Sri Lanka

– in the House of Commons at 1:58 pm on 18 March 2021.

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Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 1:58, 18 March 2021

It may be helpful to inform the House that this debate is likely to run until about 3.45 pm.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 2:02, 18 March 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
notes with concern the reports of a systematic attack in Sri Lanka on democratic governance, the rule of law and human rights including renewed discrimination against the Tamil and Muslim communities;
is profoundly concerned that the Sri Lankan Government has refused to investigate accusations of war crimes including by key members of the current government and has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1; welcomes the significant leadership role played by successive UK Governments at the Human Rights Council and urges the Government to provide clear policy direction and leadership to ensure a new substantive resolution is passed at the upcoming Council session in March 2021 that will enable continued monitoring by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and mandate a mechanism to gather, preserve and analyse evidence of violations for future investigations and prosecutions;
and calls upon the Government to develop a consistent and coherent policy to assist the Sri Lankan people through its trade, investment and aid programmes, and in its diplomatic and military relations.

I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for approving this debate and Ed Davey and Elliot Colburn for co-sponsoring it. I proudly declare my interest as the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils. For 12 long years since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, I have stood alongside my Tamil constituents on the road to truth, justice and accountability. Those 12 years have presented them with so many challenges, so little progress and so much pain. The images of the final days of the civil war are scarred on my memory. No one who saw them could possibly forget them, and the mass violation of human rights left a stain of injustice on Sri Lanka. The world looked away, but today we will not.

I shall introduce today’s debate by running through a decade-long quest for justice. I will continue with the last UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka—a resolution that the country itself disappointingly withdrew from—and I will finish by highlighting the urgent need to strengthen the new resolution on the table in Geneva, because the measure of success for global Britain comes not just in rhetoric but in the actions that we take on the international stage, particularly in the face of international justice.

But first, the history. In 2009, in the final few months of Sri Lanka’s civil war, tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives. We all remember the horror of the Mullivaikkal massacre, the most recent peak of genocidal killings against the Tamil people committed by the Sri Lankan state. The current Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was President and his brother Gotabaya, the current President, was Defence Secretary. They are the present-day link to the atrocities of the past. The bombing of the Government-designated no-fire zone, where Tamil civilians took refuge, is as utterly horrifying today as it was 12 years ago, as are the findings of experts that Government forces even systematically shelled hospitals.

Amnesty International estimates that, since the 1980s, there have been at least 60,000 and as many as 100,000 cases of enforced disappearance in Sri Lanka, the vast majority from the Tamil community. These figures illustrate the scale of the suffering, the uncertainty surrounding the facts and the urgent need for resolution. Members will have heard of the horror of rape, torture and murder used during the civil war, the stories of the mass violation of women’s rights—stories that brought the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to urge investigations into sexual violence. They are stories we could never forget, but, to this day, no one has been held accountable for international crimes that have led many to accuse the Sri Lankan Government of genocide against the Tamil community.

The pursuit of justice must now move decisively forward with more sincerity from the international community. The Human Rights Council meeting happening now provides the perfect opportunity. Before turning to today’s resolution, it is important to consider the resolution that came before. Passed in 2015, with the consensus of Sri Lanka, it promised the establishment of a process of justice, accountability, reform and reconciliation, but six years on, Sri Lanka has made it clear that it has absolutely no intention of pursuing prosecutions or legal redress for war crimes. Its withdrawal from the process altogether could not have spelled this out more clearly. The little progress made has been rolled right back. The ongoing Human Rights Council meeting is our chance to finally secure progress, making it clear that a country cannot fail to fulfil international commitments. To do so risks undermining the credibility of the council as a mechanism of accountability.

I turn to the current resolution, to which the UK is a penholder. Disappointingly, it falls short. First, there is no recommendation to pursue criminal accountability by referral to the International Criminal Court. I could barely believe my eyes reading the Government’s reasoning, citing “insufficient…Security Council support”. Who are we to cast the veto for China or Russia before they have done so themselves? Our role on the international stage must be to send the loudest message that impunity will not be tolerated, not to pre-empt the inaction of other nations.

Secondly, there is a clear need for an international, impartial and independent mechanism to investigate the most serious international crimes. The Minister may point to resolution operative paragraph 6, but can he confirm whether preparation of files to facilitate criminal proceedings will be carried out in accordance with international criminal law standards? The resolution must be absolutely clear about the requirement to establish a IIIM to investigate allegations of war crimes, secure evidence, identify perpetrators and prosecute those responsible. The High Commissioner for Human Rights should continue to monitor and report on human rights in Sri Lanka, providing recommendations to ensure justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators. To rely, as the Foreign Office argues, on the Sri Lankan Government to investigate and prosecute all allegations of gross human rights violations is simply unrealistic, falling far short of our moral responsibility.

Thirdly, why have we not applied sanctions against those credibly accused of gross human rights violations? The US has designated General Silva and his immediate family over his role in extrajudicial killing of Tamils. It is an immediate step that we could take and the Minister cannot point to a veto as an excuse for our inaction. We must ensure a coherent approach to aid, trade and diplomatic and military engagement with Sri Lanka, consistent with the international obligations to human rights. That is long overdue.

Let me turn to the present day. Human rights are under attack in Sri Lanka again, with President Rajapaksa waging a campaign of war. Many of those who face serious wartime abuse allegations have been appointed to senior Government positions. Members of the Rajapaksa family hold nine ministerial roles, including seven Cabinet posts, and manage almost a quarter of the budget. It is total control. President Rajapaksa even pardoned one of the few members of the security forces to be convicted of human rights violations, Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake. That was unsurprising, given his stated determination to protect so-called war heroes during the presidential campaign.

The intimidation is perhaps best demonstrated by the demolition of the Mullivaikkal memorial at Jaffna University in January. That same month, the damning report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that Sri Lanka was on an

“alarming path towards recurrence of grave human rights violations”,

and called on the UN Human Rights Council to take strong action to promote accountability and reconciliation.

This is not just about the human rights of Tamils: the Rajapaksa Government even insisted on the forced cremation of those who died from coronavirus, thereby disregarding the religious beliefs of the Christian and Muslim communities in the country. The ongoing attack on human rights is undeniable. As we are a penholder to the UN resolution, the world will watch closely the strength of our response.

I look around the Chamber and, unless I am mistaken, I cannot see the Foreign Secretary. Perhaps I should not be surprised; he repeatedly declined to meet the APPG for Tamils in the build-up to the UN Human Rights Council meeting. I ask the Minister, with all due respect: where is the Foreign Secretary? The Foreign Secretary under the Labour Government personally flew to Sri Lanka at the end of the civil war to press for a ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary’s absence not only today but in the months leading up to the Human Rights Council meeting will be felt strongly by the Tamil community.

Before I conclude, let me turn to the Tamil community. There are half a million Tamils throughout the UK. They are a hard-working, respectful and dedicated community who have my utmost respect. We owe a debt of thanks to the huge number of Tamils who are working tirelessly on the frontline of our NHS. I sincerely thank them and say loud and clear that however long the road to reconciliation may still be, we will keep fighting for justice and human rights until they are achieved.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 2:12, 18 March 2021

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling this debate and my constituency neighbour, Siobhain McDonagh, for opening it so well.

As chair of the APPG for Tamils, who are the largest ethnic minority group in Carshalton and Wallington, I am especially pleased to speak in this debate to urge the Government to do all they can to secure peace and accountability in Sri Lanka. I thank colleagues from all parties who have worked with me on the APPG this past year, and the Tamils from Carshalton and Wallington, the United Kingdom and around the world who have been in touch with us and shared their stories.

In the short time I have, which is not nearly enough to cover everything, I will try to get straight to the point. Six years ago, the UK Government paved the way in addressing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and successfully pushed for UN resolutions to pursue accountability and reconciliation on the island. The Sri Lankan Government at the time signed up to those UN resolutions, but since then Sri Lanka has sadly withdrawn its support for them, and the evidence collected by the APPG in its many evidence sessions this past year have painted a very worrying picture of the situation on the ground.

As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden outlined, recent infringements on human rights have been on the rise. Those have included the forced cremations of covid-19 victims, regardless of their religious beliefs, causing grief and anguish to Sri Lankan Christians, Muslims and others. The police criminal investigation department has been repeatedly visiting members of advocacy groups on the island who are campaigning for justice following the disappearance of their family members during the war.

