Authoritarianism is on the rise, including in Sri Lanka, where nobody has been held accountable for the thousands of deaths in the country’s civil war.
In Parliament I pointed to the areas where UK government must do more for the valued Tamil community here in UK:
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this vital debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who made truly powerful, moving contributions to the debate. The really strong showing from the Labour Benches shows the central importance of this issue to our party.
The Labour party puts the rule of law, democracy and universal human rights at the very heart of our foreign policy. We expect those principles to be upheld consistently in every country throughout the world, including Sri Lanka. We will always stand up for the universal rights and freedoms of all citizens when national Governments refuse to live up to their international obligations.
In 2009, in the final few months of Sri Lanka’s long, brutal civil war, tens of thousands of civilians, mostly from the Tamil community, lost their lives. It is a scar on the conscience of the world that no one has been held accountable for those crimes, which include the deliberate shelling of civilian targets, sexual violence, and extrajudicial executions. The shocking lack of accountability for past atrocities is compounded by the fact that the human rights violations in Sri Lanka continue to this day. Respected non-governmental organisation Freedom from Torture has forensically documented more than 300 cases of torture by the Sri Lankan state since the war ended, and it continues to receive referrals for Sri Lankan individuals today.
The people of Sri Lanka, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, deserve justice. Those responsible must be held accountable, and peace and freedom must be secured for future generations. The Labour party is therefore deeply troubled by what has been taking place in Sri Lanka since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in December 2019.
First, he has militarised his Government by appointing former soldiers such as Shavendra Silva and Kamal Gunaratne, who both stand accused of crimes against humanity, to key positions in his Cabinet. Secondly, he has done huge damage to his Government’s credibility in the eyes of the international community by withdrawing from UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, which sets out a process for delivering accountability for war crimes. Thirdly, we are profoundly concerned by reports of the forced cremation of victims of covid-19, including those of Muslim and Christian faith, for whom burial rituals and traditions are sacred. The World Health Organisation has issued guidance stating that the burial of covid-19 dead poses no danger to public health.
On the UNHRC resolution, in recent weeks and months I have written to the Minister twice about these issues and made it clear that, as the penholder on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, the UK has a crucial and unique responsibility to show moral and political leadership in its approach to co-ordinating the international response. The final version of the draft resolution, which is set to replace 30/1, is certainly an improvement on the zero draft. However, we continue to have real concerns about key aspects of it. Therefore, I have the following questions for the Minister.
First, the draft resolution fails to incorporate the recommendations made by the high commissioner in her report of 27 January regarding universal or extraterritorial jurisdiction. We should be supporting the high commissioner’s view that the principles of universal or extraterritorial jurisdiction should apply, and that states should pursue investigations and prosecutions in their national courts. Why have the Government failed to include an explicit commitment to that in the resolution?
Secondly, the suggested evidence-gathering mechanism is clearly a step in the right direction, but it stops short of recommending the establishment of a fully fledged international, independent investigative mechanism. Why have the Government failed to include in their final draft a commitment to IIIM?
Thirdly, it is clear that there is a strong basis for referring a number of senior members of the Sri Lankan military and Government to the International Criminal Court. Why have the Government failed to include such a recommendation in the resolution? We know that two of the permanent members of the UN will likely block such action, but should the position of the Government really be shaped by the veto-wielding intentions of China and Russia?
Fourthly, there is nothing in the resolution about prevention. Why does not the resolution include explicit reference to protecting human rights defenders? Are British diplomats travelling regularly to the north and east of Sri Lanka to assess the situation on the ground?
Fifthly, the draft resolution requests a report on accountability options in 18 months. This is an unacceptably long timeline, given the evidence already available, and it will give the Sri Lankan Government yet more time to obstruct and obfuscate. Why have the Government failed to ensure that the resolution is based on a far shorter report-back timeline of six months, as I recommended in my recent letter to the Minister?
Moving beyond the UN resolution, there are a number of bilateral steps that the Government should be taking. In my 11 December letter to the Minister, I suggested that a number of Sri Lankan officials should be sanctioned under the Government’s global human rights sanctions regime, yet not a single Sri Lankan Government Minister, official or military officer has been designated. Could the Minister please explain why it is taking so long when the evidence is already widely available?
In my letter, I also raised the issue of the UK defence adviser’s engagement with the Sri Lankan military. Since arriving in Colombo in January 2020, he has met at least four senior commanders of the Sri Lankan military who stand accused of gross human rights violations. Could the Minister please explain how the activities of the defence adviser will lead to greater accountability for the Sri Lankan military? Are the UK Government vetting who the adviser meets? Is the adviser’s defence engagement delivering tangible results, or is it simply lending a veneer of legitimacy to a military that is committing human rights abuses?
Thanks to the recent leaking of comments made by the Foreign Secretary, we know that he is perfectly happy to pursue trade deals with Governments who are committing human rights abuses. Are the UK Government pursuing a trade deal with Sri Lanka? Will human rights conditions be applied? As an EU member state, the UK was party to trading arrangements that offered a preferential tariff to Sri Lanka under the general scheme of preferences enhanced framework known as GSP+ because the Sri Lankan Government were supposedly living up to their human rights obligations. Now that the UK has left the EU, will the Government be reassessing their trading relationship with Sri Lanka?
Here’s one for the SNP spokesperson—to be answered at another time, I guess—if she is still tuned in. Police Scotland has made 90 deployments of officers to Sri Lanka over the past 15 years. Have these deployments achieved tangible results, or are they just lending a veneer of credibility? Finally, what assessment has the Minister made of Sri Lankan soldiers continuing to be deployed in UN peacekeeping missions despite the human rights record of the Sri Lankan military?
The integrated review is full of snappy slogans and rhetoric, but all it really achieved was to expose the chasm between the stated ambitions and the actual, tangible actions of this Government. If global Britain is to mean anything, it must surely mean consistently standing up for democracy, for the rule of law and for universal rights and values—not just with words, but with deeds. That must start today, and it must start with Sri Lanka.