[Mr David Amess in the Chair]
Let me say at the outset that many hon. Members have taken the trouble to turn up this afternoon. If those who have not written in beforehand could quietly indicate that they wish to make a speech or just an intervention, that would be helpful. Obviously, I want to call everyone who wishes to speak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. Before starting on my main points, I would like to say something on behalf of the all-party group on Tamils, which includes the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), whom I thank for all her help and support on this issue. The all-party group has always condemned and will always condemn any terrorism whatever. Various accusations have been made that are not correct, so I wanted to put that on the record.
This debate is about the loss of tens of thousands of innocent people’s lives. I believe that that is beyond any party politics, and it is not my intention to bring any party politics into today’s debate.
One of the most important things that everyone talks about is peace and reconciliation, but before there can be that there must be accountability and justice; the one cannot be achieved without the other. The all-party group contacted my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and asked that the decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next week be reviewed, but I have to base my words on the fact that the UK will be attending that meeting. In the light of that, it is vital that various points be raised, and I will raise them; I am sure that other hon. Members have important issues to raise as well. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his place.
Let us consider the various issues raised by me and other hon. Members. At the time of the conflict, many children went missing, as well as adults. We fear that we know what happened to those thousands of people, but is it too much to ask, for the dignity of the families concerned, that what happened to the children and adults who disappeared should be confirmed by the Government of Sri Lanka? I have been promised that on numerous occasions, including at meetings where the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden was present, but we have never heard a word about it.
Sri Lanka has failed on many fundamental core values of the Commonwealth, such as democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, the rule of law, judicial independence and good governance; we have only to look at what has happened to members of the press and at what is happening with any protests that people want to take place during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next week.
For the first time in the Commonwealth’s 64-year history, those core values were adopted into a Commonwealth charter, which was signed by Her Majesty the Queen, as the head of the Commonwealth, in March 2013—[Interruption.]
Okay, it was not me.
The Channel 4 documentaries broadcasted many authenticated videos showing very significant evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the end of the conflict in 2009. There is new evidence in the documentary shown recently, “No Fire Zone”; it shows the fate of a Tamil TV presenter in a stark reminder of the Sri Lankan Government’s cruelty in that period. Until now, they had insisted that she had died in combat during the final stages of the conflict. That has now been shown—not by me, but on TV—not to be the case. There are many unanswered questions about accountability during the last period of the conflict and war, when innocent Tamil civilians were brutally killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Again, it is not me making that claim; it has been shown in TV documentaries. It cannot be denied.
I would like to quote from a short story about one of the disappeared people. This is from The Daily Telegraph of 18 October:
“The abductors arrived in a white van shortly before midnight, stopping outside a modest home in a palm-fringed town on Sri Lanka’s north-western coast. Inside the house he shared with his uncle, Anton Saniston Manuel lay asleep in his sarong.
The men burst in and at the point of a gun the 24-year-old fisherman was led away. That was five years ago and nothing has been heard of Anton…since that night.”
Sometimes his family think that if they had killed Anton in front of them, that would have been better, because they could have buried him and mourned him. They would know what had happened.
The same pain is endured by thousands of families across Sri Lanka. As President Rajapaksa prepares to welcome the dignitaries who will arrive for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, he is striving to portray Sri Lanka as a thriving democracy recovering from decades of civil war. If only that were true. I, like colleagues on both sides of the House, pray that there will be democracy, closure, justice and reconciliation, but have there been any signs of that? I am afraid not.
Let us consider some of the issues that have arisen and have been raised. I have various notes with me, but I am not going to use them. What I am about to say involves all of us, regardless of political party. In 2009, what was happening was known by some of us, and some of us said what was happening, but nothing changed and those lives were lost. That should never have happened. All of us, including me, owe an apology that at that stage, we did not do what needed to be done. For that, I say publicly that I am sorry. I know that colleagues will feel the same.
Tragically, we cannot bring back the lives of the innocent civilians, but what we can do is start today to tackle some of the issues that still exist, such as the violence against women and the massive increase in sexual crimes that is being seen not only in Tamil areas, but across the whole of Sri Lanka. We have to tackle these things. If we are to have reconciliation and justice, there is no point in trying to sweep things under the carpet.
I shall say what my fear is. My fear is that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting will go ahead and will portray Sri Lanka in a certain light—as the current Government wish it to be portrayed. I do not believe that that is the correct light.
I know that the Prime Minister, the entire delegation of Ministers and everyone else who is going to Sri Lanka do care, will visit the areas that I am calling on them to visit in the north of Sri Lanka, will seek unfettered access and will raise the human rights issues. I hope that that happens.
I cannot say what the Sri Lankan regime will and will not allow. That is not in my gift. But if we do not raise these issues, we will be having another debate in this Chamber or in the main Chamber, asking the same questions, year after year after year.
Yes. Of course it would be wrong to impose any restrictions. If we truly are to move things along, there must be free access for anyone—not only the British delegation, but any other delegation—to go anywhere, see anything, hear anything and speak to the people without those people being scared to say what they want to say.
I thank my constituency neighbour and friend for giving way. I suspect that he is aware that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has called on the Sri Lankan Government to assure the Prime Minister that anyone he meets, and their families, will not subsequently be harassed or intimidated. We know that that happens regularly in Sri Lanka. If the Prime Minister meets figures who are critical of the Government, there is a risk that the situation may be serious for them after he and other Ministers have left.
I agree totally with my neighbour.
I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will not continue for long. I have raised my concerns, but I raise one final point. Those of us who have spoken out for justice, reconciliation and peace for all in Sri Lanka should not be targeted and accused of being terrorists or of being wrong. That is unacceptable. Hon. Members on both sides only want justice, peace, reconciliation and accountability.
I do not want to beat about the bush: Britain should not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka later this month. It is disgraceful that our Government are heaping credibility on the Sri Lankan regime by doing so.
In just nine days, the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne will effectively bestow their blessing on the regime when they are photographed alongside President Rajapaksa, who is widely considered to be a war criminal. The images of a king-to-be and a Prime Minister with such a person will cause enormous distress to his victims. Worse, they will give succour to other potential war criminals and show just how easy it is to get away with it. As Amnesty said,
“By hosting CHOGM in Colombo, the Commonwealth is giving an extraordinary and ill-deserved seal of approval to impunity for human rights violations in Sri Lanka.”
President Rajapaksa is head of a regime that cluster-bombed its own people, many in the laughably titled “no-fire zone”. It killed at least 40,000 of its own citizens. Even now, nearly 150,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for. Yes, the Tamil Tigers were a cruel terrorist organisation, but according to the United Nations, the large majority of civilian killings were
“the result of Government shelling and aerial bombardment”.
There was systematic shelling of hospitals and civilian areas by Government forces, as well as restrictions on humanitarian aid.
Channel 4’s documentary “Killing Fields” drew the world’s attention to what the UN panel of experts called a
“grave assault on the entire regime of international law”.