The terrorism investigation department has been increasing state surveillance culture, especially in the north, Tamil-populated part of the island. The state-supported demolition of a Tamil memorial monument at Jaffna University and attempts to prevent Tamil memorial events from taking place at all have been causing anguish among the community, occupying private land in the name of security and so much more.

It is clear that there is no scope at the present time for a domestic accountability mechanism in Sri Lanka, so the UK must once again demonstrate its global leadership on this issue and support an international accountability mechanism. The initial zero draft resolution published by the UK in February and presented to the UN Human Rights Council fell well short of providing the action that was needed.

After efforts from Tamils in the UK and abroad, campaign groups and the APPG, subsequent drafts of the resolution have included a requirement to collect evidence on human rights abuses, rather than just looking at what is already there, and acknowledged for the first time that Tamils have been particularly victim to worsening human rights abuses on the island. I welcome those changes, but I urge the FCDO to listen to the calls we are making today.

So much more needs to be done, so we must act now, before the conclusion of the UNHRC session at the end of the month, to ensure that there is a true international accountability mechanism in place. Only then can we hope to bring about truth, justice, reconciliation and accountability for all in Sri Lanka, as well as for the Tamil diaspora—not just in Carshalton and Wallington, but across the world.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon 2:16, 18 March 2021

I start by highlighting my chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s relationship with the rest of the world has been strongly shaped since the end of the conflict by allegations that the army committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the civil war.

A UN panel of experts reported in April 2011 that there were credible allegations of those crimes by both Government and Tamil Tiger forces. It remains my opinion that both sides were at fault. However, I regret the Government of Sri Lanka’s decision to withdraw support for UNHRC resolution 30/1 and note that previous domestic initiatives have failed to deliver meaningful accountability. I therefore urge the Sri Lankan Government to engage in a process that has the confidence of all on the island.

But it would be remiss to state that the current Sri Lankan Government have failed to act. The Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations are to be retained and strengthened, so that communities may build trust. It will be good to see reform of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and progress on the release of political prisoners. We must act as a critical friend to the country. We need to help strengthen democratic institutions, and we must trust Sri Lanka to develop its own judicial and non-judicial mechanisms.

Since the end of the conflict, reconciliation has occurred between Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities. People are able to live wherever they wish. They benefit from state resources, such as free education and health services. Private land that was occupied by the military has been returned, former conflict areas have been de-mined with assistance from the United Kingdom, and more than 12,000 ex-LTTELiberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—cadres have been rehabilitated. There is a greater connectivity throughout the island and globally, and all of this has transformed the business sector and the lives of everyone in the country.

But we should remember that resolution and accountability are not a panacea for addressing underlying tensions. Questions about how to address the legacy of the Sri Lankan conflict must be answered: what kind of justice is attainable? How should the victims of violations be treated in the process? What might punishment look like, and how can justice play a constructive role in forging a lasting peace?

Draft legislation for a truth and reconciliation commission had been prepared under the previous Sri Lankan Government, and that could be revisited. If it gains universal support in Sri Lanka, truth seeking among all stakeholders, including the diaspora in many of our communities and constituencies, could make a lasting difference. When these issues have been resolved, a sustainable and acceptable peace will endure. Given the good will between our two countries, I ask the Minister: how can the UK help to facilitate a TRC mechanism that is unique to the needs of Sri Lanka?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

It may help those who are participating, both remotely and physically, to know that the wind-ups will begin no later than 3.21 pm. Anne McLaughlin will have six minutes, both Stephen Kinnock and Nigel Adams will have eight minutes, and then we will go back over to Siobhain McDonagh for two minutes at the very end. I hope that is useful.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central 2:20, 18 March 2021

I thank my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh for her warm and powerful opening of the debate, and for securing it along with Elliot Colburn and Ed Davey.

Ambihai Selvakumar, also known lovingly as Ambi, is a director of the International Centre for the Prevention of Genocide. Ambi was on hunger strike recently in Kenton in Brent, in order to highlight the current injustices in Sri Lanka. In her own words, Ambi’s campaign is a demand for

“justice for the genocide of Tamils carried out by the Sri Lankan state.”

Ambi’s protest sparked a number of solidarity hunger strikes across the north-east.

When he gets to his feet, I hope the Minister will address Ambi’s four demands. The first is to recommend to the United Nations Security Council and the UN General Assembly that Sri Lanka be referred to the International Criminal Court and to take steps to effectively investigate charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The second is to establish an international independent investigative mechanism akin to those established for Syria and Myanmar, which mandate that the evidence of international crimes and human rights violations be collected and prepared for criminal prosecutions. She also states that a meaningful independent investigation must also have a strict timeframe.

The third recommendation is to mandate the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to appoint a special rapporteur to continue to monitor Sri Lanka for ongoing violations and to have an on-field presence in Sri Lanka. The last recommendation is for a UN-monitored referendum to determine the aspirations of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, on the basis that the north-east of Sri Lanka is the traditional Tamil homeland, and the Tamils have a right to self-determination. I hope that the Minister will address Ambi’s demands when he gets to his feet.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 2:22, 18 March 2021

I declare an interest: in October 2020, the British Tamil Conservatives made a donation to the Harlow Constituency Conservative Association.

It is estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 civilians were killed in the final five months of the Sri Lankan conflict. At the end of the war, in 2009, some 280,000 Tamils remained incarcerated for years in camps surrounded by barbed wire, with thousands of enforced or involuntarily disappearances. Their relatives continue to search for their whereabouts and for justice. Twelve years on from the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, little progress has been made to secure justice and autonomy for the Tamil community. Still there is no real accountability.

The Sri Lankan state continues to target the Tamil people in all aspects of their lives through surveillance, denying them their livelihoods, physical security, education, economic security, culture, healthcare, freedom of expression and freedom of worship. In February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a report expressing deep concern at the situation in Sri Lanka. She said that there are

“clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations”.

What action are the Government taking to prevent future cycles of violence and to promote autonomy for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, as forecast in the latest UN report? In 2014, the UK led the international efforts that successfully passed a key resolution in the UN Human Rights Council to promote accountability, justice and reconciliation. In 2015, Sri Lanka agreed to co-sponsor a resolution to promote accountability, justice and reconciliation, but despite that pledge and repeated extensions to their deadlines by the UN Human Rights Council members, successive Sri Lankan Governments have delayed and obfuscated at every turn. In 2019 Sri Lanka unilaterally withdrew from the resolution, walking away from its international obligations. The Sri Lankan Government have repeatedly reneged on their pledges to investigate and prosecute wartime atrocity crimes.

Now is the time for strong international action, led by the UK once again, to secure justice for the Tamil community, recognition of the genocide and a proper accountability mechanism. In February, tens of thousands of people joined one of the largest rallies in the Tamil homeland since the end of armed conflict in 2009. They marched for five days, from the east to the north of the island, calling for justice. That same month, 500 British Tamil organisations wrote to our Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, seeking an independent mechanism for evidence collection and the referral of Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court.

Twelve long years have passed. I urge the Minister to listen to the Tamil community here in the UK and in Sri Lanka, to recognise the genocide, secure justice for the Tamil community by taking on board the recommendation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Leader of the Liberal Democrats 2:26, 18 March 2021

I thank Siobhain McDonagh for leading this debate. I am proud to have worked with her for many years on the APPG, standing up for justice and human rights for Tamil people. Over those years, we witnessed time and again Tamil people being harmed by the Sri Lankan Government and let down by the international community.

Human rights are again under attack in Sri Lanka. Recent reports from numerous human rights organisations, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, paint a disturbing picture. From the appalling treatment of Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Christian communities during covid, when the Sri Lankan Government for months prevented burials of their dead in the traditional manner, to the continuing human rights abuses against the Tamil population across the island, things are getting worse, as the international community wrings its hands.

It is clear that domestic mechanisms for accountability in Sri Lanka have failed again in recent years; they cannot be relied on. An international mechanism has always been needed to enable allegations of genocide, war crimes and human rights abuses to be properly examined and investigated. Many of us had campaigned for such a mechanism for nearly 12 years since the end of the civil war. Eventually, at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Sri Lankan Government signed up to a mechanism, albeit one involving significant compromise by those of us who felt it did not go far enough, and who did not trust the Sri Lankan Government to deliver.

Sadly, time has proven us right. The Sri Lankans did not deliver on any of the promises made to the international community and then, last March, walked away totally. It is clear that the Sri Lankan Government will continue to deny, to delay and to evade. That is why we urgently need a new international solution.

