Foreign Secretary David Miliband, together with Douglas Alexander, the
Secretary of State for International Development, commented on the UK’s
engagement in Sri Lanka during a statement to the House of Commons on
Tuesday 13 October.
I, together with my Rt Hon Friend the Secretary of State for
International Development (Douglas Alexander), would like to inform the
House about the Government’s ongoing active engagement in Sri Lanka
following the end of the conflict almost five months ago between the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government of Sri Lanka.
When I visited Sri Lanka with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner
in April our three areas of focus were to: urge the Government and LTTE
to minimise the humanitarian impact of the then ongoing hostilities and
to improve conditions for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs); to call
for a strengthening of the rule of law to address human rights concerns;
and to encourage urgent action on setting out a political process to
address the grievances of minorities. I will cover each of these in turn.
In summary, as I explained to Foreign Minister Bogollogama in New York
at the end of last month, we remain deeply concerned about the
situation, not least but not only because of the forthcoming monsoon.
Lives are at stake but so is the long term health of Sri Lanka.
The last stage of fighting created almost 300,000 IDPs, the majority of
whom were moved to camps in the north of Sri Lanka, near Vavuniya.
Approximately 253,000 still remain inside IDP camps. The latest UN
figures of 28 September show that only 7000 people have returned to
their place of origin and a further 8000 vulnerable IDPs have been
released to host families.
I can report some improvement since my Honourable Friend the
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development
(Mike Foster), my Right Honourable Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and
Loudoun (Des Browne) and I visited the camps in three separate visits in
late April/early May. Sanitation facilities have improved and
malnutrition cases have decreased markedly. Access for humanitarian
agencies is better but remains ad-hoc and there is scope for further
The IDPs continue to have inadequate access to health care and following
a drop in the river level delivery of adequate water has been
problematic in recent weeks. Unusually heavy rains during August
demonstrated that the camps are ill-equipped for the sustained heavy
rains expected from mid-October to December during the monsoon season.
We are concerned over the lack of freedom of movement for the IDP
population because of the nature of the ‘closed’ camps and over the
ongoing separation of families and the heavy military oversight of the
camps. We are also concerned that there is no independent visibility of
the process by which over 11,000 IDPs have been identified as suspected
LTTE cadres and moved to separate camps and that the UN and
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have had no access to
them since July.
The seriousness in which we continue to hold the humanitarian situation
was demonstrated by the visit last week of my Honourable Friend the
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department for
International Development. He visited areas of the former conflict zone,
IDP camps and centres for the rehabilitation of former child combatants.
He saw for himself the conditions for civilians inside the camps and
ongoing contingency preparations for the monsoon.
Since September 2008, the Government has allocated £12.5 million of
humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka. In the final stages of the war we used
our funding to help the ICRC and the UN to deliver critical humanitarian
assistance to civilians trapped in the conflict zone and to ensure
facilities in IDP camps met minimum standards.
Following the end of the conflict we have continued to support critical
work inside the IDP camps, for example funding UN agencies to vaccinate
children against polio and measles and to provide emergency drainage in
an attempt to minimise the impact of the forthcoming monsoon rains.
However, in recent months we have increasingly focused our support on
activities designed to facilitate the speedy return of civilians to
their home areas. For example, we have funded the International
Organisation for Migration (IOM) to provide temporary identity cards to
IDPs and transport for those returning to their homes and funded the
Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to demine civilian areas of the former
conflict zone. All of the UK’s humanitarian funding continues to be
channelled through neutral and impartial humanitarian aid agencies to
help those who need it most.
My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for
International Development used his visit to highlight our concern about
the lack of progress on returning IDPs to their homes and to urge the
Sri Lankan government to meet its own target of returning the majority
of IDPs by the end of the year. He further encouraged the Sri Lankan
government to release IDPs who have already been screened. He made clear
that it was not acceptable to transfer IDPs from one closed camp to
another in a different part of the country, as has happened in some cases.
Freedom of movement for the IDP population is critical if a humanitarian
crisis is to be averted in the IDP camps when the monsoon rains fall.
The humanitarian gains made in the IDP camps risk being lost from the
resulting deterioration in water and sanitation facilities and
consequent effect on health indicators. We are working with others to
press for freedom of movement to be restored to the IDPs.
During his visit, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary
of State for International Development confirmed that once the critical
monsoon season is over we will only fund life-saving emergency
interventions in the existing ‘closed’ camps and that we will not
support people simply being transferred from the existing ‘closed’ camps
to new ‘closed’ camps. £4.8 million of UK funding remains available to
help the Sri Lankan government in the process of recovery from the
conflict in the areas of de-mining, support to enable the return of the
IDPs to their places of origin and to help them recover their livelihoods.
We continue to support multilateral engagement in Sri Lanka. The UN has
a key role in focusing international concern; co-ordinating the
international humanitarian response; and providing advice and support to
the government to help heal the rifts that divide Sri Lanka’s
communities. We welcome the involvement by UN agencies on the ground in
Sri Lanka and the ongoing senior level engagement that has included
visits to Sri Lanka since the end of the war by UN Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon, Lynn Pascoe the Under Secretary General for Political Affairs
and Walter Kaelin, the UN’s Special Representative for the human rights
of IDPs. The UN’s experience and expertise in working in post-conflict
environments is widely acknowledged and I urge the Sri Lankan government
to engage constructively with all levels of the UN.
