Arms Exports to Sri Lanka

I spoke about Arms Exports policy in the debate In Westminster Hall on Thursday 5 November here is what I said

3.32 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). May I begin by endorsing his remarks, with which I completely concur, about my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and his work as Chairman of the Committee in this Parliament?

I want to concentrate on only one area of the report and the Government response. I do so because over many years it has received insufficient attention in debates in this country. It is the situation in Sri Lanka. Recently, at the culmination of the 20-year military conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—LTTE—otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers, we saw huge demonstrations in the centre of London and diaspora communities all over the world. I declare an interest; large numbers of my constituents are of Sri Lankan Tamil origin and have families in that part of the world.

Given that some representatives of organisations that support the Sri Lankan Government label anybody who raises concerns about Sri Lanka as some kind of mouthpiece for the Tamil Tigers, I want to make it clear that what I say today is based on my total opposition to terrorism, to the assassination of political leaders, to blowing up buses and to killing children. That is my position whether those acts are carried out by the Tamil Tigers, the Irish Republican Army, Hamas or Hezbollah. That is my view generally around the world. Therefore, I will not take kindly to any criticism after I have made this speech from people who label those who raise such concerns.

Having said that, it is important to say that the report must be put in the context of other reports. I refer to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s human rights annual report, which was published recently and had a section on Sri Lanka, to which there was also a Government response. With your permission, Mr. Pope, I intend to refer to both reports.

The Committee on Arms Export Controls concluded that it was appropriate for the Government to continue to assess licences to Sri Lanka on a case-by-case basis. However, after reviewing the evidence and looking at the fact that there seem to have been significant arms sales to Sri Lanka for a large number of years, we recommended a review of all extant licences to Sri Lanka. We called on the Government to give our Committees an assessment of the UK-supplied weapons, ammunition, parts and components used in the conflict either by the Sri Lankan armed forces or by the Tamil Tigers.

We received a response in two forms. The Government response to paragraph 126 of our report said:

    “We note the Committees’ conclusion...and welcome this endorsement of our approach”—

the case-by-case policy. On the review of exports, the Government response is interesting; it simply refers us to a letter from the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that refers to the FCO review. If we look closely at that letter, we see that it does not answer the question. It simply says that the Government have revoked

    “a number of extant export licences in the light of changed circumstances—including replacement components for military helicopters and telecoms equipment.”

It does not say that military helicopters or their components supplied by the UK were or were not used in that conflict by the Sri Lankan armed forces. It does not say that telecoms equipment or its components supplied by the UK were or were not used. It is silent on those questions. Will the Minister say clearly whether UK-supplied helicopters, or their components, or telecoms equipment, or its components, were used by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the conflict with the Tamil Tigers?

The same letter refers to press coverage that appeared over the summer. It goes into some detail to explain why licences that had been approved in September 2006 for armoured vehicles and machine gun components, and in February 2006 for semi-automatic pistols, had not been revoked. According to the Government assessment, that equipment appears not to have played any role or any significant role—it is not absolutely clear—in the conflict. If the Government can make an explicit assessment for items that they are not revoking, why can they not explicitly tell us their reasons for revoking licences for other items? We need an answer to that question. The conflict in Sri Lanka ended nearly six months ago, but for an estimated 280,000 people the conflict is not over. In the light of that, should we still be providing military assistance of any kind to the Government of Sri Lanka? Why are we doing so?

The Foreign Affairs Committee human rights report concluded that the Government were correct, in their response to our report, to include Sri Lanka in next year’s report as a “country of concern”. That is notwithstanding the regrettable United Nations human rights council vote in May, when it chose not to consider the situation in Sri Lanka—a disgraceful decision. The Government were on the side of the good guys, but unfortunately countries such as China, India, Egypt and others voted by a clear majority not to refer Sri Lanka for consideration on the basis of the human rights situation there, saying that it was an internal matter for Sri Lanka. That is a damaging indication that the UN system, and the new UN human rights council, is not fulfilling aspirations that were set when the council replaced the discredited UN human rights commission a few years ago.

Mr. Hancock: What the hon. Gentleman says has serious implications for the Government. He is in the privileged position of being Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the quartet of Committees. Is he saying that he has had evidence that the Government have given military assistance or allowed military equipment to be passed on to the Sri Lankan authorities? Is training for Sri Lankan military advisers being given in this country, or are UK military advisers acting in that country? His demanding an answer of the Minister leads me to believe that the hon. Gentleman would not have asked the question if he did not know the answer, and from the way that he phrased the question, the answer must be that there had been a situation in which that had happened.

