House of Commons unites to call for peace in Sri Lanka

April 30, 2009 at 1:58 pm Leave a comment

By Dan Billingham

The government’s bid to pressure Sri Lanka into declaring an immediate ceasefire against Tamil rebels was overwhelming backed by the House of Commons yesterday.

Moving pleas to respect the human rights of civilians caught up in the conflict were heard from MPs on all sides in a debate that also included attacks on the British press for ignoring the issue and a questioning of the Foreign Office’s resolve by one MP.

The greatest ire was directed at the Sri Lankan government, however, with backbenchers calling for suspension from the Commonwealth and possible war crimes investigations while stressing an urgent need for a negotiated lasting peace with the Tamil minority on the island.

Liberal Democrats Paul Burstow and Edward Davey were both concerned that the situation could be likened to genocide and asked the government to do more, in Davey’s words, “to persuade both sides to step back from the abyss of slaughter”.

He had clearly been inspired by determined Tamil demonstrators who have thronged outside the Houses of Parliament over the past weeks.

“That amazing British Tamil community has brought its protest to the streets of Westminster 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.”

Mr. Davey also questioned why huge demonstrations about a grave human tragedy have rarely been reported in the British media. Readers of mainstream newspapers have usually found the issue hidden in brief columns, often competing with celebrity news for coverage.

Mr. Davey said: “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.”

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn added that he was “astonished that the majority of the British media absolutely ignored the issue…As a result of that the Tamil community feels a sense of anger and isolation.”

Gillian Merron, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs echoed her boss David Miliband’s view that “only a full ceasefire will allow all civilians to leave the conflict zone and reach safety.”

Reflecting widespread calls for military restraint to be coupled with constitutional reform, she added: “There can be no military solution to this conflict; there can only be a political one…The Sri Lankan Government must show the boldness and vision necessary to find a lasting solution to more than 25 years of conflict…Our concern is that no thought, no planning and no preparation is being done.”

Merron rejected Conservative Lee Scott’s call to threaten Sri Lanka with suspension from the Commonwealth as a sanction, arguing that “isolation will not produce the forward look that we need”.

Siobhain McDonagh was notably unimpressed by such conciliatory diplomatic language from her party colleague.

She said: “What disappointed me about the contribution of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was that it undermined and belied the bravery that our Foreign Secretary is showing by visiting Sri Lanka and making a stand when other people and organisations around the world will not. He is making a stand when other diplomats—his advisers in the Foreign Office—tell him not to go.”

Having said “when someone is bullied, they must stand up and shout”, McDonagh claimed “we all know that diplomacy will not shift the Sri Lankan Government. Only the loud opprobrium of the world, in whatever way it can happen, will do that.”

Diplomats remain concerned that antagonising Colombo would be counter productive. The Sri Lankan government has derided international concern about their actions as neo-colonial interference, an approach that Conservative Keith Simpson denounced as “stupid and nugatory”.

Joan Ryan (Labour) agreed with this assessment: “One might ask whether we have any right to make demands of another Government. I believe that we do when human rights are under threat and a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes.”

She was one of several MPs to raise the possibility of British opposition to an impending Sri Lankan request for an IMF loan as a means to exert pressure. The motion passed by the Commons did not discuss which sanctions could be exerted, although there was a powerful consensus on the need to effectively pressurise the Sri Lankan government on both current military strategy and long-term policy.

Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes summed up the spirit of the debate, urging: “Unless we respond effectively now, the international community of young people and the Tamils around the world, who include some of the brightest and best in this country, will not just have found us wanting in their hour of need; they will have found the international community failing. Unless we show that politics can work, we will be failing them and failing politics.”

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