At the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the UK took the decision in
July not to support the Stand-By Arrangement for Sri Lanka. Whilst we
acknowledged the need to help Sri Lanka avoid a damaging balance of
payments crisis that would have disproportionately affected the poorest
and most vulnerable members of society, we judged that the risks of a
default had diminished and that the humanitarian and political
situations posed risks to implementation of the programme. The programme
was passed by the IMF Board and we will now turn our attention to
monitoring the programme’s implementation through a robust review process.
*Human Rights *
The wider human rights situation in Sri Lanka remains very worrying
following the end of the conflict. Although reduced, reports of
extra-judicial killings, abductions, disappearances and intimidation
have continued. Media and civil society organisations who are critical
of the government remain at particular risk and continue to be the
victims of anonymous death threats and, in some cases, violent attack.
The recent sentencing of a journalist, Tissainayagam, to twenty years
imprisonment sent a very negative message about media freedom in Sri
Lanka. A culture of impunity continues, with no progress towards
identifying the individuals behind recent high profile human rights
abuses, such as the murder in January of Lasantha Wickrematunge, a
leading newspaper editor.
We welcome the fact that in two recent cases, the alleged abduction of a
university student and the killing of two youths in southern Sri Lanka,
the government has ordered investigations into alleged police
involvement and action is being taken through the Sri Lankan courts. The
Sri Lankan government continues to retain extraordinary emergency powers
which limit the fundamental democratic freedoms of its citizens. With
the LTTE defeated and a substantially reduced terrorist threat we hope
to see the Emergency Regulations lifted soon.
In our bilateral contacts we have encouraged the government of Sri Lanka
to tackle the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka. In this light we welcome
the investigations and subsequent legal action against police officers
involved in alleged abuses and encourage the government to take similar
action in all cases where such allegations are made. We have also been
active in working with the EU to call for an improvement in human rights
in Sri Lanka.
An improvement is important too in the context of the investigation by
the EU Commission looking at whether Sri Lanka should continue to
benefit from the EU trade scheme, GSP+ which is dependent on the
implementation of a number of human rights-related conventions. We have
consistently encouraged the Sri Lankan government to engage
constructively with the Commission.
At the end of May the Sri Lankan President issued a joint statement with
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recognising the need to work ‘towards a
lasting political solution ….fundamental to ensuring long-term
socio-economic development’, and to take measures ‘to address possible
violations of international humanitarian law during the conflict.’
The government of Sri Lanka has stated its intention to begin a process
of political reform and reconciliation after elections which are
expected in the first half of 2010. They have made some welcome moves to
reach out to minority communities in the interim. For example, the
President recently opened a dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance,
the principal grouping of Tamil politicians inside Sri Lanka, and for
the first time in over 25 years the police force have begun a
recruitment process in Jaffna, a majority Tamil area in northern Sri Lanka.
The government has publicly recognised that the Tamil Diaspora can play
a positive role in helping shape the future direction of Sri Lanka. I
encourage the government to continue with, and to broaden, its initial
contacts with representatives of the Diaspora. We are concerned that the
government has yet to make clear how it intends to address concerns that
both sides may have been responsible for violations of international
humanitarian law during the conflict.
The UK has consistently maintained that one of the prerequisites for
lasting peace in Sri Lanka is a political settlement that fully takes
into account the legitimate grievances and aspirations of all
communities. When the my right hon Friend the Prime Minister spoke to
President Rajapakse on 18 May he urged him to be magnanimous in victory.
On the same day I pressed Foreign Minister Bogollogama to seize the
historic opportunity – and duty – to lay the foundations for the
peaceful, secure and prosperous Sri Lanka that we all want to see.
Despite some recent welcome developments the government needs to show
greater urgency in making clear its plans for future political reforms
if it is serious about wanting to win the confidence of Tamils, Muslims
and other communities in Sri Lanka. We hope to see an inclusive, genuine
political process initiated as soon as possible.
We have consistently called for a credible process of accountability,
most recently during the visit to the UK of the Sri Lankan Attorney
General and Justice Permanent Secretary in early October and the visit
of the Sri Lankan Justice Minister in September.
Addressing accountability could play an integral role in the process of
reconciliation and will be essential in creating conditions for a
sustainable end to the conflict. The recent broadcast of mobile phone
footage purporting to show members of the Sri Lankan military summarily
executing Tamils underlines the importance of lifting the fog of
uncertainty surrounding events of the final months of fighting when
independent observers had no access to the conflict zone.
The Government remains actively involved in working for a peaceful Sri
Lanka. We have urged the Sri Lankan government, in a number of direct
contacts, to make greater progress on improving conditions inside the
camps, on returning IDPs to their homes and on working for reconciliation.
We urge that freedom of movement be returned to IDPs, and highlight the
urgency of doing so before the monsoon. We also encourage swifter
progress on the development of an inclusive political process to address
minority concerns and for an improvement in the rule of law, including
accountability for possible violations of international humanitarian
law, as both would be essential for a sustainable end to the conflict.
We continue to work with other international partners, such as the US
and India, the EU and the UN. My right hon Friend the Prime Minister’s
Special Envoy for Sri Lanka, my right hon Friend the Member for
Kilmarnock and Loudoun, visited Washington and the UN (in New York and
Geneva) in September to exchange views on Sri Lanka with other partners
and will be writing to hon Members this week to inform them of his visits.
The final death toll of the 25-year conflict may never be known, but it
is likely that over 100,000 Sri Lankans of all communities died over the
course of the conflict. The Sri Lankan government needs to steer the
country away from the violence that has troubled the country for so long
and towards long-term peace, security and prosperity for all its
citizens. The Government will continue to work with the Sri Lankan
government and with other partners to help bring this about.