Feature Article

'Parliament proposes, Rammell dismisses'

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 25 March 2009, 07:47 GMT]
It was the fourth occasion in recent times the British parliament was discussing Sri Lanka. Members cutting across party lines came hard on the Colombo government for nearly one and a half hours on Tuesday, for its attacks on civilians, failure in heeding international calls for ceasefire, humanitarian abuses and blockade of international monitoring. Many members demanded UN action, suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth and pressure on India to act in stopping the war. However, Bill Rammell, the British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs came out only with rhetorical assurances, sounded negative to substantial demands and accused the LTTE for preventing people from leaving.

Bill Rammell
Bill Rammell
“It has become increasingly clear that the principal reason why more IDPs have not left the conflict area is that the LTTE is forcibly preventing them from doing so. A number of NGOs working in northern Sri Lanka have publicly stated that that is happening. The UN has also condemned the LTTE for forcibly recruiting civilians, including women and children. We must attack that on all fronts and we must express our concerns to the Sri Lankan Government. I urge anyone with influence and with access to the LTTE to put those concerns forward”, Rammell said at the end of the debate.

However, Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP, who initiated the debate, pointed out earlier in her speech the plight of civilians who had left the combat zone to end up in Colombo government's internment camps.

Citing Amnesty International, she said that “Government will allow displaced people to leave Government camps, even for emergency health care, only if they leave a family member in the camp as a safeguard against their escape, and that that policy violates the international legal prohibition against hostage taking.”

Rammell had no answer to that in his reply.

A number of parliamentarians demanded the suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth, saying this will be an important steppingstone.

Rammell replied that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) did not call for a suspension, because there has not been an unconstitutional overthrow of democracy – rightly or wrongly, that has been the basis for previous suspensions.

Rammell was implying that what is happening in Sri Lanka is not valid enough to think of a new tradition of action in the Commonwealth.

But members had said enough on what they perceive as amounting to genocide that is taking place in the island and on the unprecedented situation caused by the defiance of the Colombo government to international humanitarian norms.

“They [civilians in the Sri Lanka government declared safe zone] have to build bunkers to escape the bombs of the Sri Lankan army. I have never heard of an intended encampment that has had to have bunkers”, said Edward Davey.

The “Sri Lankan Government are determined to act in such a way that we can only believe that genocide is occurring when, for example, there is bombing of so-called safe areas and havens”, said independent MP, Andrew Pelling.

“One of the real concerns is that this is a war without witnesses...We just don’t know what’s been happening”, was the comment by Siobhain McDonagh.

Replying on the demand for UN action, Rammell said: My real concern is that if we went forward with a Security Council resolution and it was vetoed, we would no longer have the status quo, but an even worse situation, because the Sri Lankan Government would simply turn around and say, “The United Nations has agreed with us that no action should be taken.”

But, Rammell’s argument has already been contested in the debate.

“Excuses are being made for not tabling such a resolution. We are told that a failed resolution would somehow strengthen the Sri Lankans and that that would be worse. How could it be worse? How could the situation be worse than it is now? We should table that resolution and put pressure on Russia and China. Let them vote against our resolution. Let us expose them for supporting the Sri Lankan Government and the violence”, said Liberal Democrat MP, Edward Davey earlier in his speech.

The LTTE political chief Nadesan’s statement on unconditional ceasefire and talks had attracted the attention of many of the members. They were insisting that Colombo should take up the offer.

Even the conservative MP, Keith Simpson, who was comparatively sympathetic to Sri Lankan government, said that by failing to try ceasefire, Colombo may “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”, adding that “ We should be thinking of how we persuade the Sri Lankan government that they are about to achieve a tactical victory that is in fact a strategic defeat.”

The long tactics played by the Sri Lankan High Commission in UK, intimidating the freedom of opinion of the British parliamentarians by coming out with unkind criticism on them came under attack in the parliament on Tuesday.

Rammell had to concede to the members by saying, “Spurious personal attacks on the character of individual Members by any high commission or embassy in this country are not only wrong and unacceptable, but completely counter-productive in advancing the cause of those involved, and I can assure hon. Members that we will send that message loudly and clearly to the Sri Lankan high commission.”

The Times, which was making fuss on behalf of the Colombo government for Tamils carrying flags in their demonstrations also was condemned by Siobhain McDonagh who asked “What is going on with a paper’s sense of proportion when it prints stories about flags, but not about thousands of people being killed or displaced every month?”

What was significant in Tuesday’s debate in the British parliament was veiled indictment of India for contributing to the continuation of the war despite its ability to stop it.

“If the Indian government wishes it can stop the war. Kindly put more demands on the Indian government not to support the Sri Lanka Army”, said Simon Huges, citing a request from the Bishop of Mannaar.

“I suggest to all hon. Members that we should group together and ask for a meeting with the Indian high commissioner to the United Kingdom. That may be difficult for India, which has elections later this year. The Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata party have different views, but the situation is so urgent and significant that those diplomatic niceties should be put aside. If the Government will not do that, Members of Parliament should ask the Indians to exercise their influence—they are incredibly influential in this area. India’s history regarding the Sri Lanka problem is tragic, but it is time to use our offices to address the matter”, said Davey.

External Links:
Hansard: Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth


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