Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the progress made by the coalition government of Sri Lanka in meeting the requirements on reconciliation established by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
My Lords, I declare an interest: I started the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka in 1975 and am currently its president. I have known Sri Lanka for over 50 years.
I believe the UK has a unique role to play in the future of Sri Lanka, but we need to understand the history behind the current situation. In the 11th century AD Tamil Cholas invaded Sri Lanka and took over the north and north-east. Understandably, the Sinhalese were left with the remainder. Then there was colonisation by the Portuguese, the Dutch and then of course the UK. The British left behind a very good civil service; unfortunately, it was not spread across the two main denominations. It was dominated by the Tamils, who looked after the civil service and indeed the professions. On independence, sadly, this position was somewhat resented by the Sinhalese, and they passed the Sinhalese official language Act.
There remained some smouldering resentment from 1948 right through to around 1973. The Tamil youth have been activated by two people in particular. One is Mr Balasingham, a British citizen after Mr Blair’s Government gave him that, and the other is a man called Prabhakaran, a single-minded ruthless activist. In 1973 Prabhakaran killed the mayor of Jaffna, along with six soldiers whose bodies were brought to Colombo. There was a resentful response from the Sinhalese youth; very sadly it was three days before a curfew was brought in, and well over 1,000 Tamils were killed. From then on it has been a situation of Eelam, the independent state, on one side versus the unitary state of Sri Lanka on the other.
Fast forward to 18 May 2009. The Tamil Tiger terrorists are defeated in a military solution, and after nearly 30 years of war there is peace across the whole island, as there is today. This is followed by a presidential election in January 2015 when President Sirisena is elected to head a coalition Government. The platform of that Government was to achieve reconciliation, ensure a durable peace, promote and protect human rights, uphold the rule of law and strengthen good governance and democracy. Out of that flowed UN Resolution 30/1 of 1 October 2015.
I visited Sri Lanka last February. Eight months on it is quite clear to me, from the context that I have, that the Government are addressing all the issues raised in the UN resolution. It may be taking longer than some would wish but that is life, I think. I shall highlight three. The first is missing persons. A massive amount of time and effort was put into the Paranagama commission, set up by the previous Rajapaksa Government, identifying some 20,000 missing persons and actually following up 10,000 of them. To this can be added the superb work done by the ICRC.
The good news is that a commissioner and a department are now set up, and in passing I pay tribute to the enormous hard work putting by Sir Desmond de Silva and his two colleagues. Sri Lanka must be eternally grateful that men of their wisdom and experience have got this task moving in the first place.
On prevention of terrorism, there is acceptance that a new Act is needed—there was in February. I cannot understand why it is taking quite so long to get it on the statute book. The constitution is being debated—the good news is that the leading Tamil party is actively taking part—and the problem of devolution is being addressed. However, the West needs to understand that the East cannot necessarily produce a mirror image of a western structure.
In passing, I pay considerable tribute to Halo and its Sri Lankan operatives, along with the Indians, Canadians and the Sri Lankan army, for clearing a square metre a day of ground, which makes it possible for families to return to the land.
What is not on track and needs urgent attention is the war crimes allegations hanging over the country. These flow from the Darusman report, which, on a best-guess basis, two years after the end of the war, stated,
“there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths”,
but then guessed at 40,000. This figure is bandied about by virtually every human rights organisation and the thousands of Tamil diaspora throughout the world, many of whom were LTTE Tamil Tiger supporters and still are, inflamed by Tamil Net and those ghastly Channel 4 “Killing Fields” films, which so influenced the previous Prime Minister.
I have discovered an unpublished report from the United Nations country team, which stated that from August 2008 up to 13 May 2009, the number of civilians killed was 7,721. The war ended six days later, so it cannot possibly have got up to 40,000. Then I looked at what Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesman said. He produced an estimate in 2009 of 7,000 civilian deaths. He also made the simple observation that, for the Sri Lankan army, it made no tactical sense to kill civilians. University Teachers for Human Rights is not exactly a right-wing organisation; in fact, it is probably on the far left. It had similar figures, and commented that from what happened it could not say that the purpose of bombing or shelling by government forces was to kill civilians. It also said that ground troops took great trouble not to harm civilians.
The Sri Lankan Government’s census department—a very genuine department— issued an in-depth census leading to the conclusion that 7,000 to 8,000 were missing. US Ambassador Blake stated on 7 April that there were deaths of 4,164 from 20 January to 6 April. Major General Holmes in his expert military report of March 2015 concurs with 7,000 to 8,000. Above all, all the people I have cited state that there was no policy to kill civilians—in fact, the opposite. To these I add the British defence attaché, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Gash, who said to me in January 2009 that he was surprised at the controlled discipline and success of the Sri Lankan army and in particular the care that it was taking to encourage civilians to escape and how well they were looked after, and that certainly there was no policy to kill civilians. There could not be a better military man: he is knowledgeable, independent and would be authoritative about what happened in his reports in his dispatches. So I decided to make a freedom of information submission to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office concerning those dispatches in the period 1 January to 19 May 2009. The original submission went in on 6 November, but was rejected. Two appeals to higher authorities at the Foreign Office were rejected, so I appealed to the Information Commissioner—with more success. She listened and, as a result of her representations, 26 pages of heavily redacted dispatches were sent me. Obviously, I looked at them with some care. I challenged the lack of dispatches in the last two months. Amazingly, another 12 pages appeared, all redacted.
