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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 2:59 pm ar 20 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.