'Sri Lanka has made more gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland'
By Janaka Alahapperuma
Jan 9, 2013
Northern Ireland parliamentarian for North Antrim from Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Ian Paisley Jr said that Sri Lanka has made more measurable gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland. That is what he has seen on the ground, and British politicians should recognise it and stop the suffocation of a country by its past and help Sri Lanka to move forward to a better future. He made these strong comments with passion at Westminister Hall, UK Parliament during the debate on ‘Sri Lanka and the United Nations responsibility to protect’ from 9.30am to 11.00am on Tuesday 08 January 2013.
Debate was moved by Siobhain McDonagh Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, South London who is an ardent supporter of Eelamist separatist ideology. However when she started the debate with high hopes in the second day of the parliament sitting in the new year targeting Sri Lanka to influence the British Government not only boycotting the next CHOGM Summit in Sri Lanka but also to sabotage it. But her evil dreams were shattered slowly by slowly when Ian Paisley MP progressed his speech.
Mr Paisley Jr was well supported by Conservative party government MPs James Wharton from Stockton South and Aidan Burley from Cannock Chase in the debate. Siobhain McDonagh’s anti Sri Lanka arguments were also backed by few parliamentarians those who are regular participants of pro Tamil Tiger propaganda campaigns.
Ian Paisley MP said: “On my journey to the House this morning, I drove through the memorial gates near the Mall. The words “Sri Lanka” are carved in granite on those gates to remind us that the Indian subcontinent, during the two great world wars, gave 5 million volunteers to this nation to defend freedom. When we hear the aggression from Argentina over the Falklands this week, we are reminded that the only country that stood with us in the international community in the original attempt to take back the Falklands was Sri Lanka. When a country that has supported us in the past comes under pressure, we should not kick it in the teeth. We stretch out the hand of forbearance and say, “We will help you through the difficult, post-conflict situation that you are clearly in. We will give you our experience and our help. We will not give you our hatred and our anger.” That is an important lesson that we, in a nation part of which is in a post-conflict situation, should recognise.
I have visited Sri Lanka on a number of occasions, both as a private individual and with constituents who had business there, as well as on a cross-party parliamentary trip. My experience was very different from what I have heard from propagandists not in Sri Lanka. The people on the ground gave a very different message from the out-of-touch one that I have heard from the self-appointed Diaspora, both in Canada and here in the United Kingdom.
I have visited Jaffna, the most disputed part of Sri Lanka in the north. There I saw new housing settlements, with Tamils living in them. I had tea with some of those families, whose interests are fishing and farming. They did not talk to me about the past, even though they had opportunity to do so. Indeed, when I raised the past—I was with them on my own—they wanted to talk about their future, their children and their new housing settlements, which were supported by money given by our country through the EU to help rebuild their country. They wanted to talk about moving forward. I have met both Tamil and Sinhalese families, and their united wish was to present a picture of hope for their country, not a picture of division. It was a community that wanted to move forward. They did not want to hear the international community talking about what happened in the past; they wanted the international community to help them to move to a better future.
On one occasion, two of my guides were a Tamil gentleman and a Sinhalese gentleman who had been at war with each other. At the end of my visit, in tears they embraced each other and they spoke about how they were now new brothers in a new land. Whenever I raised with them issues that I had heard in the propaganda in the United Kingdom, they could not understand them. They said that they bore no resemblance to their reality on the ground. In many aspects, Sri Lanka has made more measurable gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland. That is what I have seen on the ground, and we should recognise it and stop the suffocation of a country by its past and help Sri Lanka to move forward to a better future.
I took a day out and spent it with the leader of Tamil National Alliance, Mr Sampanthan. I spoke to him and his party colleagues at length, and I waited for him because I wanted to hear from him at first hand, without his being pushed or prodded into some of the difficult issues about the past. He did not raise with me the issue of the disappeared; he did not take time to raise with me the issue of war crimes; he did not take time to talk about routine torture, in his country, of his people. He had a politician with him from this nation and he did not want to talk about those things. In fact, he actively applauded the Government, whom he opposes. He applauded them on their investment in the country—in parts of the north—and he said that the most effective thing that many of his people required was practical help to get bicycles and other tools to help them to work and run their country. That was the message of the man who is leading the opposition.
If people took the time to speak to the active politicians on the ground who are representatives of their community, they might have a slightly different perspective than that in some of the propaganda that we have seen and heard. I urge the Minister to appeal publicly today to Sampanthan to stop his boycott of the political process, to lead his people and his party, and to join with other parties in the parliamentary select committee of Sri Lanka to find a political solution to the problems. We learnt the lesson the hard way.