The channel’s latest documentary, screened on Sunday, was almost too harrowing to watch. Mobile phone footage, authenticated by the metadata in each file, showed further evidence of what reporter Jonathan Miller called
“the worst…crimes committed this century…that is saying something, given what is going on in Syria.”
Sri Lanka’s own so-called Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission has totally failed to provide accountability. The UN panel of experts said that it was “deeply flawed” and called for an independent, international investigation into war crimes. Yet Sri Lanka continues to ignore even the most minor allegations, describing them as unsubstantiated or biased.
In the absence of accountability or reconciliation, the situation is getting worse. As the UN human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, said just weeks ago,
“although the fighting is over, the suffering is not.”
For her, Sri Lanka is
“showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”,
“curtailment or denial of personal freedoms and human rights...and the failure of the rule of law.”
Amnesty also described
“a deterioration of human rights...violations continue, with the…Government cracking down on critics through threats, harassment, imprisonment and violent attacks.”
Journalists, the judiciary, human rights activists and opposition politicians are all targets of what Amnesty calls a
“disturbing pattern of Government-sanctioned abuse.”
Sri Lanka is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to meet Sandhya, the wife of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a satirist and journalist who disappeared in 2010. Earlier this week, the BBC screened an excellent documentary, “The Disappeared”, which was about the impact of abductions and secret murders in Ireland during the troubles. Even 40 years on, victims’ families are haunted by what happened, and their emotions are still raw. Mrs Eknaligoda’s husband disappeared just three years ago. The paramilitaries responsible for his disappearance cannot be dismissed easily as terrorists, as might have been the case with the IRA; they are agents of the Sri Lankan establishment.
The state of Sri Lanka has done next to nothing to help Mrs Eknaligoda to find her husband. When she reported his disappearance, the case was not investigated. Instead, she was locked up. Police officers called to court to account for what happened to her husband routinely fail to appear. Ministers refuse to answer letters about the case, other than to acknowledge receipt. Sri Lanka’s chief justice, Mohan Peiris, blithely told the UN human rights commission that Mr Eknaligoda had gone abroad, with absolutely no evidence to back up the claim.
Mr Eknaligoda is not the only one of Sri Lanka’s disappeared. Amnesty reckons that there have been thousands of disappearances, including at least 39 critics of Sri Lanka’s Government, since 2010. Many are not even Tamil; Mr Eknaligoda is Sinhalese. Every one of those disappearances is a tragedy, in a country that is well used to brutality.
What was so shocking about meeting Mrs Eknaligoda and hearing her story was how unsurprised I felt about it. Our Government’s complete failure to hold the Government of Sri Lanka to account is also no surprise. Indeed, although this was Mrs Eknaligoda’s first visit to Britain and hers is a cause célèbre around the world, the British Government refused to meet her.
Freedom from Torture says that Sri Lanka has replaced Iran at the top of the table of torture cases referred to it in the UK. Tamils continue to suffer owing to military controls in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The Foreign Affairs Committee has concluded that holding the Commonwealth meeting in Colombo was “wrong”. It told the Prime Minister not to go unless he received
“convincing and independently verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights.”
No such improvements have been seen, yet still the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne will go.
Our Government claim to be concerned about
“disappearances, political violence and reports of torture in custody”,
but for the next two years, Sri Lanka will chair every important committee of the Commonwealth, and President Rajapaksa will pose alongside our Prime Minister. If our Prime Minister seriously thinks that his presence alongside Rajapaksa will help the victims of disappearances or cluster-bombings, he clearly knows nothing about Sri Lanka.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful case. She is a strong champion of human rights in Sri Lanka. Does she share the sense of betrayal felt by British Tamils living in my constituency, hers and elsewhere in the country that our Government are lending credence to the Sri Lankan regime by insisting on attending the meeting?
As far as I am aware, the hon. Lady was in this House in 2009, when the decision was taken in Trinidad and Tobago, under a Labour Government, to go to Sri Lanka. Will she tell the House how many times since then she has spoken out on the subject?
I cannot, but hon. Members on both sides in the debate will know that at every possible opportunity—every debate, every event and every early-day motion—I have been making this point. I would be making it if the Government were Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Social Democratic and Labour or Democratic Unionist. It is of the utmost disinterest to me who is in power; what is of interest to me is the fact that this is happening. Although no one would regard me as the best friend of our former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), he assured me that his Government would not go to Sri Lanka for CHOGM, and he respected that promise.
My hon. Friend is probably aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee report “The FCO’s human rights work in 2012” stated:
“The FCO objected to a proposal that Sri Lanka might host the 2011 CHOGM on human rights grounds but did not obstruct a proposal that it might do so in 2013… That approach now appears timid. The UK could and should have taken a more principled stand in 2009, and should have taken a more robust stand after the 2011 CHOGM in the light of the continuing serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.”
If the British delegation is silly enough to go on the sanitised, Government-approved visits that are almost certainly lined up, how will that help the victims? The propaganda machine will go into overdrive, presenting Britain’s participation as giving credence to the regime. No doubt, the Government will claim that their attendance at CHOGM is an opportunity to raise dissidents’ concerns, but I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government will not put anyone in danger by meeting them. After the UN met critics of the Sri Lankan regime earlier this year, there were terrible reprisals. I hope that the Prime Minister will not seek to assuage his guilt about CHOGM by putting the lives of those whom he meets at risk, and I hope that the Minister will guarantee those people’s safety long after the summit has ended.
The Government will not even guarantee the safety of Tamils whom they deport from Britain, however. According to Freedom from Torture, at least 15 Tamils whom Britain deported to Sri Lanka were tortured on their return, and they are only the ones who have managed to escape back to Britain to claim asylum again. Many others remain.
The truth is that Britain should not be going to Sri Lanka next week, because to do so will be seen as an endorsement of a Government who fired cluster bombs, white phosphorus and rockets on their own people. The Government may think that justice will be served by having President Rajapaksa pictured, all smiles, alongside our Prime Minister, but what will dictators such as President Assad think when they look at those pictures? Will they be put off? No, they will be smiling, just as President Rajapaksa will be smiling. That will send the message that human rights can be breached, people can be murdered, journalists can be disappeared and the Commonwealth and Britain will do nothing. For the sake of every future victim of a murderous regime, nothing but a boycott of this despicable summit will suffice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, and to follow the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this timely debate. It is incredibly important, and we have heard two very moving speeches already. I take on board what my hon. Friend said about the need for peace and reconciliation, and I agree with him that before that can be achieved, there has to be justice and transparency. Although, in my humble judgment, significant progress has been made in the peace process and in all the work that has been done since the peace in 2009, there is still significant unfinished business and many questions remain unanswered. There is a vital need for justice, transparency and accountability.
I think it was a grave mistake to give the CHOGM the go-ahead to meet in Colombo. In 2009, I supported putting on hold the decision on whether the summit should go to Colombo, and having Perth as the venue for 2011 as an interim measure. That whole discussion should have continued apace. I would like the Minister to comment on the decision-making process within the Commonwealth, and particularly within the secretariat, which does the heavy lifting work behind the process of selecting the venues, because a similar situation may occur in the future. Not many Commonwealth countries are totally unsuitable for hosting a CHOGM, although one can think of a few, but it certainly should not be going to Sri Lanka.
