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That this House regrets the Governments recent statement outlining the eligibility criteria for Gurkhas to reside in the United Kingdom; recognises the contribution the Gurkhas have made to the safety and freedom of the United Kingdom for the past 200 years; notes that more Gurkhas have laid down their lives for the United Kingdom than are estimated to want to live here; believes that Gurkhas who retired before 1997 should be treated fairly and in the same way as those who have retired since; is concerned that the Governments new guidelines will permit only a small minority of Gurkhas and their families to settle whilst preventing the vast majority; further believes that people who are prepared to fight and die for the United Kingdom should be entitled to live in the country; and calls upon the Government to withdraw its new guidelines immediately and bring forward revised proposals that extend an equal right of residence to all Gurkhas.
Damian Green: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the wake of that devastating vote for the Government, have you had any indication that Ministers intend to come to the House and make an immediate statement about how they propose to change their policy, as the House has now spoken clearly?
Mr. Heath: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is an historic defeat for the Government. It would be in order for a Minister to make a statement this very evening to explain how the Government propose to enact the clear will of the House to allow Gurkhas residence in this country.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sure the House will understand that as the matter was decided only a few seconds ago, it is unlikely that I would have had any notice of any proposals by the Government. This is obviously an extremely serious matter and a very serious decision. I am sure all the occupants of the Treasury Bench as well as the House of Commonshave heard what has happened today, and no doubt the Government will take whatever steps they feel are necessary.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): We now move on to a debate on Sri Lanka, and I must advise the House [Interruption.] Order. We have more serious business to deal with. Will those who are leaving please do so not en masse, but quietly, and let us get on with the next business. I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
That this House is concerned that the fighting in Sri Lanka has already had a devastating effect on hundreds of thousands of civilians, with thousands killed and wounded, and many tens of thousands traumatised and suffering from lack of food, water and basic medicines; believes there is a real danger of an even greater bloodbath in the next few days if a ceasefire is not immediately agreed between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; further believes that access is vital for humanitarian assistance, human rights monitors and members of the international media throughout the conflict zone and to all internally displaced persons, each of whom must, like every Sri Lankan citizen, have all their internationally recognised rights guaranteed; calls for an immediate and permanent ceasefire and peace talks; urges the Government energetically to continue and increase its efforts within the United Nations, European Union and Commonwealth and with others to broker a ceasefire; and urges the Government to make it clear to all sides that those who are proved to have committed war crimes in this conflict will be in danger of arrest, prosecution and punishment wherever they go for the rest of their lives.
For once, it is welcome that the Foreign Secretary is not joining us for a Liberal Democrat Opposition day debate. Although we hope to hear from him in the House tomorrow on the subject of Sri Lanka, I am sure the whole House will wish him well [Interruption.]
As I was saying, although we hope to hear from the Foreign Secretary tomorrow on the subject of Sri Lanka, I am sure the whole House will wish him well as he visits Sri Lanka today, with the French Foreign Minister, Mr. Kouchner, even if his Swedish counterpart, Mr. Bildt, has been outrageously prevented from accompanying them. This trip by Foreign Ministers to Sri Lanka is an important European initiative, and we hope that it will combine with the efforts of others, especially those of the Americans and the Indians, to make both sides in that bloody conflict reflect hard and deep before the current nightmare turns into a total catastrophe.
I hope our motion may even add just a little to the strength of the message that the Foreign Ministers can convey, especially to the Sri Lankan Government. We tried to word our motion in a way that could garner support from across the House, so it is slightly unfortunate that the Government could not refrain from tabling their own amendment. I hope that Ministers might
reflect before 7 pm that if they decided not to press their amendment, it might be possible to unite all parties and send a unanimous message from the House of Commons.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government would show themselves in a much better light and a much more powerful position if, just occasionally, they accepted that somebody else might have an idea which might be a good one and which they might support?
Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. After what has just happened, the Government may want to reflect on that. Nevertheless, in this debate I want to try to bring the sides together, because during recent weeks and months I have worked with colleagues from all parties in the House in joint efforts to persuade our Government and others to go the extra mile for peace. With others, we have engaged closely with the British Tamil community and heard and felt its distress and its heartfelt angry demands for a ceasefire. That amazing British Tamil community has brought its protest to the steps of Westminster and Whitehall, and I believe that it has made its voice heard with dignity in a peaceful protest and in an effective manner. Sometimes, for many of us, it has been difficult to experience its raw emotion, visit the crowds in Parliament square and see its graphic pictures, and not ourselves become deeply emotional about its struggle for peace and justice.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Like me, the hon. Gentleman has visited the Tamil demonstration on a number of occasions and he will have seen the 200,000 people who marched through London a couple of weeks ago. Is he not astonished that the majority of the British media absolutely ignored the issue and refused to report it until the last few days? As a result of that the Tamil community feels a sense of anger and isolation.
