Sri Lankan Tamils and Human Rights — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:28 am on 5 December 2023.

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[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Scottish National Party, Linlithgow and East Falkirk 2:30, 5 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Sri Lankan Tamils and human rights.

This story has a long and tragic history, and I am grateful to colleagues across the House who are here today and to those who work with the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils. I am also grateful to the British Tamils Forum, which plays a key role in supporting the APPG and has been working hard over the past 14 years to raise awareness. It has certainly helped in awakening my consciousness to the plight of the Tamils.

Since independence in 1948, there has been an appalling catalogue of massacres of the Tamil people, starting in 1956 with the Inginiyagala massacre and continuing right up until recent times. Generations of oppression have been suffered by the Tamil people—events that still haunt the survivors, with a cycle of violence and genocide that is sadly ongoing.

Forty years ago, in July 1983, a mass anti-Tamil pogrom broke out in Sri Lanka, during which an estimated 3,000 Tamil people died and 150,000 were made homeless. During the pogrom, Tamil homes and businesses were targeted, with buildings looted and burned and widespread violence. As well as the cost to lives, what has come to be known as Black July led to the loss of approximately 8,000 Tamil homes, more than 100 industrial plants, more than 5,000 Tamil shops and what is estimated to be over $300 million in wealth.

The events of July 1983 proved to be one of the catalysts for the decades of civil conflict that followed. However, the pogrom itself was the culmination of decades of anti-Tamil policies and anti-Tamil violence in Sri Lanka, the seeds of which, if we consider the history, were sown back in the island’s colonial era.

From the Ceylon Citizenship Act in the 1940s, which left many Tamils stateless, to the deportation of many thousands of Tamils to India between the 1960s and the 1980s, as well as the 1956 “Sinhala only” Act, which recognised Sinhalese as the sole official language, replacing English and excluding Tamil, it is clear that for Sri Lanka’s Tamils their history is one of disenfranchisement, deportation and policies that discriminate against their community’s language and culture. Black July was therefore not an isolated event; it was part of a wider picture of persecution and the cycle of violence.

It is an event that continues to scar Sri Lankan society to this day. Many Tamils in the UK will have arrived here after fleeing the 1983 conflict and will remember the events and violence keenly. In Sri Lanka, the pogrom had a devastating effect on the Tamil community, leading not only to the loss of thousands of innocent lives, but to the massive displacement of Tamil families who were forced to flee their homes, as well as causing injury and psychological trauma.

In 2009, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the Sri Lankan Government killed thousands of Tamils, including children. They were sent to a small strip of land designated as a safe zone, where they were then bombed. Those atrocities were evidenced by satellite photographs. Furthermore, since the Easter Sunday atrocities in 2019, we have still not seen anybody brought to justice, despite the intelligence warnings of the attacks.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (International Trade)

The experiences that the hon. Gentleman describes are very well known to many of the Tamil constituents I am lucky enough to represent. Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act is still in force today and is used arbitrarily as a means to discriminate against and intimidate the remaining Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that it is high time the British Government took more decisive action to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to end the use of that Act?

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Scottish National Party, Linlithgow and East Falkirk

The hon. Member and I are on exactly the same page; I will come to that section of my speech shortly. I agree wholeheartedly with his comments.

The scars are deepened by the fact that, years later, the Sri Lankan Tamil communities are no closer to getting any meaningful accountability or justice for the terrible pogroms. Many of the institutions and laws that enabled the violence remain in place today and are still responsible for humans rights violations. Concerns remain about Sri Lanka’s police force and armed forces, and there are allegations that they abuse their power by surveilling and harassing human rights activists. I have heard directly from Tamils that the outcome of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was that the victims were further victimised by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Concerns also remain about the laws that enable human rights violations. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which Gareth Thomas asked about, has enabled the detention of political prisoners for long periods since it was enacted in 1979. It was used to detain the 53 prisoners at Welikada prison who were subsequently killed during a terrible flashpoint in the Black July pogrom that has come to be remembered as the Welikada prison massacre. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was used to arrest state opponents. Although it may now be repealed, there are fears that its proposed replacement, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, may be worse, and that the Government’s attitude towards human rights activists has not altered at all.

Meanwhile, domestic attempts at accountability for the events of 1983 appear to have failed. In 2002, the Presidential Truth Commission on Ethnic Violence published its report criticising the Government for failing to hold perpetrators to account and for failing to appeal for restraint during Black July. The report recognised the pogrom as a violation of Tamil human rights and recommended compensation for the victims. However, its recommendations have never been properly implemented and not a single perpetrator has ever been prosecuted.

The Sri Lankan Government are now implementing another truth and reconciliation commission. However, concerns remain that it will provide no route to accountability or proper witness protection mechanism, and that it will not cater to the victims’ needs or adhere to international standards. I am grateful to the Sri Lankan high commission for providing me with a briefing update on reconciliation. It will take me some time to fully digest and consider the points made in it, but I highlight one of the first sections, on the Office on Missing Persons, which states:

“The Tracing Unit found 16 persons alive, and confirmed 3 deceased as of November 2023.”

Let me put that into context. It is believed that some 18,000 Tamils were handed over to the army. What happened to the rest? Where are they? What records exist to tell us? Despite the global pressure, Amnesty International has found:

“Serious human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict remained unaddressed. Families of people forcibly disappeared continued to seek truth and justice.”

The UK Government know and recognise those facts. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s 2022 human rights and democracy report noted that the

“The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was used to detain Sri Lankans for long periods” and that the UK

“continued to call on the government of Sri Lanka to replace the PTA with human rights compliant legislation.”

The report also noted:

“Security forces faced accusations of serious human rights violations.”

The Government concluded:

“There has been little credible progress on transitional justice” before promising that the UK

“will continue to advocate for improved protection of human rights in Sri Lanka.”

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. Many of my constituents concur with the concerns about human rights violations, including access to clean drinking water. Does he share my concern about reports that the Sri Lankan Government have refused to allow independent assessments of water quality in northern Sri Lanka? Does he agree that the Sri Lankan Government must ensure that all citizens of that region, who are mostly Tamils, have access to clean drinking water, and that anyone affected by contamination be provided with medical care and compensated adequately? It is a little-known but very important human rights violation.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Scottish National Party, Linlithgow and East Falkirk

The hon. Member is correct that it is a little-known violation, and she has educated me in making that point. I concur with her assessment. As is often the case, it is the poorest who are most disadvantaged in these situations.

As a broad statement of intent, the Government’s position is welcome. However, the UK could and should go further. The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice has called for the Sri Lankan Government to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and withdraw the Anti-Terrorism Bill to ensure that all anti-terror legislation adheres to international standards; to establish independent mechanisms with prosecutorial powers to hold police, armed forces and Government Departments to account for human rights abuses; to incorporate Black July and other root causes of the ethnic conflict into its public education system; and to work with the Tamil community and international experts to find a real political solution to the ethnic conflict that is acceptable to Tamils on the island.

