
I have no doubt that the previous ceasefire was inconsistent, imperfect and ultimately flawed, but it was a basis for progress. Under that ceasefire, proposals were made for proper devolution and an autonomous Tamil province. Only under a ceasefire can meaningful negotiations proceed and a solution be found. However, although such a prospect is obviously urgent it seems more distant than ever. Meanwhile, suffering in the Vanni region continues unabated. Any approach must therefore be twofold. On one hand, urgent action must be taken to tackle the immediate humanitarian situation. In my view, that must include the Government allowing access for aid organisations and ensuring that aid reaches those who need it. On the other, the Government of Sri Lanka, being the party that formally withdrew from the agreement, must make a genuine and sustained effort to re-establish a ceasefire, stem the increase in violence, and return to talks about peace.
In this, on the 60th anniversary of the independence of Ceylon from the United Kingdom, the case for a just settlement in Sri Lanka seems more urgent than ever, and the peace dividends more appealing than evera peace not for the Tamils, nor for the Sinhalese, but for Sri Lanka.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) for her kind words on my debut. I congratulate her on securing this timely debate, and I applaud her long-standing interest in the subject.
Since Labour came to power in 1997, there has been a marked change in the United Kingdoms commitment to international development. We have taken the lead in international efforts to tackle global poverty, driven by our desire to see social justice and equality on a global scale. Since the Department for International Development was created in 1997, it has become a world-renowned development agency and a key actor in the global system. By 2010, the Government will have trebled the aid budget in real terms since 1997 and put the UK on course to deliver the United Nations gold standard by spending 0.7 per cent. of gross national income on aid by 2013, which is two years ahead of the European target.
Throughout todays debate, concerns have been expressed about the conflict in Sri Lanka and its impact on the civilian population. Although the world is understandably focused on the global financial situation, we cannot ignore the plight of the most vulnerable. There is a real risk that efforts to eradicate global poverty will be undermined by global financial and commodity price crises, threatening progress made on meeting the UNs millennium development goals that aim to make poverty history. It is essential that we keep up our efforts.
The Government share the grave concern about the prospects for peace in Sri Lanka, the humanitarian situation there, the decline in respect for human rights and the impact that the conflict is having on Sri Lanka's development, including slowing the recovery from the tsunami of December 2004.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his new job, and I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate. I had to find another room for those who cannot get into the Public Gallery, which shows the strength of feeling of the mainly Tamil community represented in all our constituencies.
Many of those who come to my advice surgery are concerned about relatives or friends being injured while in Sri Lanka. Many are concerned that that will happen through the use of weapons sold by our Government or one of our allies. I would be grateful if the Minister and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence did everything possible to ensure that that was not the case.
Mr. Foster: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. She will, of course, be aware that any arms sales from the UK are subject to export licences and the rigorous tests that is applied as a result.
Although the Government of Sri Lanka have the responsibility of defending themselves against terrorism, they also have the challenge of delivering a political settlement that will meet the legitimate aspirations of Sri Lankas different ethnic groups. Unfortunately, that is still a long way off.
Barry Gardiner: I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend in his place today. Will he take the opportunity to condemn the remarks of Lieutenant-General Fonseka, who was recently reported as saying that he strongly believes that
this country belongs to the Sinhalese.
We being the majority in the country, 75 per cent., we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country.
Mr. Foster: We have made it clear that we do not believe that there is a military solution to the conflict, and that a sustainable solution to Sri Lankas conflict can emerge only from a just political settlement that involves all the communities there.
The total number of internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka is estimated at 500,000. The worst off are the approximately 220,000 people who have repeatedly been displaced by the conflict in the north over the past year, including at least 30,000 who have been displaced an average of five times. Those desperate people fear both sides in the conflict and have barely enough food to survive on. As we have heard, they are made more vulnerable and less able to cope each time they are driven out of their homes.
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