The 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council is currently under way, giving the UK the opportunity to demand accountability in Sri Lanka, but regrettably the draft resolution on Sri Lanka totally fails to rise to the challenge, even though the UK is a leader of the core group. As it stands, the draft resolution is too vague and lacks a robust commitment to international accountability mechanisms. Section 6 is simply far too weak. That is why Liberal Democrats continue to call on the UK Government to work with international partners to ensure a proper international, independent investigative mechanism to establish what is happening in Sri Lanka. There must be a robust international mechanism that ensures that evidence can be collected and files can be prepared for prosecution.

The British Tamil community is growing frustrated at the lack of meaningful progress in finding justice, and I share that frustration. It is time for the UK to undertake bilateral actions to push for accountability. I have long called for an end to arms exports to Sri Lanka. For Sri Lanka to be listed as a human rights priority country in the Foreign Office’s own recent annual human rights report is preposterous, and arms exports are still not banned. The Government should look at Magnitsky-style sanctions against individuals involved in perpetrating human rights abuses.

The truth is that Sri Lanka is part of the global struggle between the US and China. It is part of the geopolitics of our world, and it is time that democratic countries worked together to support the democratic and human rights of the Tamil people and stopped allowing the Sri Lankan Government to become increasingly under the influence of Beijing. It is time we stood up for the human rights of the Tamil people.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 2:30, 18 March 2021

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding a visit I made almost exactly a year ago to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to make the case for justice for the Tamil people.

Terrible crimes were committed during the conflict in Sri Lanka. Over a decade later, as we have heard today, human rights abuses against Tamils persist. In a deeply worrying report in January, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, highlights

“the accelerating militarisation of civilian governmental functions, reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, exclusionary rhetoric, intimidation of civil society”.

Domestic initiatives to secure accountability for war crimes have failed to produce results, and Ms Bachelet fears that this entrenched impunity could contribute to past crimes being repeated. Not one of the individual cases identified by the UN as emblematic has led to a successful prosecution. In one of the few cases where a member of the military was convicted for murdering a Tamil, President Rajapaksa chose to issue a pardon. Some of those implicated in war crimes have even been appointed to senior positions. More than 40 civil society institutions have reported harassment and surveillance. Reporters Without Borders points to “an alarming resurgence” in attacks on Tamil journalists. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights continues to receive credible allegations of abductions, torture and gender-based violence by security forces. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is still used to detain people, years after the Sri Lankan state promised to repeal it.

Driven forward by David Cameron’s Government after his historic visit to Jaffna—the first by a major world leader—much hope centred on UNHRC resolutions 30/1 and 40/1. That Conservative-led Government played a crucial role in securing those very significant resolutions. Ministers and officials under this present Conservative Government continue to lead efforts to secure a tough new resolution at the UNHRC session under way as we speak in Geneva. Welcome progress has been made on that resolution, but the international community needs to match words with deeds. If it does not, this new resolution could run into the sand, like the previous ones.

I call on the Minister today; it is time for the UK Government to use their Magnitsky sanctions regime to target the men the UN believes are culpable for the atrocities that took place during the Sri Lankan civil war. That is one of the key asks of my British Tamil constituents. I believe that could finally help break the deadlock and open the way for justice for Tamils and a better future for Sri Lanka.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport) 2:33, 18 March 2021

I express my gratitude to the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh and all hon. Members involved for ensuring that time is given to this very important debate.

Many people in my Slough constituency have a direct interest in reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka because of their own links to the nation, because they have friends and family there or because they are concerned about human rights. I had the pleasure of visiting this beautiful country and therefore appreciate fully the huge potential it has to succeed and prosper on the global stage. However, since the end of the tragic civil war in 2009, there has, sadly, not been the construction of robust human rights institutions and legal frameworks needed. Attempts at truth and reconciliation have been unsatisfactory, especially the withdrawal by the Sri Lankan Government from UNHRC resolution 30/1. There must be commitment on all sides to transparency, honesty and a willingness to show contrition.

The Tamil community, victims of violence and their families must feel that their voices are being heard. This has not, sadly, been the case thus far in Sri Lanka. In the limited time available and without repeating what other hon. Members have mentioned, I want to address one very specific abuse of human rights. It is an issue of huge concern to Sri Lankan Muslims, Christians and other faith communities, and one which I raised earlier this month with the Minister for Asia—the forced cremation of those who have died from coronavirus.

As the House will know, cremation of a human body is forbidden in some religions, including Islam. The Holy Koran sanctifies the human body as made by God and forbids cremation because it contends that human remains must return to the earth. However, widespread reports indicate that the Sri Lankan authorities have been cremating all covid-19 victims, regardless of religion. The Sri Lankan Government’s chief epidemiologist claimed that burials would “contaminate ground drinking water”. There is absolutely no medical or scientific basis for this. The World Health Organisation has made it clear that human remains can be safely buried without risk of spreading covid-19 and across the world, including right here in the UK, countries have safely buried the bodies of those who, tragically, have died from this virus.

While reports indicate that these measures are being reversed, albeit not to full satisfaction yet, this has been seen by many in the broader context of the oppression of minorities in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Tamils and others. From listening to constituents, especially those worshipping at the Masjid al-Jannah, Slough, and the Council of Sri Lankan Muslim Organisations UK, as a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Sri Lankan Muslims, I appreciate their deep pain and legitimate concerns.

When the war ended after 25 years of death and destruction, we had hope for a lasting peace for every citizen of Sri Lanka. We had hope for the rule of law and universal human rights. Recent events show that we still have a long way to go, and our UK Government must step up to the plate on the international stage and impress upon the Sri Lankan Government the need to respect universal human rights and the critical need to follow the path of accountability, justice and reconciliation.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 2:37, 18 March 2021

I congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on leading the debate, and it is a pleasure to follow Mr Dhesi, with whose remarks I agree wholeheartedly. I declare my interest as an officer of both the all-party parliamentary groups on Tamils and on Sri Lanka, and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Council of Sri Lankan Muslim Organisations UK.

The reality is that Sri Lanka was blighted and torn apart by a terrible, bloody civil war. Twelve years on from it ending, there are still many people who are unaccounted for. We do not know what happened to them: whether they were killed, they are in graves somewhere or they dispersed around the world. Nine years ago, I joined others in visiting Sri Lanka, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, and I saw at first hand the work that was being done in Jaffna. That heralded the visit by former Prime Minister David Cameron, which was a deeply historic visit. I saw at first hand the mine clearances going on and also the clearance of areas for fishing, so that the Tamil people could return to being able to farm and to fish for their own population and for exports.

My constituent, Ambihai Selvakumar, who has been referred to earlier, lives in Kenton in Harrow and has been on hunger strike in her bid to seek justice for the Tamil people. I hope that her campaign will be successful, but I caution her that her life is more important at the moment than ensuring that we get the British Government and others around the world to shift their views.

I commend the Amnesty International report, which highlights the abuses that minority religions experience in Sri Lanka. I commend as well the report by Real Other, which put together the position in Sri Lanka. It took 32 days writing the report and it draws attention not just to the forced cremation issues, but to the other suffering that the Muslim minority are experiencing in Sri Lanka right now. We should remember that all sorts of atrocities are being inflicted on the minority Muslims across Sri Lanka.

The reality is that deeply religious persecution is going on in Sri Lanka, where there is a big majority of Buddhists against all the minority religions. Recently, I led a virtual delegation to the UNHRC on behalf of COSMOS and drew to the council’s attention the atrocities being visited on the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka. It is key that the resolutions of the Human Rights Council are strengthened. When my hon. Friend the Minister rises, I urge him to give a deep commitment to ensuring that we act as a country to strengthen the resolutions and to make people, particularly the leadership in Sri Lanka, face up to their responsibilities and ensure that religious persecution ends and that minority rights are protected. After all, that is one of our fundamental areas of international concern and I hope that we will be leading the way rather than following.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:41, 18 March 2021

First, let me congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on setting the scene so well and with such passion. I applaud her commitment to the cause.

I register my interest as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. I am sure that I speak for all members of that group when I stress the concern that we feel about the Sri Lankan Government’s withdrawal from their commitment to reconciliation, accountability and human rights.

