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Sri Lanka: Human Rights

Volume 612: debated on Thursday 7 July 2016

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the serious issue of human rights in Sri Lanka, with particular reference to the most recent session of the United Nations Human Rights Council and progress against the resolution that was agreed unanimously last year. I have taken a great interest in this issue since joining the House last year as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, not least because of the significant Tamil population in my constituency, whose lives have been directly affected by the atrocities of the Sri Lankan civil war. I should also draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests relating to my visit to the UNHRC in Geneva last year to lobby for that resolution.

I want to commend the hon. Gentleman’s passion in championing the rights of the Tamil people. Only this week, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister claimed that his Government plan to set up a special court by next year to hear allegations of abuses during the brutal civil war. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Sri Lankan Government are merely paying lip service to the international community?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. That is the specific issue that I want to spend some time addressing this afternoon, particularly international involvement in the prosecution of alleged war crimes from the civil war.

I am delighted to see so many members of the all-party parliamentary group here this afternoon, but I want to pay particular tribute to our chair, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry), who would be here were it not for important constituency engagements. He has worked hard in his first year in office to champion the issues that I will be discussing this afternoon.

I echo the praise for my hon. Friend’s interest in this importance matter. My constituency also has one of the largest populations of Tamils, who are particularly concerned about the fact that the north and east of Sri Lanka remain heavily militarised. It appears that the Sri Lankan Government still have no serious plan to facilitate the return home of the largely Tamils and Muslims who have been displaced by the conflict.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the ongoing challenges. I will begin by talking about the history of the Sri Lankan civil war, but it is important to remember this afternoon that there are ongoing issues, such as human rights abuses, that need to be taken seriously by the international community and this House.

The hon. Gentleman is most gracious in giving way—I did ask his permission beforehand. We should not forget the other human rights abuses that are happening in Sri Lanka. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka has documented an estimated 450 incidents against Christian minorities since 2009. Since 2015, 130 incidents of intimidation, discrimination and violence against Christians have been recorded, and a campaign to close churches continues to this very day. Although the war has ended, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need assurances from the UK Government and the Minister that they will do everything in their power to ensure that Sri Lanka moves further towards religious freedom for all, not away from it?

The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing champion in this House of highlighting the persecution of Christians and demanding, quite rightly, that the issue gets greater Government focus and attention. Although a smaller religious minority in Sri Lanka, the Christian population is there none the less and also faces human rights abuses that must be recognised, tackled and dealt with effectively.

The Sri Lankan civil war ended in May 2009 and lasted some 26 years. It was primarily between the LTTE—the Tamil Tigers—and the Sri Lankan Government army. It is estimated that up to 100,000 people were killed during the course of the bloody conflict. In 2009, the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, described the brutality in the north of the country as a “war without witness”. Since the conclusion of the civil war, so much of that witness testimony has come forward. In my constituency surgery, I have been horrified by the descriptions of what people have suffered, and I have met constituents who bear not only the mental scars, but the physical scars of that conflict. Serious allegations of human rights abuses have been made by both sides of the conflict, including allegations of murder, sexual violence, torture, disappearances, the use of civilians as human shields and the use of child soldiers. Mines were used in the conflict, although many have been removed since the war ended. Many of the people at the top of Sri Lankan society—Ministers, military leaders, and figures in the judiciary and in wider civil society—are suspected of being complicit in many of the atrocities that took place.

As my hon. Friend knows, there are more Tamil constituents in the south of our borough than in the north. But we also have Sri Lankans living in London, and in other parts of Britain, who have come from the other communities. It is important that in this process we try also to get reconciliation in the diaspora. Does he agree that one way to bring that about would be if the Sri Lankan Government could guarantee that people from the UK, or elsewhere in the world, from the diaspora who wish to go back to visit their place of birth or their family will be protected? There is enormous fear, for understandable reasons, among many people living in this country that things will happen to them or to their relatives if they do return.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend and neighbour about that. One thing I find encouraging about the Tamil and Sinhalese population in my constituency is that a number of events are held throughout the year where they come together. That is the spirit of reconciliation we need to promote, not just in the diaspora, but in Sri Lanka. We are pushing for a process of truth, justice and reconciliation. Indeed, in the 2009 speech I mentioned earlier, David Miliband told this House:

“How the conflict is ended will have a direct bearing on the prospects for long-term peace in the country. The Government there must win the peace as well as the war.”—[Official Report, 30 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 1050.]

