Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my hon. colleague from Oak Ridges—Markham.
Since the peace process was abandoned and the humanitarian and human rights situation in Sri Lanka deteriorated, Canada has made a very active and lasting commitment to that country. Today, Sri Lanka celebrates the 61st anniversary of its independence.
To all the citizens of Sri Lanka, we would like to express our wishes for a future of peace and prosperity.
However, today is also yet another day of an unfolding tragedy. We are witnessing another truly tragic chapter in the long-standing civil conflict that has ravaged Sri Lanka and causes great concern to Canadians.
That is why today, Canada calls upon the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to declare and to honour an immediate ceasefire to allow full, safe and unhindered access, the evacuation of the sick and wounded and the delivery of much needed humanitarian assistance to civilians.
The Minister of International Cooperation also announced today that Canada would provide up to $3 million in humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka to help people affected by the current events. This funding will go to organizations like the Red Cross, World Vision, Médecins Sans Frontières and CARE Canada that have the capacity to deliver help on the ground. We continue to engage with Sri Lanka and to monitor the situation very closely.
For over two decades, as colleagues in the House have mentioned, a civil war has raged in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This horrific conflict is responsible for an estimated 70,000 deaths to date, mostly civilians, and has induced an estimated 460,000 internally displaced people. Others have fled the country as refugees.
Canada has welcomed to our shores over 200,000 Sri Lankans, many of whom arrived as asylum seekers in the eighties and nineties, seeking refuge from this conflict.
In January of 2008, the government of Sri Lanka officially abrogated the 2002 ceasefire agreement, marking a dangerous turn in the long-running conflict. After more than a year of heavy fighting, in January of 2009, the government of Sri Lanka captured the last remaining bastions controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil. These advances by the Sri Lankan army, coupled with the LTTE's decision to restrict the movement of civilians out of the conflict area, have resulted in mounting civilian casualties. Approximately 250,000 to 300,000 internally displaced people were trapped in the conflict area.
International efforts to persuade the government of Sri Lanka to allow full humanitarian access and to persuade the LTTE to allow civilians freedom of movement in the conflict area have failed. There remains probably only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all territory in the north and will subsequently retreat into the jungles and outlying villages, but at what additional cost to human life?
What is the future that the government of Sri Lanka envisages coming out of this face of their conflict? What does the LTTE wish to obtain by continuing this struggle?
Canada has voiced strong concerns about the recent developments in the conflict, particularly its impact on civilians, including humanitarian workers and human rights defenders, and the increasing attacks on independent journalists. Canada has taken action at the highest levels.
On January 28, I issued a public statement expressing Canada's deep concern about the increasing number of civilian casualties and the humanitarian situation. I called on the parties to allow full, safe and unhindered access for humanitarian workers and to ensure the safe and voluntary movement of civilians from combat zones. I also indicated that Canada is concerned about the increase in attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka and urges the government of that country to conduct open and independent investigations into all these attacks.
On February 2, I called the Minister of Foreign Affairs to directly express these concerns.
Today, I issued another public statement:
Canada calls for the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to declare and honour an immediate ceasefire to allow full, safe and unhindered access; the evacuation of the sick and wounded; and the delivery of much-needed humanitarian assistance to civilians.
Canada endorses the statement released yesterday by the co-chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference on Reconstruction and Development of Sri Lanka (Norway, Japan, the United States and the European Union). The statement proposes conditions to prevent further civilian casualties and human suffering and to achieve a just and lasting political solution.
Furthermore, on February 3, my officials called in the High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to Canada to emphasize Canada's concerns. Our officials in Colombo have been highly engaged on these troubling developments for many months and, in particular, over these critical past five days.
Our high commissioner in Colombo has engaged the Sri Lankan leadership at the highest levels to register Canada's grave concern over the safety of civilians in both the safety zone and the LTTE-controlled area in general and urged restraint in the conduct of military operations.
As well, we have urged increased attempts to communicate with both civilians and the LTTE, encouraging the former to leave and the latter to surrender.
We have argued, further, that every effort should be made to allow the ICRC, the United Nations and international aid agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance and that they be allowed to establish relief centres beyond the lines to provide support and relief to civilians to relocate to this area. Canada has stated that the government of Sri Lanka had unilaterally established the safe zone, had directed the ICRC, UN and civilians to go there and the government was, therefore, responsible for their safety and it was unacceptable for the Sri Lankan army to be firing into the area, even for counter-bombardment purposes.
Our high commissioner has and will continue to regularly meet and consult with the heads of mission of like-minded countries, in particular, the co-chairs of the peace process, to concert our efforts for maximum effectiveness.
Our high commission has and will remain in regular contact with leaders of international organizations engaged in humanitarian relief operations in Sri Lanka to ensure we have the best possible understanding of the challenges being faced.
With respect to the humanitarian issues, Canada has repeatedly raised its concern about limitations on humanitarian access with the government of Sri Lanka. Canada has raised these concerns in concert with like-minded countries. My senior officials raised these issues, specifically, in the bilateral meeting with the Sri Lankan foreign secretary in Ottawa in September 2008.
Canada will continue to voice our concerns at the highest levels to protect and provide safe passage of the IDPs.
The humanitarian rights situation in Sri Lanka has been alarming for some time. There have been unlawful killings by government agents, politically-motivated killings by paramilitary forces and the LTTE disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention of Tamils accused of being LTTE supporters, torture, restrictions on freedom of movement and the recruitment of child soldiers by the LTTE.
I know my hon. colleague will be able to complete these messages, but we are extremely concerned.
In closing, I want to reassure my colleagues that Canada remains ready to help the various parties reach such a solution and turn the page on this tragic chapter in Sri Lankan history.