Westminster Hall debates on Sri Lanka (IDP Camps)


Debate held on 28 October 2009 from 2.30-4.15pm

Tamil Solidarity welcomes MPs’ concern for the internally displaced people (IDPs) and condemnation of the Sri Lankan government’s human rights abuses. We particularly welcome the contributions to the debate from Neil Gerrard MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, and John McDonnell MP (a supporter of Tamil Solidarity) in their call for shutting down the camps and releasing the refuges. However, we have little hope that the majority of the MPs who participated will turn their words into action.

Among the 20 MPs who contributed to the discussion were only three Conservative Party members. We are horrified and disgusted to see the attitude of the Conservative Party as expressed by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Shadow Minister for Trade and Shadow Minister for International Development. He argued for continued trade with the Sri Lankan government and defended the Sri Lankan government’s arguments, such as its justification for not releasing the IDPs while they were clearing the land mines. Out of 193 Conservative MPs, the only other two who were present at the debate, Lee Scott from Ilford North and David Burrowes from Enfield Southgate, both have considerable numbers of Tamil-speaking people in their constituencies.

Their stand for human rights is hypocritical. Their parliamentary voting record shows their real agenda. They have always stood on the right, voting for a number of reactionary measures and attacking the conditions of the poorest and most vulnerable people. How dare they pretend to speak about human rights after voting against equal gay rights?

Tamil-speaking people in the camps in Sri Lanka want to return to their homes, to have access to health facilities and to be able to give their children a decent education. The record of the Tories, including the three who participated in this debate, is to try to deny those fundamental rights. They all support university top-up fees. In Ilford for example, King George Hospital has seen major attacks and closures under the privatisation policies which these MPs support.

They have proved by their voting record that they have no interest in improving the lives of those they are elected to represent. And it’s no surprise that they will not defend the suffering Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka. Their crocodile tears are merely an opportunist attempt to secure Tamil votes. Those Tory MPs who don’t have Tamil-speaking people in their constituencies didn’t even bother to turn up.

A Tory victory in the 2010 general election could make Geoffrey Clifton-Brown minister for international development. The Tory’s statements and their record make it clear what they would deliver. But we can’t have any illusions that the New Labour government serves us any better.

Tamil Solidarity would certainly welcome any real initiatives to counter the Sri Lankan government’s repression. However, we remain unconvinced by the likes of Michael Foster (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for International Development) who claimed in the debate: “The freedom of movement for those who have been screened and shown not to have close links to the LTTE could have happened some time ago. That has been demonstrated by the speed of the returns that have been taking place over the past couple of weeks”. These are not the words of a person who genuinely cares about human rights. Tamil Solidarity is gravely worried about the lives of thousands of young people, including eight year old children and younger, detained in horrific conditions and tortured in the name of screening as they are all suspected of being in the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). That Michael Foster indicates that the awful treatment of ‘suspected’ LTTE members is acceptable horrifies us. This gives legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government to carry on its repression and intimidation against Tamil youth.

Foster has previously claimed that the conditions in the camps were improving. In reality the pace of return is appalling and thousands of IDPs face imminent danger as the monsoon floods can arrive at any time. He, along with other MPs, does not have a history of defending human rights. Apart from the three labour left MPs mentioned above, all of the Labour MPs who participated in the debate have voted for student top up fees, the introduction of ID cards, the Iraq war (apart from one) and repressive anti-terror legislation – all measures that have a huge negative impact on the lives of Tamil-speaking youth and millions of others in this country.

Will these Blairite MPs put their money where their mouth is? There are measures they could take in terms of defending Tamil protesters against the slanderous attacks in the media and by some MPs in parliament. Will they be part of the protest movement? Will they extend their concern beyond words which serve in the main to prop up their electoral ambitions? How can we have faith in them to take their concern beyond the comfortable confines of a Westminster debating hall while they have a history of defending brutal wars and supporting attacks against the ordinary people in UK and across the world?

Only three MPs, John McDonnell MP, Neil Gerrard MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP, have consistently stood for the rights of the oppressed and voted against all right-wing measures. We are proud to have their support and will stand in solidarity with them. They have not only consistently expressed their concern for the future of the Tamil-speaking masses in Sri Lanka, but have also participated in the protests and helped to organise and spoke in many meetings in support of the oppressed Tamil-speaking people. It is no coincidence that these MPs have not been caught up in the expenses scandal.

All the leading parties would be pleased if they could get electoral support for just shedding some crocodile tears and no action. Some Tamils and some Tamil organisations may fall into that trap and argue that we should welcome these MPs no matter what. They have argued that we should treat them as allies. But we want action not words. We want to see real changes made here in this country and internationally. British citizens, whether they are Tamils or not, should have equal rights. We demand that our elected MPs respect human rights, especially for the most vulnerable. How can we defend them when they vote for brutal wars on the one side and pretend to create an illusion of standing for human rights on the other?

We don’t plead with but demand that this government takes immediate action to stop the brutality of the Sri Lankan government. It is everyone’s responsibility to fight against the unjust treatment of our fellow human beings. Our anger and disgust will not be soothed by mere words.

The only way this government can be forced to take any action is by continuing to fight for it – through protest and vigorous campaigns. Tamil Solidarity will continue to work with the trade unions and other human rights organisations, worldwide and in Sri Lanka, to make sure that we build a mass movement against the atrocities of the Sri Lankan government.