Members in the Chamber this afternoon will be aware that the closing weeks and days of the Sri Lankan civil war were among some of the most brutal and bloody, and certainly the Government of Rajapaksa gave very little encouragement that we could find that process of truth, justice and reconciliation. The election of President Sirisena last year offered some hope that there would be an opportunity for Sri Lanka to move forward, as he pledged both reform and reconciliation. I acknowledge that progress has been made under that Government, but what I will set out this afternoon is the fact that the demands of the UN Human Rights Council resolution passed in October 2015 are not yet being fully implemented. The progress being made by the Sri Lankan Government is too slow. Many of the public statements made by senior Government figures are directly contrary to the demands of that resolution, particularly in respect of international involvement in the prosecution of historical alleged war crimes.

That resolution set out judicial and non-judicial measures needed to advance accountability, reconciliation, human rights and the rule of law. It was very encouraging that the Sri Lankan Government co-sponsored that resolution and that it passed unanimously. Although the resolution did not go as far as many of us would have wanted, the compromise was worth while, in binding the Sri Lankan Government to that resolution. That is why we must make sure that it is delivered to the letter.

Although it should be acknowledged that some initial progress has been made, with the release of civilian land and the establishment of an office of missing persons, the update produced by the Human Rights Commissioner last month shows that there is still much more progress to be made if the resolution is to be met and justice is to be obtained. Much more needs to be done to speed up efforts to investigate missing persons and to provide confidence to their families that the search is serious. The UN working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances ranks Sri Lanka as the country with the second highest number of disappearances in the history of its tenure,

The Sri Lankan Government must also do more to improve transparency and communication in relation to their consultations, having promised to engage in broad terms in national consultations and created a consultation taskforce on reconciliation mechanisms in February 2016. Progress in this area has again been slow. The taskforce has not yet begun regional consultations, which, given the nature of the geography and the demography of Sri Lanka, are absolutely essential, and the UN special rapporteur on transitional justice has criticised the process. Indeed, there are many people in the diaspora, including those in my constituency and, I suspect, in other constituencies, who want their voices to be heard and who also deserve to have their say in the consultation process.

It is also worth noting that those consultations that have taken place, for example on the creation of the Office for Missing Persons, have been short and their findings not shared with the public. Instead, in this particular case, they were shared only with a small number of civil society groups, which were given just two weeks to respond. Given the gravity of the issues being discussed, that is wholly unsatisfactory.

The delay in the implementation of the UN Human Rights Council resolution has to be addressed if confidence in the process is to be maintained. This afternoon, there are three key areas to which I wish the Minister to respond. First, there is the issue of international involvement in the prosecution of war crimes. Despite agreeing to

“the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators”,

public statements have been made by the President and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka stating that the judicial process will be domestic with no foreign or international involvement, which is wholly unacceptable. It is completely contrary to the resolution that was passed and the resolution that the Governor of Sri Lanka set up.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this really important issue to the House. Does he agree that we cannot accept the Minister saying that we will not push for international involvement because, after all, the President today may be better than the President before, but President Sirisena was still part of Rajapaksa’s Government when he bombed innocent people who had done absolutely nothing to deserve it? I just want to add my voice to push for that.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady.

The international involvement is important for two key reasons. First, the framework for the prosecution of war crimes as serious as these simply does not exist in Sri Lankan law. The judicial mechanism needed to prosecute such serious crimes simply does not exist. The second reason is about confidence. Tamil people in Sri Lanka, in this country and in other countries around the world must have confidence that there will be a fair and due process, that the courts are properly equipped to prosecute crimes of this nature, and that the people who were responsible are properly held to account. Without not just the truth, but the justice, the reconciliation will not follow, and that would be an absolute travesty for a country that has so much promise and a potentially bright future ahead of it after such a dark and devastating conflict.

I hope that we will bring appropriate pressure to bear on the Sri Lankan Government to reverse this stance and that we will work with the international community to ensure that agreements are honoured. Will the Minister tell me what representations the UK Government have made to the Sri Lankan Government on this issue, and what steps our Government will take with our international partners to increase pressure in this area? I know that the Minister is familiar with these issues. He has recently returned from Sri Lanka and is optimistic about the progress that is being made, but he must be firm with the Government of Sri Lanka and say that our bilateral relationship would be damaged if they do not honour the commitments that were made at the UN Human Rights Council, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister was heavily criticised, particularly by Labour Members, when he chose to visit Sri Lanka as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. He visited the north and met the Tamil community. Although I had misgivings at the time, it is only fair to acknowledge that the Prime Minister’s visit did shine a spotlight on the issues and helped us to apply pressure, but that visit will have been in vain if we do not see progress. I hope that, before he leaves office, the Prime Minister can bring some pressure to bear on the matter and that his successor will do the same.

I also want to raise the allegations of ongoing human rights abuses. It is simply unacceptable that, despite agreeing to the UN Human Rights Council resolution and the public statements made on this issue, we are still hearing about cases of torture, illegal detention and sexual violence. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Truth and Justice Project in Sri Lanka have all raised concerns about recent abuses and a lack of progress in this area. The charity, Freedom from Torture, has also produced evidence of the torture of Tamils occurring in 2015, including after resolution 30/1 was passed. The all-party parliamentary group for Tamils has not yet seen any evidence that these allegations have been investigated.

