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Sri Lanka

Volume 729: debated on Monday 4 July 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support calls for an international inquiry into events in Sri Lanka during 2009.

My Lords, since the end of the military conflict, the United Kingdom and other members of the international community have consistently called for an independent, thorough and credible investigation into the allegations that war crimes were committed by both sides. We expect to see progress from the Sri Lankan Government by the end of the year. If there is no response, we will support the international community in considering the options available.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that the report of 40,000 civilians killed in the last month of the war and reports of other atrocities indicate that the position of the Sri Lankan Government is just not tenable and that these allegations need to be investigated fully and, if proven, the perpetrators brought to justice?

I certainly agree that hideous atrocities and crimes were committed. The UN panel report is very revealing, as are other reports. It is the view not just of the United Kingdom but, I think, of the whole international community that there is an essential need for the Sri Lankan Government and others to be open and prepared to examine the past in an open and unbiased way in order to find at least a basis on which better unity can be created in the future. The noble Lord is absolutely right that to try and bury these things in the past will lead to more suspicion and difficulty, and that is not the way forward.

My Lords, the previous Government are to be commended on appointing the right honourable Paul Murphy and Mr Chris McCabe, a former Northern Ireland Office official. It is hard to imagine a more diplomatic, courteous or experienced team. Despite that, President Rajapaksa and his Government showed no interest in engaging with them. Can my noble friend tell the House whether there is any improvement in relations between the Government of Sri Lanka and Her Majesty’s Government? If not, is it likely that we will be able to achieve any engagement and understanding, either directly or through Commonwealth colleagues, or will we have to resort to pressure from the international community, including the United Nations? How will we deliver the kind of inquiry that the noble Lord mentioned earlier in his reply?

We all very much hope that it will not go that way and that there will be an improvement in relations, which have not been good thanks to an attitude which seems determined to try to put up a wall, as it were, rather than embrace the opportunity that the UN panel report offers. Clearly we do need a clear inquiry. The so-called Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is at work and maybe it will be able to contribute to more openness. However, the pattern is not good, and I would be misleading my noble friend if I said that there had been much improvement recently; there has not.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister said about wanting substantial progress by the end of the year. If substantial progress has not been made, what is Her Majesty’s Government’s position on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting taking place in Sri Lanka in 2013? Is the Minister in conversation with other Commonwealth members about whether that should then take place?

Of course, this is a matter for discussion among Commonwealth members because it will come up for decision at the Heads of Government Meeting 2011 in Perth at the end of October. It is a concern. Our aim is to see that the Sri Lankan Government in Colombo live up to and reinforce the ideals and shared values of the Commonwealth and therefore prepare themselves for being a suitable host for the CHOGM in 2013. There is a long way to go, but that is what we are going to work for.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the Government have no jurisdiction over Sri Lanka, that there are many awful things that happen all over the world over which we have no jurisdiction, and that it might be more appropriate if Her Majesty’s Government dealt more effectively with the things that are going wrong within their jurisdiction rather than going on endlessly—as do other noble Lords—about matters that are outside the Government’s jurisdiction?

I see the theoretical and perfect logic of what my noble friend is saying, but the facts are the facts, and the facts are that there are large populations in London and elsewhere in this country that are intimately and politically concerned with this issue. If it goes badly wrong, it affects us all in our domestic arrangement as well. To debate whether it is inside or outside the jurisdiction is fine in theory but in practice, if that wonderful country of Sri Lanka continues to be deeply divided and is not able to heal the wounds of the past, that will directly affect us and our interests in a very precise way, regardless of whether we are juridically in charge or not.

Does the Minister agree that the recent decision of the UN Human Rights Council to block the recommendation of its commissioner to press for an international inquiry into Sri Lanka was disappointing if not shameful? Does he agree that we have a problem when so many of the world's most powerful emerging nations—here I am in contradiction to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—put protection of the principle of sovereignty above any state's duty to protect its citizens; and that we in the United Kingdom should use whatever influence we have as a nation to persuade these nations that sovereignty is not absolute and that all countries of the world share a common obligation of humanity to uphold human rights?

Those are very splendid sentiments with which I could not possibly disagree. There are a few practical issues to resolve before we can rise to those heights, but I fully appreciate what the noble Lord magnificently aspires to. The decision of the UN human rights commission was disappointing. The commission is not always able to meet the aspirations of those of us throughout the world who are concerned with human rights and the advance of civilisation.