Canadian Parliament debates the Sri Lankan situation

(February 07, Toronto, Sri Lanka Guardian) Hon Maria Minna: We met with the government representatives of all the parties involved as well as the LTTE in the one area we visited. In the landmines area we spoke to a lot of people. Unfortunately, I have to say that I came away from that visit convinced that neither side was interested in peace. That was what I drew from that visit. That is what I got from a lot of the discussions and meetings. The military solution, of course, which is what ensued, that lack of interest in the peace discussion, is what we have today which is the horrible humanitarian crisis which has trapped some 240,000 people in an area that they cannot get out of at the moment, but also, the many people it has injured, maimed and killed.

Extracts from the Hansard – Part Six

Hon. Jim Abbott (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation, Conservative): Mr. Speaker, as the minister of state and the Minister of International Cooperation have already stated, Canada is deeply concerned. Like all Canadians I, too, am disheartened by the violence that has been sweeping through Sri Lanka and the impact this has had on the people of Sri Lanka.

Here in Canada we are lucky to have such a safe and secure country, but so many countries around the world face persistent challenges to the security of their country and the well-being of their citizens. We have a history, as a people, of listening to the needs of people around the world and answering their calls for help. It is important to recognize that the last few years have been particularly challenging for the Sri Lankans, which is why Canada has been part of providing the support to those in need.

Last November, tropical storm Nisha hit Sri Lanka, causing citizens to leave their homes, which created a great need for humanitarian relief. The Government of Canada has been able to play an important role in helping those in need. Today, international aid workers continue to do the necessary work in the region with the support of the Canadian government, however, the ongoing conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has intensified. Canada is monitoring the situation in Sri Lanka closely. As we have in the past, we are offering much needed support.

In 2008 Canada supported the people of Sri Lanka with almost $3 million in humanitarian assistance, including $1.5 million for food aid through the World Food Programme. The crucial funding we provided helped to support Sri Lankans with emergency medical supplies, food, water and other necessities. Canada remains a proud partner with organizations such as Care Canada, Doctors Without Borders, World Vision and the World Food Programme, which are working hard to alleviate the suffering of those affected in the region.

I have heard this question tonight: how do we know the aid will get to where it should go? If the members do not have confidence in the government, that is fine, that is their perspective, but I have confidence in the government. More than that, I have confidence in the NGOs like World Vision, the World Food Programme, Care Canada, Doctors Without Borders. Their lives and their organizations are dedicated to getting the job done, which is why the partnership of CIDA with those organizations is so important. We know that the access to basic needs of food, water and shelter and medical care will continue to be a challenge. We have all sorts of faith in the ability of those organizations to get the job done.

In the face of this armed conflict, Canada along with the international community is supporting efforts to reach a peaceful solution. Canada is also giving its ongoing support to humanitarian efforts, as I have said. It is important that we express our concern for the health and well-being of the great number of Sri Lankans affected by the insecurity. We understand the needs of those who have fled their homes are great. With the onslaught of the monsoon rains, food, assistance, clean water, as well as shelter are also important priorities.

Canada is working to ensure that our aid reaches the people who need it most and that those self-sacrificing aid workers are safe to return home when the necessary help they are providing has been delivered. The citizens and international aid workers who end up in the crossfire in this conflict are of great concern to us. In their name, we have continued to support those in need and hope for a peaceful resolution to this political crisis.

As we have said repeatedly, and I know other members in this debate have said, we call on the parties in the conflict in Sri Lanka to respect international law and for the government of Sri Lanka to ensure the safety of its citizens. Once an end to this conflict is achieved, we can help the citizens of Sri Lanka return to their normal lives and begin a process of reconciliation and building. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, as I have stated.

The $3 million announced by the minister is assistance that builds on Canada's $3 million contribution made last year to support key efforts in Sri Lanka. As I have stated, through trusted humanitarian partners, including the Red Cross and World Vision, the Government of Canada has helped to provide emergency medical support, emergency food assistance, shelter, water and sanitation services, protection, health and hygiene education, as well as emergency preparedness training. Canada is committed to working with our partners to help coordinate global emergency efforts.

