HC Deb 22 December 1983 vol 51 cc631-8

3 pm

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

This is the last debate of 1983 and it is appropriate that, in the spirit of internationalism, we should examine the sufferings of working people on the opposite side of the globe. I raise this subject not as a moral question, but from the practical standpoint that in whatever country working people live the international trade union and labour movement forms a chain, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If there is a weakness in the chain promoted by foreign Governments and aided by the Tory Government in this country, it is to the benefit of working people in Britain and elsewhere that we should seek to aid the workers concerned.

Some time ago, the President of Sri Lanka issued a statement saying: Let the robber barons come". That was an open invitation to multinationals, which stalk the world in their search for cheap labour, to come into Sri Lanka and use the cheap labour in that country to make their profits. Against that general background, a debate on the international problems of workers is not merely a seasonal gesture, but a practical necessity for workers in this and other countries.

On 25 July at 6 o'clock in the morning, I initiated a debate to try to alert the House to conditions facing the Tamils of Sri Lanka. I wish to refer to two replies given by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. He described Sri Lanka as a

democracy which is to be much admired and which is a jewel in the crown of the countries with which we have been associated for so long. The Minister denied that there was any form of dictatorship in that country. He said: There is a thriving democracy, which has a serious problem with its minority. Therefore, it needs understanding, cooperation and help from us, and that is what it will receive, on the basis of our long-standing relationship with the people and successive Governments of Sri Lanka."—[Official Report, 25 July 1983; Vol. 46, c. 988–91.]

I regard that reply as complacent, but it has been heard more than my original speech. The reason is that the two Conservative Members who spoke in the debate enjoyed the favour of the Ministry of State in the Government of Sri Lanka. Their speeches, reprinted in a pamphlet with Big Ben on its front were purported to be the view of the House of Commons. Anyone who has seen Sri Lankan publications would realise that the pamphlet probably cost several hundreds if not thousands of pounds to print. The pamphlet has circulated throughout the world. My information, which came through the United Nations, organisations in Geneva and others which have received copies, is that the pamphlet purports to represent the view of the whole House of Commons, although it refers only to the views about Sri Lanka of the Conservative Minister and his hon. Friends.

Today's debate is necessary to redress that imbalance. Anything purporting to be a House of Commons view should include all opinions — not only Conservative views. That may be a matter which, at a later date, you, Mr. Speaker, might consider.

The hopes and optimism expressed by the Under-Secretary in July have not been justified. About 2,000 people died in Sri Lanka in the terrible month of July, yet the British Government continue to give aid and military training to the Sri Lankan police and the army. They are stepping up and have so far completed 80 per cent. of a grant of £113 million towards the Victoria dam.

But what aid has the Under-Secretary authorised to be given to the refugees who suffered so much in July? Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the riots. It is one thing to bolster the economy of a Government who caused the problems, but it would be another if the Under-Secretary announced that he would give aid to the people who have suffered in Sri Lanka.

Giving economic aid to the Government of Sri Lanka, who, as I hope to make clear, were among the main organisers of the events of July and thereafter, is art attack on the human and democratic rights of people in that country and it misrepresents the feelings of working people in this country.

It may seem that charging the president and Government of another country with having been involved in riots goes beyond our powers, but on 28 July, within hours of the debate in the House, the president of Sri Lanka broadcast to the nation and expressed not a word of regret or sympathy for the Tamil-speaking people who had been massacred or made homeless. Instead, the President, who was held up by Conservative Members who spoke in the previous debate as a democratic statesman, announced: the time has come to accede to the clamour and the national respect of the Sinhala people. Ministers in the President's Government took him at his word. The Industry Minister, Cyril Mathew, led groups of UNP supporters in attacks on Tamil-speaking people in July, and Government vehicles were used to ferry gangs of thugs around the island. Electoral lists, supplied from within the Government, were used to distinguish the houses of Tamils from those of Sinhala-speaking people.