I urge the UK, as a United Nations member state and an ally of Sri Lanka, to do more to support the calls for accountability, justice and human rights protections so that there might be lasting peace and reconciliation. The exact numbers are unclear, but according to a United Nations panel, more than 100,000 people, including 40,000 civilians, may have been killed during the conflict. Ultimately, there must be a right to self-determination for the Tamils. Everyone should be able to live without fear and according to their customs and traditions.

There is much that could be done. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to this debate; I hope that he will consider officially recognising the atrocities that have been committed as genocide and will look at introducing sanctions against the known perpetrators who have escaped being held to account, denying justice to the victims. Canada and the US have already sanctioned some war criminals. It is high time that the UK did the same.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Leader of the Liberal Democrats

The hon. Gentleman gets right to the point in suggesting that the UK Government should copy what Canada and the United States have done. Does he share my concern that we need greater openness and transparency about the role of the current Foreign Secretary? Before his appointment, the Foreign Secretary was known to be lobbying for Port City Colombo, and he has done a lot of work with China and Sri Lanka. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need a lot more openness so that we can know that the British Foreign Office is taking this issue seriously and is listening to Parliament and British Tamils?

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Scottish National Party, Linlithgow and East Falkirk

I agree entirely. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for making that point, which fits nicely with some of my comments on other aspects.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recommended that states, including the UK, sanction key perpetrators of human rights abuses such as General Silva and other alleged perpetrators in Sri Lanka. By sanctioning individuals who are responsible for perpetrating crimes against the Tamils, the UK Government would support UN and US action in demonstrating that alleged perpetrators of mass atrocities are not welcome in the UK. Recently, the PM’s trade envoy went to Sri Lanka. Encouraging trade without demanding human rights gives the wrong signal to the world. We should be using our influence more effectively.

I hope that September 2024 will see the UN Human Rights Council resolution, which is due to expire, replaced with a new and stronger resolution. Does the Minister agree that that should include referring the issue to the UN General Assembly with the object of achieving a mechanism to bring the perpetrators to justice and achieve a permanent political solution? If we are serious about safeguarding the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the legacy of disenfranchisement, deportation and discrimination must be replaced by the principles of peace and democracy.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 2:43, 5 December 2023

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Martyn Day on securing this debate. I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute, and particularly to look at the importance of human rights in Sri Lanka and to speak up for those of my constituents who still have close links to the Sri Lankan Tamil community.

Wherever they are in the world and whatever religion or race they belong to, all people deserve to live in peace and safety, without discrimination or violence, but that is not the case for many Tamils who still live in Sri Lanka. Quite rightly, Sri Lanka is one of the UK’s 32 human rights priority countries, as identified by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The Department’s annual report on human rights and democracy says:

“Minority communities faced continued marginalisation by state authorities. State-supported land appropriation, so called ‘land grabs’, sparked concerns over their impact”, particularly communities

“in the north and east and their impact on the freedom of belief of non-Buddhist denominations.”

There is a great deal of understanding in the FCDO about the situation on the ground. That is coupled with concerns that

“Security forces continued to disrupt Tamil commemorative events for victims of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, and arbitrarily accused Tamils of links to terrorist organisations.”

That indicates that the Government are aware of what is happening on the ground in Sri Lanka, particularly the remarks about the challenges faced by activists, families of the disappeared in the north-east, and those who have faced surveillance, harassment and intimidation by the security forces. There appears to be a great understanding, and this debate gives my hon. Friend the Minister, a fellow Hampshire MP, the opportunity to update the House on the actions being taken to turn this understanding into support on the ground.

We have heard reports of Tamils living in Sri Lanka being subject to discrimination and threats of violence, as well as being subject to arrest under the Prevention of Terrorism Act on relatively weak grounds. There have been occasions on which Tamils have not been allowed to attend memorials for those killed or lost during the civil war, which is a vital part of community healing. Back in 2011, we heard from the UK panel of experts that there were credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The fact that they have not been fully investigated, and that no one has been charged or prosecuted, has diminished the country’s ability to reconcile itself with the events of the past. Whenever such events occur, it is so important that well-thought-through reconciliation is put in place, particularly in Sri Lanka. It is important for stability and peace in Sri Lanka that there is reconciliation for the actions of the past, appropriate justice delivered where required and, above all, an end to the discrimination that we have seen.

The national unity and reconciliation commission was established earlier this year. It felt like a step in the right direction, but many organisations, including Amnesty International, have expressed significant concern that it will not be sufficient. In Sri Lanka, we need to ensure that the commission does what it needs to do and achieve real reconciliation that has a genuine chance of starting the healing across communities that would bring the whole country together. The first step must be to end all discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka. They deserve to be able to follow their own cultural and religious practices in peace, without interference from other groups.

The Government and my hon. Friend the Minister continue to work hard to maintain strong relationships with Sri Lanka, which is important for the future of all the communities there and for promoting peace and human rights. They are clearly putting plans in place. For 2022 to 2025, the FCDO’s conflict, stability and security fund for Sri Lanka will support human rights priorities with more than £11 million. UK funding for the United Nations Development Programme has also supported the resettlement of displaced communities on land cleared of mines.

It is important that we continue to work with countries such as Sri Lanka, and I am aware that the Government are consistently reviewing their global sanctions list. I am sure the Minister will want to take the opportunity presented by today’s debate to update the House on the approach to sanctions, and my constituents and people back in Sri Lanka will be taking note of the comments made. I am sure he will listen carefully to hon. Members’ views, because equality and freedom from discrimination are important not only to the people in this room, but to every Member of the House of Commons.

Wherever people live in the world, they deserve to have support from the UK in their bid to make sure that they live free and equal lives. Above all else, the UK must champion human rights and promote peace across the world. I hope that we will continue to do that in Sri Lanka, so that one day all communities there will be able to live in peace and prosperity.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 2:49, 5 December 2023

I congratulate Martyn Day not only on securing the debate, but on setting the scene so well. Briefly, I want to ask the question: how many more times will we have to come here and debate this issue before the UK plays its full role in securing justice for the Tamil community? Other Members in this Chamber have, like me, been around a long while in dealing with this issue. I can recall the situation before 2009, but I remember distinctly what happened at that time. The calculation is that more than 70,000 people—at least—were unaccounted for, with some disappeared. One of my constituents went back to Sri Lanka to try to find his family and he was disappeared as well. We have never heard from him since.

Like others, I have received the briefing from the Sri Lankan Government, and I have tried to examine it in relation to what I believe is the reality on the ground. The Sri Lankan Government claim that a process of reconciliation is taking place and that arrangements have been put in place that will ensure the protection of human rights and civil liberties, but those are certainly not the reports we get from our constituents who have families back in Sri Lanka. Let me give a few brief examples.