Mr. Davey: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The British media should be asking themselves some serious questions, because the scale of what is happening in Sri Lanka, and the scale of the protest here by British citizens, should have been reported.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I just want to reinforce that intervention and, I am sure, the mood of the House. A couple of hours ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and I were with the head of human rights of the Commonwealth, and one of the three Tamils who were with us could barely speak because her relatives are in the part of Sri Lanka that is affected. She has no contact with them. For all she knows, her brother is dead; he is certainly out of contact. On top of the 70,000-plus who are recognised as having died before this year, and the at least 6,000 already officially this year, there are every day further losses to people in this country as well as in Sri Lanka.
Mr. Davey: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is that emotion that we have all experienced from talking to our constituents that we bring to this debate. I will try to focus on the facts and the logic of the argument, but I hope that the House will bear with me if I too sometimes get quite passionate about this.
John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I appreciate that, but to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), the Sri Lankan Government will not let the media in, and we must press for that. If I may say so in front of those on the Government Front Bench, I was disappointed to see that the Government amendment to the motion has omitted the point about ensuring that internationally the press have a presence and report what is going on. It is important that we campaign for that.
Mr. Davey: I agree, and that is why it is in the motion, and it is even worse. I am sorry if we are always going that bit further, but let us remember that the Sri Lankan Government are suppressing their own media in Colombo, the Sinhala media, because many Sinhalese people are ashamed of their Government and many in the Sinhalese media want to expose what that Government are doing.
What is happening in Sri Lanka? On a small coastal strip of land in a so-called no-fire zone near the town of Mullaitivu on the far north-east of Sri Lanka are the remaining Tamil Tiger forces, who may number as few as 200 seasoned fighters. With them on an area of land of around 5 square miles are a large number of civilians. Estimates vary. The Sri Lankan Government give a figure of around 20,000, but some agencies say it is 120,000. Whatever the figure, it is clear that the conditions for those people are extremely bleaklittle food and water, limited medical supplies that are fast running out and totally inadequate shelter. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that in excess of 1,000 wounded require urgent treatment. It warns that there is an imminent danger of an epidemic and severe malnutrition. On one side of that human mass there is the sea, and on the other there is the Sri Lankan army. Although there are mixed reports about who is firing what, there seems little doubt that heavy shelling of the no-fire zones, which is where the civilians are, has taken place, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, talk about the satellite evidence that he has seen.
There are credible reports that such bombardment is continuing, and there is a clear sense that the Sri Lankan army is preparing for a final offensive. How did we get hereto this battle, on this strip of land, with those tens of thousands of civilians caught up in the midst of the fighting?
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): My hon. Friend is making an important and powerful speech. He talked about the Sri Lankan Governments wish to achieve a final answer. Does he not agree that a final answer will not be achieved by the destruction of civilians and, indeed, the Tamil rebels, because millions of Tamils throughout the world will resent such a settlement? One cannot achieve a final settlement by military destruction.
We got to this situation in the short term because of a military push, begun this January by the Sri Lankan army, that has seen it take the key towns of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu and the strategic causeway of the Elephant pass. In the fighting to take those towns, it is estimated
that, this year alone, more than 5,000 civilians have been killed, including at least 500 children, and more than 12,000 people have been injured. That recent fighting is only the latest episode in a deep dispute that goes back many decades. Essentially, it is an ethnic dispute between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, with the inter-communal violence beginning with riots and pogroms dating back at least to the 1950s. The Tamil Tigers were formed in 1975, and the current civil war is widely considered to date from 1983. Since 1983, well over 70,000 people have lost their lives. On top of that, there has been a massive outpouring of refugees, with an estimated 450,000 internally displaced people, large numbers of people who have disappeared and even larger numbers who have fled abroad, including to this country.
