I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Tamil people’s rights in Sri Lanka.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I am particularly grateful that we have the opportunity to debate human rights in Sri Lanka in the same week that the UN Human Rights Council begins considering the same subject in its 30th session in Geneva. In the closing stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, 400,000 Tamil civilians were on the run as Government forces advanced and overrun the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam: the LTTE, or Tamil Tiger forces.
The UN was also operating in the no-fire zone. UN field workers ran a food distribution hub there. When an area nearby came under shelling from heavy ordnance, the UN field workers provided their GPS co-ordinates to the Government to ensure that ordnance was redirected. Three to four hours later, they came under a barrage of heavy mortar attack at those co-ordinates. There is clear evidence for this. The evidence is not from the Tamil Tigers, nor even from Tamil civilians, but from United Nations field workers. They themselves were there in the no-fire zone.
By early February 2009, the Government had overrun the first no-fire zone and created a second one on a beach in the east of the island. This no-fire zone was also heavily and systematically shelled by Government forces. In the second no-fire zone, which contained hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians living in makeshift tents, there were just six doctors. Those doctors were working in the most horrific, dangerous and squalid conditions, yet they were denied basic supplies such as antibiotics and blood by the Government. It is estimated that the locations in which the doctors operated from, which included an abandoned school, were shelled some 65 times. Indeed, the attacks were so consistent that the doctors asked the International Committee of the Red Cross not to provide their GPS co-ordinates to the Government: something that is standard practice to avoid medical facilities being bombed in times of war. I have heard direct evidence about this from one of the doctors who was working bravely in that makeshift medical centre.
I should add that the Sri Lankan Government forces by no means had the monopoly on human rights abuses at the end of the war in Sri Lanka. Tamil civilians were also subjected to a variety of horrors at the hands of the LTTE, including being used as human shields. However, it is important that the two are not conflated. The all-party group for Tamils, which I chair and of which various Members from different parties are here today, is concerned with Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka and in the non-resident community, which includes many of our constituents, many of whom suffered terribly. We have no truck with the LTTE, which is a terrorist organisation that I condemn absolutely. Equally, we have no truck with those who label the people who stand up for Tamil rights in Sri Lanka as LTTE sympathisers.
With that caveat, I should add that there is compelling evidence that the laws of war and international human rights laws were breached with respect to LTTE—or suspected LTTE—captives after their surrender. There is evidence that LTTE members holding white flags of surrender were none the less shot by Government forces. There is clear evidence that female Tamil captives were sexually abused before being shot, and there is clear evidence in the form of sickening video footage of Government soldiers shooting Tamils—presumably LTTE fighters—in the head while they were on their knees, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs. The comparison with the gruesome footage of executions released by the barbaric Daesh in Syria is obvious.
The UN has estimated that in the closing stages of the civil war between January and May 2009, some 40,000 civilians died. Most of those were Tamil. Although that period was not the beginning nor the end of the human rights abuses suffered by people from all sides of the conflict in Sri Lanka, it is justice for the human rights abuses in that period that we are primarily concerned with today.
In response to the Sri Lankan Government’s abject failure to secure accountability for the deaths, on
“The Panel’s determination of credible allegations reveals a very different version of the final stages of the war than that maintained to this day by the Government...The Government says it pursued a ‘humanitarian rescue operation’ with...‘zero civilian casualties.’ In stark contrast, the Panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace."
Instead of engaging with the UN report in a meaningful or sensible way, the Sri Lankan Government arrogantly rejected it, describing it as “fundamentally flawed” and “patently biased”. Sri Lanka did nothing to address the alleged human rights abuses at the end of the war. Not a single prosecution was instigated. It is reasonable to surmise that the Sri Lankan Government hoped that the international community would turn the other way.
But the United Kingdom did not look the other way. In November 2013, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting convened in Sri Lanka. Some of the heads of state who were invited, such as Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, chose to boycott the meeting in protest at the Sri Lankan Government’s record on human rights. Our Prime Minister, who was urged not to attend, did attend to encourage progress on human rights. Away from the Government’s stage-managed photo opportunities, our Prime Minister bravely used the opportunity to visit the north and to hear at first hand the harrowing accounts from Tamil civilians.
Plainly moved by those accounts, and Sri Lanka’s ongoing and abject failure to investigate human rights abuses, the Prime Minister used the March 2014 session of the UN Human Rights Council to call for a full and independent investigation into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. I am proud that Britain led the calls for an independent investigation. I am proud that David Cameron and his allies at the UNHRC delivered a resolution requiring an independent investigation. It should not be forgotten that this was not an easy sell on the council. In fact, of the 47 members, only 23 countries voted positively for the resolution; 12 abstained and 12 voted against.