We have recently been told about what happened on Tamil remembrance day, when people were arrested and detained, and then memorials were smashed. That does not sound like the protection of civil liberties or respect being meted out to the Tamil community. The use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been a continuous abuse. The recent death in custody of a young man called Nagarasa Alex is another example of the result of the use of detention in this way. We know of claims that torture has taken place in some instances.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

I went to Sri Lanka on a delegation in 1984, when I raised with the then President Jayewardene the issue of the human rights system, the abuse of human rights and the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. I have met many Sri Lankan families who have people missing from that period on. Unless they get closure and an understanding of what has happened to them, the horror for individual families will just go on and on. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, who represents many Tamil people, would endorse the need for us to get an open book on everything that has happened to every person who disappeared.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

My right hon. Friend provides evidence of the long history of this, including the long history of the PTA being used to detain, with example after example of its use involving not only torture, but deaths in custody. From what we hear, the new legislation being proposed might be worse than the PTA itself. This is the problem we face.

The issue that comes up time and time again in the Tamil community in my constituency is the continued militarisation of their Tamil lands and the way that those lands are being used. We have to recognise the operation of the military within Sri Lanka. They are not just a military establishment; they are a whole industry in themselves, often profiteering at the expense of the Tamil community, particularly through the seizure of the Tamil lands. The process of demilitarisation has hardly been evidenced by the Sri Lankan Government.

Why is all this happening, and why are the Sri Lankan Government continuing to operate with impunity? I think this represents a collective failure by the international community, including the UK. We have not done enough to pressurise the Sri Lankan Government. We have not taken the action that I thought we were going to take and targeted those identified as abusing human rights—in effect, we are talking about war criminals as well—in a way that we have in respect of other countries, for example via the use of the Magnitsky clause. From what I have seen, or from the evidence we have had, I do not believe that the Magnitsky provisions have been used a single time to sanction the human rights abusers from Sri Lanka. Let us congratulate the United States and Canada, as they have used those provisions. We should be following their example.

As for the truth and reconciliation commission that has been established anew, I believe it is the 15th or 16th that has taken place. What we were pressing for before is that this should be an independent, internationally convened commission, not just an in-house one, where the country is almost marking its own homework.

Finally, we have previously raised the reference to the International Criminal Court, because it is clear that during that period, certainly in 2009, there were offences against the Rome statute that could constitute war crimes.

I believe that we should now maximise the pressure that we can put on the Sri Lankan Government. We should now look at the use of sanctions and reviewing all aspects of our bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka. We have raised this before, but I believe that we should not have given Sri Lanka the benefit of developing countries trading scheme status and the concessions that brings. That is the only way to influence the Sri Lankan Government to abide by at least some of the commitments that they have given us to protect human rights and civil liberties and respect the rights of the Tamil community overall.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Order. To get everybody in, I ask hon. Members to limit their remarks to five to six minutes, please.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 2:55, 5 December 2023

I congratulate Martyn Day on securing this debate. It is great to see so many members of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, which I am proud to chair, participating in today’s debate. I also received the Sri Lankan ambassador’s briefing in advance of the debate, along with an invitation to meet. Given that his predecessor frequently referred to me and members of the APPG as “white tigers”, I think I will be washing my hair that day.

The case has already been compellingly put by colleagues. To reiterate some of the harrowing facts: in 2009, for example, tens of thousands of Tamils perished in the Mullivaikkal genocide, with many still unaccounted for. The Sri Lankan Government’s continued denial of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide necessitates international intervention. We have already heard from other Members about militarisation, arbitrary arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, rising anti-Tamil nationalism and the absence of long-term solutions.

Even in the years preceding 2009, all the promises made by the Sri Lankan Government under human rights resolutions failed to come to anything. Militarisation is an area where the UK could go further. Militarisation remains pervasive, with 16 out of the 20 military divisions on the island in the north and east, otherwise known as Tamil areas. Demilitarisation is crucial to securing and fostering a sustainable and lasting peace. The referral to the International Monetary Fund for a bail-out after Sri Lanka’s economy crashed could not be linked to human rights, but it could put conditions on Government spending. One thing we should push for in the IMF bail-out is a reduction in military spending. That must be a condition of that money.

There have also been calls for a consistent, long-term solution. I would like to ask the Minister for an update on the mechanism that was secured at the last UN Human Rights Council: resolution 30/1, which for the first time allowed the international community to collect new information. I know that the UK pushed hard for that resolution, and I welcome the FCDO’s efforts in securing it, although it is up next year, as we have heard. Will the Minister provide an update on what further action he anticipates that the UK can take when we have had the opportunity to review that new information?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Conservative, Sutton and Cheam

A number of councillors—Councillor Param Nandha and Councillor Jay Ganesh—and Nick Rogers of the London Assembly have pushed local authorities to celebrate Tamil Heritage Month next month. This will allow children to celebrate speaking Tamil, the oldest language still in use—there will be Tamil songs, dances, poetry and so on—but part of their heritage is this awful chapter. My hon. Friend talked about these resolutions, as did Martyn Day, who opened the debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that rather than waiting for a third resolution, the first of which was backed by Sri Lanka, we can actually take some action, rather than having to keep renewing and taking no action?

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, my predecessor as chair of the all-party group, for that intervention. He is absolutely right.

The last action that the Government must urgently consider is sanctions, especially against those credibly accused of war crimes, particularly General Silva, but many others as well. It has been said already that we are lagging behind the US and Canada, which have already implemented such sanctions. It is time the UK followed suit and imposed them without any further delay.

As we approach the 15th anniversary of the end of the war, I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurances that the UK will continue to stand in solidarity with the Tamil community in demanding justice and accountability. The diplomatic efforts and the internal efforts in Sri Lanka have not brought about meaningful change or any lasting peace. The Tamil community’s quest for justice and peace must not be deterred. It is time for us to follow the international community, impose sanctions and continue to lead the way in standing up for the rights of Tamil people.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Leader of the Liberal Democrats 3:00, 5 December 2023

I, too, thank Martyn Day for securing this debate and join other hon. Members in raising the plight of the Tamil people over many, many years.

Like others, I have been involved in these debates in the House all too frequently. I have tracked this issue in some detail over the last 26 years, as my constituents in Kingston and Surbiton who are British Tamils, and indeed others around south-west London, have come to me with their concerns about what is happening to their families and communities. It has been a very painful episode and, frankly, the situation is now worse than I can ever remember.

The economic crisis in Sri Lanka, with the corruption of the Government there, has just made things even worse for the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities on the island. However, the Tamil people, particularly in the north-east of Sri Lanka, are suffering under the militarisation from land grabs and from arbitrary detentions and arrests. There have been a whole series of injustices and human rights abuses, which this House is right to focus on.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point that we need to highlight. It is not just the Tamil community but many minority groups on the island who face human rights abuses. He mentioned the Muslim community. During the pandemic, they were subject to forced cremations in Sri Lanka. I just wanted to make it clear to the Government, through this intervention, that it is not just the Tamil community but many minority groups that are suffering as a result of the regime in Sri Lanka.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Leader of the Liberal Democrats

That is right, and that point exposes the regime and all its frankly undemocratic and outrageous behaviour.

