The Prime Minister, David Cameron, made a statement in the House of Commons on 18 November 2013 on the recent disaster in the Philippines and on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron):With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the disaster in the Philippines and the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka.Ten days ago a category 5 super-typhoon brought massive destruction across the Philippines, where the city of Tacloban was devastated by a tidal wave almost 2.5 metres high. The scale of what happened is still becoming clear, with many of the country’s 7,000 islands not yet reached or assessed, but already we know that more than 12 million people have been affected, with over 4,400 dead and more than 1,500 missing, including a number of Britons. This disaster follows other deadly storms there and an earthquake that killed 200 people in Bohol last month. I am sure the thoughts of the whole House will be with all those affected, their friends and families.Britain has been at the forefront of the international relief effort. The British public have once again shown incredible generosity and compassion, donating £35 million so far, and the Government have contributed more than £50 million to the humanitarian response. In the last week HMS Daring and her onboard helicopter, an RAF C-17 and eight different relief flights have brought essential supplies from the UK and helped get aid to those who need it most. An RAF C-130—a Hercules—will arrive tomorrow and HMS Illustrious will also be there by the end of this week, equipped with seven helicopters, and water desalination and command and control capabilities.Beyond the immediate task of life-saving aid, the people of the Philippines will face a long task of rebuilding and reducing their vulnerability to these kinds of events. Britain will continue to support them every step of the way.
Let me turn to the Commonwealth, and then to the issues in Sri Lanka itself. The Commonwealth is a unique organisation representing 53 countries, a third of the world’s population and a fifth of the global economy. It is united by history, by relationships and by the values of the new Commonwealth charter which we agreed two years ago in Perth. Britain is a leading member. Her Majesty the Queen is the head of the Commonwealth and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales did our country proud acting on her behalf and attending last week.
As with all the international organisations to which we belong, the Commonwealth allows us to champion the values and economic growth that are so vital to our national interest. At this summit we reached important conclusions on poverty, human rights and trade.
On poverty, this was the last Commonwealth meeting before the millennium development goals expire. We wanted our Commonwealth partners to unite behind the ambitious programme set by the UN high-level panel which I co-chaired with the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia. For the first time this programme prioritises not just aid, but the vital place of anti-corruption efforts, open institutions, access to justice, the rule of law and good governance in tackling poverty.
On human rights, the Commonwealth reiterated its support for the core values set out in the Commonwealth charter. Commonwealth leaders condemned in the strongest terms the use of sexual violence in conflict—an issue that has been championed globally by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague). We also called for an end to early and forced marriage, and for greater freedom of religion and belief. We committed to taking urgent and decisive action against the illegal wildlife trade ahead of the conference in London next year. And Britain successfully resisted an attempt to usher Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth without first addressing the deep concerns that remain about human rights and political freedoms.
The Foreign Secretary and I also used the meeting to build the case for more open trade and for developing our links with the fastest growing parts of the world. The Commonwealth backed a deal at next month’s World Trade Organisation meeting in Bali that could cut bureaucracy at borders and generate $100 billion for the global economy. Before and after the summit in Sri Lanka, I continued to bang the drum for British trade and investment. I went to New Delhi and Calcutta in India before heading to Sri Lanka—the third time I have visited India as Prime Minister. And I went from the summit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where Airbus agreed new orders from Emirates and Etihad airlines that will add £5.4 billion to the British economy. These orders will sustain and secure 6,500 British jobs, including at the plants in north Wales and Bristol, and open up new opportunities for the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby.
The last Government agreed, late in 2009, to hold the 2013 Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka. That was not my decision, but I was determined to use the presence of the Commonwealth and my own visit to shine a global spotlight on the situation there, and that is exactly what I did. I became the first foreign leader to visit the north of the country since independence in 1948 and, by taking the media with me, I gave the local population the chance to be heard by an international audience.
I met the new provincial Chief Minister from the Tamil National Alliance, who was elected in a vote that happened only because of the spotlight of the Commonwealth meeting. I took our journalists to meet the incredibly brave Tamil journalists at the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna, many of whom have seen their colleagues killed and who have themselves been beaten and intimidated. I met and heard from displaced people desperately wanting to return to their homes and their livelihoods. And as part of our support for reconciliation efforts across the country, I announced an additional £2.1 million to support de-mining work in parts of the north, including the locations of some of the most chilling scenes from Channel 4’s “No Fire Zone” documentary.
When I met President Rajapaksa, I pressed for credible, transparent and independent investigations into alleged war crimes, and I made it clear to him that if those investigations were not begun properly by March, I would use our position on the United Nations Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commissioner and call for an international inquiry. No one wants to return to the days of the Tamil Tigers and the disgusting and brutal things that they did. We should also show proper respect for the fact that Sri Lanka suffered almost three decades of bloody civil conflict and that recovery and reconciliation take time. But I made it clear to President Rajapaksa that he now has a real opportunity, through magnanimity and reform, to build a successful, inclusive and prosperous future for his country, working in partnership with the newly elected Chief Minister of the Northern Province. I very much hope that he seizes that opportunity.
Sri Lanka has suffered an appalling civil war—and then of course suffered all over again from the 2004 tsunami; but it is an extraordinary and beautiful country with enormous potential. Achieving that potential is all about reconciliation. It is about bringing justice, closure and healing to the country, which now has the chance, if it takes it, of a much brighter future. That will happen only by dealing with these issues and not ignoring them.
I had a choice at this summit: to stay away and allow President Rajapaksa to set the agenda he wanted, or to go and shape the agenda by advancing our interests with our Commonwealth partners and shining a spotlight on the international concerns about Sri Lanka. I chose to go and stand up for our values and to do all I could to advance them. I believe that that was the right decision for Sri Lanka, for the Commonwealth and for Britain. I commend this statement to the House.
Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab):I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. Let me start by saying that all our thoughts are with the people of the Philippines as they struggle to deal with the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. Thirteen million people have been affected by the typhoon, over 4 million of them children; nearly 3 million have lost their homes and, as the Prime Minister said, thousands are believed to have lost their lives, including a number of British citizens. The pictures we have seen are of terrible devastation. As so often happens when disaster strikes anywhere in the world, the British people have reacted by reaching deep into their pockets: so far, £35 million has been donated by the British public through the Disasters Emergency Committee. I also want to thank our forces on HMS Daring and HMS Illustrious for the work they are doing to help with disaster relief, and to commend the leadership of the Prime Minister and the International Development Secretary in providing £50 million in aid. We need to see the same from other countries, as the UN appeal has only a quarter of the funds it needs. Therefore, may I ask the Prime Minister what actions the Government are taking to encourage other countries to commit and free up resources as quickly as possible to the Philippines, so that this UN aid target is met? Serious damage sustained to airports, seaports and roads continues to present major logistical challenges for the emergency response, so may I ask the Prime Minister what steps are being taken to ensure that humanitarian relief is reaching those in very remote and isolated areas who have been worst affected by the typhoon?On the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—CHOGM—we welcome the communiqué’s conclusions on global threats and challenges, on programmes promoting Commonwealth collaboration and, of course, on development. At its best, the Commonwealth summit gathers together 53 countries seeking to promote common values, including democracy, accountability, the rule of law and human rights. I believe that this House is united in our abhorrence of terrorism and in recognising that what happened in Sri Lanka, particularly towards the end of the conflict in 2009, when tens of thousands of innocent civilians were murdered, totally fails the test of those values.It was for that reason that, at the 2009 Commonwealth summit, the last Labour Government blocked the plan for Sri Lanka to host the summit in 2011. As the current Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs:“The UK made clear…during the 2009 CHOGM…that we would be unable to support Sri Lanka’s bid to host in 2011.”
Those are the words of the Foreign Secretary. Delaying the hosting of the summit until 2013 was to allow time for the Sri Lankan Government to show progress on human rights. This has not been the case; indeed, things have got worse, not better. I say to the Prime Minister that when he attended the summit in 2011, he could have acted precisely as the Labour Government of 2009 had done and brought together a coalition to block Sri Lanka’s hosting the Commonwealth summit in 2013.
Let me ask the Prime Minister a series of questions. First, the Deputy Prime Minister said in May to this House that
“if the Sri Lankan Government continue to ignore their international commitments in the lead up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, of course there will be consequences.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 634.]
Can the Prime Minister tell us: what were those consequences for the Sri Lankan Government? Secondly, at the summit on Friday, the Prime Minister called for the Sri Lankan Government, as he said, to initiate an independent inquiry by March into allegations of war crimes. But by Sunday, President Rajapaksa had already appeared to reject this. The UN human rights commissioner called two years ago for an internationally-led inquiry, and we have supported that call. Is not the right thing to do now to build international support for that internationally-led process?
Thirdly, after this summit the Sri Lankan President will be chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years—that includes attending the Commonwealth games. Did the Prime Minister have any discussions at the summit with other countries about whether President Rajapaksa was an appropriate person to play that role? Finally, the Prime Minister of Canada and the Prime Minister of India decided not to attend this summit. In explaining his decision, Prime Minister Harper said:
“In the past two years we have…seen…a considerable worsening of the situation.”
Accepting the good intentions of the Prime Minister, were not Prime Ministers Harper and Singh right to believe that the attendance of Heads of Government at CHOGM would not achieve any improvement or prospects for improvement in human rights within Sri Lanka? Indeed, the summit communiqué failed even to reference the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka.
The legacy of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka is in contradiction to the good traditions of the Commonwealth. We believe we cannot let the matter rest. Britain must do what it can to ensure that the truth emerges about the crimes that were committed, so that there can be justice for those who have suffered so much. When the Government act to make that happen, we will support them.