People find a political solution by engaging in politics, not by asking for a boycott or for the international community to do their work for them—they do it themselves. I appeal to our Government to say to Sampanthan, “Lead your people and do not boycott the process any longer.” Politics, not a boycott, will work. The international community will not solve Sri Lanka’s problems. It will be the people of Sri Lanka, living in Sri Lanka, who will fix the problems of Sri Lanka, and we should actively encourage them in that. The biggest mistake that this Government could make would be to send the message to Sri Lanka that they were going to pull out of the Commonwealth talks later this year and punish a country that needs help, not more persecution.
Conservative MP James Wharton who has been to Sri Lanka many times said from his personal experiences that it worries him how much misinformation is out about what is happening on the ground in Sri Lanka. He quoted from the comment made by Ilford North Labour MP Lee Scott who follows matters in Sri Lanka keenly, has a different position to him was absolutely right to say that we must not forget the past, but we must not misinterpret or misrepresent it either.
James Wharton MP said: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who speaks passionately, with experience of post-conflict life and of rebuilding communities after a very difficult period. He gives us all cause to pause and to reflect on what the debate is really about. There was a great deal that I wanted to say, but as I have a very short time, I will significantly cut down my comments.
I have been to Sri Lanka a number of times, and the visits are all declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have gone there with colleagues, some of whom are here today. What worries me is how much misinformation is out there about what is happening on the ground. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott), who follows matters in Sri Lanka keenly, has a different position to mine, but it is a genuinely felt one. He was absolutely right to say that we must not forget the past, but we must not misinterpret or misrepresent it either.
A problem that Sri Lanka has faced in the debate in the western world, in this Parliament, in the media and in other places across the globe is that, for a variety of reasons, too many people try to change what happened in the past, to change the accepted facts of what went on. The reality is that a lot of what we see is not based on facts or in reality. I have raised the point before in the House that even the Darusman report, which preceded the UN report that has led to the debate today, specifically states, in paragraph 53:
“This account should not be taken as proven facts, and any effort to determine specific liabilities would require a higher threshold.”
It is made clear that the report establishes a narrative that can be used to work forwards but that none of the data—for example, on the numbers of casualties—should be quoted as specific figures. The facts on the ground regarding the provision of food and medical supplies are starkly different to some of the evidence given by unnamed sources to the expert committee that put together the report.
I am conscious of the time, so I just want to draw the House’s attention to a few areas in which progress is being made in Sri Lanka. Most of the 300,000 internally displaced persons have now been resettled. I visited Menik farm, one of the welfare camps set up to house the huge numbers of people displaced by conflict in January of last year. There were about 6,000 people left, and the camp has now closed and the people have gone home. They have been able to do so because demining operations have proceeded at an amazing pace, with more than 900,000 mines and unexploded ordnance having been cleared, primarily by the Sri Lankan army but also by the HALO Trust with support from UK aid, and I congratulate the UK on its contribution.
More than 120,000 houses have been constructed in the north and the east, nearly 600 child soldiers have been rehabilitated and more than 10,000 adult combatants have been rehabilitated or reintegrated into Sri Lankan society. Some 900 Tamil speakers have been recruited into the police force in the north and east, and that is important in building trust in a community that does not have historic trust in its Government and the organisations that represent it. Investment is key, as is infrastructure, so that the economy can grow and people can improve their lives.
When I went to Sri Lanka with the charity International Alert, we visited a group of young Tamil people in the Vanni, and they talked about jobs and employment prospects, about what they were going to do and what they wanted to do. They talked about the challenges that they faced at home and about how they wanted to get education and the cost of education. They talked about the same things that young people in colleges in my constituency talk to me about; they share some of the same problems. They wanted to look forward and go forward.
The tone of debate in the House too often worries me, because we focus on what we can do to punish the Government of Sri Lanka, whether by the removal of the generalised system of preferences or the UK’s pulling out of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Such things will not damage the Government of Sri Lanka; they will damage progress towards peace and the prosperity of the people who live in Sri Lanka. The tone of the debate here needs to change. We need to work constructively with the Government of Sri Lanka to put pressure where it is due and, where we can, to deliver improvement.
