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British parliament debates 'UK commitments to reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka'

Following widespread criticism of the draft UN resolution, which is seen to fall short on accountability, the British parliament held a debate on the country's commitments to Sri Lanka on issues of “reconciliation, accountability and human rights”.

The resolution follows a damning report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which highlights the deteriorating human rights conditions in Sri Lanka and urges international action to prevent future violations. The call to action includes imposing sanctions on senior Sri Lankan officials implicated in war crimes; to consider referring Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court; and for UN members to pursue accountability within their national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

 

Minister of State for Asia and MP of Selby and Ainsty, Nigel Adams

Responding to concerns over Sri Lanka's human rights record, Minister of State for Asia, Nigel Adams remarked that;

“The human rights situation in Sri Lanka and the limits of progress on reconciliation and accountability raised by many honourable members is deeply concerning.”

In his statement he highlighted the "continued harassment and surveillance of minorities and civil society groups; the increasing role of the military in civilian governments and the constitutional amendment which has extended executive control over the judiciary.” He further raised concerns of religious freedom noting that whilst Sri Lanka's forced cremations policy was recently reversed, "families face significant restrictions on burials.”

Commenting on the draft resolution, Adams maintains that the resolution calls upon Sri Lanka to "make progress on accountability and human rights, stressing the need for a comprehensive accountability process for all violations and abuses committed". He further notes addressed the hunger strike staged by Ambikhai Selvakumar, stating that the government "recognised the concerns she's raised regarding the issues faced by Tamils" and that the government had "highlighted these concerns about the lack of progress towards post-conflict accountability, and the human rights situation.”

“Accountability and human rights must remain high on the agenda. Accountability and human rights to provide justice for all the victims of the conflict, and for the lasting reconciliation and stability that will allow the people of Sri Lanka to prosper”, he further added.

 

Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Stephen Kinnock

Directly preceding Adam's remarks was fierce criticism of the government's inaction by Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Stephen Kinnock. Kinnock began his statement by reflecting on Sri Lanka's historic and on-going human rights abuses.

“In 2009, in the final few months of Sri Lanka’s long, brutal civil war, tens of thousands of civilians, mostly from the Tamil community, lost their lives. It is a scar on the conscience of the world that no one has been held accountable for those crimes, which include the deliberate shelling of civilian targets, sexual violence, and extrajudicial executions. The shocking lack of accountability for past atrocities is compounded by the fact that the human rights violations in Sri Lanka continue to this day. Respected non-governmental organisation Freedom from Torture has forensically documented more than 300 cases of torture by the Sri Lankan state since the war ended, and it continues to receive referrals for Sri Lankan individuals today".

Kinnock further criticises the militarisation of the Sri Lankan government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the appointment of senior military officials accused of war crimes to key cabinet positions. Kinnock also shared his concerns over the issued of forced cremations.

Responding directly to the proposed UN resolution, he expressed areas of concern which include a failure to incorporate "universal or extraterritorial jurisdiction" in pursuit of accountability, as recommended by the UN High Commissioner. Kinnock also noted that whilst the government had supported evidence gathering, "it stops short of recommending the establishment of a fully-fledged Independent International Investigative Mechanism (III-M)".

Kinnock further questioned why the government was failing to refer senior members of Sri Lanka's military and government to the International Criminal Court, despite "a strong basis" for such a referral.

“We know that two of the permanent members of the UN will likely block such action. But should the position of the government really be shaped by the veto-wielding intentions of China and Russia?', he remarked.

Kinnock further highlighted the failure to include measures in the resolution to address prevention.

"Why doesn't the resolution include explicit reference to protecting human rights defenders and British diplomats travelling on a regular basis to the North-East of Sri Lanka to assess the situation on the ground?” - 

He further lambasted the resolutions call for 18-months till accountability options are reviewed, noting that "the unacceptably long timeline given the evidence already available will give the Sri Lankan government yet more time to obstruct and obfuscate. He recommends instead a six month period.

Kinnock also drew criticism on the failure to sanction Sri Lankan officials implicated in war crimes stating, "not a single Sri Lankan Government Minister official or military officer has been designated, could the Minister what’s taking so long?”

Kinnock further highlighted the UK defence advisors engagement with Sri Lanka and meeting "with at least four senior commanders of the Sri Lankan military who stand accused of gross human rights violations". This he notes, follows recently leaked comments made by the Foreign Secretary, which showed that "he's happy to pursue trade deals with governments that are committing human rights abuses".

Kinnock also questioned why Police Scotland had recently deployed 90 officers to Sri Lanka and was continuing its training contracts. "Have these deployments achieved tangible results or are they just lending a veneer of credibility?" he asked.

“If global Britain is to mean anything, it must surely mean consistently standing up for democracy, for the rule of law and for universal rights and values—not just with words, but with deeds. That must start today, and it must start with Sri Lanka” he remarked.

