Sri Lanka: Human Rights — [Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall am 11:30 am ar 20 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Ceidwadwyr, Carshalton and Wallington 2:30, 20 Mawrth 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered human rights in Sri Lanka.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. Sri Lanka’s 2009 conflict ended in a horrific bloodbath. Tens of thousands of Tamils were killed in the final months, with accusations pointing to intentional targeting of civilians by the Sri Lankan military. That dark chapter remains open, with an estimated 70,000 to 170,000 Tamils unaccounted for and presumed dead. The Government’s continued denial of war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide fuels anger and blocks the path towards healing. The situation for Tamils, and indeed other minority groups, such as Muslims, in Sri Lanka remains precarious. Impunity reigns, human rights violations persist and heavy militarisation casts a long shadow. Sri Lanka’s failure to address accountability and pursue transitional justice mechanisms hinders any hope for lasting peace and reconciliation.

The international community’s call for accountability has not translated into concrete action, and the United Nations Human Rights Council rightly identifies the lack of accountability as the critical missing piece to Sri Lanka moving forward. We have seen decades of ineffective governance and policies driven by nationalism, which was a root cause of the conflict, continue to plague the nation, contributing to its current political and economic crises. It is vital that the international community continues to hold Sri Lanka accountable for past and present human rights violations, because only through the effective mechanisms for international investigation and prosecution can Sri Lanka achieve meaningful justice and reconciliation and finally turn a page on this dark chapter.

Sri Lanka has witnessed a chilling escalation in a suppression of Tamil remembrance this past year. As Tamils prepared to commemorate Maaveerar Naal remembrance day, and even during the ceremonies that took place, police actively disrupted events, physically blocked people from attending, destroyed memorials with violence and arrested participants. That is not a new tactic—Tamils in the north-east have historically faced harassment leading up to Maaveerar Naal—but last year, crackdowns intensified despite court orders permitting the commemorations.

Since the memorial, fear and injustice have gripped the Tamil community. The notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act was once again wielded, leading to arrests of Tamils simply for carrying decorations or attending remembrance ceremonies. Even those providing logistical support with vehicles or generators faced arbitrary detention. That draconian law, which is a stain on the country’s human rights record, has fuelled decades of abuse: prolonged detentions, disappearances and torture, particularly against Tamils and Muslims. Those are the horrific realities of the PTA. Stronger action from the UK is crucial to abolish that Act.

The shadow of militarisation looms over Sri Lanka’s Tamil north-east population. Despite Sri Lanka boasting one of the world’s largest militaries, a staggering 18 of its 20 military divisions occupy the north-east region, with 14 concentrated solely in the north. That overwhelming presence comes at a steep cost: Sri Lanka spends more on its defence than it does on healthcare and education combined. There have been recent claims of de-escalation and demilitarisation, but that has not occurred, so concrete action is needed. The UK must continue to push with its international partners for the de-militarisation of the north-east, dismantling the intrusive presence and allowing Tamils to rebuild their lives free from the constant shadow of the military.

As Sri Lanka tackles its economic woes, the UK must acknowledge the lack of political will to protect Tamil livelihoods and urge an end to the land grabs of Tamil land. Frustration continues within the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and overseas, which has long demanded a lasting solution that tackles the root cause of conflict. Years of empty promises and unmet aspirations from successive Governments have only fuelled those demands.

In February 2023, Tamil protestors defied intimidation and surveillance to stage a four-day protest across the north-east, in a powerful rejection of the 75th anniversary of independence day. That served to symbolically reclaim Tamil homeland and issue a clear set of demands, including the end to military occupation, justice for the Tamil genocide and uncovering the truth about those who disappeared.

President Wickremesinghe pledged to solve the ethnic crisis and hold talks with Tamil parties, but those efforts have proven fruitless: the Tamil community awaits concrete action, not empty words. The country is clinging to a troubling legacy; those accused of war crimes against Tamils continue to enjoy protection, with some even receiving pardons and diplomatic postings. That blatant disregard for accountability exposes the shortcomings in the justice system and underscores the current administration’s tolerance for impunity.

There is a clear lack of political will to deliver justice for Tamil victims, and that is evident even in high profile cases. The unresolved Trinco 5 killings, which were high- lighted both by the UN Human Rights Council and during recent Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus trade discussions, stand as a stark example. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has aptly noted that not a single emblematic case has resulted in conviction. Sri Lanka’s path forward hinges on genuine commitment to accountability—a path they have yet to take.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Ceidwadwyr, Chingford and Woodford Green

I very much support what my hon. Friend has been saying. I agree that settling this issue and getting the right human rights for those Tamils who are suffering—many of whom have fled over here into many of our constituencies—is important.