Canadian development experts work with other humanitarian agencies already in Sri Lanka to ensure an effective and coordinated overall response. Our government believes that the UN's central emergency response fund, or CERF, is essential in providing immediate support for people affected by crises. The CERF distributes money quickly to humanitarian organizations to help save lives. As a major contributor to the CERF, Canada is pleased to be a leader in responding to humanitarian emergencies abroad.

Restoring stability in Sri Lanka is vital to our humanitarian efforts throughout Asia and for the future of Sri Lanka and its neighbours. We know that the ongoing crisis has disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans. We understand that many families have been displaced, homes have been destroyed,and people have had to flee.

As has been stated many times, it is essential to ensure that an end is put to this conflict that has pervaded Sri Lanka for so long. We must ensure that as soon as possible the lives of those impacted can be rebuilt and stable support measures put in place. Canada stands ready to do its part. Support for the sick, wounded and those in need is necessary. With our support, those caught in the middle of the conflict can be evacuated and emergency assistance can be provided. Canadians understand that development and security go hand in hand. Without security, there can be no reconstruction, no humanitarian aid, no democratic development.

It is my sincere hope that peace will come to Sri Lanka and the people of that country have a resolution to this crisis. We must make every effort to ensure that Sri Lankans get the immediate help they need. We must do everything in our power to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate further. In the face of this humanitarian crisis, Canada stands ready to do its part. Simply put, it is the right thing to do. As in the past, we will offer the support necessary for those in need to deliver humanitarian aid and with our partners on the ground we will work to put Sri Lanka on a strong and stable path.

Mr Jim Karigiannis: Mr. Speaker, I listened to the member with interest because he is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation. When the minister spoke, she alluded to the fact that the present government had better partners on the ground than previous governments. The parliamentary secretary mentioned CARE, World Vision and the Red Cross. I sat here and wondered what had changed and what was different than when the Liberal government was in office and the tsunami struck. They are the same names, the same people.

Could the member clarify for me the comments by the minister? Was the minister aware of what she was saying, or was this a speech that was written? Have CARE, the Red Cross, World Vision become better and they misled previous governments, or were the previous governments stupid when they did business with the same people? Are the same people on the ground delivering stuff now? I am either totally confused or these people are not the same.

Have these people changed or are you just blowing smoke?

Hon. Jim Abboyy: Mr. Speaker, it has been very interesting to listen to this debate tonight. By and large, there have been tremendously constructive comments, some differences of opinion, some concerns about timing, all of which are absolutely valid. The question the member has put to me is one born of a very partisan perspective. I do not know the purpose of the question. Since our government has taken over, we have done a tremendous amount of work in terms of accountability, which is not to say that we have had any serious questions about those agencies, as he seems to be alluding. The fact is we are putting in place an accountability for the people of Canada that the money, the assets, will be going to the people for whom it is intended.

Hon. Dan McTeague: Mr. Speaker, I want to pursue that with my good friend and colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation. In 2005 when the tsunami hit that region, and of course parts within that same area, our government response was within literally hours. We had deployed, from 8th Wing division from Trenton, a jet which contained medicines, pills to render water potable, cans that would allow them to contain or to pick up water, and tents. Obviously, the situation is somewhat different here, significantly different in the sense that a ceasefire would have to be obtained first, and I think our colleagues here on this side of the House have provided very constructive directions as to how to engage not only with the international fora but also to provide constructive assistance to the government so that it can provide aid.

I want to ask the hon. member, has he taken up the question of access to that country with the Sri Lankan High Commissioner, who today issued a letter which talked about disinformation, which in my view is not constructive? Will he undertake to speak to the high commissioner—

Ho. Jim Abbott: Mr. Speaker, as the member will be well aware, parliamentary secretaries, ministers of state, my minister, and the foreign affairs minister, all have our own responsibilities, and within that context, his question is a perfectly valid question. Would I be the person who would be doing the speaking? Probably not. The constructive suggestions that have been coming out of this debate tonight have been very helpful on balance and I commend the vast majority of members in this House.