I join other colleagues in saying that the UK Government can do more than they have done so far. They can follow the US and Canada in sanctioning individuals. People have quite rightly mentioned General Silva, but there is also General Jayasuriya and others who were involved in the last few months of the war in 2009 and quite clearly committed war crimes.

Beyond that, I would like the Government to use the IMF process to try to exert some leverage, as others have said, or the work of the UN Human Rights Council. We could also use trade deals. When I was Minister of State for Trade Policy, I urged the European Union, because we were then in the EU, not to give back what were called GSP+ or “generalised scheme of preferences plus” concessions. We won that argument in the trade council in Brussels and those concessions were not given back to Sri Lanka. Regrettably, they were given back in 2016 and now, after Brexit, Sri Lanka benefits from trade and tariff concessions given by this Government. I do not see why it should do so. We ought to demand the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Sri Lanka, security sector reforms and proper accountability before the Colombo Government receive such benefits.

One issue that I want to raise in this debate, which is not discussed enough in the context of Sri Lanka, is the role of China. The geopolitics of Sri Lanka needs to be looked at, and that includes the growing role of China and of course the influence of India. The UK, the European Union, north America and elsewhere have been remiss in engaging in the debate about Sri Lanka from that geopolitical stance and we see what has happened because of the vacuum that has been left.

We have seen China invest over almost the last two decades in Hambantota port in the south of the island. Yes, that has trade advantages for China, and many other countries use that port, but it is no doubt a significant strategic investment by China, not just for trade purposes but potentially for military purposes, given the significance of the port in controlling the sea lanes and shipping routes to the south.

China has a 99-year lease on the port and is indebted to the Sri Lankan Government, in what is sometimes called “debt-trap diplomacy”. Through the debt, China influences the Sri Lankan economy and politics. It is using that influence more and more, for instance through the second big port development, which is actually bigger than a port; it is a city. Called Port City Colombo, it is located on hundreds of acres of land reclaimed from the sea in Colombo. Again, China is taking a long-term lease on that, and what is essentially a Chinese Government-owned company is developing it.

One surely should be asking about the ability of the UK, the EU, North America and our Indian allies to respond to that. It is quite a serious geopolitical development. The human rights of the Tamil people, who are the subject of this debate, are disregarded by the Chinese, who are interfering in Sri Lankan politics. If we are going to support those Tamil people and all the people on the island of Sri Lanka, we must ask some tough questions about how we respond to the hard and soft power being exercised by the Chinese Government.

We have been too naive for far too long. If we are serious about wanting to influence what is happening on the island of Sri Lanka, we need to get serious about our diplomacy in Delhi and Beijing. In his reply, will the Minister say a little about the Government’s thinking in that area? Is he prepared to meet cross-party MPs— I urge the Foreign Secretary to do the same—to discuss the matter, some of which I realise may be sensitive?

In my intervention on the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, I mentioned the Foreign Secretary’s activities prior to his appointment. I am sure he acted with integrity, but the Minister must realise that people outside this place, listening in—the British Tamil community, the diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka—want to know what the British Foreign Secretary is going to think, say and do about the situation in Sri Lanka, whether with respect to India, China or the Colombo Government. In January, the Foreign Secretary visited Port City Colombo, trying to get investment and supporting the Chinese investment there. It is therefore a legitimate question for this House to ask.

I am sure there are answers, and I am sure we can be transparent about those. However, if we are to play a role as the UK, and if this Parliament is to play its role in influencing the Government, we need to understand that, given China’s centrality to the future of Sri Lanka and, I would argue, to improving justice and human rights for the Tamil people.

Photo of Janet Daby Janet Daby Shadow Minister (Youth Justice) 3:08, 5 December 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to speak in this debate, on which I congratulate Martyn Day. In Lewisham East, I represent a significant number of residents from the Tamil community, and since becoming an MP I have written to Foreign Secretaries and attended several events all relating to human rights abuses committed against Tamils. I am also an officer of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country that one day I hope to visit. Yet, as we have already heard, it has experienced a cycle of violence since its independence in 1948. As everyone here will know, in 2009 the Sri Lankan civil war came to an end when the Tamil Tigers were defeated by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The Sri Lankan Government in power at that time denied accusations of crimes made against the military and civilian Government, but there have been allegations of violence against women and girls—of sexual violence being used as a vicious weapon of war, of rape and of the most heinous of crimes, some of which are beyond my imagination, like cutting off women’s breasts.

It was therefore disappointing that in February 2020 the Sri Lankan Government withdrew their support for a UN-led reconciliation process to investigate and prosecute war-related crimes. In May 2023, the new Government announced that they were establishing a national unity and reconciliation commission, but organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have questioned whether it will achieve anything and whether the victims will receive justice.

For a long time, my constituents have lobbied me about reported human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The Prevention of Terrorism Act has enabled arbitrary arrests, detention without charge or evidence, false confessions and the torture of anyone suspected of terrorism. Although there have been amendments to the Act, Amnesty International has stated that the Muslim and Tamil minorities remain disproportionately affected by its use. That must be addressed and tackled.

I am pleased that the Labour party has recommitted itself to securing justice for the survivors whose families suffered grave human rights violations. The UK Government must follow the recommendations of the UN high commissioner and refer the perpetrators of these atrocities to the International Criminal Court. While we are waiting for that, the political and economic crises facing Sri Lankans, the humanitarian need and the geopolitical challenges in the region remain deeply concerning.

Accountability for past and reported current crimes is crucial to achieve political sustainability, as is justice for the affected Tamil victim-survivor community. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 3:11, 5 December 2023

I congratulate Martyn Day on securing this debate. In Easter 2009, I spent my time out on Parliament Square watching London’s Tamil community beside itself with grief as it received news of relatives, friends, communities and hospitals being bombed. We heard of people lying on the beach, unable to be removed by family or community members because the democratically elected Sri Lankan Government were dropping cluster bombs on their own people. I spent my time taking London Tamil students to see the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to prevent some of them from taking drastic action and committing suicide.

In the 13 years since then, how much has changed? There is an attitude of always negotiating, always talking, always being calm—and doing nothing. Negotiating for what? Hundreds of thousands of people have still not been found and not one person has been prosecuted for committing a war crime; there are no more answers than there were before.

Now is the time for the Foreign Office to decide whether it will carry on with its mealy-mouthed diplomacy, or whether it will use the laws Parliament has given it to take action against those who perpetrated war crimes. Our Foreign Secretary needs to come forward and be honest about his role in promoting the Chinese Government’s plan for a new port in Colombo. It does not bode well. Let us show Sri Lankans and Tamils something different. Let us take a different path and make some progress.

Photo of Sam Tarry Sam Tarry Labour, Ilford South 3:14, 5 December 2023

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I thank Martyn Day for securing this debate. As my right hon. Friend John McDonnell and my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh said, people have been calling for the same things in this Chamber not just for the past few years but for decades, and yet the Government have continually failed to act.

