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Sri Lanka

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 13 July 2022

(Urgent Question) To ask the Foreign Secretary if she will make a statement on the state of emergency declared in Sri Lanka.

We are closely monitoring the fast-moving and fluid political, economic and security situation in Sri Lanka. The Minister of State with responsibility for south Asia, Lord Ahmad, has engaged directly with our high commissioner and team on the ground. We encourage all sides to find a peaceful, democratic and inclusive approach to resolving the current political and economic challenges. Sri Lanka’s political and economic challenges should be resolved through an inclusive and cross-party process. Any transition of power should be peaceful, constitutional and democratic. I call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.

A state of emergency has been declared in Sri Lanka by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe after President Rajapaksa fled the country last night. That follows weeks of protests on the island, with inflation running at more than 50%, rocketing the price of everyday goods. The health system is on the verge of collapse due to a lack of medicine. There is no fuel for essential transport services and medical vehicles. There have been power cuts, school closures and we woke this morning to protestors overtaking the Prime Minister’s office, tear gas fired by police, a curfew imposed on the capital and the national TV broadcast suspended.

This is a crisis in democracy decades in the making. The world turned away when the Rajapaksa Government cluster bombed their own people committing genocide, murdered their journalists and enriched a small group led by one family. Their malign, dynastic control has stripped the country bare, leaving behind a broken nation on the brink of economic collapse. Sri Lanka is unable to buy essential goods from abroad and for the first time in its history it failed to make a payment on its foreign debt, a consequence of swingeing populist tax cuts at a time of economic instability—Tory leadership candidates beware.

An International Monetary Fund bailout is essential, but does the Minister agree that any financial assistance must go hand in hand with democratic and human rights reforms, in particular for the Tamil community which continues to fight for truth, justice and accountability as a result of the human rights abuses perpetrated at the end of the civil war by the outgoing Rajapaksa regime?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. As I say, we have been monitoring this very fast-moving and fluid political, economic and security situation. As she did, we urge a peaceful and democratic transition in line with the constitution and the rule of law. The Minister with responsibility for south Asia has been thoroughly engaged with the team on the ground in the high commission. I stress that he visited Sri Lanka earlier this year and met a range of civil society groups specifically to discuss the human rights situation. At that time, he met Ministers, including the President and the Foreign Minister, and urged them to take steps to improve human rights, and to deliver justice and accountability following the conflict. I reassure the House that we are closely monitoring the situation on the ground, which is very fast moving and fluid.

I find it a pity that some people are seeking to use this urgent question to criticise the current Government in Sri Lanka. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) can chunter from a sedentary position, but the elephant in the room is not the governance of Sri Lanka; it is the decision in 2019 to become an organic country within 10 years. That has led to food shortages and overseas remittances not being returned. The problem in Sri Lanka is that there is no food for people to eat. The UK Government need to assist Sri Lanka and agencies to ensure that food, fuel and other supplies are provided. We need to come to a Commonwealth country in its time of great crisis, not make silly political statements.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As I say, we are monitoring the situation very closely. In answer to one of the points both he and the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made, economic support from the UK is forthcoming through multilateral institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. The UK is the joint fifth-largest shareholder in the IMF and is a major contributor to the UN and the World Bank.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the urgent question on this emerging situation, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who is a longstanding and consistent friend of Sri Lanka.

As we speak, Sri Lanka is convulsed by political and economic crisis. Months of mounting economic difficulties and political mismanagement have led to a chronic shortage of basic goods and medicines, and large numbers of people on the streets demanding systemic change to the political system. Reports now indicate that President Rajapaksa has fled to the Maldives in a military jet, rather than resigning and facing the consequences, leaving the country in political paralysis and the announcement of a state of emergency.

I sincerely hope that a new Government with popular support can be swiftly formed. From past evidence, we know that the Sri Lankan people have experienced extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses. The fear is that the chaos and the latest announcement may lead to increases in community tensions, reprisals or further examples of human rights abuses. It is a member of the Commonwealth family and that would be completely unacceptable. I am unimpressed by the Minister’s response to date and by the fact that, although this urgent question was tabled for her boss, the Foreign Secretary, we instead have a response from another Minister—a pattern that is emerging in Parliament this week. It is clear that the Sri Lankan people will need our help quickly—not only in the days and weeks ahead as they grapple with chronic shortages and political instability, but in the months and years beyond—to secure a brighter and more stable future.

I have two brief questions. First, the Minister will know that I wrote to her on 29 June asking for a response to the emerging situation. This is not new—it has been bubbling away for two or three weeks—and yet I have not had a response to my inquiry. Will she give the House the courtesy of a reply and confirm that, on her return to the office, she will have officers draft a response that reflects the updated situation overnight?

Secondly, will the Minister outline the more immediate support offered to Sri Lanka, the engagement with partners in the region, including India, and whether the Government will now redouble their efforts to bring to justice those implicated in human rights abuses in Sri Lanka? We have this unique opportunity not only to support an ally, a friend and a member of the Commonwealth during their time of need, but to help to bring peace, justice and a brighter and more sustainable future to the Sri Lankan people.

