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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 3:09 pm ar 20 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.