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Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Sri Lanka

Volume 638: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission in Sri Lanka.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am delighted to be joined by fellow members of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils. The turnout represents the depth of feeling, particularly among the Tamil diaspora, in our constituencies. Yesterday, I led a debate in this Chamber on cystic fibrosis, which was the first time I have seen it with standing room only. The fact that there are fewer Members here for this debate does not negate its importance. Every Member in this Chamber represents many thousands of members of the Tamil diaspora, who remain concerned about what is happening in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Government’s slow progress in meeting the terms of UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, which the Sri Lankan Government co-sponsored.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He is right that there is all-party agreement on this issue. Does he agree that one of critical things we need from the Sri Lankan Government is a commitment to the timescales by which they will have delivered the commitments they have made?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I absolutely agree. One of the things we need to say today is that we are nearly three years into this. Resolution 30/1 has been extended for a further two years, and we are halfway through that intervention. None of us wants to reach an impasse in a year’s time and go back to the UNHRC in Geneva to say, “Okay, guys, what has happened? Nothing.”

When the all-party group spoke to the Minister a little while ago, we said that if we get to this stage and still not much is happening, alarm bells will ring. I remember asking the Minister what the alarm bells meant. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and I went to the UNHRC, and there seemed to be a sense that there is not a lot it can do, which is slightly concerning.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on the work he is doing as chair of the all-party group. Although not much is happening and the UNHRC does not seem able to move forward, there has been appalling sectarian violence in Sri Lanka in recent weeks, which has resulted in the imposition of a state of emergency for the first time in seven years. Does he agree that, unless the Sri Lankan Government finally tackle the culture of impunity on the island and provide a genuine reckoning with the past, which I think he is arguing for, the country will be unable to lay the foundations of a sustainable peace?

I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention. I apologise to hon. Members that this is only a 30-minute debate, so they may not have as much time as they wish to share their views on behalf of their constituents. I am sure the Minister is pleased that he has got a bit more time to go out and talk to the Sri Lankan Government and other people, rather than spend time here.

On the issue of sectarian violence, the right hon. Lady is absolutely right. There was recently an outbreak of violence: petrol bombs were thrown at Muslim homes, shops and mosques. That is of real concern because there is an ongoing pattern of systemic violence by the authorities and a number of other issues, which I will try to touch on.

One of the things I try to do when I look at countries in the area—I have just come from an International Development Committee meeting about Burma and Bangladesh—is to triangulate what is happening in these countries. The sectarian violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka has real echoes of what is happening in Burma to the Rohingya Muslims. Indeed, there are Rohingyas in Sri Lanka. Unless we ensure there is a truth and reconciliation mechanism that has the confidence of the diaspora and the people left in Sri Lanka, the cycle will repeat. We need only look at how party politics works in Bangladesh now. There are still echoes of the war of independence and its aftermath, some 47 years on.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. As the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) said, in the past one of the key issues was freedom of religion, and the persecution and murder of people because of their faith. We would very much like to see truth and reconciliation. Does he agree that, for trust to be rebuilt in a community ravaged by guerrilla warfare and terrorism, people need to believe that there is a way of trusting a new generation? Support for and education of children is a driver for securing a future and hope for a war-torn nation. People need freedom of religion and the freedom to worship their God in the way they wish to.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The way to move on, in addition to truth and reconciliation, is through education. I am going to a Tamil school in my constituency this Saturday, I think. When we go to that sort of cultural event, we always welcome the fact that British Tamils celebrate their heritage. They do so through song, dance and poetry, but they also remember. We recently held Holocaust Memorial Day here, which is a day on which we look back on the atrocities that ravaged Europe. Tamils similarly look back at what happened at Mullivaikal.

One of the toughest things that the hon. Member for Ilford North and I had to do was to listen to the testimony of survivors of Mullivaikal, who talked about people who had gone missing and those who had literally been ripped in half during the shelling of a hospital, which was deliberately targeted by the army. Normally in armed conflicts, the co-ordinates of hospitals and buildings of that sort are given out so that they are avoided. That hospital looked like it had been deliberately targeted.

We can see why people are so emotional, even now. To go back to Bangladesh for a second, it is the 47th anniversary of independence, and last Saturday I was speaking to a veteran of that war, who was in tears recounting his story. That was 47 years ago. In the case of Sri Lanka, we are talking about 2009—just the blink of an eye—so it is no surprise that the emotions are so raw.