Still concerned about the lack of dispatches in the past few days, I made a final appeal to the First-tier Tribunal, assisted my very good friend Amal Abeywardene. We had the sympathy of the judges for the cause, but they accepted the Foreign Office view that if confidential information was given out, nobody in future would give us any more. So I now have the princely sum of 39 pages of heavily redacted dispatches—nevertheless, if you dig deeply, as in life, you find some real gems. For example, on 28 January:
“It is not possible to distinguish civilians from LTTE cadres as few are in uniform”.
Then, from 16 February:
“IDPs being cared for in Trincomalee. Welfare appears to be overriding security considerations”.
Then on 20 January they say,
“no cluster munitions were used”,
and on 26 April,
“civilians killed Feb 1-April 26—6432”.
I hope and pray that, as a result of this debate, the UK will recognise the truth that no one in the Sri Lankan Government ever wanted to kill Tamil civilians. Furthermore, the UK must now get the UN and the UNHCR in Geneva to accept a civilian casualty level of 7,000 to 8,000, not 40,000. On top of that, the UK must recognise that this was a war against terrorism, so the rules of engagement are based on international humanitarian law, not the European Convention on Human Rights. The West, and in particular the US and UK, must remove the threat of war crimes and foreign judges that overhangs and overshadows all Sri Lankans, especially their leaders. We in the UK should reflect on the sacrifices of thousands of young Sri Lankan soldiers who died to create peace in that country. Finally, I reflect that Sri Lanka came to our need in two world wars and had casualties, and it was one of just a handful of countries who supported the UK over the Falklands. Now is the time to offer the hand of friendship and act to lead the international community to recognise what the truth really was.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Naseby for securing this debate—and I declare an interest as project director for the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka in 2013 helped to focus international attention on the human rights failures of previous Sri Lankan Governments, and the decision of the then Prime Minister David Cameron to attend was, I submit, correct as this international spotlight helped to form part of the driving forces that secured a peaceful transition of power in January and August 2015. Resolution 30/1 of the Human Rights Council came after this democratic transition of power, which saw an alliance of moderates from within the two largest parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party, form a ruling coalition. The resolution stresses the importance of protecting the human rights of all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnic and religious identity. That of course includes the right to freedom of religion and belief, as outlined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN Sri Lankan Peacebuilding Priority Plan also stresses the importance of promoting and protecting the human rights of vulnerable peoples.
It is important to recognise the often underappreciated significance of religion to the conflict and the peace process in Sri Lanka. As Dr Rajesh Venugopal of the London School of Economics argues, both Tamil and Sinhalese national identities are bound to Hinduism and Buddhism respectively. Sri Lanka is one of only seven Buddhist majority countries in the world, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos and Mongolia, being the other six. Around 70% of the population identify as Buddhist. However, the country has sizeable religious minorities, with 12.6% identifying as Hindu, 9.7% as Muslim and 7.6% as Christian. Although Tamils are largely Hindu, it is less well known that Muslims and Christians are often seen as outsiders by both the Government and the Tamil militants, thereby suffering at the hands of both. As the Asia Foundation’s Sri Lanka Strategic Assessment 2016 argues, religious violence and hatred serves as a major barrier to securing a long-term peaceful Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan constitution currently protects freedom of religion or belief, in Article 10 of Chapter III, and the right to worship individually or as a group, in Article 14(1)(e) of Chapter III. However, under the previous Government, freedom of religion and belief was eroded because of the tacit acceptance by the state of extreme Buddhist sects which propagate an exclusive image of Sri Lankan identity as solely Buddhist, with non- Buddhists as “others”, whose loyalty and citizenship should be in question. Ultra-nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist organisations, such as Bodu Bala Sena, were able to spread hatred towards both Muslims and Christians with impunity. In April 2014, BBS raided an interfaith press conference and no action was taken by the authorities. Also in 2014, there was a nationwide BBS anti-halal campaign, which contributed to the toxic environment of religious hatred and, arguably, to the anti-Muslim Aluthgama riots, during which at least four people were killed, 80 injured and 10,000 displaced. The then Government responded by ordering a media blackout and, at the Human Rights Council in June that year, blamed Muslims for the riots.
There is evidence, however, of a change in the response to such events. On 26 September—less than a month ago—a mob of hard-line nationalists led by Buddhist monks attacked a UN shelter for Rohingya Muslim refugees in Colombo. The Cabinet spokesman, Rajitha Senaratne, was unequivocal in his condemnation the following day, saying:
“As a Buddhist I am ashamed at what happened … this is not what Buddha taught”.
The refugees were quickly moved to a safe location and the Government have now arrested nine people. It is so good—but all too unusual—to hear of such prompt action by a Government that had previously stood by and watched. I am grateful to Dr Rajesh Venugopal from LSE for bringing this to my attention.
Secondly, the change in government has shown a marked decrease in violence towards Christians. A report published by Verité in 2015 highlighted that the average number of attacks carried out against Christians had declined from one every week between 1994 and 2014 to roughly one every two weeks since 2015. This is, again, a change to be commended. But Sri Lanka has also faced challenges over the practice of conversion, with many religious groups complaining of Buddhists and Hindus being converted to Christianity through alleged material and spiritual inducements. In 2015, the opposition JHU put forward a Bill that would have contravened international standards on the right of people to convert. It is another encouraging sign that Sri Lanka was able to protect the individual’s right to freedom of religion and belief and to change religion by resisting such draconian legislation.
Can the Minister confirm whether Her Majesty’s Government have taken this opportunity to make positive representations to the Sri Lankan Government, commending their response to this most recent attack on Rohingya refugees, and confirm if they have considered whether this example beginning to be set by Sri Lanka of a Buddhist majority Government working to protect religious minorities could become best practice to promote? Such encouragement is crucial because the Sri Lankan Government still have much ground to cover to tackle the remaining significant structural and societal challenges to sustained religious harmony in Sri Lanka. A Minority Rights Group report in 2016 sadly found that harassment and intimidation of both Muslims and Christians, although decreasing—as I have outlined—was still commonplace. While the new Government restricted the space for groups such as BBS, it has continued to spread vicious hatred towards Muslims online. Between November 2015 and September 2016, there were 14 incidents in which Christian establishments were forced to close by local officials using the unconstitutional 2008 government circular, which stipulated that new places of worship must be approved by the then Ministry of Religious Affairs. The MRG report has also shown that local police and local officials still often refuse to record the complaints of or assist Christian pastors and communities who have been harassed by Buddhist extremists.
The excellent work begun by the Sri Lankan Government to foster religious unity, freedom and tolerance, although incomplete, should be supported. At present, outside of disaster relief, DfID has only one active programme in Sri Lanka, which is of course focused on removing landmines. This is clearly important, but there is a need to support the Sri Lankan Government’s effort to confront these elements of Buddhist extremism. I would be grateful to know from my noble friend whether looking at this Buddhist extremism is part of Her Majesty’s Government’s counterextremism work within the FCO. Sadly, such erroneous theology is part of the backdrop to the recent plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and urgently needs addressing.
As Jonathan Goodhand of SOAS argues, religious leaders in Sri Lanka are ideally placed to cross political, ethnic and religious boundaries to promote a culture of inclusivity and tolerance. Successful interfaith projects, such as Equitas supported by the Canadian Government, reach over 3,000 people and conduct vital research into the issues faced by religious minorities in Sri Lanka. Similarly, the Karuna Centre for Peacebuilding, with US government support, brings together over 80 Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian religious leaders in Sri Lanka’s troubled eastern province to build trust and common ground as peacebuilders. I am not naive: there are still grave problems and much needs to be done. However, I know that my noble friend the Minister is passionate about freedom of religion and belief, and it is encouraging to report the emergence of some rare good news in that country. Therefore, I hope my noble friend can outline whether staff from DfID or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy will visit these projects to see whether we can establish programmes using best practice. As I say, perhaps such best practice programmes are transferable or useful in the context of what we are seeing in Myanmar and other countries.
My Lords, I also congratulate very warmly the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on this debate and on his very comprehensive opening speech.
I have only visited Sri Lanka once, after the tsunami left its tragic aftermath of death, destruction and devastation. However, I am aware of the help that the noble Lord and his medically qualified wife provided in January 2005, when I believe they rushed out to help those suffering from the tsunami. I presume that is one of the reasons why he was awarded the Sri Lanka Ratna in November of that year. I quote briefly from the citation:
“This is the highest honour of the country conferred on non-nationals. It is awarded for exceptionally outstanding and most distinguished service to Sri Lanka”.
I am also aware, of course, of the noble Lord’s Oral Questions and, having listened to his speech this afternoon, I must admit that I admire his persistence in the use of the Freedom of Information Act to extract the dispatches from the Foreign Office.
Although I do not know the current situation and issues in Sri Lanka in detail, I am well aware of the challenges any country faces in a post-conflict situation. I knew that the President made a speech to the UN on 19 September, which I read with great interest. The speech reflected the topic of the 72nd session of the General Assembly:
“Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life on a Sustainable Planet”.
As the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, has already highlighted, Sri Lanka has suffered greatly from nearly 30 years of civil war, which ended on 18 May 2009. In January 2015, President Sirisena was elected and formed, for the first time in Sri Lanka’s history, a coalition Government of the two main parties. I would like briefly to refer to issues and quotations from his speech, which I found both moving and relevant.
First, having acknowledged the fact that the executive presidency in Sri Lanka had been invested with more power than that invested in any other political leader in the democratic world, he gave a commitment to shed some of these powers and to transfer them to Parliament—surely a commendable commitment. Secondly, he gave a commitment to promote the rights of women: for example, an amendment to the constitution to ensure that 25% of the list of candidates at elections should comprise women. Thirdly, in the context of genuine concerns over human rights abuses, the President gave a commitment,
“to strengthen national reconciliation, and ensure that all people living in my country, speaking different languages and of different religions are able to live in unity, without fear, suspicion, hatred and anger. We are determined to build a society where everyone is able to live with freedom and dignity as equal citizens. My Government is committed to achieve these ends in a holistic manner through the strengthening of the domestic economy and the creation of prosperity and taking steps to create a disciplined and righteous society. Consolidating the rule of law and righteousness are priorities to which my Government remains committed … Accordingly, we seek the respectful support of all, as we take steps in a progressive manner, to address allegations and implement resolutions, while protecting the independence and sovereignty of my country ... As a country which has suffered an almost 30-year-long conflict, I urge the respectful support of all, in ensuring the success of the journey we have embarked upon to unite the people who were torn by division in my country”.
I am not lacking in concern regarding the very serious problems and suffering which have afflicted so many of the citizens of Sri Lanka. Indeed, following my own visit after the tsunami, we wrote a report highlighting our concerns over grave violations of human rights, including freedom of religion and belief, and there have been recent reports from international human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group. However, the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, has put many of these concerns in context and, although remaining concerns need to be addressed, there has been progress, which is to be welcomed. Some indications of that were mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge.
In urging Her Majesty’s Government to offer a hand of friendship to Sri Lanka now, I will go off-piste for a moment but in a way which I think is not irrelevant. The United States is currently lifting sanctions against the Government of Sudan—an initiative supported by the United Kingdom—while the Government in Khartoum continue to oppress their own citizens in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, as well as perpetrate a catalogue of violations of the fundamental freedoms and human rights of their people elsewhere throughout the nation, with a President indicted by the International Criminal Court. I am not asking the Minister to comment on Sudan in this debate but I wish to put on record my concern that President al-Bashir has made no commitments similar to those made by the President of Sri Lanka.
I conclude with a final reference to the President of Sri Lanka, who appealed in his speech to the UN:
“I seek your support for the development efforts we have undertaken that are essential for the reconciliation efforts to succeed and ensure non-recurrence of conflict and our vision of a nation that is righteous, prosperous and democratic, to succeed, as an example to other countries that are also recovering from conflict”.
Therefore, I fully support the appeal made by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, to Her Majesty’s Government to offer a hand of friendship and appropriate support to Sri Lanka and its President as he seeks to implement his commitments to bring healing, hope and peace to a nation and a people who have suffered too much for too long. I hope the Minister will be able to offer some reassurance in his reply.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Naseby for bringing this important subject before your Lordships’ House. I am a friend of Sri Lanka. I have visited the country three times and met its leaders and other senior figures. I also enjoy a healthy long-standing relationship with its high commissioner in London. Here in Parliament, I am a vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka. I have raised issues relating to Sri Lanka on several occasions in your Lordships’ House. I believe that it is in the political and economic interests of the United Kingdom to maintain a close and productive relationship with Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka was torn apart by civil war. Conflict prevailed for 26 years and caused immeasurable suffering. An estimated 100,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more lost their homes. It has been eight years since the fighting ceased. People are now returning to their communities and attempting to rebuild their lives. In order for permanent peace to be achieved, the Sri Lankan Government are making the necessary reforms towards reconciliation. I am pleased that this is being done. However, they must ensure that all communities feel that proper and transparent justice has been served for the atrocities that took place. Until this happens, wounds cannot be fully healed.
It is important to note some of the specific positive measures that have already been taken by the Sri Lankan Government. A national policy on reconciliation and coexistence has been approved to serve as a framework to prevent conflict reoccurring. A task force has held public consultations to inform the development of new and transitional systems of justice and reparations. Powers have been devolved from the presidency to the Parliament, and presidential term limits have been reintroduced. Independent bodies have also been set up to maintain oversight of key public institutions, including the police and the judiciary. The security services are also being trained to fully comply with international human rights law, particularly with regard to people who have been arrested or detained. It is important that we applaud this progress and use it to provide further incentives for Sri Lanka to continue such momentum.
The European Union took this approach earlier this year, when it granted Sri Lanka enhanced market access status through the generalised scheme of preferences, which is commonly known as GSP+. This removes around two-thirds of import duties on Sri Lankan products entering the EU market. The EU Trade Commissioner stated that this was a vote of confidence that Sri Lanka will maintain its progress in implementing international conventions. She also mentioned that the situation was still unsatisfactory in many areas and that more work needed to be done.
Indeed, there is some concern that the progress of reform has slowed in recent months. Much more assertive efforts need to be made in a number of respects. Of particular concern are the tens of thousands of people who are still unaccounted for. Many people are still seeking the truth about what happened to their friends and family during the war. There are horrific accounts of people being forcibly removed from their homes by heavy-handed military or police officers. There are many allegations of human rights abuses on both sides. Whatever the truth, it is important that the allegations are investigated swiftly and with transparency. The integrity and impartiality of the judiciary will be crucial in this respect.
The Government recently introduced the Office of Missing Persons. This office will attempt to search and trace those who are missing and determine the circumstances in which they went missing. It is now important that progress is accelerated. I support the calls for Sri Lanka to produce a timetable for implementation of further reforms, particularly with regard to transitional justice mechanisms. There also needs to be much faster movement towards revising the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is viewed by many as a key cause of human rights abuses.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism visited Sri Lanka in July. His report stated that positive steps were being taken, but that Sri Lanka was still falling short on measures that would achieve long-term solutions and benefit all communities. Specifically, he said that he was encouraged by the Government’s zero tolerance of the use of torture, but that it had become so endemic in the security sector that it remained a little bit of a problem. In short, the Sri Lankan Government are trying to put—and seem committed to putting—the right policies in place. However, the level of fundamental change required in practice is proving somewhat difficult in some areas.
Last month, President Sirisena made an address to the United Nations. He spoke of the importance of protecting and strengthening democracy and of using power responsibly. He was also clear in his commitment to build a society that promotes true freedom and equality. He was equally clear on the need for support from the United Nations in order to fully achieve these aims. I received his speech as an acknowledgement of the work that still lies ahead, but also as a plea for respectful support from the international community. There was clearly a sense of caution that, if measures are imposed too heavily and hastily, there is a risk of destabilising progress. What was my noble friend the Minister’s reaction to this speech?
I must also mention the importance of economic prosperity for Sri Lanka. I held a debate in your Lordships’ House on increasing bilateral trade between the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. Trade can serve as a route to improve the financial position of many and can assist a country’s economic and social development. Sri Lanka has much to offer and I hope that we will look more closely at furthering our trading relationship with it, particularly as we look beyond Europe.
Since the conflict ended, successive Sri Lankan Governments have set a course for the island to become a major commercial maritime hub. I reiterate what I have said in your Lordships’ House with regard to trade with Sri Lanka. Britain should look carefully at the opportunities to exploit the rapidly changing economic landscape of this region. There are already about 100 British companies successfully operating in Sri Lanka in an environment that is already seen as one of the most liberalised economies in south Asia. Yet more rapid growth is expected, with an array of free trade agreements coming on stream to facilitate access to massively expanding Asian marketplaces. Sri Lanka should be seen as an excellent staging post for British businesses in the post-Brexit era to penetrate major markets from India to China. What positive action is being taken to accelerate trade between Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom?
Sri Lanka has undergone extreme turmoil and is still in the early stages of reconciliation. Peacebuilding is slow and often frustrating. The unity Government have made strides that were not possible just five years ago. We must recognise this and understand the fragile climate that still exists. I hope we can move forward with a policy of positive engagement, firm scrutiny and support for Sri Lanka. Finally, I would ask my noble friend how best we can achieve these objectives.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, for securing this debate. I am well aware that he has a long-standing interest in Sri Lanka, and he and I have taken part in similar debates in the past. I declare my interest in that I have similar antecedents to those of the noble Lord. I have visited Sri Lanka a number of time, particularly during the tsunami, when I was involved in one of the local relief projects. I was there a few years ago, when the civil war was raging, and I visited the country again when the war came to an end. My last visit gave me the opportunity at first hand to see and learn about the reconstruction, resettlement and reconciliation work in progress there.
I could go into the rise of the Tamil Tigers and the actions taken by the Rajapaksa Administration, but the noble Lord has accurately sketched out that particular aspect of the history and it will not serve a useful purpose for me to go into it. But we should recognise that much has happened since then. We have the report of the UN Secretary-General’s review panel on UN action in Sri Lanka, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the International Crisis Group report. We also have a new Government, faced with the task of rebuilding the confidence of the community in the new Administration, which includes addressing the grievances of Tamil and Muslim leaders about the excesses that took place during the war. This is not an easy task. Even today, there remain deeply held views about the war in Sri Lanka and its aftermath. These are to be found not only within the boundary of Sri Lanka but within the large Sri Lankan diaspora outside it. We have seen the evidence of this outside our own Parliament in the United Kingdom. The people you speak to and the replies you get give you some idea of the task facing the present Government.
This debate is not the place to confirm or deny what did or did not take place during the war, but it is nice to have the statistical information given by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. New statistical information is now available but we must accept that this and its rejection will continue to shape the debate for some time to come, and limited purpose will be served by it in making progress towards a stable and prosperous Sri Lanka. We have to move on, but the basis on which the country makes progress will be very much determined by how some of the issues are handled. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, highlights the way forward and we should take due note of his point of view.
Perhaps I may add at this stage that I was much encouraged by the speech of the President, His Excellency Sirisena, during the general debate at the UN General Assembly last month. The President was elected in January 2015. It is very interesting that, even before his election, he gave a pledge to remove excessive powers vested in the President and to entrust them to his Parliament. What a change that approach has made in power sharing with the communities in Sri Lanka. This was a crucial statement, as we all knew that the previous Administration had vested more power in the presidency than that enjoyed by any democratic institution, as explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.
The President stood by his words and today, rightly, accountability has been vested in an elected Parliament. The Executive can no longer ride roughshod over the will of Parliament. This exercise should build confidence among the communities in their elected leadership, as this action alone has succeeded in consolidating excessive power and autocratic governance. It is a great step forward. The President said,
“we have succeeded in our journey of re-establishing and restoring the freedom of the people, protecting human rights and nurturing fundamental rights”.
War is an ugly and nasty way of resolving grievances. After a three-decade-long conflict, there is now evidence that the Government are committed to taking steps on issues identified by the Human Rights Council. With evidence of progress in the implementation of 27 international conventions signed and ratified by Sri Lanka in areas of human rights, labour rights, sustainable development and good governance, the European Union restored GSP Plus status to Sri Lanka on 19 May 2017. That is indeed progress.
I shall quote the conclusion of a fact-finding mission by a team of senior EU officials undertaken in September 2017:
“The excellent cooperation by the Government is a reminder of how much the situation has changed in the country over the last two and a half years, including real advances in human rights”.
We are encouraged by the progress to date but we should ensure that complacency does not hinder further progress. Towards this end, I have a number of questions to put to the Minister.
On truth and reconciliation matters, have the Sri Lankan Government addressed ongoing regional and ethnic disparity, and how far have they succeeded in dealing with conflict-related justice? May we seek assurances on how far the Sri Lankan Government have reformed the security sector and criminal justice system in line with international standards, including around police accountability? How far have British foreign policy and international aid helped to promote liberal values of human rights and democracy in that part of the world, and who is monitoring the situation?
There are positive examples of how Sri Lanka has moved forward on certain issues and we should take note of them. The Government of Sri Lanka have now evolved a national human rights action plan through a wide consultative process, which has been approved by the cabinet. A number of UN thematic special procedures mandate holders have visited Sri Lanka since January 2015, something that would not have happened during the previous Administration. The matters of violation and abuses committed during the war, including the establishment of a credible justice system, are now under discussion by the Government.
The Right to Information Act, passed in June 2016, enables the family member of someone arrested or disappeared to access information on an expedited basis—that is quite a change from the problem the noble Lord has had in this country. Since June 2016, the president has issued directions requiring the armed forces and the police to ensure that the fundamental rights of persons arrested or detained are respected and individuals are treated humanely.
Steps are being taken to return land to its rightful owners. A draft counterterrorism Act has been approved by the Cabinet. We must not in any way put obstacles in the way of how these matters are being advanced.
In conclusion, we recognise the progress made. We are aware of the stable democratic process there. The debate is not to criticise the measures taken so far but simply to acknowledge that Sri Lanka paid a heavy price during the conflict years. This should never be allowed to happen again. The duty of any democracy is to protect its citizens—all citizens, irrespective of religion or ethnicity. I trust that Sri Lanka and its diaspora will play a crucial role in building a stable, democratic society.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, for initiating the debate and for his comprehensive introduction. As we have heard from all noble Lords, in 2009, Sri Lanka emerged from a brutal Tamil war of independence after 26 years of fighting and terrorism. Since the adoption of the Human Rights Commission resolution in 2015, the Sri Lankan coalition Government formed that year were expected to fulfil the recommendations of taking specific measures for institutional reform, justice, truth and reparations.
Although I hear the noble Lord’s optimism, I have to also acknowledge the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh. Last month, following a four-day visit, the UN’s special rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, found that the country’s judicial system and tolerance of torture is a,
“stain on the country’s international reputation”.
He warned that if government inertia over reform does not end, the authorities will have created,
“precisely the conditions likely to produce festering grievances, to foster unrest and even to reignite conflict”.
As we have heard, one of the key undertakings in the resolution was security sector reform, including repealing and replacing the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. I very much support the United Kingdom’s call on the Sri Lankan Government to deliver on its commitments laid out in the UN resolution at the Human Rights Council on 11 September. I welcome our Government’s actions in that respect.
President Sirisena held a meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, on the margins of the recent UN General Assembly. He was told by the commissioner to accelerate the pace of fulfilling all the obligations in the 2015 consensual resolution. However, President Sirisena argued that hastening the process would give an undue advantage to extremists and invited the high commissioner to visit Sri Lanka next year to see progress.
Noble Lords have highlighted the progress made and I do not want to undermine it. The president pointed out that he had signed the gazette notification operationalising the Office on Missing Persons before he left for the US. He also said that the draft Bill on a new constitution was presented to the Parliament—all good progress. The Sri Lankan Government also stated that all lands in the eastern province that were under the custody of the security forces had now been released and a considerable number of lands in the north, too, have already been released. For the rest of the lands, measures are being taken to resolve the administrative problems and these will also be released to people gradually.
But there still is a heavy military presence in the northern part of the country, which is a serious challenge to transitional justice. The largely Sinhalese and Buddhist army engages in everyday commercial activity, for example. It runs shops, restaurants and hotels, leaving local businesses unable to compete. It is common practice for the army to occupy, cultivate and harvest farmlands and sell produce back to the local community. If that continues, it is bound to increase discontent among Tamil communities and lead to a rise in protests. Those are the issues that need to be addressed.
As I said, I went there in February and I saw the shops being closed. I was told that there was no trading activity anymore and I checked with the traders who confirmed that. The noble Lord is right that trading was happening extensively, but it now seems to have ceased—or at any rate at least 95% ceased.
My Lords, I think that the difference between us is about the pace of progress. I acknowledge that things are happening—I said that in my opening remarks. But if we do not speed up the pace of reform, there is certainly the prospect of continuing discontent. What ongoing discussions are the Government having with the Sri Lankan Government to encourage this demilitarisation of the north and expedite the full return of land by the military to the owners?
As we have been reminded in this debate—by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, in particular—the last session of the UN Human Rights Council on 29 September heard allegations of genocide, systematic discrimination, torture, extrajudicial killings and militarisation levelled against Sri Lanka. That is beside the call by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for the second time in two sessions for universal jurisdiction to be exercised. Of course, universal jurisdiction is the principal etched in law that every country has an interest in and responsibility to bring to justice perpetrators of the most abhorrent crimes, enforcing international legal norms. That is absolutely fundamental to protecting human rights and supporting peace and stability. They must be a priority for the international community. Does the Minister agree that all nations must reject impunity, embrace the principle of universal jurisdiction and clearly state that the alleged perpetrators will be arrested if they cross international borders?
Accountability for atrocities committed in Sri Lanka can offer the country a chance to heal the divisions of the past. That is the process that all noble Lords have been referring to. What effort is the FCO making to constructively engage with Sri Lanka and advance its commitments to reconciliation? Security sector reform, including repealing and replacing the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, must be a key feature of that. As Ben Emmerson concluded, the use of torture has been and remains today endemic and routine for those of us arrested and detained on national security grounds. Since the authorities use that legislation disproportionately against members of the Tamil community, that community has borne the brunt of the state’s well-oiled torture apparatus. What representations have the UK Government made to Sri Lanka on the conclusions reached by Ben Emmerson, which confirmed similar findings to those of Human Rights Watch and other organisations?
The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, referred to the events of two weeks ago in Sri Lanka when a mob led by Buddhist monks filmed a UN safe house sheltering Rohingya refugees. I, too, welcome both the condemnation from the Sri Lankan Government and the actions to be taken against the perpetrators of that crime. I ask the Minister whether the Government have urged the Sri Lankan people to ensure the perpetrators are properly held to account. There is, and remains, widespread concern that they will not be, and it is important that we keep up the pressure.
I join in the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for sharing best practice, particularly in terms of extending freedom of religious belief, but human rights is a broad band of principles. One of the things that concerns me, to which I want the Minister to respond, is that earlier this year, after a vote in their Parliament, the Sri Lankan Government decided to keep their law making homosexuality illegal. Despite that decision, Cabinet members agreed to update their human rights action plan with an addendum that bans discrimination against someone based on their sexual orientation. Although that is a step in the right direction for the Sri Lankan LGBT community, it fears it will not stop facing abuse while the law telling people homosexuality is wrong exists. Many of the LGBT citizens polled by Human Rights Watch revealed they had been sexually or physically abused by local police, and at one point over half of them said they had been detained by police without reason. There was also a recent hate crime where a trans woman and HIV advocate was murdered. Can the Minister assure us that adequate time, not only for freedom of religious belief and other human rights issues, will be given at the Commonwealth Summit for these issues to be fully aired and considered at all the fora—including, most importantly, at the Heads of Government Meeting?
My Lords, I thank and acknowledge my noble friend Lord Naseby both for tabling the debate and for his long-standing commitment to Sri Lanka, including his role as honorary president of the all-party group—I am sure everyone else in the Chamber and beyond will do so, too. His tabling of this important debate at the current time comes when we are seeing progress in the right way in Sri Lanka.
When one stands at the Dispatch Box as a Minister for the Foreign Office and a Minister for Human Rights, it is important to acknowledge progress. The contributions across the Chamber reflected the fact that challenges remain, but the tone and content of all the contributions, without exception, also threw a very positive light—rightly so—on the positive steps have been taken recently in Sri Lanka.
I will turn to human rights to begin with. As noble Lords will know, Sri Lanka has now co-sponsored two Human Rights Council resolutions relating to the legacy of the conflict in the country: Resolution 30/1 in 2015 and Resolution 34/1 in March this year. The second of the two called on the Sri Lankan Government to fully implement outstanding measures to promote accountability, reconciliation and human rights, as set out in the first. Therefore, the question posed by my noble friend Lord Naseby is one that asks about the aspects of the commitment made by the Sri Lankan Government: namely, reconciliation. Again, contributions today have reflected progress in this respect.
We all recognise that reconciliation is vital for Sri Lanka’s future success. However, it is important to address all the commitments together, because they are closely linked. Without truth, justice, respect for human rights and a commitment to long-term peace, there can be no lasting reconciliation. I say to my noble friend Lady Berridge and to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that when we talk of human rights, we talk of universal human rights, including the protection of freedom of religious belief and of LGBT rights as well as of other human rights. It is important not only that we stand up for those but vocalise them. That is why the UK Government believe that implementation of Resolution 30/1 is essential for real reconciliation to take place. I acknowledge that, in co-sponsoring both resolutions, the Sri Lankan Government have shown that they recognise this, too.
As all noble Lords have acknowledged, there has been progress. In March, a report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recognised the steps taken since January 2015 to improve the human rights situation. In particular, our Government welcome: the restoration of important democratic checks and balances; improvements in freedom of expression and free movement; the return of some land held by the military to civilians; the establishment of an Office for Missing Persons; ratification of the convention on enforced disappearances, which my noble friend Lord Naseby mentioned; and, finally, the start of a process of constitutional reform. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for supporting the position of the Government and showing that, on this matter, both Her Majesty’s Opposition and the Government are at one.
There is a clear sense that the climate of fear that existed under the previous Government in Sri Lanka has largely been replaced by one in which individuals—notably, the President himself—and the media feel confident about expressing hope and aspiration and speaking openly and honestly about the challenges facing the country. My noble friend Lord Sheikh and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, both mentioned the President’s contributions. We can take great hope from the aspirations and aims that he set out for building the new Sri Lanka that he wishes to see, as underlined by the commitments in the two resolutions that I referred to earlier.
I am pleased to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, that UK funding and our diplomatic work are having a positive impact on efforts to promote reconciliation. In Tellippalai in the north of the country, we are funding the clearance of landmines, which is helping displaced families return to their land and homes and rebuild their lives. In Jaffna, our long-running community policing programme is helping police officers give better support to women and children. In Colombo, we are continuing to support efforts to address the stigma suffered by survivors of sexual violence. Let me assure noble Lords, communities and individuals that tackling stigma is an important step on the road to reconciliation. It is a priority for our Government and our Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence, I am proud that we are able to provide vital support in this key area.
However, as my noble friend Lord Sheikh underlined in his thoughtful contribution, despite the progress we should not forget that there is more still to do. As I have already illustrated, we welcome the progress made by the Sri Lankan Government to address the legacy of conflict and to promote reconciliation across all Sri Lanka’s communities. I also underline that the UK Government are fully supportive of those efforts, but it is clear that the Sri Lankan Government need to do much more—a view echoed in the UN High Commissioner’s report.
My honourable friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, met Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana in Colombo earlier this month. At that meeting, and in the UK statements at the March Human Rights Council, we welcomed the progress made so far and urged the Government of Sri Lanka to provide the determined leadership required to fully deliver their commitments. My noble friend Lady Berridge and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, also referred to recent events, including the refuge that was attacked while protecting Rohingya Muslims. Although we have not specifically raised the issue of Rohingya Muslims and that particular attack, it remains, thankfully, an isolated incident and we are encouraged, as noble Lords have acknowledged, by the condemnation by the Sri Lankan Government in this respect.
My noble friends Lord Naseby and Lord Sheikh talked about the numbers killed. While the differential may remain, what is undisputed is that a number of civilians died in the final stages of the war and there are still serious allegations of human rights abuses against both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers. The UK has supported the commitment that Sri Lanka has made to the UN Human Rights Council as the best way to establish truth-seeking transitional justice, restitution and reconciliation, which several noble Lords alluded to. We are encouraged that the Government are focusing on five steps which, if implemented together, could create a virtuous circle, enabling the conditions for stability, growth and long-term prosperity for all Sri Lankans, a point emphasised by my noble friend Lord Sheikh. The five steps are: first, to deliver meaningful devolution through constitutional reform; secondly, to establish credible mechanisms for transitional justice, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins; thirdly, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, touched on, the importance of ensuring that all remaining private land still held by the military is returned to those who own it; fourthly, to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with human rights compliant legislation—my noble friend Lady Berridge and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, focused on this—and it is important that human rights compliant legislation protects the rights and freedoms of all communities; and finally, to develop a comprehensive and time-bound strategy to implement the further progress required.
I turn to some of the questions raised during the debate which I have not yet picked up. First, on the freedom of religion and belief programme, let me assure my noble friend Lady Berridge that all forms of extremism are, as she knows, condemned by our Government, whatever the basis. There are those who hijack noble faiths but it is always important to make clear that we do not blame the faith. Rather, we must universally condemn those who use a perversion of faith for their own ends. They do no service to their own faith or to humanity. She also asked about the funding of programmes. As part of our overall funding assessment we are looking at various programmes within the context of freedom of religion and belief, and we will announce our decision in the near future.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, talked specifically about women’s rights. In February 2017 Sri Lanka’s eighth periodic review for the United Nations Convention on the Elimination All Forms of Discrimination against Women welcomed progress on legislative reforms and policy frameworks, including the establishment in Sri Lanka of a National Commission on Women. More work needs to be done on gender equality. I will be focusing on this in my responsibilities at the Foreign Office. I am sure that the noble Baroness would acknowledge the role of Joanna Roper, the Foreign Office Special Envoy for Gender Equality.
My noble friend Lord Sheikh rightly raised the issue of economic growth and the need to look forward. I agree that the economic situation in Sri Lanka is improving. We are delighted to see growth forecasts of more than 5.5%. It is heartening that exports from the UK to Sri Lanka also increased in 2015 and exports from Sri Lanka to the UK currently stand at £1.1 billion. The UK supported Sri Lanka’s reaccession to the EU GSP+ preference scheme in May of this year. I assure noble Lords that we aim to maintain GSP+ benefits for all beneficiary countries at the point of our separation from the EU. This is one debate where I was not specifically asked about the implications of Brexit, but I thought I would mention them anyway.
On the important issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, of security commitments, the Sri Lankan Government have made a number of commitments on security sector reform under Resolution 30/1. Police compliance with human rights norms has also improved and abuses are being focused on, including enforced disappearances. However, as he and other noble Lords acknowledged, much more needs to be done including the replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to which I have already alluded.
Much progress has been made, but an area which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, underlined in his contribution is what has been done to protect LGBT rights. I assure the noble Lord that the UK remains strongly committed to promoting LGBT people and their rights wherever they live in the world. The UK has provided support to the Sri Lankan Government and the Sri Lankan LGBT rights NGO, working to promote equal rights and to lobby against discrimination. I further assure him that we have raised with the Government our concerns about the increase in nationalist campaigns that targeted religious minorities, to which my noble friend Lady Berridge alluded, and LGBT groups. We also joined the EU statement calling for an end to all forms of discrimination.
A process of constitutional reform began in March 2016. It represents an important opportunity for Sri Lanka to improve human rights protections, and we will continue to monitor the situation very closely. Under Sri Lanka’s current coalition Government there exists, as we all recognise, a historic window of opportunity to build a lasting peace. Meeting the commitments made in Resolution 30/1, including on reconciliation, will be essential to making this happen. Progress has been made, and the benefits are already being seen and enjoyed in Sri Lanka. It remains our view that full implementation of the resolution will require a concerted effort from all parties in Sri Lanka. The President of Sri Lanka has stated that he is committed to creating that environment and climate. I assure him, noble Lords and Sri Lankans—irrespective of their background and community and including the rich diaspora which makes up the British Sri Lankan community—that the UK Government will continue to encourage and support these reforms.
I thank all noble Lords once again for their detailed and thoughtful contributions to this important debate, and my noble friend Lord Naseby for tabling it.
House adjourned at 5.47 pm.