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Sri Lanka

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made yesterday in the other place by my right honourable friend Mr Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, with reference to the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. I repeat that this reflects the situation as of yesterday. The Statement is as follows:

“Today, the flags in Downing Street and on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are flying at half-mast following the horrific Easter Day terrorist attack in Sri Lanka. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the attack and the UK Government’s response.

On Sunday, multiple terrorist suicide bombings were conducted across Sri Lanka. Six explosions occurred simultaneously—three in churches conducting Easter Day services in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, and three more in hotels in Colombo popular with foreign visitors. Information is still coming in, but we know that over 300 people have been killed, and we know that at least eight of those, sadly, are British nationals. They include mother Anita Nicholson with her 14 year-old son Alex and 11 year-old daughter Annabel; teenage brother and sister Amelie and Daniel Linsey; and retired firefighter Bill Harrop with his wife, retired GP Sally Bradley. The whole House will want to pass on our deepest sympathies and condolences, as we digest a truly heartbreaking situation.

I spoke to James Dauris, the British high commissioner in Colombo, earlier this afternoon, and I want to put on record my thanks to him, his team and all the employees of the British Council for their dedication in extremely testing circumstances. One locally employed British Council employee is in hospital with his wife, both with serious injuries, and our thoughts are also with them and their family. Our travel advice has been updated and remains the best source of information for any British nationals or family members who have concerns about the situation.

Yesterday, I spoke to my counterpart, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, to express my thanks for the work of the emergency services in Sri Lanka, as well as to pass on our condolences to all the bereaved families. I also discussed what further support the UK might be able to offer. Her Majesty the Queen, the Prince of Wales and other members of the Royal Family have sent messages of condolence to the President and people of Sri Lanka, and the Prime Minister is expected to speak with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mr Wickremesinghe, later today.

These attacks were a primitive and vile attempt to sow division between people of different faiths. Religious tensions have caused some of the bloodiest battles in human history and it is sombre and sobering that even in the 21st century attempts continue to set believers of different religions against each other. Our response must be to deny the perpetrators the satisfaction of dividing us by being united in our condemnation of the attacks and united in our support for religious tolerance—surely one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Just as after the equally horrific attacks on the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, we must respond by bringing people together; that is the exact opposite of what the perpetrators intended.

It has to be said that the sheer brutality of the attacks was stark. One pair of attackers, after detonating their first explosives in a hotel, waited for people to try to escape before detonating a second device. The device destroyed by security services at Colombo airport was most likely designed to target fleeing civilians. The attack was complex, tightly co-ordinated and designed to cause maximum chaos, damage and heartbreak.

The United Kingdom will never stand by in the face of such evil. Today, we stand in solidarity with the Government and people of Sri Lanka, who have made enormous strides towards stability and peace following the conclusion of the civil war almost exactly 10 years ago. The Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command has dispatched a team of specialists to Sri Lanka, including family liaison officers, to support the families of British victims and assist with the repatriation of deceased British nationals. A recent programme run by Interpol involved the training of 30 Sri Lankan forensic specialists and police officers by UK experts in disaster victim identification. We hope that that will be of additional support.

The Government of Sri Lanka have declared a state of emergency as the investigation continues. More than 20 arrests have been made and there are likely to be more people who were involved in the planning of this attack still at large. A large amount of improvised explosive device material has been recovered, including 87 low-explosive detonators that were recovered from a bus station. There are no verified claims of responsibility as yet. So far, 40 arrests have been made, and counterterrorism activity continues. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister and President have both said publicly that there will be a thorough investigation into the incident and whether information was handled correctly, and it is important to let that process follow its course.

To attack Christian worshippers at Easter, which is a celebration of peace and the holiest day in the Christian calendar, betrays in the attackers an absence of the most basic values of humanity. Just two days ago, the Prime Minister and I both noted in our Easter messages the dangers facing Christians around the world, 300 of whom are killed every month. In response to such acts, we must redouble our efforts to protect the freedom of religious minorities to practise their faiths, wherever they are. For that reason, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has asked the Bishop of Truro to do an independent report into what more can be done to protect persecuted Christians around the world.