Recalling his personal experiences Conservative MP for Cannock Chase, Aidan Burley who visited Sri Lanka on a eight day trip last year said that he has detailed his trip because he strongly believe that people can only speak authoritatively and honestly about a subject if they have first-hand experience, seeing things with their own eyes and forming their own impressions, rather than just watching a Channel 4 documentary. He further requested Siobhain McDonagh and other MPs to go to Sri Lanka and speak to the people of Sri Lanka, not to the people of Mitcham and Morden, and listen to what they have to say. Mr Burley stated that he found a country at peace with itself. That is what we should be debating and supporting: helping Sri Lanka to build a better future for itself, rather than letting extremists in the UK divide it.
He also asked Siobhain McDonagh when she last visited Sri Lanka because she has mentioned lots of second-hand evidence in her speech, but when did she last visit Sri Lanka and see for herself—at first hand—some of the things that she is alleging are happening there.
MP McDonagh replied that she has never been to Sri Lanka, but she respect the views of the UN special envoy to Sri Lanka, the UN, the Canadian Government, the Australian Government, the US Government, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden said: Are all of those organisations bogus? Do we not believe anything that any of them say?
MP Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) (Con): The hon. Lady mentions the fact that lots of people visit Sri Lanka. May I ask her when she last visited Sri Lanka? She has mentioned lots of second-hand evidence in her speech so far, but when did she last visit Sri Lanka and see for herself—at first hand—some of the things that she is alleging are happening there?
Many speakers this morning have started by declaring whether they have visited Sir Lanka, and I intervened on the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) to ask whether she has done so, because I visited Sri Lanka in July 2012 and spent eight days travelling all over the country. I did not just fly into Colombo; I went to the north, the east and the south. I went to Jaffna and Kilinochchi, Trincomalee, Kandy and Hambantota. I went to all the rural areas, not just to the towns and cities.
I went to the Jaffna teaching hospital and discussed the lack of medical equipment with some of the doctors. I went to the chamber of commerce and discussed inward investment with business leaders. I visited resettlement projects in Ariyalai and mine clearing in Kilinochchi with the HALO Trust, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) mentioned, is partly funded through the Department for International Development.
I met the President in Kandy. I also met, Mr Sampanthan, a leader of the opposition, for several hours in Trincomalee—I recognise the comments of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley)—and I remember him telling us that he wanted a bicycle for every one of his people, which is his main priority.
I have detailed my trip because I strongly believe that people can only speak authoritatively and honestly about a subject if they have first-hand experience, seeing things with their own eyes and forming their own impressions, rather than just watching a Channel 4 documentary. After all, would a person buy a house just because someone told them it was nice, or would they want to see the property first hand? Would a person move to an area just because someone said it was a nice place to live, or would they want to visit the area first?
Everywhere I went on my eight-day trip to Sri Lanka last year, I saw the same thing first hand: Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims living harmoniously with each other, getting on with their lives and rebuilding their country. I saw the different communities and faiths living beside one another after their horrendous civil war. I saw Sinhalese boys and Tamil girls playing together in the playgrounds of the schools that we visited. That is why I wanted to speak in this debate. The UK should be helping Sri Lanka, our former colony, to rebuild itself. British politicians should understand Sri Lanka’s reconciliation and help it to demine, so that communities can move back to their own lands. I saw that happening with my own eyes; I saw the minefields being cleared through the HALO Trust, and I saw houses being rebuilt and crops being grown on the old minefields. That is constructive. We saw HSBC and Marks and Spencer in Sri Lanka. I learnt that the software that runs the UK stock market is based in Sri Lanka.
All that is positive—it is about jobs and livelihoods—and we should be having a debate on encouraging trade to Sri Lanka. British politicians should be leading business trips and delegations of British companies to Sri Lanka to encourage Sri Lankan and British businesses to work together. Britain has the second-highest number of tourists to Sri Lanka—a country that desperately needs tourists’ pounds. I do not believe this debate will help that rebuilding process; it is a negative debate that perpetuates old myths and stereotypes and is based on narrow interest groups in the UK that have their own agendas.
The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said that he was astonished to see the Sri Lankan Government lobbying here. I know lobbyists for the Sri Lankan Government. My constituency is 99% white, and there is no Diaspora. I have no candle to hold for the Sri Lankan Government; I am just recounting the first-hand impressions that I witnessed for myself by bothering to go to the country. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden should go to Sri Lanka and speak to the people of Sri Lanka, not to the people of Mitcham and Morden, and listen to what they have to say. I found a country at peace with itself. That is what we should be debating and supporting: helping Sri Lanka to build a better future for itself, rather than letting extremists in the UK divide it.