However, there is also another side of this. The need for the Sri Lankan Government, as a result of not resolving this issue, to station so many army divisions and spend so much on the military is one of the reasons why the Chinese were able to secure a 99-year lease on the Hambantota port. The Chinese are able to have their ships in that port because the Sri Lankan Government is bankrupt. That has a very big impact on the UK’s wider views on the far east.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Ceidwadwyr, Carshalton and Wallington

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; there is increasing concern about Chinese influence on the island. That is something my right hon. Friend has spoken very powerfully on, and I hope that the Government have listened.

Sri Lanka has a long history of truth commissions—they have held over 15 since independence—but none of them have delivered meaningful justice or accountability, and the proposed truth and reconciliation committee seems destined to follow the same path. The Tamil community remains deeply sceptical; it advocates for an independent international mechanism with the power to investigate and prosecute impartially. The Government however appear to view the TRC as a way to escape international scrutiny at the UN Human Rights Council.

Truth-telling is crucial for transitional justice, but it should not come at the expense of holding perpetrators accountable. The Sri Lankan Government’s past failures to deliver on those promises raises serious concerns. A genuine TRC should prioritise justice for victims, not serve as a tool for escaping international pressure.

Sri Lanka’s commitment to the UN Human Rights Council process has crumbled. After failing to show meaningful progress on resolution 30/1, they shockingly withdrew their co-sponsorship of it in 2020. Even the limited progress that has been made is now being reversed. A recent UN report from September last year painted a bleak picture:

“Sri Lanka suffers from a continuing accountability deficit”.

From war crimes, to recent human rights violations, corruption and abuse of power, the path to justice remains blocked. No Government has established a judicial mechanism to deliver justice in the emblematic cases outlined by the UN Human Rights Council. Allowing Sri Lanka to continually renege on its international commitments weakens the credibility of the UNHRC and its member states. The fight for accountability must not be abandoned.

Sri Lanka’s war crimes remain unpunished. Despite overwhelming evidence, no perpetrators have faced sanctions under the UK’s new Magnitsky Act-style legislation. This inaction stands in stark contrast to Canada, which sanctioned former President Rajapaksa for his wartime actions, and the US, which sanctioned General Shavendra Silva—whose division still stands accused of horrific abuses. The UK must act; holding war criminals accountable is essential for justice and a crucial step towards a more peaceful future.

I believe that the UK’s relationship with Sri Lanka needs a critical review. Military co-operation must be suspended until Sri Lanka removes personnel implicated in human rights violations from its security forces. The UK should also refuse diplomatic access and diplomatic roles to anyone accused of such abuses. Trade deals and concessions require re-evaluation in light of Sri Lanka’s failure to uphold human rights commitments, and sanctions are a potential tool to pressure reform.

Furthermore, the UK should make all future bilateral and multilateral ties with Sri Lanka contingent on concrete progress, that includes reconciliation among ethnic and religious groups. Sri Lanka should investigate and prosecute war crimes and human rights violations, return stolen land, resolve disappearances and reduce the military presence in former conflict zones. Ultimately, the island must demonstrate respect and uphold the rights and freedoms of all its people, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Investigating and prosecuting human rights abuses is critical to achieving that. By linking its support to those vital changes, the UK can play a significant role in pushing Sri Lanka towards a more just and peaceful future.

Sri Lanka’s human rights record casts a long shadow and demands a firm international response. The UK, along with other nations, has a crucial role in holding the country accountable. First, those accused of human rights crimes cannot escape unscathed. Targeted sanctions against officials can deliver a powerful message. Additionally, the principle of universal jurisdiction allows countries to pursue legal action against perpetrators on their own soil, regardless of where the crimes were committed.

The International Criminal Court offers another avenue for justice. The UK can collaborate with civil society to submit communications to the ICC’s prosecutor, urging a preliminary examination of potential crimes that fall under that court’s jurisdiction. Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s potential breaches of human rights treaties cannot be ignored. The International Court of Justice can be used to address the issues we are talking about —specifically, torture, enforced disappearance and racial discrimination.

Trade concessions granted to Sri Lanka under the developing countries trading scheme should not be unconditional. The UK can leverage those benefits by making them contingent on demonstrable progress in three key areas: the military must be purged of those implicated in human rights abuses, the Prevention of Terrorism Act must be repealed, and those responsible for well-documented human rights violations must be brought to justice. By employing that approach, the UK and the international community can send a clear message that human rights violations will not be tolerated. Those actions can and will exert significant pressure to push Sri Lanka towards a future in which the rights of all its people are respected. In particular, the Tamil people should achieve the peace, justice, accountability and truth that they have so long fought for.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:42, 20 Mawrth 2024

You threw me there, Dame Maria. I expected that Dame Siobhain McDonagh would be in front of me. I am very pleased to be called to make a contribution. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak. I congratulate Elliot Colburn, who regularly speaks up for minorities and raises human rights issues in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber; we appreciate his efforts.

