IN THE HOUSE ~ Emergency Debate on humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka

40th Parliament, 2nd Session

Mr. Speaker, I wanted to say that to all those Tamil Canadians, the largest diaspora in the world. They are watching us tonight on television. They are watching CPAC and they are present here in the gallery.

For those Tamil Canadians, this is not some sort of academic debate. This is not a place where words are going to heal the wounds that exist. For Tamil Canadians, who have relatives, family and friends who are currently in a situation that is deplorable in its magnitude and frightening in the intensity of its impact on individuals, this is not part of an academic debate but part of a real tragedy that is unfolding right now as we speak.

As Parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to help change that situation so that those loved ones, those people living in northern Sri Lanka are given the relief that they so richly deserve and warrant.

It is for those reasons that the member for Toronto—Danforth, the leader of the New Democratic Party, stood in the House a few hours ago to request that the Speaker of the House of Commons hold this emergency debate. It is for that reason that the New Democratic Party caucus has been pressing the government to take action.

Today there was an announcement, a first step, perhaps a down payment, of $3 million in humanitarian relief, but it is a long way from what is needed now. For Canada to play an important role to bring relief to those who are suffering in northern Sri Lanka, Canada must act strongly and must act with real resources to bring about the ceasefire and peace in northern Sri Lankan, a respect for human rights. And also to bring about a much larger infusion of much-needed resources from Canada to immediately help those who are starving, those who are hungry, and those who are suffering in northern Sri Lanka.

Last week the NDP brought forward Motion No. 273 in the House, which we believe provided important instruction to the government, so that the government could take immediate action.

For the record, the motion states: That, in the opinion of the House, the government should immediately use all diplomatic means to put pressure on the government of Sri Lanka and its military to respect the human rights of the civilian Tamil population, by: (a) ceasing all violence against Tamil civilians, including any detention of civilians in military-camps, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances; (b) immediately lifting the September 2008 ban on United Nations (UN) and international humanitarian organizations from operating in the northern region of the country, in addition to ensuring that these organizations are free from government interference so they may independently supervise both parties of the conflict and respond to the humanitarian crisis; (c) halting all government policies and actions aimed against the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka; and (d) supporting the peace process and efforts of the UN that will invest in infrastructure, education and provide significant support for the Tamil population of Sri Lanka.

We put forward this motion because we felt it was important that the government take action. This is not an academic debate we are holding this evening, but an emergency debate. In fact, if further measures are not taken in the near future, the situation will not change for the Tamil people in northern Sri Lanka, who are suffering enormously.

That is why we put forward the motion. That is why we requested an emergency debate today, to change things. Canada is home to the largest Tamil diaspora in the world. There are 300,000 Canadians of Tamil origin. They make an enormous contribution to our country. Given this role Canada plays, it is important that our government take strong, decisive action.

The Tamil population has enriched all of Canada from coast to coast to coast. As a representative for Burnaby—New Westminster, I speak for the incredible enrichment we have received from new Canadians of Tamil origin who have come to live in my riding. It is one of the most diverse populations in the entire country. The Tamil population, the presence of Tamil centres of faith, and the dynamic businesses that have been founded by Tamil Canadians in my riding have enriched the cities of Burnaby and New Westminster enormously. I see the contribution that Tamil Canadians make to our country every day.

We have a responsibility to ensure that our fellow Canadians of Tamil origin feel that our country is responding to this humanitarian crisis with the decisiveness and force that it merits. I would like to read into the record for those who may feel that this crisis is taking place on the other side of the planet and is therefore something that Canadians should not be concerned about. Canadians watching tonight may feel that somehow it does not touch them, but I believe that as more Canadians become aware of the suffering we are seeing in northern Sri Lanka, they will be pressing this Parliament and this government to take decisive action.