Finally the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt MP said: I add my thanks to those of my colleagues, Mr Hollobone, for your chairing of this debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her brevity and her remarks. I start, as always, by congratulating the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate. Her deep and committed interest in Sri Lankan issues is well known. I welcome the opportunity to state the Government’s position and the opportunity that she has once again provided the House to discuss the issue.
I welcome the interventions of a number of colleagues in this debate. They have been passionate, thoughtful and honest. The difference of views expressed across the Chamber emphasises the complexity of the issue. In an effort to defuse a little of the heat, may I say that, bearing in mind the history of the issue and who was in Government in 2009, a degree of humility in all parties is helpful? Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The contributions of colleagues with personal experience of reconciliation in parts of the UK were particularly important in bringing to the surface some of the difficulties involved.
The UK’s relationship with Sri Lanka is long-standing, strong and based on close historical, cultural, educational, commercial and family ties that will not weaken. The United Kingdom is fortunate to have a large Sri Lankan Diaspora community, which contributes much to our rich and diverse culture. Over the past couple of years, I have met regularly with Sri Lankan Ministers, parliamentarians from different parties and members of the Diaspora in the United Kingdom. As has been noted, in two weeks’ time, I will make my second visit to the country.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden suggested that my visit might be taken as a vindication of the Government. I assure her and the House that judging from experience over the past couple of years, my remarks are not always taken in that way by the Government, who are entitled to see them as they wish. I do not think that that is a particular risk.
There are different ways of visiting a country. People do not always have to go on a Government-sponsored visit; non-governmental organisations are operating, for example. People should declare everything and of course they must be on guard, no matter who takes them on a visit. It is helpful to visit and get a picture, if it is possible to do so, although that does not preclude views from those who have not visited but know a great deal about the issue.
The decades-long war in Sri Lanka, which ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, devastated the country and deeply scarred its population. Sri Lankans deserve lasting peace and reconciliation and where the United Kingdom and international organisations, such as the UN, are able to encourage and support the process it is right to do so.
I want to deal with three elements that came out of this debate: the situation of the UN; progress being made in Sri Lanka; and issues to do with the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. In essence, I agree with and support the remarks made by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden. It is right that the UN has been through an intense process, examining its role in relation to the conclusion of events in Sri Lanka. We welcome the report by the panel of experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General in 2011, which found credible allegations that both sides were involved in violations of international humanitarian law, and its setting up its own independent internal report to consider what happened with regard to the UN’s role. We agree that shortcomings were identified. In following that up, we note that the UN has moved swiftly to put in place a lessons-learned programme overseen by a panel chaired by the Deputy Secretary-General’s office. It is there that we will make our contribution to how the UN is going to repair what it failed to do in relation to the responsibility to protect, and we will follow that panel’s progress closely. I expect that questions will be raised about that over time.
We are committed to and support the concept of responsibility to protect, which was supported by all UN member states in 2005. The difficulty that was found in 2009 was that a pillar III responsibility-to-protect response required the agreement of the UN Security Council. It was clear at the time—former Ministers in this Chamber know this better than I—that there was not widespread support in the wider international community for a more assertive position towards the parties to the conflict. This turns out to have been a tragedy. The United Kingdom’s primary concerns during the final offensive were to ensure unimpeded access by humanitarian agencies and compliance with international humanitarian law, including investigations of allegations of violations. The UK focused, therefore, on the parties’ obligations to protect the civilian population.
The UN is examining its processes carefully as it finds fault in what it did in the past and emphasises the importance of UN engagement in the most difficult circumstances. Of course, we see in Syria today how difficult that has become. No doubt, the UN panel will look carefully at how it failed to meet that obligation and what might be done in difficult circumstances in future.
The LTTE is a brutal, ruthless organisation that rightly remains proscribed in the UK, but a military victory alone cannot deliver the stable, lasting peace all Sri Lankans deserve. Addressing events during the final days of the conflict is important and the UK has consistently called for an independent investigation into allegations of violation of international humanitarian law on both sides. There needs to be a more fundamental approach that goes beyond accountability. Colleagues have mentioned this in terms of the context of the future of Sri Lanka being for Sri Lankans themselves and how they take this forward. Therefore, we support the view, widely held in Sri Lanka and outside, that long-term peace can best be achieved through an inclusive political settlement that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict. Such a settlement must also take into account the legitimate grievances and aspirations of all Sri Lanka’s communities.
