British Shadow FM calls for political reform, independent war-crime investigations

[TamilNet, Thursday, 25 February 2010, 17:21 GMT]
Noting that "there is a natural affinity between Tamils in Britain and our [Conservative] Party," William Hague, the British Shadow Foreign Secretary, in his speech to the inaugural launch of Global Tamil Forum, warned that the "continued confinement [of thousands] will simply sow the seeds of discontent, [and] could lead to renewed conflict in years to come," called for "meaningful political reform," and said that "there should be a full independent inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the final stages of the military conflict."

Full text of Rt Hon William Hague MP's statement follows:

GTF Inaugural Conference
Thank you very much for your warm welcome. I am delighted to be here with you this afternoon and honoured to participate in the inaugural Global Tamil Forum conference. I would like to warmly return the welcome, especially to those of you who have travelled long distances and we are pleased that you have chosen to hold today’s significant event in London. Your community has support in our parliament from all parties across the political spectrum, as evidenced by the large number of MPs who have addressed your conference during the course of the day. We all congratulate you on the establishment of the Global Tamil Forum which unites the your diaspora from around the world.

I would like to extend my gratitude to the organising committee and the British Tamil Forum team for their efforts in bringing about today’s important event and for their kind invitation to say a few words on behalf of the Conservative Party. Our leader, David Cameron, has asked me to convey his best wishes to you. We both share a great appreciation of the significant contribution of the Tamil diaspora to many aspects of our society here in Britain. That contribution, and indeed success, is built upon enterprise, community, family and taking responsibility for one’s self. These are values that the Conservative Party also holds dear and will seek to advance if we are elected to form the next government in a few weeks’ time. I believe that there is a natural affinity between Tamils in Britain and our Party. We strongly believe that there is a shared responsibility upon government, business, the voluntary sector, families and individuals to work together for the freedom and prosperity of this country and of the wider world – more so for those countries with which we hold close and historic ties.

Our links with the people and country of Sri Lanka are of course particularly strong. It was with huge sorrow that we witnessed the tragic unfolding of events last year, and the loss of so many innocent lives. As the military conflict in Sri Lanka reached its final stages, we shared the pain and anguish of members of the Tamil community in this country and around the world on behalf of their friends, families, and loved ones. Along with the rest of the international community, we urged the Sri Lankan government to allow a humanitarian ceasefire to grant the innocent civilians safe departure from a zone of war. When the conflict was finally over we were unrelenting in our call for conditions in the displacement camps to be improved, for humanitarian and media agencies to be given full and unrestricted access, and for people to be returned to their homes as quickly as possible. Whilst approximately 190,000 people have been released, there are many others still housed in Menik Farm camp and we have repeatedly raised this issue with the Sri Lankan government to allow them to leave. We must not forget their plight and their continued confinement will simply sow the seeds of discontent. This could lead to renewed conflict in years to come which would be a disastrous setback for the country.

The military conflict has now come to an end and we welcome the prospect of a future in which Sri Lanka is free from the instability and suffering which has blighted its shores for decades. However we are acutely aware that peace still needs to be won and must be secured if it is to be lasting. For this reason we strongly urge President Rajapaksa’s government to resolve the difficult political issues that remain and take immediate steps to address the concerns of the Tamil people and those of other minority groups. Meaningful political reform and reconciliation should be an urgent priority. This reform will only hold legitimacy if the democratic aspirations of all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, can be fulfilled. We believe all communities – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims - should play a part in the future of the country if peace is to be secured in the long-term. We also believe there should be a full independent inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the final stages of the military conflict. President Rajapksa committed to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in May 2009 that the Sri Lankan government would investigate alleged violations but so far little concrete action has been taken. We have urged the Sri Lankan government to establish a thorough independent investigation, with assistance from the international community, into abuses committed by all parties in the conflict. Restoring accountability and justice are vital steps towards healing a divided nation and people.

Although Presidential elections were held last month and Parliamentary elections will follow in April, elections alone do not signal the existence of a fully functioning democratic system. Respect for human rights, is a crucial pillar upon which any democracy is built, and we do have long-standing concerns about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. Of particular concern is freedom of expression: including that of the national press, and the freedom to lawfully dissent. The arrest of the Opposition Presidential candidate, General Fonseka, earlier this month was regarded by us as an alarming and serious deterioration in an already difficult situation. It is our belief that the General must be given a fair trial in a civil court where the charges against him can be tested in accordance with the rule of law and along with the rest of the international community we will be watching his trial closely. Sri Lanka has been proud in the past of its democratic traditions and its vibrant multi-party system. In restricting such freedoms the government is in grave danger of squandering a precious opportunity to overcome division and conflict and to establish conditions for stable peace.

Let me be clear to you today that the position of the Conservative Party is that we fully support the European Commission’s actions over Sri Lanka’s GSP + trade agreement – from its preliminary report in October 2009 to its most recent decision to suspend the agreement due to human rights concerns. However, the door remains open for Sri Lanka to be reinstated in the programme. Over the next six months we very much hope that the Sri Lankan government will demonstrate rapid and sustainable progress in the areas which the European Commission has identified: such as the effective implementation of the Convention against Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the Covenant on Civil or Political Rights; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In addition I would like to say a few words about my colleague Dr Liam Fox’s proposal to establish an independent international fund to help provide basic infrastructure for reconstruction in the northern and eastern areas of the country. Dr Fox is a long-standing friend of Sri Lanka and his plan has the support of religious leaders and parties across the political spectrum in Sri Lanka, in addition to representatives of the Tamil community in this country. A memorandum of understanding has been signed and further details about the fund will be unveiled shortly. It is our hope that this fund will provide a vehicle through which the international diaspora of Sri Lankan are able to contribute and that it will help to provide a better future for those in greatest need.

We must also not forget that the Commonwealth, an organisation of which Sri Lanka has been a valued member since it joined upon gaining independence in 1948, has a role to play. I have long-argued that the Commonwealth has been much neglected under the present Labour government but with 2 billion people representing all major faiths, and spanning five continents and three oceans, it is an unique forum and can provide a diverse contribution to world affairs. The Commonwealth is ideally placed to help member countries such as Sri Lanka in post-conflict rehabilitation and development given its considerable expertise and we look forward to the Secretariat, its members, and its vast network of civil society groups assisting the government and people of Sri Lankan government to this effect. Whilst we support the Commonwealth’s decision to decline Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Heads of Government meeting in 2011 due to human rights concerns, I am certain that this organisation will provide constructive support to those parties working to achieve a sustainable peace in the country.

Sri Lanka should now be able to emerge from a very difficult period in its recent history and we believe reconciliation and genuine political reform should begin in earnest. I would like to wish the Global Tamil Forum every success in its endeavour to bring about positive change in Sri Lanka and I am sure that the considerable resourcefulness and energy of the Tamil diaspora around the world will be crucial in this task. We all wish to see Sri Lanka live up to its potential of being a prosperous, stable and dynamic country, built upon freedom, openness and respect for human rights and we very much hope that all Sri Lankans will be able to share equally in its future.

GTF Inaugural Conference


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