Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in this debate today even though it is a very difficult situation. We hope it will end as soon as possible. I feel we should thank the NDP who asked for this special debate and the Speaker for granting the request. This is an emergency debate. Therefore, Parliament has recognized the urgent nature of the situation. I believe that this also exemplifies democracy in action. Above all, we should thank the Tamil communities in Quebec and Canada, who have made extraordinary, heartfelt representations here in Ottawa over the past two days.
Often at the end of a debate, we wonder if we have accomplished anything, if our efforts have made it possible to achieve results. Today, the minister's press release indicates a change in the Government of Canada's position. Two days ago, they would not ask for a ceasefire. Now, the Government of Canada is calling for just that. I believe that this is the result of the actions of people who met with all members of the House of Commons, in groups and individually. It must not end here; these efforts must be only the beginning.
I am not an expert on Sri Lanka. I first heard about this country and the Tamil situation from a young man from Toronto, who was part of a Katimavik group in my riding in Quebec. My community is quite homogeneous and almost entirely francophone. But this allowed me to gain some understanding of the life led by the inhabitants of Sri Lanka and to learn about its history, it geographical location next to India and the population movements between these two countries, the two realities and the historical evolution. I will not speak at length, for example, about the European conquests. We know that during the Portuguese and Dutch periods, there were almost separate administrations for the Tamils and for the other peoples of Sri Lanka. While under British rule, the two groups were united with historical consequences leading to today's situation.
In light of this, I will build on the speech by the spokesman for the official opposition, the Liberal Party. It is true that various possible models could develop. In every country in the world, the appropriate model must develop in a peaceful environment, as much as is possible. It could be a federal model or a model with two sovereign states existing side by side. However, we must first find strategies to allow us to peacefully take action. It is now an emergency situation. There is a war and it must be ended as quickly as possible. We know that the situation in Sri Lanka has become intolerable.
Fighting between government forces and the Tamil Tigers has intensified and threatens the lives of numerous civilians. They are not just threatening lives, they are currently killing many civilians. When a civilian population is held hostage in a struggle such as this, a solution must be found so that the killing can stop.
And so, the Canadian government's position today—demanding an immediate and complete ceasefire—should be applauded. We could have wished for this earlier, but it is confirmed and we must move ahead with it. We have to find a way to ensure that it is not only declared here but that the message is spread elsewhere, be it to the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the Commonwealth, as was mentioned earlier, and creates an awareness around the world that gets us to the point where these arguments are heard and get conclusive results.
Think about similar debates. Take South Africa, for instance. We must think about the measures proposed at that time to fight apartheid. There were international movements, the Commonwealth acted, Canada took a stance, many other countries in the world took a stance and, eventually, with peaceful determination, a solution was found.
And then there was the Irish situation. It was the same kind of very difficult situation, with a long, sad history. In the end, however, solutions were found.
In this case, the situation is still in a crisis period. It appears that neither side wants to put an end to the conflict. Ultimately, both sides have to want it to end. That is important.
Consider the call issued earlier to the Sri Lankan population and its diaspora. Communication must go both ways—for both groups—and it must be understood that, when all is said and done, there will be no winners unless a ceasefire is reached and new mechanisms are found to allow people to talk to each other.
In that sense, the Canadian government must pay even greater attention to the situation in Sri Lanka. We have seen this in how the many more voices have been heard over the past few days. We hope this continues and that the momentum is not lost because, otherwise, the debate will be over, people will return to their homes and there will be other pressing issues. This is a terrible situation that must absolutely be remedied.
We must demand an immediate ceasefire to ensure greater security for the civilian population. We must also ensure that international humanitarian organizations have full access to the conflict zones in order to be able to get aid to the civilian population. During a conflict, when humanitarian organizations can no longer guarantee the safety of their own members, it becomes very difficult to achieve any real humanitarian action on the ground. In that respect, both parties must absolutely be held accountable. We must find a way to make them accountable for their behaviour to the international community or the situation will not improve.
Canada must work within international organizations to find a lasting solution that works for both communities in Sri Lanka. We have no intention of blaming anyone or pointing any fingers. We simply want to find a way to restore peace temporarily and put an end to the current fighting.
This is not an easy situation to resolve. We know that Tamils represent 18% of the Sri Lankan population. They are Hindu, and they live in the northeastern part of the country. Relationships have varied depending on the occupying power—Great Britain or those that preceded it, for example. Apparently, the road to independence was a relatively peaceful one. The problem arose when the government chose to recognize only one official language and to create a centralized unitary government. That was a big mistake. Unfortunately, widespread anger erupted in violence. We are not here to judge; we are here to understand and to see what we can do to turn things around and find a more acceptable way of doing things. Over the past few years, both sides have radicalized and things are more difficult now than ever before.
In this context, military measures have proven unsuccessful. Both the government and the Tamil movement have taken major military action. Each side has its own history and reasons for the position it has taken. It will not be easy to help the two parties see eye to eye.