I would like to begin by reading from an article by Stephanie Nolen that talks about the situation. This was only a few days ago in northern Sri Lanka. Stephanie Nolen wrote the article under the headline, “How can people say this is peace? Eastern Sri Lanka chafes under the oppressive rule of a government that says it is committed to democracy”.

She wrote: "In the local office of Sri Lanka's national Human Rights Commission here in this eastern seaside town, they have statistics: Ninety-eight people were abducted in this area last year, snatched off the streets by the infamous white vans with no licence plates that are used by government security agencies. Eighty-five other Tamils simply disappeared. At the commission they have case files and police reports."

But none of the staff will talk about them. “We are helpless,” one staff member said apologetically, ushering a visiting journalist out of the office. “We would like to help the people but we have to be afraid for our lives, too”.

And who do they fear at this government office? The government.

Eastern Sri Lanka offers insight into what the north of the country - the area that until weeks ago was held by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - will soon look like. The Tigers have lost all but a tiny portion of their territory to a punishing air and ground assault by government forces, launched by a president determined to end the country's 25-year-old civil war to win elections in April.

This article speaks to what has been a systematic approach by the government, referred to in Stephanie Nolan's following article, where she says: Tamils and other opponents of the government who look around the country today will probably take little comfort in the promise of a just peace.

The east—which came under government control in 2006, after the No. 2 Tiger leader split off with several thousand fighters and allied with Colombo—remains heavily militarized and is actively being “Sinhalized”, with areas losing their Tamil names and Hindu shrines being converted to Buddhist worship sites.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago in the capital, the country's leading anti-corruption journalist was assassinated by gunmen on motorbikes, a crime the government limply condemned. International observers put the blame squarely on state intelligence agencies.

From Stephanie Nolan's articles, we have seen what it is like in the so-called peaceful areas of Sri Lanka, where there is active assimilation being attempted against the Tamil minority.

I would like to continue by referring to a New York Times article from yesterday that talks about what the situation is like in the war zone. The headline is “Wounded Flee Shelling Of a Hospital In Sri Lanka”, and it was written by Somini Sengupta.

The article begins: The wounded had poured into the hospital over the last several weeks, some ferried on tractors, others on the backs of motorcycles, international aid workers said, as the war between the Sri Lankan military and the ethnic Tamil rebels moved farther and farther into a small corner of Sri Lanka's northeastern coast.

Then the hospital, in the rebel-held village of Puthukkudiyiruppu, became a target. Artillery attacks, which began on Sunday and hit the pediatric ward and other parts of the hospital, continued through Tuesday. One shell landed in the surgery ward on Tuesday afternoon, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which helps run the hospital. Another shell came 70 minutes later.

When it was clear that even the hospital was not safe, the wounded began to flee. It was not known where they went. Before Tuesday's attack, at least 12 had been killed inside the hospital, the Red Cross said. Final casualty figures were not available.

Just from these three articles, we can see not only the tragedy of the war zone, the indiscriminate shelling. We can see and we have heard many reports of abductions and disappearances in the non-war zones held by the Sri Lankan military. We have heard and we have seen from human rights organizations, even though they are reporting from abroad because essentially they have been forced out of areas where they should be monitoring human rights violations, that essentially for much of the ethnic Tamil population, their population of women and children have been locked up in prison.

What we see from these articles and from other human rights reports is a systematic campaign. In areas where there is military action, we see indiscriminate shelling of hospitals. In areas that have been essentially brought to peace, we see what Stephanie Nolan referred to as forced assimilation.

Now I would like to move to Human Rights Watch and its report: “Besieged, Displaced, and Detained” which talks more about the situation in areas of Sri Lanka.

It states: Tamil civilians seeking to flee fighting in Sri Lanka's north during the 25-year-long civil war have long been subject to arbitrary detention in camps and other restrictions on their freedom of movement. Still, most could hope to stay with relatives or host families in other parts of Sri Lanka. The government's March 2008 decision to establish new camps seems intended to eliminate that possibility entirely. Since then, all Tamils-including whole families-fleeing the Vanni have been detained on the apparent assumption that they are a security threat. No attempt is made by Sri Lankan security forces to distinguish between persons with suspected LTTE links and ordinary civilians. The only exceptions appear to be for some local humanitarian workers and clergy, who have been able to enter and exit the Vanni.

