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UK Parliamentary debate + Foreign Secretary’s remarks on SL

May 2, 2009

Foreign Secretary David Miliband made the following opening remarks during a statement to the House of Commons, 30 April 2009 on the situation in Sri Lanka.
“At present, the Sri Lankan Government are engaged in a war without witness in the north of the country…”
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Click here to read transcript of British Parliament Debate on Sri Lankan conflict on 29 April 2009.

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  1. fastuntoactionaust permalink
    May 2, 2009 12:37 pm

    House of Commons statement on Sri Lanka – 01 May 2009

    Source: Government of the United Kingdom

    Date: 01 May 2009

    Foreign Secretary David Miliband made the following opening remarks during a statement to the House of Commons, 30 April 2009 on the situation in Sri Lanka:

    “With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement about the civilian crisis in Sri Lanka. I am very grateful to all Members of the House who contributed to yesterday’s important debate on the subject. I returned this morning from a visit to Sir Lanka with the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. I regret very much that the Sri Lankan authorities declined to allow our Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, to join us. Our visit to Sri Lanka was prompted by our increasing concern and that of many international colleagues, as well as of many Members of this House, for civilians in the north of the country, and in particular for the plight of the civilian Tamil population.

    There are in fact two crises: that of the civilians trapped in the conflict zone as the Government enter the final stage of their fight with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorists, and that of the thousands of civilians who have crossed over the front line in recent days. The purpose of the visit was threefold: first, to highlight the need to bring the conflict to an end in a way that minimises further civilian casualties; secondly, to press the case for the humanitarian relief effort to be ratcheted up, as the United Nations and the European Union have been calling for; and, thirdly, to make clear the need for a long-term political settlement that meets the aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka.

    Foreign Minister Kouchner and I met President Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister Bogollagama, the leader of the Opposition, Tamil and Muslim mainstream politicians and a series of permanent secretaries of the relevant Government Departments. We were briefed by the heads of the main United Nations agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross. We also visited a Government-run camp for internally displaced people at Vavuniya and visited a field hospital donated by the French Government. I heard a number of personal testimonies from recent arrivals in the camp. I am grateful for the way in which the Sri Lankan Government facilitated our visit.

    The fog of war makes it difficult to be certain of the facts of the present situation. This is compounded by the lack of access for international agencies and the media. I heard widely different estimates of the number of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone. Government estimates ranged from 6,000 to 20,000 people. The UN, the ICRC and most others believe that there are at least 50,000. Some thought that the number could be as high as 100,000. Whatever the truth, it is clear that significant numbers remain, living under appalling conditions, under-nourished and in fear for their lives. I heard reports of civilians hiding in trenches to escape the shelling and of horrific injuries. I also spoke to people in the internally displaced person camps who recounted how the LTTE had forced them to stay in the so-called no-fire zone against their will and shot at them when they tried to flee.

    We were told that 30 tonnes of food were delivered to the conflict zone between 1 April and 27 April, apparently enough to feed 60,000 people for just one day. A further ship delivered limited supplies during our visit. The ICRC has been able to send in only very limited medical supplies, despite having plentiful stocks in Sri Lanka. The block on deliveries of food and medical supplies hinges on security. To deliver these essentials to those innocent civilians trapped in the conflict zone, there needs to be safety. Ships take time to unload and the pauses provided by the Sri Lankan Government have not been long enough. As the House knows, the Government of Sri Lanka declared an end to so-called combat operations on 27 April. The President and Defence Secretary confirmed this to me personally and in definite terms. These commitments must be upheld.

    In our discussions with the President and the Foreign Minister, Foreign Minister Kouchner and I made it clear that the protection of civilians must be paramount. We emphasised that if the LTTE had any heart at all, it would let the civilians leave the conflict zone. As G8 Foreign Ministers said in their statement on 25 April, we were also very clear that the time for the conflict to end is now.

    We were briefed in detail by the Sri Lankan authorities on their humanitarian relief efforts outside the conflict zone. We welcomed this exchange of information, the extensive work that was under way and the commitments that the Government of Sri Lanka made. Nevertheless, some of what we were told was in contradiction to the information given to us by the international humanitarian agencies.

    Let me go through the facts as we understand them. According to the UN, 161,765 Tamils have left the conflict zone since October last year, including an estimated 119,000 in the past 10 days. This is very welcome, but the numbers have seriously challenged the Sri Lankan authorities. The UN agencies we spoke to were frustrated that the Government appear to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of them and others who are trying to assist the Government in dealing with this crisis. The agencies lack any access to IDPs until the IDPs have already been through the preliminary “screening” process. They do not have full access to the camps, and visas and authorisations to move people and goods into and around the country are too limited. Meanwhile, people are not being allowed out of the camps and many families have been separated. Some men, alleged to be LTTE cadres, have been taken from families and placed in so-called rehabilitation camps. All that reinforces the need for full and unhindered access by the UN and other agencies.

    We therefore in the course of our visit returned again and again in our talks to five specific points in respect of the humanitarian situation: first, the need for visas to be issued swiftly to international humanitarian staff; secondly, the subject of travel permits for staff working on approved projects inside Sri Lanka; thirdly, the need for full access to IDPs as soon as they have crossed the front line and the monitoring of all stages of screening; fourthly, the need for a proper resettlement programme with specific deadlines to fulfil the Government’s commitment to have 80 per cent. of IDPs resettled by year’s end; and, fifthly, to allow the distribution of sufficient food and medicine to meet the needs of civilians trapped in the conflict zone. We were promised intensive follow-up by the Sri Lankan Government and we will continue to engage with them on all these issues.

    At present, the Sri Lankan Government are engaged in a war without witness in the north of the country. Civilians have fled the terror of the LTTE, but are afraid of what awaits them at the hands of the Government and unsure whether they will ever be allowed home. We were given assurances by the Sri Lankan Government that they had nothing to hide. We responded that it could therefore only be to the benefit of the Sri Lankan people and the Sri Lankan Government to work with the international community in a fully transparent way. By giving UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations the freedom to operate to capacity in all areas, the Sri Lankan Government would not only bring much needed relief to thousands of traumatised or injured people but attract greater confidence from the international community.

    My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) will take up the invitation of President Rajapaksa and visit Sri Lanka as part of a cross-party group of MPs next week and will pursue these points. The other members of the group will be the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Buckingham (John Bercow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar). I share the gratitude of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that they have agreed to take part in this important visit at short notice. I will be visiting New York on 11 May for UN Security Council business and will pursue further UN involvement in the crisis. I will be discussing with Secretary Clinton tonight, as well as with other like-minded colleagues, how we can work more closely together to find a way to bring the fighting to a stop.

    No one should underestimate the murderous damage done to Sri Lanka over the last 26 years by the LTTE, or the sheer hatred felt for its leadership. That is recognised in the international community, but while terrorist organisations work by killing people, democratic governments exist to protect them. That is why the fighting in Sri Lanka must end now. The LTTE is apparently cornered and trapped, having inflicted grievous suffering on the people of Sri Lanka, primarily Sinhalese and Tamil, but also Muslims. How the conflict is ended will have a direct bearing on the prospects for long-term peace in the country. The Government there must win the peace as well as the war. That will be the continuing focus of this Government’s activity, hand in hand with international partners, in the days and weeks ahead.”

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