More recently, we learned that Velauthapillai Renukaruban, a British citizen of Tamil descent who visited the country to get married, was beaten and imprisoned on false charges. We must not allow British citizens to be treated in that way. Where these abuses take place, we must use every bit of our diplomatic muscle to ensure that British citizens are protected—never mind the fact that Tamil people who do not have the British citizenship also deserve to go about their lives with dignity and freedom.

With those worrying cases in mind, will the Minister inform us of the action he is taking to make it clear to his counterparts in the Sri Lankan Government that these abuses cannot be allowed to continue? Will he also inform the House what funding arrangements the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has in place to promote human rights abroad and how much of those funds is spent on Sri Lanka and for what purpose?

Many members of the Tamil community have raised with me the issue of deportations from the United Kingdom to Sri Lanka. When a person reaches the United Kingdom as an asylum seeker, we must do all we can to make sure that they are treated with respect and dignity. It is clear that the UK Government must look again at their policy in respect of Tamil asylum seekers. The ongoing human rights abuses and the evidence of torture of political dissidents in Sri Lanka should be a wake-up call that this issue must be treated with more seriousness than has been the case recently, particularly by giving more weight to the risks to individuals.

With this in mind, will the Minister ensure that he has further discussions with the Home Office to underline the dangers that people may face if they are returned to Sri Lanka? Will he provide an update on policy in this area, given that the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concerns about this issue nearly three years ago, in 2013?

We in this House should not forget our duty to help those in need. We should remember that this issue continues to affect the lives of people living in the UK and around the world. Many of them have seen horrific acts of abuse take place against friends and family or have been the victims of unspeakable crimes themselves. Human rights, the rule of law and reconciliation must be given the full weight and backing of the international community to force the Sri Lankan Government to speed up their work in this area.

In this week, when the UK has had to reflect on the devastating impact of a botched intervention in Iraq, it is worth reflecting on the consequences of failing to act when human rights abuses occur. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that, during the 26 years of the Sri Lankan civil war, as people were being brutalised and tortured in the most appalling ways, the international community chose to look the other way. The House must also reflect on our failure and this country’s failure in looking the other way and failing to act when we arguably could and should have done more.

We cannot turn back the clock, but we can make sure today that we do not fail all the peoples of Sri Lanka again in the future as we have done in the past. With that hope, I hope that the Minister will rise to the Dispatch Box and assure us that the Government will do all they can to ensure that truth justice and reconciliation lead to the bright future for all the peoples of Sri Lanka that we all want to see.

I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on securing this debate and on his continuing commitment to the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils and its valuable work in maintaining the focus on human rights in Sri Lanka and on Tamil rights in particular. I also thank all hon. Members for their contributions, and I will try to address as many of their points as I can in the time available to me.

This debate comes at an historic time for Sri Lanka. Last October, President Sirisena’s Government took the significant step of co-sponsoring Human Rights Council resolution 30/1. In his update to the Human Rights Council last week, High Commissioner Zeid recognised where progress has been made, identified where more could have been done and set out the need for a comprehensive strategy to make further progress. I fully agree with his assessment.

The Sri Lankan Government’s response demonstrated their commitment to addressing the legacy of conflict. Foreign Minister Samaraweera set out to the UN Human Rights Council on 29 June what his Government would be doing to fulfil the commitments they made in Geneva last October. Their approach addresses the core issues that have marred Sri Lanka’s history and scarred its society: human rights, reconciliation and transitional justice. I welcome the Government of Sri Lanka’s determination and commitment to deal with these complex and sensitive issues in a comprehensive and systematic way.

We should not, however, underestimate the challenges of dealing with the legacy of a 30-year conflict. Foreign Minister Samaraweera said last week in Geneva:

“Reconciliation does not happen overnight. It requires effort, hard work, commitment, and careful, continuous, concrete action. It is a journey that requires constant striving.”

I wholeheartedly agree. We should remember that Sri Lanka has been on a remarkable journey in the last 18 months, since President Sirisena was elected. The country is, I believe, now in a far better place than anyone could have imagined.

I have spoken before about the striking differences between the Sri Lanka I saw in November 2013 and the one I visited in January this year. The elections last August were the most democratic in living memory, and resulted in the formation of a national unity Government committed to reconciliation and peacebuilding. The constitutional reform process Sri Lanka has now embarked on is an essential foundation for the country’s future stability—a foundation on which to build its democracy, its development and its political reconciliation. The devolution of political authority that the authorities are seeking to enshrine within that process will be crucial for Sri Lanka’s long-term governance and prosperity.

The hon. Gentleman emphasised the need for Sri Lanka to make timely progress on its commitments. At the Human Rights Council session on 29 June, the UK urged Sri Lanka to deliver on those commitments, including by putting in place credible transitional justice mechanisms underpinned by meaningful consultations and effective witness protection. In that respect, we welcome the Government’s announcement that they will establish an Office of Missing Persons. We remain committed to the full implementation of resolution 30/1, and we stand ready to support the Sri Lankan Government to that end.

Although progress has been slower than we and many others had hoped, it has been encouraging to see Sri Lanka’s renewed openness and engagement with the UN. We welcomed Sri Lanka’s invitations to High Commissioner Zeid and various UN special rapporteurs to visit and to discuss torture, disappearances, and the independence of judges. However, we recognise that much remains to be done, in particular in improving the rights of all the country’s citizens.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of allegations of ongoing human rights abuses. We have been clear with the Sri Lankan Government about the need to do more. I discussed our concerns with High Commissioner Zeid in Geneva last month, and again with Foreign Minister Samaraweera in London last week. I set out clearly the areas we felt were important for Sri Lanka to focus on: torture, land reform and transitional justice.

Did the Minister have the opportunity to discuss with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister this week’s announcement that Sri Lanka intends to demilitarise by 2018, which would be a very welcome step? As the Minister will know, the Sri Lankan military is involved in running everything in the north from beauty parlours to hotels to food companies, and dealing with that is an important part of putting the north back on a stable footing.

The hon. Lady makes a very credible point. I have been to the north twice and seen that for myself. An army has no reason to be in business in a civilian structure or to be on other people’s land, and I will come to that in just a minute.

The hon. Gentleman asked about our funding arrangements to promote human rights abroad. Our £6.6 million three-year conflict, security and stabilisation funding for Sri Lanka focuses on reform, interfaith dialogue—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), with his ongoing support for Christian communities around the world, will be pleased to hear that—transitional justice, de-mining and anti-corruption. Through the Magna Carta fund and our bilateral programme budget, we are also supporting a number of other human rights and reconciliation projects. Our programmes in Sri Lanka aim to strengthen democratic institutions, support reconciliation and protect human rights.

On land reforms, which the hon. Lady just raised, more land returns are essential, both to build confidence and to allow the resettlement of displaced Tamils. I was encouraged that a further 701 acres were released two weeks ago, and that Foreign Minister Samaraweera has said that the Government have instructed the military to release all land obtained from civilians by 2018. The British Government are clear that land releases must be accompanied by adequate housing and support for resettled communities. We continue to support de-mining programmes, one of which I have seen, and housing and resettlement through our contributions to multilateral agencies.

We will continue to encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to prioritise the reform of their security sector, not least with the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. All forms of sexual and gender-based violence and torture must be addressed. The President has taken steps to address this and has issued guidance to all security forces that emphasises the absolute prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment, including sexual violence. The Government, with our assistance, are also putting in place training programmes for the police and other measures aimed at combating and eliminating torture. This includes addressing the need for the prosecution and conviction of perpetrators.

There are other areas of concern. These include issues of freedom of speech and movement, the remaining detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the continued involvement of the military in commercial life in the north. Through diplomatic pressure and targeted projects, we will continue to encourage the Government to address these issues.

The hon. Member for Ilford North highlighted the issue of international involvement in the prosecution of war crimes. The British Government have always been clear that any accountability mechanism needs to be credible and meet international standards. We therefore welcomed Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of UNHRC resolution 30/1. We have reiterated our commitment to its full implementation on a number of occasions, most recently in Geneva last month.

Very briefly, will the Minister give his reaction to the remarks of the President and the Prime Minister in refusing to implement those aspects of the resolution specifically about international involvement in the prosecution of war crimes?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that to reassure the communities in Sri Lanka and to show the international community that this is a credible process, there needs to be an international element. That is what we continue to stress with the Government, with Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister, with Mangala Samaraweera, the Foreign Minister, and through Prince Zeid. I am hopeful that the message is getting through and think that something will happen in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the asylums return policy; this is important. The Home Office country information and guidance on Sri Lanka was updated in May 2016, and we will have further discussions with the Home Office on these issues.

The United Kingdom remains committed to supporting Sri Lanka to take further steps towards peace and prosperity for all its citizens. We do so in a spirit of friendship and co-operation, and I am proud of the role that the UK continues to play. That includes, as the hon. Gentleman was generous enough to say, the visit to the north of that country by the Prime Minister during CHOGM, which I believe began to unlock this process. There are many challenges ahead and progress may be slower than some of us would hope, but we will continue to build on the good work done so far and help Sri Lanka stay the course, for the benefit of all its people.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.