Welcoming the resolution, our Prime Minister said:
“This is a victory for the people of Sri Lanka who need to know the truth about what happened during those terrible years of the civil war so that they can move forward. Today’s outcome has been triggered by the failure of the Sri Lankan government to stand by its promises to credibly and independently investigate alleged violations on both sides during the war."
On Monday, the UNHRC met for its 30th session in Geneva. At the end of the session on
As for the accountability mechanism, the Sri Lankan Government have in the past and continue to this day to reject absolutely an international mechanism for determining human rights abuses of the form that we saw in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Cambodia post-conflict. When there are serious allegations on both sides of a conflict of an international human rights nature, the Government’s reasons for rejecting an international mechanism should be scrutinised most closely.
To be clear, many Tamils reject a domestic mechanism. That is the point of view of the Tamil National Alliance, which has just won 16 parliamentary seats in the August elections; it is the view of the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, which is predominantly Tamil; and it is the view of the British Tamils Forum and of the Global Tamil Forum, which the BTF is part of. Put simply, they do not see any difference between the conditions in 2014, which led to the UNHRC’s resolution for an international investigation over a domestic one, and those that exist today.
There are three principal objections to a domestic tribunal. First, how can the victims of alleged horrendous human rights abuses have any confidence in the fairness or the impartiality of a tribunal convened by a Government comprised of a number of the people accused of those very abuses?
The easy answer to that question would be that in January 2015 a new President— President Sirisena—was elected, which heralds a new era. But as human rights groups have pointed out, President Sirisena is the same man who was the acting Defence Minister in the final days of the civil war, when most civilian casualties occurred. And many people in top-ranking Government, military and other state positions remain the same. General Fonseka, the Commander of Armed Forces at the end of the civil war, was recently promoted to the rank of field marshal. Major General Jagath Dias, commander of the 57th division, whose units stand accused of committing some of the worst human rights abuses at the end of the civil war, was promoted to Army Chief of Staff just this May.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this most timely and extremely relevant debate. Bearing in mind the rather unfortunate history of other countries intervening in Sri Lanka, be they Scandinavian countries or India, who does he suggest should be the agency behind the independent commission to examine what is undoubtedly a series of incidents that could be described by any impartial person as war crimes?
For the reasons I just mentioned, it is small wonder that many Tamil people have little faith in the Government to convene a fair and impartial justice mechanism.
The second objection to a domestic inquiry is that Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome statute; its domestic laws do not cover a number of the international laws that were breached by both sides, credible evidence of which is found in the 2011 UN report. So, as a bare minimum for a domestic mechanism, Sri Lanka’s domestic laws must cover each and every law that was breached; again, the UN has found credible evidence for those breaches in its new report, which is due to be issued tomorrow.
The third objection to a domestic inquiry is the lack of confidence of witnesses to come forward. A number of the witnesses who the UN spoke to, both when it prepared its new report and when it prepared its report in 2011, only spoke to it on condition of strict anonymity. Many Tamil victims of and witnesses to human rights abuses have fled the country and been granted asylum in countries such as the UK and Canada because of the fate they suffered in Sri Lanka. They would fear returning to Sri Lanka to participate in a tribunal where the prosecutors and indeed the witness protection, if there was any, were to be provided by the Sri Lankan Government.
Moreover, international human rights groups and charities have recently published reports detailing worrying ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. A number of these groups and charities exist in the UK. Freedom from Torture, a British charity, produced a report in August that cited evidence of human rights abuses since the ceasefire. So, between May 2009 and this year, there is evidence that the Sri Lankan military, police and intelligence services have practised torture, including rape and extensive burning. So, what confidence can witnesses have in coming forward in a perceived climate of fear, especially when it is believed that witnesses who have come forward previously have suffered as a result?
I recognise that there appears to be little appetite among the UNHRC members at its current summit for a fully independent justice mechanism. That is obviously disappointing, but perhaps it is unsurprising given how tight the vote was back in 2014 for an independent investigation. If it really is the case that there is no international appetite for an independent inquiry, it is probably right that there is little to be gained by Britain going out on a limb. Nevertheless, I ask the Minister to do what he can to ensure that the justice mechanism is a robust one, preferably with UN involvement both in the prosecution and the judicial tribunal.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Britain can add a lot of value to this process, even if it is at arm’s length, because of our experience in Northern Ireland, which is a similar conflict between two sides that hold different views but whose views must be equally and fairly taken on board in any resolution ahead? Such a process should come from within a political process, as has been the case in the past in Northern Ireland and as seems to be happening in Sri Lanka, in terms of a unity Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. During a number of years, there have been repeated failures by the Sri Lankan Government to put in place a credible process. That is why it is important that, whatever comes out of the current UNHRC session, robust procedures are put in place, so that whatever system is arrived at the UN strictly monitors it and can return to the UNHRC if the stages, expectations and benchmarks are not met. Simply leaving matters to the Sri Lankan Government after this long history of, frankly, their taking no action whatsoever is not an acceptable way forward.
