HL Deb 23 January 1991 vol 525 cc303-26

8.11 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take to help to end hostilities and to restore human rights in Sri Lanka.

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, the crisis in the Gulf has obscured events elsewhere in the world, and of those events perhaps few are so tragic as the situation in Sri Lanka. Two violent conflicts have riven the country: the JVP, or People's Freedom Party, uprising and the Sinhala-Tamil conflict. The consequences of these conflicts have been a steady increase in the level of violence, widespread abuse of human rights, including killing, torture, imprisonment without trial, a steady erosion of the democratic process and, most recently, a massive number of refugees in the wake of the war now raging in the north and east of the island.

The JVP uprising primarily affected the south of the island. It was a movement largely of the young rural poor, mostly Sinhala Buddhists, who created anarchy by widespread killing and threats and who for the moment have been put down by an equally violent government response. The number of JVP killed is not known for sure, but the figure of 30,000 is widely quoted. Many were young people whose bodies were thrown into rivers or burnt at the side of the road.

With the death of the JVP leaders little over a year ago, the south is now relatively quiet. Nevertheless, the underlying causes, especially of rural poverty, still remain and the movement smoulders and is not quenched. A climate of violence has been created by that conflict and the on-going Sinhala-Tamil conflict which has begun to brutalise a formerly civilised people so that killing becomes commonplace. I had personal experience of this when I visited the island last May. I had lunch with the Tamil member of parliament for Batticaloa, Sam Tambimuttu. He talked about the danger to himself and his family from other Tamil groups and how he had brought his family to Colombo for safety. Three days later he was shot and killed outside the Canadian embassy in Colombo. The killing was attributed to a rival Tamil group. But the government in Sri Lanka is not above such actions. The killing of the journalist Richard de Soyza, which received widespread international publicity, is by many in Sri Lanka laid at the door of the government, and pressure for an inquiry into his death has still not been successful.

The situation in Sri Lanka has deteriorated massively with the resumption of civil war between government forces and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam (LTTE). The Sinhala-Tamil conflict is a long-running one. For 35 years Tamils in Sri Lanka have been pressing their demands for the integrity of the Tamil homeland, substantial autonomy for the Tamil region, equal rights for the Tamil language and rights of citizenship. Successive Sinhala governments have agreed to some or all of these principles, but of whatever political complexion they consist they have not implemented them. The will to do so has been lacking.

A senior politician in Sri Lanka said to me in 1987 that weak government had been the basic cause of conflict. I have deplored the steady growth of violence, especially by the Tamils, but I have to say I understand the reasons which have driven members of the Tamil community to take that course.

With the departure of the Indian peace keeping force in March last year, an uneasy lull began which was broken in June when the LTTE recommenced hostilities. Since then, a fierce military conflict has been fought in the north and east of the island. Caught in the middle is the civilian population. The government's policy of bombing towns and villages has resulted in great numbers of families leaving their homes. Currently, the number of refugees in the island is put at about 1 million; that is, one in 15 of the population. In addition, fuel is in short supply, electricity is cut off and there has been much destruction of property, businesses, homes, schools, hospitals and churches.

Aid for the refugees has been supplied by religious and non-government organisations. The British Refugee Council believes that as a result of that aid the situation among the refugees, although desperate, is not disastrous. Among many responses, my own diocese has contributed many thousands of pounds of aid through the Bishop of Colombo. We have received graphic accounts of lorryloads of food and other aid being driven to the north, sometimes having to be left in a church or school because the road beyond is closed. In spite of this aid, the situation in the north and east is appalling, and we have received heartfelt cries for help from those caught in the middle of the battle.

Although it was the LTTE who commenced hostilities in June, it seemed that until recently the Sri Lankan Government was intent on a military solution to the conflict. Having succeeded in the south against the JVP, they believed they could do so in the north. The LTTE have offered a ceasefire, and latest reports indicate that the government have now accepted it. In that context it is imperative to preserve the cessation of hostilities between government forces and the LTTE, to create conditions within that space in which refugees may return to their homes, and finally—this is the most important and difficult thing—to work out a political resolution of the conflict.

Given the complexities, it is extremely difficult to see what can be done from outside the island. Nevertheless, international scrutiny can affect the situation. There is evidence that the Sri Lankan Government have moderated their bombing campaign because of fear of international opinion. Churches and religious bodies have helped to bring the international gaze to bear on Sri Lanka. I was a member of the World Solidarity Forum on Sri Lanka for Justice and Peace—a shared Buddhist-Christian initiative which drew together religious figures, non-government organisations and politicians from some 20 countries. That has resulted in an increased awareness of the situation and the building of a network of links with those in Sri Lanka who are calling for a change of direction.

In those circumstances, the attitude of governments is crucial. I was in Colombo in May last year when the Prime Minister of Japan visited the island. There was intense interest in his attitude. He made it clear that Japanese aid would be dependent upon the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. The government in Sri Lanka must not be above the rule of law, and aid is one of the few sanctions that can be brought to bear on a government which sets itself above that rule.

The European countries have made a similar declaration. I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply on behalf of the Government will be able to give an assurance that the Government will take a firm stance. Will the Government insist that aid is dependent upon the restoration of the rule of law and human rights? Will they refuse to give aid if they are not satisfied that such conditions are met? Such aid does not go to the refugees but to government programmes. We should have no compunction in making clear our abhorrence of events in Sri Lanka, a major responsibility for which must be laid at the door of the Sri Lankan Government.

All possible pressure should be brought to bear on the Sri Lankan Government to pursue a political solution to the Sinhala-Tamil conflict. The Australian Government support a proposal that the Commonwealth Secretariat should be invited to mediate in talks between the Government and the LTTE. Will Her Majesty's Government give the strongest possible support to such an initiative and take a share in insisting that a political and not a military solution is the only one which can give a secure future to both Tamil and Sinhala in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is an island of great beauty with a people of great ability, hospitality and charm. Those of us who have lived in the island and count Sinhala and Tamils among our close friends are deeply grieved at the tragedies and horrors that they have experienced and continue to experience. We yearn for an end to their sufferings. We shall ourselves do—and press others to do—whatever helps to achieve that end.

