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Sri Lanka: Truth Commission

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 1 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what direct assistance they will offer to the reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka and the establishment of the truth commission in that country.

My Lords, the UK Government stand alongside our partners and have worked in the Human Rights Council core group on Sri Lanka, which has led to international efforts over many years to promote accountability, reconciliation and human rights in Sri Lanka, including, most recently, implementing UN Human Rights Council Resolution 51/1. The resolution renewed the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report on Sri Lanka, and to protect and preserve evidence of past human rights abuses to use in future accountability processes.

My Lords, going beyond my noble friend’s Answer and given that next year is the 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence, and therefore its long partnership with Great Britain as a member of the Commonwealth, is he able to say whether His Majesty’s Government will consider working with Sri Lanka to invest in a large, landmark development scheme for the country that would help to add resilience in the future against the economic shocks of the sort that we have seen it suffer recently?

My Lords, notwithstanding the continuing prioritisation we are giving to human rights, which have to remain part of the discussion to ensure that the issues arising from the previous civil war are not forgotten, including the targeting of particular communities, I assure my noble friend that we remain resolute in what we are doing at the HRC. But I take on board the specific element of the economic empowerment of communities as a way to build a country. Earlier this year, as the then Minister responsible for our relations with Sri Lanka, I met President Wickremesinghe. I have also recently met Foreign Minister Ali Sabry. Our focus has also been on the current IMF package and how it should act as a lever to ensure economic prosperity for communities across Sri Lanka.

My Lords, following on from the tail-end of the Minister’s remarks, does he agree that one of the best ways to assist Sri Lanka in these challenging times is to speak up for the country where opportunity exists, and that partnering would be a win-win situation, geo-economically and geo-strategically?

My Lords, in part I have already addressed that issue, but I agree with the noble Viscount that the economic prosperity of a country is an enabler to allow that country to move forward. At the same time, we remain very focused on ensuring that the important elements of reconciliation and justice also prevail.

My Lords, earlier this year the Minister assured the House that we were responding to the humanitarian crisis that occurred. I welcomed the Government’s efforts, but in November the UN team in Sri Lanka revised and extended its humanitarian needs and priorities plan, which included a call for additional funding to address nutrition and provide clean drinking water. Can the Minister tell us what steps we are taking to support that plan, including ensuring that other allies do likewise?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right, and we have of course worked very closely on the humanitarian situation. In advance of the Summer Recess, I met his colleague, the honourable Catherine West, who is the Shadow Minister for Asia, to share with her the details of our humanitarian support—£3 million was specifically allocated. The noble Lord rightly raises the UN assessments and, as he will know, we are working very closely with UN agencies, not just OCHA but others, to ensure that issues of nutrition and medical support are addressed, particularly with other key agencies, such as UNICEF, with a focus on women and children.

My Lords, bad governance, conflict and human rights abuses have pushed Sri Lanka to the brink. It is reported that its debt to China is $7.4 billion, or nearly 20% of its public external debt. So will the Government work with Sri Lanka—yes, to help it address its internal reconciliation, but also to reduce its exposure to China and dependence on Russian oil and to ensure that it can engage with the whole world, rather than being pushed to one side?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord—this is why we are working very closely. When I was last in Sri Lanka, we worked on the specific importance of ensuring the restructuring of its debt with the IMF. That programme will take time—up to about six months—to ensure the outcomes. The noble Lord is also right on infrastructure support. It is not just Sri Lanka; many countries across that region and beyond are reliant on Chinese infrastructure, which results in very long-term indebtedness to China. We are looking to see how we can form alliances and partnerships to overcome this, and the IMF rescheduling of the debt is the first step towards that. In the longer term, picking up on what I heard my noble friend say about the Commonwealth—it is good to have two ears, rather than just one—there is a role for it to play in this, which is why we are pleased that India has come forward and given credit lines to Sri Lanka to help it through its current economic troubles.

My Lords, would this not be a mission that would fit very well with the purpose and aspirations of the Commonwealth as a whole, rather than just the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The Commonwealth Secretariat and the Secretary-General have engaged directly with the Sri Lankan Government, and we are looking to key partners. I mentioned the important role that India has played in supporting Sri Lanka at this time, as a near neighbour, both with energy issues and in providing credit lines to allow it to navigate its way through the economic challenges it faces.

Is my noble friend aware that I shall personally support and work for a truth and reconciliation commission, established in Sri Lanka, rather similar to those in South Africa and Colombia? However, are there not two key initiatives that His Majesty’s Government need to do to help? The first is to persuade the United Nations to remove the 20-year restriction on the source of the evidence in the Darusman report of 2011, which stated that up to 40,000 people were killed. Secondly, the UK Government themselves should surely now release to any commission the unredacted dispatches from the UK’s respected and experienced military attaché, Colonel Gash, who was on the battlefield every day from 1 January to 18 May 2009, proving beyond doubt in his dispatches that there was no genocide.

My Lords, I cannot agree with all aspects of my noble friend’s questions because it is very clear that the whole point of standing up a truth and reconciliation commission in 2015 was that there was a real recognition, even by the Sri Lankan Government of that time, of the importance of bringing communities together to ensure that atrocities could be fully investigated and, more importantly, perpetrators could be held to account. That is why we have pursued the issue at the UN Human Rights Council, which is the right approach. Of course, in time, there is a need for domestic mechanisms, but the sad truth is that, since 2015, despite successive changes of Government, we have seen little progress with the truth and justice commission in Sri Lanka.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister and others have referred to some of the international organisations: the UN, the IMF and even the Commonwealth. Can my noble friend enlighten us on which other international organisations the UK Government are working with to help the people of Sri Lanka at this difficult time? I refer noble Lords to my registered interests.

My Lords, as I said, it is important that there are international alliances. We are working with key countries in the region: I specifically mentioned India, which is an important partner, and the Commonwealth has been mentioned. I also mentioned the International Monetary Fund in relation to the economy. We are working with a variety of UN agencies on the ground, including the World Food Programme, UNICEF and OCHA, to ensure that humanitarian issues and priorities are also focused on.

My Lords, last April, Sri Lanka became the first country in the Asia-Pacific region ever to default on its sovereign debt. Inflation is now running at 68%, and the UN predicts that nearly half of the population will be food insecure by the end of the year. So does the Minister agree with me that rebuilding the agricultural sector is absolutely crucial, after the Government’s misplaced decision to ban fertilisers and sprays? What technical help can his department give?

My Lords, on the specifics, I will certainly follow up on what my noble friend said. I agree with him on rampant inflation, which was at 73.7% in September. Over the last month, it has reduced a tad, but that is nothing to speak of—there has been a marginal single-digit decrease, and I think it is now nearer the high 60s. My noble friend is also right that we need to work on ensuring that food insecurity is addressed, which is why we are working closely with institutions such as the World Food Programme to ensure that this is addressed as a priority.