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Sri Lanka: Human Rights

Volume 616: debated on Friday 4 November 2016

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

I am grateful to the Speaker for selecting this topic for debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for being in her place. It is a particular pleasure to see the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who has successfully returned to the Front Bench. I look forward to his particularly provocative personality helping to shake up the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s handling of this matter.

Amnesty International, presenting to the UN Human Rights Council on 15 September, said:

“When Sri Lanka co-sponsored UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 in October 2015, among the commitments made were initiatives to account for enforced disappearances.”

It went on to say that the UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances

“has transmitted more than 12,000 complaints to Sri Lanka. Although the second highest in the world, these represent only the ‘tip of the iceberg.’ In May, the Sri Lankan government acknowledged receiving at least 65,000 complaints of enforced disappearances since 1995. ”

That is 65,000 people who have disappeared in 30 years. The majority of them, though not all, are Tamil. All 65,000 had families and loved ones who are grieving, who have no closure and who, certainly at the moment, have little hope of any justice.

I am pleased to say that I have a significant number of Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Muslim constituents, as well as the highest number of Tamil constituents of any MP in the UK. Some of the disappeared have relatives living in my constituency. It is their anger and demand for justice that I bring once again to this great House.

The Foreign Office has fought for the disappeared and their relatives with all the energy of a wet dishcloth. Little obvious effort goes into holding the Sri Lankan Government’s feet to the fire, so that they deliver meaningful reform and prevent further human rights abuses, never mind beginning to put right previous abuses. From time to time, it is true that new commitments are made, or a new Government come in, or there are new Sri Lankan Ministers promising to work with the international community to improve human rights. Very occasionally, the odd case gets resolved, but on the ground in Sri Lanka, the story is one of continuing impunity for human rights abusers. Ministers here, I gently suggest, have simply not done enough in recent times to challenge that culture. There is a sense that the Foreign Office either does not want to rock the boat in Sri Lanka, or does not want to put in the diplomatic effort to keep the new Sri Lankan Government under pressure to deliver.

I have visited Sri Lanka twice. The first time was as a Back-Bench MP in October 2001, if I remember rightly, when a ceasefire was in place, and there were serious negotiations under way between the Government and the Tamil Tigers about what a peace settlement might look like. I went again as a Minister in July 2005 after the terrible tsunami, but by then the conflict was under way again, with targeted assassinations by paramilitaries taking place and the language of confrontation beginning to ratchet up. Since that time, as a Minister when Labour was in government and since we have been in opposition, I have continued to raise a series of human rights abuses, both through constituency correspondence and by taking part in debates in this House.

I am told that the situation on the ground in the north and east is basically calm. Tamils from other countries can visit and are not routinely stopped any longer by the military or the police. That does not mean, however, that we should forget the terrible events that have taken place in Sri Lanka in recent times. The Sri Lankan military conflict ended in May 2009 after almost a quarter of a century of conflict, with an estimated 100,000 people losing their lives. In the final months few independent observers—certainly, no one from the international media—were able to get close to the fighting, allowing terrible abuses to take place, according to the witness testimony collected by highly credible international human rights organisations.

Murder, disappearances, sexual violence, the use of child soldiers, the use of civilians as human shields and the bombing of hospitals have all been chronicled by witnesses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) has previously noted, many at the very top of Sri Lankan society, then Ministers, military leaders, figures in the judiciary and civil society, are suspected of being complicit in some of the atrocities that took place.

Inevitably, the Rajapaksa Government were always unlikely to offer a truth and justice process or one that encouraged reconciliation between the different communities of the island of Sri Lanka. So when the Rajapaksa Government were defeated by President Sirisena and his Administration, it seemed like a genuine moment for optimism about Sri Lanka’s future. Particularly encouraging was the new Sri Lankan Government’s willingness to co-sponsor a resolution to the UN Human Rights Council in October last year, alongside the UK, the US and other countries.

