Keith Locke – Budget Debate Speech – 16 June 09

KEITH LOCKE (Green): I wish to speak on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s budget and explain some matters that the Government should be paying particular attention to. There are too few Governments on this planet that treat matters of peace and human rights with the attention they deserve.

One of the matters that I think our Government should give immediate and ongoing attention to is the horrific situation facing the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. Their aspiration for an autonomous Tamil region within the Sri Lankan State has been crushed by massive force. This year anything up to 20,000 Tamils have been killed by huge air and artillery bombardment of the territory that for some years has been under the administration of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the LTTE. Most of the population of that territory-around 300,000 people-has been herded into what can best be termed concentration camps. I think that term is apt because what is happening to the Tamil people in those camps is similar to what happened in Hitler’s concentration camps, but without the mass extermination programme.

The Sri Lankan Government aims to use these camps to destroy all traces of the former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam administration, in the same way that Hitler used concentration camps to eliminate the German communists and socialists as political forces. All those associated with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam will either be imprisoned long term, “re-educated”, or perhaps they will disappear. There have already been reports from the camps of “white van disappearances” of young Tamil Tiger activists. Hitler believed that anything was justified in the war against communism, and the Sri Lankan Government proceeds as if anything is justified in the so-called war against terrorism. It need not have been this way.

There was a chance of negotiated autonomy for the Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka during the 2002-2005 ceasefire. I toured Sri Lanka in October 2003 to monitor this process, and it was going well. I talked to both the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam negotiators. They were all quite hopeful and indicated respect for each other. While I was in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam capital of Kilinochi, a Tamil proposal for an interim self-governing authority was presented to the Norwegian peace negotiators and was covered by the international media, but substantive discussions on an autonomy solution never eventuated.

There was probably blame on both sides for that, but most damaging was the failure of the international community to keep the pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to go down the negotiating track and to not resort to war again. To do this, the international community should have consciously taken the conflict out of the context of the Government on one side and the terrorists on the other.

During the 2002-2005 ceasefire, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was made a legal organisation by the Government of Sri Lanka and could freely operate anywhere in that country, yet the US, British, and Australian Governments kept their designations of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a terrorist organisation and the European Union added the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to its terrorist list. Of course, it is true that the Tamil Tigers have engaged in terrorist actions in the past, including political assassinations, and so has the Sri Lankan Government on an even larger scale according to the statistics of civilian deaths in the reports of human rights monitors like Amnesty International.

In 2003 and 2004 the two sides that had done such bad things to each other and to civilians were talking and could have reached a solution with enough pressure and involvement from the international community. But the negotiating process lost momentum, and when President Rajapaksa came to power in 2005 he decided on a military solution. The tragic consequences for the Tamils are for all to see.

As for New Zealand’s responsibility now, this Parliament took a good step in passing a resolution on 2 June ” That this House notes its deep concern at the dire humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka and call upon the Sri Lankan Government to exceed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call for UN agencies to be given ‘immediate unhindered access’ to the internally displaced persons camps on order to bring aid to those who desperately need it, and ask the Sri Lankan Government to allow media access to the camps.” However, the New Zealand Government must take the next step and engage both directly with the Sri Lankan Government and through United Nations organisations to enable full access to the camps for international humanitarian organisations, human rights monitors, and the media. At present the media is only allowed into the big detention camps on guided tours, and is not allowed to talk freely and privately with camp inmates. I think it is appropriate to use the prison term “inmates”.

We must insist that all members and former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, whether combatants or non-combatants and their families, be treated fairly and without discrimination. Surely it is now time for reconciliation, not punishment and further suffering. People should be able to leave the camps and return to their homes if they so wish. Yes, war crimes have been committed by some on both sides of the conflict, but the identification of these and the prosecution of those responsible will have to be done with the direct involvement of the international community.

Human Rights Watch rightly called for an impartial international commission of inquiry to investigate the alleged crimes that were committed during the war, including the repeated bombing of civilians crammed into the small amount of territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the last phase of the war and accusations that Tamil Tiger fighters prevented civilians from leaving its territory.

The tragedy of Sri Lanka is very personal to many people in the New Zealand Sri Lankan community. Many have lost family and friends back in Sri Lanka, or are desperate to find out their fate. We have a responsibility to them, as citizens of our country now, to take up the humanitarian and political issues involved, to help the Tamil people here find out what has happened to their relations, to help those in northern Sri Lanka who survive return home to their towns and villages, and to help survivors to get welfare assistance through international agencies.

We also should not forget the underlying cause of the conflict and suffering: the failure of successive Sri Lankan administrations to allow the Tamil people their full rights, including their right to an autonomous area in the north of Sri Lanka. That issue arose from the time of independence, well before the Tamil Tigers were ever thought of. The personal stories of Tamils living in New Zealand include terrifying stories of earlier times during the repeated pogroms in places like Colombo when Sinhalese militias, one might call them, went door-to-door with knives and people were hiding in cupboards trying to prevent being killed.

I feel sadness myself because when I visited Sri Lanka in 2003, two of the people I met, Mr Nadesan and Mr Puleedevan were key in the political side of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s involvement in the negotiations. At the very end of the recent conflict, they phoned the international contacts and one of the reporters they talked to, Marie Colvin relayed the whole story to us in the Dominion Post on May 25. Contact was also made with the Red Cross, the Sri Lankan Government, and the United Nations trying to work out a way to surrender and Mr Nadesan and Mr Puleedevan were told to carry white flags to the Sri Lankan Government’s line, which they did. As they were carrying these white flags, they and their families were gunned down.

It is a very tragic situation we face today and we want to engage with Sri Lanka’s politicians to help find a way forward, including the 22 Tamil MPs who are under some siege at the present time.


House of Representatives