Hundreds of people from the Tamil community in my constituency have written to me in the past few days to ask me to speak in this debate because they are deeply concerned about their families’ futures in north-east Sri Lanka. Last week, thousands of Tamils in Sri Lanka and around the world commemorated their war dead on Maaveerar Naal. Once again, Tamils mourning in Sri Lanka faced oppression and a violent crackdown from the Sri Lankan state apparatus in their attempts to remember their war dead, as they visited the remains of the Tamil cemeteries that the Sri Lankan Government had already bulldozed. This means that 11 Tamils, including a young schoolboy, were arrested by Sri Lankan authorities, after those authorities stormed the remembrance events. The UN has always been clear that Tamils have a fundamental right to remember their war dead on 27 November, and that any attempt to infringe on this is a clear violation of international law. This is yet another reminder of the daily injustices inflicted on the Tamil people of Sri Lanka.

It is now nearly 15 years since the end of the armed conflict. Tamils in Sri Lanka are facing an onslaught from their Government, with increasing reports of land grabs, the destruction of Tamil places of worship, and the illegal construction of Buddhist viharas. Tamils and Muslims on the island face horrific state-led abuses, including the continued use, as many colleagues have mentioned today, of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act: the continued use of torture, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings by Sri Lanka’s security forces. Efforts to stifle Tamil voices in Sri Lanka have grown increasingly bold, as seen through the arrest of a Tamil MP, Selvarajah Kajendran, who was detained by the police for commemorating the hunger strike unto death taken by Thileepan, who demanded the right of self-autonomy for the Tamil people.

The increasingly violent anti-Tamil nationalist rhetoric continues to be popularised by every single Sri Lankan policymaker. It is a vile, ethnic nationalist ideology that continues to echo through those corridors of power. It shapes the policies and the Government in ways that marginalise further the Tamil people. Let us be clear: Sri Lanka has a military that is almost double the size of the UK’s. More than 75% of that, though, is deployed in the traditional Tamil homelands. This of course perpetuates a climate of intimidation and human rights abuses, and brutalises the nascent Tamil economy.

A variety of UN bodies and other human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have called for justice for the victims of historic and present atrocities inflicted upon the Tamil people. Many of those accused, far from being prosecuted, have been rewarded with lucrative promotions, most notably the appointment of General Shavendra Silva to the head of the Sri Lanka armed forces—a total and utter disgrace. In 2015, through investigation by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, there was strong and corroborated evidence that the 58th division, led by Silva, had extrajudicially executed surrendering soldiers and shelled marked civilian hospitals. For the healing process to begin for the Tamil people, monsters like Silva must face justice and be removed from the positions of power where they can continue to abuse the Tamil people.

As we have heard today, policymakers around the world need to be forceful in bringing forward the sanctions that would actually make a difference. We have increasingly seen calls for sanctions against Sri Lankan war criminals. In Canada, they recently sanctioned several individuals, including the former presidents Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa for their role in the war crimes—crimes against humanity and genocide committed against the Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Canada’s Parliament also groundbreakingly unanimously recognised Tamil genocide in a landmark motion—the first recognition of its kind anywhere in the world. The United States has also issued sanctions on General Silva, and in a recent letter to Secretary of State Blinken, several congressmen and congresswomen from across the aisle urged the State Department to end the diplomatic impunity enjoyed by Sri Lankan perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Despite that, the UK is yet to sanction a single alleged Sri Lankan war criminal. In fact, in the past few years the UK has provided several million pounds in security assistance to Sri Lanka to aid training and capacity building for the Sri Lankan police and security forces. Given these troubling reports, I would like to hear from the Minister a commitment to publish an assessment of the impact of the financial support, and a full overseas security and justice assistance assessment for activities under this programme, to reassure the House that the UK is not contributing to serious human rights violations, as I have previously raised in the House on a number of occasions. The UK’s failure to sanction the Sri Lankan military and Government officials who are credibly accused of war crimes against humanity and genocide is hampering international efforts for justice and accountability, and rightly enraging the Tamil diaspora around the world.

Too many lives have been lost in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. Britain has a historic role in the root cause of this ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, due to our dark colonial past on the island, and our failure to maintain governance structures that allowed different communities to co-exist peacefully on the island. It is Britain’s duty to play a huge and important leading role in supporting the Tamil community as they seek a peaceful, political solution in Sri Lanka that meets the aspirations of all people on that island, including the Tamil people’s aspirations for self-determination.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:20, 5 December 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Martyn Day on securing the debate and on setting the scene so very well. His leading of the debate has helped us all to participate.

Human rights in Sri Lanka have continually drawn my attention during my time as a Member of Parliament. Unfortunately, the human rights violations of the Sri Lankan civil war have yet to be properly addressed by the Sri Lankan Government, and no perpetrators have been brought to justice. Some of those perpetrators continue to hold governmental positions, while reform efforts have had little effect. The Tamil population continue to suffer under governmental restrictions and human rights violations, including disappearances and death.

These issues and many others have been well documented by the United Nations. Clearly, there is a need for reform, which is what we are all asking for—we are asking for our Minister and our Government to be very active. The European Union helped to cement some changes during its talks. However, the amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act have done little to improve the human rights situation for the Tamils and other affected parties.

I want to focus on the Prevention of Terrorism Act and its effects on Tamil minority religious communities. There has been reference to religious minorities, and I will give some examples of minorities that are suffering. Freedom of religion or belief is a vital component of the human rights landscape throughout the world. FORB and other human rights are intrinsically intertwined—two fingers rolled over each other. Human rights and persecution of religious belief march hand in hand.

With the oppression of one human right, all others suffer. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, so I want to talk about that. The PTA has been a tool of the Sri Lankan Government to wrongfully detain and oppress political, cultural and religious outliers since its inception in 1979. Of course, a country has the right and duty to protect its citizens against terrorism and violence. It does not, however, have the right to wrongfully imprison its own citizens without just cause, nor should it allow any violations of human rights.

The environment of fear and oppression that the PTA has helped to form leads to divisive rhetoric, often grouping together minority populations, with the Tamil population centred in the north as a common target. This phenomenon is compounded by the fact that minority religious populations are represented in the Tamil population at a much higher rate. These sociological aspects of the situation are important to note because they contribute strongly to the political and cultural dynamic of the region. Violence directed against religious groups, including the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019, are red flag markers of this aspect of the situation. Other religious minorities are targeted.

I have had a chance to meet human rights campaigners working on the ground in Sri Lanka. They have described the situation of minority religious groups, including Hindus, Christians and Muslims, as one of fear and bureaucratic oppression. New laws make the building of religious structures more difficult, which is particularly harmful for members of minority religions, many of whom tend to come from less prosperous socioeconomic backgrounds.

Local bureaucracy can prove to be a major stumbling block for minority religious communities, many members of which are Tamil. Police, members of nationalist Buddhist groups and others cause difficulties and harass worshippers, often leading to supervision. Covid-19 protection laws, which required forced cremations for all burials, forced Muslims to violate Islamic religious observance standards—the core of their beliefs. Thankfully, that policy has come to an end, but other measures remain in place for the oppression of Muslim community members.

