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Sri Lanka

Volume 822: debated on Monday 16 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the economic situation in Sri Lanka; and what steps they are planning to take to support that country.

My Lords, we are closely monitoring the concerning economic situation in Sri Lanka, including issues of food security and livelihoods. The International Monetary Fund has assessed Sri Lanka’s debt as unsustainable. We welcome the start of in-depth discussions with the IMF on a financial assistance package and reforms needed to put debt on a sustainable path. The World Bank, to which the United Kingdom is a major donor, is providing support to health services and low-income families.

My Lords, Sri Lanka is an important Commonwealth country. Although I welcome the fact that the Government are monitoring the situation, I would have hoped something a little more vigorous and direct might become available at the moment. We are in danger of seeing our neglect of Sri Lanka over time leading it to drift off into the malign sphere of China. If the Government could be a little more helpful in terms of practical help at the moment, I also ask my noble friend whether we could do something in the longer term that would help: as friends of mine in Sri Lanka have requested, help them put in place the governance and parliamentary structures that would help to combat defalcation in the future and restore public confidence in the expenditure of public funds.

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we are working in very practical terms. Indeed, at the start of this year, as the Minister for South Asia, I visited Sri Lanka myself and engaged directly with the Government in Colombo, and also visited other parts of the country to ensure that all voices across Sri Lanka are fully heard and engaged with when it comes to the United Kingdom’s approach. My noble friend is also correct that we are looking at practical support and working through agencies, particularly the World Bank and the IMF, to look at the immediate issues of the debt, which needs to be put on to a sustainable footing. We are also in very structured dialogue through the high commissioner directly, with whom I am engaging on a daily basis, to ensure that the political and the security situation are sustained, which allows peaceful protest but at the same time prevents violence, which has been seen during the protests since this emergency began.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answer on the work that is being done bilaterally with Sri Lanka, but he will be aware of the issues surrounding human rights in Sri Lanka. In his answer, he touched on allowing all voices to be heard, so can he detail to the House what work is being done bilaterally to protect human rights in Sri Lanka and to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to do likewise?

My Lords, we are engaging directly with various political representatives within the Sri Lankan Parliament, including representatives of different parties and the Tamil community. We are also engaging on ensuring that communal relations are maintained. Attempts have been made by certain parties within Sri Lanka to exploit the current situation to target particular communities. We recognise that steps have been taken to ensure that the right to protest is allowed to continue. Notwithstanding the curfews that were imposed, protests have continued to take place peacefully over recent days. It is an inherent right for any Sri Lankan.

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister has recovered from Covid. Eight years ago, I helped facilitate preparatory discussions for the constitutional assembly in Sri Lanka. That delicate set of discussions has been ongoing since. At that point, when the assembly met, the Commonwealth deployed human rights lawyers for a sub-committee on human rights and fundamental rights. There is one month left in the UK’s term as chair in office. Will the Government convene, through their offices in the Commonwealth, a similar dialogue to maintain those discussions on human rights and fundamental rights, which are so important and could be a casualty of the existing, very tense, situation?

My Lords, it is not just through our chairing of the Commonwealth as chair in office but, as the noble Lord will be fully aware—indeed, I briefed him on this—we have led the way on human rights in the UN Human Rights Council to ensure that the focus remains on issues of justice and accountability in Sri Lanka. The historic legacy of the conflict is not forgotten. I assure the noble Lord that through the Commonwealth, bilaterally and through UN agencies we will continue to ensure that human rights are not just sustained but are protected during this turbulent time.

Does my noble friend recognise that Sri Lanka was a founder member of the Commonwealth and stood by our country in relation to the Chagos Islands and the Falklands? First, does he agree that at this time Sri Lanka needs real, practical help rather than theoretical help? I declare that I was there just over five weeks ago. That practical help means medicines and possibly some help with energy. Secondly, should we not be promoting in the medium term the advantages of Port City Colombo, which is a major investment for our country, to renew our connections? Thirdly and finally, should we not recognise for the record that were it not for Mahinda Rajapaksa, there would have been a terrorist rogue state in the northern part of Sri Lanka and that at least he did that well?

My Lords, like my noble friend I have recently visited Sri Lanka. As well as focusing—rightly, I believe—on the important issues of justice, reconciliation and accountability, I focused on practical steps to strengthen our bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka, including on issues of trade and the port that my noble friend mentioned. On immediate support in the crisis, I have said already that we are working through the World Bank and that the $600 million includes assistance to provide economic and health support, including vital medicines and medical equipment. We are engaging directly with the new Prime Minister through our high commissioner to ensure that Sri Lanka’s priorities are fully understood. We will give support as appropriate.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right that, whatever their ethnicity, race or religion, all the peoples of Sri Lanka deserve justice. I know that he has been committed to that process. I am also glad that he mentioned the UN Human Rights Council, which last year mandated that the UN collect and analyse evidence of international crimes for future prosecutions. What are we doing with our allies to ensure that that process is completed?

My Lords, in the context of the UNHRC we have continued to work with our friends and supporters to ensure the processes, and to work directly with the High Commissioner’s office so that evidence can be collected and justice rightly served for those who for too long have not seen justice served. At this time, our focus in the current crisis is on the immediate needs of Sri Lanka, its people and its welfare. That is why, with the appointment of the new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet, we are working constructively to ensure that human rights—as I said earlier, the rights to protest and of media reporting on the current crisis—are sustained and maintained while, at the same time, working towards the vital reconciliation that is required, with Sri Lanka’s historical legacy, to allow all communities to move forward together as one.

My Lords, this is becoming a desperate state of affairs, as we all agree. Is there a concern that Sri Lanka’s plight, with all the shortages, could be an indicator, globally, of a stark new world order that will affect many emerging countries in a similar manner? The point has been made about China. Is it conceivable that a future Chinese military base could be stationed in Sri Lanka and therefore be at the centre of our Indo-Pacific priority?

My Lords, the current crisis that Sri Lanka faces did not happen all of a sudden. It is important to look at steps such as the IMF’s intervention. With hindsight, I am sure many voices in Sri Lanka are asking whether it should have been sooner or earlier—but we are where we are, and it is important now that, through the IMF and the World Bank, we look at ensuring, first things first, that this debt can be restructured in a way that allows Sri Lanka to move forward.

On the wider issue of China’s reach in the Indo-Pacific, we need to work constructively with our key partners. That is why, when it comes to infrastructure development, as I said when I visited Sri Lanka, through our own initiatives with key partners we need to offer an alternative method that allows a country not to be indebted but to service its debt and, at the same time, to move forward constructively.