The resolution—a significant step away from the international community’s previous support for a full independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes at the end of the conflict and other allegations of human rights abuses levelled at both sides—nevertheless called for measures to advance accountability, reconciliation, human rights and the rule of law. Crucially, it called for international involvement in the prosecution of alleged war crimes and the establishment of a special court

“integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators”

with an independent Sri Lankan investigative and prosecuting body.

Twelve months on since that resolution was passed, with strong UK Government support and with that key and fundamental element contained in it, it is worth considering where the process stands today. There were, it is true, other elements to the resolution, which I will come back to. On the involvement of international judges and the establishment of a special court, there has been absolutely no progress to date. There have been a series of worrying public statements from the President and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, stating that the judicial process will have no international involvement at all.

What, then, has been Britain’s reaction? I look forward to hearing from the Minister on this point in particular. Has Britain offered any judges to a special court that might be created in Sri Lanka? My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) received a very interesting answer to his written question to the then Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, on 6 June. The then Home Secretary made it clear that she—and by implication her officials—had made no representations on or offers of help and so on with involving international judges and prosecutors in prosecutions for war crimes in Sri Lanka. In September this year the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, visited Sri Lanka and reiterated his support for international judicial participation in the special court. I ask the Minister gently why Britain has not done more to encourage delivery of that special court with that international judicial co-operation.

The resolution passed 12 months ago also approved the creation of a truth commission and of offices on reparations and missing persons. In May, to be fair to the Sri Lankan Government, an Office of Missing Persons was created, and in August the necessary law was passed by the Sri Lankan Parliament. It would be helpful to hear the Minister’s assessment of the finances and personnel of this new office, and of whether it has the political support necessary to really make a difference.

The Sri Lankan Government have also allowed visits by the UN’s working group on enforced or voluntary disappearances, the special rapporteur on torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment, and the special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. The UN human rights commissioner acknowledged the access given to the aforementioned UN organisations, but went on to note with concern the lack of transparency in negotiations over a truth and reconciliation commission and a special court. Again, perhaps the Minister could explain what he thinks is going on. Will there be a truth and reconciliation commission, and when might that body begins work?

When, too, might we expect the catch-all Prevention of Terrorism Act, or PTA, to be lifted? I understand that the Sri Lankan Government have agreed to that, but, again, they have given no time commitment. Human Rights Watch described the PTA as the legislation used to facilitate thousands of human rights abuses over the years, including torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. It goes on to argue that the law has been used since 2009 to detain and torture people suspected of links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, including forcibly returned asylum seekers. Indeed, I have had complaints from residents in my constituency of visits to Sri Lanka resulting in arrest and, on at least one occasion, torture.

Human Rights Watch notes that many instances of torture, sexual violence and other ill-treatment occurred in the Criminal Investigation Department and Terrorist Investigation Division offices in Colombo, while others occurred in unofficial places of detention. In addition, evidence in court has confirmed that the navy operated secret detention camps in Colombo and Trincomalee, where detainees were allegedly tortured and killed.

Even now, it is not clear exactly how many are held, or where, under the PTA. It is true that, 12 months ago, the Government announced a plan to deal with the Tamil detainees held under the PTA, with some released on bail, others sent for supposed rehabilitation, and the rest set to be charged. Can the Minister tell us today or in writing whether he has had discussions about the timing of any replacement for the PTA, whether he is confident that a full list of the Tamils detained under the PTA has been made public, and whether family members have been informed?

The remarkable people in Sri Lanka who champion human rights—for example, in the organisation Right To Life—continue to report harassment, police and military surveillance, and, on occasion, anonymous death threats. However, it is the impunity for previous human rights abuses that stands out as the single most telling indication that change in Sri Lanka is not happening anything like fast enough. Cases include the January 2006 extrajudicial execution of five students in Trincomalee by security personnel; the killing of 17 aid workers with the French organisation Action Contre La Faim in Muttur in August of the same year; the January 2009 murder of Sri Lanka’s most famous newspaper editor at the time, the Sinhalese Lasantha Wickrematunge; and the disappearances of political activists Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan in Jaffna in 2011. Those cases are noteworthy for the profile they had at the time and since, and for the lack of progress in the investigations.

