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House of Commons Hansard

Sri Lanka: UN Human Rights Council

28 February 2017
Volume 622

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered human rights in Sri Lanka and the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council.

    It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, not only because it will be wonderfully fair and impartial but because I know that you take an interest in the issue. It is also a pleasure to be joined by so many members of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, in which I have seen, since my election, genuinely cross-party work on an issue of importance to many of our constituents.

    It is timely that we are holding this debate the day after the opening of the 34th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. In fact, our first debate on this subject, in October 2015, was on the day before the start of the session. I hope that we can make our views clear as our Ministers go in to represent the UK at the Human Rights Council. The Minister with responsibility for Sri Lanka, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), is not here today; I understand that he is in Geneva and was at the opening of the session, which is welcome. However, I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)—not the B-team—is here to respond for the Government.

  • I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing what I agree is a timely debate. Many of the key promises made by the Government of Sri Lanka in 2015—justice, accountability, human rights protections, reconciliation—have not been fulfilled. Does he agree that the UK Government must support a follow-up resolution in Geneva calling on Sri Lanka to provide a clear timetable for the implementation of all outstanding commitments?

  • I could not agree more with the right hon. Lady. I am sure that the Minister will listen to the all-party group’s concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka. I have not just my own concerns as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group but concerns that my Tamil constituents have raised with me. They are concerned that UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 should not be just one more in a long catalogue of unfulfilled promises of justice for the atrocities suffered in the 2009 civil war.

    Resolution 30/1 was a consensual resolution reached in October 2015, and the Government of Sri Lanka agreed to it. It was something of a watershed moment: before the United Nations and the international community, the Government of Sri Lanka, under a new President, made a series of solemn commitments on human rights in Sri Lanka, effectively in return for being brought in from the cold in diplomatic circles. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) was there, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) and me.

    We were all clear that the resolution did not go as far as the Tamil community wanted but that without consensus, there would have been no resolution at all. It was accepted with good grace that it was a compromise, but we were clear at the time and remain clear that as a compromise, it should be delivered in full, without equivocation and without backsliding, to answer the point made by the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan).

    Ahead of the June session of the Human Rights Council, our all-party parliamentary group produced a report, which I hope was fair and balanced, on the progress against the various clauses in resolution 30/1. We acknowledged that progress had been made on the return of land seized by the military and on the ratification of the international convention for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance, albeit at the last minute before the session in Geneva.

  • On that point, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that failed asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka since the election of the new Government in January 2015 have reportedly been tortured, and that that continues? Information from Freedom from Torture indicates that we must keep pursuing the Government of Sri Lanka.

  • The reports by Freedom from Torture, whose No. 1 referral group is Tamils in Sri Lanka, are shocking. I know that the Government of Sri Lanka dispute what Freedom from Torture says, but even if we do not necessarily consider that, we must consider the recent report by the UN special rapporteur on torture, which was critical of how the Sri Lankan Government handle torture and the fact that the impunity of the security services allows it to continue. I hope that the UN special rapporteur’s report will be considered at this session.

  • As somebody who has been part of a post-conflict society, I remind hon. Members that building a peace process is incredibly difficult, slow and arduous. Significant progress has been made—admittedly not as much as some Members would like, but we should recognise that slow progress has been made towards a new, changed and beneficial society.

  • As I just outlined, the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils has indeed recognised the progress that has been made, but it is right to scrutinise the areas in which there has been a lack of progress and, as I will explain, a clear policy by the Government of Sri Lanka to undermine one of the key tenets of the resolution. I will come to that in a moment.

    We also highlighted areas in which there had not been progress, including the demilitarisation of the north and east and the torture on which the UN special rapporteur has reported in the last few months, but of most concern was the lack of progress on truth-seeking, justice and reparations. In resolution 30/1, the Government of Sri Lanka agreed to a clause that included the words

    “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”.

    There been scant progress towards the establishment of that tribunal—the judicial mechanism. I take the point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) that these things take time. Our own child sex abuse inquiry took two years from announcement to set-up. I accept that it takes time to set up a tribunal, and I do not necessarily criticise the Sri Lankan Government for not yet having started to hold hearings; what I criticise them for is not having a timetable for setting up the judicial mechanism. Most importantly, the Government of Sri Lanka—the President, the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers—have made clear comments that they do not intend to involve foreign and Commonwealth judges, prosecutors and defence counsel. They want it to be a purely domestic tribunal. Senior Ministers have also commented that the military will be protected.