Having said that, although the CHOGM should have been postponed—it should have gone to Mauritius this year, and the stream of work on whether Colombo was a suitable place to host it this year should have continued— since the Commonwealth has decided to go firm on Colombo, the Secretary of State, his Ministers and the heir to the throne are right to go; I disagree with the hon. Lady on that point. What would be achieved by the son of the head of the Commonwealth, and the Foreign Secretary of a country that is seen as central in driving the Commonwealth agenda, boycotting the meeting?
I certainly accept that, and it is one of the downsides. On the other hand, the signal must go out that the Commonwealth is an organisation that is growing in stature and strength, and becoming more relevant in the world. The Commonwealth is bigger than one country, one city and one President, which is why it would be a mistake for our Government to boycott next week’s CHOGM.
I will come on to that point. Since I started studying the Commonwealth, and indeed during my time as a Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, answering for the Commonwealth in the Commons —when he was a Foreign Office Minister, Lord Howell had responsibility for the Commonwealth, and my right hon. Friend the Minister has taken over his work—I have thought that the process is the wrong way round. The country that hosts a forthcoming CHOGM should be in the chair in the two years running up to it, rather than taking over the chair post-CHOGM. That would give it a chance to set the agenda and work tirelessly on some of the priorities that the Commonwealth needs to deal with.
I am concerned that the Sri Lankan Government will be far too defensive in their chairmanship of the Commonwealth, and that they may well use that chairmanship to deflect criticism of some of the appalling historical abuses discussed by my hon. Friend, which have not been accounted for or explained. We must try to implement a better mechanism to ensure that the chair of the Commonwealth drives the agenda that the members of the Commonwealth want.
The hon. Lady mentioned the UN panel of experts. I read their report, which is highly compelling. They suggested that there should be a new independent international investigation of the crimes; that would be a natural extension to the work done by the eminent persons group in the run-up to Perth. Would it not be an idea for the Commonwealth to carry out an independent international investigation of those crimes, as recommended by the UN panel of experts? Will the Minister put that suggestion to the Commonwealth? It would be a good way of ensuring that the Sri Lankan Government concentrated on things that matter, and their involvement in the process would be one stage removed, because the investigation would be carried out by the Commonwealth.
Finally, it is incredibly important that we take a positive view post-CHOGM, because the Commonwealth has an important future. It must concentrate more on trade, commercial diplomacy and the potential for foreign direct investment between Commonwealth members. After all, it is an organisation that encompasses a vast number of people—at the last count, in excess of 2 billion —and total trade between members of some $3 trillion. There is potential for increasing that trade, and using trade and business to break down barriers between communities; for underpinning peace processes; and, above all, for helping to bring about justice and reconciliation. Sri Lanka needs wealth creation and prosperity, but it also needs answers to the questions that have been raised. The Commonwealth can turn what I believe was a mistake into something that will be positive for the future.
It is a delight, Mr Amess, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this important debate, and I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham).
My comments fall into three sections. First, I want to talk about the rule of law in Sri Lanka. Then I want to talk about my constituent, Khuram Shaikh, who was brutally murdered nearly two years ago while his girlfriend was gang-raped. Thirdly, I want to talk about the deterioration of the Commonwealth, not least because of its association with Sri Lanka and its President.
We know from the persecution of the former Chief Justice, from the murder of and attacks on journalists, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned, and from the attacks on human rights activists that the rule of law does not often apply in Sri Lanka, even though it is a key principle of the Commonwealth. For the next two years, we will have a chairman of the Commonwealth, President Rajapaksa, who has little or no regard for the rule of law.
We know from the case of Khuram Shaikh that the President of Sri Lanka puts political patronage and the possession of power well above the rule of law. Over the past two years, my office and I have come to understand Sri Lanka and how it works, or rather how it fails to work when it comes to Commonwealth principles. I have visited Sri Lanka twice in the past nine months. I have met Government Ministers, Opposition MPs, solicitors, senior police officers and soldiers, Sri Lankan diplomats, members of civil society and ordinary citizens. My office staff have flown to Moscow to meet Khuram’s girlfriend, who was raped. I have visited the scene of Khuram’s murder in Tangalle. We have spoken with Canadian and British witnesses who were present on the evening of the murder. We have facilitated meetings in Austria with DNA experts who are familiar with the case. We have had time to study the case in detail, and there is little we do not know.
There is an important point to make. We know the alleged murderers were arrested soon after the murder but were then released on bail. Little has happened since. Then, just two weeks ago—nearly two years after the murder—a senior prosecutor suddenly announced that a trial would get
“off the ground within the shortest possible time.”
That announcement was made just two weeks before the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. I apologise for my cynicism, but one cannot help thinking that the latest announcement is window-dressing for the CHOGM.
Let us be clear about why this is an example of the breakdown in the rule of law and why President Rajapaksa is not an appropriate person to chair the Commonwealth. One of the key murder suspects—the alleged ringleader at the murder scene—has already been connected to the murder by DNA reports. He is chairman of the local council in Tangalle and an active member of the ruling party. He was suspended from the ruling party, but he was quickly reinstated. People in the Southern province of Sri Lanka, including British nationals to whom I have spoken, will tell you that the key murder suspect is a creature of the President and delivers votes for the President’s party. Since no case has come to court, the suspect has become emboldened and, indeed, more violent in the area. He has nothing to fear, because he has the protection of the President. That is why a trial has not yet taken place.
I conclude with this final concern: the Commonwealth cannot allow the CHOGM to become just an opportunity for President Rajapaksa to showcase Sri Lanka. It also has to be used to shine a light on the failures of his regime and to push for change. We are not only on the verge of a British Prime Minister flying over 5,000 miles to shake hands with a President who is protecting the murderer of a British national; we are on the verge of the Commonwealth being led by someone who has no regard for the rule of law. That should worry all of us.
It is a delight, Mr Amess, to serve under your chairmanship. It is the first time in three years that I have spoken in Westminster Hall.
I want to talk about one aspect of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that is taking place this month, as opposed to citing all the aspects. I am listening with great interest to what other Members have said, and that will become apparent at the end of my speech. At the CHOGM, people will rightly talk about poverty alleviation, education, access to water and drugs, and meeting the millennium development goals, but one subject that does not get much attention is lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. In parts, the Commonwealth is failing on that.