Mr Paul Dewar: Mr. Speaker, I have a question regarding the $3 million. He mentioned in his comments that last year we supplied $3 million in aid. I am wondering about the announcement, I see the minister here, that was made today. Is that extra? Is that in addition to the $3 million that we had last year and will we therefore be supplying $6 million this year, or will it be only $3 million?

Hon. Jim Aboot: Mr. Speaker, the answer to the question is, as I stated in my speech, this is a new $3 million for a total of $6 million. That is exactly it and I am just confirming that number for the member.

Hon. Maria Minna (Liberal): Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the members for Scarborough—Agincourt, Scarborough—Guildwood and Mississauga East—Cooksville. I had the pleasure of visiting Sri Lanka twice. The first time was for a conference, but the second time I led an all-party parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka as the chair of the Canada-Sri Lanka Parliamentary Association right after the tsunami, both to view the disaster of the tsunami and to ensure that moneys were actually going into reconstruction areas, but also to push for peace. In negotiations at the time there was still a ceasefire.

We met with the government representatives of all the parties involved as well as the LTTE in the one area we visited. In the landmines area we spoke to a lot of people. Unfortunately, I have to say that I came away from that visit convinced that neither side was interested in peace. That was what I drew from that visit. That is what I got from a lot of the discussions and meetings. The military solution, of course, which is what ensued, that lack of interest in the peace discussion, is what we have today which is the horrible humanitarian crisis which has trapped some 240,000 people in an area that they cannot get out of at the moment, but also, the many people it has injured, maimed and killed.

Canada was very active in putting forward and fighting for what is called responsibility to protect, which is a declaration of the UN now. It is something that we need to act on to protect the people. That was put in place to protect people and states that are not able to protect their own citizens. To some degree, this is happening in Sri Lanka today. I would hope that the Sri Lankan government would allow the United Nations to come in and work with it.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, on the one hand the LTTE refused the movement of civilians, but the Sri Lankan government has also contributed to the risk by detaining those who have managed to flee LTTE areas, including families in militarized detention camps, thereby denying them freedom of movement. This is wrong and it should stop. The freedom of movement of these people and the protection of the vulnerable is fundamental.

It is the government's duty to provide safety to all citizens but also to ensure journalists and human rights defenders the freedom of movement to seek out the truth. This has been denied and this is something that we must change, and it needs to happen very quickly. Again, close to 250,000 people whose lives are at stake at the moment seem to be abandoned and they are crying out to all of us. So I call on both parties to respect the safe zones, to respect the safe areas, and to respect the non-military attack of medical facilities, schools and so on. They need to respect humanitarian and international law. It is extremely critical and we need to demand that this happen at all cost.

Humanitarian aid must reach those in need and there needs to be an immediate ceasefire with international monitors put in place to ensure that it is respected. The UN should appoint a special representative to monitor the ceasefire and also to start the peace talks immediately.

The challenges facing Sri Lanka cannot be resolved by military activities but through political action. This must include, obviously, a dialogue on the kind of government, the sharing of power, possibly a federal system as Canada has, or something similar, but certainly sharing of power needs to happen. The agreement also needs to include the recognition of plurality and minority rights.

Canada has a major role to play in this crisis. We have a large Sri Lankan diaspora in Canada, who together in partnership with the government should be and will be involved. So I, too, call on our government to take leadership in this case, to go to Sri Lanka, to start the talks, to push and to aggressively take action. It has been too long and we have waited far too long.

It is time that the Government of Canada be aggressive on this issue with the United Nations. The Security Council of the UN should also be involved. We call on both sides to a ceasefire immediately and to start talking about a political solution because without that there is no solution, and Sri Lanka violence will continue even if the government succeeds in its objective with the military at the end of the day.