Mike Gapes: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the report. An annexe sets out information sent by the organisation Saferworld, which listed arms exports year by year from the UK to Sri Lanka. We were told by the then Foreign Office Minister, now the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), that there had been a pause in those exports as a result of the conflict. However, that pause came later—in 2008, not 2006. The issue raised when questioning the Minister, which is reflected in the report, is that the ceasefire established in 2002 was always tentative, breaking down and being significantly eroded; yet in most years from 2002 onwards the Government continued to allow exports of a whole range of weaponry to the Sri Lankan armed forces, including small arms, naval components, helicopter components and so on.

We might make an assessment today that the situation in a particular country is relatively safe with regard to the export of armaments; but within one, two or three years, or perhaps 10 years, those same weapons could be used by the same Government or a successor Government for repression or in an internal conflict, which would be contrary to the intention of the Government’s original decision. We must therefore be rigorous. When the Foreign Affairs Committee was discussing the matter with the Foreign Office Minister, I pointed out that we had much tougher rules with regard to Israel on such matters than we do for Sri Lanka, yet many more people died in the conflict in Sri Lanka than were killed in Gaza.

According to the Government’s October response to the Foreign Affairs Committee human rights report, more than 200,000 internally displaced persons are still being held in IDP camps in northern Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Government do not agree with that figure. In a communication dated yesterday—presumably sent in expectation of today’s debate—the Sri Lankan Government claim that the number of people remaining in the IDP camps is much lower. They claim that there are 164,338, of whom 151,000 are in what they call zones 0 to 11 and welfare centres, 7,255 in transitional sites and 247 in what they call an elder home, giving a total of 158,990. The others, presumably, are somewhere else.

The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), has recently been in Sri Lanka, and has been pressing for the early release of those people. There is no prospect of their being returned to their homes soon; the situation is bleak, given the water supply, the overcrowding and the climate. That is partly because some of those areas have been mined, but also because the Sri Lankan Government seem determined to keep young men and women in screening centres and in detention.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the excessive detention of large numbers of Tamil people, particularly the non-release of young men, suggests an attempt at the repopulation of areas of Sri Lanka to prevent the continuing concentration of Tamil people in the north and east? That is a gross violation of the rights of those people, who in effect are being imprisoned by the regime in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Member for Ilford, South continues, may I gently point him back to arms exports to Sri Lanka rather than the general human rights situation there?

Mike Gapes: I do not have any direct evidence to confirm or deny what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North says, but it is a matter that the Foreign Office and other Departments should take up.

If, as the Government say, there is a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka, and if, as they say, there are serious human rights concerns, is it not appropriate that we should take a much more rigorous approach on future arms sales to the Sri Lankan regime? Until we are given absolute assurances about the human rights position—I almost said cast iron assurances, but that is not the right phrase to use this week—we need to be sure about the early release of all those in the IDP camps who are able to return to their homes. There should also be a policy of national reconciliation, under which the Tamil people in Sri Lanka are treated in a way that minimises the possibility of future conflict in that country.

I will take your advice, Mr. Pope, and not stray further into that subject, but I believe that Sri Lanka highlights a wider issue of British Government policy on arms exports. A country that has a democratic Government but also internal conflict, and where civil war has been ongoing for more than two decades, must necessarily be treated differently from other countries in the region or the rest of the world.

I will conclude, because I am conscious that other Members wish to contribute and will no doubt comment on other aspects of the report. It has been a pleasure to serve on the Committees on Arms Export Controls and their previous incarnation, the Quadripartite Committee, on which I served as a Member of the Select Committee on Defence. The co-operation between the four Select Committees shows the House of Commons at its best. By working together, we also learn a great deal about how government is not always joined up. It is clear that some Departments are more co-operative with their Select Committees than others and that there are sometimes delays in receiving documentation because it is caught up in the chain between one private office and another. We have also revealed over the years that tone and approach sometimes vary when questioning different Ministers from different Departments.

My message is that just as our Select Committees need to be more joined up when we work thematically, because hunting in packs might be more effective than doing so individually—hopefully, the Liaison Committee will consider that—I hope that the Government will also recognise that they should expedite their response to Committees of the House on cross-departmental issues to improve the effective scrutiny of Government policy.


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