Within the Commonwealth, 40 countries still criminalise aspects of LGBT life. Of those 40 countries, 14 are in Africa, eight in Asia, seven in Oceania and 11 in the Americas. One of them is Pakistan, where consensual same-sex relations carry a maximum penalty of death. Just think of that for a second: death. Alongside that, Bangladesh, Barbados, Guyana, Singapore and Uganda all have a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for consensual same-sex relations. That is in stark contrast to some Commonwealth countries that have made great strides. South Africa is one of them. Same-sex marriage was allowed there in 2006, which was well ahead of the United Kingdom, where same-sex marriage was allowed this year. Earlier this year, I watched footage of the New Zealand Parliament passing similar legislation. I had a tear in my eye when I saw people in the public gallery singing after that legislation was passed. That is in stark contrast to what is happening in many other Commonwealth countries. The final communiqué from the CHOGM of 2011 does not overtly refer to LGBT rights at all. One part urges members to consider becoming party to all major international human rights instruments, and to implement fully the rights and freedoms set out in the universal declaration on the human genome and human rights and so on. If we scratch the surface of that, we all know what that means. We also know that if there had been an attempt to put LGBT rights overtly in the communiqué in 2011, there would not have been a communiqué. We all know how it works; we have all been in international forums in which we have had to agree communiqués. I hope that the opportunity will be taken in 2013 to be far more overt about the progress that can be made in Sri Lanka.
One Commonwealth member state that is home to some of the strictest laws on same-sex relations is Uganda. Section 145 of the Penal Code Act 1950 is “Unnatural offences”, which states:
“Any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature…or permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature, commits an offence and is liable to imprisonment for life.”
I went to Uganda a couple of years ago with an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation. We went to see the Speaker of the Uganda Parliament, and we spoke to her about a private Member’s Bill that would make the law even harsher. It was clear to us that we were making absolutely no progress. We were an all-party delegation and she finished by telling us, “Don’t tell us how to run our country.” We were given short shrift.
The Prime Minister spoke about the maltreatment of those who practise same-sex relations after the 2011 CHOGM. There was a failure to reach an agreement among the leaders at that summit. The Prime Minister threatened to dock some UK aid to nations that have discriminatory laws against those practising same-sex relations. It would be a mistake to punish the people of those countries for what their Governments are doing, but we need to look at how we can influence those Governments far better.
Thank you, Mr Amess. I will take your comment on board. We must look at the action the Government can take to influence Commonwealth countries while not penalising their people.
The Kaleidoscope Trust, a UK-based trust working to uphold the rights of LGBT people internationally, received reliable reports that LGBT activists in Sri Lanka had been threatened with arrest, and organisations had been warned that they could be closed down if they continued to advocate human rights for all. That is particularly poignant, given that Sri Lanka is hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this month.
I will finish with two quotes I have been given by two friends. One is from Ben Summerskill of Stonewall. I spoke to him earlier today, and he said,
“There needs to be a commitment to decriminalise homosexuality throughout the Commonwealth. There is a shadow that is cast over the Commonwealth and its relevance in the 21st century unless it can make giant strides towards the elimination of this most hideous of discriminations.”
Matthew Todd of Attitude magazine said,
“In 2013, homosexual relations are still criminalised in the majority of nations of the Commonwealth. This is an unacceptable situation, which sees millions of people suffer hugely diminished lives and, in some cases, lives that are destroyed altogether. It is imperative that the Commonwealth supports and campaigns for the basic human rights of all its citizens, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”
I agree with both those comments.
The CHOGM in November 2013 has the opportunity to do what Ben Summerskill and Matthew Todd describe. Our Government must not miss this vital opportunity to speak up for a group of people who are denied their human rights by their Government. As the Prime Minister indicated in relation to the CHOGM 2011, it will take a journey for some Commonwealth countries to make progress on this issue. Well, the CHOGM 2013 in Sri Lanka is the time to start that journey, and we should start with the human rights that are denied to people who live in Sri Lanka.
In 2012, the FCO identified Sri Lanka as a country of concern in its annual human rights and democracy report, admitting there had been some “negative developments”. The report highlighted the number of abductions and disappearances, as well as the intimidation of human rights defenders, members of the legal profession and the media. Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa has repeatedly rejected demands for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes, including from the Prime Minister.
In August 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited Sri Lanka and noted the country’s worrying “authoritarian turn”. What concerns me is that there is a sense of complicity on the part of our own Government with what is going on in Sri Lanka, where we see the deepening and embedding of corruption, injustice and violence. I say that because Freedom from Torture has claimed that, despite the Sri Lankan Government’s claims of new-found peace, the post-conflict torture of Tamils is ongoing. The UK Government appear to be complicit, because they have forcibly removed Tamils back to Sri Lanka, where they know those people have been met with torture and ill treatment.
Following a freedom of information request in February, the UK Border Agency now admits to granting refugee status to up to 15 Sri Lankans who had been forcibly returned to Sri Lanka and subsequently tortured or ill treated, and who had then come back to the UK. That is deeply worrying.
Furthermore, Home Office solicitors are suggesting to judges in our courts that evidence of torture—scars, wounds and broken bones—is actually self-inflicted. They are saying that to push the courts into agreeing that people should be deported from this country. That is desperately worrying.
I have a constituency case of a 24-year-old man whom I will call Mr P. He came to the UK in April 2013 on a student visa. He subsequently applied for asylum on 26 April. He held pro-Tamil separatist political opinions, which he expressed in Sri Lanka and in the UK. His asylum application was refused by the Home Office, but it was won on appeal in July.
Mr P is a journalist, and he had previously worked on a newspaper in Sri Lanka in a minor capacity. In April 2011, he was detained and assaulted. He was released with the help of the newspaper’s circulation manager. In November 2012, he was admitted to Jaffna general hospital with multiple soft-tissue injuries to his body, lip laceration and teeth fractures—he had been beaten with rifle butts. The medical-legal report concluded—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) for initiating the debate. I also endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) about gay rights across the Commonwealth, where much work has still to be done.
I have a strong view—I have not changed it—that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting should not be in Colombo. With others, I have argued that case in the Liberal Democrat party and in the Government. We did not win the argument, and I understand, therefore, that the Minister appears before us committed to going with the Government’s decision. He has been courteous in receiving some of us and listening to the arguments we want the Government to make.
I want to put to the Minister again some of the arguments I have put elsewhere, including to him at our meeting. First, I hope the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister will publicly argue for the independent inquiry into war crimes I believe still needs to happen. It is unarguable, on the basis of independent evidence, that there were war crimes.
I do not defend the Tamil Tigers—they committed terrible atrocities, too—but Governments have particular responsibilities, and they fail them dreadfully. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who I think is visiting Parliament today, went to Sri Lanka in August. She was clear in her report that the situation was not improving, but getting worse. She said she feared that the country was becoming increasingly authoritarian and that, since the war had ended, democracy had been undermined and the rule of law eroded.
Secondly, I would be grateful if the Prime Minister and Ministers went to Sri Lanka equipped with a list, based on independent evidence, of the disappeared, those who have been killed and those who have been tortured or harassed. I would like them specifically to challenge President Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan Government to tell us what happened to those people—particularly senior lawyers, newspaper editors and others who have simply been wiped out.
