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Sri Lanka

Volume 823: debated on Wednesday 13 July 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia and the Middle East to an Urgent Question in another place on the state of emergency declared today in Sri Lanka. The Statement is as follows:

“We are closely monitoring the fast-moving and fluid political, economic and security situation in Sri Lanka. The Minister of State for South Asia has engaged directly with our high commissioner and the team on the ground. We encourage all sides to find a peaceful, democratic and inclusive approach to resolving the current political and economic challenges.

Sri Lanka’s political and economic challenges should be resolved through an inclusive and cross-party process. Any transition of power should be peaceful, constitutional and democratic, and I call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that response. Sri Lanka is now facing a state of paralysis and desperately needs a Government with popular support to emerge from this chaos. There is a desperate humanitarian crisis and Amanda Milling said in the other place that our support is being channelled through multilateral institutions, without providing any details. My honourable friend Catherine West asked the Minister to outline the immediate support offered to Sri Lanka, including through engagement with regional partners such as India. Since no answer was given by Amanda Milling, can the Minister now provide one?

As the Minister of State for South Asia, I have been engaging directly on this issue. We are working with, for example, the Red Cross on its disaster relief emergency fund and its operation in Sri Lanka. We are providing direct support, including essential medicine, first aid and psychosocial support. We are also working through various UN agencies, based on their assessments, with a plan launched on 9 June. The Humanitarian Needs and Priorities Plan called for $47.2 million to provide lifesaving assistance, and we are supporting that directly through the UN. The World Bank has also announced assistance of $400 million, which includes funds for medicines and medical equipment, and we are looking at that. I assure the noble Lord that, on the state of emergency, I have again today instructed officials to look at what bilateral support we can provide. I acknowledge his point and I am very much on it: we are seeing how we can engage constructively with India as a near partner and friend to Sri Lanka.

My Lords, I agree with the Minister on the need for a peaceful transition back to stability. While he and I were in Kigali—he was representing the UK Government at the ministerials at CHOGM—two Sri Lankan Ministers were in Moscow negotiating the purchase of Russian oil. Can the Minister expand on the practical steps the UK can take—both the direct support we can offer, and bilateral support through the Commonwealth—to ensure that Putin does not exploit the instability in Sri Lanka, because he certainly wants to?

My Lords, the noble Lord’s point about Mr Putin would apply in many instances. I met with Foreign Minister Peiris while I was in Kigali, specifically regarding the current state of play. He remains in position, notwithstanding the appointment of the Prime Minister as the acting President.

As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we are looking at how we can best channel our support through agencies on the ground. The UN is present, and we are engaging with other key partners. As the noble Lord will acknowledge, the UK is also looking at what has caused this crisis, which is an economic crisis. When I was in Sri Lanka and I met with the then Administration, I implored them to consider the importance of not just talking to the IMF but working through a specific plan. I believe that we have the fifth-largest quota share when it comes to the IMF, and we are working very constructively. Sri Lanka needs political stability, but the underlying cause and problem remains the economics. We are working with the IMF on that programme.

My Lords, does the Minister have any evidence of increased tension between the Tamil and Sinhalese populations?

My Lords, we are certainly watching that space very closely. Communal tensions arise in any conflict where communities perhaps seek to assign blame to another community. We are also looking very carefully at pre-existing religious tensions. Although there have been raids into the presidential compound and the Prime Minister’s residence, we have not yet seen or monitored an increase in communal tension between the two major communities in Sri Lanka.

My Lords, Sri Lanka has a dark history of human rights abuses, the vast majority being perpetrated with complete impunity. Today’s fear, with the announcement of a state of emergency coupled with political instability, is that these terrible atrocities will begin again. What conversations has the Minister or any of his colleagues had with our partners about how we can avoid these fears being realised? On the issue of impunity, it appears that the Rajapaksa brothers are intent on going to the United States of America. Can we have some conversations with our American ally about whether the impunity they have enjoyed up until now will survive that transfer to the USA?

My Lords, the noble Lord talks about impunity regarding conflicts past, particularly the civil war. That is why the United Kingdom has led on Resolution 46/1 at the Human Rights Council. When I was last in Geneva, I engaged directly with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, saying that we would sustain our support for it. That remains an important issue, and I am sure it will be a point of discussion when the UNHRC returns in September.

As to the current situation with the previous Administration, including Mr Rajapaksa and other members of his family, countries will make their own determinations but we want the perpetrators of the civil war to be held to account. Equally, we want to ensure that the communities that suffered do not see the conflicts of the past occur again.

My Lords, the Minister must be aware of the serious allegations of corruption against Rajapaksa and his Government. What efforts are being made to extradite him from the Maldives so that he can answer the charges in the Sri Lankan courts?

My Lords, I will not comment specifically on the current situation with the previous President—we still await the final formal resignation. As to what will happen regarding his future, determinations will be made. At the moment we are focusing on the economic and political stability which will lend itself to whatever future inclusive Government are formed in Sri Lanka, to allow for full accountability for whoever needs to be held to account.

My Lords, how many British citizens are in Sri Lanka and are Her Majesty’s Government confident that they are all safe?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know from his own insight, we do not keep specific track of the numbers there, but we have a very strong Sri Lankan diaspora here in United Kingdom and many dual nationals. On Saturday I spoke to our chargé on the ground to ensure that we have the support in post for any increase in consular inquiries. There had been no increase, certainly up until Saturday. I also convened a meeting this morning to ensure that there is a specific plan regarding the humanitarian, economic and political support we can provide with key partners, but also the support we can provide to British citizens seeking to leave, as the noble Lord highlights. We have the experiences of Covid repatriation and other crises, which will ensure that, if and when required, we can mobilise the resources we need in Colombo and here in London to provide the support UK citizens might need.

My Lords, following on from the Minister’s answer to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, he said that people have to be held to account, but he also referred to countries to which the President might flee making their own decisions. There were rumours this morning that the President was intending to flee to the UAE. If the Minister does indeed think that people should be held to account, it is surely incumbent on us to engage with the country in question—be it the UAE or the US—to try to ensure that it is not seen as a safe haven that people can flee to and escape potentially being held to account in the way the Minister says he wishes to see.

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness knows me well enough to know that when I say that people should be held to account, we would follow through on that. I am not going to speculate; there are a lot of rumours as to where particular people may seek to travel. Those are conversations to be had as and when we know the full facts, and then we will act accordingly.

My Lords, the Chinese have had considerable involvement with Sri Lanka and, indeed, have effectively got control of a deep-water port as part of their belt and road initiative. Are we aware of any Chinese involvement—or any actions at all—in what is going on there at the moment?

On the noble Lord’s first observation, he is of course absolutely right. As with a number of other countries, Chinese infrastructure support—economic support—in Sri Lanka has in itself had a quite disabling effect on its economy. Regarding the noble Lord’s second question, I am certainly not aware of any specific engagement or involvement of that nature.

My Lords, can the Minister give any insight into the extent to which the Armed Forces will be providing support and ensuring security on the island, as requested by the Prime Minister?

My Lords, we have not looked at that specifically. What we have said, as I have already indicated, is that our focus is and must be first and foremost on the humanitarian situation. As I have said in previous answers to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, if at all possible that includes where, how and to what extent we can channel humanitarian support bilaterally, particularly food. Equally, the next important element should be political and economic stability, and that is what the Government are focused on.