The British Government will continue to give their wholehearted support to the people of Sri Lanka, and I am sure the House will join me in once again expressing our deepest sadness and sympathy to everyone who has been affected by these monstrous attacks. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement, which I wholeheartedly agree with. I join with her in commending the work of the British high commission in Colombo and all of its staff, and that of the British Council. They have done tremendous work.

I welcome what the Foreign Secretary said about the assistance that the Government are ready to offer to the Sri Lankan authorities, whether on security and intelligence or helping with forensic services. This help is obviously even more vital after what the Sri Lankan Government confirmed today: that many of the bombers had international connections, having lived or studied abroad, including in the United Kingdom.

There is no doubt about the horrendous impact that this has had on Sri Lanka. Hospital services in a number of cities across the country have certainly been over- whelmed by the number of individuals injured in the attack, with many still fighting for their lives. Could the Minister tell us whether the UK has had any requests from the Sri Lankan authorities to provide assistance with medical support, or have we offered to do so?

Undoubtedly, questions will need to be answered and lessons will need to be learned. But as we showed earlier, the time now is for this House and this country to stand with the people of Sri Lanka, who have lost so many loved ones, and with those from around the world who have suffered a similar loss, to express our shared solidarity and grief at the devastation they have suffered. My thoughts especially go to my noble friend Lord Bradley and his family, who lost his sister and brother-in-law. The wonderful public service of Bill Harrop and Sally Bradley were so movingly recorded on the radio yesterday. I think all of us would have been touched by their story.

With the Foreign Secretary’s commitment for the UK to help Sri Lanka with whatever it needs, does the Minister agree that the world, and not just Sri Lanka, may need to reflect on the learnings that come out of any investigation, particularly when it comes to the persecution of faiths? As we know, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, has a special responsibility for freedom of religious belief. I hope the Minister will be able to discuss with him how he can take this work to all our allies, including the United States, and to renew it with even greater vigour. We in this country and the West in general must do our part to help Sri Lanka to recover from this horror by continuing to visit that beautiful country and showing that terrorists will not win.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. From these Benches too, I express our deep sadness at this appalling atrocity. It is unbelievably awful that children in particular were clearly targeted. We too convey our condolences to the people of Sri Lanka, and to all those who have been affected, including the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, who has lost his sister and his brother-in-law.

These events have global roots and global impact, and we surely must work internationally to counter the dehumanised thinking that underpins such events, whether in Christchurch or in Colombo or, indeed, in our own country, where one of the bombers may have studied. Given the history of Sri Lanka and the events of last year, what concerns does the noble Baroness have about the destabilising effects of this atrocity? What are the Government doing with others to ensure that, if there is relevant intelligence, it is treated with the seriousness it deserves?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for the tone of their comments and observations. I think I speak for the whole House when I say that, when one of our own is affected by this tragedy, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradley has been with the tragic death of his sister, we feel that keenly. Our thoughts are very much with the noble Lord and his family at this time.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about UK support. As he is probably aware, we do offer support. When repeating the Statement, I mentioned that the Metropolitan Police are providing support and have sent a team of specialists to Sri Lanka. We are also providing significant help over a three-year period from the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. In response to his specific question on whether we have had any requests for medical assistance, I do not have an answer to that, but I will undertake to find out and revert to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord very wisely observed that the world may need to reflect on the outcome of whatever the investigations are. It would be instructive, once we have allowed the investigations to take their course, to consider what the determinations of that investigation are. He is right that we need to reflect on that, because this attack was monstrous, rightly causing shock and horror across the world. If there is anything we can learn that might assist in avoiding such attacks or deterring such perpetrators in the future, we would obviously want to know that.

