Skip to main content

Sri Lanka

Volume 754: debated on Wednesday 2 July 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current action to resolve the dispute between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil community.

My Lords, we consistently urge the Sri Lankan Government to make progress on reconciliation and a political settlement between communities. We note that the 2013 Northern Provincial Council elections established a new Chief Minister for the heavily populated Tamil region. The Sri Lankan Government must ensure that all provincial councils can carry out their roles effectively. We encourage Sri Lanka to engage with the UN internal investigation into alleged violations of international law as a contribution to reconciliation.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s assessment of the positive actions taken by the Sri Lankan Government in implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, particularly in regard to demining, the resettlement and rehabilitation of Tamils, infrastructure development and steps taken to improve the education and health of people in Northern and Eastern Provinces? As Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom are founder members of the Commonwealth, will Her Majesty’s Government help in utilising the framework of the Commonwealth to establish a domestic truth and reconciliation commission to address the alleged human rights violations in the country?

I thank my noble friend for his question. Of course, we have welcomed progress made, including on infrastructure development and demining, but we remain concerned that the Sri Lankan Government’s national plan of action to implement the recommendations only partially covered the full range of recommendations and that, in turn, action taken by the Sri Lankan Government only partially corresponds to some of those recommendations. We agree with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that the Sri Lankan Government have not established a credible independent domestic investigation into allegations of violations of international law on both sides of the military conflict, and that this is fundamentally a question of political will. This is despite the UK and others calling for such an investigation since 2009. As a result, the UN Human Rights Council has passed a resolution that establishes an international investigation, which we strongly support.

My Lords, the setting up of the United Nations investigative team is very good, if rather belated, news. However, there are reports that the Sri Lankan Government are refusing to co-operate with the investigation. Will the Minister comment on that? The recent deaths of three Sri Lankan Muslims and one Tamil at the hands of the Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena is a worrying development. What representations are Her Majesty’s Government making to the Sri Lankan Government about this particular outrage?

We have encouraged the Sri Lankan Government to co-operate with the UN human rights commissioner’s international investigation, and we have seen some of the statements that have come out of Sri Lanka which suggest that the position is otherwise. However, we believe that the UN’s independent investigation has a strong team. As the noble Lord will be aware, people such as Martti Ahtisaari, Silvia Cartwright and Asma Jahangir—the phenomenal human rights campaigner in Pakistan—have been appointed to this investigating committee. We hope that, despite the Sri Lankan Government’s not co-operating, the committee will produce a good and strong international investigation. As for the recent tensions, of course we are concerned about the actions of Bodu Bala Sena. Our representatives at the British High Commission in Sri Lanka met with the group last year to raise our concerns in relation to the anti-Muslim violence. But they have met also, in relation to other minorities, with the Sri Lankan Government.

Will the Minister, who has just brought the attention of the House to the very high-level names who have been put in charge of this inquiry, agree that our Government should make clear to the Sri Lankan Government that their refusal to deal with this inquiry is not acceptable; that the people who have now been appointed to it are very objective and very experienced people; and that we hope that they will reconsider their position? Is that point being made clear?

We will continue to make that point throughout the investigation. It is in Sri Lanka’s interests to co-operate fully. The reason we find ourselves in this position is that the internal investigations did not do what they said they would do. This is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to truly meet its commitment to reconciliation.

My Lords, in justifying the Government’s attendance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last November in Colombo, the noble Baroness said:

“We will deliver an incredibly tough message to the Sri Lankan Government that they need to make concrete progress on human rights, reconciliation and political settlement”.—[Official Report, 22/10/13; col. 888.]

In view of the lack of progress that has just been noted on all sides of the House, does the noble Baroness think that, with hindsight, an even tougher message might have been delivered if the Government had not turned up at that Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and there might have been more progress?

I have a lot of respect for the noble Lord, but I fundamentally disagree with everything he said. It was right for the Prime Minister to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. It was right to make those tough messages be heard in-country in Sri Lanka. It was right for the Prime Minister to visit regions in Sri Lanka and make his point. It was right that, because of that visit, we built the international momentum which resulted in the Human Rights Council resolution.

My Lords, may I return to the violence in Aluthgama? I am very grateful for my noble friend’s earlier answer, but I wonder if there has been any progress on arrests for this particularly horrible violence—which resulted not just in three dead and 80 injured but in a mosque and virtually every property of Muslims in that town being torched. While it is good that President Rajapaksa has promised to rebuild damaged property with his support, I think that the community would much prefer to hear that the perpetrators have been caught and what the Government will do to prevent such violence in the future.

I note what the noble Baroness says. The violence in Aluthgama and Beruwala was deeply concerning, and she is right: there were not only fatalities but a huge amount of further damage. Of course we welcome the Sri Lankan Government’s assurances that they will investigate the attacks and prosecute those responsible. I am not sure what the latest situation is, but if there is any up-to-date information, I will certainly write to her.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the All-Party Group on Sri Lanka. Does my noble friend recognise that the imposition by the United Nations of an inquiry on a sovereign state—an imposition engineered by the US and supported by the UK—would not be likely to be well received in any country, particularly a country which has a democratically elected Government across all the ethnic groups? The vast majority of Sri Lankans supported the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. I urge my noble friend to think again and to encourage her Government to push the Sri Lankans on a one-to-one basis and to set aside a forced inquiry from the UN.

I hear what my noble friend says, but this conflict ended in May 2009, which is more than five years ago. The internal inquiry reported in March 2011. The Sri Lankans have had enough time to deal with this matter if they had showed the political will internally to do so. They have not dealt with it, which is why we have taken this matter to the international forum.