Today is not the time for a full history of the dispute and conflict, nor a detailed analysis as part of some attempt to allocate blame and responsibility. The main demand of the motion, of the protestors and of the international community is for a ceasefire, now. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for ensuring that Britain was the first country to lead the global call for a ceasefire. Although I shall continue, with other MPs from all parts of the House, to push the Government to go further, I am grateful for the leadership that the Prime Minister has shown on this issue and for the courtesy that he has shown to me and other MPs in meeting us on several occasions.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and, certainly, for bringing the issue to the House today. Does he not agree that one of our big obstacles is the attitude of Russia and China, in particular, to United Nations assistance and so forth?
Despite my congratulations to the Prime Minister, the Minister will know that the Liberal Democrats, some Labour and Conservative MPs and, above all, Tamils throughout the world want the Government and the international community to do moreif necessary, much moreto achieve that ceasefire, pushing the diplomatic efforts to their very limits. Everyone who has studied the conflict recognises that obtaining a ceasefire now will be desperately difficult, but it is utterly vital if we are to avoid a massacre.
The Sri Lankan army clearly wants what it believes would be its final victory: to capture or kill all remaining Tamil Tigers and their leader, Prabhakaran, after 25 years of trying. The army believes that any massacre would be the Tigers fault for not allowing civilians to leave, and it cites credible evidence that the Tigers have prevented civilians from leaving the coastal strip. But, the Tigers are committed not to surrender. It is a long-developed image or strategy that those hardened fighters wear cyanide vials around their necks to avoid capture.
The Tigers would probably argue that some of the civilians, at least, remain with them voluntarily for fear of what the Sri Lankan army might do to them. So we have, on one side, an army intent on crushing the Tigers and determined to avoid a ceasefire, and on the other, a small force, determined never to surrender, offering up
proposals for a ceasefire but desperate for the civilians to remain with them as a human guarantee against the final attack.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman was generous in his tributes to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary; may I pay tribute to him for the work that he and his colleagues have done on this issue? Does he agree that this is not just about the EUs role? Although, of course, we welcome the visit of the French Foreign Secretary, and our own, to Colombo, the Indian Governmentthey, too, have called for a ceasefirealso have a very important role to play. Any discussions among the international community must include the countries in the region.
Mr. Davey: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are in danger of having lots of self-congratulation, but I congratulate him on the efforts that he has undertaken from the Labour Benches and with Indian politicians whom he knows. For all of us working on this, that is very important.
Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd) (Lab): I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said so far, but does he agree that it is very difficult for a state to put pressure on a non-state player, which is what the LTTE is? It has had a murderous history; it reinvented suicide bombings, and it has killed very many people. The Tamil people are ill served by it. I hope that he will tell us how such an organisation can be pressurised into some kind of constructive action other than the desperate act in which it is engaged of trying to ensure its own survival.
Mr. Davey: I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman as a former Foreign Office Minister, and I do not disagree with some of his remarks. His own Foreign Secretary has pointed out that democratic Governments have to abide by higher standards than such non-state actors, and I hope that he agrees with that.
The positive points that I want to make about how we can possibly get a ceasefire in this nightmare situation come not from the Liberal Democrats or the Government but from the International Crisis Group, which set out, only nine days ago, a set of sensible measures that I should like to share with the House.
First, the ICG calls on the Sri Lankan Government to halt their offensivea self-evident but crucial first step given that they hold the cards. Secondly, and diplomatically, it speaks of a humanitarian pause, rather than a ceasefireto make it easier for the Sri Lankan Governmentof initially a two-week period, overseen by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. It is hoped that in those two weeks, relief supplies could be got to civilians who want to stay, and a humanitarian corridor could be
established for all those wanting to leave. The ICG wants UN agencies to be able to undertake a proper and full assessment of how many civilians are left, and their needs, to ensure that the relief is sufficient and appropriate. Thirdly, it calls on the UN and the ICRC to be part of a process, unhindered by the Sri Lankan Government that would bring strong, international guarantees of safety to any civilians or Tamil Tigers prepared to lay down their arms and cross over into Government-controlled areas. That is key. It is only part of the answer, but if the international community can give those guarantees, it is more likely that at least some of the Tigers may cross over.
The ICG is in no doubt that all that would be difficult, partly for the reasons that the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) mentioned, and it talks about serious international pressure on both sides. It speaks of pressure on the Tamil Tigers from the Tamil diaspora, and there are signs that many in the diaspora want to put that pressure on them, because they have relatives who are the civilians at risk. It mentions pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, especially from Sri Lankas international funders. It rightly says that they must be told that all non-emergency development funding will end if there is a bloodbath. That is an important financial sanction that they must be made aware of.
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