8.22 p.m.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon for asking the Question on the civil war in Sri Lanka. He speaks with great personal knowledge and breadth of vision. I endorse everything that he said. I should like to add as an aside that I cannot help but feel that in considering the problems of that tragic and beautiful island we should remember our inability to resolve the conflict much nearer home.

In Sri Lanka we see entrenched positions and attitudes, bitter hatred and a sense of the enemy group as excluded from the human community—as dispensable. Those feelings are common to such situations. Analysing the history of the conflict is useful only if the purpose is to examine the essential needs of the protagonists and use that knowledge to persuade them to move away from entrenched positions. As I understand it, the problem in Sri Lanka is that the national, now mainly Sinhalese, government want to maintain a unified state, while the Tamil minority which forms the majority in the north east of the island wants some degree of autonomy but not necessarily a separate state.

While English was the official lingua franca of the island, although perhaps all the communities had a grievance, at least it was a shared grievance. When Mrs. Bandaranaike rose to power on the promise of granting autonomy to the Tamil area and then reneged on that promise, she opened a wound that has festered ever since with differing degrees of inflammation. I believe that it was also she who changed the official language of Sri Lanka from English to Sinhala, making it much more difficult for the Tamils to participate in the national administration. That in turn fuelled the desire for separation.

It must be said that while horrific atrocities were committed by both sides in the years that followed, the national government have taken a very hard-line approach. They have come in for a great deal of criticism which I think is largely justified. I should point out that atrocities have been committed by both sides. As so often happens, one side blames the other. It is said that so and so started the conflict or that it started when such and such an incident occurred. It is futile to take that path. We must first have a cease-fire and then look at the political problems.

The Question asked by the right reverend Prelate is thoughtfully phrased. The denial of human rights is a function of the state of armed conflict. Hostilities will have to subside before we can hope to improve the human rights situation. In fact the two propositions mentioned in the Question form part of a continuum: as life returns to normal, ordinary social existence will re-establish itself. It is a truism that peace and justice are inseparable. One cannot have the one without the other. If there is peace without justice conflict will arise. If there is justice but no peace, that justice will soon be swept away.

In this conflict the total number of dead and disappeared—what in Latin America are called los desparecidos—can now easily have reached 200,000. It could be more. The refugee problem is immense. Normal life has ceased in many parts of the north east. I have read articles which refer to the law of the jungle. We see only too clearly the escalating spiral of violence. The Sri Lankan Government are buying weapons from China. According to reports in major newspapers, the Tamil Tigers may be funding their arms purchases by smuggling drugs. It is a tragedy in so many ways.

But there are many good things that happen in Sri Lanka. I should like to bring in a note of normality. The Intermediate Technology Development Group does sterling work in Sri Lanka. That is the sort of work that can continue when the political and military situation has stabilised.

I urge the Government to support all initiatives toward peace in the island. I understand that an approach has been made by Norway and that certain Commonwealth countries, at the instigation of Senator Robert Hill of Australia who helped to draw up a substantial and substantive peace proposal, were to have attended a meeting of a high level appraisal group. Unfortunately owing to the situation in the Gulf that has been postponed until June. I cannot see why the postponement was necessary.

Will Her Majesty's Government urgently seek to have that meeting brought back to its original date? Other government and international business continue during the present conflict. Surely it remains important to end the bloodshed and suffering in Sri Lanka as soon as possible.

8.26 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilion

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon for bringing to the notice of your Lordships tonight the plight of the war-torn country of Sri Lanka. My noble kinsman and I spent a holiday in Sri Lanka just before the problems started in the south. Perhaps it is because I spent the most enjoyable holiday that I have ever had in the beautiful country of Sri Lanka that I want to support this debate tonight. But also it is because last Sunday I met an Anglican priest from Sri Lanka who was visiting the local Anglican church. He came with his wife to visit us at our home. He gave me a copy of the report, World Forum on Sri Lanka for Justice and Peace.

I found Sri Lanka a magical place, with delightful people. There are kingfishers and brightly coloured parrots flying about. When, as a Roman Catholic, I attended mass I felt very much part of the community. We were invited to the parish to see some of the social work that was organised for young people who were getting into trouble. They were taught how to grow vegetables. The girls were taught how to sew and be self-sufficient. We visited some of the village homes. The people whom we met were delightful. Many of them were very poor.

I was dismayed when I heard that such a wonderful place as Sri Lanka was being ravaged by war. With the Gulf war upon us, the very real troubles of Sri Lanka may be forgotten and passed over. I hope that that will not happen. I should like to ask the Minister whether there was going to be an Australian peace initiative and if so what has happened about it.

With our own problems in Northern Ireland, we are very well aware of how difficult these internal situations are. But because Sri Lanka is a Commonwealth country with close ties with Britain I hope that the Commonwealth will be able to help it solve this terrible situation.

Let me bring to your Lordships' notice some of the things which are happening to innocent civilian people. There are over 1 million displaced people, many of them having lost their homes. Some of them are living with relatives or friends, but many are in refugee camps. Food is very short. Sometimes it comes in only one week in three. About 30,000 people died in the early problems in the south, but now the problems are in the north and east of the country.

In the report there is an appeal from Jaffna, which is one of the problem areas. It reads: The present war is being waged in a country where ordinary people are everywhere helpless, the universities are silent, the politicians are confused and the best the churches would allow themselves to do is to render some humanitarian assistance. The wound continues to fester. There is greater misery compounded by revenge killings. It is a situation that calls for a committed, principled response. The alternative is a progressive disintegration of the country". As a member of the British Red Cross Society for many years, I should like to tell your Lordships that the ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the League of the Red Cross are helping with relief services in Sri Lanka. The league, which deals with natural disaster, is helping with the refugees in the north and east. The principles of the Red Cross are basic humanitarian needs. The ICRC and the league are working together to help with these problems —problems of lack of medical supplies, food, fuel, fertilisers, money, household provisions and even cooking utensils.