I am also very concerned about the treatment of religious or belief communities in Sri Lanka. The UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, visited Sri Lanka and noted the frequent reports of acts of intolerance and the failure of the state to protect individuals and communities targeted by such hostility. Dr Shaheed also said that the Muslim communities and new Christian churches faced harassment and assaults that include interruption and damage to places of worship, physical assault on clergy, intimidation, mob violence, restricting the use of places of worship, the obstruction of religious rights, incitement to violence and many, many other acts of intolerance. Indeed, since the beginning of 2015 to the end of June 2019, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka has documented an estimated 387 attacks or violations targeting Christians specifically.

When it comes to Muslims in Sri Lanka, according to CSW, religious intolerance towards that community predates the 2019 Easter bombings. Many propagators of hate speech towards Muslims play on the economic factors. Anti-Muslim rumours are also a regular feature of life on Sri Lankan social media.

Since the bombings, Sri Lankan Muslims have faced an upsurge in violations of their basic rights, as well as assaults and, indeed, other abuse. This lack of accountability that abusers and perpetrators of violence face in Sri Lanka has been raised by many different communities to the special rapporteur. The authorities have shown an unwillingness to protect communities against threats and acts of violence. We must also look at the legal basis of all this, as the Sri Lankan Government constitution declares:

“Buddhism shall be given the foremost place by the State.”

In 2003, a Supreme Court ruling determined that the state was constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism. This gross violation of human rights puts into law the Government’s refusal to treat all religious or belief communities fairly. They should all be treated the same.

Sri Lanka is also not responsive to violence and abuse against women. Women who experience religious hostility, including violence, displacement and stereotyping, do not receive attention or redress. Women also experience gender-specific hate speech and human rights violations. Moreover, women’s human rights activists appear to be at risk from fundamentalist members of their own religious communities.

Like others, I am concerned about the Government forcing cremation on Muslims, Christians and those of other ethnic groups. I believe that is against the human rights of every member of those religions. It is based on absolutely no scientific and medical evidence, and it is a cause of great concern.

I want those in a position of power to be made accountable for their war crimes by being brought to court and having their assets taken away, and through travel bans. The influence of hate speech, legal discrimination and impunity for violent actors will serve only to cause more conflict and violence in Sri Lanka in the long run.

I always like to quote a Scripture text. I do that in all these debates because it is important to do so. Galatians chapter 6, verse 2 urges this of every one of us:

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

I believe that the people of Sri Lanka are crying out for that very help. I urge the Minister, for the sake of every community in Sri Lanka, to use all channels available to him to encourage his Sri Lankan counterparts to commit to UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 and to the protection of freedom of religion or belief for all. We are here to speak up for those who have no voice.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell 2:45, 18 March 2021

I congratulate not just Siobhain McDonagh but a collection of near neighbours of mine to the north on securing this debate.

I have a vivid memory of being in Sri Lanka a few years ago as war planes passed overhead, heading in the direction of the Tamil areas of the country. That was a very stark reminder of the turmoil that that country has experienced. Although I am in no doubt that there were sometimes dreadful deeds on both sides of the civil war, it is the plight of the Tamil community in particular that rightly attracts international concern. I remember that concern taking David Cameron to Jaffna when he was Prime Minister, and it is rightly shared by politicians across the House today.

There can be no winners from the racial strife that continues to dog Sri Lanka; nor is it easy to see how that strife can end without accountability for what happened and genuine efforts for reconciliation between the two communities. I know from my constituency and the Tamil community that lives and worships here how strong the sense of resentment and anger still is among that community, and how real and strong the concerns are for surviving relatives still in Sri Lanka. Many of my constituents lost relatives during the civil war, and many still fear for relatives in today’s Sri Lanka, where it is clear that pressures on the Tamil community have not gone away. It is a tragedy.

I also represent members of the Sinhalese community, who live and work in my constituency and play an important part, for example, in our NHS. Those communities should be able, back in Sri Lanka, to find a way of living alongside each other in peace and friendship. Unless that can eventually happen, there will be no long-term stability for the country. I welcome the UK’s move to lead the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, which would provide a framework for continued international engagement on human rights and post-conflict accountability. It calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to investigate and prosecute all allegations of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international law. It highlights concerns about the human rights situation, including the protection of Tamils. Those things are the minimum necessary to start Sri Lanka back on the road to justice and stability.

We have heard quite a bit this afternoon about the hunger strike by Ms Selvakumar here in the UK to highlight the need for action in Sri Lanka. Whether or not we support the approach that she took—I happen to agree with my hon. Friend Bob Blackman about the importance of her life—the fact that she chose to do that serves to underline the frustration of the Tamil community about how much still has to be done.

It is my hope that the Sri Lankan Government are listening to this debate and the cross-party contributions, because this is an issue that unites Members on both sides of the House. I hope they will be provoked to think about their future and what is in the interest of their country. In the end, no Government succeed by failing to respect the rights of all their citizens. In the end, the damage to their international reputation bleeds through to their economy and all other aspects of their interaction with the world.

It really is time now for the Government in Colombo to act in their national interest, to recognise the deep international concern about what has happened and what is still happening, and to put things right once and for all. Unless there is justice in Sri Lanka for everyone, and justice for all members of the Tamil community, that potentially great country will never in reality be able to fulfil its potential; and without justice, its reputation in the world will remain seriously tarnished.

Photo of Sam Tarry Sam Tarry Shadow Minister (Transport) 2:49, 18 March 2021

I thank my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh for securing this debate, which is so important to so many people in Ilford—both north and south.

It is now 12 years since the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, and the latest UN report on the country’s human rights situation paints an extremely worrying picture. Since 2019, the situation in Sri Lanka has rapidly deteriorated to widespread reports of torture and oppression, the reintroduction of the death penalty for certain drug offences, antagonistic behaviour such as the demolition of the Mullivaikkal memorial at the University of Jaffna, and the appointment of military officials such as General Silva to positions of authority. This is all deeply troubling to people across Ilford.

In 2015, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights completed a thorough investigation into the abuses by all parties in the Sri Lankan armed conflict, mandated by UN Human Rights Council resolution. It found strong and corroborated evidence that the 58th Division, led by Shavendra Silva, had extrajudicially executed surrendering soldiers and shelled marked civilian hospitals. The Sri Lankan Government recently passed the 20th amendment to the constitution, which is seen by many as a significant challenge to democratic governance. The amendment, which has been opposed by civil society and religious leaders, removes all checks on the power of the executive President. Campaign groups say that this also further undermines the judiciary’s independence by allowing the President complete control of senior judicial appointments. In the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s latest report, she said that she is

“deeply concerned about the increased use of ethno-nationalistic and majoritarian rhetoric and symbols by the President and other senior Government figures”,

and warned of a return to violence. She also called for a referral to the International Criminal Court and targeted sanctions against Sri Lankan officials found in contravention of human rights.

Despite these troubling reports, the UK Government have recently provided several million pounds in security assistance to Sri Lanka, to aid training and capacity building of the Sri Lankan police and security forces. In 2019, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office announced another three-year programme under its conflict, stability and security fund, totalling £3 million; this would include supporting police development and strengthening the defence relationship. I urge the Government, as I previously have in this House, to publish the overseas security and justice assistance assessment of the financial support for activities under this programme, because I and the people of Ilford South want to be confident that we are not supporting human rights violations.

Let us be clear: the Labour party is committed to defending the rule of law and human rights across the world. It is troubling that the Foreign Secretary was recently recorded saying that the UK could pursue trade deals with Governments who commit human rights abuses. Does that include the Sri Lankan Government? It is deeply concerning that the Government are yet to implement Magnitsky sanctions against members of the Sri Lankan Government who are found to be complicit in serious human rights abuses, and makes the UK an outlier among its allies.

In February 2020, the US State Department designated General Silva under the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2020, banning him and his immediate family from entry into the United States. Various civil rights groups and NGOs have expressed their concerns that £6.3 million of UK taxpayers’ money has recently been spent on supporting security reform in Sri Lanka. This has only enabled Sri Lankan security forces to advance antagonistic activities, including accelerated destruction of places of worship and cultural heritage, and, as I have already mentioned, the terrible events at the memorial at the University of Jaffna. Indeed, there are further reports, widely, of torture and oppression by state actors.

