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Justice for Tamils

Volume 560: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Karen Bradley.)

I would like to start by thanking Mr Speaker for allowing this debate on justice for the Tamil people. I would also like to say in the first instance, on my own behalf, but also, I am sure, on behalf of many hon. Friends, that we are sorry, because what we are talking about is trying to get justice for innocent victims who lost their lives—who were raped, who were murdered, who were imprisoned. We cannot bring those lives back, but we can try to get justice.

I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Tamils, and the group recognises that accountability is paramount for a sustainable peace and a meaningful reconciliation for the whole island of Sri Lanka, and for addressing the issues that have arisen not only during and after the conflict but going back many years, all the way back to 1948.

It is now four years since the end of the conflict in 2009, yet I and others believe that there has been no real accountability or mechanism for achieving it, and no meaningful settlements have been put in place. We need to look at the root cause of the conflict in Sri Lanka, in memory of those who lost their lives and for the sake of the children who lost their parents and of the people who even today have not been accounted for. I want to ask the Minister a number of questions on that point. I accept that he will not be in a position to answer some of them, but I want to put them on the record none the less.

At the end of the conflict, many babies and young children disappeared. I fear that I know what happened to them, but their relatives in the diaspora and in Sri Lanka deserve some answers. I have asked the high commission for those answers, and the Minister might be interested to know that it contacted me yesterday, after many months, asking to meet me. I would be happy to do that, as long as it will answer the questions that I and Members in all parts of the House have been asking for many years. We want meaningful answers and we want justice.

I was recently honoured to speak at a United Nations conference on this issue in Geneva. I issued the same apology that I gave the House tonight, not because I feel that this was my fault but because although I and Members of all parties in the House raised the matter with the Government of the day when it was happening, we should all, alas, hang our heads in shame that nothing was done to try to stop the loss of life. Now the United Nations has admitted that it let people down, and that the defences were not in place to stop the atrocities happening.

Different numbers are cited, but we are talking about tens of thousands of innocent people. Those are numbers that we just cannot comprehend. I cannot comprehend innocent women and children being taken out and shot. I cannot comprehend it because it is just not in our psyche; it is not how we would behave and we are not used to seeing others behave in that way. I cannot comprehend the fact that decades after the liberation of the camps following the holocaust, women and children would again be sent to camps. And God forbid that I ever should be able to comprehend it.

I am asking for a meaningful international investigation to be carried out. It is not for me to apportion blame, but somebody is guilty. Somebody committed those atrocities, and people must be brought to justice. Until that happens, it will be difficult to talk about reconciliation and peace. The extra-judicial and arbitrary killing of civilians has continued, people have disappeared, people have been raped and whole areas have been resettled. It is not me saying that; it is the United Nations saying it.

I am not saying who has committed these crimes, but we have seen programmes such as “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, for which I commend Channel 4, and the images of soldiers killing innocent people were also on people’s mobile phones. Those images were there for all to see; they were not invented. I had hoped that there would have been some accountability by now, but I fear that the Government of Sri Lanka are trying to fudge the issue. They appear to be saying, “It’s not me, guv.” Over the decades, we have heard people saying that they were only obeying orders. We all know what that is an echo of, and it is unacceptable.

At this point, I am going to put my speech down. To be honest, some things are so emotional that I do not want to read out a prepared speech. As I said, our minds cannot comprehend some of the atrocities that took place. I keep on talking about justice, and I keep on talking about accountability because those are the necessities of what must be brought forward. To achieve that, I know there is a motion going forward at the United Nations in Geneva, either as we speak or tomorrow. I would like to see that motion made stronger. I know that it is not a motion being put by the Government of Britain. I have every confidence that we will support the motion, but I would like to see it strengthened so that the Sri Lankan Government are held to account.

I must raise the issue of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that is due to take place later this year. I know that the Government have made no decision on that, but I ask the Minister to look very carefully at whether the Sri Lankan Government are fit to hold such a meeting. My view is that I do not believe they are.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating further debate on this important subject. Does he agree that the difference between the responsibility of Governments and that of others who are not in government is that Governments take on a responsibility to honour their national and international obligations by virtue of being elected to their posts? Although it is clear that there were abuses of power on both sides in what was effectively a civil war in Sri Lanka and that both sides should be held to account, when it comes to the rights of the future citizens in Sri Lanka, it is the Government who ultimately have to answer for their responsibilities—both in their own interests and those of everybody else.