UNHRC resolution 30/1 does not just talk about the truth, reconciliation and justice mechanism; it talks about human rights in general. It says that the Prevention of Terrorism Act needs to be ripped up and started again to bring it up to modern standards. It talks about land-grabbing and the return of land to people. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about religious tolerance. Buddhist structures have been popping up in the north and the east of the country, which antagonises Tamils there. The UNHRC resolution talks about setting up an office of missing persons. Although that has been signed off, we need to see that office properly established and doing its work. If the international community and the UN help it do its work, that would be welcome. I hope the Sri Lankan Government will respond positively to such requests.

When we were in Geneva, we saw a traffic-light or RAG—red, amber, green—system for rating how the Sri Lankan Government have been progressing on implementation of the resolution. There were far too many red lights for our liking. Some things are low-hanging fruit, such as the Government having a list of the disappeared that has never been published. They have the list. Why can they not just publish it?

We met mothers of the disappeared, a small group of people who had lost not only their children but their husbands and their grandchildren. We met them and took some photos, but we did not want to share those photos for fear of what people might have to go back to. That cannot be right. Those people, who have had so much pain and suffering, are in fear for their lives and of reprisals when they go back to their home country. It is important that we look into such matters to move forward.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that the people in Sri Lanka who do not want the resolution to be implemented are, in effect, engaged in a war of attrition—both with more progressive elements in their own Government and with the wider international community? They hope that, as time passes, as personnel such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights move on or Governments change, we will just forget about it. They think that they will be able to move on with impunity. That is exactly why the international community needs to keep up external pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that they sign up to the commitments they made, alongside the rest of the international community, in that important UN Human Rights Council resolution.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which goes back to what the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was saying as well: it is too easy for the situation to drift. It is too easy for us to get to next year, as I was saying, and to find that nothing has happened. That is why a time-bound plan, as the hon. Member for Ilford North suggests, is the right way forward. That would mean that we can look at staging posts along the way to ensure that action is happening.

The hon. Gentleman is generous to give way again. Does he agree with me that the Sri Lankan Government have nothing to fear from this? An office for missing persons, for example, or a truth and reconciliation commission, would look at what happened on both sides, which would be of benefit to everybody in Sri Lanka, not only to one group or another.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely valid point. That is true: implementation is a way of moving forward for both sides, and it needs to move forward.

Under the European Union’s generalised scheme of preferences, Sri Lanka has just received back GSP-plus or most favoured trading status, much to the frustration of our all-party parliamentary group. We all want Sri Lanka to succeed—of course we do: we want the economy to be developed for the sake of all the people of Sri Lanka, Tamils and Sinhalese alike—but none the less the fear is that the pace is too quick and that we are releasing all our levers of influence before having any sense of meaningful progress. Moving things on through a time-bound plan, we believe, is the way forward.

When we were in Geneva, we met representatives of the missions of Germany, Macedonia, Canada, India and the EU mission itself. They all seemed incredibly supportive of keeping the heat on Sri Lanka to ensure that it adheres to the resolution that it co-sponsored. But when we asked what would actually happen when we got to next year, the answer was really a bit of a shrug of the shoulders: they could come up with another resolution, or the UN Security Council might be another way to do something, although that is a very different arm of the UN—a very different instrument. Going down that route would get us into a whole other dynamic of geopolitics. We are talking about human rights, not necessarily security: two separate issues.

What other avenue does the UNHRC have? I fear that there is not one, so we have to look at the validity and purpose of the HRC. It needs to be seen to be effective, because otherwise the institution itself is undermined. That might result in situations in which people feel that they can do what they want. Again, to return to somewhere such as Burma, if it can do something without any punishment, any repercussions or a forward view, why not do what it wants to do? What is needed is for the international community to be able to act, and to be able to act effectively.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he agree that the restoration of GSP-plus by the European Union seems to be giving a signal that things are moving forward when in fact nothing has moved forward? When the Minister responds, it would be useful to know exactly what line he took on the restoration of GSP-plus and how firm he was with the European Union on the matter, because I do not think for a moment that that status should have been restored.