The Red Cross helps with tracing lost people. With so many people dead and 100,000 Tamils having fled to Southern India, this must be a very difficult task. The Red Cross visits detainees. This is one of the valuable tasks undertaken by members of the ICRC in so many troubled parts of the world. This is why the neutrality of the Red Cross emblem is so important, and all countries which have Red Cross or Red Crescent societies have to see that their emblem is used only for the work of the Red Cross.

The Red Cross is appealing for more funds to help with this very needed work. This work in Sri Lanka must be difficult because relief has been hampered as the army puts up barricades. When the war is over there will be much to do in relief and rehabilitation. One has to ask the question: why is there so much disharmony in a world which should be working for the good of each other instead of destroying and hating one another?

I end by saying that very bad monsoons are now hitting Sri Lanka. Snakes come into houses and last week 17 people died from snake bites. I hope that the Minister can give us some good news about some Commonwealth peace initiatives, which I trust will come sooner rather than later.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, like others I should like to express my appreciation of the initiative taken by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon tonight. There are strong Commonwealth ties between Britain and Sri Lanka, and there is considerable respect for the proceedings of Parliament in Sri Lanka. I am quite sure that many people in that tragic island will feel indebted to the right reverend Prelate for expressing his concerns this evening about the future of their country.

The Gulf war tends to occupy all our attention at the moment, but it is interesting to note that this has its repercussions in Sri Lanka. Over 4,000 Sri Lankans were repatriated from Basra, Iraq, in November by the International Organisation for Migration. Over 47,000 have been returned to Colombo from the Gulf since Iraq invaded Kuwait, and there are reported to be a further 50,000 Sri Lankan workers remaining in Kuwait. So the Gulf war has serious repercussions for some of the poorest sections of the community who will be repatriated and for some of the families who depend on the remittances from workers in the Gulf in order to relieve their poverty.

When I returned from Sri Lanka last year I put down Questions to the Government on the subject of respect for human rights and on what their attitude was. I am happy to say that I received reassurances from the Government of their concern about this matter, and I am quite sure that the Minister will tonight repeat the assurances that were given by his predecessor.

But I want to pay a special tribute tonight to the representative of Her Majesty's Government in Colombo. I want to pay a tribute to David Gladstone, who is our High Commissioner and who has not been afraid or intimidated in standing up for human rights. David Gladstone has been threatened. One Member of Parliament in Sri Lanka, taking advantage of the privileged position of a Member of Parliament, went so far as to accuse him of drug trafficking in order to diminish the standing of Her Majesty's Government and their representative. But I am glad to say that David Gladstone has maintained his firm line publicly.

When I was there I was interested in the case of a young man who had just disappeared. I was associated with the religious Society of Friends and still am. They have a Quaker mission engaged in medical work and reconciliation in the island. When one of the workers suddenly disappeared, I went to David Gladstone to ask him to make representations. The Swedish Embassy also made representations, and I stated that I would raise the matter with the Foreign Secretary on my return. Mr. Gladstone was summoned to the Foreign Office in Sri Lanka and was asked, "What is all the trouble you are making about this chap? We will make sure that he is returned". But like so many others who are caught in that conflict, he has never been seen since.

The problem about a mission of reconciliation is that you have to get the confidence of both sides of the argument. But as soon as you get the confidence of the leaders of the JVP, inevitably you are in conflict with the government and are suspect. The leader of our mission there last Christmas went to church in the morning and on returning from church this young man with his wife and two children who had been in Sri Lanka engaged in reconciliation for four years were advised by neighbours as they approached their home, "You had better not go home because there are two gunmen sitting outside". Whether they were from one political group or from the government, I do not know. But they took refuge immediately in the Swedish embassy, packed their bags and came home to this country. This is the difficulty of seeking reconciliation and I am sure that the right reverend Prelate will support this experience of the difficulties of establishing an understanding between the warring factions.

When the Indian troops withdrew in March last year there was suddenly a flash of hope. The government said to the Tamils, "All right, you can have a government up there in the north east". The Tamils in turn agreed to go legitimate, to cease civil war practices and to seek to have representation in the parliament, with a good deal of devolution in the north-east provincial council. Unfortunately, a small incident happened about that time which set the place alight again. The government army were going to carry out largely civil duties, but as a result of this incident and consequent misunderstanding 600 policemen were rounded up by the Tamils and they disappeared. There followed more violence and yet more conflict. This is an extremely complex situation in which both the Tamil Tigers and the government have responsibility.

What is wrong with the situation and how can we help to deal with it? There is a great deal wrong with Sri Lanka and it is difficult to see how we can contribute to a solution of some of the problems. In the case of the Tamils there is a very special situation, as the right reverend Prelate indicated: racial, religious and so on. The JVP's leaders have been murdered and they have, temporarily at least, been suppressed, but there is still great underlying reason for dissatisfaction. There is no doubt that there is a loss of faith in the government. There is a feeling that the government are corrupt, and there is no doubt that with the powers of patronage possessed by the government and politicians it is difficult to change the government. Too many people are on the civil service payroll. Money is frequently wasted on overmanning. There are state industries—after all the state of Sri Lanka is the Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka—and there is no doubt that the nationalised industries and the intervention of government in the economy have not been helpful to economic growth and stability.

So there are a number of things which require to be changed, and perhaps the power of the World Bank, which is now negotiating to give Sri Lanka 1 billion dollars of economic assistance, can bring pressure to bear on the government on the economic front. There is no doubt that the lack of respect and lack of faith in the government so widely felt is a destabilising element in the situation. Again I was happy to note that the EC, when considering its aid budget, has imposed certain terms with regard to human rights, and it is in this area that we can bring pressure to bear.

Unfortunately, the people who may suffer from a suspension of aid may be the poorest in the community; that is the difficulty. But there is no doubt that aid and assistance from World Bank loans and so on are very important to the economy of Sri Lanka. Apart from anything else, the mere cost of this civil war is bearing heavily on the budget. Therefore economic pressure should be all the more effective. To give support in our aid programme not simply for large economic projects but for the work that is carried out by the NGOs is very important. Perhaps a good deal of our aid might be directed towards strengthening the influence of the NGOs which are courageously working in a very difficult situation.