I have spoken about human rights in Sri Lanka before. It is hard to come back and say that things have not changed, but unfortunately they have not. That is why this debate is so important—the hon. Gentleman outlined that very clearly. I will speak about the freedom of religion or belief, which is encompassed within the definition of human rights. Taking away human rights affects religious belief, and taking away religious belief affects human rights—the two are married together. Whenever we talk about one, we talk about the other.

The question for us today is how can we address this? More reasonably, how can we be part of the process of securing human rights for a needy people? Their history makes my heart sore, as it does for anyone who has compassion. They have lost everything—their dignity, their possessions, their human rights and their freedom of religious belief—all because of an autocratic regime that, as the hon. Gentleman said, spends more on defence than on feeding the country, health or education. It moves me to tears when I think about it.

I believe that steps can be taken and progress can be made on reconciliation through accountability, justice, acknowledgement and a correction of the situation for religious minorities. That must be considered by our Government and the Minister. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place—I always am—because he clearly understands our feelings and thoughts. I hope that he will provide some assurance on the issues, given that our Government develop foreign policies.

I am also pleased to see in their places the shadow Minister, Anna McMorrin, and the shadow Minister for the Scots Nats, Brendan O’Hara. He and I have been good friends in this House for many years. We have spoken on issues together and have had different adventures overseas, visiting some of those countries where the suppression of human rights and religious freedom is rampant. Although we have different outlooks on the constitution, we have the very same opinion on the issue of human rights, and our social consciences are married together, as indeed is our faith, which we hold strongly.

Sri Lankan Government agencies unlawfully occupied the property and religious sites of minority Tamil and Muslim communities. Additionally, in September 2023 a judge resigned and fled the country after he received death threats for a ruling that he made against the Department of Archaeology, which had constructed a Buddhist monument on the site of a Hindu temple. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I speak out for those with Christian belief, other beliefs and, indeed, no beliefs, because that is what I believe in my heart and that is where I come from. If a Hindu temple is disrespected and a Buddhist temple is built on it, that is against the human rights and the religious belief of those of a Hindu faith in Sri Lanka. That is done because it is encouraged by a Government who have little or no concern or respect for any other religion.

How do we address those issues? I hope to outline that, but the major issue is that we should be using aid to change the opinion of the authorities in Sri Lanka. As acknowledged in the briefing for this debate, Sri Lanka’s Online Safety Act and other proposed and enacted laws have severely limited civil liberties. How are such laws impacting on freedom of religion or belief?

The rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are heavily intertwined with the fate of FORB, as I mentioned at the beginning. I can never get myself away from that definition of where we are and how I and many others in the Chamber and further afield see it. We must ensure that our foreign policies—this is where the Minister and our Government come in— encourage compliance with article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights, which Sri Lanka ratified in 1980. It was ratified, but no action was taken, and I am disappointed that the Sri Lankan Government have disregarded article 18 in its totality.

FORB is also intricately linked with women’s and girls’ rights. I mention that because some of the things that are happening in Sri Lanka are bestial and disgraceful. The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, which governs marriage in the Muslim community, contains numerous provisions that violate the rights of women and girls, including by allowing child marriage without setting any minimum age.

I get real angst when I think about that. I look at my grandchildren and think how, if they were living in Sri Lanka, they could be abused—they could be married at the age of nine and 15, even though their bodies and emotions are clearly not in any way ready for that to happen. As a father and grandfather, how could I not condemn what the Sri Lankan authorities are doing against young women, and especially young girls? The Act stipulates that only men can be judges in the quazi—family—court, which makes it easier for men than women to obtain a divorce. It does not require a woman’s or girl’s consent to be recorded before the registration of her marriage, which should be an absolute precondition.

I am ever mindful that the Minister is not responsible for what is happening in Sri Lanka. I just ask him if there have been any discussions with the Sri Lankan authorities in relation to this specific issue to ensure that there will be no under-age marriage whatsoever.

Following on from that, in cases of child marriage, the penal code in Sri Lanka permits under the MMDA what would otherwise constitute statutory rape. In no country in this world should the statutory rape of young girls be permitted. Those girls, who have not reached puberty, can be abused by people just because they have got the right to do it by the law of the land. When it comes to the MMDA and the divorce Act, what are the Government and the Minister doing, and what are we doing as a people of conscience, to help those young ladies in Sri Lanka?

The UK must take laws into account as well as helping to develop aid strategies and distribution policies for Sri Lanka. Additionally, the UK must consider the position of refugees in Sri Lanka. There are lots of refugees there. I think that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to 14 divisions in the north of Sri Lanka who are there primarily and objectively to intimidate all the Tamils, the local populations, and local religions as well. How can that be disregarded by our own Government or by our own people?

