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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 3:16 pm ar 20 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa) 3:16, 20 Mawrth 2024

Yes, I will certainly take that away, as my hon. Friend requests, and I hope that some of what I will have to say will assist in addressing that point. We want to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to hold comprehensive consultations with stakeholders and enact amendments to align legislation with Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations.

As this House acknowledged in a debate—I think, in December—a number of different communities, including Tamils and Muslims, face marginalisation by state authorities. There have been increasing tensions around land, which have sometimes centred around religious sites, such as the most recent incident at a Hindu temple in Vavuniya. These actions and incidents have troubling implications for freedom of religion or belief. There have been reports of state-sponsored settlement of traditional pastureland in Batticaloa, which threatens the livelihoods of local farmers. These events have increased the risk of communal tensions and stoked perceptions of forced displacement from traditional Tamil areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka. There have been several incidents of heavy-handed policing of peaceful protests and commemorations, and the ongoing special police operation, which is ostensibly aimed at combating drug trafficking, has raised serious concerns over arbitrary arrests, seizures of property and ill treatment in detention.

I now turn to what Britain specifically is seeking to do: promoting human rights, reconciliation and justice, and accountability. Those are key strands of the UK Government’s policy towards Sri Lanka. The Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, raises our concerns about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka on a regular basis. When she visited Sri Lanka in October, she raised concerns with the President, the Foreign Minister and the Justice Minister, and she again saw the Sri Lankan Justice Minister when he was in Britain last week.

When in Sri Lanka, my right hon. Friend met the governor of Northern Province, Tamil representatives and members of civil society. She raised the need for progress on human rights for all communities in Sri Lanka, and the need for justice and accountability for violations and abuses committed during and following the armed conflict. The British Government have an £11 million programme that supports human rights and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. We have specific projects and programmes that help to tackle the legacy of the conflict, support civil society and democratic processes, promote gender equality and reduce inter-community tensions.

We have been a leading member of the core group of countries in the United Nations Human Rights Council that work to improve human rights, justice and accountability throughout Sri Lanka. We have worked within the UN human rights system to raise concerns and build international support to strengthen human rights. We used our statement to the UN Human Rights Council on 4 March to raise our concern on recent legislative developments relating to human rights, reconciliation and civic space.

Our statement urged the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure meaningful consultation on the proposed commission for truth, unity and reconciliation. Britian has stressed the importance, as I mentioned in my early remarks to the hon. Member for Cardiff North, of transparency, accountability and inclusivity in any process, and of building meaningfully on past work and recommendations that address the root causes of conflicts and impunity.

The British delegation in the UN Human Rights Council led work on the most recent resolution on Sri Lanka. We remain ready to support Sri Lanka in addressing the UK-penned resolution 51/1. In the resolution, we focused international attention on the human rights situation and shortcomings. We succeeded in renewing the mandate of UN human rights experts to report on these issues and to preserve evidence of abuses and violations—turning specifically to the point the hon. Lady made—committed during the armed conflict, so that justice can be pursued. We call on the Government of Sri Lanka to engage constructively with all UN human rights initiatives, and to take up the offers of support available to them.

There are some positive signs. We welcome steps taken by the Sri Lankan Government to address some of the community grievances, and civil society and international community concerns. The release of some disputed lands is a helpful step, as is the release of some long-term PTA detainees. We welcome the Government’s initial steps to engage with representatives of the Tamil community on a long-sought political settlement. We have urged the Government to consider further confidence-building measures and engagement. We welcome steps taken by the Government of Sri Lanka to improve connectivity between the north and countries in the region, including through regular flights. That should help increase economic opportunities for Tamils and others in those communities.

I will conclude on this note. Britain closely monitors human rights developments in Sri Lanka. We welcome the ongoing attentions and contributions of right hon. and hon. Members, and the spotlight they bring to this issue. We are concerned by the ongoing land disputes, the continued harassment and surveillance of civil society and the limitations on freedoms of expression, assembly and association, including through recent and proposed legislation. We will continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to adhere to their human rights obligations, fulfil their commitments on transitional justice and legislative reform, and take steps to build trust in their institutions.

Our projects and programmes in Sri Lanka will continue to target the drivers of conflict and support improvements in human rights. Ministers and officials will continue to engage with the Government and wider society on human rights and transitional justice. We will remain a leading voice on the international stage, working with civil society and through the United Nations to deliver meaningful human rights improvements for the Tamils and all the people of Sri Lanka.