Sri Lanka

MP's from the UK visit Sri Lanka

On 4-5 May a cross-party group of UK parliamentarians visited Sri Lanka at the invitation of His Excellency the President. The delegation included John Bercow (Conservative MP for Buckingham); Des Browne (Labour MP for Kilmarnock and Loudoun); Malcolm Bruce (Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon); Eddie McGrady (Social Democratic and Labour Party MP for South Down) and Mohammad Sarwar (Labour MP for Glasgow Central).

The delegation visited IDP facilities in Vavuniya and had a series of meetings in Colombo including with President Rajapakse, Foreign Minister Bogollogama, other Government Ministers, senior officials, opposition political parties, civil society and humanitarian actors.

Des Browne, the delegation's chairman, commented on the visit.

"We are grateful to all those who met with us in Sri Lanka and to the Government for their support and assistance in organising our fact-finding mission.

We came without preconception and have listened to a range of opinions on the conflict and current humanitarian situation. Our primary concern is for those civilians who remain trapped in the conflict zone and are living in terrible conditions. The LTTE has ignored repeated calls for the release of these civilians. Only an end to intense fighting will offer them any respite. We urge the Government to use maximum restraint in their ongoing operations, including by upholding their commitment to refrain from the use of heavy weapons. We welcome the Government's agreement to allow the UN to visit the conflict zone to assess the humanitarian needs of the people there and to plan the evacuation of the remaining civilians. We urge all parties to facilitate this agreement without delay.

We recognise the scale of the challenge facing the Government in delivering humanitarian relief to all civilians in the north, including those in IDP camps, those in screening centres and rehabilitation camps and those in the conflict zone itself. We support the work they are doing in conjunction with the ICRC, UN and other humanitarian actors to assist IDPs and civilians affected by the conflict. We urge them to continue to improve access by international agencies thereby increasing capacity to minister to the identified needs of civilians.

We visited the IDP camps in Vavuniya. We saw the considerable efforts the Government is making to accommodate and assist IDPs who have left the conflict zone. We spoke to a number of people in the camps who expressed their genuine relief at having escaped the LTTE and reached a place of safety. It is clear that IDPs in camps are much better off than their friends and relatives who remain in the conflict zone. Many of the civilians we spoke to also raised concerns about conditions in the camps and their ability to access humanitarian assistance. We encourage the Government to maintain their commitment to full implementation of the recommendations made by Walter Kaelin, Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of IDPs, during his recent visit. In particular we stress the need for civilians to be able to leave the camps to return to their homes or to stay with family or friends as soon as possible. We stand ready to support the Government's commitment to resettle 80% of the IDP population by the end of the year."

John Bercow added:

"It is important not only that the Sri Lankan Government maintains its welcome commitment to refrain from using heavy weapons but that it is seen to do so. The lack of independent reporting from the conflict zone is oxygen to LTTE propaganda and generates unhelpful speculation. Well-evidenced, independent media reporting on the conflict would be extremely helpful in reassuring the international community that every measure is being taken to protect civilians in the conflict zone."

Mohammad Sarwar commenting on the visit to Vavuniya said:

"The scale of the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka is enormous and civilian needs are extensive. The people we met in Vavuniya are no longer at risk from ongoing fighting and are now receiving basic humanitarian relief. We welcome the Government's efforts to assist them and encourage them to take further immediate action to improve conditions for civilians outside the conflict zone. In particular, we urge the Government to allow the elderly, disabled and other vulnerable groups to leave the camps and to allow greater access for humanitarian agencies to the camps and to all screening sites. We call on the Government to improve the availability of medical supplies and medical care and sanitation facilities to those in IDP camps."

During its visit the delegation received a briefing from APRC Chairman, Professor Vitharana.

Commenting on a post-conflict political process Malcolm Bruce said:

"A political solution that promotes an inclusive society where all communities feel represented and recognised will be vital to securing a final end to Sri Lanka's long conflict. Like the Sri Lankan people we would celebrate an end to the ongoing hostilities. Our experience in conflict resolution suggests that unless the conflict is followed by a serious effort to address the concerns of the minority communities there will remain the risk of a return to conflict. We agree with those we met that there is a place for Sri Lankans of all communities in a peaceful Sri Lanka."

Eddie McGrady added:

"I have been a politician in Northern Ireland for over 30 years. The challenges that Sri Lanka faces today bear some similarities to the challenges the people of Northern Ireland faced in recent years in trying to reconcile two deeply divided communities after three decades of intercommunal violence. From my own experience the only realistic prospect for a sustainable peace is one that involves everyone and in which all communities have a stake. It was through such an inclusive process, aided by a sympathetic and supportive international community, that the people of Northern Ireland managed to end over thirty years of bitter violent conflict."