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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 2:30 pm ar 20 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.