On the progress that has been made, the Sri Lankan Government recognised that in appointing the LLRC, which submitted its report in December 2011 and made more than 200 recommendations, including calls for credible investigations of alleged judicial killings and disappearances, demilitarisation of the north, implementation of impartial land-dispute resolution mechanisms and protection of freedom of expression.
Although we welcome the recommendations that were made, as I said at the time, the Government’s view is that the report left gaps and unanswered questions on alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. We were disappointed by the report’s conclusions and recommendations on accountability. None the less, as colleagues have said, the recommendations, if implemented in full, would go a long way to achieving the reconciliation that we believe will achieve lasting peace.
What progress has there been and, in answer to colleagues who have asked what we are looking for, what have we measured? The UK recognises and welcomes progress made in various areas. UK officials have visited all nine provinces of Sri Lanka in the past 12 months and have seen much to welcome. The absence of conflict has brought greater security and opened up economic development—the demining was mentioned by colleagues—with UK financial support, freeing up yet more land for resettlement and agriculture. Rehabilitation of thousands of ex-combatants, including child soldiers, has allowed many individuals to integrate back into society. The majority of internally displaced persons have now moved out of camps, although there is still work to be done in ensuring that “permanent homes” means just that, and does not mean people being deposited in places that they came from. Troop numbers are well below those in 2009. Although that is positive, there still remains more to be done to ensure that there is lasting peace and prosperity.
The March 2012 Human Rights Council resolution, supported by the UK and a number of member states, called on the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the LLRC recommendations and address alleged violations of international law. I assure hon. Members that we will be robust in pursuing that in the March 2013 council meeting. We wish that action plan, with deadlines from early this year for the implementation of LLRC recommendations, to be carried forward. It only covers about half of the LLRC recommendations. When I go to Sri Lanka in a couple of weeks, I will see if Sri Lanka will consider implementing all the recommendations and, if so, how to take it forward.
It is too soon to talk about our attendance plans for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. We will not move from that position for a period of time. Sri Lanka was scheduled to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2011, but given ongoing concerns about the humanitarian and human rights situation, the UK and other Commonwealth members did not support its bid. However, Commonwealth members decided that Sri Lanka would host in 2013. To reopen that decision would require a consensus of all member states and I do not think that is likely.
I have listened carefully to exchanges between hon. Members. The intensity of views and the sharp divide between colleagues emphasises how difficult and complex the situation is. A decision on the location of CHOGM is not for the UK; it is for the Commonwealth. The meeting will discuss many issues, not just Sri Lanka, but as Sri Lanka well knows it will inevitably shine a spotlight on the host country, demonstrating either its progress or lack of it. It is up to Sri Lanka to choose what will be seen. As the Foreign Secretary has said, we expect the Sri Lankan Government to demonstrate that they uphold the values of the Commonwealth.
Colleagues have said that the UK should not let Her Majesty the Queen go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. It is important to clarify that she attends that meeting as head of the Commonwealth, not the UK head of state. Her attendance is not a decision for the UK Government. If she were to ask for advice, it would be from all Commonwealth members.
Following the resolution of the conflict, it is clear that long-term reconciliation is an issue. The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), perceptive as he often is, said that unless that is done the problem will come back at some stage to haunt everyone in Sri Lanka. The process of reconciliation is not easy. Some progress has been made in implementing some of the recommendations in the LLRC report. More needs to be done. The LLRC needs to be given time and good will must be there on all sides to see the process through. Nothing has been swept under the carpet and we are mindful of what has happened in the past and of the wishes of all Sri Lankans for the future.
Meanwhile Lord Naseby, a long time friend of Sri Lanka and the President of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sri Lanka also secured a short debate in the House of Lords on the implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) recommendations.
Liberal Democrat MPs Paul Burstow ( Sutton & Cheam), Simon Hughes ( Bermondsey & Old Southwork), Labour MPs Barry Gardiner (Brent North), Jeromy Corbyn (Islington North), Garath Thomas (Harrow West), Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East), Conservative MPs Lee Scott (Ilford North), Robert Halfon (Harlow) and Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) made comments against Sri Lanka. Conservative MPs Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin), Matthew Offord (Hendon) and David Morris (Morecambe & Lunesdale) commented in supportive to Sri Lanka. MP Philip Hollobone chaired the proceedings.
Source: Hansard- UK Parliament
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