I commend my hon. Friend on securing this very important and timely debate. I share his support for an international process, but does he share my view that, in addition to what the Government can do, we in the British Parliament have a role to play by working with our Sri Lankan counterparts from all political parties, to ensure that they themselves can play an active part in any reconciliation process? Also, will he join me in commending the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which are trying to establish active schemes in Sri Lanka at this time?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I certainly commend the work that has been done by British parliamentarians to help to support parliamentarians in Sri Lanka; long may that work continue.
Sri Lanka’s track record on accountability is summed up by the fact that not a single prosecution has yet taken place, which I consider an absolute disgrace. Given that, it is my firm submission that whatever mechanism is put in place, it should be very much under the supervision of the UN, so that if the safeguards that the UN puts in place are not met, the matter will come back before the UNHRC.
I turn to the wider issues in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Even if there is not to be an international judicial mechanism, there is much else that Britain can achieve, by leading the international community in ensuring that the Sri Lankan Government delivers. I will focus briefly on four points.
First, there should be demilitarisation of the north and east, which are effectively still under military lockdown. Secondly, there must be swift progress on the disappeared. Many thousands of Tamils remain unaccounted for, including the relatives of a number of my own constituents. Indeed, there are still more people unaccounted for in Sri Lanka than in any other country in the world outside Iraq. Thirdly, there must be swift progress with the resettlement of the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Tamil civilians who were displaced by the civil war, many of whom had their lands, and therefore their livelihoods, seized by the military. Fourthly, there must be reconstruction of the north and east.
There are many steps that the Sri Lankan Government could take to improve reconstruction in the north and the east. These include freeing up the way for inward investment directly into the region, rather than processing it through Colombo, which is something the non-resident Tamil community in the UK is keen to do. My own constituency sits in the borough of Kingston, as does that of my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith, and the borough is looking to twin with the city of Jaffna, in order to promote economic, cultural and social advancement, and to assist in that regard.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on his speech and I very much share his view that there should be an independent UN investigation. He said that he thought there were four specific things that the British Government could do. May I suggest to him that there is a fifth? It is that the British Government, perhaps through some of their funding from the Foreign Office to human rights organisations, could continue to shine a light on the human rights abuses that are still ongoing in the north and east of Sri Lanka. And in that regard, I draw his attention to a report by the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership in the US on the situation that Tamil women face. There continues to be a huge problem in terms of sexual harassment and, as the hon. Gentleman alluded to, rape, as much now as there has been in the past.
I mentioned just one of the recent reports—the one from Freedom from Torture—but a number of them show ongoing and serious human rights violations that must be dealt with at the Human Rights Council. A credible system must be in place for investigating this issue. It cannot simply be swept under the carpet because we are considering something that happened at the beginning of 2009. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
On that point, the evidence given to the Freedom from Torture report and to the UNHRC—the hon. Gentleman has referred to it—showed 148 post-conflict incidents of torture. A third were from voluntary returners from the UK to Sri Lanka. Worryingly, in 11 of those cases, the Sri Lankan army and police had surveillance information available on their involvement in politics in the UK. Eight of those cases were since January, with one as late as June. The idea that the problem is historical is clearly not the case. I suggest that Home Office policy on asylum for Tamils should take that on board.
The hon. Lady is noted for her work in this area. I have read the report, and it is worrying. What is most worrying about it is that human rights abuses are continuing, with two as recent as June. The problem has not been solved by the change in presidency in January. I urge the Minister to ensure that that is considered at the Human Rights Council as well.
My hon. Friend is being very generous, and he is giving a splendid and powerful speech. He has laid out the arguments extraordinarily well. He has mentioned the progress being made by our borough, the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, and Jaffna district, which are in the process of organising twinning. In addition to the obvious benefits of commercial co-operation around governance and so on, does he believe that twinning will also provide another layer of protection for the people who live in and residents of Jaffna district, on the basis that it will be more eyes, more scrutiny and more transparency? Is peace part of the value in the twinning process in his view?
Peace is certainly part of the value in the twinning process that we are planning in Kingston. Whether my hon. Friend is in place in Richmond Park in north Kingston or in the wider London area, I am sure that the scrutiny he will bring to bear on the issue will be of great benefit to those involved in the twinning process.