I am happy to think that this discussion tonight will be reported in Sri Lanka and that people there who have perhaps given up hope will know that there are people in the United Kingdom Parliament who are concerned about their tragic situation and we will continue to press for respect for human rights in that island.

8.46 p.m.

Lord Wilberforce

My Lords, I should like to add just a few words in warmhearted support of the initiative of the right reverend Prelate in raising this subject this evening. Both my wife and I have a 20 year-long and very close connection with Sri Lanka and its people. Indeed my wife is there now. Had the Motion of the right reverend Prelate come on next week, I should perhaps have been able to supply some up-to-date information as to the state of affairs in the country at the present time. As it is, the information that I am able to contribute is based on a telephone conversation and on my own rather fragmentary knowledge of the present state of affairs.

I intend only briefly to summarise the two orders of problem which are facing Sri Lanka at present. The first is the problem of law and order in the country as a whole, arising mainly from the JVP revolt and its suppression by the government. There is no doubt—many speakers have drawn attention to this—that there have been acts of violence, and unjustifiable and excessive violence, on the part of the government in suppressing the revolt. That is perfectly clear; but what I do not believe is entirely appreciated in this country, and certainly it has not been reported at all in the media, is the extent of the threat which the JVP movement constituted to lawful government in Sri Lanka.

The JVP was an extremely well organised, skilful and well equipped body which had the avowed object of creating chaos in the country; and it largely succeeded in its aim. Transport was completely disrupted; doctors were unable to get to hospitals; hospitals and schools were closed; the families of the forces of law and order were murdered; individual houses were attacked and their belongings looted —all this on a very well planned and organised scale. If, as unfortunately was the case, severe and heavy-handed methods of repression were used, one has to view those against the background of the threat with which the authorities had to contend.

What should we do now? I find myself very much in agreement with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. At the present time I believe we have to accept the fact that the government of President Premadasa is in control of the country and that he should be given support in so far as he continues on a course of law, order and human rights. I believe we can give valuable support in this country, as his friends. This country has a long, strong tradition of friendship with Sri Lanka, and I believe that visits by prominent people from here, whether politicians, churchmen, lawyers, representatives of NGOs or members of human rights bodies can be of very great help.

Among other things, Sri Lankans are a most law-abiding people and they are very good lawyers. A Sri Lankan has just been elected to the International Court of Justice. I believe that my continual appeal as to the necessity of observing basic principles of law and human rights will not fall on deaf ears. It is said that we should bring pressure to bear upon them and refuse any aid if they do not mend their ways. That is one way of looking at the matter. However, against that, one must bear in mind that many of the tragedies and excesses—the breaches of human rights —which are occurring there are due, as more than one noble Lord has said, to economic causes. Therefore, another way of approaching the same problem may be to give whatever help we can to alleviate economic problems and distress, making clear, of course, that we hope that progress along the path of human rights may continue, but we should not use the word "pressure" nor make the furnishing of aid conditional or dependent upon a compliance with certain standards which can only come later in the day.

The World Bank was referred to by one noble Lord. I believe that President Premadasa has succeeded in establishing a certain degree of credibility there. We should do well to support his application for aid and particularly we should do well to support any help to deal with the vast number of refugees resulting from the Gulf crisis. I need not expand upon that because the noble Lord put it extremely well and no doubt others will make the same point.

The second order of problem is the Tamil problem. I hope that the noble Lord who is replying will be able to give us the latest information about the progress of the LTTE ceasefire and whether that still holds. We hope that that may be a successful prelude to ending the problem in the north, although one has also read with some disquiet of the arrival of some 200 Indian trawlers off the coast—a phenomenon which we have seen on previous occasions.

I am sure that the noble Baroness was absolutely right to underline this as a Commonwealth problem. It is one in which many Commonwealth countries have shown an interest and one where they are capable of giving support. Reference has been made to the Australian initiative and Canada and other countries of the Commonwealth have at times shown themselves willing to give their encouragement to the forces of right in Sri Lanka. I hope that the Government will join with them and that, through the new Secretary General of the Commonwealth and together with our friends there, particularly the major countries I have mentioned, we can try to help the Indian government to do what they can to diminish the problem.

Let us not forget that the Indian government have their problems in relation to this matter. Forces are supplied through the provincial government, over which central government does not have total control. Therefore, support and influence from the Commonwealth will probably be welcomed by the Indian government.

I thank the right reverend Prelate for asking this Question and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comforting information when he replies.

8.53 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, we are greatly indebted to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon for drawing our attention to the miserable state of affairs in Sri Lanka and for trying to focus our minds on what could be done by the international community to restore the rule of law in that unhappy country. He painted a grim but nevertheless accurate picture of the state of affairs there.

Unfortunately this tragedy is self inflicted. My noble friend analysed some of the political reasons which led to the development of that state of affairs. It is very tempting to go into an analysis of those factors and to explain what is the aetiology of the state of violence and the reasons behind the emergence of the JDP as an armed opposition in Sri Lanka, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, referred. It did not come out of a political vacuum but emerged in 1971 when I first visited Sri Lanka as a representative of Amnesty International to inquire into the situation in which 14,800 people were detained by the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike without any process of law and where disappearances were already widespread and torture endemic in the establishments run by the police and security forces. Therefore, that is not a totally new phenomenon, but one that had emerged 20 years ago.

Some of the measures taken by governments in the intervening 20 years have encouraged young people to turn to violent instead of constitutional means of expressing themselves. For example, there were the actions of the government of President J.R. Jayawardene from 1977 onwards when he had a five-sixths majority in Parliament. He gave himself presidential powers armed with that majority. He charged his political opponents before a special tribunal and imposed punishments on the former prime minister and minister of justice for acts which had been lawful at the time at which they were committed. He held a referendum to double the life of his parliament from six to 12 years, rushing through the referendum as being urgent in the national interest and the text was unavailable to voters.