Thirdly, I hope we can address the structural need to change the way in which the Commonwealth works if it is not to become entirely disrespected over the next two years under the chairmanship of President Rajapaksa. The idea I have put to Ministers is that we should argue that, consistent with the Commonwealth charter, there should be a panel—a small group of, possibly, three people at any one time—whose job it is to be the Commonwealth’s human rights panel. They would make sure that, in future, the Commonwealth does not decide to go to countries that are clearly abusing the charter’s human rights requirements.
Lastly, I hope we make the strongest representations and engage in the strongest discussions to make sure the next secretary-general of the Commonwealth is much tougher and much more effective in standing up for human rights than the current incumbent.
I want to speak in the debate because two and a half weeks ago a delegation of seven Tamil constituents came to my constituency office. Two men sat in my office with tears in their eyes as they gave accounts of the torture they had recently been subjected to at the hands of the Terrorist Investigation Division.
Both men were asylum seekers who had come to this country hoping to find a safe haven. One had returned to Sri Lanka voluntarily; the other had been deported. One of the men rolled his sleeves up to show me the scars on the front of his arms, where he had been repeatedly burned with cigarettes. Another man told me how he had been abducted. When he left one of the camps in Sri Lanka, he was bundled into a white van and hit across the back with a steel rod. He also had electrodes placed on his head, and a bag covered in petrol was placed over his head in an attempt to suffocate him.
When the Minister and the Prime Minister are in Sri Lanka at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, I want them to raise with the Sri Lankan leadership the torture that is happening. I would like to know what the Minister will say to the Sri Lankan leadership about the accounts that those of us with Tamil communities in our constituencies have heard first hand.
Will the Minister raise with the Sri Lankan leadership the horrific things that we saw on the documentary “No Fire Zone” on Sunday? There was individual witness testimony about the shelling of hospitals and food supply areas in the later days of the conflict; it said that the firing came from the Sri Lankan Government. What discussions has the Minister had about Sri Lanka not becoming automatically the chair of the Commonwealth? That is an honour that the country does not deserve to have bestowed on it. We risk endorsing not only what has happened in the past because of the actions of the Sri Lankan Government, but what is happening now.
The hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) said that we cannot bring back the lives of those who have been killed in the conflict; we can respect them, however. I would prefer it if the Prime Minister did not represent us at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, but we need to take a strong stand there to respect those lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I do not want to beat about the bush either, so I will congratulate the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary on the Government’s decision to attend the CHOGM in Sri Lanka next week, despite the fact that there is huge pressure, as we have seen this afternoon, to boycott it. That pressure comes from parties who are more interested in furthering divisive politics and hindering efforts to bring communities together—especially Sri Lankan communities in the UK.
Of course, as the Minister has said, the decision that Sri Lanka would host the CHOGM this year was taken in 2009 under the Labour Government and reaffirmed at the CHOGM in Perth, Australia, in 2011. Changing that 2009 decision would have required a consensus among Commonwealth member states, and it is clear that there was no widespread support for a change of location. That is why I now believe that it is necessary to attend the CHOGM to support the Commonwealth as an institution that matters greatly to Britain, to try to ensure that there is a positive outcome to the meeting, and to put the situation in Sri Lanka firmly under the international spotlight, which I am sure everyone in the Chamber wants.
The future of the Commonwealth as an institution is more important than the location of any one meeting. We should support its development by participating in the meeting and promoting an ambitious outcome. The Commonwealth consists of 53 independent member states representing nearly one third of the world’s nations and more than 2 billion people. It has some of the fastest-growing economies, trading £3 trillion of goods and services each year. It is a valuable diplomatic and trading network for the United Kingdom, and our influence and role in it depends on our valuing it and taking part in discussions.
There has been positive progress in Sri Lanka, especially in the war-affected areas. The outcome of the Northern provincial council elections has given the opportunity for the Tamil National Alliance to represent the people in that region. Other developments include the clearing of nearly 1.5 million land mines, with the help of the British charity the HALO trust, which I saw when I visited the country last year; the resettling of nearly 300,000 people who were kept hostage by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; the freedom for all people to move anywhere in the island without fear of suicide bombers; and the right of the Tamil people in particular to send their children to school without fear of abduction and conscription by the LTTE.
I know those things because I have bothered to visit the country; I have not, with the greatest respect to other Members who have spoken, just watched a documentary. Many of those who have spoken have not even visited the country. I spent eight days in Sri Lanka last year, travelling all over—to the north, south, east and west. I went to Jaffna and saw the chamber of commerce leaders. I visited resettlement projects in Ariyalai and saw mine clearance in Kilinochchi. I met the leader of the Opposition, Mr Sampanthan, and the President. I saw different communities, traditions and faiths living beside each other harmoniously, and rebuilding their lives after the horrendous civil war. I saw Sinhalese boys and Tamil girls playing together in the school playgrounds. The UK should help Sri Lanka to rebuild itself, and that includes attending the CHOGM.
The number of hon. Members present for the debate shows how important it is. I am a firm believer in the Commonwealth and what it means. To be a member of the Commonwealth says something about a country and its core beliefs.
The Commonwealth charter sets out the core Commonwealth principles of consensus and common action, mutual respect, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, legitimacy and responsiveness. It affirms belief in 16 principles including democracy, human rights, tolerance, respect and understanding, freedom of expression, and gender equality. Those are the things that the Commonwealth stands for. I am proud to be part of a group of countries who assert that they abide by those principles and it is incumbent on us all to ensure that the body that we sign up to plays its part in putting those principles into action on the ground.
There have been calls for the Government to abstain from attending the CHOGM and I understand the reasons for them. About a month ago, a post on persecution.org highlighted comments by the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, who said that the Sri Lankan Government are playing down the issue of groups who spread hatred and violence against minorities, and protecting them. In her statement at the 24th United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, she said that she was “alarmed” at the recent surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities. She added that attacks on churches and mosques, and
“the lack of swift action against the perpetrators”
The Sri Lankan authorities have rejected those assertions, but there is certainly cause for concern. Christian organisations assert that there has been an increase in violence and intimidation towards Christians and in the vandalising of church properties. As to the treatment of the Sri Lankan Opposition, I have carefully considered the evidence presented by the Global Tamil Forum, which is very compelling. That flags up to me a need for intervention, and that is where the CHOGM has a clear role to play.
It should be made clear that we seek change not from a simple international human rights perspective, but because it will benefit the people of Sri Lanka. My Parliamentary aide was married three years ago and went to Sri Lanka for her honeymoon; she talked about the friendly people and the scenery, and had many stories to tell. It is clear, at the same time, that all is not well in Sri Lanka, and that cannot be sugar coated or glossed over. It must be discussed, and changes must be made soon.
I approach the matter with caution; there should be an understanding that the CHOGM should be used not to pretend things are fine, but to emphasise how strongly the Commonwealth and the House feel that the Government of Sri Lanka have a lot to do to bring their standards up to Commonwealth standards, and that we shall be watching and waiting to see that that happens.
It is a pleasure to follow so many powerful speeches.
I want to read a quotation from Wikipedia, about what happened to
“the properties of the people involved in the uprising”.