Unfortunately, the war between the two sides has killed 60,000 and caused 11,000 more to disappear. Is that not the most powerful argument we can present to both sides? We in Canada and Quebec must use that argument to tell the international community that the conflict must cease. We also have to address the fact that both sides have sizeable armed forces. In the past, both sides—the government and the opposition movement—have taken very violent action. Things have gotten so extreme that there is a real stalemate. That is the first thing we have to realize.
I want to come back to the statement the Secretary of State made earlier. It is very important that the Government of Canada make careful distinctions and explain the difference between the Tamil people, the movement and the groups that behave unacceptably. Not drawing these distinctions hinders the possibility of achieving peace once the complex web of situations has been untangled.
In 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the rebels signed a ceasefire agreement. The agreement provided for a prisoner exchange, and it was even reported at the time that the rebels had stopped calling for independence, preferring autonomy. But the two parties never managed to reach a lasting peace agreement.
In 2005, the new Sri Lankan president took a hard-line approach to the Tamil rebels. He rejected the possibility of granting autonomy to the eastern and northern regions of Sri Lanka. He stated that he was going to review the entire peace process. In 2006, the Tamil rebels pulled out of the peace talks, because the parties did not trust each other and the Tamil rebels believed the government was plotting against them. There were sporadic offensives and provocations on both sides.
Last year, the Sri Lankan government made major breakthroughs and regained control of part of the east coast. When we look at the situation on a map today, we can see that the concentration of 250,000 to 300,000 people in a very small area poses a huge problem. Today, there is heavy fighting, and because of the conflicts going on around the world, the international community may not have given this issue all the attention it deserves.
We are getting a reminder here today, a reminder being issued by this Parliament to the government, of course, but also to the Canadian people. This is a very important issue and we hope that similar steps are being taken in other parliaments, so that the momentum we see here today can continue to grow. All available tools must be used, whether through governments or parliamentary bodies of all kinds, perhaps even some that have direct or indirect connections to the Sri Lankan government. I think all available means must be used.
The humanitarian situation is what is most desperate. Since hostilities have resumed, the vast majority of the civilian population have been trapped between the army and the rebels. They are trying to leave the areas where the fighting is taking place, but the safe zones are getting smaller every day. This could be catastrophic. This situation is already tragic and the consequences are terrible. If some sort of action is not taken, such as a ceasefire, we could be faced with a humanitarian disaster.
According to International Committee of the Red Cross estimates, only half of the population managed to find refuge in the so-called safe zone, which is far too small to accommodate the entire population. For instance, it is estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 families have moved to the coast, in an area without potable water. One can only imagine what these human beings are going through.
The UN Secretary General has expressed concern about the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. He is afraid that civilians will be trapped between the army and the rebels, and this is what we are seeing. The UN Secretary General already appealed to the two parties to respect no-fire zones, safe areas and civilian infrastructure. But it takes days, weeks and sometimes even months before such appeals are heard. Unfortunately, as we have seen in conflict after conflict, the outcome is often catastrophic for civilian populations.
How do we go beyond words and get the two parties to take action? I believe that this evening's debate is one thing we must do as parliamentarians.
On January 30, the UN Secretary General asked the Sri Lankan authorities and the rebels to let civilians flee the combat zones in the north for safe zones, even though these zones are under government control.
We can see how difficult the situation can be.
The people are in their own part of the country, with their fellow citizens, and they are being asked to leave. Will there be an increase in the number of victims of this conflict? There is no easy solution to this problem.
According to the spokesperson for the humanitarian aid and emergency assistance coordinator in Sri Lanka, there are approximately 250,000 displaced civilians, who, in many cases, have been displaced 10 to 15 times in the past year. We can only imagine the sort of situation that forces people to move 10 to 15 times in a year, with no security in sight.
It has been one week since humanitarian convoys managed to reach the civilians affected by the conflict. The World Food Programme is continuing negotiations with the Sri Lankan government with a view to having it authorize a break in the fighting so that humanitarian convoys can reach the civilians caught between the two sides.
It is clear that the conflict is severe. Everyone here agrees on that. One often feels powerless in Parliament; one might wonder whether one's words have the power to make things happen. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I think that things have happened in Ottawa because of what people have said. We have to keep going in that direction. It is our responsibility as parliamentarians to use every democratic tool at our disposal to bring an end to this conflict as soon as possible.
When we talk about globalization, we often speak in economic terms, but we also have to speak in humanitarian and human terms. We can assess how effective our world and our systems are by looking at how we put an end to these conflicts. When a conflict ends and peace returns, that is when we can be satisfied with the results.
I will conclude with an example. Last summer, I went to Israel. I went to a café in Jerusalem, and I asked the server what the state of Israel wanted most. He told me that the priority was achieving peace. That reality, as true as it was in that context, holds true for Sri Lanka as well. I hope that the work we have done here tonight will give the government what it needs to move forward. I hope that it will be even more proactive in the international community. We have to do our part to put a stop to the killing and fighting and to reduce civilian casualties. When it comes to civilian casualties, the situation is really intolerable.