There are several religious minorities in Sri Lanka, including the Ahmadis. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and I were in Pakistan and had an opportunity to see and meet the Ahmadis on a regular basis. I really have to make a plea for them. They fled from persecution in Pakistan and are still awaiting resettlement in other countries.

I am conscious that I am asking the Minister a lot of questions, but I do so because I feel they must be put on the record, and very strongly feel that we need answers to them. While the resettlement considerations may not be in the realm of the UK’s authority, are there ways in which we can help Sri Lanka to develop policies and processes to ensure that the rights of refugees are protected? Can we work with Sri Lanka, for instance, and relevant communities and Governments to resettle the refugees in third countries? We should have a role, working alongside other countries to make that happen.

Finally, will the UK be able to take in such refugees as part of its UK resettlement scheme for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees? That is a question that we must ask ourselves. We cannot solve the world’s problems by ourselves, but we can play a role in making lives better by bringing such refugees to our shores. Equally, we can help them to resettle elsewhere. We have international obligations to fulfil.

I conclude with this as I am ever mindful that others want to speak and want to give them all a chance to contribute to the debate. I have spoken about human rights in Sri Lanka on many occasions, because the stories that I and others hear in this House move me to do all that I can. The question for our Government must be: have we been moved as much to do all we can? If not, will we begin to be moved today?

We take the right to live, the right to work and the right to hold our own beliefs for granted in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but we are tasked with the responsibility of speaking up for those who do not have those human rights—including freedom of religious rights—in Sri Lanka. I believe that we must speak for those who have no voice. In our debate today, I want my voice and the voices of others in the Chamber to be the voices for the voiceless of Sri Lanka, who need us to speak up for them and to do our best for them.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Llafur, Mitcham and Morden 2:54, 20 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I congratulate Elliot Colburn on securing the debate, and it is a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon, who has so frequently spoken in support of the Tamil people.

I hope that I am a friend of the Tamil community: a community that is hard-working and entrepreneurial, and that has given so much to our country and our capital city. It has an almost obsessive desire to educate its children to ensure that they are the future doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants who will make such a great contribution.

I am well aware of the tenacity of the Tamil community. In the 14 years since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, I have stood alongside Tamils in my constituency of Mitcham and Morden on the road to justice, peace and accountability. Those 14 years have presented so many challenges and such little progress, but so much pain.

Not only have we called for accountability for the terrible war crimes committed 14 years ago, but we are calling for an end to the human rights abuses that are still being experienced by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka today. That starts with repealing the sixth amendment, which continues to be a barrier to Tamil self-determination. The sixth amendment criminalises support, in Sri Lanka or abroad, for the establishment of a separate state within the territory of Sri Lanka. Anyone convicted of violating the sixth amendment faces losing their passport and will not be able to sit for public exams or even qualify for a trade that requires a licence. It prevents Tamils at home and abroad from coming together freely to express their political aspirations.

It is not just about the sixth amendment—we need to go further than that. The 13th amendment stops elected members of provincial councils from using their powers and instead gives them to unelected governors controlled by the Sri Lankan President. That leaves Tamils powerless when the state takes ancient Tamil places of worship and converts them into Sinhala Buddhist temples. Tamils have nowhere to go.

Back in the UK, I had hoped that at the last Cabinet reshuffle we might have got a Foreign Secretary who would take some action on Sri Lankan human rights—a Foreign Secretary who had more than warm words for British Tamils calling for justice. What did we get? We got Baron Cameron of Chipping Norton, who has spent his time out of office being paid by a Chinese state enterprise to promote a commercial court in Sri Lanka, promoting a Rajapaksa-era mega-infrastructure project.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Ceidwadwyr, Basingstoke

Order. I remind the hon. Lady that she should not be criticising colleagues who are sitting in the House of Lords.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Llafur, Mitcham and Morden

I will then make a statement of fact: David Cameron worked on behalf of a Chinese state enterprise to promote a commercial port in Sri Lanka, promoting a Rajapaksa-era mega-infrastructure project. I do not believe that that was in the interests of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and I do not think it was in the interests of this country, either. My Tamil constituents deserve better.

There seems to be an attitude in the Foreign Office, which I have witnessed during Labour Governments and Conservative Governments, of there always being a need for discussion and encouragement. Nothing that I have seen in Sri Lanka over the years since the civil war suggests that the Sri Lankan Government will ever react to anything but force and determination, rather than encouragement or negotiation. Hundreds of thousands of people who disappeared during the civil war have still not been found, and not one person has been prosecuted for committing a war crime.