The article describes how
“they killed all cattle and other animals, burnt homes, property and even the salt in their possession during the repression. Paddy fields in the area of Wellassa were all destroyed. The irrigation systems of the duchies of Uva and Wellassa, hitherto the rice-bowl of Sri Lanka were systematically destroyed. They also massacred the male population of Uva above the age of 18 years.”
That was a quotation about us, the British, during colonisation.
It is clear that Sri Lanka has had a difficult history and things have happened that today we judge as crimes. Change is beginning and I would like to see the intergovernmental conference as a key point in that change—a time when people go to Sri Lanka and say, “It is time for change. If you want to be part of a modern, inclusive world, then this must not happen again.”
We could sit back and take a view from 10,000 miles away, but then there would be little chance of our being heard. Instead we could go to Sri Lanka, meet its various people, and give the message that there is a better, democratic and inclusive way, which works. That is why I wish the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Minister a good and successful trip next week.
I have some questions for the Minister. If he cannot answer today, I should be grateful for a response in writing.
First, what agenda of human rights issues in Sri Lanka has been prepared for the Prime Minister to raise? Does it reflect the debates in the House? Have the Government, indeed, put human rights in Sri Lanka on the agenda of the meeting? What opportunities have been identified to raise human rights abuses in Sri Lanka in the various sub-meetings, and what mechanisms have been identified for doing that?
What strategy do the Government have for raising those issues in the Commonwealth meetings following the CHOGM and what opportunities have been identified for the next 12 months? If Sri Lankan Government representatives accused of human rights abuses seek to attend meetings of Commonwealth bodies held in this country, will they be granted a visa? If anyone from the Sri Lankan Government accused of human rights abuses enters UK territory, will the Government seek to hold that person to account in law?
As has already been asked, will the Government support the call for a further UN investigation into human rights abuses with a view to seeking action by international judicial bodies to hold individuals to account? Will the Government review the policy of deporting Tamils to Sri Lanka in the light of the evidence of the arrest and torture of returnees?
Finally, I deeply regret that the Government are not following the Canadian example of refusing to attend the meeting. Initially, Canada conditionally refused to attend on the basis that there should be some improvement in human rights within Sri Lanka, and then declined to attend, as a result of the lack of improvement. I fully concur with the appeal by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I repeat that, even at this late stage, I would like the Government to think again. If the Prime Minister attends, the message will go out that Governments can kill, maim and persecute with impunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I wish to make three brief points. First, despite the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, we now know that there have been continued human rights abuses, particularly in the persecution of the Tamils. Secondly, we cannot ignore the violations of basic human rights, and I believe that we, as a country, can make a difference. Thirdly, there is no better time to take a stand against this rogue regime than during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. I wish that we were not going to attend, but now that we are, we have an opportunity.
Since the ceasefire, some horrific things have gone on, including the arrest of journalists, as has already been documented this afternoon. The UN Human Rights Council has expressed its concern at continuing reports of
“enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society and journalists, threats to judicial independence and the rule of law, and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.”
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have to say that I have not visited Syria, but I know that it has an evil regime. I have no plans to go to North Korea, but I know that it is also a pretty evil regime. Just because I have not been to a country, it does not mean that I cannot fight against what I see as injustice.
The United Kingdom has huge leverage in relation to Sri Lanka. In 2012, we imported more than £900 million of goods and services—a 13% increase on the previous year. We are Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, its second largest investor behind China, and its main source of Western tourism, something from which I am sure one of my hon. Friends has benefited.
The UK holds a unique place in the Commonwealth, and we have to take the lead on this matter. The Commonwealth charter of values was mentioned earlier, and those values are incredibly important. I do not want people, for many years to come, to be reminded by this Commonwealth summit of the 1936 Olympics in Germany, which should never have taken place.
As we will be there, and as we have leverage, the Government should make specific demands: stop the persecution of the Tamils once and for all; take concrete steps completely to demilitarise the north and east; restore a proper justice system; and ensure that Tamils have basic human rights, including the right to life and freedom of expression, movement and assembly. The Government must ensure that the Sri Lankan Government publish a list of all prisoners and where they are held; that the International Committee of the Red Cross has access to all detention centres; that a neutral commission is appointed by the UN to safeguard property rights in Tamil areas, and all resettlement programmes; and that Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission implements the recommendations made in its interim report more than a year ago. Above all, the Government should make sure that Sri Lanka complies with the recommendations of the UN panel of experts report, and arrives at durable justice for the Tamil-speaking minority. If the Government use the occasion to demand those changes, they will show real leadership and promote the universal Commonwealth values of which, as a nation, we are so proud.
I have very few Tamils in my constituency. There are no votes in this for me. I am arguing for this because I believe in justice and because I believe that we must help nations suffering from genocide. The Tamils have suffered injustice for far too long.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned the Freedom from Torture freedom of information request and the UK Border Agency’s reply in February. In its 2011 “Human Rights and Democracy” report, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office referred to allegations of torture of people who had been sent back to Sri Lanka and were subsequently given asylum in this country, but stated that there was no substantiated evidence that people returned there had been tortured. Interestingly, neither the allegation nor such a statement appeared in the FCO’s 2012 “Human Rights and Democracy” report. The Foreign Affairs Committee has questioned that, but we got no answers from Baroness Warsi when she gave evidence to us. Our report recommended that the FCO
“state whether it still holds the view that there is no substantiated evidence of torture or maltreatment of people who have been returned by UK immigration authorities to Sri Lanka.”
Will the Minister short-circuit the process and give us an answer today? Do the British Government still hold the view that people returned to Sri Lanka are not tortured, and that there is no substantiated evidence, or is their view—given the increasing concerns, and the compelling evidence of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and others—that there is evidence that calls into question the UK Border Agency’s policy of returning to Sri Lanka people who we know have been mistreated since 2009?
In those circumstances, when the Prime Minister meets President Rajapaksa and his several brothers, who run the Government in Sri Lanka, will it not be time to make it clear that the British Government and British parliamentarians expect answers to our questions about people sent back from this country to Sri Lanka and then mistreated, and to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and others about the mistreatment of British citizens in Sri Lanka?
Is my hon. Friend aware that Judge Lobo has referred to the assistance offered by country guidance cases? In an appeal in the first-tier tribunal, he has said that the people at risk are those who have outstanding charges against them—journalists associated with publications critical of the Sri Lankan Government, and those who are aligned to pro-Tamil separatist movements and are working towards the destabilisation of the unitary state. That relates specifically to risks to people who are returned to Sri Lanka.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I will not respond to his intervention.
Finally, it is all very well to say that the Government should be there—that the Commonwealth is so important that the British Prime Minister, the heir to the throne or the Foreign Secretary should attend the meeting—but let us look at the history of the Commonwealth and where it is now. Many years ago, the Commonwealth agreed the Harare declaration, which set out human rights values and how institutions should work. In the past, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and other countries have been suspended from or have walked out of the Commonwealth because human rights issues were raised.