My right hon. Friend is totally correct. There is a responsibility on any country that calls itself a democracy or on any country that has elected officials to honour international law and the law of their own country and to address these concerns, which my right hon. Friend, I and others in all parts of the House have raised for many years.

It may interest you to know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that because I have spoken up for justice on this matter, I have been accused on some websites of being “a white tiger”. That is interesting because anyone who knows me knows that I am by nature a coward—it has never let me down—so that is not one of the many things of which I can be accused. Equally, I would find it difficult to fulfil that role because I have never set foot in Sri Lanka; I have fought for the rights of the Tamil people from outside. I have been asked why I have not been to Sri Lanka. Until such time as I would be allowed to visit where I wish to visit, see what I want to see in any area, unfettered and unhindered, there would be no point in my going. I do not want to go on a Government-sponsored trip to see what they want me to see; I want to see the people who are in need of my and others’ assistance, but I do not believe that would happen.

Let me make it as clear as possible that I condemn any acts of terrorism by anybody. However, in looking for justice and reconciliation and looking at the list that the United Nations—again, not me—has provided, it needs to be said that it is very hard to get justice when people are already dead. We have seen on television footage of what the Government of the day did and we have seen clear-cut evidence taken on mobile phones, including by the troops. This evidence is not phoney; it cannot be argued with; and somebody was responsible for it.

I think my hon. Friend has just identified the key point. All of us want to see a process that leads to people who have committed atrocities on either side of the conflict brought to justice. Given how the conflict ended, however, it seems highly possible that people in positions of power in Sri Lanka today were involved, so if anyone is to have confidence in the authorities and the Sri Lankan Government, those people need to be brought to justice.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and we continue to raise those points. In 12 months’ time, I do not want to be having the same debate in the same Chamber about the same tragedy of innocent people being killed. I want the journey along the road to reconciliation, the road to justice, to begin. If that is to happen, however, various issues need to be addressed.

I could read out a long list of all the matters that need to be investigated, but I am not asking the British Government—my Government—to investigate those matters. I am asking for an international investigation. I do not believe that there is any chance that the Sri Lankan Government will investigate themselves, and I have great fears about that, because I think that there will be a fudge. If, as the Sri Lankan Government have said, they are not guilty of anything, they have nothing to fear from an international investigation, because that will be its finding. I was told that they would not want Britain to be involved in such an investigation, but there is no need for Britain to be involved. There are many countries in the world that could conduct the investigation; it does not need to be conducted by Great Britain.

I will end my speech shortly, because I want to give the Minister an opportunity to respond to some of the questions that I have raised, but let me first make a few requests. If the United Nations motion could be stiffened— and it may be too late—it would send a clear message to the Sri Lankan Government, which would be extremely helpful. I also think that we should think very seriously about our attendance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in the autumn.

However, the most important point is that, for the sake of the thousands and thousands of women, men and children who have lost their lives, we cannot just stand by and do nothing. I know that we have tried to do something, and I know that the Minister cares passionately about this. I am merely asking whether we can go that little bit further, in order to secure justice for people who are no longer alive to secure justice for themselves. That, surely, is the duty of this Parliament.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing the debate. His tireless work to raise the profile of human rights issues in Sri Lanka and to seek accountability for events that took place during the war is well known to the House. His speech demonstrated his passion and commitment to the cause. I do not know what his definition of a coward is, but he does not conform to my definition. We are all aware of the way in which he approaches his work in the House. I also thank other Members for their contributions to the debate.

Having visited Sri Lanka last month, I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House, and to hear Members’ views about a country with which the United Kingdom has long-standing and deep ties. Our relations have been cemented through trade, tourism and education, as well as through the diaspora community in the UK. We value those links, which reflect the strong bond that our countries continue to enjoy. I am sometimes asked why the United Kingdom is so interested in Sri Lanka, and why the issue arises time and again. I think that the reason is a combination of that background of relationships and the real pain that we all feel—the sense that following the tragedy that was this conflict, everyone in Sri Lanka deserves something rather better to look forward to. There are so many unanswered questions; we just feel that more could be done.