There are more questions than there have ever been. On occasion, it seems to me to be just ticking a box and some mealy-mouthed diplomacy. Tamils deserve a UK Government that will take the lead in calling for Sri Lanka to repeal the sixth amendment, which would give Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad the ability to come together and call for the political solution they hope for. Then we would have a Government with a principled position on Sri Lanka.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 2:59, 20 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I too would like to thank Elliot Colburn for securing the debate and for the way he opened it. I would also like to thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Mitcham and Morden (Dame Siobhain McDonagh) for their excellent contributions. As hon. Members will be aware, this House is well acquainted with the issue of Sri Lankan human rights. We have discussed it often because it is important. It should matter not just to us and to the diaspora, but to all who care about human rights, international law, justice and accountability.

However, we have to be realistic. We have debated and highlighted these issues for decades in this place, and yet the situation in Sri Lanka remains largely unchanged; unfortunately, I suspect the community will say they have heard it all before. From a glance at Hansard this morning, I found Russell Johnston, the Liberal MP for Inverness, urging the Government in 1975 to do more to end human rights abuses in Sri Lanka; in 1984, Plaid Cymru’s Dafydd Wigley pleading with the Government not to forcibly repatriate the Tamils to Sri Lanka, given the levels of sectarian violence; in 1985, a very young right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), demanding an arms embargo on Sri Lanka due to its appalling human rights record; and, exactly a decade later, Sir Stephen Timms asking for those fleeing the regime’s persecution to be granted asylum in the UK. Even at the start of the new millennium, Elfyn Llwyd from Plaid Cymru was urging the cancellation of arms export licences to Sri Lanka following verified reports of extrajudicial killings. On and on it goes: as recently as last December, Members of this House quite rightly and properly raised the hugely important issues of fundamental human rights in Sri Lanka.

If nothing else, we in this House have over many years shown tenacity and resilience. We will appeal once again to the UK Government, as a believer in the rule of law, to use their position and strength to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to finally abide by their international obligations and act in accordance with the accepted international standards of human rights.

As we have heard so often in these debates, Sri Lanka is a founding member of the Commonwealth, and we know that the Commonwealth foundational principles are peace and democracy. By no stretch could Sri Lanka be considered to be a champion of those principles when the Tamil minority, numbering just around 11% of the population, is still subject to human rights violations at the hands of their Government.

In its 2022 country report, the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said that Sri Lanka’s human rights practices included credible reports of unlawful and arbitrary killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, a lack of an independent judiciary, violence against journalists, serious restrictions on internet freedom, restrictions on freedom of movement, serious Government corruption and a lack of accountability for gender-based violence and crimes involving violence targeting members of national, racial and ethnic minority groups. The US State Department concluded that the Sri Lankan Government took minimal steps to identify, investigate, prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses or were engaged in corruption, saying there was impunity for both. By any standard, that is a damning report. If we are honest, though, none of it would come as a surprise to any of us in this House who have watched Sri Lanka’s treatment of the Tamil minority over the years.

From the state’s inception, the Tamil minority has been treated as outsiders in their own land. The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 effectively rendered Tamils stateless, leading to the deportation of many thousands of Tamils to India between the 1960s and 1980s. That was quickly followed by the 1956 Sinhala Only Act, which made Sinhalese the only official language of Sri Lanka, completely excluding Tamil and making it abundantly clear that Sri Lanka’s Tamils, as well as their history, language and culture, had no place in that new country. Given that level of state-sponsored discrimination, it is little wonder there has been such an appalling catalogue of violence and atrocity crimes perpetrated on the Tamil people.

Time and again, Tamils have been the victim of oppression and systematic violence, which dates back to the 1950s and continues to the present day. Violence, including serious accusations of widespread sexual violence, is being perpetrated against women and girls by both the Sri Lankan military and Sinhalese mobs during the numerous anti-Tamil pogroms, which stretch back decades.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman just reminded me in what he said that along with the things that we ask for, we need accountability for those who carried out some of those despicable—and worse—crimes. That ensures that they do not think they are getting away with the crimes that they have carried out and that there will be accountability in the courts of the land. They will get their justice in the next world, but you, Dame Maria, I and many others want to see them get their justice in this world.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. He is right, and I will touch on that momentarily.

It is absolutely essential that there is accountability and that people are held to account. We must use what powers we have to ensure that that happens, because various UN bodies, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations have long criticised successive Sri Lankan Administrations for failing to investigate seriously and prosecute those responsible for the most grievous of human rights abuses. Amnesty International has identified that despite mounting global pressure to act, those violators have gone scot-free. The issues have remained unaddressed, and groups pressuring the Government to act have been harassed and marginalised.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington talked about the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act. That has been an area of real, grave concern for many of us. The Act has allowed arbitrary arrests, detention without charge, false confession and torture of anyone suspected of terrorism. The Government have used that Act for 40 years to arrest and detain opponents and suppress the Tamil community. More recently, it has been used to detain protesters and anyone speaking out against the Government, even if their comments were made on social media. However, there are now real fears that its replacement, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, may be actually worse, and that the Government’s attitude towards minority groups has not changed one iota.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has already stated that the new Anti-Terrorism Bill does not get anywhere close to sorting out the defects in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, saying:

“It is deeply regrettable that the proposed legislation does not remedy any of these defects”.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch reported on the proposed new laws, which it says will “severely curtail civil liberties”. The new laws, including an Online Safety Act, an Electronic Media Broadcasting Authority Bill and a Non-Governmental Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Bill, will grant broad powers to security forces and severely restrict the right to freedom of assembly, association and expression. They will impact on not only the civic space, but the business environment.

Sri Lanka appears to be going backwards in its adherence to the principles of upholding and protecting fundamental human rights that we hold dear. As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden said, that represents a collective failure by the international community. It says that we and our partners have not done nearly enough to pressure the Sri Lankan Government to change their behaviour. Thus far, I believe that we have not used all options open to us. Is it not time that, as well as discussing and debating in this place, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office persuading and pressuring in its place, the UK actually flexes its muscles where it can? It should apply targeted Magnitsky sanctions against those who can be identified as active or complicit in human rights abuses. Other countries can do it, and other countries have done it. That is the very least that the victims of the war—both living and dead, both here and in Sri Lanka—could and should expect from us.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Llafur, Gogledd Caerdydd 3:09, 20 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. We have heard some really strong speeches and interventions today, not least from Elliot Colburn. I congratulate him on bringing forward this really important debate. I thank the Members who have contributed today. Jim Shannon outlined the incredible importance of the freedom of religious belief, and my hon. Friend Dame Siobhain McDonagh spoke powerfully about the need to protect human rights in Sri Lanka, and the need to protect the Tamil community.

Issues of human rights and international law will always be central to how the Labour party approaches international affairs. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this topic. My hon. Friend Catherine West, the shadow Foreign Minister for Asia and the Pacific, is currently travelling on parliamentary business so she has asked me to speak in her place.

There are many close ties between the UK and Sri Lanka and many living links between communities in both countries. Sri Lanka is a member of the Commonwealth and has been through a challenging period of economic crisis in the last few years. It is also, quite rightly, one of the FCDO’s 32 human rights priority countries, which is clear recognition of the serious ongoing human rights concerns there, including concerns for the rights of minority groups.

The Labour party believes that central components of the UK’s approach to Sri Lanka must be support for human rights, for accountability and, importantly, for reconciliation. Sri Lanka’s long civil war has left deep scars on the people of that country and, in the final months of that war, thousands of civilians, mainly from the Tamil community, lost their lives. That period included extensively documented reports of atrocities, torture and extra-judicial killings. It is deeply troubling that, 15 years since the end of that bloody conflict, so few people have been held accountable for their actions and little progress has been made. It remains an elusive search for justice. The reality is that the Sri Lankan Government have sought to evade accountability and delay scrutiny. It is therefore important that we call that out as unacceptable and we will continue to do so.

Many colleagues and hon. Members, from across the House, will be aware of the strength of feeling on these issues among many in the diaspora communities of our country. Many people write to us with concerns about the ongoing lack of accountability for what happened during that terrible period. I know many colleagues across the House, many of whom cannot be here today, have received that correspondence.

Justice and accountability are critical elements of building a durable and inclusive peace. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, the shadow Foreign Minister for Asia and the Pacific, welcomed the announcement, made in May last year, that the Sri Lankan Government will be undertaking a national unity and reconciliation commission. However, there are many outstanding concerns. Several major non-governmental organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have raised concerns about the commission. There appears to be a genuine lack of confidence in the milestones involved. Progress in transitional justice depends on the support of victims and their communities and it needs to be properly resourced. It needs to be independent and it needs to be transparent. It needs to be a proper truth and reconciliation commission that gives confidence to the international community. Can the Minister, therefore, outline the Government’s view on the commission, and what progress has been made with it?

With domestic justice processes being so long delayed and denied, we must also look at alternative routes. I want to mention two. First, are the UK Government willing to consider human rights sanctions against those deemed responsible for grave human rights abuses during the civil war? The Minister might tell me he cannot commit, but will he at least acknowledge that key allies of the UK, such as the US and Canada, have already imposed sanctions, including against General Silva? What is stopping us doing the same? Can he answer that today?

Secondly, on international routes to legal accountability, will the Minister make it clear whether he believes, based on the evidence at the International Criminal Court, that there is a case to be answered to prosecute international crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war? Will he let us know if the UK Government are supporting that process in any way?

Tamil communities, as well as other minority communities, continue to face harassment, land seizures and marginalisation, including against civil activists. Just last week, eight Tamil Hindu worshippers were arrested while engaging in festival rituals. They were detained for more than 10 days and allegedly subjected to abuse. That only serves to sustain and deepen tensions and divides between the communities. Will the Minister outline what steps his Government are taking through their funded programmes in Sri Lanka on human rights to address the long-standing issues facing minority communities, particularly the Tamils?

We all want to see a pathway for Sri Lanka to become a pluralistic, multicultural democracy in which all people can flourish, but for the people in Sri Lanka and its diaspora whose lives were destroyed by this terrible civil war, truth, accountability and reconciliation are essential stages on that journey. I hope the Minister can give confidence to our constituents right across the country and those who care deeply about human rights that the UK Government are doing their part to support justice and peace.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa) 3:16, 20 Mawrth 2024

I believe this is the first time we have been joined in such an endeavour during our time in the House together, Dame Maria, and it is a huge privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for securing the debate, and I congratulate him on the way in which he presented what he had to say to us. Somewhat similarly to the Opposition spokesman, Anna McMorrin, I am standing in for the Minister for the Indo-Pacific, my right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, as she is unable to attend, but it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government to the excellent and interesting debate we have just heard. I am extremely grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members who have spoken. I will seek to respond to all points raised, and if I omit any, I will of course immediately write to hon. Members.

One point I want to pick up at the outset, which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, is to do with the British military engagement in Sri Lanka, but I hope to pick up the rest of his points during my remarks. The British strategy for defence engagement in Sri Lanka focuses primarily on professional military education, strategic leadership and international development. We continuously monitor the context and viability of the approach to ensure that UK assistance is in line with our values and consistent with our domestic and international human rights obligations, and assures the process of selecting appropriate personnel for any UK-sponsored training.

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend Jim Shannon, who was questioning me just an hour or so ago on issues to do with Hong Kong. I recognise the specific interest and experience he brings to a debate like this because of his knowledge and understanding of reconciliation, conflict and healing. I heard him say—and how right he is—that he speaks up always in this House for human rights and for the voiceless.

Dame Siobhain McDonagh spoke movingly on behalf of her Tamil constituents, and I will seek to come to at least some of her comments. Likewise, Brendan O’Hara raised important issues from his experience of these matters. The hon. Member for Cardiff North raised a number of points that I will come to, but she asked me two specific questions. The first was about human rights sanctions, and as I think she inferred, we certainly keep such matters under review as appropriate, but she will not be particularly surprised to hear me say that we do not discuss them in advance and neither would we discuss our thinking across the Floor of the House. She also, secondarily, made a point about the importance of accountability. I will come to some of this in my further remarks, but I want to be very clear to her that we regard transparency and accountability as fundamental parts of reconciliation. I will say more about that in a moment.

Let me turn to the current situation. Human rights in Sri Lanka remain a priority for the Government, and we monitor closely the situation and developments there. The fact that Sri Lanka is a human rights priority country for the British Government reflects our concerns about a range of human rights issues and, quite rightly, hon. Members have highlighted a number of those concerns.

Civil society continues to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment by state authorities. Those points were eloquently set out during some of the contributions we have heard today. We are concerned about a trend towards a more constrained civic space, including the use of laws to limit freedoms of expression and assembly, such as the misuse of the international covenant on civil and political rights, or the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was mentioned earlier. Britain continues to call for the replacement of the draconian PTA with legislation that is consistent with Sri Lanka’s international obligations and to uphold a moratorium on the use of the provisions of the PTA.

We are also concerned about the Online Safety Act, which was recently passed. It has the potential to restrict severely online communication and could criminalise many forms of expression. Proposals to strengthen the regulation of non-governmental organisations and broadcast media raise fears of efforts to restrict civic space.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Ceidwadwyr, Carshalton and Wallington

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On the point about the online space, it is indeed being encroached on internationally. In fact, here in the United Kingdom, the Tamil Guardian and other Tamil publications have faced deplatforming from places like Meta, Facebook and Instagram, for example, due to complaints made elsewhere in the world under the auspices of the PTA and other bits of legislation. Can he perhaps take away the question of how we can protect the rights of Tamils to express themselves freely online when they are outside the geographical space of the island?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

Yes, I will certainly take that away, as my hon. Friend requests, and I hope that some of what I will have to say will assist in addressing that point. We want to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to hold comprehensive consultations with stakeholders and enact amendments to align legislation with Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations.