I must say that I am extremely disappointed with the Commonwealth secretary-general—I know him personally, because he was previously the Indian high commissioner in this country—and the way in which he has run the organisation. There has been a downplaying of human rights issues under the current Commonwealth secretariat. I am not giving away any secrets when I say that the British Government tried to raise these issues in 2009 and subsequently. In a vote in the Commonwealth, 50 votes were in favour of going to Colombo and four were against. That is the problem that we have to confront in the organisation. If the Commonwealth does not change, it will become irrelevant.
It is a pleasure, Mr Amess, to serve under your chairmanship. Obviously the debate is about the UK’s presence at the CHOGM. I can understand why so many Members feel frustrated about the situation, given the big question marks over the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka. Much praise has been heaped on Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, who has decided not to attend the upcoming summit in protest at Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Instead, he is sending a Minister from his Foreign Affairs team. I read his sentiments and agreed with the main thrust of them. He argued that because the Sri Lankan Government had failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values, he should not attend the summit. On that point, I believe that he is wrong. Indeed, the Canadian opposition argue that whatever misgivings there are about the host country, the suggestion that the institutions of the Commonwealth should be sanctioned by Canada, and by withholding funds, would be misplaced. That is right. It would be making a false and disingenuous connection between the merits of a member state and those of the broader and more important Commonwealth institution.
Paul Dewar of the New Democratic party said that if Canada had wanted to send a stronger message, it could have moved to remove Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth until there were concrete improvements. I agree, but our Labour Government supported having Sri Lanka as the home country and ratified the selection. This Government inherited that decision. Whether or not Sri Lanka should have been chosen is clearly something that the Chamber wishes to debate, but Labour must answer for its decision. Despite the protestations that we hear from Labour Members now that they are in opposition, when they were in government, they brought about absolutely no change in the circumstances in Sri Lanka for the Tamil people.
For all the attention on Canada’s decision, the CHOGM will be well attended, and rightly so. As the Prime Minister of Australia said, we do not make new friends by rubbishing or abandoning our old friends. I know how difficult it might be for some of the Commonwealth countries, but the conference will proceed with full attendance. The symbolic absence of Commonwealth Heads of Government may deliver a sense of satisfaction to opponents of the Government, but is history not littered with political gestures—boycotts of sporting occasions, trades and summits? In the end, Governments must talk and then they must act; it is what they do best. Engaging in Colombo is better than disengagement.
I have acknowledged the many shortcomings in Sri Lanka and the humanitarian failings, and I am not hiding from them, but engagement is better than disengagement. I do not underestimate the search for justice, but it must be justice for all, and we must look forward and not back. We can learn lessons from the past and hopefully apply them to Sri Lanka.
I congratulate both the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this debate and hon. Members on making such passionate speeches, including the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), who raised the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights across the Commonwealth. That is the subject of a major Liberal youth campaign this year, and I am sure that he will join me in welcoming that.
In 2009, we saw a time of relative hope in Sri Lanka. The civil war had just ended and the decision to host the CHOGM was optimistic, but understandable. As many of us now realise in retrospect and with hindsight, it was the wrong decision, but it is one that is impossible to reverse at this late stage. I also understand the Government’s reasons for wanting to attend the CHOGM. The Government argue that it is an opportunity to advance human rights and democracy, and the values set out in the Commonwealth charter, through dialogue and friendship. That is true, but the Government must understand the risk of undermining the credibility of the Commonwealth charter if Sri Lanka takes up the chairmanship of the Commonwealth over the next couple of years.
The Prime Minister has also argued that the summit is an opportunity to shine the spotlight on human rights issues. If that is the case, then he should certainly follow the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) that that spotlight should also shine very precisely on the issue of the victims of the violence who have disappeared.
In general, such a spotlight is also dependent on media access and transparency. I suggest to the Government that even at this late stage, we should question whether the Prime Minister should attend, and we should make that attendance conditional on four things. First, full and unhindered access to all parts of the country, including the north, is needed by not only Ministers and officials but the international media. Secondly, adequate safeguards and guarantees are needed for those who speak to international media, Ministers and officials. Thirdly, we need a rapid assessment of whether we think any progress at all is being made on, for instance, the recommendations of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. The fourth condition is about whether the British Government should raise the issue of the chairmanship of the Commonwealth going forward to 2015.
My strong inclination is that the Prime Minister should not attend the summit if those conditions are not met. I urge the Government, even at this very late stage, to look carefully at the matter. We have heard from many hon. Members that there is evidence that torture, harassment and the curtailment of human rights are, if anything, increasing. In January, we saw the impeachment of the Chief Justice, Dr Bandaranayake, and in August, we saw Navi Pillay’s critical report. It is not too late, even at this late stage, to rethink the Government’s plans.
It is a pleasure, Mr Amess, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced it. First, he paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for all the considerable work that she has undertaken on the issue. Secondly, he rightly stressed, on behalf of us all, opposition to all forms of terrorism, because both state and non-state actors abuse human rights.
Today, we have very much focused on human rights and on the real concern of Members from across the House over state abuse—indeed, only last week the issue dominated Foreign Office questions. I was pleased that the Foreign Secretary said that he and the Prime Minister will be visiting the north of Sri Lanka to see for themselves what is happening. I also hope that they will take on board the recommendations of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which said in its recent report:
“We recommend that the Prime Minister should obtain assurances from the Sri Lankan Government that people who approach him to talk about human rights while he is in Sri Lanka to attend the CHOGM do not face reprisals or harassment by security forces.”
During the exchange in the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) asked the Foreign Secretary what issues he would take to Sri Lanka and what issues he had already raised. He referred to the answer to a written question in July in which the Foreign Office stated that it expected “progress” in human rights and post-conflict reconciliation in the run-up to the summit in November.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) wrote to the Minister, asking him what issues in relation to Sri Lanka had been taken up. She asked him to clarify
“which, if any, of these issues and other specific human rights abuses, the Prime Minister has raised directly with President Rajapaksa, or which he is intending to discuss?”
She went on to ask,
“could you confirm whether the Government would support the appointment of President Rajapaksa”—
that has already been raised in the debate—
“as Chairperson in Office and what commitments you would seek from him for his two years in the post?”
The Minister must accept that there is real concern, and mounting evidence, that Sri Lanka is heading in the wrong direction—not simply a steady state position, but actually heading backwards.
This month, the FAC criticised the scant evidence of progress in political and human rights. In August, the human rights commissioner said that Sri Lanka was heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Even a Government human rights and democracy report in 2012 warned of “negative developments”. It also talked of
“Restrictions on freedom and opinion…Attacks on and intimidation of journalists, legal professionals, human rights defenders and others…Lack of progress in post-conflict reconciliation and the absence of an independent, thorough and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by both sides during the military conflict…Sri Lanka’s decision to reject a large number of recommendations at the UN Human Rights Council during its Universal Periodic Review in November 2012.”
Those are all matters of real and considerable concern.