According to the 2022 report on Sri Lanka by the United States Centre for Religious Freedom, Hindu and Muslim sites in the predominantly Tamil Northern province have been destroyed under the oversight of Government agencies, creating space for the building of Buddhist temples. The report notes that that practice is one of the biggest impediments to religious freedom in the Northern province. So what can the UK Government do? What can our Minister do? We have seen that bilateral talks can be effective in promoting change, but only to a limited extent. Sri Lanka’s economic dependence on the European market was a key point in its PTA reform process. Perhaps that pressure could be applied again.

However, those reforms are not adequate to protect human rights in the country. A new strategy is needed, combining bilateral and multilateral efforts. The same is true for international organisations such as the UN. The UK is a leader in human rights advocacy worldwide; let us use that position to take a stand for the rights of our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, for whom we all are speaking here today. When international pressure is applied, states take note. I have seen that happen throughout the world, and again we ask our Minister and our Government to do the same.

In conclusion, it is very important to speak on this topic. Discussions such as these are a vital part of the UK’s response to injustice and suffering throughout the world. It is encouraging to see debates like today’s this week and next; we note the 75th anniversaries of the universal declaration on human rights and the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. It is very clear to me that genocide is taking place against the Tamil population, ethnic minorities, and religious groups to such an extent that many of the people—indeed, John McDonnell referred to some people from his constituency who went to look for members of their community or families and could not find them. There is an injustice to be addressed, so I hope that those commemorations inspire an increased effort to promote human rights domestically and throughout the world.

I very much look forward to what the Minister will say, and also to the two shadow Ministers—the hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West)—who I know will encapsulate all of the things that we wish to see. What we really want to see is justice, and, at this moment in time, we do not see that.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development) 3:26, 5 December 2023

I congratulate my hon. Friend Martyn Day, and I thank him on behalf of all my Tamil friends and colleagues for bringing this debate back here. It matters a lot to people, and I think he knows that. It would be easy to say that Sri Lanka has been debated and to move on, so I am pleased that this place will clearly be talking about this until something changes. I also pay tribute to all the familiar faces in here today. I know that their consistent commitment makes a big difference to people.

I will start by saying this:

“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.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2021;
Vol. 691, c. 563.]

I have just repeated the words that I used in a speech on this issue in March 2021. I was not being lazy; I just wanted to show that it is incredible that I can do that because, two and a half years on, the situation remains almost exactly the same. Perhaps we should not be surprised; the civil war started 40 years ago, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk told us, the issues that led to the war date back many more years, so, in the scheme of things, the two and a half years since I last stood here and spoke in a debate about this issue is minuscule compared with the length of time the Tamil people have been waiting for justice.

That day, I went on to talk about my time in Sri Lanka, and I would like to spend a little bit of time doing that now because it is an incredible island, and it is an island that never seems to get a break. From the 30-year civil war that we are talking about today to the tsunami of 2004 that saw the deaths of an estimated 227,898 people, the flooding in 2017 that saw hundreds dead and thousands displaced, and the Easter Sunday attack in 2019 that others have spoken of, the people of Sri Lanka, as I say, never seem to get a break, yet they just get on with it.

Whether they are Tamil or Sinhala, there is a fortitude in the people of Sri Lanka; they accept the situation and make what they can of it. “Best not to look back,” one woman told me as we chatted about her new life in the US, years after her entire family were wiped out by that tsunami. I admired her greatly, and everyone must do what feels right for them, but I cannot say that I agreed with her philosophy. It is healthy to look back; it is necessary to look back, as long as there is a purpose to that, and, in the case of what we are talking about today, there is most definitely a purpose. Accountability and truth are essential to reconciliation.

I spent a very short three months in Sri Lanka during the civil war. It was 2008, and I was part of the Scottish Government-funded post-tsunami economic redevelopment programme. I have returned on several occasions, and I am in touch today with Sinhala and Tamil friends in Sri Lanka and here. In addition, I was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2009. Because I had talked about being in Sri Lanka, many Tamil constituents got in touch with me about being unable to contact their family trapped in IDP camps.

It was around then that I realised how powerless many of us are, even when elected, when powerful people are determined to have their way. At one point, I stood at a buffet table, of all things, with the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa at his home. I told him that I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament and asked him to help me find my constituents’ loved ones in his IDP camps. I was dismissed and swept away by his people, and off he went to look for those who were happy to make small talk. I spent time in Trincomalee, with a man so afraid of what might happen to me, should I be caught reading his book about human rights abuses meted out to Tamils, that he removed the cover and replaced it with another to keep me safe.

My constituents who had sought asylum here told me more about the IDP camps: the missing people, those taken hostage—they were arrested but never tried, so in my book they are hostages—the torture, the sexual violence, the enforced disappearances and the shelling of the so-called no-fire zones. All of that was very well documented by the two-part Channel 4 documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” in 2011.

The Tamil people cannot be expected simply to move on from that, particularly as we still do not know where all those who went missing are. I note what my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said about the number of people who have been found, according to the high commissioner. Sixteen people have been traced alive, and three are dead—that is 19 people of the 18,000 he mentioned. All these years later, we have to find just the 17,981 who are still missing.

Those are shocking statistics, but each one represents a human being, part of a family, desperately being looked for by their loved ones, including the Mothers of the Disappeared. They cannot just move on because, as we have heard today, the worsening economic crisis in the country is leading to worsening human rights abuses. They do not have to look back to injustices, because they are still not getting justice today.

All of this is the fault of the Sri Lankan Government, although I acknowledge and agree with what has been said about our takeover of Sri Lanka. I also acknowledge that the UK Government have played a vital role as leaders of the core group on Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council, but we cannot just pick and choose where we use our influence when it comes to human rights abuses.

I have listened in this place to Foreign Office Ministers telling us, on the one hand, “Don’t worry. It is all going to be okay. We will use our influence”—I am sure that is what we will be told today—and on the other hand, telling us, as they did in a Westminster Hall debate in 2015, that it was good news that Sirisena had become President because he was not Rajapaksa. However, Sirisena had been part of the Sri Lankan Government when the Tamils had been ruthlessly bombarded, and he subsequently made Rajapaksa Prime Minister, before handing over the presidency to the other Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksa brothers are credibly accused of a host of war crimes committed during the war and of violating international humanitarian and human rights laws. It could be said that the UK Government have been too trusting or that they are doing nowhere near enough to use that influence to safeguard the rights of Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

A couple of years ago, the then President pardoned a soldier—one of the few ever to be tried, never mind found guilty. That soldier was found guilty of killing eight Tamil civilians, including a five-year-old child and two teenagers. I can only assume that it was all part of his promise at the time to end what he called the “era of betraying war heroes”—disgraceful.