Lastly, let me turn to the presence of the military in the north and the east of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Government agreed in the Human Rights Council resolution last year that it would accelerate the return of land to its rightful owners. The organisation Freedom House has suggested that the military still occupied 44,000 acres of Tamil-owned land in 2015. The Sri Lankan Centre for Policy Alternatives reported in March that 13,000 acres of land in the Northern Province alone continue to be occupied. Other reports suggest that the military has returned some, but far from all, the land it seized. It is far from clear from public statements whether all the land will be returned to its rightful owners. Again, it would be helpful to hear the Minister’s assessment. The military’s presence in the north and east is all-pervasive, with many ordinary businesses such as tourist resorts, and even shops selling basic goods, controlled by the armed forces. Economic development, particularly Tamil-owned economic development, lags far behind that in other areas of the country.

Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful islands in the world—a point often made to me when I attend cross-community events in my constituency—but it has one of the ugliest of recent histories. Those who continue to be victims of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka have few people to turn to. Britain has a particularly heavy responsibility to take, given our previous history with Sri Lanka and our commitment to international human rights. In the end, there will not be the type of peace that offers real long-term security, and the chance for all communities to live together, unless there is a sustained truth and reconciliation process, and human rights abuses begin to be properly dealt with. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I thank the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for securing this debate. I commend his long-standing commitment to development, including seven years as a Minister in the Department of International Development—indeed, as my predecessor as Minister of State. He is probably one of the few Labour Ministers who did not need to leave a note for his successor saying, “There’s no money left.” As a Member representing a very large Tamil community, he has rightly been concerned by the human rights situation in Sri Lanka for many years. I also highlight the important work on human rights in Sri Lanka of the other members of the all-party parliamentary group on Tamils.

I do not think we need to replay the heart-wrenching history of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war in detail today. We all understand that that decades-long conflict was a painful and traumatic period for people across the island. Many tens of thousands died. We understand too that although the civil war may have ended in 2009, the reconciliation process never ends. You will be familiar, Madam Deputy Speaker, with some of the concerns set out in this House on previous occasions, including about the continued military presence in the north and east of Sri Lanka, the credibility and independence of future judicial processes, and the need for international involvement to support the Sri Lankan Government in fulfilling their commitments. The Government recognise that the Sri Lankan Government face very significant challenges in order to address the legacy of the conflict, and that doing so will require strong leadership from all parties. We will give support where we can. We should also, however, recognise the progress that has already been achieved, particularly under the current Sri Lankan Government.

The Government of Sri Lanka co-sponsored Human Rights Council resolution 30/01 in October last year. This was a historic moment, because it set the country on an ambitious course to promote reconciliation, accountability, and human rights, and to address the legacy of its civil war. At the Human Rights Council in June this year, High Commissioner Zeid recognised the progress that Sri Lanka has made against resolution 30/01. That progress includes increased engagement with the UN, legislation on an office of missing persons, ratification of the convention on enforced disappearances, the start of a process of constitutional reform, and an improved environment for civil society and human rights defenders. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s strength of feeling on the question of disappearances. Specifically on that point, which I sense was his most important, the Sri Lankan Government have enacted legislation on missing persons and ratified the convention on enforced disappearances. That is progress but the key now is implementation, which is not just about passing the law.

We continue to make those points to Government of Sri Lanka and the legislation to establish the Office of Missing Persons has just been passed. Therefore, we are still making an assessment of the office’s finances and personnel. High Commissioner Zeid also noted that more needed to be done and he called for a comprehensive strategy to deliver further progress. The Government share this assessment.