Given what the Minister of State, Department of Employment said in the previous debate today about: those on the Left, perhaps the Government might regard my information as suspect. However, there is information from a newspaper whose editor and editorial staff are not miles distant from the stance of the Tory party. The Times reported on 30 November: Businessmen, civil servants and ordinary people have gone through race riots before; but last July's killings and lootings were so premeditated, with the military and police play ing an active role, that nothing can allay their fears. I suppose that Sri Lanka's Industry Minister would not be far distant from the aid that Britain is giving to the Sri Lankan Government. He has written pamphlets which, by the tone of their contents, have encouraged attacks on Tamil people. The Guardian reported in September that a pamphlet called "The Diabolical Conspiracy" —edited parliamentary speeches by Mr. Mathew—was a pale counterpart, but nevertheless reminiscent, of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Those are the documents that were used by the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s to justify their pogroms and the beginnings of their form of fascism.

Other examples in The Guardian article mention attacks on Tamil teachers and interference with the marking of examination papers. The Industry Minister supported the attacks that took place in July.

Despite the clear involvement of Government officers, supporters and Ministers and the use of Government vehicles and publications, the President of Sri Lanka has used the Left parties as a scapegoat for what happened in July. Two parties remain banned—the NSSP, the New Socialist party of Sri Lanka, and the JVP, the People's Liberation Front. Those parties have been banned. Emergency powers were introduced six months ago. The regulations provide: Where the President is of opinion with respect to any organisation that there is a danger of action by, or of utilisation of, the organization or its members or adherents — (a) for purposes prejudicial to national security, the maintenance of public order or the maintenance of essential services; … the President may, by Order published in the Gazette, declare that organization to be a proscribed organization. If those emergency powers were to be implemented fairly, the UNP supporters and the army who carried out the attacks in July should have been proscribed. The regulations also provide power to detain suspects for up to 18 months without charge. Moreover, if there are fatalities as a result of security service actions the regulations provide that inquests to establish the cause of death do not have to be held.

Nevertheless, it is the leaders of Socialist and other parties in Sri Lanka who are being blamed for recent events. Their headquarters, press and literature have been seized. They have also been banned from political activity. The leader of the NSSP, Vasudeva, is a former member of the Sri Lanka Parliament and was a candidate in the recent presidential election. He is being hunted and there is a bounty of £1,400 on his head. That might not seem a large sum to us but it is considerable in Sri Lanka.

The slanderous irony of the charges made against the NSSP and its leader is, in fact, that that party has consistently argued against tactics such as individual terrorism. It has supported the struggles of the Tamil-speaking peoples of Sri Lanka and favours the right of self-determination and, if it is desired, a separate state for those people. The NSSP is also well known in Sri Lanka for attempting to forge unity between Sinhala and Tamil speaking peoples. It is a Socialist party. In places of work it has fought for the unity of working people regardless of political affiliation, race or creed. Nevertheless it is banned.

I should like the Minister to contrast that with the constitution which was established in 1978 which promises: Every citizen is entitled to: (a) the freedom of speech and expression, including publication; (b) the freedom of peaceful assembly; (c) the freedom of association; (d) the freedom to form and join a trade union:

My charge is that such conditions do not exist in Sri Lanka and yet the British Government hold it up as a model of parliamentary democracy and extend to it the hand of parliamentary and economic friendship. The fact remains that hundreds of people are being detained. Thousands died in July and hundreds of thousands are denied the right to join the political or industrial organisations of their choice.

Seven years ago we ratified a United Nations convention to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. It is an international covenant on civil and political rights. It says that people who have been arrested or detained are entitled to certain rights. It says that such people should be informed promptly in detail and in a language which they can understand of the nature and cause of the charges which are held against them and be allowed adequate time and facilities for the preparation of a defence, and be tried without undue delay.

I have a list, which was completed on 13 December, of 172 people in Batticaloa and Trincomalee who were arrested as long ago as August and September. They have been detained but have not yet been charged or allowed access to facilities that will enable them to prepare a defence such as the United Nations document mentions. Several of those people are named and their date of arrest is specified. They are being detained without charges. The Sri Lankan Government argue that many of them supported terrorism or violence. Surely our embassy, the Minister or another representative of the British Government could, if they were really worried about human democratic rights in other countries, tell the Sri Lankan Government to which we are giving £100 million in aid, that, if what they say is true, those who are guilty should be charged and put on trial before a jury and that those against whom charges cannot be levelled should be released. There is no justification for months of detention if evidence does not exist on which people can be brought to trial. I charge Sri Lanka, that recipient of Government aid, with abrogating its right to be called a democratic country when such procedures are allowed to continue.