Thousands of members of the Sri Lankan Tamil community in my constituency are deeply concerned about this. They want to see this Government put human rights at the centre of our foreign policy and any future dealings with the Sri Lankan Government, working towards a political solution that includes the self-determination of the Tamil people on the island of Sri Lanka.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 2:54, 18 March 2021

I congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on securing this debate and on her work in raising this matter both in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall debates. It is a pleasure to be able to take part. I also associate myself with the words of my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers in relation to the Magnitsky Act and making sure that we use its full potential to ensure that we can bring to justice people who are committing human rights violations. As ever, it is a pleasure to be in the same debate as Jim Shannon, and I appreciate what he said.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, I would like to address how we could use the PSVI to tackle some of the human rights violations and abuses that have been identified by so many Members. As many have said, the progress that has been made since 2009 has been incredibly limited. In fact, the Sri Lankan Government’s decision to reverse their position is of grave concern.

In recent weeks and months, we have heard the Foreign Secretary talk about the need for the UNHCR to restore its reputation to make sure that it acts on human rights violations. I would say that we, too, can do well to listen to that advice. The international community, at a point at which it is fractured and divided, could again become united and stand together in addressing the violations of human rights of countries around the world, and Sri Lanka would be a good place to start.

A recent report from the UN states that there continue to be

“credible allegations, through well-known human rights organizations, of abductions, torture and sexual violence by Sri Lankan security forces since the adoption of Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, including during the past year”.

The preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative was set up on the basis of helping those who, as its name says, have endured sexual violence in conflict and crisis zones. The UK, when it set it up in 2012 and 2014, was able to engage international co-operation to be able to ensure not only that resolutions in the UN could pass, but that documentation could be provided of crimes that are going on across the globe, that survivors could be supported, and that potential prosecutions in future years could be delivered. If the organisations that are currently set up are failing to deliver that, I suggest that we push forward to create on our own new international body that can help to document these crimes, support survivors, and lead international prosecutions. Out of every great conflict and crisis that has happened throughout mankind, great new reforming bodies have come, and this should be no exception.

I want to make two final points. First, this year there is the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda, and, as has always been the case, we should be able to speak truth to our friends. It would be a missed opportunity for us to not speak clearly at the CHOGM about what has happened in Rwanda to ensure that there can be co-operation in order to address the human rights violations that have happened. Secondly, we must make sure that we raise these issues at the G7 in order to provide support for those who have endured human rights violations, and to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice and the culture of impunity is shattered. We have an opportunity—I do not believe this to be bravado—to lead the international community to take action to help safeguard human rights and to lead by example, and I hope that we can do so.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West 2:57, 18 March 2021

The seriousness and urgency of this debate cannot be overstated. The current presidential Administration of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stand accused of multiple historical and ongoing human rights violations. Their Administration continue to prevent any accountability for the Sri Lankan military, many of whose leaders stand credibly accused of innumerable war crimes in the Sri Lankan civil war. These leaders include army commander Shavendra Silva and Secretary of Defence Kamal Gunaratne, who are accused of deliberately shelling hospitals and civilians, involvement in sexual violence, extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances.

During the civil war, an estimated 100,000 people were forcibly disappeared. These disappearances have affected all communities, but the bulk of the victims were Tamils. Forced disappearances also occurred in Sri Lanka before the war, when hundreds of students in the south of the country were disappeared, as well as in its aftermath. The vast majority of these cases remain unresolved, and attempts by relatives of the victims to attain justice have provoked visceral resistance from the Sri Lankan state.

In February 2017, the relatives of the disappeared in the north and east, mainly Tamil women, began a continuous protest seeking the truth about what happened to their loved ones. At least 78 of the protesters have sadly passed away since the beginning of the protest, without ever learning the truth about what happened to their families. There is, at present, no prospect that these families will ever know real accountability from officials responsible via the domestic justice system in Sri Lanka, the independence of which has been severely compromised by the Rajapaksa Administration.

However, that does not mean we are without options to defend the human rights of Sri Lankan citizens. The US applied sanctions on army commander Silva for his complicity in human rights abuses in February last year. The UK should immediately follow suit, in designating both General Silva and Secretary of Defence Gunaratne on the UK sanctions list.

Furthermore, given the Sri Lankan military’s continued complicity in preventing any real accountability for historical and ongoing crimes against humanity, we should immediately halt UK defence engagement with the Sri Lankan armed forces and withdraw our resident defence adviser in Colombo. That post was established in January 2019,

“to hasten the development of a modern, accountable and human rights compliant military,” but all the post has created is a legitimisation mechanism for the Sri Lankan military and state.

The UK has a long record of training Sri Lankan military and security forces on human rights issues, but there is no evidence of significant changes in the approach of the military to human rights, nor of effective vetting or accountability in the army for those accused of serious human rights violations. The UK must not remain complicit in these grievous crimes. If our engagement is truly aimed at preventing further human rights violations, we must take real steps to remind the Sri Lankan Government that they cannot expect military engagement and support unless those human rights violations are addressed.

In conclusion, I hope that the UK Government take these considerations on board and act accordingly, and I congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on securing this debate.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 3:01, 18 March 2021

I, too, draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Like Theresa Villiers, this time last year, just as the seriousness of the pandemic had become clear in our country and days before formal lockdown was introduced, I was in Geneva, lobbying delegations and missions to the UN Human Rights Council about the need for firm action at UN level as a result of both the failure of the Government of Sri Lanka to honour the existing commitments that had been made and, as we have heard about during the debate, the ongoing human rights abuses in that country.

My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh set out perfectly well both the historical context and the ongoing challenges in the country. I am afraid that it is with a sense of déjà vu that I participate in this afternoon’s debate, because we have been here so many times before, discussing exactly the same issues—the appalling atrocities committed during the civil war; both the literal scars and the emotional scars that survivors of that conflict continue to feel to this very day; the disappearance of families, still unresolved; and the responsibility that rests on the Government of Sri Lanka to promote truth, justice and reconciliation for all the peoples of Sri Lanka.

It had felt that we had begun to make progress. We had seen, through successive UN Human Rights Council resolutions, not just focus from the international community but the Government of Sri Lanka signing up to commitments before the international community. Those included a commitment for international involvement in the investigation and prosecution of allegations of historical war crimes, and a commitment—made before the eyes of the entire international community—to put a stop to ongoing human rights violations.

But what do we see from the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as from a wide a range of independent international NGOs? We see a picture, described by the UN, of the last 12 months fundamentally changing the environment for advancing reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka: the erosion of democratic checks and balances in the civic space; threats to reverse the limited—I emphasise that word as I thought Dr Offord was far too generous in his assessment—gains in recent years; and the risk of the return to policies and practice that gave rise to the grave violations of the past. Indeed, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, not only do we have a Government who have withdrawn from the commitments that Sri Lanka made to the international community, but we have back in power the same cast of characters who were responsible for perpetrating human rights abuses during the civil war, and resistance to any sense that they should be accountable for their historical actions and for ongoing human rights violations.

I ask the Minister: what is going to change, beyond the resolution, the lived experience of people in Sri Lanka, and the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and around the world, who are seeking accountability and justice for historical crimes? As we have heard, it is not just the international community—I agree with the arguments made about the importance of CHOGM and the G7—that can take action; we can take bilateral action to apply Magnitsky sanctions against the rogues and criminals who perpetrated human rights abuses. At this point, after many years of campaigning for justice, my Tamil constituents are looking not just for warm words but for action and leadership, which has been missing from the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 3:05, 18 March 2021

I agree with my hon. Friend Wes Streeting: how many more times do we have to be here before we get firm action?

I thank the hon. Members who secured this important debate, and I pay tribute to all my constituents and the community groups who have contacted me to express their views about the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka. All of them, especially from the Tamil community, have impressed upon me the need for decisive international action merely to secure a peaceful and just future for the country.

These next few days in the run-up to the UN Human Rights Council meeting on Monday are critical to securing a meaningful international intervention that could lead to that better future. That is why I support the call in this debate for urgent action from the highest levels of our Government, in particular the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, to ensure that the resolution is strengthened for Monday and also that the vote is overwhelmingly carried. I urge the Government to draw upon the full range of our diplomatic relationships, especially with our friends in the Commonwealth countries in Africa and Asia.

Many of us have been shocked but not surprised at the latest report in January on the situation in Sri Lanka from the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. It sets out straightforwardly the litany of concerns that our own constituents have drawn to our attention: the failure of the Sri Lankan Government to address past human rights violations; the closing down of the space for independent voices; the intimidation of civil society alongside a deepening attitude of acting with impunity within the Government; a visible and increased militarisation of the civil Administration; and, yes, the rise of ethno-nationalism and hate speech—there clearly has been a concerted and targeted attack on the rights of Tamil and Muslim communities.