The noble Lord also raised the role of religious tolerance. I entirely agree that this is almost the cornerstone of what many of us wish to see for the world on a pan level. My noble friend, Lord Ahmad, has a very important role to play, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Collins, will accept that my noble friend is a respected and liked presence on the global stage, and I am sure he will be very interested in the noble Lord’s observations. I will certainly ensure that he is aware of the point that has been made.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, raised an extremely important point. Since the travails and struggles of the civil war in Sri Lanka, we have seen a blessed and welcome period of peace. It would be profoundly regrettable if murderous activity like this had a destabilising effect. Sri Lanka knows that the United Kingdom stands with it and the Sri Lankan people against terrorism in all its forms. No one should ever have to practise their faith in fear. We will do everything we can to support Sri Lanka.

It is clear from the reaction, not just across the world but also within Sri Lanka, that there has been horror at what has taken place. As my right honourable friend in the other place observed yesterday, we should ensure that what unites us is a sense of purpose that we will not stand for behaviour like this, that we will stand united against those who seek to wreck our civilised societies, disregard the rule of law and impose their own barbaric standards upon others. The United Kingdom will be at the forefront, with its partners across the world, in taking that stance and leading that charge.

My Lords, my diocese, the diocese of Leeds, has had a link with Sri Lanka for nearly 40 years and I am in daily contact with the church out there. I urge the Minister and the Foreign Office to take seriously the difference between ethnic and religious strife, because we cannot always draw a straight line from people being of different religious practice or conviction to particular actions. The civil war, for example, was much more complex than is sometimes represented outside Sri Lanka. What has happened in the last few days is very different; it is international. We need to understand more about the impact on the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, as it has not been a pleasant experience for them. It is not quite as simple as we sometimes think, and I would urge caution in the way that we represent the current issue.

I am sure the whole Chamber will have listened with care to the right reverend Prelate’s observations. He is right that there should always be caution, but I think it is also accepted that, when something of this enormity occurs, there is a sense of disgust and opprobrium. While it is right that that is expressed and made clear, equally, yes, I understand what he is advocating and it is wise counsel.

My Lords, as many in the House will know, I have been involved with Sri Lanka for over 50 years and in considerable depth. As the House may recall, this is the second tragedy to hit Sri Lanka. The first was on Boxing Day 2004, when over 30,000 innocent people died as a result of the tsunami. On this occasion, we know that there were over 300. Against the background of the most recent tragedy, is my noble friend also aware that there are approximately half a million Sri Lankans living in the United Kingdom? Will she ensure that, for those Sri Lankans here, who will undoubtedly have had friends or relatives who are somehow connected to those who have died or been badly injured, the services of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and whatever other offices are needed are there for them? Those Sri Lankans in the UK will undoubtedly be really anxious at this time. It could possibly be done through the local high commission here.

I thank my noble friend. He raises an important point: there is a significant Sri Lankan population within the United Kingdom and we of course want to reassure that community that we are with them. We want to support them and there are ways in which we can offer that support. It may be through the FCO and it may be through the Sri Lankan high commission in London, but he makes an important point.

My Lords, there has been a degree of instability at the heart of Sri Lankan government since the events of last autumn, when the President tried to replace the democratically elected Prime Minister with another Prime Minister. At that time, it was the judiciary which upheld the constitution, resulting in the reversal of that unwise decision by the President of Sri Lanka. Can the Minister say what resources the UK Government are committing to upholding the institutions of democracy in Sri Lanka—in particular through the Commonwealth, for instance, and DfID—and ensuring that there is an adherence not only to the constitution at the heart of government but to the oversight of government, which has been largely lacking?