There are political parties that are against exploitation, poverty and the oppression of human rights that exist within Sri Lanka. The New Socialist party is one example. Is the Minister saying that the arguments of parties that have been banned in Sri Lanka, which argue the case for Socialism and unity among people of different languages and cultures, constitute acts which, according to the regulations, are prejudicial to national security? If that is so, I do not agree that Sri Lanka can be considered to be a fully democratic country.

In debates during the year it has been recognised—many of us would say belatedly — that there are countries where people disappear, where people are detained and where dictatorship is beginning to develop. Argentina would be a prime example. Some of us have campaigned since the emergence of that military dictatorship in 1976 against the abrogation of rights in that country. The Government have admitted in recent months — I would argue, for their own purposes — that dictatorship exists in Argentina. Parallels can be seen in outline in Sri Lanka, where there are detentions, disappearances and the banning of political organisations.

Is the Minister more concerned, perhaps, with the use of Sri Lanka as a military and naval base for Britain and America in future, especially ports such as Trincomalee? Is that what is behind the fact that the aid continues to be given? Is it for that consideration that the suffering of the people of Sri Lanka is being swept under the carpet? The Government should end the military and political aid that they give to Sri Lanka. They should press for the restoration of the rights of people to organise in political parties and effective trade unions. They should press for the release of political prisoners.

I shall finish as I began. The purpose of the debate is, first, to hold out a torch of hope to people thousands of miles away. Britain is linked economically with them and they should know that working people in Britain are not unmindful of the problems that they are facing. Another purpose of the debate is to bring to the attention of working people how Governments operate with no regard for those whom they represent. Despite the fig leaves of phrases that we might hear during television interviews in respect of human and democratic rights, they give priority to the economy, to profits and to the strategic use of islands around the globe and not to the rights of ordinary working people.

Britain has an international history over a number of centuries of promoting divisions between ordinary people. It has done so in India, Africa and many other countries. That former direct military domination has been replaced with economic domination, and an example is the support that is given to Government of the sort who prevail in Sri Lanka. As the economies of so-called backward countries, so-called Third world countries, suffer from the recession that is afflicting the industrial capitalist countries of the West, the divisions will be exacerbated. Against that background, the support that the Government give to these divisions is reprehensible. This year, 1983, has another significance, for it is the 100th anniversary of the death of Karl Marx, whose most famous quote over that century was perhaps: Workers of the world unite! On behalf of the working people whom I represent I offer through this debate the hand of solidarity and of working-class friendship to workers in Sri Lanka who are suffering under the Government of President Jayawardene.

3.18 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ray Whitney)

The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) has offered us in this final debate of 1983—a year which has rather more significance than the anniversary of the birth of his patron saint; for example, there is the quatercentenary of Martin Luther, which is somewhat more significant than the anniversary of Karl Marx—a replay of the knockabout that we had at 6 o'clock in the morning on 26 July. Like the Bourbons, he has learnt nothing. Again, we have been offered his slant-eyed Marxist-Leninist view, coming from his ideological straitjacket, which ends up with a perspective of the world that none of us recognises. He is oblivious to many of the vital facts about Sri Lanka and this country's contacts and relations with it and its people, and—this is what I cannot understand—that seems to lead him to a partial view of the ethnic communities in Sri Lanka.

The hon. Member shows a deep concern for oppression and violence against the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka. I share his concern. I am concerned about violence against and oppression of any other citizen of Sri Lanka. I ask the hon. Gentleman to widen his perspective a little—indeed, rather more than a little—because the British Government have consistently made clear to the Sri Lankan Government our concern about the observation of human rights, and the Sri Lankan Government have recognised our concern.