  • The hon. Gentleman does an outstanding job chairing the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, as did his predecessor and mine. Further to the point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who knows probably better than most here the painful and important process of seeking peace, the issue is the Sri Lankan Government’s refusal to adhere to the commitments they signed up to on international involvement in the prosecution of historic war crimes. It is not about the wording of the resolution but about their unwillingness to follow what they signed up to.

  • I agree. That brings us to the nub of the issue: the concern that the Government of Sri Lanka intend to turn up to Geneva this week and over the next few weeks to dazzle the international community with a list of clauses in the resolution on which they have made progress and a list of UN conventions that they have ratified, but to weasel out of the justice mechanism by saying that it is all rather difficult and hoping that Sri Lanka will simply drop off the UN Human Rights Council’s agenda and the whole business will be forgotten.

    I think that we all understand, from the Iraq historic abuse inquiry and the inquiries in Northern Ireland, that such things are difficult to sell domestically. That is why the scrutiny of the UN Human Rights Council is necessary to show that the international community requires it.

  • My hon. Friend makes some very interesting points, but his last point is the most important: we are dealing with a Government of national unity, and President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are trying to maintain a delicate balance. Without that Government of national unity, we would not be seeing progress on any front at all. Everything that we say, maintain and argue for has to be done with a greater understanding of the domestic political situation in Sri Lanka.

  • I well understand the domestic political situation in Sri Lanka, but the fact is that President Sirisena signed up to the resolution in order to bring Sri Lanka back in from the cold on the world stage. He received congratulatory comments at the time from a number of world leaders and from Secretary of State Kerry, and he now needs to deliver his side of the bargain, not say “This is all very difficult to deliver domestically.” He has made a commitment to the UN on behalf of his country and he must now deliver it.

  • Our stance is one of assistance to President Sirisena, because he needs some countervailing pressure; it is only with that pressure that he can say to some of the forces pitted against these changes that he and Sri Lanka need to do something.

  • I entirely agree. The last pronouncement made on the issue by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), when he held the ministerial brief that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West now holds, was that Sri Lanka had not yet met its commitments to the international community. Not only does that remain the case, but we are concerned that the Sri Lankan Government have demonstrated a clear intention to defy their commitments to the international community. That cannot be allowed to happen.

  • On international oversight, we in this country have to be careful not to be accused of hypocrisy. The Government rightly resisted all calls to make the Bloody Sunday and Iraq inquiries international in any way, because they were domestic inquiries into events that had an international impact. We need to be careful not to tell another country that it must now have an international inquiry on a domestic issue.

  • I would agree with the hon. Gentleman, were it not that in this case we are not demanding anything of the Sri Lankan Government that the UN Human Rights Council has not already demanded and that they have not already agreed to. We are only trying to get them to deliver what they have already agreed to.

  • I am conscious that I may be indirectly having a debate with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). I understand his point, but the Sri Lankan judicial system is not equipped to investigate and prosecute crimes of this nature. The international mechanism was seen as critical for confidence building, both for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and for the diaspora around the world. As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) said, the Sri Lankan Government have signed up to this.

  • I accept that the immediacy of the terrible situations in Syria in Yemen will preoccupy the UN Human Rights Council, and rightly so. However, having failed to act in the closing stages of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, which may now seem a long time ago but was probably the world’s darkest hour since world war two, it is now incumbent on the international community to ensure that the victims on both sides of that war receive the justice they deserve.

    The UN estimate of the number of civilians, mainly Tamil, who died in the closing stages of the civil war between January and May 2009 is 40,000. There is evidence that no-fire zones that the Government encouraged civilians to go to were systematically shelled by Government forces.

  • The then Government.

  • The then Government—the Minister quite rightly corrects me. There is evidence that a UN food distribution hub in a no-fire zone was systematically shelled by the then Government’s forces after UN field workers provided the co-ordinates to the Government. There is also evidence that a field hospital in an abandoned school was shelled 65 times by Government forces—so consistently that the doctors there actually asked the International Committee of the Red Cross not to provide their GPS co-ordinates to the Government, contrary to usual procedure. I make no case for the LTTE, which is a banned terrorist organisation, but there is evidence of LTTE fighters being shot while holding the white flag of surrender. There are videos of men, hog-tied, blindfolded and on their knees, being shot in the back of the head. Most disgustingly, there is video evidence, which members of the all-party group have seen, of female Tamil civilians being sexually abused and raped before being shot.

    The world turned its back in 2009. It is incumbent on us not to do so now.