Mr Jim Karygiannis: Mr. Speaker, last week I held a round table with my constituents on the issue of Sri Lanka. These are some of the actions they want the Government of Canada to undertake: condemn immediately the slaughter and genocide of innocent Tamil civilians in the northern part of Sri Lanka by the Sri Lankan army; break its silence about the genocide in Sri Lanka and call upon the United Nations to immediately invoke an internationally sponsored ceasefire, for the LTTE to lay down its arms, and for the Sri Lankan army to return to their barracks. The ceasefire should not be initiated by the Sri Lankan government nor the Indian government. They want an international ceasefire started.

To continue: establish the international community as the administrator of the northern part of Sri Lanka; broker a peace deal with all participants, LTTE and the Sri Lankan government at the table; guarantee access and safe passage of international humanitarian agencies, ICRC, into the northern part of Sri Lanka to administer emergency medical assistance and provide food and shelter to the civilians; guarantee access and safe passage of the international news media into the northern part of Sri Lanka to talk with people and to report accurately on what is going on there so the facts will come out; ensure that fighting stops in safe zones near hospitals, and we have seen what happened with the bombing of a hospital just the other day; and finally, lobby for an international inquiry into the deaths of 300 people in a single day.

They went on to say that we should immediately send peacekeepers to the northern part of Sri Lanka, send medical personnel to the northern part of Sri Lanka, and immediately sever aid and other ties to Sri Lanka until the genocide stops. Time and time again, I have sent letters to the Minister of International Cooperation, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister saying that there is an international crisis happening in Sri Lanka. Please act. Time and time again I have asked the government to engage both the Tamil and Sinhalese diasporas in a dialogue so that we can find a peaceful solution to what is happening in Sri Lanka. Time and time again, it has unfortunately fallen on deaf ears.

It was not until the government and the Prime Minister were pushed to the nth degree. It was not until over the weekend, when literally thousands of emails, phone calls, faxes and letters went to the minister of external affairs as well as to the Prime Minister. It was not until this side of the House started pushing and pushing hard that the government decided to act. What do we have today? We have a statement that says it is too bad what is happening over there and we trust that the Sri Lankan government will certainly look after things. I still have not heard that we have called the high commissioner of Sri Lanka to the carpet to ask him or her to justify what is going on. I have not heard that should things not change, should this genocide that my constituents refer to not stop in Sri Lanka, we are going to recall our own high commissioner from Sri Lanka. I still have not heard how we would be able to make sure that humanitarian aid reaches the people it should reach.

I say this because of an experience that I had. Four years ago, right after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, I went to Sri Lanka. I went to Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, the Elephant Pass, as they call it, and I walked the grounds and played with the kids. I spoke to mothers who had lost their relatives. I spoke to the children and played cricket with them. They are the same children we are seeing in photographs today who have been maimed, butchered and possibly killed.

Part of me is still back there with those kids on that cricket field and I have the minister of international aid standing up in this House and saying that we can do things better and that we will deliver the aid. How can the government deliver the aid if the government of Sri Lanka does not adhere to the wishes of the international community? I still have not heard from either minister or parliamentary secretary what they are going to do to guarantee that the $3 million aid we have will reach the people it must go to. I have heard platitudes and that we have a lot of experience. It is the same people who delivered the aid yesterday. It is the same people who delivered the aid before. And it is the same people who are going to be delivering the aid tomorrow.

However, it is those people who are saying to this House, and through you, Mr. Speaker, they are loudly speaking and saying that they cannot go because the government of Sri Lanka is not allowing them. When is the government going to go to the United Nations and push the United Nations for a debate? When is the government going to rise and say that if Sri Lanka does not change its ways, it is going to be kicked out of the Commonwealth? When is the government going to take the responsibility to meet with the Tamil diaspora in Canada and meet with them face to face? The Prime Minister has to sit down with them and say that he wants to speak to them. The government has failed so far.

