UK lawmakers urge LTTE de-proscription

[TamilNet, Thursday, 03 May 2007, 23:47 GMT]
Amid signs of greater British involvement in efforts to end Sri Lanka’s conflict, the UK government was this week urged by ruling and opposition lawmakers to lift the ban on the Liberation Tigers in the interests of a negotiated solution. At a landmark debate on Sri Lanka’s conflict in the British Parliament on Wednesday, leaders of a newly formed all party group representing the interests of the island’s Tamils urged the Blair government to lift the ban on the LTTE and also called for LTTE political leaders to be allowed to address the British parliament to better understand their views.

Lawmakers from the ruling Labour party and opposition Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third largest party, argued that the ban on the LTTE was preventing dialogue towards a solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict by preventing engagement with the LTTE and with Tamils more generally as the latter feared speaking out for fear of falling foul of anti-terrorism laws.

During the debate MPs from the main opposition Conservative Party supported the ban but endorsed dialogue with the Tigers regardless.

A day before the debate, British lawmakers from all main parties formed Westminster’s first ever all-party group for Tamils with the stated aim of “promoting peace with justice and dignity for the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka.”

Mr. Keith Vaz MP of the Labour Party and Mr. Simon Hughes MP of the Liberal Democrats were elected Chair and Vice-Chair respectively of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG).

According to press reports, amongst the group’s plans were: “(i) Arranging a summit in London between representatives of the Sri Lankan Government, the LTTE and the Norwegian Government, (ii) invite the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Donald C McKinnon, to meet with the group to discuss the situation on the island and (iii) visiting Sri Lanka; in particular the worst affected areas of the conflict.”

On Wednesday, opening the three hour debate at Westminster on Sri Lanka’s conflict, junior Foreign Minister Kim Howells said the LTTE had to end its violence before the UK ban could be lifted.

“We have repeatedly urged the LTTE to move away from the path of violence. In the absence of a full renunciation of terrorism in deed and word, there can be no question of reconsidering its proscribed status,” he said.

Despite Dr. Howells comments, the call for the ban on the LTTE to be lifted was resumed later by Mr. Vaz and Mr. Hughes amongst others.

Mr. Vaz put it to Dr. Howells: “One of the bars to a proper solution to this problem is the ban that remains on the LTTE. [Have you] had any further discussions with Home Secretary [John Reid] about whether the Government would be prepared to lift that ban, so ensuring that all parties could be part of a discussion to bring peace to the island?”

Dr. Howells said he had not discussed the matter with Mr. Reid, “but if I thought that it was a good idea I would certainly do so.”

He pointed out that regardless of the ban, UK officials continued to meet with LTTE representatives on an ad hoc basis. He cited visits last year to LTTE-controlled Vanni by Mr. Paul Murphy, MP.

However John McDonnell, another Labour party MP, argued “although there can be informal dialogue, nothing can substitute for more formal dialogue and recognition. Removing the ban would undermine one of the elements of the sense of grievance that contributes towards the conflict.”

In response, Dr. Howells said: “This [de-proscription] has to be considered very carefully. … there is no silver bullet that is going to sort everything out. If we thought that that recognition [of the LTTE] would take matters forward, we would certainly be prepared to consider it very seriously - I give [you] that undertaking.”

Mr. Edward Davey, an MP from the Liberal Democrats called on the minister to set out the review process by which de-proscription might take place, saying “some people in communities throughout this country and around this House feel that a one sided approach is being taken and that a proper review process might ensure that a truly balanced approach is taken.”

Saying “we have had quite a number of meetings with Tamil groups from around the country; as well as talking to the Sri Lankan Government, we have met all kinds of representatives,” Dr. Howells insisted Britain was taking a balanced approach to Sri Lanka’s conflict.

“Our approach seeks not to take sides either with the Sinhalese Government or with the LTTE but to try to use our good offices and our experience in Northern Ireland, among other places, to try to find ways in which it might be possible to help the Norwegians to make the ceasefire work, and then to take that peace process forward, put the issues on the table, and get everyone around the table to try to resolve the issue.”

The Minister was supported by the main opposition Conservative party. Tory MP Peter Luff argued: “I congratulate the Minister on his balanced approach to a sensitive and difficult subject. … As long as organisations practise such blatant violence and disruption of civil society, it is difficult to give them the recognition that they crave.”