We do not underestimate the challenges of dealing with the legacy of a 30-year conflict. Actually, we welcome the determination of the Government of Sri Lanka to face up to these challenges and we will continue to encourage and support them to implement resolution 30/01 in full.

The Minister of State in the Foreign Office, my right hon. and noble Friend the Baroness Anelay of St Johns, will visit Sri Lanka next week. She will go to Colombo and Jaffna, and she will discuss these issues and many others with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, as well as the leader of the Tamil National Alliance and other members of the Government, opposition and civil society. I undertake to ensure that she possesses a copy of the speech that the hon. Gentleman has delivered today, so that all the issues that he has raised in the House will be fully familiar to her on the occasion of her visit. Moreover, I am pleased to confirm that she will also meet recent returnees to land that has been cleared of mines by the HALO Trust, thanks to UK Government funding.

There are several areas where more action is required if the Government of Sri Lanka are to fulfil all the commitments that they have made. The particular priorities that I will highlight, as the hon. Gentleman has already done today, are constitutional reform, land returns and security issues.

The devolution of political authority, through constitutional reform that protects the rights of all Sri Lankans, is an essential foundation for future prosperity and stability. I am encouraged by the inclusive consultation process that has been undertaken and I urge all parties to work together to deliver a revised constitution that lays the foundations for inclusive and fair governance.

More land returns are also essential, both to build trust and to allow those who have been displaced to return to their land. It is encouraging that land is being released, including an area in Jaffna last month. I hope the Government of Sri Lanka will return all private land that is still in military hands to its civilian owners.

Land releases on their own are not enough; they must be accompanied by adequate housing and other support for resettled communities. That is why the UK continues to support de-mining, housing and resettlement programmes through bilateral and multilateral funding. The Government of Sri Lanka should also tackle the issue of military involvement in civilian activity, which is constraining employment opportunities, especially in the north and east of the country.

We continue to encourage security sector reform in Sri Lanka. We urge the Government to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and to replace it with counter-terrorism laws that comply with international human rights standards. We also urge them to expedite the cases of those detained without charge under that act.

Sexual and gender-based violence and torture must also be addressed. We raise any credible reports of abuses with the Government of Sri Lanka and encourage them to investigate such reports fully. We also fund training programmes for the Sri Lankan police, and other measures to combat and eliminate torture.

May I ask the Minister, in the remaining minutes of his interesting response to my speech, to comment on the establishment—or not—of the special court, which was one of the key elements of resolution 30/01? In particular, can he say whether international judges might, in the end, still be participants in that court?

I can answer that question straight away by saying that we have not yet offered any UK judges to the special court, because it has not yet been set up. We will consider UK support in due course and we will continue to press the Sri Lankans to do that as quickly as possible.

We have also renewed defence engagement with Sri Lanka, in recognition of the important role that the armed forces have to play in addressing the crucial issues of reconciliation, accountability and human rights.

As well as addressing those human rights issues, Sri Lanka also faces difficult economic pressure. An improving economy would also help the process of peace. Financial and economic stability will help secure investment, development and prosperity for all provinces and all ethnicities. The UK will continue to work with the Government of Sri Lanka to improve the business environment, in particular by strengthening anti-corruption bodies.

We also strongly encourage the Government to address all issues identified by the EU as prerequisites to the reinstatement of the generalised scheme of preference plus. That reinstatement would provide a welcome economic boost by removing duties on exports to the EU.

We welcome the steps taken so far by the Sri Lankan Government to meet their human rights commitments. Progress on that agenda, and in other areas, will be vital to ensuring lasting reconciliation. That will require courageous and determined leadership, not only from the Government, but from political actors and civil society right across the country and, indeed, the diaspora.

The UK continues to encourage and support Sri Lanka to implement its human rights commitments in full. I am very proud of the United Kingdom’s role. We will continue to support Sri Lanka as it takes further steps towards securing peace, reconciliation and prosperity for all Sri Lankans. Once again, may I commend the hon. Gentleman for ensuring that those important issues are heard in this House?

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.