Hon. John McKay: Mr. Speaker, this conflict is a legacy of British colonialism. When the British occupied the island, when the island was then called Ceylon, they used the Tamil population, in effect, to protect British interests, in preference to the Tamil population over the Sinhalese population. When independence came, the Sinhalese majority decided that it was time to take back what was then Ceylon, and now Sri Lanka, as its own and implemented a number of laws that were reprehensible to the minority Tamil population. The consequence of that was that the Tamil people were excluded from the civil service or it was very difficult to get into the civil service.

They were unable to access higher education or they were excluded from higher education. These lists of difficulties, grievances, slights, injustices and outrages built and built until we have what we have today, which is a civil war that has raged over the last 30-plus years, the consequence of which is now that we are facing a very grave international crisis. The conflict has been characterized by outrageous acts against humanity by both sides. Human Rights Watch has said that both sides have committed atrocities and that there are no innocents among the combatants. Meanwhile, the people of Sri Lanka suffer.

There was a window of opportunity a few years ago when I had the great honour to go to Sri Lanka with the hon. David Kilgour, the then secretary of state for Asia-Pacific. I believe we were the first official delegation from Canada to visit that country. We talked to pretty well anyone who would talk to us about the possibilities of a devolved form of federation and other political solutions. It was obvious to us after we returned that there was not a real serious interest by either side in a dialogue about a form of federation that would accommodate the most legitimate concerns about the minority population and the majority population.

We would listen to the peace monitors, we would listen to the people who were frustrated by the continuous violations of the ceasefire and we were driven to the conclusion that it would be only a matter of time before the hostilities would resume.Then along came the tsunami which exacerbated the difficulties. One of my best friends was head of an aid agency there, well-funded, well-intentioned, well-motivated, well-staffed and they gave up after 18 months of frustration with both sides and the failure to be able to deliver their aid and their relief.

This is a small island of about 23 million people. It is about one-third minority population and two-thirds majority population in rough terms. There is no solution to this war. This conflict cannot be won militarily even if the Government of Sri Lanka is under the illusion that it can win this war militarily. As we watch this conflict unfold on our TV screens, in our newspapers and in various Sri Lankan media, it appalls us all. This is not a winnable war. No one will win the war. If the Government of Sri Lanka thinks it will win the war it will not. On the day after this conflict subsides, because it will not end, there will still be millions of Tamil people looking for peace, justice, fairness and access to their various government facilities.

What is the Government of Canada to do? There have been very good suggestions from the member for Toronto Centre and the member for Mount Royal, and I will not repeat them. I would have wished that the Government of Canada had taken a more activist role. It is regrettable that it takes events such as demonstrations on Parliament Hill and emergency debates to prod it into some action.

I have the great honour to represent one of the largest Tamil constituencies in the country and it has been a very personal exercise for me to listen to literally dozens and dozens of people talk about the tragedy that is in their families and in their homes. I would urge the Government of Canada to act along the lines that the member for Mount Royal and the member for Toronto Centre have urged.

Mr Paul Dewar: Mr. Speaker, one of the things that is important to lay down here is that as recently as October there was an effort by the other side, in this case by the Tamil tigers, to enter into a truce. We now have what is really a war of attrition. We have the government saying basically that it will wipe out the Tamil tigers. We all know the history of that. It never happens. It only makes things worse. What does the member think of the Sri Lankan government's notion that it can actually wipe out the rebel force and have peace in Sri Lanka?

Hon. John McKay: Mr. Speaker, the concern I have is that the Government of Sri Lanka is under some huge illusion that if it somehow or another eliminates the Tamil tigers, drives them into the sea and eliminates them as a force, somehow or another the conflict will be finished. That is utter naive nonsense. It is delusional on the part of the Government of Sri Lanka to think that somehow the injustices that the Tamil people have suffered over the years will disappear by virtue of driving the Tamil tigers into the sea.

I would urge our government to express that in the most forceful of terms to not only the high commissioner here, who is just down the road and I was rather surprised that the parliamentary secretary could tell us of no incidents in which they had talked to the high commissioner, but also to the foreign affairs minister, directly to their counterparts. This is something that needs to be expressed in the most forceful terms to the government.