As the SNP spokesperson on international development, I support the calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk and other hon. Members, and I am interested to hear the Minister’s answers to the following questions. Will he refer the issue to the UN general council with the object of the International Criminal Court or another mechanism bringing perpetrators to justice? On trade, does he agree that Sri Lanka should be removed from the enhanced framework until it meets the already agreed conditions to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with one that meets international standards—which is not what is happening? Will the Minister finally establish a screening policy for diplomatic meetings so that the UK is no longer giving legitimacy to individuals credibly accused of war crimes? Finally, as just about everyone has asked, will he engage the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 to apply sanctions against individuals credibly accused of involvement in mass atrocity crimes and human rights violations, as the US and Canada have done? It is the very least that the victims of this war, both living and dead, both here and there, can expect from us.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:35, 5 December 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. It has been an excellent debate. We have heard from Martyn Day; from those with extensive parliamentary experience, such as my right hon. Friend John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn; and, of course, from the well known and very active all-party group, which works across different groupings and parties, including the outstanding contribution from my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh, who has done that casework day in, day out, since 2009 in particular. I also want to put on record the points that have been made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), particularly on the ongoing humanitarian situation in the north of Sri Lanka. That was highlighted by my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson, who also talked about water quality, which is a very pressing concern today.

As friends of Sri Lankans, we know that, for the many in the diaspora in our communities who come to our advice surgeries with concerns about the ongoing lack of consideration of what happened during that terrible period, until this is fully looked at and considered, there will be no peace. My question to the Minister is on the wide-ranging relationship we have with Sri Lanka as a country. I will first put on record the importance of the economic work done by the High Commission for Sri Lanka with Members across the House to call for economic help for Sri Lanka in the 12 months since the sovereign debt crisis. However, we all want that to be married with a socially just solution for those who feel that the true horrors of the civil war have not fully been heard.

In the context of both the economic imperatives and the social justice concerns, will the Minister, in his concluding remarks, state his view of the role of the current Foreign Secretary, in particular his support for the port project in Sri Lanka, in which he had a financial interest? As the Minister represents the Government, what does he think the relationship is between a state-owned enterprise in the Communist party and the current Foreign Secretary? The House needs to know whether the current Foreign Secretary had a financial relationship with a state-owned enterprise that is basically a development company. Does the Minister think that was an acceptable relationship, and would he enlighten the Chamber?

There are a number of important questions from the past that need to be answered. We warmly welcome the announcement made in May of this year that the Sri Lankan Government will be undertaking a national unity and reconciliation commission. However, we are also listening to non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which was mentioned earlier. Those organisations say that there is a lack of genuine confidence in the milestones that need to be achieved so that we can all have confidence in that commission internationally.

I wonder whether the Minister might tell the House whether he thinks that the commission has achieved the milestones that would have be expected between May and December of this year so that we can all have confidence, and can give confidence to our constituents, when they come to see us in our advice surgeries, by reassuring them that the UK is playing its part in holding the Government in Sri Lanka to account and moving towards a process similar to that which led to the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, which is held up as a gold standard for this sort of work. I am very interested to hear the Minister’s assessment of where we are with that, given that eight months have gone by, and whether we have seen the sort of work that is needed to lead to the sort of outcome that was seen in South Africa.

The UN panel of experts has expressed a desire to see credible evidence of the war crimes and to see that justice is served. A number of Members have underlined the role that General Silva played during the conflict. Has the Minister made an assessment of whether this would fit into the Magnitsky sanctions framework? Post Brexit, that is our most important tool for holding certain individuals to account for their actions. We are all aware that the standard response from a Minister who is asked this question is, “We don’t comment on these things, because that would spoil the process of sanctions,” because they are supposed to be almost a surprise, but given our concern, could the Minister give us a hint of his views on that individual, whose name comes up in so many representations at the UN panel of experts?

Based on the Minister’s assessment of the evidence at the International Criminal Court, does he believe that there is a case to be answered? Does he think it will be sufficient to have the process of national reconciliation, or does he believe that there will be another step after that, which will then go into the ICC? What measures are being taken to support Sri Lanka’s pathway to becoming a pluralistic, multicultural democracy in which all of its people can flourish?

I recently had a wonderful briefing from a fantastic UK organisation called the HALO Trust. The Minister and other hon. Members will know of its great work. After a decade of sorting out land mines in the north of Sri Lanka, the trust’s work is coming to an end. I just hope that as that chapter ends, a new one will open for all of the diaspora and the individuals whose lives were destroyed by that dreadful civil war—a chapter in which truth and reconciliation are key. Is the Minister confident of that? If not, will he tell us what his concerns are, so that our Sri Lankan constituents of the diaspora and those who care deeply about human rights can have confidence that the UK Government are doing their part to uphold peace and democracy?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:43, 5 December 2023

It is a pleasure to be here. I am grateful to Martyn Day for securing this important debate. My right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who is the Minister of State responsible for the Indo-Pacific region, would have answered this debate, but she is on a plane to Australia; it is therefore my pleasure to be here in her place. I am grateful for all the powerful and moving contributions from right hon. and hon. Members. I will try to cover the points that they made and set out the Government’s position.

The UK Government pay close attention to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, especially for the many Tamils. The perils of that situation have been movingly and powerfully described by all Members. I particularly note the interest of the of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka, including the chair and other members, and I am grateful for their contributions. Sri Lanka is one of 32 FCDO human rights priority countries, in recognition of our ongoing human rights concerns in a number of areas, including the rights of people from minority groups.

Hon. Members will know that the continuing marginalisation and oppression of Tamil communities follows many years of racial and religious tensions in the country, which culminated in the civil war; that was described in very clear terms this afternoon. It is important to recognise that a number of different communities, including Tamils, who predominantly reside in the north and east of the country, continue to face marginalisation by state authorities. There have been increasing numbers of land seizures and disputes that have sometimes centred around religious sites, such as the Ayyanar Hindu temple in Mullaitivu. That clearly has troubling implications for freedom of religion or belief. More recently, we are clear that there has been state-sponsored settlement of traditional pasture land in Batticaloa, which threats the livelihoods of local farmers.

There have been several incidents of heavy-handed policing of peaceful protests and commemorations, and there is ongoing surveillance and intimidation by state security forces in the north and east of the country. That particularly focuses on civil society activists and Tamil communities affected by the war, including former combatants and the families of the disappeared. Those events have heightened communal tensions and continue to stoke perceptions of forced displacement from traditionally Tamil areas.

A running theme of the debate has been the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was described in stark terms by a number of hon. Members. The UK Government remain concerned about the ongoing use of the Act, despite the Sri Lankan Government’s long-standing commitment to replace it with a version that meets their international obligations. It continues to be used—indeed, it was used as recently as last week. We continue to call on the Government of Sri Lanka to deliver on their promises and live up to their international obligations, and we acknowledge the concerns laid out this afternoon with regard to the PTA legislation.

