The British Intervention

The latest international development in the SL separatist conflict is the intervention of Britain. Britain is, of course, the last colonial power but after it gave independence to a united country in 1948 it had not intervened too much in SL affairs. The relationship got even more distant after the Hela revolution of 1956 and the change to a Republic. The first foreign power to intervene in the SL conflict was India and the legacy of that intervention has still not been completely wiped out. The next official foreign intervention came with the CFA which was to be monitored by the SLMM in which Norway played the leading role with Japan, Europe and America as co-chairs. During this period the problem got progressively worse, the killing intensified, law-and-order vanished in many parts of the country, and the LTTE was given a sanctuary and acquired an air capability.

The British intervention this time has taken several forms. The House of Commons formed an All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPGT), debated the SL problem in Parliament, suspended aid to the country, and called for the revival of the "peace process". These are extraordinary measures. There are scores of ethnic minorities who have outstanding problems in the countries they live e.g. Basques, Nagas, Karens, Bahais, Kurds, Coptics, etc. but we do not see the British parliament rushing to form APPGs dealing with them. Furthermore the Tamils referred to in the APPGT are not all Tamils but only those of Sri Lanka. Some SL "patriots" even thought of writing to the APPGT about the problems facing Tamilnadu Tamils but this shows how little they understood of the purpose of the British move. The Hansard text of the debate on SL is reproduced at the end of this blog.

Dr Kim Howells who seems to be leading figure in the APPGT is Minister for the Middle East. The only relevant connection between the Middle East and SL is that terrorism is rampant in both places. But while Britain is fighting terrorism in parts of the Middle East it is giving covert support to terrorists in Sri Lanka. Howells' understanding of the problem is seen in his reference to the "Sinhalese Government" as the counter part of the LTTE. While he did affirm that the ban on the LTTE in Britain will continue, he has called for negotiations with the LTTE. Part of this contradictory position may be explained by the fact the GOSL has not banned the LTTE and is still pledged to solve the problem through negotiations. Thus Howells cannot entirely carry the blame as a good part of it lies with the wrong policy on the part of the SL President. While GOSL has conducted some military actions against the LTTE it still maintains the CFA in place, so it is legitimate to assume that the military actions are designed to nudge the LTTE on to the negotiating table.

Dr Howell did mention the violence of the LTTE but in the context of attributing similar violence to the other parties to the conflict. There is as much stress on the violence of the Karuna faction knowing full well that the Karuna faction operates with the tacit support of GOSL forces in the East. This is an indirect attribution of their violence to GOSL as well. As far as GOSL is concerned there is reference to the disappearances in the north and in Colombo. So much is made of these "disappearances" and so little genuine information is released relating to them that it is difficult to make any comment on this from an observer without direct access to the facts. Part of the blame for this situation must attach to the information released by GOSL which is grossly inadequate and sometimes dubious. As a result the charge of GOSL complicity in these disappearances will continue to be hurled against GOSL by the "international community".

A more sinister role seems to be played by Keith Vaz . In the debate he made only one intervention to know if the ban on the LTTE would be lifted. He is said to be of sub-continental origin, probably a Catholic. Other indications show that he is an active promoter of the LTTE in the UK. Perhaps he did not reveal his real interest in this debate so as to maintain his cover. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown is more interested in Karuna's activities, linking him no doubt to the SL forces, and therefore he too could be an LTTE supporter. Chris Mullin was plugging the Norwegian line that banning the LTTE was not favourable to the peace process. Andrew Love raise the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and referred to the demand for a "UN-sponsored human rights monitoring commission". He then asked how the British Government would view such a body. Howells called it "well worth considering". Many people see that UN intervention may be a step that might be invoked by the IC, one that will institutionalize the division of the country. Amidst all this pro-LTTE sentiment only one member raised the issue of the assassination of Foreign Minister Kadirgamer described as an "ethnic Tamil".

There is little doubt that the prevailing sentiment in the debate was distinctly pro-Tamil and even pro-LTTE. GOSL came in for criticism along with the Karuna faction as an ally of GOSL. The conclusion of the discussion was to emphasis the peace process and Minister Howells laid down three requirements, as follows:

A close study of these requirements will see that a military defeat for terrorism is ruled out. Instead a negotiated settlement is preferred which will be the devolutionary solution. Finally human rights have to be upheld, but it is only the "human rights" of the Tamils that matter not of their victims.

The crucial question is whether the Mahinda Rajapakse government goes along with that agenda. A clear answer to that is required. Instead the President has been making grandiose declarations saying that he is not going to allow anyone to colonize Sri Lanka. The fact is that no-one is trying to colonize the country. What they are trying to do is to give a part of the country as a racist enclave to the Tamils (and perhaps also to other claimants). Whether this takes place as devolution, federalism or outright separation it will be the destruction of the unity of the country. We do not still have a guarantee to that from either the Government or the Opposition.

Victor Gunasekara

Debate on Sri Lanka

House of Commons, London, UK

2007-05-02 – 2.48 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

I am pleased to have this opportunity today to debate the current situation in Sri Lanka, and I am grateful to the right hon. and hon. Members present for their interest in this important issue. There has been mounting concern about the continuing violence and tragic displacement of people from their homes on that beautiful island. I want the House to know that this debate is the result of expressions of concern from right hon. and hon. Members. It is not, as some propagandists and partisan elements have claimed, a debate generated by any faction of Sri Lankan politics or by any lobbying organisations claiming to represent any part of the large Sri Lankan diaspora residing in Britain, pro or anti-LTTE.

I participated in a debate on Sri Lanka a year ago, when I expressed the hope that its Government and the LTTE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam–would fulfil the commitments that they made at talks in Geneva in February 2006, which were the first talks for three years. The Government had pledged that no armed group or person other than Government security forces would carry arms or conduct operations. For its part, the LTTE had pledged to ensure that there would be no acts of violence against the security forces and the police.

Sadly, those commitments remain unfulfilled. We have over the past year seen worsening violence. Extra-judicial killings, disappearances, intimidation and violence by paramilitary groups are all too common. The violence has fuelled an atmosphere of extreme mistrust and polarisation, which has fuelled further antagonism and violence. Innocent civilians have borne the brunt. There are now more than 100,000 displaced persons in the eastern district of Batticaloa and hundreds more arrive every day. There have been more than 700 cases of missing persons in the Jaffna peninsular, and nearly 500 are still unresolved. There have been more than 50 abductions in Colombo in the past year, and nine media workers have lost their lives in recent months. In the past few weeks, bus bombings have killed dozens of people simply going about their daily business. These are despicable terrorist acts that are totally without justification.

The responsibility of the LTTE for violent acts over the years is well documented. It is a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000. The EU listed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation in May 2006. We have repeatedly urged the LTTE to move away from the path of violence. In the absence of a full renunciation of terrorism in deed and word, there can be no question of reconsidering its proscribed status. LTTE involvement in killings, torture, detention of civilians and denial of freedom of speech is a reality. The LTTE does not tolerate any expression of opposition and its continuing recruitment of child soldiers is a matter of great concern.

The ability of the LTTE to raise funds overseas helps to sustain its ability to carry out violent acts and reduces the incentive to move way from the path of violence. LTTE fundraising activity in the United Kingdom encourages war, not peace. It will not be tolerated, and I have recently met our security authorities to discuss how we can counter the bullying, threats and acts of fraud that are used regularly to extract money from the Tamil population and others in the country.

The LTTE is not the only source of violence in Sri Lanka, however. Civilians in Government-controlled areas regularly fall victim to brutal attacks by paramilitary groups, often acting with apparent immunity. Reports of the Government's links with the faction led by Karuna, a former LTTE commander, concern us a great deal. We believe Karuna and his faction to be responsible for extra-judicial killings, abductions, intimidation of displaced persons and child recruitment. Karuna's record is appalling, and we will be watching very closely whether he acts on his commitment to the United Nations to address the child recruitment issue. We will want to see clear evidence that he has delivered against his welcome promises. Karuna needs to go further and cease all acts of violence and intimidation against civilians.

There must be no question of the Government of Sri Lanka allowing Karuna to perpetrate those crimes. If they are serious in their desire to find paths to an inclusive, peaceful Sri Lanka that embraces all its peoples and cultures, they must disassociate themselves completely from all acts of abuse, terrorism, intimidation or torture, no matter who commits them or what agency encourages them.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the comment made by the FBI assistant director in charge, who said "Karuna hasn't merely supported the LTTE cause, he has orchestrated support in the US"?

Before the Minister concludes his speech, will he answer two questions? First, what international co-ordination is there on intelligence to stop fundraising for the LTTE? Secondly, is there similar co-ordination to ensure that people such as Karuna, who have committed acts of terrorism, are brought to justice?

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is right: the list of crimes by this faction is long. We have been exchanging intelligence with a number of agencies in other countries. He will know that I cannot go into detail about that matter, although I can say that lately intelligence has indicated that there may be widespread fraud scams in the country. We are not certain about that, but they may be one of the sources of funding, at least part of which finds its way back to the LTTE and acts of terrorism.

Achieving peace is not going to be an easy task, and of course it is primarily for the Sri Lankan people to find a way forward. However, the international community can help. The Norwegians have had a central role in facilitating the 2002 ceasefire agreement, and the British Government applaud their efforts. It is obvious from recent events that the ceasefire is in trouble, if not shot to pieces. If it is adhered to and underpinned by the right conditions, however, it can still be a good base from which to launch a new peace initiative. The Norwegians have worked tirelessly and in difficult conditions to advance the cause of peace. As I said, they have our support. We value our regular consultations with them. The Norwegians tell us our commitment is valuable at this time. We support the work of the co-chairs–the US, the EU, Japan and Norway.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Would I be right in thinking that the Norwegian general who was based in Sri Lanka advised the EU against declaring the LTTE a terrorist organisation and said that that would lead to the breakdown of the ceasefire?

Dr. Howells: I cannot tell my hon. Friend whether that is true. I do not know; this is the first that I have heard of it, if it is the case. I will try to find out for him, and if I can find anything constructive, I shall write to him.

What is Britain doing to help with the search for peace? First and foremost, we are offering the benefit of our Northern Ireland experience. Sri Lanka is not Northern Ireland. It has a population of 20 million, which is more than 10 times that of Northern Ireland, and it is five times larger in area, but we think there are lessons from Northern Ireland that can be applied in a Sri Lankan context. For example, we learned the hard way that a focus on security can get us only so far. A lasting peace can come only if the underlying causes of conflict are addressed. In Sri Lanka, that means focusing on a credible framework for a negotiated settlement. An all-party conference will shortly present its findings on a constitutional way forward. I look forward to the publication of proposals for a framework for peace that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans, and to a constructive response to such proposals from the Sri Lankan Government.

Our Northern Ireland experience told us that peace will not happen until the parties to the conflict understand that nothing can be gained by continuing violence. A military victory for one side is very unlikely to produce a lasting political solution. Our experience tells us that an emphasis on the military inevitably means more war, rather than peace. A military victory is rarely winnable in the long run. Violence comes with too high a price. In Sri Lanka, we can see that such an approach brings suffering to the people, as human rights are eroded, the humanitarian situation deteriorates, a culture of impunity develops among the killers, extortionists and torturers, and mistrust between communities increases. That, in turn, damages Sri Lanka's image in the eyes of the world. We are doing all we can to get that message across.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise for arriving too late to hear the start of his speech. Unfortunately, the previous business ended rather suddenly and the debate began before I could get here.

My hon. Friend mentioned human rights. There is considerable concern in Sri Lanka and internationally about the human rights situation at the present time. Several international organisations have suggested that the only real solution is to set up a UN-sponsored human rights monitoring commission. How would the Government view such a body?

Dr. Howells: That suggestion is well worth considering. I will come to the question of a monitoring organisation in a minute. Of course, we already have one, and perhaps the best thing is to make that work rather than search for another one. However, it is certainly something that we could discuss.

High-level engagement is an essential part of our efforts to help with the search for peace in Sri Lanka. Last August, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister offered to share our experience of Northern Ireland with the Sri Lankan President, and he retains a close interest in events in Sri Lanka. I was particularly grateful that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) visited Sri Lanka in November to convey his invaluable experience as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Accompanied by another expert in these matters from the Northern Ireland Office, Mr. Chris McCabe, he met the President, Ministers and members of civil society. He also met representatives of the LTTE; the lessons of peace can only work if conveyed to all parties to the conflict. We remain ready to talk to the LTTE if such contacts can help the cause of peace. The response in Sri Lanka to my right hon. Friend's visit was very positive. I know that the President shares my wish that he and Mr. McCabe will pay a return visit to the island, and I understand that preparations are already under way for that.

I was pleased to visit Sri Lanka for a second time in February this year. In my meetings with the President, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Secretary, I underlined the British Government's wish to help in the search for peace. I stressed that a military solution was not the way forward–a message that I repeated to an MP from the Tamil National Alliance. The President told me that he thought that our contact with the LTTE would be helpful. I visited Ampara in the east of the island and was pleased to meet representatives of local communities–not only Sinhalese and Tamil but Muslims. It will be important to take into account the views of the Muslim community in any final negotiated settlement. I heard from UNICEF about the reality of child abductions and the threats and intimidations suffered by other non-governmental organisations in the east of the island.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister in London in March. She reiterated Britain's commitment to peace and our willingness to get involved in that whole process. She spoke of the terrible humanitarian impact of the conflict on the civilian population and the need for both sides to do more to protect that population. She repeated the message that there can be no military solution to conflict. The Minister assured her that a credible framework for negotiated settlement would issue very soon.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I, too, apologise for arriving late, having been caught out by the business moving so swiftly.

I thank my hon. Friend for his focus on these issues; whenever we have asked to meet to discuss them, he has been ready to do so. One of the bars to a proper solution to this problem is the ban that remains on the LTTE. Has he had any further discussions with the Home Secretary about whether the Government would be prepared to lift that ban, so ensuring that all parties could be part of a discussion to bring peace to the island?

Dr. Howells: My right hon. Friend, through no fault of his own, missed that part of my speech. If he will forgive me, I will not go back over it but simply say that, for reasons that I tried to explain a little earlier, I have not met my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to discuss this matter; if I thought that it was a good idea I would certainly do so. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen met LTTE representatives in the north of the island, and we are prepared to meet LTTE representatives in Sri Lanka if it is considered that that will help the peace process. I hope that that is clear enough.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): We are all apologising for lateness, but I was not as late as the others.

As we learned from Northern Ireland, individual issues can build up to create a sense of grievance. That is the case with regard to the proscription and non-recognition of the LTTE. Although there can be informal dialogue, nothing can substitute for more formal dialogue and recognition. Removing the ban would undermine one of the elements of the sense of grievance that contributes towards the conflict.

Dr. Howells: I take my hon. Friend's point, which is something that we have to consider. However, I have to tell him that, of all Members in this House, I am very much averse to recognising the legitimacy, if I could put it like that, of suicide bombers, murderers, torturers and rapists. I have been there twice and I have heard these stories myself many times, from NGOs and from Tamils themselves, as well as from Sinhalese and the Sinhalese Government. This has to be considered very carefully. As I tried to explain earlier, there is no silver bullet that is going to sort everything out. If we thought that that recognition would take matters forward, we would certainly be prepared to consider it very seriously–I give my hon. Friend that undertaking.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I must add my apologies for lateness.

The Minister clearly wants to ensure that there is a balanced discussion about this issue, and he is right because it is very serious. However, could not he lay out a review process and explain how he might talk to colleagues in this House and groups in this country, as well as to the people he and his colleagues have met on their visits to Sri Lanka, to determine the criteria? Some people in communities throughout this country and around this House feel that a one-sided approach is being taken and that a proper review process might ensure that a truly balanced approach is taken.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is not to know this, but we have had quite a number of meetings with Tamil groups from around the country. As well as talking to the Sri Lankan Government, we have met all kinds of representatives. Let me assure him that this is a completely balanced approach. Securing this debate is part of that process, and I hope that he will contribute to it. Our approach seeks not to take sides either with the Sinhalese Government or with the LTTE but to try to use our good offices and our experience in Northern Ireland, among other places, to try to find ways in which it might be possible to help the Norwegians to make the ceasefire work, and then to take that peace process forward, put the issues on the table, and get everyone around the table to try to resolve the issue.

Some 60,000 people have died in this war so far, and perhaps 1 million people have been displaced. It is a very serious conflict by any standards in the world, and we are working very hard to try to resolve it, but, believe me, there is no easy way forward on this one–it will take a long time. This conflict has been going on for a very long time. Before you took your seat in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr. Deputy Speaker was telling me that he remembers it kicking off when he was out there in 1983–in fact, it was the day after he left; I do not know whether he was to blame.

We complement our high-level engagement with more practical assistance through a joint Department for International Development, Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office peace-building strategy for Sri Lanka. The focus includes people-to-people contacts between communities, mechanisms to provide early warning of potential for conflict, and development of civil society capacity to monitor conflict. We are involved in all those processes. We believe that quiet activity of that kind has an important role to play in these difficult times.

I know that many in the Sri Lankan diaspora have been pleased to see Britain's active involvement in Sri Lanka. We believe the Sri Lankan diaspora in Britain to be perhaps as much as 200,000 strong. It is important that we take into account their views and insights as we try to formulate a balanced policy on Sri Lanka. Right hon. and hon. Members present will understand that there is a wide range of views within the community on a way forward for peace and the role of Britain in Sri Lanka. We try to listen to all perspectives within the community, and we value those opinions and insights.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I congratulate the Minister on his balanced approach to a sensitive and difficult subject. He has been subject to calls during the debate to recognise the LTTE. Is not it difficult to do that when, for example, the organisation assassinated the Foreign Minister, who was an ethnic Tamil, in 2005? As long as organisations practise such blatant violence and disruption of civil society, it is difficult to give them the recognition that they crave.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman made that point well–I could not have made it more vividly.

The Tamil community has been especially concerned about deteriorating human rights in Sri Lanka. Its concern is understandable–many of its members have first-hand accounts of the difficulties that their friends and family face daily. Earlier, I spoke about the abductions, disappearances, intimidation and extra-judicial killings that have regrettably become commonplace. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have made our position clear to the Government of Sri Lanka. There has to be an end to the culture of impunity. Those responsible for human rights violations should be brought to justice.

We have welcomed the establishment of a President's commission and an eminent persons group to observe the commission's work. The British Government are funding the participation of Sir Nigel Rodley, an internationally respected professor of law, in that group. We shall continue to raise our concerns with the Sri Lankan Government.

Mr. Love: Considerable concern and criticism have been expressed about the Sri Lankan Government's failure to support the commission in its essential work, with which the international community is involved through the eminent persons group. What action have the British Government taken to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government do everything that they can to help the commission in its work?

Dr. Howells: We have attempted, through all diplomatic channels, to clarify for the Sri Lankan Government our determination that the process should work. Sir Nigel Rodley is not somebody to mess around with. He is a serious person, who will not take part in the group if he believes that his investigations are being impeded in any way. We have great confidence in him and in the eminent persons group to see the matter through. We urge the Sri Lankan Government to make their rhetoric on the need for a proper investigative commission work on the ground. We shall continue to urge them to do that and facilitate that work wherever we can.

Britain is a great friend of Sri Lanka and the dire situation there is a matter of great concern to the Government. We are determined to work with the Government of Sri Lanka to bring peace. We are ready to talk to all parties to the conflict if that can help with the search for a solution. I have spoken of three things that need to happen to make peace possible. First, the parties to the conflict must accept that a military victory is neither possible nor a basis for a lasting solution. Secondly, there has to be a credible framework for a negotiated settlement–I hope that that can emerge from the work of the all-party conference. Thirdly, there must be respect for the human rights of all Sri Lankans and an end to the culture of impunity.

Britain stands ready to help the Sri Lankans find a peaceful solution to their conflict that will offer a bright future for all their citizens. I hope that the House will agree that the Government's commitment to peace in Sri Lanka at this difficult time has been genuine and that it will be sustained.