Hon Abina Guamieri (Liberal): Mr. Speaker, today the world watches a human tragedy unfolding in Sri Lanka. The world should watch that conflict filled with guilt for failing to act, failing to care and failing to speak up against oppression and violence for half a century. The history of this conflict begins and ends with a determinedly discriminatory government representing a majority ethnic group seeking to culturalize and marginalize a minority. As early as 1948, many Tamils were denied citizenship and rendered stateless. In 1956 the Sri Lankan government declared Sinhala the only state language, marginalizing the Tamil language which had been equal in the pre-colonial era. Buddhism became the exclusive state religion, again denying the Tamil identity.

In 1972, a blatantly racist quota system was imposed to limit the number of Tamils in university. The Sri Lankan government even abolished the section of its constitution that protected minority rights. Tamils were discriminated against in schools, the public service and the military. In the 1960s, arson, vandalism and anti-Tamil riots killed 500 Tamils. In 1981, police burned down the library in Jaffna, destroying 95,000 ancient texts and manuscripts. Then, the darkest moment, in July 1983, over 3,000 Tamils were killed, many burned alive. Electoral lists were used to identify Tamil homes.

From the violence of 1983, the people of Sri Lanka were to suffer 25 years of civil war and 70,000 people lost their lives. Both the government and the Tamil tigers, rebels, engaged in actions that violated every standard of armed conflict. Suicide bombings on one side, aerial bombardments of hospitals and schools on the other.

Since 2006, I have spoken of the campaign of atrocities that have included the execution of aid workers working for a French NGO, bombing of schools, a grenade attack on a church protecting refugees and countless individual cases of summary executions and torture. Hundreds of Tamils have disappeared in Colombo after white vans left their homes. Sometimes their bodies are found and sometimes their bodies are dumped for effect near the Parliament. Mostly, they are never seen again.

The world community rose only once to stop the Sri Lankan government. On that rare occasion, the government was herding Tamils into crowded buses to be deported from Colombo. Such visible ethnic cleansing could not be allowed. It is this history that should inform our view of the current military campaign. Today the Sri Lankan government remains indifferent to the Tamil civilians who lie in the wake of its military. The government makes it blatantly clear by its repeated use of cluster bombs against a civilian hospital that it is not worried about accusations of war crimes. In fact, it has refused to sign on to the Rome Statute that would make its leaders vulnerable to prosecution. The US Secretary of State and the Foreign Secretary of the UK have called for a no-fire zone where civilians and refugees are now homeless, dying of snake bites and exposed to shelling and targeted bombardment by the government.

Canada can also speak up. Canada must call for international observers and peacekeepers to be deployed in towns in the north and east and that Tamil civilians be allowed to return home under international monitoring. This needs to happen now or this tragedy will continue to reach catastrophic proportions. Canada can also demand that Sri Lanka submit fully to an international war crimes tribunal where the actions of leaders on all sides of this conflict can be investigated and judged. The suffering in Sri Lanka will continue as long as there is no legal consequence, no opportunity for justice and no international will to bring a just peace.

It was more than half a century ago that Winston Churchill hailed a Canadian airman as the saviour of Ceylon. Today, Canada should feel the same duty to help save a quarter of a million Tamil civilians whose only hope is the will of the world to protect them.

Mr Jim Karygiannuis: Mr. Speaker, if the rest of the world fails to act, we should look into the responsibility to protect. If Sri Lanka is not willing to listen to Canada, if it turns a blind eye to us, should we not call the High Commissioner from Sri Lanka on the carpet and tell him that Canada has spoken and it is time to listen?

Hon. Albina Guamieri: Mr. Speaker, this conflict will require incredible determination on the part of all resources. I really believe the world decided in the 1940s that military objectives could no longer justify deliberate attacks on civilians. It will take an independent UN body to investigate alleged atrocities and bring some justice to the event. I do not think, to be quite frank, that one individual will be able to bring a sustainable peace to the area. It will take the collective opinion and the collective will of all governments to ensure that a serious UN-led effort is required to reach that goal.

-Sri Lanka Guardian