I repeat what others have said: the seriousness of these issues means that the UK Government must throw their full diplomatic weight behind the strengthening of the United Nations Council resolution and make sure that we follow it through to implementation. As my hon. Friend for Ilford North said, we should also recognise that the adoption of the resolution does not preclude individual countries like ours from taking additional unilateral action. I believe that this country has a special responsibility for action as a former colonial power. We united the three kingdoms, one of which was a Tamil kingdom, into one country and then left in 1948.

To prove that we are serious about holding the Sri Lankan Government regime to account, the only way is for the UK Government to undertake unilaterally three distinct actions. First, we must ensure that all trade and aid agreements with Sri Lanka are only granted following the full ratification and enactment by the Sri Lankan Government of the UN human rights conventions and the fulfilment of their pledge to scrap the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Secondly, I support all Members who have said that we should use the Magnitsky provisions that we have recently put into legislation to ensure that we take action against those individuals who are accused of gross human rights violations. Finally, we must ensure that we fully fund and support bodies investigating human rights abuses and war crimes and bring on to the agenda the claims of genocide during the war in Sri Lanka.

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West 3:10, 18 March 2021

It is an honour to speak in this debate about a situation that should concern all of us, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh on leading it.

I have been contacted by a number of my constituents for whom the pain and suffering caused by the civil war in Sri Lanka and the persecution of the Tamil community is still very real. Many of us have been contacted about the hunger strike currently being undertaken by Mrs Selvakumar. The fact that Mrs Selvakumar feels that this is the only way to get her voice heard is deeply saddening.

The move away from the UN Human Rights Council resolution in the past year by the Government of Sri Lanka is very troubling, and the ongoing human rights issues in that country must be a priority for our Government as they focus foreign policy on the Indo-Pacific region. The 30-year civil war between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam saw continuous and terrible human rights abuses by both parties. When the war ended in 2009, it was hoped that finally Sri Lanka might find peace and the chance to reconcile and heal the divisions that had beset the country since independence. But progress has been slow and halting at best, and since the Sri Lankan Government removed themselves as a co-sponsor from the UNHRC resolution, there have been increasing concerns about their commitment to peace and justice.

Trends emerging in the past year have represented a clear early warning sign of a deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka. We have seen an acceleration of the militarisation of civilian Government functions, the erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions, increasing marginalisation of the Tamil and Muslim communities and even the destruction of a memorial to the victims of the war. There is ongoing impunity and obstruction of accountability for the crimes and human rights violations that have occurred.

Victims and their families are calling out for international accountability, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has requested that members of the UNHRC co-operate with victims and their representatives to investigate and, indeed, prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka. Our Government must commit to doing all they can to have these crimes investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted.

The British Government created the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 in order to prevent the immunity enjoyed by perpetrators of serious human rights abuses. Will the Government commit to using those sanctions to prevent further abuses in Sri Lanka? They have already announced a shift in foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region, but our foreign policy and trade agreements must not come at the cost of people and their lives. It is imperative that the Government commit to prioritising human rights as a cornerstone of our foreign and trade policy in the region, and I hope they will not put trade and profits before the interests of human lives.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 3:13, 18 March 2021

I warmly welcome this debate. The resolution to be voted on next week comes at a crucial time. It should make a reference to the International Criminal Court, as my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh argued so powerfully in opening the debate. The evidence-gathering element is crucial to maintain material for the international accountability which Sri Lanka has resisted for so long but which must come in due course. I welcome the proposed commitment to regular report-backs on the conditions in Sri Lanka.

As others have reminded the House, we now have a UK mechanism for sanctions against those guilty of human rights atrocities; will we sanction those who are guilty in Sri Lanka? The US has rightly designated army commander Shavendra Silva, who has been mentioned already and led the ground assault on the beaches of Mullivaikkal at the end of the civil war, attacking civilians, hospitals, medical staff and no-fire zones; will we now do so too? Kamal Gunaratne, who is now Defence Secretary, led a February 2009 assault, attacking civilian hospitals and food distribution points. He commanded the Joseph army camp, which was notorious for torture after the war. The UN has named him; will we sanction him? Why on earth do we have a resident defence adviser in Colombo, providing training and legitimacy? He has met at least five people who have been credibly accused of mass atrocities. Surely that adviser must now be withdrawn.

Before the 2019 Sri Lanka election, the Government there paid lip service to the Human Rights Council resolution that they co-sponsored with the UK after David Cameron visited as Prime Minister. The calculation seemed to be that if they paid lip service to engaging, the international community would leave them alone. They were right: there was no serious effort to hold Sri Lanka to account. The new Sri Lankan Government, elected in 2019, includes guilty men, as we have heard. They are no longer pretending; they have simply withdrawn.

Last month, the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, which has Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese support, said that

“respect for the rule of law and human rights has demonstrably diminished” and that the current Government have

“significantly reversed progress on 15 out of the 25 commitments” under resolution 30/1

“and halted progress on 7 others.”

The president now controls all senior judicial appointments. In a climate of fear, human rights defenders and victim/survivors are watched and harassed, and human rights lawyers are held without charge. We have been reminded of the presidential pardon for one of the only soldiers ever convicted of a wartime atrocity. Other key cases have collapsed; witnesses and victims are intimidated; senior police officers are taken off investigations; and the former head of the Criminal Investigation Department has been arrested. The president has promoted war criminals; all Government Departments are led by former military commanders; military intelligence officers run covid contact tracing, threatening activists and victims; and, as we have been reminded, Muslims are targeted. The Human Rights Council must pass an ambitious resolution next week.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (International Trade) 3:17, 18 March 2021

As others have alluded to, Sri Lanka is a stunningly beautiful island, but for its Tamil citizens or, increasingly, its Muslim citizens, and certainly for its citizens who are Sinhalese and interested in human rights or are opponents of the Rajapaksa family, it is a very dangerous country.

Many of those who are Tamil who live in my constituency believe that nothing short of a genocide continues to take place against Tamil citizens in Sri Lanka. They believe that Tamil citizens are increasingly viewed by the Sri Lankan Government in apparently the same way as the Chinese Government view the Uyghurs. There is deep frustration with the apparent impunity of the Rajapaksa family and their supporters in respect of either domestic or international accountability. There is anger with the UK Government for their tolerance of that impunity and their complicity, at international level, in thus far failing to get the international community to take action against the Sri Lankan Government. There is also disbelief that Tamil refugees might be returned to a country so obviously ravaged by human rights abuses.

There is among the Tamil community in my constituency a demand, similar to those expressed by others, for Britain to use the powers that it already has at its disposal to hold to account those who are clearly implicated in serious human rights abuses—as alluded to by many Members, not least my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms—and to take action, as recommended by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. The Tamil community want Ministers to back a call for Sri Lanka to be referred to the International Criminal Court. A number of Members have referred to the courage of Mrs Ambihai Selvakumar in her recent hunger strike, which, I am pleased to say, for her sake, has ended, but which served to draw international attention to the issues that we are debating today.

As my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh said in her excellent speech, the frustration of the international community and the Tamil community in many of our constituencies dates back to the end of the conflict in 2009, when terrible war crimes were committed against the Tamil community, including civilians and those surrendering at the end of the conflict. No one has ever been held accountable for those crimes. I strongly support the call by Michelle Bachelet, echoed by my hon. Friends today, for Britain to use the Magnitsky sanctions that it does have available to it against Shavendra Silva and Kamal Gunaratne.

In the short time that I have left, I also want to praise the recent Amnesty International report and note the important contribution from Freedom from Torture urging the Home Office to take another look, with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, at the country note that it uses to judge whether or not refugees should be returned to Sri Lanka. Clearly, given the scale of torture and other human rights abuses, it would be totally wrong to return people with credible concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka. I look forward to the Minister finally taking some serious action against Sri Lanka.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 3:21, 18 March 2021

I congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on a speech that I know will have moved many of my friends here and in Sri Lanka, as it did me. She and others in this debate have been good and consistent friends to those campaigning for truth, justice and accountability in Sri Lanka.

I will not repeat all that we have heard about what happened during the 30 year-long war. Instead, I will focus on what has or has not happened since. It is a crime against humanity that nobody has been found accountable since the war ended 12 years ago. There has been a sleight of hand performance between then and now, with successive Governments promising the international community and their own people that they will do X, Y and Z, then drawing back, then promising again, but at the end of the day progress is never made, accountability never happens, reconciliation is never credibly attempted, and peace never really comes to this beautiful island.