Other examples of economic progress that could be made to improve the situation in the north and east include: repairing infrastructure damaged by the years of war, including opening Jaffna airport to international flights, and giving the go-ahead to India’s proposal for a bridge over the short gap between India and the island of Sri Lanka, which would boost trade between the two countries.
President Sirisena has spoken warm words on some of these topics, and I do not dispute that some progress has been made, but progress since his election in January has not been quick enough, and some measurable benchmarks need to be put in place. Warm words are not enough.
In conclusion, the international community failed to act in 2009 when 40,000 Sri Lankan citizens, mainly Tamil, were slaughtered. Now is not the time for the world to look away again simply because there are other crises, such as that in Syria, and because the new President of Sri Lanka is making more positive noises about reconciliation.
Minister to go to the Dispatch Box and call for a ceasefire, and that our Foreign Secretary at the time, David Miliband, visited Sri Lanka. That was a dangerous situation to walk into. Although we did not get a ceasefire from that, it did bear witness and let the world know about the slaughter that was happening.
I certainly was not trying to make a party political point. My experience of our APG so far is that this is one issue on which our two parties are ad idem, and long may that continue.
The Tamil people in Sri Lanka want reconciliation, but reconciliation cannot take place without proper accountability. I close with a quote from the Prime Minister at the time of the 2014 UNHRC session. He said:
“Ultimately all of this is about reconciliation…It is about bringing justice and closure and healing to this country which now has a chance of a much brighter future. That will only happen by dealing with these issues and not ignoring them.”
I call on our Government once again to lead the world in seeking proper accountability for human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
Time is quite short, so I propose moving on to the wind-ups from the three Front-Benchers at 5.10 pm. While there is no formal time limit, in order to try to accommodate the other Members who wish to speak, I suggest they try to keep their comments to closer to three minutes than four, if possible.
I congratulate James Berry on calling this timely debate and on his recent appointment as chair of the Tamil all-party group, to which I am pleased to have been appointed vice-chair.
The Tamil cause is important to me. I am proud to have served as the chief executive of and policy adviser to the Global Tamil Forum, an organisation that is passionately committed to human rights, accountability, reconciliation and lasting peace in Sri Lanka. I am also pleased to support the British Tamils Forum. Many members from the Tamil community have made representations to me. They have suffered terrible human rights violations, both during the armed conflict and in its aftermath. I remain deeply concerned about the ongoing treatment of the Tamil people on the island.
I was delighted to see the back of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. His authoritarian Government did so much to undermine the rule of law and repress the rights of Tamils and other communities. It is to President Sirisena’s credit that he has sought to reduce the powers of the presidency, appointed civilian rather than military governors to the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern provinces and released some Tamil political prisoners and land.
However, as the compelling report by the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka pointed out,
“systematic and widespread crimes against humanity have not ceased with the change of government.”
We have heard that today. Tamil families continue to report being at the mercy of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows for arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without charge. In the north and east of Sri Lanka, the Tamil National Alliance has expressed particular concern about the return of Tamil internally displaced people and refugees. Gender-based violence continues to be committed by members of the military against Tamil war widows, and the militarisation of Tamil areas over the past six years and the commercial exploitation of Tamil lands by the armed forces are hindering economic recovery and entrenching poverty.
After suffering repression and marginalisation for decades, what confidence can the Tamil people have that genuine change will be effected? Where is the Government’s commitment to a comprehensive political settlement that addresses the issue of Tamil self-determination? Can the Tamil people have any confidence that the human rights violations committed against them during and since the armed conflict will finally be addressed? The answer to that question is of particular importance given the timing of today’s debate—as we have heard, the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council is under way.
We know from the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the forthcoming report on Sri Lanka will present
“findings of the most serious nature”.
The atrocities committed in the final months of the armed conflict were some of the worst the world has seen. Tens of thousands of Tamils were slaughtered, with many more unaccounted for. The culture of impunity that allowed terrible human rights violations and crimes against humanity to take place still exists in Sri Lanka today.
Only through a credible accountability and justice process will Sri Lanka be set on a path to genuine reconciliation and a sustainable peace. I note the statement made by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister yesterday, in which he said that his Government would seek to establish a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission and a new office on missing persons. Those are important developments, but as the Tamil National Alliance MP, Mr Sumanthiran, has said:
“Whatever procedures are instituted…the international community must get the Government of Sri Lanka to agree to full international participation, because the process must have credibility”.
As the democratically elected voice of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, the TNA must be listened to.
Tamils are right to have serious misgivings about any notion of domestic inquiries: let us not forget that Sri Lanka has an appalling record of either whitewashing or failing to investigate human rights abuses. The state has been complicit in the alleged perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict. President Sirisena was a Government Minister in the final years of the war and has rejected outright the evidence of serious human rights abuses uncovered by Callum Macrae’s groundbreaking “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” documentary. Domestic processes without full international involvement will be neither durable nor credible.