During the campaign, he enjoyed a virtual monopoly of radio and television and the press, which was largely state owned. He imposed emergency regulations which were used to shut down the main Sinhala language opposition daily. He closed printing presses operated by critics of the government and arrested or threatened opposition leaders. There were raids and apparatus was destroyed in the headquarters of the main opposition party. Meetings were prevented or disrupted and campaign literature was seized and confiscated. That was how President J.R. Jayawardene won the infamous election of 1982. During that time I was present in Sri Lanka and I say without hesitation that the proceedings were fraudulent and unlawful.

In 1983 there was a pogrom against the Tamils in Colombo including a massacre of Tamil prisoners held in the principal jail. Not a finger was lifted by the government to stop the atrocities which clearly had political backing from somebody high up. However, those events were used as an excuse by the government to proscribe the JVP, which until that time—as I remind the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce—had been returned to constitutional politics, as well as two other parties and some individuals, including persons who had protected Tamils at risk to their own lives.

At that point the JVP reverted to terrorism and the government embarked on a programme of counter-terrorism which has continued ever since, even after the leadership of the JVP was totally destroyed as it was last March when the leaders were captured and murdered in custody, which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has already mentioned. The brutality of the security forces more than matched that of the terrorists, and those whose responsibility it was to uphold the rule of law against the rule of the bullet and bomb actively incited the criminal activities of their servants. J. R. Jayawardene exhorted the security forces to "kill, kill, kill and kill the brutes", and legislation was enacted exonerating the security forces and police for any criminal offences they might commit in the course of their duties. In the meanwhile, on the other side of the question, J. R. Jayawardene had totally ignored the Tamil United Liberation Front between 1977 and 1983, when it constituted the main opposition in Parliament. The TULF was a conventional political party, and by undermining its credibility among the Tamil people, J. R. Jayawardene made it inevitable that terrorist groups would supplant them. He did not honour his election promise of more autonomy for the district development councils, but instead unleashed violence against the Tamil people and their priceless assets which included the famous library of Jaffna, which was totally destroyed.

Having lost control of the north, J. R. Jayawardene then invited the Indian peace keeping force to restore order, under the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of July 1987. But the Indians proved to be even more destructive and murderous than the Sri Lanka armed forces. The accord also handed a major propaganda weapon to the JVP, which it was not slow to exploit. When President Premadasa came to power he asked the Indians to withdraw. But by the time they complied the damage was already done.

The Premadasa election victory in 1988 was also of dubious validity, marred as it was by widespread violence and intimidation, as was the parliamentary election of 1989 at which I was present. There were dozens of political murders including those of nine opposition candidates and many officials. The turnout in both elections was sharply down, particularly in areas of traditional opposition support. At one polling station I attended in the south, in a constituency of strong SLFP support, nobody voted. At another polling station I came to there was the body of a terrorist laid across the threshold. He had just been killed by the security forces. Obviously people did not come out and vote when that kind of thing was happening and when shots could be heard throughout the whole area.

Thus, although some of the violence was indeed perpetrated by the JVP—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce said—the effect of the violence during those elections was to improve the results for the reigning government. The presidential majority was small enough to have affected the result in a material way. President Premadasa probably would not have come to power if there had been free and fair elections.

The Indians, meanwhile, had completed the militarisation of politics in the north and east, and set the scene not only for conflicts between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, but also for the bloody struggles within the Tamil communities themselves; between Tamil and Moslem and, as has been said, between the LTTE and the government. President Premadasa naively thought that he could use the LTTE, and there was a honeymoon period after the Indian withdrawal. But the Tigers, having forced the regional super power, as they saw it, out of their territory, were not going to share power with Colombo. They inflicted heavy losses on the Sri Lanka armed forces in the north, which is now de facto under LTTE control. The response of the authorities in Colombo has been to create yet another armed group to seek out and kill suspected members of the LTTE in the south. It is very sad that President Premadasa, as a Buddhist, should ignore the Buddha's proposition that hatred is never appeased by hatred. The Tigers, on the other hand, masters of cruelty as the Tamil Times described them, have perpetrated the most revolting atrocities against Moslems in the north and east. The entire moslem population of the north—10 per cent. of the total—have been driven mercilessly from their homes and hundreds massacred in the east.

According to the official figures of the Rehabilitation Ministry, reported in the newspaper Island on 22nd December there are 928,954 internal refugees. In the 60 camps in Batticaloa, eastern region, there are 222,161 people, all but a handful of them Moslems from the region. In Britain, Canada, the United States, India and Australia there are several hundred thousand more refugees, many of them highly qualified professionals whose skills are going to be desperately needed in the reconstruction of Sri Lanka's shattered economy and public services. The other minority which is overlooked too often is the community of Tamil plantation workers, who have very little in common with their remote cousins in the north and east but whose existence is harsh and whose rights as descendants of fourth or fifth generation immigrants transplanted as serf labour by the British are ignored. If there is to be a separate Tamil state in the north, they would be no more at home there than in the land of their ancestors, Tamil Nadu.

In the south generally the pattern has been one of kidnappings and disappearances. According to a report by two British MEPs who visited Sri Lanka in November 1990, together with a Belgian and a Dutch lawyer, an estimated 60,000 people—as my noble friend also mentioned—have disappeared in the south since 1987, many of them after being taken into custody by the police. Recently there have been several bizarre cases of detainees pleading with the judges not to release them on remand after bailed prisoners were picked up by masked gunmen in unmarked jeeps and subsequently disappeared.

Christopher Bigsby, writing in the Independent of 6th January, says that 120 students disappeared from Sri Lanka's universities since they reopened after a two-year closure last September. Sixteen lawyers who were also human rights activists have been murdered since 1988, and 36 fled the country after threats to their lives and those of their families. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, is absolutely right. There are many distinguished lawyers in Sri Lanka. However, more and more of them are having to seek exile abroad, 24 in Britain. Those gross violations of human rights are continuing long after the government claimed to have disposed of the JVP in December 1989 when Rohana Wijeweera, the JVP leader, and the entire central committee, with the exception of one man, were unlawfully killed while in the custody of the police.

As far as I am aware, and I stand to be corrected by the Minister, there have been only two cases brought against servants of the state in regard to the crimes committed. In the first case, the torturing to death of the human rights activist lawyer, Wijedasa Liyanaaratchi, the superintendent and two police constables who arrested him were charged with murder two years ago. But they are out on bail and there is no sign of the case being concluded. Meanwhile the lawyer who acted for Liyanaaratchi's family was driven out of Sri Lanka by death threats following the murder of two colleagues who acted with him on the case.

In the other case, that of the shooting of a student at the Teldeniya Central School, Kandy, one prosecution lawyer has been murdered. Five of the witnesses have also been murdered. The trial judge fled the country and has changed his name. Senior counsel for the prosecution has sought asylum in Britain. Since it became impossible for litigants to retain lawyers in human rights cases, the Bar Association agreed, after consultation with judges and the Attorney-General to act on behalf of litigants nominating one of their members to conduct each case. The two most recent asylum seekers in Britain are lawyers who were so nominated but who nevertheless received death threats that they could not ignore. No doubt the government would like to create the impression that the rule of law prevails and that everyone has access to the courts. However having created an autonomous machine for murder and intimidation they cannot easily stop it when acts that are extremely harmful to Sri Lanka's image abroad are perpetrated.

On 30th November I had the honour of chairing a meeting organised by the Campaign for Democracy and Human Rights in Sri Lanka at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The remarkable feature of that meeting was that the 300 people who attended came from all communities, including some from the armed opposition groups. Yet they managed to reach a unanimous resolution outlining a solution to the frightful problems facing their country. They declared that the help of the United Nations was necessary to develop proposals for constitutional electoral reform and to secure the withdrawal of the huge quantities of weaponry which remain in private hands, most of it distributed by the government. Coincidentally, I understand that the civil rights movement in Sri Lanka itself has made a similar proposal.

Recently the Australians proposed that an interim UN administration should take over in Cambodia because the government and the armed opposition there were unable to agree on a peace formula which would enable the people to decide what kind of government they wanted for themselves. A surprisingly large number of states were prepared to agree a more active role for the UN which would involve even a short-term transfer of sovereignty. In Sri Lanka the problems are not the same, but perhaps there are additional reasons for envisaging such a UN role. Colombo will not be able to re-establish direct rule in the north, and if the Tigers control the electoral machinery, no other point of view will be allowed. So the only chance that the people have is if an impartial outside body comes to restore law and order and to supervise elections. Ideally, the United Nations should also help those who fled the north to return to their homes. I certainly go along with those who think that perhaps the Commonwealth Secretariat might have a similar role.

All observers of the situation in Sri Lanka agree that the huge arsenal of weapons in private hands must De recovered. Recently the government themselves have said that one of the essential conditions for peace is that all who are not legally authorised to carry arms should hand them in. They might have been thinking of the Tigers, but in the south it is the death squads which are doing all the killing. It is theoretically within the government's power to disband them. Here again, I believe that outside help will be needed because the culture of violence has so deeply infected the security forces that orders to hand in unauthorised weapons would not be obeyed. Again, perhaps the Commonwealth Secretariat might be able to help reconstruct the uniformed services and weed out the killers.

Ideally, the government should also bring proceedings against officers who have committed offences and suspend others who may be strongly suspected of having committed criminal offences where there is insufficient evidence to prosecute. The problem is that over the years these officers have acted with the tacit approval and encouragement of the government. One of the highest ranking officers in the police force conspired to commit criminal offences on a very large scale in the south. As is generally known, the same officer was actually found by the Supreme Court to have violated fundamental rights in the notorious "voice of the clergy" case; yet that man was promoted by the government.

So the state owes a debt to these criminal officers and will not readily ditch them. Some people believe that if they were deprived of their weaponry and thus unable to deploy their private armies, they might be prosecuted. But here there may be scope for the donor countries to exercise some persuasion by saying that next year they want to see firm action taken, as has been said, to dismantle the death squad structures and to remove their patrons from office. At the aid meeting in Paris last November, the consortium made some general observations about human rights which have been referred to, but they need to be much more specific if results are to be achieved.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said, there is a danger that, preoccupied with the war in the Gulf, we shall lose sight of the sufferings of people elsewhere in the world. The ordeal of the people of Sri Lanka has lasted for many years and there is no immediate sign of relief. This debate may help to show that we are conscious of their plight and that we long to help in reaching a solution. We are unlikely to have analysed in an hour the problems which the best minds of Sri Lanka have addressed for years, but we stand with those who combat oppression by peaceful means.

9.11 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I know that we are all very grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon for having brought before the House this evening this enormously important but very troubling subject. As many previous speakers have said, what accentuates the importance of discussing this subject this evening is that most troubled areas, apart from the Gulf, are now no longer before the public eye. The right reverend Prelate asked for many assurances from the Minister. I look forward very much to hearing the answers.

There have been some wide-ranging speeches which have covered many different aspects of the back-ground and the historical reasons for the present conflict and described the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka at the moment. I wish to comment briefly on three reports. Their contents confirm most of the details which the right reverend Prelate and other speakers gave this evening.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned the report from Amnesty International, which, sadly, among other human rights organisations is banned in Sri Lanka. Amnesty International describes how the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government forces reached a peak in 1989 and how in the south thousands of people disappeared or were victims of extra-judicial executions. Further, it describes how, following the reimposition of the state of emergency in June 1989, government security forces made little attempt to conceal their resort to widespread murder. It also describes how the Sri Lankan government persistently denied that they sanctioned illegal killings by the security forces, claiming that they killed only in combat. That point was clearly made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. A recent member of the Sri Lankan security forces is quoted as saying: rather than finding measures to reduce the violence, the Government has sought to wipe out the JVP with widespread repression". The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, also noted the report made by a group of four Members of the European Parliament who visited Sri Lanka from 27th October to 4th November 1990. Their mission was to compile a report on the violation of human rights and the disappearance of Sri Lankans. They reported that various estimates received suggested that at least 60,000 people had disappeared in the south of Sri Lanka since 1987. That represents about one in every 250 of the population. While they were there they received reports of continuing disappearances. Indeed it was reported that up to 50 killings a week had been reported in the Kundi area in the past two months.

