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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 2:42 pm ar 20 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.