As this House acknowledged in a debate—I think, in December—a number of different communities, including Tamils and Muslims, face marginalisation by state authorities. There have been increasing tensions around land, which have sometimes centred around religious sites, such as the most recent incident at a Hindu temple in Vavuniya. These actions and incidents have troubling implications for freedom of religion or belief. There have been reports of state-sponsored settlement of traditional pastureland in Batticaloa, which threatens the livelihoods of local farmers. These events have increased the risk of communal tensions and stoked perceptions of forced displacement from traditional Tamil areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka. There have been several incidents of heavy-handed policing of peaceful protests and commemorations, and the ongoing special police operation, which is ostensibly aimed at combating drug trafficking, has raised serious concerns over arbitrary arrests, seizures of property and ill treatment in detention.

I now turn to what Britain specifically is seeking to do: promoting human rights, reconciliation and justice, and accountability. Those are key strands of the UK Government’s policy towards Sri Lanka. The Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, raises our concerns about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka on a regular basis. When she visited Sri Lanka in October, she raised concerns with the President, the Foreign Minister and the Justice Minister, and she again saw the Sri Lankan Justice Minister when he was in Britain last week.

When in Sri Lanka, my right hon. Friend met the governor of Northern Province, Tamil representatives and members of civil society. She raised the need for progress on human rights for all communities in Sri Lanka, and the need for justice and accountability for violations and abuses committed during and following the armed conflict. The British Government have an £11 million programme that supports human rights and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. We have specific projects and programmes that help to tackle the legacy of the conflict, support civil society and democratic processes, promote gender equality and reduce inter-community tensions.

We have been a leading member of the core group of countries in the United Nations Human Rights Council that work to improve human rights, justice and accountability throughout Sri Lanka. We have worked within the UN human rights system to raise concerns and build international support to strengthen human rights. We used our statement to the UN Human Rights Council on 4 March to raise our concern on recent legislative developments relating to human rights, reconciliation and civic space.

Our statement urged the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure meaningful consultation on the proposed commission for truth, unity and reconciliation. Britian has stressed the importance, as I mentioned in my early remarks to the hon. Member for Cardiff North, of transparency, accountability and inclusivity in any process, and of building meaningfully on past work and recommendations that address the root causes of conflicts and impunity.

The British delegation in the UN Human Rights Council led work on the most recent resolution on Sri Lanka. We remain ready to support Sri Lanka in addressing the UK-penned resolution 51/1. In the resolution, we focused international attention on the human rights situation and shortcomings. We succeeded in renewing the mandate of UN human rights experts to report on these issues and to preserve evidence of abuses and violations—turning specifically to the point the hon. Lady made—committed during the armed conflict, so that justice can be pursued. We call on the Government of Sri Lanka to engage constructively with all UN human rights initiatives, and to take up the offers of support available to them.

There are some positive signs. We welcome steps taken by the Sri Lankan Government to address some of the community grievances, and civil society and international community concerns. The release of some disputed lands is a helpful step, as is the release of some long-term PTA detainees. We welcome the Government’s initial steps to engage with representatives of the Tamil community on a long-sought political settlement. We have urged the Government to consider further confidence-building measures and engagement. We welcome steps taken by the Government of Sri Lanka to improve connectivity between the north and countries in the region, including through regular flights. That should help increase economic opportunities for Tamils and others in those communities.

I will conclude on this note. Britain closely monitors human rights developments in Sri Lanka. We welcome the ongoing attentions and contributions of right hon. and hon. Members, and the spotlight they bring to this issue. We are concerned by the ongoing land disputes, the continued harassment and surveillance of civil society and the limitations on freedoms of expression, assembly and association, including through recent and proposed legislation. We will continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to adhere to their human rights obligations, fulfil their commitments on transitional justice and legislative reform, and take steps to build trust in their institutions.

Our projects and programmes in Sri Lanka will continue to target the drivers of conflict and support improvements in human rights. Ministers and officials will continue to engage with the Government and wider society on human rights and transitional justice. We will remain a leading voice on the international stage, working with civil society and through the United Nations to deliver meaningful human rights improvements for the Tamils and all the people of Sri Lanka.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Ceidwadwyr, Carshalton and Wallington 3:30, 20 Mawrth 2024

I thank the Minister for his response. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, particularly my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Mitcham and Morden (Dame Siobhain McDonagh)—I have not yet had a chance to congratulate her on her damehood.

We cannot allow the lack of progress to continue. We will no doubt be back here again, not least because our Tamil constituents will demand that of us. As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden said, particularly in London we are lucky to be blessed with large Tamil populations. I represent many Tamils in my Carshalton and Wallington constituency. They are excellent community voices. They are very active in our community, and are keen UK citizens. They are active in our public services—something like one in 10 doctors is Tamil, and a Tamil was on the team of doctors who came up with the first covid vaccine at Oxford. We thank the Tamil population for their contribution to the UK, and commit ourselves to doing all we can for them to secure peace, justice and accountability.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered human rights in Sri Lanka.

Sitting suspended.