I know exactly how beautiful Sri Lanka and its people are because I lived and worked in Galle on the south coast for a short time during the civil war. I cannot claim to have suffered because of it, but I certainly met many people who were suffering and heard stories and rumours of what was going on at the time. It was in the years afterwards, however, when I returned just after the war and was finally able to travel to the north and on two further visits, that I heard at first hand what had happened. People were still frightened. In fact, one man gave me a copy of the book that he had written about his account of abuses against the Tamil community. He was so afraid of what might happen to me, should I be caught reading it, that he removed the cover and replaced it with another.

It was on those visits that I made in the years after the war that I got a clearer picture of what had happened, and it was from my constituents as a Member of the Scottish Parliament from 2009 to 2011, from friends who stayed on to help rebuild Sri Lanka and from the people in Sri Lanka I have kept in touch with for the last 13 years that I got to understand more about what happened—about the internally displaced people camps, the missing people, the torture, the sexual violence and the shelling of so-called no-fire zones.

The reason for today’s debate is to urge the UK Government to do more. The Sirisena Government of 2015, about whom I was somewhat cynical, did co-sponsor the UN Human Rights Council resolution, and it was hoped that this would encourage further investigations into civil war crimes. To an extent it did, in that it established institutions with the functions of addressing the impact of the war, but not much more happened and the operation of these institutions has been hampered by successive Governments.

I will also acknowledge that the UK Government have played a vital role as leaders of the core group on Sri Lanka within the Human Rights Council, but it is clear now in which direction the Sri Lankan Government are heading, and the UK Government must step up their commitment to reconciliation, accountability and human rights. Separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary have been grossly undermined by amendments to the constitution. I believe the 20th amendment, which removes almost every check on the executive powers of the President, to be the most significant signal that there is no respect for the rule of law. Donald Trump is an amateur compared with this guy.

The new Government are led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was the Defence Secretary in the final throes of the war. The President’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President at the time of the civil war, has been appointed Prime Minister, and we have heard about the nine other family members holding senior positions in that Government. The Rajapaksa brothers are credibly accused of a host of crimes during the war, and of violating international humanitarian and human rights law, yet there they are, President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, with all the checks and balances removed. They have consistently blocked, undermined and obstructed investigations and court cases. The missing are still missing. As we have heard, the President recently pardoned a soldier—one of the few ever to be tried, let alone found guilty. The soldier was guilty of the killing of eight Tamil civilians, including a five-year-old child and two teenagers. I can only assume that was all part of his promise to end what he calls the

“era of betraying war heroes”.

As an MSP, I met two teenage girls living in Glasgow. They were Tamils who had sought asylum because, as children, they had watched their father shot to death in front of them by a Sri Lankan army soldier. He made them watch as he put a bullet through their dad’s brain. Should that soldier be tried, or should he be hailed as a war hero, while the world looks on, simply shrugging its shoulders?

I back the calls on the UK Government from previous speakers and the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, and I will reiterate just a few of those. In terms of trade, Sri Lanka should be removed from enhanced framework level until it meets the conditions set and agreed to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act—an Act that allows arbitrary detention and strips the rights to due process for those detained. Their armed forces need to stop training their army until they satisfy the conditions, set and agreed to, on human rights. The Minister needs to establish a screening policy for diplomatic meetings, so that the UK is no longer giving legitimacy to individuals critically accused of war crimes.

Finally, I would suggest that we engage the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 to apply sanctions against individuals credibly accused of involvement in mass atrocities. Shavendra Silva would be a start. It is the very least the victims of this war, both living and dead, both here and there, can expect from us.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:27, 18 March 2021

I congratulate my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh on securing this vital debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), my right hon. Friend John McDonnell and my hon. Friend Taiwo Owatemi, who made truly powerful, moving contributions to the debate. The really strong showing from the Labour Benches shows the central importance of this issue to our party.

The Labour party puts the rule of law, democracy and universal human rights at the very heart of our foreign policy. We expect those principles to be upheld consistently in every country throughout the world, including Sri Lanka. We will always stand up for the universal rights and freedoms of all citizens when national Governments refuse to live up to their international obligations.

In 2009, in the final few months of Sri Lanka’s long, brutal civil war, tens of thousands of civilians, mostly from the Tamil community, lost their lives. It is a scar on the conscience of the world that no one has been held accountable for those crimes, which include the deliberate shelling of civilian targets, sexual violence, and extrajudicial executions. The shocking lack of accountability for past atrocities is compounded by the fact that the human rights violations in Sri Lanka continue to this day. Respected non-governmental organisation Freedom from Torture has forensically documented more than 300 cases of torture by the Sri Lankan state since the war ended, and it continues to receive referrals for Sri Lankan individuals today.

The people of Sri Lanka, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, deserve justice. Those responsible must be held accountable, and peace and freedom must be secured for future generations. The Labour party is therefore deeply troubled by what has been taking place in Sri Lanka since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in December 2019.

First, he has militarised his Government by appointing former soldiers such as Shavendra Silva and Kamal Gunaratne, who both stand accused of crimes against humanity, to key positions in his Cabinet. Secondly, he has done huge damage to his Government’s credibility in the eyes of the international community by withdrawing from UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, which sets out a process for delivering accountability for war crimes. Thirdly, we are profoundly concerned by reports of the forced cremation of victims of covid-19, including those of Muslim and Christian faith, for whom burial rituals and traditions are sacred. The World Health Organisation has issued guidance stating that the burial of covid-19 dead poses no danger to public health.

On the UNHRC resolution, in recent weeks and months I have written to the Minister twice about these issues and made it clear that, as the penholder on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, the UK has a crucial and unique responsibility to show moral and political leadership in its approach to co-ordinating the international response. The final version of the draft resolution, which is set to replace 30/1, is certainly an improvement on the zero draft. However, we continue to have real concerns about key aspects of it. Therefore, I have the following questions for the Minister.

First, the draft resolution fails to incorporate the recommendations made by the high commissioner in her report of 27 January regarding universal or extraterritorial jurisdiction. We should be supporting the high commissioner’s view that the principles of universal or extraterritorial jurisdiction should apply, and that states should pursue investigations and prosecutions in their national courts. Why have the Government failed to include an explicit commitment to that in the resolution?

Secondly, the suggested evidence-gathering mechanism is clearly a step in the right direction, but it stops short of recommending the establishment of a fully fledged international, independent investigative mechanism. Why have the Government failed to include in their final draft a commitment to IIIM?

Thirdly, it is clear that there is a strong basis for referring a number of senior members of the Sri Lankan military and Government to the International Criminal Court. Why have the Government failed to include such a recommendation in the resolution? We know that two of the permanent members of the UN will likely block such action, but should the position of the Government really be shaped by the veto-wielding intentions of China and Russia?

Fourthly, there is nothing in the resolution about prevention. Why does not the resolution include explicit reference to protecting human rights defenders? Are British diplomats travelling regularly to the north and east of Sri Lanka to assess the situation on the ground?

Fifthly, the draft resolution requests a report on accountability options in 18 months. This is an unacceptably long timeline, given the evidence already available, and it will give the Sri Lankan Government yet more time to obstruct and obfuscate. Why have the Government failed to ensure that the resolution is based on a far shorter report-back timeline of six months, as I recommended in my recent letter to the Minister?

Moving beyond the UN resolution, there are a number of bilateral steps that the Government should be taking. In my 11 December letter to the Minister, I suggested that a number of Sri Lankan officials should be sanctioned under the Government’s global human rights sanctions regime, yet not a single Sri Lankan Government Minister, official or military officer has been designated. Could the Minister please explain why it is taking so long when the evidence is already widely available?

In my letter, I also raised the issue of the UK defence adviser’s engagement with the Sri Lankan military. Since arriving in Colombo in January 2020, he has met at least four senior commanders of the Sri Lankan military who stand accused of gross human rights violations. Could the Minister please explain how the activities of the defence adviser will lead to greater accountability for the Sri Lankan military? Are the UK Government vetting who the adviser meets? Is the adviser’s defence engagement delivering tangible results, or is it simply lending a veneer of legitimacy to a military that is committing human rights abuses?