I thank the right hon. Lady for making that point. As I said, GSP-plus absolutely has its place in building Sri Lanka’s economy, but its restoration was far too early. Nobody wants to hold a country such as Sri Lanka back, because too many people are affected by lack of development of the economy. None the less, the Sri Lankan Government—who, frankly, have their own problems, as we have seen in the recent elections—need strong leadership. More to the point, the Sri Lankan people need strong leadership. It is not for us to run their country or tell them how it should be governed, but we are here, as critical friends, to ensure that human rights abuses do not continue and that historical human rights abuses are dealt with firmly but fairly.

Finally, I will move on to the main body of the debate, which is not about the ongoing human rights situation, but about settling what has happened, and that relates to the truth and reconciliation commission. We have talked about the office of missing persons, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the ongoing systemic use of violence by the police and the land-grabbing. What Sri Lankan people need, and not only those in this country—such as the 2,500 or so of the Tamil diaspora group in my constituency, with similar numbers in the constituencies of other hon. Members present in the Chamber today—and throughout the world, in Canada, Australia and all places, but Tamils in Sri Lanka, is a system of reconciliation and justice that includes international and independent representation so that people can tell their story and bring some to book, confident that they are not standing before those who might have perpetrated such crimes or their friends. People who appear before such a commission want confidence that they will get justice, and that reprisals will not follow for them or their family.

People want to make it safe not only for those in Sri Lanka to remain in their communities but, ultimately, for the diaspora to go back and forth to Sri Lanka and, more to the point, to invest there—that comes back to GSP-plus and the wider view of the economy. The diaspora in this country has done very good things economically, making a great contribution to this country, so if we can get them to have the confidence to go back and invest in Sri Lanka, that would be great for everyone there. If we can move the judicial process on with our support and international support, that has to be a good thing.

Will the Minister ensure that he keeps the pressure on? Perhaps he will detail what more we can do to secure a time-bound plan and, ultimately, if Sri Lanka does not adhere to resolution 30/01, what are the next moves that we can take?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to his passionate commitment to Sri Lanka, which predates his arrival in this House, although since then he has been an energetic leader as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils and on a range of issues in Burma too, as discussed.

Needless to say, I am also grateful for the attention and commitment of the other Members present: the right hon. Members for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), and the hon. Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I will try to respond to all the points made.

Let me offer my condolences to the families and friends of those who were killed in the recent intercommunal violence in Sri Lanka. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that that violence was not Sinhalese-Tamil, but Sinhalese against other communities, and it came in the immediate aftermath of highly contested local elections. Inciting violence in the name of religion or ethnicity clearly has no place in any civilised society. We support the Sri Lankan Government’s swift action to bring the violence to an end, but equally we implore the authorities properly to respect human rights in doing so.

We welcome the ending of the state of emergency that was announced yesterday morning, but we urge the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that there is an independent judicial holding of the perpetrators of that violence to account. Those events are yet another reminder of the continued importance of rebuilding trust and mutual respect between the communities and of the potentially tragic cost when that does not happen. The establishment of a truth-seeking commission is and always was an essential part of that process. I would like to update the House on Sri Lanka’s progress on reconciliation and on the UK’s action bilaterally and within the international community to support that process.

Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 as long ago as October 2015 was a truly historic moment. It was, at least verbally, a strong commitment to address the legacy of its long-running and devastating civil war, a commitment subsequently extended by two years last year in resolution 34/1. In co-sponsoring those resolutions, Sri Lanka pledged to establish a commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence, to sit alongside other mechanisms as part of a comprehensive truth and justice process. The UK, understandably and rightly, enthusiastically supported those resolutions. It is right to say that the Sir Lankan diaspora in this country—disproportionately Tamil as it is, for obvious reasons, rather than Sinhalese—on all sides was very much in favour and made that plain to the UK Government.

We remain absolutely committed to the full implementation of those resolutions as the single best way to secure the lasting reconciliation and peaceful future that are in the interests of all Sri Lankans, and which they so richly deserve. There has been some small recent progress, but in all candour I must tell the House that it has been slower than we would have anticipated or liked. An office of missing persons is close to being operational and has appointed seven commissioners. The Sri Lankan Government have passed a law to prevent and criminalise enforced disappearances. I understand that a draft law to establish an office of reparations has been approved by the Sri Lankan Cabinet. I also understand that draft legislation for a truth-seeking commission—an important part of this whole process—has been prepared, drawing upon the work of a country-wide consultation taskforce.

The Minister may be about to come on to this, but in the UK’s pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, what have the UK Government been saying about when they want the truth and reconciliation commission to be established?