Along with many Tamils in the UK, Sri Lanka and around the world, I want to know what pressure the Government will bring to bear to ensure that any resolution relating to Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council includes cast-iron guarantees of international involvement.
As Mr Sumanthiran says, more than anything else, the process must have credibility in the minds of victims. That is the least we can expect after so many promises of an independent international inquiry. The next few weeks will have such an important bearing on the future of Sri Lanka in terms of its past, its future and its current human rights situation, so it is vital that the Minister takes all those points on board when considering the UK’s position. I look forward to hearing his response.
I do not suggest for a minute that it is not right to learn lessons. It is right to learn lessons from anyone’s experience in business, in one’s personal life and, indeed, in government. That is why I referred earlier to the British Government’s experience in Northern Ireland. There are many things that they might have done differently or, in hindsight, might never have done. Importantly, the peace process in Northern Ireland came from within.
Let me make a little progress and then I certainly will. It is important that the unity Government has been formed in Sri Lanka, because it allows for a sense of everyone having a seat at the table and the opportunity to have their say. Importantly, it allows everyone to be heard. I do not believe that anyone present is saying that war is pretty. It certainly was war, and things might well have been done differently on both sides.
I welcome what my hon. Friend James Berry said about the importance of keeping distinct the work that his all-party group is doing to champion the rights of Tamil people and its opposition to the terrorism of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Let us not forget that it was the LTTE, which I accept no one here supports, who perfected the suicide belt and were the first to use women as suicide bombers. Those are disgusting acts that no one present would support; indeed, I am sure that everyone would condemn them.
The vast majority of people in Sri Lanka, on both sides, wanted peace. They never wanted the war, so it is important that we move forward and learn the lessons of the past in whatever way we can. It is important to be fair to both sides.
I have family who suffered at the hands of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and through the misconducts and misdeeds of the British Government over many years, but is the hon. Gentleman seriously comparing the British Government’s involvement in Northern Ireland with the appalling acts of brutality and war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan Government? I find that unbelievable.
I am making the point that it is possible to learn lessons. It is possible for the British Government to have learned lessons, and it is right that the Sri Lankan Government learn lessons about their past. The hon. Gentleman is right to make that point, but I am not suggesting that the two are one and the same. Nevertheless, the point about learning lessons is important.
In the interests of time, I will say very briefly that it is important that any future work is fair to both sides, and that there is not a witch hunt on either side. People in Northern Ireland have entered into the democratic process, which is absolutely right; that is the direction in which I believe Sri Lanka needs to go. There is a part to play for the Foreign Office in ensuring more trade and investment between our country and Sri Lanka, because as the latter becomes a more prosperous nation, it is possible—indeed, it becomes easier—for everyone to work together and share in prosperity. That is the way to make sure that Sri Lanka goes from strength to strength while ensuring that lessons are learned from the years that have passed.
I want very briefly to make some constructive suggestions on how the international component of any mechanism looking into what went on in Sri Lanka could work. It is crucial that tomorrow’s report represents the beginning of international action on behalf of Sri Lanka’s victims, not the conclusion of the issue. If the international community, including the UK, fails to fulfil its role in providing international oversight, perpetrators of war crimes and continued human rights abuses will never be brought to justice.
Such international pressure could include the following recommendations, all made by the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka. First, a special envoy for human rights in Sri Lanka should be appointed to go beyond the offering of technical assistance alone. Secondly, the protection of witnesses must be ensured to internationally accepted standards. Thirdly, the forthcoming Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report should be referred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for further action. Fourthly, the Secretary-General’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict and the special rapporteur on torture should be pushed to visit Sri Lanka and initiate a special inquiry into rape and sexual violence. Finally, Sri Lankan police and military involvement in UN peacekeeping missions should be suspended.
We cannot let limited national mechanisms fail to provide the victims of inhumanity with the fairness and justice that they truly deserve. As a silent war against historical and ongoing human rights abuses continues, the international community can and must do more.
Thank you, Mr Brady. I will keep my eye on the clock and, with the limited time I have, build on the points made by others, rather than repeating them.
I thank James Berry for securing this debate and for the energetic way he has taken up his role as chair of the all-party group on Tamils. I am proud to be one of his vice-chairs. In the detailed speech he gave to introduce the debate, we heard an indication of the crimes that were committed during the civil war. When it is published tomorrow, I hope that the report begins to build even greater international attention and focus not only on what took place but on what continues to happen in Sri Lanka, and the effect on its population, particularly the Tamil community who still reside in the north of the country, as well as the Tamils around the world, including in our constituencies, who feel that they cannot return home for fear of further persecution.