Order. I remind Members—I have said this before—that if they go over time, I will cut them off. Please stick to the allocated time. We grant urgent questions on those grounds.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box to answer this question. Frankly, I answer many questions on behalf of the Foreign Office, so it is not very unusual to find me at the Dispatch Box for an urgent question.

I am more than happy to respond to the hon. Lady’s letter after the debate. I will not go over many of the things that I have said before. I will say that there are a number of stories relating to the situation on the ground, and I do not want to speculate. The situation is fast-moving and fluid, and we are monitoring it very closely. The Minister responsible for South Asia, Lord Ahmad, has been working very closely on this matter and does raise human rights issues.

Clearly, the dire economic situation forced by ex-President Rajapaksa and his outfit lies at the heart of what is going on in Sri Lanka. Given Sri Lanka’s indebtedness to China and the prospect of cheap fuel from Russia, does the Minister agree that the risk is that Sri Lanka stands every chance of falling within the maw of malign jurisdictions? Will she therefore do everything in her power to ensure that the International Monetary Fund is engaged to try to sort this out, particularly given that part of the issue would appear to be uncosted, unfunded, populist and inflationary tax cuts from 2019 that I am sure the IMF will take a very severe view of?

I reassure my right hon. Friend that UK economic support is forthcoming through multilateral institutions such as the IMF.

Sri Lanka is a wonderful place with wonderful people, and I am sure that all our hearts go out to them during this terrible crisis, which, as Members have said, has been a long time in the making. A concerted international effort is needed to get through the immediate humanitarian crisis. The UN humanitarian needs and priorities plan has called for $47.2 million in short-term emergency aid. I appreciate that the Minister might not give us a number today, but will she confirm that the UK will contribute to that?

The President has fled, but he cannot flee accountability. Does the Minister agree that the President and all his officials who are complicit in acts of humanitarian abuses will and must be held accountable, and will the UK contribute to those efforts?

On the wider point, this situation was triggered by economics, as we have heard, with inflation at 54% last month and likely to be 70% this month. That is a terrible cost of living crisis for ordinary Sri Lankans, and it was triggered in part by unmanageable debt. The UK is in an important position in the IMF and the World Bank. This does not just apply to Sri Lanka; I fear that other countries are having trouble with unmanageable debt. What talks has the Minister had on that?

On humanitarian support, I reassure the hon. Member that we remain very concerned about the impact of the economic and political situation on the humanitarian crisis. We are working with the United Nations and its agencies in co-ordinating their humanitarian needs and priorities plan.

On accountability, as Sri Lanka enters a new political settlement, the UK will maintain its advocacy of the importance of justice and accountability for alleged war crimes and human rights violations during the war. That remains crucial to building on peacebuilding efforts, supported through the United Nations Human Rights Council process, and for social cohesion.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this urgent question. I agree that this horrible, appalling situation for the people of Sri Lanka has been brought about by the corruption of the Rajapaksa Government, their populist, unfunded tax cuts, their sky-rocketing defence expenditure, their draconian police powers and their cronyism and corruption, the likes of which we have rarely seen. I therefore urge the Minister to work with international partners for a full economic and political solution to support the democrats in Sri Lanka. Can that start with an economic package, with the IMF and others, so that we can give immediate support, and can that be followed by a political package that includes an international arrest warrant for President Rajapaksa and his cronies? Can that also include a demand for political freedom and respect for the rights and human rights of everyone on the island of Sri Lanka, including the Tamil and Muslim minorities?

I reiterate that the political and economic challenges should be resolved through an inclusive and cross-party process. We encourage all sides to find a peaceful, democratic and inclusive approach, and we work with our international partners on this matter. I have set out the economic support that we have provided through multilateral institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the UN.

There is a large diaspora of Sri Lankan people who live here and who are desperately worried about their family back in Sri Lanka. The Minister has made no mention of the Prime Minister’s involvement. At the end of this urgent question, will she ask the Prime Minister to pick up the phone to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and ask him to stop firing at innocent people?

I completely understand the point that the right hon. Lady is making about the fact that there is a diaspora here who are concerned about their families. I reassure the House that the Minister responsible for South Asia, Lord Ahmad, is in regular dialogue with the high commission and the team on the ground in order to keep an up-to-date view of the situation, which, after all, is incredibly fluid and fast-moving.

When David Cameron was Prime Minister, he visited Sri Lanka in 2013. After that, the UK, with Sri Lanka, jointly moved a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council setting out a mechanism for resolving the legacy of the issues that we have heard about. Sri Lanka has largely ignored its obligations under that resolution since then, and it has not even paid lip service to them in the past three years. Will it be a requirement of the medium-term support that will be needed for Sri Lanka that it comes back into compliance with its obligations under the decisions of the UNHRC?

Through our leadership in the UN Human Rights Council process, we have been encouraging Sri Lanka to respect democratic and international human rights standards as it makes its political transition. In March this year, the UK Government and our core group of partners led an ambitious new resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC.[Official Report, 14 July 2022, Vol. 718, c. 5MC.]

