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

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.