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UN Human Rights Council: Sri Lanka

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2021

What steps he plans to take at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021 in response to (a) Sri Lanka’s recent withdrawal from its human rights obligations under resolution 30/1 and (b) forced cremations of people who die from covid-19 in Sri Lanka. (910975)

We are disappointed at Sri Lanka’s withdrawal of support for resolution 30/1; we made that clear in statements at the United Nations Human Rights Council in February, June and September 2020. We are working with international partners and have had discussions with the Sri Lankan Government on how to take this forward at the UNHRC in March. We are committed to the principles of the resolution, and our approach to Sri Lanka will be a priority for the UK at the HRC over the next few months.

The UK’s leadership on the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka, in terms of both historical and ongoing human rights abuses, has been critical. We saw, whether through David Miliband as Foreign Secretary or David Cameron as Prime Minister, the importance of leadership at the very highest level. What specifically will the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister do as leaders of the core group ahead of that crucial UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March to ensure that the perpetrators of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka do not go unpunished, and that we can look forward to a future based on truth, justice and reconciliation for all the peoples of Sri Lanka?

As I pointed out in my response, we are absolutely committed to the principles of the resolution. My ministerial colleague, Lord Ahmad, discussed human rights and accountability with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister and the high commissioner in November and December respectively. We have spoken with Sri Lankan officials and with Geneva over the last week on these very issues.

We on the Opposition Benches believe that the Government’s foreign policy should be rooted in our country’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law. Therefore, we deeply regret that in February 2020 the Sri Lankan Government withdrew from their Human Rights Council obligations to promote reconciliation and accountability following the country’s devastating civil war. More recently, the Sri Lankan Government have introduced forced cremation for covid-19 victims, a policy that has absolutely no basis in science, rides roughshod over the traditional practices of Sri Lankan religious minorities and has rightly caused hurt and outrage among Muslim and Christian communities across the UK. So I ask the Minister: what steps has he taken to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to end forced cremations, what work is he doing with international partners ahead of the next Human Rights Council session in March to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government re-engages with the peace, reconciliation and accountability process, and what discussions has he had about human rights in the context of UK-Sri Lankan trade deal negotiations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and he is right to raise it. We have shared guidance and scientific background with the Government of Sri Lanka on how the UK has ensured that burials can continue to operate in a safe format within the World Health Organisation guidelines. We also discussed, via my colleague Lord Ahmad, the importance of minority rights with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister in November. Our high commissioner to Sri Lanka has raised forced cremation several times with the Sri Lankans—most recently, just over a week ago. We continue to speak with Sri Lanka, and have done so within the last week, and with Geneva regarding its commitment to upholding this resolution. We are certainly committed to it, and we will continue that dialogue.