The United Kingdom’s long-term interest is in a stable, peaceful Sri Lanka, free from the scourge of terrorism, where the human rights of all Sri Lankans are protected, but as the House is well aware in a different context, certain things need to happen to enable a country to rebuild itself after a tragedy. That is one of the reasons why we feel so much for Sri Lanka, and why we talk in the way that we do about the opportunities that exist. There must be a balance; there are issues to be considered on all sides.

As my hon. Friend observed, the debate comes at an important moment. Later this week, the UN Human Rights Council will consider a motion on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. As my noble Friend Baroness Warsi made clear in her statement to the high-level segment of the Human Rights Council, the United Kingdom supports the motion. Let me reply to my hon. Friend’s query by saying that all international resolutions of this kind are composites, and are put together in a manner designed to create the greatest possible support for them. That sometimes means a degree of compromise on language. The United Kingdom felt that the most important thing was that the demonstration of a significant number of countries with concern about Sri Lanka was better than having a motion that some might have felt unable to support. We wanted to give a clear indication, as we gave last year, of the importance of these issues to many nations, which is why the resolution is drafted in the terms it is. We think it is still firm and meaningful.

The text reflects widespread concern that, in simple terms, the Sri Lankan Government, having won a brutal war, are not winning the peace. There should be no doubt about the fact that it was a brutal war and about the importance of defeating terrorism, but the brutality of the terrorism of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is not sufficient, in itself, as an answer to questions about actions taken at the end of the war.

As I have previously made clear to the House, progress has been made in Sri Lanka in a number of areas—it is still important to say this—including de-mining, the reintegration of child soldiers and the resettlement of an increasing number of internally displaced persons. Considerable investment has also been made in infrastructure, as I saw during my visit in January. However, as the resolution highlights, progress is lacking in other areas fundamental to the reconciliation and long-term stability that all Sri Lankans deserve after almost 30 years of armed conflict.

As hon. Members are aware, the Sri Lankan Government took steps to address the root causes of conflict by establishing a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which reported in 2011. Despite gaps on accountability, the recommendations of the LLRC were, contrary to some opinion that had been expressed beforehand, constructive and far-reaching. Regrettably, however, the July 2012 plan of action for LLRC implementation covers only about half the recommendations, and for many the actions were scheduled to begin only in 2013.

I have repeatedly encouraged the Sri Lankan Government to implement all the recommendations, making it clear that the real test of the LLRC’s recommendations is in their implementation. I stress that these concerns and commitments made from outside Sri Lanka are absolutely based on the desires of Sri Lankans themselves, as their Government have expressed, to give effect to reconciliation and the pathway to it. All people from outside who are concerned about the future of Sri Lanka are asking for is that the Sri Lankan Government implement the things they have said are necessary to be brought forward if true reconciliation is to be achieved among all the people. The Foreign Secretary was assured in a letter from Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris just last week that all the LLRC recommendations will be implemented. I warmly welcome that assurance, but we urge the Sri Lankan Government to ensure swift implementation of all the recommendations. Many, such as that for a national day of remembrance for all those who died in the war, can be implemented relatively easily and quickly, if the political will exists.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it might be helpful if the Sri Lankan Government would start to involve the Tamil diaspora from around the world in some way, engage them and start working with them so that some of these questions, fears, desires and aspirations can be addressed?

That is a question for the Sri Lankan Government. In short, it can only be helpful if members of the diaspora in the UK are clear about their desire to be engaged in the Sri Lanka of today and to work for the future of Sri Lanka, as well as about concerns about accountability and issues in the past. There are strong and deep feelings on both sides. I cannot see, given my knowledge of everyone involved, that everyone is going to come together on this, but it is true that elements in the diaspora community in the UK do want to be engaged in that work and that is very important. There needs to be an open door on both sides to try to engineer something that will be of assistance for the future.

The United Kingdom’s calls for the swift implementation of the LLRC recommendations are not unrealistic. The UK has never suggested or expected that reconciliation after sustained armed conflict would be instant. We realise that the LLRC recommendations cannot all be implemented immediately and that a credible process of accountability takes time. However, to make progress in the long term there needs to be a sense of urgency and a positive trajectory. This is particularly the case in areas that require agreement between various parties, changes to legislation and negotiated solutions to complicated issues such as land rights. From our own experience of reconciliation in Northern Ireland, we know well that these processes are complex and require a long-term approach, tenacity, co-operation and, if I may say so, political leadership.