In the light of that, it is very unfortunate that the Prime Minister did not reverse his earlier decision to attend the summit. If he had done so, he would have made very clear to the Sri Lankan authorities the extent of Britain’s concern. If he does so even at this late date, I assure him that the Opposition would support him.
In recent months, the Government have also failed to use the prospect of the Prime Minister’s attendance at the summit to force Sri Lanka to address the growing concern over human rights. That has been a misjudgment and a missed opportunity. Even now, the Prime Minister should join his fellow conservative—Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper—and insist on immediate and tangible progress from the Sri Lankan Government before he flies to Colombo.
Such progress should include full implementation of the recommendations of Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Whatever the deficiencies of that commission, it outlined some of the suffering that took place during the civil war and provided a starting point. The progress should also include an announcement of measures to prevent torture and ill treatment, including by the police, which are still taking place; much evidence has been given of that today.
There should be an introduction of legal safeguards for freedom of expression and protections for journalists, and Sri Lanka should establish the independence of the judiciary, following the impeachment of the chief justice in January. Sri Lanka should also unblock the BBC’s World Service, which has had to suspend its broadcasts in Sri Lanka because of the interference and interruption of Tamil broadcasting.
I hope that the Minister and the Foreign Secretary will advise the Prime Minister to reverse, even at this late date, the decision to attend the summit; to set out a clear UK action plan to support tangible improvements in human rights in Sri Lanka; to add his voice to the growing calls for an international UN-led independent investigation into alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Sri Lanka; and to seek urgent assurances from Sri Lanka that it will respect the Commonwealth charter on human rights during the summit itself, and not use violent force to suppress protests. Doing these things would be good for Britain, good for the Commonwealth and very good for the long-suffering people of Sri Lanka.
I am not sure whether I will be able to answer everyone’s questions in the eight minutes of the debate that I have been left, but I will endeavour to address them either now or in writing.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) for securing this debate. I recognise the valuable work that he and his group do for the Tamil community.
Before I respond to the points made by right hon. and hon. Members during today’s debate, I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing condolences to the family of Thavisha Lakindu Peiris, a Sri Lankan national who was murdered in Sheffield last Sunday. Two people have been remanded in custody on suspicion of murder. I have discussed this case and travel arrangements for the family with the Sri Lankan high commissioner this afternoon.
I recognise that the Government’s decision that Ministers should attend the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka is controversial. I know that many in this House and in the other place have suggested that we reconsider the level of our attendance, and that also appears to be the position of the Opposition party. However, it has not escaped some people’s notice that it was a Labour Government who made the decision with others, in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, that Sri Lanka should host the CHOGM. It strikes some as slightly opportunistic that it is only in the last few weeks, as we are packing to go to the CHOGM in Sri Lanka, that Labour has suddenly announced that the Prime Minister should not be going.
I assure hon. Members that the decision to go to Sri Lanka was not taken lightly by the Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North highlighted, as host of the CHOGM Sri Lanka will also become chair-in-office of the Commonwealth for the next two years. The decision for Sri Lanka to host the CHOGM was taken four years ago and there has been no widespread support across the Commonwealth to change it.
We have repeatedly said that Sri Lanka must make progress on reconciliation, accountability, political settlement and human rights. That is a message that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I will take to the Sri Lankan Government.
All Sri Lankan people deserve a stable, peaceful country with universal respect for human rights. It is vital that the Government of Sri Lanka show firm commitment to implement all the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. Currently, they have accepted about half of the recommendations, but progress in achieving them has been slow. We also want to see the promised commission on the disappeared, and we continue to call for an independent investigation into other alleged abuses during the conflict to be implemented transparently and to meet international standards.
Allegations of war crimes, rape, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, impunity for attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, religiously motivated violence, detention without charge, the suppression and intimidation of civil society, constraints on the media and political interference with the judiciary must be confronted and fully investigated.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) asked about an investigation. The British Government have consistently called for an independent, thorough and credible investigation into allegations of violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law by both sides in the military conflict.
The film footage recently shown on Channel 4 was disturbing—I saw it on Sunday night, and no one who did could have failed to be repelled and moved by it in equal measure—and brings to international attention important information to support allegations of grave abuses. A credible investigation into the allegations is urgently needed to help to bring closure to the victims and their families.
Britain will not look away. We will continue to press the Sri Lankan Government for tangible action on all these points, and we will continue to pursue our objective through the United Nations Human Rights Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) talked about progress, and we do see some progress in Sri Lanka. Many, but not all, of the 12,000 ex- combatants detained in 2009 have been released. UK aid is supporting their reintegration.
Progress has been made on ridding the country of mines, which has been helped by funding from our Department for International Development. Last year, the UN Security Council’s working group on children and armed conflict removed Sri Lanka from its agenda following significant progress in rehabilitating and reintegrating child soldiers.
We have seen the resettlement of many internally displaced people. The first northern provincial council elections since the start of the conflict in 1983 were held in September, with the Tamil National Alliance winning 78% of the vote. Although it noted issues of concern in the pre-election period, the Commonwealth observer mission described the polls as largely peaceful, with high turnout across all the provinces. We now want elected representatives to be able to contribute meaningfully to regional governance.
It is because the British Government want greater progress and to maintain pressure that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary and I have said that we want to see the situation on the ground for ourselves while we are in Sri Lanka, and talk to all communities, NGOs and members of civil society to hear their stories first hand and learn more about how the UK can help.
We have already begun that process here in the UK. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark said, I have met members of the all-party group on Tamils, the Commonwealth Journalists Association and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Tomorrow I will meet members of the British Tamil community to listen to their views. During the CHOGM, I will also meet relatives of the disappeared to hear their stories.
In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has pledged to visit the north of Sri Lanka, where some of the greatest damage was done during the years of conflict, in what will be the first visit to the region by a foreign Head of Government since Sri Lankan independence in 1948.
I was concerned by the remarks made by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights following her visit to Sri Lanka earlier this year. She reported visits by the police and military officers to villages that she planned to visit, and intimidation of ordinary citizens who spoke to her. A number of Members have raised that very issue this afternoon.
We have urged the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that there is free access for all international and domestic media and NGOs at the CHOGM, and the freedom to travel around the country without hindrance. I have raised this issue repeatedly with the Sri Lankan Government—most recently with Foreign Minister Peiris on Monday and with the high commissioner this afternoon. They have repeated their assurances on this matter.
Equally, however, after the CHOGM, we want a better reporting environment for journalists so that they can go about their business without fear of intimidation, and we also want a firm commitment from the Sri Lankan Government to investigate reported attacks. In a country ranked 162 out of 179 in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, it will be important to bring the spotlight of public, media and international scrutiny to this matter.
By going to Sri Lanka, we will be putting the Sri Lankan Government under the spotlight on the international stage, and we can air our concerns. Debates such as this one, which I hope will be replicated in legislatures across the Commonwealth and the world, can only help to increase pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to address their own domestic issues. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North for providing us with this opportunity, and to all Members for their contributions to the debate.