House of Commons Hansard #8 of the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was lanka.


Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

10:20 p.m.


Jim Karygiannis Liberal Scarborough—Agincourt, ON

Mr. Speaker, we have talked among ourselves, we have heard from our constituents all this week and more people want voice their concerns and speak to us.

I, for one, would love to hear from them. They can call the lobby phone at 613-996-7441. I would love to hear from them and make them part of this debate for the next hour and a half.

I am sure my colleague will want me to repeat this number, which is 613-996-7441. They can call us and tell us what they think. The can speak to the ministers, speak to the members of Parliament and tell us what they think we should do.

Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

10:20 p.m.


Borys Wrzesnewskyj Liberal Etobicoke Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member not just for his intervention, but for his continuous work for many years on this file.

I, once again, would like to encourage all our colleagues on the government benches to take the time to speak with their constituents, to speak with the thousands of Tamil Canadians who they represent so they can understand the anguish, the horror of what is taking place in Sri Lanka.

I am sure once they speak with Tamil Canadians about the current situation, they will find it within their hearts to speak with the Prime Minister, with their colleagues, to convince him that we must do more, that we must engage our diplomats and have them engage their colleagues in the Commonwealth, at the UN and that we must do more than the $3 million announced today.

Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

10:25 p.m.


Peter Julian NDP Burnaby—New Westminster, BC

Mr. Speaker,

[Member spoke in Tamil]


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.

Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

10:45 p.m.


Gerard Kennedy Liberal Parkdale—High Park, ON

Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the members for Brampton West and Scarborough—Rouge River.

I rise in this chamber a little reluctantly because I know there are expectant eyes on us today. What I wanted to stay here for and hear the debate was mainly to respond to them and to some of the faces I saw campaigning and knocking on doors in my riding and what happened from time to time when someone would say that I had to do something about what was going on in Sri Lanka. Someone would explain some part of something that was very difficult to comprehend in terms of what was happening to a member of an immediate family.

We stand in this chamber saying that we are having an emergency debate and I cannot imagine what the people who have experienced what has been going on Sri Lanka for months or years in terms of the most recent conflict but for years in terms of the turmoil must be thinking it takes to define an emergency for the hon. members of the House and how sincere this debate is tonight in that respect.

The test for us certainly has to be that an emergency debate covers an emergency that touches Canadian principles of when we should start to be very concerned. I do not have the knowledge that some of the other people do of the situation on the ground but I can tell the House that Canadian principles would say that we should have had an emergency debate long before tonight.

What I say to that is not to celebrate some kind of superiority in contrast to that of the government but to reflect to the people whose eyes are on us tonight how much work we need to do to be better as Canadians.

We used to have a reflex to be among the first people to understand when there was a meaningful intervention to be made. It was made by people in this chamber, some of whom still have seats here, with much more urgency and much more effectiveness, working with bands of nations and not for show, not to make people feel comfortable that their voices were finally reflected here, but actually to get something done.

I say to people tonight that we need to do better. We need to have some sense of the good fortune that we have here. I say to some of the eyes that are upon us, it is not reasonable to expect that this chamber, the parties in it and the members in it, can take sides per se. Nor can we say to the considerable Tamil community in Canada that we want anyone here to take sides in the sense of being part of conflicts. Conflicts cannot come to Canada.

However, what can come here and what every citizen is entitled to with the same respect as any other, no matter when they joined our population, is a sharpened sense on the part of Canada of understanding where those needs are.

We have the population to inform us, to make us sophisticated, to make us capable of intervening and understanding far ahead of most of the nations on earth and we failed that test. It is right for the members of that community, on that basis as Canadian citizens, to come here looking for redress, looking for some real answers in what is going forward, looking for, yes, as people have said, more by way of aid but hopefully something different than that.

For those people who might be observing this debate and wondering what this has to so with conditions in Canada, I can assure them that we would not be having this debate here tonight if things did not happen in terms of 9/11, in terms of the reactions of our country to the threat and real fear that people started to feel. What that did was change some of the terms under which we injected ourselves into international dialogue and debate. It made us, without judgment of the people opposite, more conservative.

We made a mistake. We loss touch with our Canadian citizenry. We had a character test and we did not do well because we took a gross generality that somehow every liberation group, everybody rising up, we should stand back and watch them be attacked with military force.

A previous generation of Canadians thought differently. Lester Pearson thought differently. Other Canadians increasingly found ways to be imaginative, to be creative and to find solutions. Some Canadians with seats in this House have tried that. We need to try more. We need to be in dialogue with Canadians. They need to understand our principles of peace, of intervention, of creativity and of working multilaterally that can be put to work to find solutions.

The people whose eyes are on us tonight should expect us not just to finish this debate but to move forward with some kind of new purpose and intention, with some of the horror and some of the difficulty people have experienced translated into something better in terms of the exercise of Canadian principles. They have a right to expect that. I look forward to contributing.

Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

10:50 p.m.


Borys Wrzesnewskyj Liberal Etobicoke Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, it seems incomprehensible that up until this point the Prime Minister has, as of yet, not called in the high commissioner for Sri Lanka to explain to him, in the sternest language, that what is taking place is unacceptable. It seems incomprehensible that the Minister of Foreign Affairs has not called his counterparts in the Commonwealth. It is incomprehensible that the Prime Minister has not instructed his diplomats at the UN to raise this issue.

Does the hon. member have any explanation as to why the government continues to be silent on this file?

Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

10:50 p.m.


Gerard Kennedy Liberal Parkdale—High Park, ON

Mr. Speaker, the easy answer is that there is no real good explanation.

However, I think we should all reflect a little bit. If we want a better standard for the House, why was it easy for the government not to respond on April 23 of last year when the member for Toronto Centre stood up in the House and said that we had an incipient emergency. How is that possible?

It is possible to arm's-length ourselves, not just that government and that Prime Minister but ourselves from a humanitarian crisis by some of the excuses we have been using. We just need to invoke the word “terrorism” and it gives us a shield, and it is wrong. It is a failure on our part.

I invite members opposite, as we have invited them on economic conditions and other things, to adopt a Canadian standard. It is not an exercise in our personal ideologies. It is an exercise in developing where Canada is going to go. By putting that shield around it we make it harder to actually reckon with those realities and we have become less Canadian as a result.

Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

10:50 p.m.


Derek Lee Liberal Scarborough—Rouge River, ON

Mr. Speaker, we have had a good debate tonight in this emergency debate. I have a couple of things that I want to add to it.

I think there has been a kind of a victory here today in Ottawa. A lot of Canadians over the last few days have been demonstrating publicly in Canada to bring attention to this issue of civilians at risk in Sri Lanka. They have done it peacefully. Today they have come to Ottawa in large numbers and brought that issue to their Parliament and I would have to say they have successfully done that. Thanks to the Speaker and the seven members of Parliament who asked for the emergency debate today, that issue was actually put on the floor of the House.

I think we will succeed here as Canadians in shining a light on this very serious situation in Sri Lanka. The government of Sri Lanka may not like it. It may think that we are meddling, but this is a very serious human rights issue and I think we have every right, representing Canadians, to shine a light on the death, destruction and displacement now taking place in Sri Lanka as the government of Sri Lanka pursues its, arguably, legitimate military objectives, but not in a way that is consistent with our view of human rights.

I myself have had the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka, as have other members in the House. We are grateful for that. It is a beautiful place, scarred by this war.

I sent a letter on this issue to the high commissioner for Sri Lanka last November. I have not had a reply yet. I am sure in the fullness of time, he will grace us with a reply.

I held a forum in my riding less than a year ago involving Sri Lankan Canadians, those of Tamil origin, Sinhalese origin and the other minorities. It was a successful forum in which all those Canadians participated and discussed frankly these issues in Sri Lanka.

The second thing I want to say is regarding the battle that is going on there now, the military conflict. It might end the current phase of whatever is happening now, and it might even end the war, but it will not end the struggle in Sri Lanka for fairness, for equal rights and for respect for the minorities there. This struggle will always be there until it is achieved by the people together. Whether or not the violence ends now, sooner or later that sad but beautiful island must address the pressing issues of reconstruction, reconciliation and political accommodation. These are things that must happen in Sri Lanka. Whether one more drop of blood is shed there or not, or if more or less blood is shed, those goals and objectives, that reconciliation, must happen. It is not worth more bloodshed and suffering. Right now we look at the civilians there and we see the suffering. More bloodshed will not change any of that. It will not get us to those goals.

The debate in this House tonight has clearly shone a light on this very dire humanitarian situation. We have successfully done it as Canadians. We here in the House, if I take the sense of all of the speeches and sentiments expressed here tonight, are calling upon the government of Sri Lanka to accept and agree to engineer a ceasefire to protect innocent civilians and to begin the work of building an equitable peace in Sri Lanka.

Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

10:55 p.m.


Andrew Kania Liberal Brampton West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to compliment all of my hon. colleagues from all parties who took the time to be here to show their commitment to this issue.

What really matters is finding a permanent solution. To get there, we have to understand the history of this conflict. It started principally because the minority in that country were not being treated fairly. They were not allowed to attend universities on the same basis. Their language was being restricted. They were told what religion was the official religion of the country. These are things that obviously were unacceptable, that Canadians would not accept, and that they should not have to accept.

Political solutions were tried, but they failed and eventually violence came to be. That was wrong. That was the practical result of grievances not being addressed. Once again, that was wrong.

If the grievances are not addressed on a permanent basis now, history could repeat itself. Even if this conflict ends and the Tamils of the north are defeated, it does not mean the conflict will end. It could be extended. There could be another 37 years of another type of conflict, even on a more limited basis. We need a permanent solution. How do we get there?

I am happy that the government brought forward its position today. It should have happened a long time ago. It could have anticipated this problem back in 2008 when the government essentially said that the ceasefire was over. Something should have been done at that point. We should have sent somebody in, negotiated and stopped it when it first started. We should have done something at that stage. It did not happen. It is better late than never, but it is very late.

In terms of helping the people now, we have to ensure that the $3 million that is being committed actually reaches the people. Everybody on all sides of the House has heard the stories about aid that has been stopped either by the government or by the Tamil Tigers. It does not matter who did it. All that matters at this stage is that the money gets through to help the people.

Essentially there is a group of people, roughly the same size as the population of Hamilton, who are in a war zone and are being fired on. We need to help them. Money is only part of it. We need to get a Canadian representative, perhaps the Canadian high commissioner, but it does not even matter who, to stop it, to help negotiate and try to achieve something constructive.

If that does not happen, the next step is to put increased pressure on them. Why not, even for a short period of time, recall the Canadian high commissioner? We must make a statement that does something to pressure other countries of the world and show that Canada has taken a stand. There could be trade sanctions. We must do something to let them know that it is not just words. Respectfully, this statement today unto itself is just words. We need to do more.

The point behind all of this is that we must look for a constructive permanent solution. I would like the government to develop immediately a policy of financial assistance and to do more to try to end the conflict, but thereafter there should be a leadership role, as we used to have as peacekeepers, in order to build a permanent solution there, such as a political structure that treats the minority fairly so that we end the conflict finally, not just on a short-term temporary measure.

Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

February 4th, 2009 / 11 p.m.


Paul Calandra Conservative Oak Ridges—Markham, ON

Mr. Speaker, I wonder if the hon. member might comment on what specific concerns he might have with the agencies that we have selected to carry out the aid to the people of Sri Lanka in the hardest hit areas, specifically the International Committee of the Red Cross, Oxfam Canada, Médecins Sans Frontières, Care Canada and World Vision.

Can the member shine some light on any specific issues that he has with these organizations? Are there any specific concerns? Why does the member not have confidence in these organizations to actually get the aid to the people who need it in the areas that are affected?

Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

11 p.m.


Andrew Kania Liberal Brampton West, ON

Mr. Speaker, the point is not whether one supports or does not support other organizations. They are all worthwhile organizations. The point is to help the 300,000 people who are trapped, as fast as possible and in the best possible manner, and to construct a permanent solution.

When Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize, he did not say to look to other organizations and maybe they can do it. He did it. I want Canada to take a lead role right now to help these people, without excuses that other people could not get the job done.

Situation in Sri LankaEmergency Debate

11 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

There being no further members rising for debate, I declare the motion carried. Accordingly, this House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(Motion agreed to)

(The House adjourned at 11:05 p.m.)