I agree with my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh that tomorrow really must be the start and not the conclusion. The level of independent international accountability—accountability that many have campaigned for—does not go far enough. The Sri Lankan Government have obfuscated and stalled every step of the way. I welcome the work done by Gordon Brown’s Government, and successive Governments since, to put the issue on the agenda. There can be no justice without accountability. We cannot trust the domestic structures in Sri Lanka to ensure genuine accountability for the crimes that took place, which is why independent international mechanisms will be so important.
In the limited time remaining, I want to add to the Minister’s list of things to respond to by asking about how the Home Office responds to asylum applications. To give a recent example, a constituent of mine, a victim of torture in Sri Lanka, who has been here for years and has demonstrable evidence of torture—not just mental torture, but the physical scars of torture—has seen his case continually delayed. After the suffering that he has experienced, he should not have to experience further suffering at the hands of our broken immigration system. I hope that those in the Foreign Office can relay that to their colleagues in the Home Office. On that point, Mr Brady, not wanting to draw your ire, I will take my seat.
We have up to 20 minutes for three Front-Bench wind-ups. I suspect that all Members present want the Minister to be able to respond to the points.
I congratulate James Berry on securing this debate. I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss something that is close to my heart and about which I feel passionately: the rights and experiences of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
I lived and worked in Sri Lanka for a few months in 2008, and I have been back several times since. I left many friends behind: Singhalese and Tamil, as well as Scottish and English, all of whom I have kept in touch with. As a Member of the Scottish Parliament for two years from 2009, I represented much of the Tamil diaspora in Glasgow in the aftermath of the civil war. Indeed, I met former President Rajapaksa in 2009, who was charm personified until I mentioned my constituents, at which point I became invisible. I do not think for a second that I am an expert on Sri Lanka as a result, but I hope that my personal experience will allow me to make a useful contribution to the debate.
I share the scepticism of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton about new President Sirisena. He appears to take seriously his commitment to unify Sri Lanka, but we should never forget, as many have said, that he was in government when entire Tamil areas were bombed and thousands of people who posed no threat to anyone were killed. Progress has been made, however. In January, for example, the new Government said that the ban on the Tamil diaspora would continue, but by June they spoke of a diaspora festival. In the President’s inaugural address on
“use your expertise and skills to develop the motherland in this consensual political environment.”
I am deeply suspicious of politicians who make changes not because it is the right thing to do, but in order to win a power battle, so I remain cautious but optimistic. I will remain cautious about someone who has just increased their Cabinet from 30 to 48 Cabinet Secretaries, but optimistic about someone who has just returned presidential powers to the Parliament. While life remains hard for Tamils, both here and in Sri Lanka, we must keep the issue alive. Land has been returned to Tamils this year, but only after all the buildings had been destroyed. While people are still living in internally displaced person camps in Jaffna, we must keep a watching brief.
Finally, I want to draw attention to the fact that psychosocial therapy to help people deal with trauma was banned in Sri Lanka. That ban has now been lifted, but it comes too late for some who have fallen into alcoholism, drug addiction and sexual abuse. The world must keep an eye on Sri Lanka. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on bringing this fantastic, important debate to the House. The British Government often talk of their influence on the world stage. They must use it, and I look forward to hearing to how they plan to do so.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate James Berry on securing this afternoon’s debate. As he says, there has been cross-party work on the issue, and I hope that it continues. I will try to keep my remarks brief, because while it is always important to hear what the Minister has to say, I understand that he has just returned from Geneva, so he may have some particularly useful information for us.
Despite encouraging signs since the defeat of President Rajapaksa in last month’s parliamentary elections—President Sirisena naming an ethnic Tamil Leader of the Opposition and asking the new Parliament to draft reforms to promote ethnic reconciliation; the appointment of a Tamil chief justice; and some of the military administrations in the north being replaced with civilian ones—it would be wrong to suggest that it is possible to draw a line under what has happened in Sri Lanka’s recent history, which the hon. Gentleman eloquently outlined.
Some people will argue that it is time to move on, and that a new dawn is on the horizon, but that would not give justice to the Tamil community, which has endured terrible human rights abuses. That legacy must be addressed by President Sirisena with the support of the international community and with an independent international mechanism. The abuses include the many thousands of enforced disappearances. Too many families are still waiting for answers, and I hope that the Minister regularly discusses that with the Sri Lankan Government. Freedom from Torture’s “Tainted Peace” report on torture in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war states that last year, for the third consecutive year, Sri Lanka accounted for the most cases referred to its clinical services, including cases that have happened since the election of President Sirisena. That underlines that we cannot be complacent about the direction or pace of reform in Sri Lanka.