Thanks to the recent leaking of comments made by the Foreign Secretary, we know that he is perfectly happy to pursue trade deals with Governments who are committing human rights abuses. Are the UK Government pursuing a trade deal with Sri Lanka? Will human rights conditions be applied? As an EU member state, the UK was party to trading arrangements that offered a preferential tariff to Sri Lanka under the general scheme of preferences enhanced framework known as GSP+ because the Sri Lankan Government were supposedly living up to their human rights obligations. Now that the UK has left the EU, will the Government be reassessing their trading relationship with Sri Lanka?

Here’s one for the SNP spokesperson—to be answered at another time, I guess—if she is still tuned in. Police Scotland has made 90 deployments of officers to Sri Lanka over the past 15 years. Have these deployments achieved tangible results, or are they just lending a veneer of credibility? Finally, what assessment has the Minister made of Sri Lankan soldiers continuing to be deployed in UN peacekeeping missions despite the human rights record of the Sri Lankan military?

The integrated review is full of snappy slogans and rhetoric, but all it really achieved was to expose the chasm between the stated ambitions and the actual, tangible actions of this Government. If global Britain is to mean anything, it must surely mean consistently standing up for democracy, for the rule of law and for universal rights and values—not just with words, but with deeds. That must start today, and it must start with Sri Lanka.

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:36, 18 March 2021

I am particularly grateful to Siobhain McDonagh for securing this debate. I pay tribute to her for her work with the APPG. I also pay tribute to the many other Members across the House for their work on this important issue and for the many informed and passionate contributions that we have heard this afternoon. I will try to respond to as many of them as possible in the time I have, but I am conscious that I have to give the hon. Lady a couple of minutes at the end of the debate. The Minister for South Asia—the Minister that Stephen Kinnock wrote to—would have been delighted to take part in this debate, but obviously he sits in the other place so it is my pleasure to respond on his behalf and on behalf of the Government.

Human rights in Sri Lanka are an important issue and a long-standing priority both for the UK Government and for many fellow Members. This debate is timely, coming during the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which began on 22 February. The human rights situation in Sri Lanka and the limited progress on reconciliation and accountability raised by many right hon. and hon. Members are deeply concerning. As the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon, pointed out, in February last year the Government of Sri Lanka withdrew their support for the UK-led UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 and its successor resolutions 34/1 and 40/1. Those resolutions concerned reconciliation, transitional justice and accountability.

The Sri Lankan Government then announced a domestic mechanism on accountability. As with previous domestic initiatives, however, meaningful progress has yet to be delivered. There have also been a number of setbacks on accountability, including the appointment into Government positions of military figures accused of war crimes, as referenced by hon. Members this afternoon. As Stephen Timms pointed out, they also include the presidential pardon of former army sergeant, Sunil Ratnayake, one of the few perpetrators of war crime atrocities to have been convicted in Sri Lanka.

Other worrying human rights developments include the continued harassment and surveillance of minorities and civil society groups, as was pointed out by Jim Shannon, the increasing role of the military in civilian governance, and a constitutional amendment that has extended Executive control over the judiciary and the independent institutions. As Mr Dhesi pointed out, the Government’s policy of forcibly cremating those deceased due to covid, which has only recently been reversed, has particularly affected the Muslim and Christian communities. Even now, our understanding is that families face significant restrictions on where and how burials can take place.

The UK Government are deeply concerned by these developments. We have long stood by all the victims of the conflict in Sri Lanka. I was particularly taken by the comments made by Anne McLaughlin, who had very personal recollections of that time. We have condemned LTTE terrorism and worked over many years to achieve post-conflict truth, accountability and transitional justice. Together with our international partners in the Core Group on Sri Lanka, the UK has led successive UN Human Rights Council resolutions on Sri Lanka in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2019. In February, June and September of last year, we set out our continued support for the UN Human Rights Council framework and our growing concerns about the human rights situation in Core Group statements to the HRC.

Sri Lanka is a human rights priority country for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. In our annual reports, and in Lord Ahmad’s autumn ministerial statement, the Government have highlighted a number of important concerns, which have been highlighted here this afternoon. Accountability and human rights have also been integral to any bilateral discussions we have had with the Government of Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary underlined the importance of accountability when he spoke to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister in May. Lord Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, has also had numerous discussions with the Foreign Minister, most recently in January, and with the Sri Lankan high commissioner here in London.

We welcome the recent reports on Sri Lanka by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. We agree with the high commissioner that the Human Rights Council must continue to monitor the situation in Sri Lanka very closely and we must continue to press for accountability and reconciliation. Along with our Core Group partners, the UK, as penholder, has presented a new draft resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council. The resolution aims to provide a continued framework for international engagement on human rights in Sri Lanka. The draft calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to make progress on accountability and human rights, and stresses the importance of a comprehensive accountability process for all violations and abuses committed in Sri Lanka. It aims to keep Sri Lanka firmly on the HRC agenda and requests OHCHR reporting on the human rights situation and, importantly, on accountability.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden and Ed Davey, have called for an international accountability mechanism —a mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of human rights violations—as part of the resolution. I can confirm that our resolution strengthens the capacity of the OHCHR to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence. The resolution supports future accountability processes and builds on the investigations conducted under previous HRC resolutions. We are now working hard to build support for our draft, which we hope will be adopted next week.

Regrettably, the Sri Lankan Government have made clear their opposition to further substantive action by the HRC. None the less, we will continue to seek to work constructively with them on these issues. We will underline the importance of accountability and human rights in our dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka. My right hon. Friend Chris Grayling, my hon. Friend Bob Blackman and the hon. Members for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) and for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) raised the issue of the hunger strike carried out by Ambihai Selvakumar. We understand that, as has been pointed out, she was able to conclude her hunger strike two days ago. We absolutely recognise the concerns she has raised about the issues faced by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. We have highlighted these concerns about the lack of progress towards post-conflict accountability and the wider human rights situation.

A number of hon. and right hon. Members raised the question of sanctions. We established the global human rights sanctions regime in July 2020, and in a statement to Parliament, the Foreign Secretary set out the full scope of the new regime without speculating, importantly, on future designations. We continue to consider further designations under this global human rights sanctions regime, and we keep all evidence and potential listings under close review.

I acknowledge and welcome the strength of feeling in the House. We are right to be concerned. We will continue to prioritise international efforts to support accountability and reconsideration at this current session of the Human Rights Council, and we are pushing very hard for our resolution to be adopted next week. I must reiterate that we cannot speculate on future designations under the global human rights sanctions regime.

Finally, I make it clear that we want a positive relationship with Sri Lanka. We share deep historical ties. We work well together on a number of common interests, such as climate change and covid recovery, and we value that partnership, but accountability and human rights must remain high on the agenda—accountability and human rights to provide justice for all the victims of the conflict and the lasting reconciliation and stability that will allow the people of Sri Lanka to prosper.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 3:46, 18 March 2021

I thank all the hon. and right hon. Members from across the House who have taken part in this debate. Their commitment to the minority community of a small island is very much appreciated, but their interest is because of the hard work of the members of the Tamil community. They simply cannot forget the relatives they no longer have, the relatives who they have no idea where they are, the relatives who were bombed in hospitals and the relatives who were left on beaches having lost their limbs by a Government now led by the same men who did that to members of their family.

This debate is about the credibility of the British Government in taking seriously the loss and distress of a community in this country—half a million who work hard, do their best and contribute greatly to our nation. Are we serious about representing them, or do we believe that Governments who have powerful friends should be allowed to behave as they like?

I suggest that the Government of Sri Lanka only understand very firm action. To rely on that Government to seek out those who committed the atrocities or to take action is simply a fool’s errand, and it has to stop. We have to seriously mean that we will help the Tamils in this country to find their relatives, to know what happened, and to allow their relatives to live in a community where they are able to vote, to take part and to believe that their views are taken seriously.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
notes with concern the reports of a systematic attack in Sri Lanka on democratic governance, the rule of law and human rights including renewed discrimination against the Tamil and Muslim communities;
is profoundly concerned that the Sri Lankan Government has refused to investigate accusations of war crimes including by key members of the current government and has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1; welcomes the significant leadership role played by successive UK Governments at the Human Rights Council and urges the Government to provide clear policy direction and leadership to ensure a new substantive resolution is passed at the upcoming Council session in March 2021 that will enable continued monitoring by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and mandate a mechanism to gather, preserve and analyse evidence of violations for future investigations and prosecutions;
and calls upon the Government to develop a consistent and coherent policy to assist the Sri Lankan people through its trade, investment and aid programmes, and in its diplomatic and military relations.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

We will suspend very briefly for the cleaning of the Dispatch Boxes.

Sitting suspended.