Responding later to this, Mr. Simon Hughes, a senior member of the Liberal Democrats argued past violence couldn’t be allowed to be a bar to future dialogue.

“That [history] cannot be used now as a justification for not talking to people, because that will mean that no progress will be made,” Mr. Hughes argued. “I understand why the [LTTE] was proscribed, but I agree that it [the ban] has been more unhelpful than helpful.”

“The proscription of organisations gives people a further cause to take up arms. I remember when Sinn Fein could not be heard to speak—its representatives were banned by the [then] Conservative Government. Did that reduce support for Sinn Fein? Of course it did not. Did it make it go quiet? No. In fact, it gained support.”

“Banning people makes them go underground. I am sure that the UK and the EU as a whole would benefit from the unbanning of the LTTE if that were to be part of a package of movement towards peace on all sides,” Mr. Hughes argued.

Elaborating to the House on the proposed activities of the APPG for Tamils, Mr. Vaz said “we were determined to take the issue [of peace] forward, and on that basis we agreed three things.”

“First, at the end of September a delegation of all party members should visit Sri Lanka, particularly areas under the control of the Tamil Tigers, to engage in a dialogue in a positive and constructive way.

“We also agreed to invite the chief negotiator for the Tamil Tigers [Mr. S. P. Tamilselvan, also head of the LTTE Political Wing] to visit the United Kingdom and to come to Parliament so that we could hear his views on what is happening.

“The third thing that we agreed was to hold a summit meeting here in July at which all the various parties could participate as a means of exploring how to take the issue forward.”

Referring to the extensive contributions Britain’s Tamil community was making to the country and their efforts to lobby the government, Mr. Vaz said: I firmly believe that the ban on the Tamil Tigers—certainly as regards the way in which they operate in this country—should be lifted as soon as possible.”

“The proscription by the Government of various organisations in 2001 happened because of certain events that were occurring worldwide at the time, and we reacted by imposing that ban on a number of organizations,” he said.

“I know that Governments sometimes have to react in a knee-jerk manner, but six years have now passed and it is time to reconsider the ban and to look at ways in which we can help to ensure that the dialogue proceeds.”

Referring to Northern Ireland, Mr. Vaz said: “It is possible to move on [from violent conflict], but we cannot move on unless we have a dialogue, and we cannot have a dialogue if we proscribe and ban the groups involved.”

Susan Kramer, a Liberal Democrat MP, supported Mr. Vaz, saying: “many members of the Tamil community who have absolutely no interest in terrorism and who do not even consider themselves to be members of the LTTE are inhibited from speaking out because they are afraid of being tagged with the terrorist label.”

“It is wrong for such people to be treated in that way and to feel that fear. Whoever is spinning that fear—whether it be the Sri Lankan Government or others—should stop. Participating in the British political process is the right of every British citizen,” Mr. Vaz said.

Joan Ruddock, Labour MP, later added: “My constituents make a plea to us and the rest of the European Community not to curb the peaceful and democratic activities of Tamils living in the Diaspora.”

Edward Davey, Liberal Democrat MP, said that the Sri Lankan government was labeling those who spoke in support of Tamils or human rights as LTTE sympathizers.

“I believe that the Sri Lankan authorities, possibly through their representatives in this country, are trying to prevent people from speaking out—to prevent freedom of speech. We must convey a message that we will debate such issues in this country, that that is our democratic right, and that the Sri Lankan authorities should accept it and not try to intimidate people who speak out by trying to label them LTTE sympathisers or terrorists.”

Mr. Davey said that when the LTTE was banned in 2001, the British Parliament had not been given a chance to discuss the case of individual organizations but on a ‘catch-all’ bill listing 20 organizations from around the world.

“There was no single debate about the LTTE, just one debate on the whole statutory instrument. We did not have 20-odd separate votes after 20-odd separate debates—just one. Of course those regulations included a number of organisations that really needed to be proscribed, as the whole House agreed, but I believe that there is a debate—a legitimate debate—about whether the LTTE should be proscribed, and it ought to be heard.”

“The process that proscribed the LTTE in the first place was inadequate. That, in itself, is an argument in favour of a review at the very least.”

 

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