As has been mentioned, there is also the question of what happens when we send back to Sri Lanka people who have had applications for asylum here rejected. Freedom from Torture reports that more than a third of cases reviewed for the study involved people who were detained after returning from the UK. The previous Foreign Secretary, William Hague, undertook last year to investigate reports that Tamil asylum seekers deported by the Home Office had been subjected to sexual violence on their return to Sri Lanka. Like previous speakers, I ask the Minister to update us on the outcome of those investigations, and on the conversations he is having with the Home Office.
Previously, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was unable to tell the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs whether the human rights defenders, journalists and others who met the Prime Minister during the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting had been subjected to any intimidation or harassment as a result. A report by the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka has alleged that Tamils organising demonstrations for the Prime Minister’s CHOGM visit were threatened by the security and intelligence services, and that some were subsequently tortured. I hope that the Minister agrees that we have a special responsibility to look into the situation and the safety of those human rights defenders who met our Prime Minister, and that he can update us on that.
As we have heard, the United Nations Human Rights Council inquiry’s report and the recommendations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights will be published tomorrow. The high commissioner has already warned that the
“findings are of the most serious nature” and rightly concluded that the UNHRC
“owes it to Sri Lankans—and to its own credibility—to ensure an accountability process that produces results, decisively moves beyond the failures of the past, and brings the deep institutional changes needed to guarantee non-recurrence”.
President Rajapaksa notoriously refused to co-operate with the inquiry. The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister’s address to the UNHRC this week recognised the need for change and accountability, and committed to repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Sri Lanka intends to establish a commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence, in consultation with South Africa. I hope that the Minister can update us on his discussions on that with his Sri Lankan counterparts, and on how the Sri Lankan Government can guarantee that the commission is credible, effective and unquestionably independent. We had a long wait for the for the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s report, which, as everyone will agree, did not resolve any issues. We need an inquiry that commands the confidence of the Tamil community, which has been let down so much in the past. It remains imperative that Sri Lanka work with the UN to deliver accountability and justice, and to secure Sri Lanka on the path to peace and reconciliation.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I think that we are all united in urging the Sri Lankan Government to engage constructively with the high commissioner’s recommendations. I hope that the UK can play a constructive role in ensuring that they do so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend James Berry on securing this debate and commend the valuable work that he has already done in the short time that he has been chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils. He continues to raise the important issue of Tamil rights. I also congratulate Kerry McCarthy, with whom I have jousted across this room and the Chamber for some years now, on her promotion to shadow Secretary of State in the new Labour shadow Front-Bench team.
As several Members have said, the debate comes at a crucial juncture for all Sri Lankans, not only those from the Tamil community. Parliamentary elections last month were the freest, fairest and least violent in living memory. We were pleased to have played a role through support to the European Union and Commonwealth observer missions and by funding domestic election observers. The elections resulted in the formation of a new Government of national unity committed to reconciliation and peace building, so some of the criticisms and observations by both Government and Opposition Members in the debate might have been better directed at the former Government, that of Mahinda Rajapaksa, rather than at the new Administration.
I welcome the Minister’s comments. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does the Minister agree that President Sirisena’s first few months in office have opened up an important political space, with robust debate and important governance changes, such as the 19th amendment to the constitution? There is clearly a lot more to do, but progress is heading in the right direction.
I utterly concur with my hon. Friend. For example, there is now a Tamil leader of the opposition for the first time in more than 30 years. We have a real window of opportunity for all Sri Lankans to work together to secure a stable, secure and prosperous future.
Tomorrow the report of the international investigation by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will be published. I am proud, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton is, of the leading role that the British Government played in calling for that investigation. The report and its recommendations will make a significant contribution to Sri Lanka’s efforts to establish truth and deliver justice, as the country seeks to address the legacy of the civil war, which continues to have a profound impact on many Sri Lankans.
The debate is also particularly timely because I attended the opening session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva yesterday. I thanked the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the work of his office in producing the report. I agreed with him that the process had been not only invaluable, but I am sure difficult for the many brave witnesses who came forward to give evidence.
As I discussed yesterday with High Commissioner Zeid, and separately with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and with Tamil National Alliance spokesperson Sumanthiran, our expectation is that Sri Lanka will now take forward the report’s recommendations and deliver the required processes and mechanisms to implement them. I also made those points when I addressed the Human Rights Council. I recognise that much remains to be done, but in stark contrast to previous years, I was delighted that I could speak positively about the steps that Sri Lanka’s new leadership has taken to begin to address post-conflict accountability and reconciliation.