We know too that delay serves only to make the process more difficult and widens the circle of those affected. At present, our view is that a number of key LLRC recommendations have not been tackled at all, or have been tackled in name only. First, the military presence in many areas may be less invasive than at the end of the conflict, but armed forces continue to occupy significant areas of civilian land, which are now classified as high-security zones or military cantonments. Secondly, military involvement in civil and commercial activities has reduced in some areas, but involvement in reconstruction work, and in the wider economy, including the tourism sector, remains widespread and a source of tension.

When I was in Sri Lanka, in the northern area, it was noted that I was not alone. I was accompanied not only by UK officials and officials from the high commission, but by a significant military presence, some uniformed and some non-uniformed. It is not uncommon for a Minister visiting someone else’s country to be protected and supported by the military in those areas, and I raise no issue about that. I felt safe, and it was only appropriate for the Government to do that. However, the extent of military involvement was noticed by others, who were keen to pick out the non-uniformed individuals who were there, which raises a significant matter.

Our observation is that military intrusion in the north is significant. There are too many stories of people in the area who, if they speak to non-governmental organisations or western journalists, are immediately interrogated by non-uniformed military personnel, and an oppressive sense of intrusion was reported by those who were able to report it. People commented on my visit and said how foolish I was. They said, “Don’t you know that no one will be able to speak to you honestly?” Trust me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I knew that full well, and I made no judgment in relation to what was said to me. However, my going on that visit, on which people could see how I was treated, made, I think, its own point, and I would ask that in future perhaps there would not be quite as much intrusion. That is something that needs to be recognised in the area.

Thirdly, not only has there been no agreement on political settlement, but a recent Bill in the Sri Lankan Parliament has restricted existing devolution by repatriating budgetary powers to the central Government. Fourthly, there is no reliable information on the missing, and families are unable to establish whether their relatives are among those still detained. Finally, there has not been, even as we see new footage that has been released, an independent investigation into the Channel 4 footage, as recommended by the LLRC.

One area not adequately covered by the LLRC is justice, or accountability, for the alleged violations of international humanitarian law by both sides in the war. As I said in a Westminster Hall debate on justice in Sri Lanka earlier today, all Sri Lankans deserve access to fair and transparent justice, yet for many Sri Lankans, Sinhala and Muslim as well as Tamil, the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 has not been followed by an accounting for the events that they experienced during the war. The independent, thorough and credible investigations into alleged violations that the UK and many other countries have called for have not taken place.

A transparent, independent, Sri Lankan-led investigation with full access to witnesses would be a significant step in delivering justice. If Sri Lanka is unable or unwilling to deliver that, the calls for an international alternative will only increase. As hon. Members know, the concerns of the British Government are not simply related to the period of war. We have expressed concerns recently about the impeachment of the chief justice, and the intimidation of the media, opposition politicians and human rights defenders over the past 12 months. We remain seriously concerned about widespread impunity for sexual assault, rape and domestic violence in Sri Lanka—a concern that we are seeking to tackle by working with Sri Lankan non-governmental organisations.

We are very much aware that this year there is a period of intense international scrutiny of Sri Lanka, not just in the Human Rights Council session, but in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. In September, the Sri Lankan Government plan to hold long-awaited northern provincial council elections, in which a free and fair process would send a strong signal of progress. In November, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is scheduled to take place in Colombo and, whatever the formal agenda, and whoever attends, the spotlight will be on Sri Lanka, and it will either highlight progress or focus attention and pressure on the lack of it. As my hon. Friend said, our attendance has not been decided. We look to Sri Lanka to uphold Commonwealth values, including on good governance and human rights.

The Sri Lankan Government have in CHOGM an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to Commonwealth values and progress in carrying out the actions necessary for long-term reconciliation and stability. The United Kingdom urges them still to seize this opportunity with the support of the international community. This is a society that we want to see succeed. No matter what the difficulties have been, there is still an opportunity to fulfil the recommendations that the Sri Lankans have announced themselves for their future.

I thank hon. Members for their continued interest. I am sure that we will be meeting again.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.