For this Government, promoting human rights, reconciliation, justice and accountability is a key strand of our policy towards Sri Lanka. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific visited Sri Lanka in October, when she met the President, Foreign Minister and Justice Minister. She also met the Governor of the Northern province, as well as Tamil representatives and civil society activists in Colombo and Jaffna. She visited community projects, including a de-mining project run by the HALO Trust and paid for by British assistance.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

This is a side issue, but the Minister mentioned everything the Government are doing. May I gently suggest that human rights and the persecution of Christians and so on form an integral part of any discussions on economic ties—whether that is banking, more business or whatever it might be—and that those economic ties are conditional on those issues?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and the role of the trade envoy was mentioned this afternoon. We are clear that human rights and trade discussions go alongside each other; they are not mutually exclusive, and that is a perfectly reasonable suggestion.

On her visit, my right hon. Friend raised with the Sri Lankan Government the need for progress on human rights for all communities in Sri Lanka, and for justice and accountability for violations and abuses committed during and following the armed conflict. As has been mentioned, we recognise that other communities in Sri Lanka, including Muslims as well as Tamils, face discrimination, harassment and a lack of justice.

In addition to our face-to-face diplomacy, the UK Government have an £11 million programme that supports human rights and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. We have specific projects and programmes that help to tackle the legacy of the conflict, support civil society and democratic processes, promote gender equality, and reduce inter-community tensions. We have been a leading member of the core group of countries that work to improve human rights, justice and accountability in Sri Lanka, and we will continue to be in that core group.

We have worked in the UN human rights system to raise concerns and build international support to strengthen human rights, and we used our statement to the UN Human Rights Council in September to highlight the vital need to respect freedom of religion or belief and freedoms of expression and association in Sri Lanka. We also pressed for progress on justice, accountability and reconciliation. The UK delegation led work on the most recent UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, which the chair of the APPG asked about, and we will continue to use that as a tool to argue for progress.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

I want to get an assurance from the Minister that the British Government’s relationship with Sri Lanka will ensure that there is always unfettered access for UN human rights monitors and inspectors in Sri Lanka, because there has been, at times, more than reticence—indeed, obstruction—towards their inspection and it is obviously necessary to get an independent view of the situation.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We argue for unfettered access for these inspectors and will continue to do so. In the resolution asked about by the chair of the APPG—my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn, whom I commend for his tremendous activity in that office—we focused international attention on the human rights shortcomings. We also succeeded in renewing the mandate of UN human rights experts to report on these issues and to preserve evidence of abuses and violations committed during the armed conflict, so that justice can be pursued. We will continue to use that resolution as a lever to argue for positive change. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question.

I will now talk about some of the small positive steps, because when working with countries to strengthen their human rights adherence, it is important to acknowledge any progress that has been achieved. In that spirit, we welcome steps taken by the Sri Lankan Government to address some Tamil grievances. Those steps include the release of some disputed lands and the release of long-term detainees. We welcome the Government’s engagement with Tamil representatives on a long-sought political settlement, and we have urged the Government to consider further confidence-building measures and engagement.

We welcome steps taken by the Government to improve connectivity between the north and countries in the region, including through regular flights. That should help to increase economic opportunities for the north and others in that region. We also welcome the Government’s commitment to a truth and reconciliation commission, and we encourage them strongly to consult widely and come forward with detailed proposals.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I am sure that the Minister genuinely believes the speech that he is making, but the Foreign Office has for the last 13 years been beseeching the Sri Lankan Government for an independent truth and reconciliation process. To date, that has not happened. At what point will the Minister try something else?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

These are clearly profoundly difficult issues that will not be solved quickly, but our judgment is that we must continue with our diplomacy and our strong encouragement for the Government of Sri Lanka to come forward with detailed proposals about a truth and reconciliation commission. As unlikely as it may seem this afternoon, that is the intent of our diplomacy, and we will continue to do that. We will also continue closely to monitor human rights developments in Sri Lanka, including the marginalisation and repression faced by Tamil communities and other minorities.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Given the scepticism about yet another announcement of this sort of process, will the Minister pledge to continue more truthful and thorough approaches? For example, with regard to the question raised earlier in the debate about the role of the ICC for certain of the terrible events that happened during the civil war, is it the assessment of the FCDO that there is a case to answer in the ICC?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Lady will know that the ICC, being independent, will make its own judgments about the prospect of prosecution, but of course, candour and frank speaking are at the heart of the relationship that we have with the Sri Lankan Government, and we will continue to press the need for a truth and reconciliation commission.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I do not want to be too harsh to the hon. Gentleman, particularly as he is standing in for another Minister, but Anne McLaughlin used part of her speech from 2021 and this sounds distinctly like the same response that we had at that debate, almost word for word. Could the Minister address one issue for me? This is solely up to the Government: will they now explore the use of Magnitsky clause sanctions against known human rights abusers from Sri Lanka?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He knows that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on sanctions from the Front Bench—no Minister would do that—but we note the strength of feeling expressed by colleagues this afternoon.

We are concerned about the ongoing land disputes, the continued harassment and surveillance of civil society, and limitations on freedom of expression, assembly and association. We will continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to adhere to their human rights obligations and fulfil their commitments on transitional justice and legislative reform, and to take steps to build trust in their institutions.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I understand the Minister’s point about not commenting on sanctions from the Front Bench, but could I urge him once again to communicate the strength of feeling in this debate back to the FCDO? We have been asking for this for many years now.

On the point about the ICC, it is independent, but private individuals are taking forward independent referrals to the ICC against certain members of Sri Lankan military society. Although the UK Government are not engaged in that process, will the Minister review whether the FCDO could, at the UN, encourage the information being collected as part of the recent human rights resolution to be passed on to those who are trying to bring forward that prosecution?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I know that the Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific will hear that plea in due course and give it her consideration.

I will wrap up, because I want to leave two minutes for the conclusion. The UK Government will remain leaders on the international stage, working with civil society and the UN to deliver meaningful human rights improvements for Tamils and all Sri Lankans. In response to the question posed by Catherine West and Ed Davey on the role of the Foreign Secretary, let us be very clear that as Prime Minister, Lord Cameron led the way in ensuring that the UK spearheaded international efforts to seek improved human rights justice and accountability for sanctions. No one should doubt that our China policy is very clear-sighted, and any mature consideration of the facts will lead one to believe that the Foreign Secretary brings tremendous experience, credibility and integrity to his role.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Scottish National Party, Linlithgow and East Falkirk 3:57, 5 December 2023

We have had a very consensual debate with Members from all parts of the House speaking, which shows the strength of feeling that crosses normal political divides.

It is quite clear that far more needs to be done than has been done to date. Although I am grateful for the Minister’s response, the fact that the UK Government are concerned and will call on Sri Lanka to deliver on its promises just does not cut it. We have heard all that before. We really need further action, particularly on sanctions, and we need to ensure that there is international scrutiny of the reconciliation process. That is vital to getting any long-term solution. Unlike South Africa, where a minority were the oppressors of the majority and then power changed, Sri Lanka has a very different dynamic and it clearly needs international scrutiny.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered Sri Lankan Tamils and human rights.