They went on to describe that many groups were now restricted in their operations. They gave the example of trade unions' which can no longer operate in the free trade zones and in many cases are intimidated if taking part in industrial action elsewhere. They concluded that, although the army and authorities deny responsibility for the killings and disappearances, the scale is such that the state cannot be absolved from responsibility. The state has either failed in its duty to maintain law and order or has condoned the activities of the security forces. The fear of economic collapse has fuelled the intimidation and the continuation of the underlying climate of violence and repression. The growth of human rights groups has shown that many people in the country are now entirely sickened by the conflict. Groups such as the Mothers for Human Rights and the Sri Lankan Freedom Party have been established to campaign against human rights abuse.

The European Parliament delegation recommended the visit of the United Nations sub-committee on disappearances and human rights which had been accepted by the ministry of defence for February 1991. It also supported an investigation into disappearances by an independent body and said that it would support the resolution of the Sri Lankan Bar Council for an inquiry by an independent commission. The delegation also wished to encourage increased co-operation between the Sri Lankan government and the international Red Cross, a point to which the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, referred.

The third report was made by the programme committee of the United Nations Children's Fund. It made quite clear that the conflict and the consequent switching of funds towards defence expenditure and away from social programmes was having an adverse effect on the welfare of children in Sri Lanka. That is particularly sad as Sri Lanka had achieved very encouraging progress over the previous decade. Infant mortality had declined and a very high immunisation coverage had been achieved. However, malnutrition is now a very serious problem with children. At least half the children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition. The report says that nearly 100,000 families and about 400,000 people are homeless, that the psychological effect of the conflict on the children has become very severe and that those who have been orphaned or lost a parent now number thousands. Children of pre-school age are in an even more precarious position.

Health services have now completely deteriorated and diseases which had been wiped out are now returning. There has been an increase in malaria, and polio cases have been reported among the children of refugees. The incidence of malnutrition has very much increased.

When one looks at the economic cost of the war, that is hardly surprising. It is estimated that the conflict is costing the government about 500,000 dollars a day. The war has caused widespread disruption to the Sri Lankan economy which had previously exhibited signs of recovery. Forty per cent. of the island's rice production is in the east and the harvest in August was badly disrupted. Seventy-five per cent. of the fishing industry is concentrated in the LTTE controlled northern district.

The burden on the economy is being exacerbated by the Gulf crisis, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, deprives Sri Lanka of vital revenue. Prior to the crisis there were over 100,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers in Kuwait who were annually sending home £75 million. That constituted Sri Lanka's largest source of foreign exchange revenue. Now rather than receiving that revenue the country is expending a great deal of money on reintegrating those refugees on their return from the Gulf.

The situation is very serious and, as previous speakers have asked, what can Britain do? I should like to ask the Minister a few questions about certain movements which are about to take place. I should first like to ask him whether the proposed visit of the United Nations Sub-committee on human rights to Sri Lanka in February is still scheduled to take place and, if so, whether there will be any delegates from Her Majesty's Government on the committee. Secondly, can the noble Lord tell us when Her Majesty's Government will next meet representatives of the Sri Lankan government to discuss human rights abuses in that country? Thirdly, can he confirm that he will make urgent representations to the Sri Lankan government to ask them to reconsider their decision to resume military operations against the Tamil Tigers? Further, can he say whether there will be initiatives to secure an effective ceasefire which can be independently monitored between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers? I should also like to ask the noble Lord whether the Government have sold military equipment or dual-purpose equipment, such as computers, to the Sri Lankan government. I believe that it is most important to know what kind of military equipment is entering the country at this time and whether we are training any members of the Sri Lankan army or security forces.

Most previous speakers talked about aid. I very much agree that if we were to cut off aid to the people of Sri Lanka it would be the poorer people who would suffer the most. Therefore, can the noble Lord say what is the figure of gross British bilateral aid for 1990–91 and whether we are to maintain it? Can he also say whether the World Bank has warned that in future its aid will depend upon improvements in the Sri Lankan human rights record? I believe that the World Bank aid group has agreed on an amount of money, but I should like to know whether it has attached conditions such as that there must be improvements in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

I very much hope to hear some news or some form of assurance from the Minister. This is clearly a most heart-breaking situation where, as usual, it is the civilian population who are caught in the crossfire; indeed, the Sri Lankan people are suffering the most.

9.25 p.m.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I listened with great interest to the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and those of other speakers. The right reverend Prelate knows Sri Lanka well. He has lived and worked there for several years. It was plain from his speech that he feels a real affection for the country and the people. Affection for that beautiful country also shone through the speeches of other speakers—notably those of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce. It is just such an affection that has long characterised relations between innumerable people in this country and Sri Lanka. We in Britain have therefore felt a particular concern for the pain and suffering that Sri Lankans have experienced in recent years.

The political situation in Sri Lanka is indeed tragic. The quantity of blood shed during the past seven years has been appalling. Great harm has been done to a society which would otherwise be peace loving, humane and, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, reminded us, law abiding, by two ruthless terrorist uprisings and a government response to them which has often paid little heed to the sanctity of basic human rights and the rule of law. I well understand the concern of many people in Britain who have friends or relatives in Sri Lanka, or who merely feel deeply affected by what they have heard of the situation there. The extent of that concern is well known to the officials and my ministerial colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who have received a great many letters about Sri Lanka from Members of another place and your Lordships' House, and others in this country.

I do not propose to take up the time of the House by speaking at length on the history of the violence in Sri Lanka. Most of it will be well known to those who have followed events there over the years. I should, however, like to set out the Government's view of the present situation.

We support the government of President Premadasa in its efforts to defeat the terrorist threat from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE) in the north and east of the country. Similarly, we recognised the Sri Lankan Government's need to defeat the Sinhalese nationalist terrorists of the JVP in the centre and south of the island. We are not sorry that the JVP appears to have been defeated. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, so eloquently explained, it was an extremely dangerous threat to Sri Lankan society. No democratic government can allow itself to be dictated to by threats of violence. On the other hand, we have also consistently condemned some of the means used in confronting those threats, especially the violation of basic human rights which has occurred all too often.