I will come on to that, but when I visited Sri Lanka last year, that was the No. 1 priority—to discuss exactly what progress was being made, what the stepping stones were and, in legislative terms, what the difficulties or delays were. That is very much in mind, and obviously it is in the mind of our high commissioner in Colombo in his regular interactions with members of the Sri Lankan Government.

The legislation is under review, given the consultation that has just taken place, and is not yet publicly available. We hope to have progress on that shortly. I very much hope that it can proceed without further delay, together with work to establish the planned judicial mechanism, on which there has also been regrettably little progress.

This week marks the first anniversary of resolution 34/01. The UK will lead a statement at the Human Rights Council in Geneva tomorrow on behalf of the core co-sponsors: Macedonia, Montenegro, the United States and the UK. The statement will review Sri Lanka’s progress against its commitments following the update report to be presented tomorrow by the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It would probably not be appropriate for me to pre-empt the final wording of the co-sponsors’ statement here, but I expect that it will reflect our assessment that: first, Sri Lanka is safer and freer now than it was in 2015; secondly, it continues to engage constructively at times with the international community; and thirdly, it has the opportunity to advance towards long-term, sustainable reconciliation. However, the statement will also make it clear that the pace of progress has been disappointingly slow and that much remains to be done, including on the implementation of transitional justice mechanisms, of which the truth and reconciliation commission is an important part.

I will touch on the point on the GSP-plus, which the right hon. Member for Enfield North made. I recognise the concerns that she raised and would like to make it absolutely clear that, although there has been progress and we have allowed some recognition of the efforts that Sri Lanka has made so far, I would not want the Sri Lankan Government to be under any illusion that being allowed to go for the GSP-plus somehow gets them off the hook. We feel that is an entirely acceptable position.

I am afraid I am running out of time and I want to finish this point. Subject to the scheme’s rigorous monitoring for ensuring continued compliance, the first report was published in January and we will have further reports.

On the diaspora point that was made powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, he is right that we need to try to encourage the Sri Lankan diaspora here in the UK to play their part. Improving the economy and the GSP-plus is part of that. In that sense, it is a slightly positive way forward, but I would not want there to be any misapprehension about what was going on.

Last October I met Foreign Minister Marapana in Colombo and encouraged the Government to focus on four steps that the UK Government believe, if implemented together, would enable conditions for stability, growth and long-term prosperity for all Sri Lankans. They are: to deliver meaningful devolution through constitutional reform; to establish credible mechanisms for transitional justice; to return to the rightful owners all remaining private land that is still held by the military—right hon. and hon. Members will know that that is a major stumbling block; and to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with human rights compliant legislation, which we have not had in Sri Lanka to date. We will continue to press the Government of Sri Lanka to make real progress in those areas.

The UK diplomatic work, through our funding of more than £6.5 million from the bespoke conflict, stability and security fund, is having at least some positive impact. When I visited Jaffna in the far north of the country, I saw at first hand how our funding is helping to clear landmines. That is vital to families who have already been waiting far too long to return to their ancestral homelands and to rebuild their lives. Our long-running community policing programme is also helping police officers to serve all communities better, and to give greater support to women and children and their rights.

All that activity remains worth while, but I am proud of the UK’s continuing role working alongside local communities in the east of the country to promote inter-faith and intercommunal dialogue, in a part of the country where there is a much more mixed population than in others. Through the UN’s Peacebuilding Priority Plan, together with other international donors, we continue to provide technical support on reconciliation efforts that include transitional justice.

The UK’s message to Sri Lanka remains resolute: we absolutely expect the Government to implement in full their commitments made in good faith in the aftermath of a time of terrible conflict. As a close partner but also as a candid friend, we shall continue to support and encourage the Sri Lankan Government to make further and faster progress, particularly on transitional justice.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be well aware that part of the difficulty is that national elections are looming and there is more political instability than perhaps we might have anticipated back in 2015. As a consequence, I share the very great frustrations that have been raised in the debate about the slow pace of change. However, as we know full well from our experience in Northern Ireland, progress on reconciliation is vital to redress historical grievances, to strengthen human rights and the rule of law, but also to lay the foundations for the lasting legacy that all Sri Lankans rightly crave. That process could be a lot slower than we all wish, but the great prize is there for the taking. I believe it is what all Sri Lankans deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.