The noble Baroness makes a very valuable point in relation to the Commonwealth, which as she is aware is a strong and coherent family of nations. When any one of these nations is affected like this, there is a sense of standing together and wanting to provide support. Specifically in relation to the United Kingdom, the UK has made a long-term commitment to improving human rights in Sri Lanka and is dedicated to supporting the rebuilding of the country after three decades of civil conflict. I referred in an earlier answer to the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. The UK is providing Sri Lanka with £8.3 million over three years, which commenced in 2016. That is specifically to include support for police reform and training, reconciliation and peacebuilding, and demining in the north of the country. But that is against the backdrop of wanting to protect human rights and support the emergence of the strong constitution to which I think the noble Baroness is referring.

My Lords, the Minister speaks for the whole House in deploring the massacre of all the innocents in Sri Lanka, both the hotel guests and the worshippers, particularly the children. She is right also to put it in the context of a worldwide persecution of Christians, evidenced by bodies such as Open Doors, the appropriate Catholic body and the Barnabas Fund. As we await the Bishop of Truro’s report, how does she respond to the charges that we all in the UK, of all parties, have been too restrained by some form of post-colonial guilt in making appropriate representations when Christians are massacred in other countries?

As both my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister made clear in their Easter messages, there is profound concern at the extent to which Christians are facing persecution. The figures are deeply troubling. The UK is committed to doing everything possible to ensure that people of all faiths are treated equally, and we have a strong and proud tradition ourselves of religious tolerance. Can we learn? I am sure that we can. Is there more that we can do? We should never stop being prepared to learn. Even arising out of dreadful situations, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out, it is possible to learn. There may be lessons that we can learn from this event. I think that it is already clear that there has been a global condemnation of what has happened, and rightly so. Equally, I think that there is a global sense of purpose to do whatever we can, collectively as nations across the world, to protect the freedom of different faiths to practise their beliefs. That of course includes Christians.

My Lords, I am sure that the moving Statement repeated by the Minister speaks for us all. Does she agree that there is a lesson to be learnt very quickly from these terrible events: that where there is intelligence that points to the possibility of this kind of event occurring, it is crucial that it be shared between nations interested in that intelligence and that it be deployed properly within the country where the event is thought to be likely to occur?

The noble Lord speaks with authoritative experience in this sphere. I would not want to prejudge or pre-empt the investigation which the Sri Lankan Government are now embarked on. We have to leave that to run its course and then, as I said earlier, reflect on its determination and conclusions. On the general question whether it is helpful to share security intelligence, yes, it is. The noble Lord will be aware that that is at the heart of much of our defence policy within this country. That is why we value greatly the alliances and security-sharing relationships which we have, whether it be through NATO, with allies or with our colleagues in the EU.

My Lords, while the intended targets of this atrocity were clearly meant to be Christian, the terrorist bomb does not discriminate. The Linsey family were members of Westminster synagogue, of which I am president. Amelie and Daniel shared the same classes as my children. Amelie celebrated her Bat Mitzvah just last March, reading with poise, maturity and warmth from our Torah scrolls. Daniel was especially interested in Jewish festivals. He came into our synagogue before Purim, a festival a month and a half ago, to read about Purim, to go to our library and to help our staff set up for the evening festivities. We have pledged as a community to offer our love and support to the Linsey family and to do everything we can every step of the way. The Jewish community is used to counselling mourners who have been affected by the terrorist bomb, and this is another chapter in that sad and sorry book. Will my noble friend the Minister please double her efforts to ensure that the bodies are returned as soon as possible? Last night, the families were trying to make progress. We would be grateful for any assistance that she can provide through the civil servants to ensure that that happens as quickly as possible, as required by the Jewish faith.

I thank my noble friend. His eloquent and poignant comments indicate starkly the enormity of what has happened, when children are the victims of this mindless criminality. Our thoughts are very much with Amelie and Daniel and their family. The loss of Amelie and Daniel to the family is grievous and I hope that my noble friend will convey the condolences of this Chamber to the family when he is next in touch with them. On the issue of helping to transport and return bodies to this country, yes, there is help available and if my noble friend wishes to speak to me afterwards I will see whether there is something specific I can do to assist in that respect.