Sri Lanka: Human Rights — [Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:16 pm on 20 March 2024.

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Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa) 3:16, 20 March 2024

I believe this is the first time we have been joined in such an endeavour during our time in the House together, Dame Maria, and it is a huge privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for securing the debate, and I congratulate him on the way in which he presented what he had to say to us. Somewhat similarly to the Opposition spokesman, Anna McMorrin, I am standing in for the Minister for the Indo-Pacific, my right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, as she is unable to attend, but it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government to the excellent and interesting debate we have just heard. I am extremely grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members who have spoken. I will seek to respond to all points raised, and if I omit any, I will of course immediately write to hon. Members.

One point I want to pick up at the outset, which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, is to do with the British military engagement in Sri Lanka, but I hope to pick up the rest of his points during my remarks. The British strategy for defence engagement in Sri Lanka focuses primarily on professional military education, strategic leadership and international development. We continuously monitor the context and viability of the approach to ensure that UK assistance is in line with our values and consistent with our domestic and international human rights obligations, and assures the process of selecting appropriate personnel for any UK-sponsored training.

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend Jim Shannon, who was questioning me just an hour or so ago on issues to do with Hong Kong. I recognise the specific interest and experience he brings to a debate like this because of his knowledge and understanding of reconciliation, conflict and healing. I heard him say—and how right he is—that he speaks up always in this House for human rights and for the voiceless.

Dame Siobhain McDonagh spoke movingly on behalf of her Tamil constituents, and I will seek to come to at least some of her comments. Likewise, Brendan O’Hara raised important issues from his experience of these matters. The hon. Member for Cardiff North raised a number of points that I will come to, but she asked me two specific questions. The first was about human rights sanctions, and as I think she inferred, we certainly keep such matters under review as appropriate, but she will not be particularly surprised to hear me say that we do not discuss them in advance and neither would we discuss our thinking across the Floor of the House. She also, secondarily, made a point about the importance of accountability. I will come to some of this in my further remarks, but I want to be very clear to her that we regard transparency and accountability as fundamental parts of reconciliation. I will say more about that in a moment.

Let me turn to the current situation. Human rights in Sri Lanka remain a priority for the Government, and we monitor closely the situation and developments there. The fact that Sri Lanka is a human rights priority country for the British Government reflects our concerns about a range of human rights issues and, quite rightly, hon. Members have highlighted a number of those concerns.

Civil society continues to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment by state authorities. Those points were eloquently set out during some of the contributions we have heard today. We are concerned about a trend towards a more constrained civic space, including the use of laws to limit freedoms of expression and assembly, such as the misuse of the international covenant on civil and political rights, or the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was mentioned earlier. Britain continues to call for the replacement of the draconian PTA with legislation that is consistent with Sri Lanka’s international obligations and to uphold a moratorium on the use of the provisions of the PTA.

We are also concerned about the Online Safety Act, which was recently passed. It has the potential to restrict severely online communication and could criminalise many forms of expression. Proposals to strengthen the regulation of non-governmental organisations and broadcast media raise fears of efforts to restrict civic space.