The report has a vital role to play in understanding the events that took place during and after the conflict, but it is not an end in itself. I agree with hon. Members who said that this is the start of the process and in no way the end. I am sure that all in this House who have followed developments in Sri Lanka closely now want, as I do, to see Sri Lanka move towards meaningful reconciliation, long-term stability and prosperity for all parties.
I tend to look at things more positively. If I may continue, my hon. Friend will hear some of my points in support of what the Government in Sri Lanka are seeking to do. They have our full confidence.
I thank the Minister for what he has said. I, too, should draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On trade and investment, to which my right hon. Friend referred, does he agree that prosperity will bring the country together as one? We should ensure that everyone has opportunity in Sri Lanka.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. I very much welcome the plans to twin with Jaffna and so forth. When I was up there, it was clear that, rather than the diaspora returning funds to the Northern Province, Jaffna or the Tamil areas, they should make micro-investments and create businesses. Tamils are fantastic businessmen. The diaspora should invest back into their own country, in the safe knowledge that they will be secure to grow businesses there. There need not be dependence on remittances, but on the micro-economy, growth and jobs. That is what we want.
A vital part of the reconciliation process must be credible proposals that meet international standards to address the four key principles of transitional justice, namely, truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence. I was therefore pleased that Foreign Minister Mangala’s address to the Human Rights Council included such plans. We now need to work with the Sri
Lankan Government and our partners in the Human Rights Council to understand Sri Lanka’s plans in more detail and to agree a consensual resolution that sets out a clear framework for delivery. That will of course include plans for delivering justice and accountability.
I appreciate why many in the Tamil community have called for a purely international accountability mechanism, but we have been clear for a long time that a credible domestic mechanism that meets international standards is the best way to build a stronger, more inclusive and prosperous society. In practice, that means: an appropriate legislative and judicial framework for prosecutions to take place; an international element that enables it to meet international standards; guarantees of effective protection of witnesses; and an agreed follow-up mechanism to monitor progress. That is the only way in which any process will gain credibility, critically with all Sri Lankan people and with the international community.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton referred to allegations against senior public figures in Sri Lanka. As I have stated previously, we should not pre-judge the conclusions of the UN report. Once the report is published, however, it will be important that its findings are acted on in full, in a credible manner and in line with international standards.
My hon. Friend also referred to recent allegations of human rights violations. We take such allegations extremely seriously. We have repeatedly lobbied the Sri Lankan Government about human rights violations in the past and continue to do so. I discussed the issue of disappearances with Foreign Minister Mangala and with the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, in Geneva yesterday. I am pleased that they have agreed to work together to establish on office on missing persons, in line with internationally accepted standards. I am also pleased that the Foreign Minister committed to begin issuing certificates of absence to the families of those who have disappeared, which is an important first step towards dealing with the terrible situation of the missing, which my hon. Friend described.
As regards asylum and human rights applications from Sri Lankan nationals, together with my colleagues at the Home Office, we keep our asylum policy for all countries under regular review, taking into account all available evidence. Applications are carefully considered on their individual merits in accordance with our international obligations. Individuals who can demonstrate that they face a genuine risk of persecution or ill-treatment in Sri Lanka are granted protection. In an individual case, when people raise material issues about the safety of their return, the Home Office will review it.
What about cases in which people cannot prove that they would be in imminent danger, but are so terrified by their experiences in Sri Lanka over many years that they cannot bear to go back? I have constituents in such circumstances. Would the Home Office consider granting them asylum even though they might not face danger, but perceive that they do?
If the Home Office gave asylum to everyone who perceived danger, the asylum policy would be in a mess, as Wes Streeting said it was—which it is not. We have to make judgments case by case. We have been reviewed regularly and withstood such reviews, so our policy is robust. Incidentally, as I discussed again in Geneva yesterday, there are of course still problems in the police and the armed forces, and the new Government need to come to terms with that, but I genuinely believe that they will stamp out any human rights abuses. We need to understand that there has been a sea change in Sri Lanka. We need to get behind the new Administration.
No, I will continue, if I may, for the last minute or so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton correctly pointed out the significant social and economic challenges in Sri Lanka. I saw those at first hand when I visited in January. I reiterated to the Government of Sri Lanka our commitment to help in tackling those challenges.
Fundamental to helping ordinary people get back to normal lives are demilitarisation and the return of military-occupied land in the north and east, which I discussed with Minister for Resettlement Swaminathan and President Sirisena during my visit to Sri Lanka in January; with the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, Justice Wigneswaran, most recently during his visit to London in July, when I met him for the second time; and with Governor Fernando of the Eastern Province yesterday in Geneva.
Given the importance of those issues, I was encouraged by the replacement of military governors in the north and east with civilians, by the return of land to a number of war-displaced Tamil families, including by President Sirisena last month, which—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (