Britain calls for urgent ceasefire in Sri Lanka

By P.K. Balachandran, IANS

Colombo : Britain has called for an urgent ceasefire in Sri Lanka to enable the country to find a negotiated political solution to the ethnic conflict.

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“A new ceasefire must be constructed as quickly as possible if we are to make progress,” Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells told the British parliament Thursday.

“The end of the ceasefire agreement is confirmation that we have entered a dangerous new phase in Sri Lanka,” Howells told the House of Commons at the end of a debate on the developing situation in Sri Lanka.

He described the conflict in Sri Lanka as “appalling” and regretted Colombo’s unilateral abrogation of the six-year-old “internationally-backed” and Norway-brokered truce pact Jan 3.

“The ceasefire agreement was not perfect but (it was) a basis for peace and moving forward,” he said, according to the text of the speech released by the British High Commission in Colombo Friday.

Howells admitted that at the present moment, there was “little substance around which to base negotiations” but he stressed that the international community “must clearly continue to stay engaged, stop the violence and help the Sri Lankan government build a credible environment for a sustainable peace process”.

“The withdrawal of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) can only add to the deep concern about the Human Rights and humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka,” he said.

He emphasized that the Sri Lankan government, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and a breakaway pro-government armed group, the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) led by Karuna, all shared responsibility for the worsening human rights situation in the island.

“There is an urgent need to address the culture of impunity that persists,” Howells said.

“The case for an expanded presence and mandate in Sri Lanka for the UN High Commission for Human Rights can only be stronger following the departure of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission,” he said.

The Sri Lankan government has been resisting tooth and nail the establishment of an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the island saying that it is unwarranted and will abridge the sovereignty of the country.

“Having chosen to end the ceasefire, the Sri Lankan government has a clear responsibility to live up to their commitment to address the grievances of the Tamil people,” the British minister said.

It was important for the government to win the “trust and confidence” of the Tamil people in regard to finding a peaceful and just solution for their problems within a united Sri Lanka, he added.

Turning to the LTTE, Howells said that it should change, give up violence, and become democratic in a credible way. He asked the influential Tamil Diaspora to help find a solution within Sri Lanka and abjure thoughts of partitioning Sri Lanka because partitioning had only led to massive bloodshed in other parts of the world.

In this connection, he recalled the carnage that followed the division of India in 1947 and Pakistan in 1971.

On the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), which Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa had set up to draft a devolution package, Howells said that the British government thought it “important” that the recommendations of the APRC went “beyond the current constitutional provisions to protect minority rights”.

“The international community will be watching carefully and we do not want to see another false dawn,” he said.

The British warning assumes significance in the light of reports that the APRC, under pressure from Rajapaksa, is preparing to dilute its draft recommendations to suit his plan not to go beyond the existing provisions in the Sri Lankan constitution, in other words, not to go beyond the 13th amendment to the constitution carried out in the late 1980s.

The APRC is to submit its recommendations to Rajapaksa Jan 23.

On what Britain planned to do in regard to Sri Lanka, concretely, minister Howells said that it would not supply arms or any dual use equipment. It would indulge in “quiet” diplomacy, interact with all sections of Sri Lankan society and offer to help find a devolution package using its own experience in tackling the political problem in Northern Ireland.