We could literally spend hours reading into the record Amnesty International reports, Red Cross reports, Human Rights Watch reports. Systematically, we are building a body of evidence that undeniably points to the fact that we are looking at forced assimilation and human rights violations on a widespread basis against Tamil civilians in northern Sri Lanka and in eastern Sri Lanka. That is why it is incumbent on the government to act.

The report continues: Despite repeated assurances from Sri Lankan authorities since April 2008 that many of the displaced persons detained in the two camps, particularly those originally from Trincomalee and Vavuniya districts, would be permitted to leave, as of December 15, 2008, only 65 persons had been released. On October 23, two persons from Kilinochchi district detained in Kalimoddai were allowed to move out of the camp to a host family in Vavuniya; on October 24, 25 persons, including three families who had been detained after returning from India, were released from Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal camps and returned to their home area of Trincomalee.

The civilians in the two camps are being held against their will. The camps are completely fenced, and are closely guarded by Sri Lankan navy and army personnel, and the police. The security forces have refused to allow the civilians to leave the camps-except under tight restrictions described below-and integrate into local communities or live with host families.

The report continues: Available information indicates that the restrictions on movement for displaced persons in the camps are increasingly becoming stricter, particularly for single men. After security incidents such as escape or suicide attempts, the security forces have prohibited young men from leaving the camp altogether for extended periods.

After a young man went missing from Kalimoddai in October-it remains unclear whether he escaped or was abducted-virtually no single detainees were allowed to leave the camp under any circumstances, a restriction still in place at the time of finalization of this report....The Sri Lankan security forces claim that 13 camp residents have "escaped," but detainees told humanitarian workers the men may have been abducted or “disappeared.”

It continues: Government hostility toward the humanitarian community. The almost immediate withdrawal of the UN and NGOs from the Vanni following the order of the defense secretary remains controversial. One factor that likely weighed heavily on the humanitarian organizations was the August 2006 execution-style slayings of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers working for Action Contre la Faim (ACF), a Paris-based humanitarian organization, in the eastern town of Mutur following the withdrawal of LTTE forces.

There are strong indications, Human Rights Watch indicates, of the involvement of government security forces in the killing. An inquiry by the attorney general and in a slow moving investigation into the killings, established soon after the killings, to examine this and other serious cases, have faced government interference and obstruction. To date no one has been held accountable for the killings.

The reports, the articles, the eye witnesses, all of these point to a systematic campaign. That is why Canada must speak up and why Canada needs to provide a lot more than the $3 million, basically at $10 a head for the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in northern Sri Lanka; $3 million to deal with a humanitarian crisis of that magnitude, to deal with the human rights abuses of that order and to deal with a systematic campaign against the whole population. Three million dollars is simply not sufficient.

One may consider it insulting. I consider it a very small down payment on what is a humanitarian crisis to which Canada must respond.

The recommendations the Human Rights Watch brought forward were also contained, as I mentioned earlier, in the NDP motion brought forward last week, but also in our letters and correspondence to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The recommendations from Human Rights Watch are very explicit. To the government of Sri Lanka it has recommended and pushed that the order banning humanitarian agencies must be stopped, that the arbitrary and indefinite detention of civilians must be stopped, that security forces must respect human rights, that NGOs must be able to perform their work without government interference, that independent observers must be permitted in this zone and that donor governments must work together to monitor human rights in northern Sri Lanka.

We are not talking about an academic debate. We are talking about a crisis. Real people are dying and real people are suffering. Canada must respond in a very strong and forceful way to ensure the government respects human rights and to ensure that our resources go in a meaningful way to address the suffering in northern Sri Lanka.