  • The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful case. Given everything that was suffered by the Tamil community—others as well, but predominantly the Tamil community—and the huge loss of life, I think it is amazing that the Tamils managed to come together in a Government of national unity, but that is absolutely dependent on keeping the promises about transparency and accountability. The national unity Government are at risk if those promises are not fulfilled.

  • I entirely agree. As I have already outlined, resolution 30/1 was very much a consensual resolution. It fell well short of what many members of the Tamil community, who undoubtedly suffered terribly throughout the civil war, actually wanted—a fully independent international inquiry. The limited element of international involvement that the Sri Lankan Government have agreed to must be fulfilled.

    The UN’s 2011 panel of inquiry—not a Tamil rights group, but the UN’s own commission of inquiry—found credible allegations that, if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, the prosecution of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during war and peace. There can be no question but that violations of that kind, of which evidence was found by the UN, must be investigated in a thorough, impartial and timely way.

    Resolution 30/1 does not provide the independent international inquiry that many called for and that I think there was a watertight case for, but it does provide a mechanism that could enjoy the confidence both of survivors and of alleged perpetrators if set up and run in the right way to give people the confidence that justice will be done.

  • The atrocities that the hon. Gentleman has outlined are almost legend now, in terms of how serious those allegations are, but does he accept that there are equally serious allegations, which also have to be investigated, that Tamils used the people of Sri Lanka as human shields in that war, especially in its closing days?

  • That is exactly why I said that both sides need to have confidence in the process. Whatever the LTTE did, which was no doubt disgraceful, the victims who were used as human shields, for instance, were mainly civilians—indeed, mainly Tamil civilians. They are the ones for whom I speak when I say that justice must be done.

    Sadly, the Government of Sri Lanka have made no progress, as far as I can see, towards the establishment of a credible justice mechanism. On the contrary, they have made a number of bombastic statements to the media that there will be no foreign involvement. I call on all members of the UN Human Rights Council, including our own Government, to make it clear that that simply will not stand. We need to see a firm timetable put in place for the opening of this tribunal; a renewed commitment to the involvement of foreign judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers; and a firm commitment to the UNHRC, keeping Sri Lanka and these issues on its agenda until there is substantive fulfilment of UNHRC resolution 30/1.

    I will end, as I did in our debate in this Chamber on September 2015, by saying that the Tamil people in Sri Lanka and our Tamil constituents in the UK want reconciliation, but reconciliation cannot take place without proper accountability. Let me quote again what the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said after the 2014 UNHRC session:

    “Ultimately all of this is about reconciliation… It is about bringing justice and closure and healing to this country which now has a chance of a much brighter future. That will only happen by dealing with these issues and not ignoring them.”

    I once again call on all members of the UN Human Rights Council, including our own Government, to lead the world in seeking proper accountability for human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and full delivery of the hard-won commitment in resolution 30/1 to an independent, or at least international, tribunal with the involvement of foreign and Commonwealth judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers.

  • I have listened with care to what my hon. Friend the Member for, Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) has said, and I find myself mostly in agreement. I thank him for reminding me of what I said when I was the Minister.

    I have read again, with interest, the remarks made by the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs—Chatham House—back in January. He ended his comments by saying:

    “Festina lente; slowly but surely Sri Lanka is making haste towards a new beginning.”

    Having been to the UN Human Rights Council, spoken on Sri Lanka a number of times, worked closely with Prince Zeid al-Hussein on the matter, and witnessed and argued for and against the postponements we had, I look upon this as something that now needs to be driven forward. I repeat my earlier remarks: we must pay tribute to the progress that has been made in Sri Lanka. It is a delicate political balance between the two parties: the Sri Lanka Freedom party, headed by President Sirisena, and the United National party, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is worth remembering that if the two parties are not in coalition the alternative is probably a return to the days of former President Rajapaksa, under whose presidency many of the atrocities were committed, on both sides.

    Regarding what the Sri Lankan Government have achieved, they are quick to point out that they have reintroduced a two-term limit to the presidency, reduced the term itself from six to five years, established a constitutional council, restored independent commissions, recognised the right to information as a fundamental right and recognised the promotion of national reconciliation and integration as duties of the President. All those things are good, but they are not good enough.

    On land restitution, I am aware that much of the land, particularly in the north, has been returned to the local community, but a lot of it has not been and we need to see greater progress on that. The Government have said that they are setting up an office of missing persons, which is absolutely key, but to date there is no evidence that it has been done. I hope that, in Geneva, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), will congratulate the Sri Lankan Government on what they have achieved to date but also point out that the commitments they have made on which, by and large, they are falling short. They still have tremendous good will from the international community.

  • Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I would be really grateful if we did not prolong this speech because the Minister has just a few minutes left to respond. Although Sir Hugo has permission to speak, he is not speaking on behalf of the Government. I want the Government to have the opportunity to speak and I would therefore be grateful if there were no interventions and we came to the Minister as soon as possible.

  • I will just say, in conclusion, therefore, that what is important for all parts of Sri Lanka—the Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim communities—is economic prosperity. I am glad that there is a tilt away from Chinese investment. I very much welcome the fact that the Sri Lankan Government are sending two Ministers to the Commonwealth Trade Ministers meeting next week, because I believe that the UK can do much more bilateral trade with Sri Lanka. Finally, a call I made quietly as a Minister is that although I welcome the hugely important diaspora Tamil community here—many Members have a large number of Tamil constituents—when we are looking at one Sri Lanka trying to reintegrate all the different communities I believe that there should be one all-party Sri Lanka group, not a division between the Tamils and the others.

  • It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am pleased to be able to squeeze a word in edgeways in this important debate. May I do as is common but important, and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) who has brought the debate to the fore? I apologise that the Under-Secretary of State who deals with such matters, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), is unable to be here but, as has been pointed out, he is in Geneva at the Human Rights Council, having a meeting with the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka. If there is an excuse to be had, I hope that that one will be accepted.

    There have been important contributions to the debate, not least from the former Minister for this area, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), who shows not only his interest in and determination to pursue some of the aspects of the matter that he took up when in office but also that we must continue to push forward here today.

    Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 was a historic moment. It signalled the Sri Lankan Government’s determination to address the legacy of the devastating civil war and to move the country away from division and distrust and towards reconciliation and, indeed, prosperity. Important progress has been made but, as has been highlighted, much more needs to be done. The progress includes increased engagement with the UN, ratification of the convention on enforced disappearances, the start of a process of constitutional reform, the passing of a law to establish an office of missing persons, a nationwide consultation on transitional justice, an improved environment for civil society and human rights defenders, and the return of some of the land held by the military to its civilian owners. Although we should recognise that those are all important developments and that progress was not made under the previous Government, more clearly needs to be done.

    Many of the steps that Sri Lanka committed to take under resolution 30/1 are yet to be implemented, as has become clear from the debate. The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister has said that the Government need more time to deliver on the outstanding commitments and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will discuss that with him today and encourage the further progress for which we have been calling. That is part of our ongoing policy of support and encouragement to the Government of Sri Lanka to deliver on their commitments.

    The UK has played an important role in shining the international spotlight on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. We were a long-time advocate for the investigation into human rights violations during Sri Lanka’s civil war, carried out by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The report of that investigation was published in 2015. We also co-sponsored the important resolution 30/1.

  • Will the Minister give way very quickly?

  • I will not; I have only a minute and a half. I apologise.

    Our efforts continue, and we are now discussing a follow up to resolution 30/1, in partnership with the Government of Sri Lanka and the other countries that presented the original resolution. Our guiding principle in the negotiations will be that Sri Lanka should implement its existing commitments in full. In addition to the work at the Human Rights Council, we have also been encouraging progress in Sri Lanka through high level engagement and programme funding.

    In the short time I have available, we need to focus on some key areas. First, there is the constitutional reform that delivers the devolution required to build the foundations for future stability and prosperity. The inclusive consultation process that has taken place is encouraging, and we urge all parties to work together to find a way forward that is acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka.

    Secondly, there are the very important land returns. The UK has consistently called for the release of private land occupied by the military in the north and east of Sri Lanka, and we will continue to do so. Third are the transitional justice mechanisms. We are encouraged by the progress of legislation to establish an office of missing persons but the Sri Lankan Government must now take the necessary steps, including providing funding, to get it up and running. Finally, work is being done on prevention of terrorism legislation, but clearly there is more to be done.

    In conclusion, it is clear that bringing about reconciliation and the conditions for lasting peace in Sri Lanka will require a concerted effort from the Government, the Opposition, civil society and everyone who has an interest in supporting a brighter future for the country. For our part, the Government will continue to support and encourage the people and Government of Sri Lanka along that path. We will recognise and welcome progress when it is made and will continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to deliver in full on their commitments, for the benefit of the people.

    Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

  • Sitting suspended.