The right reverend Prelate asks what action we propose to take to help to end the hostilities in Sri Lanka. I wish that there was something that we could do to achieve that end. The sad truth is that in order for peace to break out, both sides must want to stop fighting. Regrettably, that does not appear to be the case at present.

We regret the fact that the Australian-inspired Commonwealth initiative, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has not yet been followed up. The main responsibility for reinstating that initiative at present lies with the Sri Lankan Government. But should circumstances change, I can assure noble Lords that we shall be ready to help where we can, either directly or by encouraging other parties acceptable to both sides in Sri Lanka to offer their services.

In June last year, the LTTE abruptly broke off talks with the government which were aimed at resolving their grievances peacefully. At that time the differences between the two sides seemed small. The government had made considerable efforts to seek a peaceful settlement with the LTTE. However the LTTE abandoned the talks and resumed fighting, rejecting two ceasefire proposals put forward by President Premadasa.

At the beginning of this month the LTTE itself initiated a unilateral ceasefire. The Sri Lankan Government responded by itself calling a ceasefire; but after 10 days in which 34 violations were attributed to the LTTE, the government decided that it had no choice but to resume the fighting. We much regret that the ceasefire did not prove to be longer lived. We shall continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to take whatever opportunities present themselves for putting an end to the bloodshed.

The right reverened Prelate has also asked what action we propose to take to restore human rights in Sir Lanka. We are of course deeply concerned about the reports of widespread violation of human rights by members of Sri Lanka's security forces. It is distressingly clear that far too many of those whose task it is to fight terrorism have in the past themselves adopted the behaviour of the terrorist.

We have made our anxieties clear on many occasions to the Sri Lanka Government both bilaterally and with our partners in the European Community. I should like to give some examples. In October, European Community Heads of Mission in Colombo jointly urged the Sri Lankan Government to observe internationally accepted human rights obligations. In the same month we and our EC partners made it clear at the Sri Lankan Aid Consortium Meeting that future decisions on aid to Sri Lanka will take into account its human rights record. A decision will be made shortly on whether to go ahead with £3 million of British bilateral aid to Sri Lanka next financial year. Sir Lanka's human rights performance will certainly be one of the major factors which we will take into account. I think that that deals with one of the right reverend Prelate's concerns.

On 3rd December our High Commissioner in Colombo met President Premadasa, and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs discussed developments with the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in London on 19th December. On both occasions our views on human rights violations by the security forces in Sri Lanka were very clearly expressed. My honourable friend told the Sri Lankan High Commissioner that we see only one way in which his government and its security forces can regain the confidence of the population of Sri Lanka and of the international community. The whole government, particularly those ministers and officials who are directly responsible for the security forces, must make public their determination to use lawful means in the fight against their enemies. To take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in addition it must be clearly demonstrated that individual members of the security forces who indulge in unacceptable behaviour will as a matter of government policy be brought to justice.

There is some evidence that all this pressure is bearing fruit. In mid-November the Sri Lankan government appointed its own special task force to investigate human rights questions and report direct to President Premadasa. Just last week President Premadasa announced the creation of a commission of inquiry to examine individual complaints of disappearances. We see the appointment of these bodies as steps in the right direction and are encouraging the Sri Lankan government to do all it can to allow them to work effectively. We shall be watching closely to see just how effective they are.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, raised the matter of help for Sri Lankans stranded in the Gulf. We responded quickly with a contribution to the cost of repatriating refugees from the Gulf, including many Sri Lankans. This contribution, including Britain's share of European Community assistance, now amounts to £11 million. The noble Lord also referred to the NGOs and their activities. We have provided over £440,000 in the past 12 months to support emergency relief work by NGOs in the north and east of Sri Lanka. We also support the NGOs, including the Intermediate Technology development group which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, in other activities in Sri Lanka.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, paid tribute to the British High Commissioner in Colombo. I am sure that the House would agree with the noble Lord in the kind and fitting tribute to the work done by our High Commissioner, David Gladstone, in Colombo in circumstances which are often not easy. I can assure the noble Lord that his words will be much appreciated.

At the end of her speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, fired off a battery of questions. I shall do my best to answer a few of them. She asked about arms sales: all arms export licence applications are carefully scrutinised, case by case, taking all factors, including human rights, into account. Sri Lanka is not a major market for British defence equipment.

As concerns military training, we provide some military training for members of the security forces. We do not undertake training in cases where we believe that those trained might subsequently be involved in what we would regard as unacceptable practices. Our training is designed to instil the discipline and high professional and ethical standards of our own forces. There are no British military personnel involved in training in Sri Lanka.

The noble Baroness also asked me about United Kingdom representation on the UNCHR working group. The composition of the group is not yet decided. She also asked me what contacts Britain would have with the government of Sri Lanka in the near future. My honourable friend the Minister of State hopes to visit Sri Lanka later this year. He will no doubt raise human rights questions at that time.

The noble Baroness asked about the proposed visit of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights to Sri Lanka. A visit is proposed for September 1991. That date was suggested by the Human Rights Commission itself.

Some progress is being made, albeit not yet enough. President Premadasa and his government are very well aware of the deep concern felt in this country and in many others around the world over the situation in Sri Lanka. We continue to encourage, urge and occasionally cajole the Sri Lankan government to do its utmost to resolve the country's problems peaceably. We are prepared to offer our services wherever they may be of assistance. But in the end the problems can be solved only by a determination by Sri Lankans themselves, of all opinions and ethnic groups, to settle their differences around the negotiating table.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wish to inform him that I received a fax from the Red Cross today. The fax came from Geneva and it stated that the Red Cross has started an appeal for Sri Lanka. Is it possible that some of the £3 million that has been referred to could be given to the International Committee of the Red Cross to help the Sri Lankan Red Cross society undertake humane relief work?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am not sure whether that is a matter for Her Majesty's Government. I shall, however, certainly look into it.

House adjourned at twenty-four minutes before ten o'clock.