Thousands of Tamils in my constituency are deeply concerned. They look back to 2013, when the coalition Government supported the move to hold the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka; and they look back to the measures that the UK Government took, as part of the European Union, to reinstate the generalised scheme of preferences plus, and to give trade preferences back to Sri Lanka. The Opposition advised against it all at the time, saying that the Government in Sri Lanka were no more than a kleptocracy. That has now been proven. The Minister needs to outline the measures that she will take to support a new, strong, inclusive and democratic Government in that state.

I think I have been clear throughout that we encourage all sides to find that peaceful, democratic and inclusive approach to resolving the situation. I stress to the House that the Minister for South Asia has been doing exactly that. He has been calling for that approach, but also engaging on the ground with the high commission and through all his ministerial contacts.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure that you, and indeed the Minister, would agree that dismissing any woman’s urgent question in this House as “silly” is disrespectful to the subject matter in hand, because we all recognise how serious the situation is.

The hon. Member may chunter from a sedentary position, but the women are talking now. We are talking about human rights because many of us recognise that, as the United Nations has told us, potentially more than 100,000 Tamils were killed during the 26-year genocide. The Minister will know that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has been investigating the matter. Further to the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) asked, there is due to be a report and further criticism after the resolution at the United Nations. Can the Minister tell us whether she has had any talks with the United Nations about whether the timetable will vary? When might our constituents finally see justice for the Tamil communities?

Given the situation on the ground, it is a very serious matter. We are seeing deeply concerning scenes, so I am more than happy to be at the Dispatch Box answering this question. As I have said throughout, we are concerned about the human rights environment in Sri Lanka. Our concerns are wide-ranging, from the harassment of civil society groups to the range of civilian functions being brought under military control, the increased anti-Muslim sentiment and the reversal of progress on post-conflict accountability and reconciliation. I reassure the House that we lead the way with the UNHRC process and that we encourage Sri Lanka to respect democratic and international human rights standards.

As we have heard today, Sri Lanka is a Commonwealth country, and there are very deep community ties to many towns and cities across the UK; I pay tribute to the local Sri Lankan community in Berkshire. The Minister has committed to writing to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). In her response, will she set out, in some detail, what the UK will do to support the IMF process; the bilateral aid of any type that we can offer; and our action on potential human rights matters?

I will, of course, write to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) after this urgent question. What I would say is that we are well within the timeframe for responding to the letter itself.

The human rights abuses of the Sri Lankan police force have been well documented. It has been clear from their response to the widespread protests that their unacceptable treatment of people in Sri Lanka, particularly the Tamil community, and their draconian powers have been a key contributor to the current unrest. The UK Government have been funding police training in Sri Lanka, despite clear evidence of these abuses. Can the Minister confirm whether the police and security forces involved in the response to the protests have received funding from the UK Government? Will she commit to ending that funding as soon as possible?

The UK’s police training in Sri Lanka has focused on the role of women in the police service and on improving responses to sexual and gender-based violence. Police Scotland has confirmed that it will not seek to participate in any future programmes in Sri Lanka.

Does the Minister agree that the UK Government must play a role in the peaceful transition to a democratically elected Government in Sri Lanka who are inclusive and who allow for the self-determination of all peoples on the island of Sri Lanka? Will the UK Government make representations to the effect that the new Sri Lankan Government must be formed with a new constitution that is pluralist and ensures long-term stability, prosperity and self-determination for all communities on the island? Crucially, once that Government have been formed, they must ratify the Rome statute so that accountability for the mass atrocities and the alleged genocide can finally be agreed.

As I have said a number of times, we encourage all sides to find a peaceful, democratic and inclusive approach. We urge that the transition be in line with the constitution and the rule of law.

It has been reported that doctors in Sri Lanka have had to resort to using social media to source critical medicine and equipment. Will the UK Government provide any support for the nation’s medical community to help ensure that Sri Lankans can access urgent medical treatment when it is needed?

I would like to reassure the hon. Lady that we are providing humanitarian support for those in Sri Lanka.

I thank the Minister for her response. What aid can the Government make available to those who rely on tourism for their income and who are now starving? That seems to be the story at the moment. What contact has been made to ascertain whether non-governmental organisations or churches can help? I know of many church groups in my constituency that have the capacity to distribute aid to those who are not involved in the unrest but who are watching their children starve because of what is happening on the streets of Sri Lanka.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Minister for South Asia met a number of civil society groups and NGOs earlier in the year, when he visited Sri Lanka.

What the Minister may not know is that Tory MP after Tory MP has taken trips funded by the Rajapaksa Government to this very troubled island. As a result, there has always been a striking lack of criticism of the Rajapaksa Government on human rights and governance. I do hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House that the Foreign Office had absolutely no involvement at all in the escape of Mr Rajapaksa from Sri Lanka. Can she also reassure the House that if the people of Sri Lanka want him back to face trial for corruption and poor governance, Britain will play its role in helping to get him back from the Maldives?

I am really disappointed by the nature of that question. I am here at the Dispatch Box because what we want is a peaceful, democratic and inclusive approach; we talked earlier about people who are worried about their family in Sri Lanka. We have been calling for restraint and for refraining from violence, so I am just not going to accept that question.