When we last debated this subject in July, I deplored any resort to violence. I recognised the deep-seated problems of the Tamil community, which have existed for many years, as anyone who has any knowledge of Sri Lanka will acknowledge. With respect, I question whether the hon. Gentleman's familiarity with Sri Lanka is very deep. He seems merely to use his view of Sri Lanka as a case study for Marxist-Leninism today, overseas model. Those of us who know about Sri Lanka accept the serious problem that exists there. We recognise, too, that important efforts have been made since the quite lamentable events of the high summer to restore the situation. Efforts have been made not only by the communities themselves but by the Indian Government, who made an important contribution. I shall return to that matter in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the actions taken by the British Government. He called for aid. It may have escaped his notice that we responded with immediate emergency aid. We immediately donated £50,000 to the Red Cross, in response to an appeal from the League of Red Cross Societies, and a further £30,000 to Oxfam for humanitarian aid for the victims of the riots. We are convinced that those efforts, together with those made by Sri Lanka's many other overseas friends, were much appreciated by the Sri Lankan Government, who themselves gave relief and welfare assistance to the unfortunate victims of the violence.

Since then, the problem has been to restore harmony between the communities and in the political society of Sri Lanka. None of us underestimates the grave difficulties of what passed and the problems facing the Government leaders and the leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front, and all other responsible politicians who seek to create a peaceful, prosperous and unitary Sri Lanka.

In that task, I should like to pay a special tribute to the efforts of the Indian Government and their representative. India's relations with Sri Lanka are well known. There are Tamils in India, and there are close links between those two countries on that basis. The Indian Government's representative, Mr. Parthasarathy, played a very helpful role during those months, and his contribution as an intermediary deserves recognition, which I happily extend.

We now have some results. I am glad to tell the House that as a result of developments, an all-party conference has been convened for 10 January 1984, and representatives of the Tamil United Liberation Front will be invited to it. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that development, given his concern for the Tamils.

Mr. Nellist


Mr. Whitney

I shall not give way, as the hon. Gentleman took up more time than was his ration In what is the last debate of the year.

The hon. Gentleman was concerned about the two parties that he seems to favour with still more vigour, the JVP and the NSSP. It has been announced that those two proscribed political parties will be invited to attend if the security situation permits. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use whatever influence he has—I do not know whether he has any influence with those parties—to urge them to recognise the attachment that he now declaims to non-violent political progress. If violence is renounced, I am hopeful that all the political parties in Sri Lanka can move together to restore peace and unity. I hope that he shares that aspiration.

Our long-standing relationship with Sri Lanka is one of friendship and good will to all the community. The subject of the debate is our attitude to human rights in Sri Lanka. We have consistently made our view clear. For example, in the aftermath of the violence in the summer, a demarche was made to the Government of Sri Lanka on behalf of the 10 countries of the EC, which included our views and expressed the hope that the Sri Lanka Government would safeguard the fundamental rights of the individual in all circumstances. The Presidency representatives drew attention to the concern in Europe at the violence, arid conveyed the sympathy of the people of Europe to the people of Sri Lanka as a whole at that most difficult time.

In addition to our links with Sri Lanka through the Community, we have still deeper links through our Commonwealth connections. Most recently, President Jayawardene issued another statement in Colombo on returning from the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting which suggested that if the Tamil United Liberation Front was prepared to give up its call for a separate state an acceptable solution of the Tamil problem could be worked out.

Thus, I believe that the omens are favourable. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will shed his Marxist blinkers, widen his vision, extend congratulations on what has been achieved in a very difficult situation, and will withdraw the call that he seems to have made—if I understood him correctly — for us to suspend our economic development aid programme to the Sri Lankan Government. I ask him to understand that the Victoria dam—a major £100 million project—will contribute to the electricity supply for the whole of the island and will benefit Sri Lankans of all ethnic origins.

That is the way forward, and that is the way to sustain and strengthen the democracy for which, as I said in July, Sri Lanka has been justly proud for 50 years. I know that democracy is a plant that tends to wither in the hands of the hon. Gentleman's comrades—

Mr. Nellist

Name them.

Mr. Whitney

—but we support democracy, and look forward to its continued flourishing in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Speaker

Before I adjourn the House, I should like to express my warmest good wishes to hon. Members on both sides of the House and to the staff of the House who serve us so faithfully and well. I hope that everyone will have a very happy Christmas and a most successful new year.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly a twenty-nine minutes past Three o'clock till Monday 16 January, pursuant to the resolution of the House of 19 December.