 

Leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey

Responding to the dire circumstances in Sri Lanka, Leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey remarked that;

“From the appalling treatment of Sri Lanka's Muslim and Christian communities during COVID-[19] to the continuing human rights abuses against the Tamil population across the island, things are getting worse as the international community wrings its hands" 

He further noted the consistent failure of the international community remarking;

“We have witnessed time and again, the Tamil people being harmed by the Sri Lankan government and let down by the international community.”

Davey's remarks highlighted the consistent failure of domestic mechanisms and call upon the UK to establish an Independent International Investigative Mechanism which can investigate "allegations of genocide, war crimes" which need "to be properly examined and investigated".

“It’s clear the Sri Lankan government will continue to deny, delay and evade. We urgently need a new international solution. The 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council is currently underway giving the UK the opportunity to demand accountability in Sri Lanka”, he maintained.

He further chastised the current resolution which he states "totally fails to rise to the challenge". "The draft resolution is too vague and lacks robust commitment to international accountability mechanisms", he adds.

"The British Tamil community is growing frustrated on the lack of meaningful progress in finding justice, and I share this frustration. So it's time for the UK to also undertake bilateral actions to push for accountability” Davey's remarked. 

His speech further his calls to end arms exports to Sri Lanka.  

"It is preposterous that arms exports are still not banned. The government should look at Magnitsky-style sanctions, in case individuals are perpetrating human rights abuses”, he noted.

He concluded his speech stating:

“It's time that countries work together to support the democratic and human rights of the Tamil people and [stop] allowing the Sri Lankan government to become increasingly under the influence of Beijing. It's time we stood up for the human rights of Tamil people.” 

Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and former Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell 

The former Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, remarked on the pressing need for the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to strengthen the existing resolution. Reflecting on the High Commissioner's he remarked that

"Many of us have been shocked but not surprised at the latest report in January on the situation in Sri Lanka from the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. It sets out straightforwardly the litany of concerns that our own constituents have drawn to our attention: the failure of the Sri Lankan Government to address past human rights violations; the closing down of the space for independent voices; the intimidation of civil society alongside a deepening attitude of acting with impunity within the Government; a visible and increased militarisation of the civil Administration; and, yes, the rise of ethnonationalism and hate speech—there clearly has been a concerted and targeted attack on the rights of Tamil and Muslim communities".

Reflecting on Britain's legacy in Sri Lanka he noted:

"I believe that this country has a special responsibility for action as a former colonial power. We united the three kingdoms, one of which was a Tamil kingdom, into one country and then left in 1948".

He further outlined clear steps the government could take:

- First, we must ensure that all trade and aid agreements with Sri Lanka are only granted following the full ratification and enactment by the Sri Lankan Government of the UN human rights conventions and the fulfilment of their pledge to scrap the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

- Secondly, I support all Members who have said that we should use the Magnitsky provisions that we have recently put into legislation to ensure that we take action against those individuals who are accused of gross human rights violations.

- Finally, we must ensure that we fully fund and support bodies investigating human rights abuses and war crimes and bring on to the agenda the claims of genocide during the war in Sri Lanka.

Member of Parliament for Mitcham and Morden, Siobhain McDonagh

Siobhain McDonagh, MP for Mitcham and Morden, who opened and closed the debate began by reflecting on the tragedy of the Mullaivaikkal massacre which she described as a "genocidal killing". Her statement highlighted that the perpetrators of these atrocities then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, "are the present-day link to the atrocities of the past".

'The government designated no-fire zone where Tamil civilians took refuge is an utterly horrifying today as it was those 12 years ago, as are the big findings of the expert that government forces, even systematically shelled hospitals' she stated.

She further added that:

"To this day, no one has been held accountable for international crimes committed crimes that have led many to accuse the Sri Lankan government of genocide against the Tamil community [...] The pursuit of justice must now move decisively forward with more sincerity from the international community. The Human Rights Council meeting happening right now provides the perfect opportunity [...] The previous resolution promised the establishment of a process of justice, accountability, reform and reconciliation, but six years on and Sri Lanka has made clear that he has absolutely no intention of pursuing prosecutions, or legal redress for war crimes"

Turning to the proposed UN resolution, McDonagh states, 'it disappointingly falls short'.

'There is no recommendation to pursue criminal accountability by referral to the International Criminal Court'. 'I could barely believe my eyes reading the government's reasoning, citing insufficient Security Council support. Who are we to cast the veto for China or Russia before they have done so themselves', McDonagh stated.

She further remarked that:

'Our role on the international stage must be to send the loudest message that impunity will not be tolerated. Not to preempt the inaction of other nations'.

McDonagh also put forwards the case for establishing a III-M and questioned why the UK hadn't placed sanctions on the likes of General Silva. "It's an immediate step, we could take", she noted.

In her statement she called out the British Foreign Secretary stating;

"I cannot see the foreign secretary @DominicRaab, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. He repeated he had caught declined to meet with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, in the build-up to the UNHRC meeting. Minister, with all due respect, where is he?"

In her concluding remarks, she thanked the British Tamil community stating

"We owe a debt of thanks to the huge number of Tamils working tirelessly on the front line of our NHS. I sincerely thank them. I say loud and clear that however long the road to reconciliation may still be. We will keep fighting for justice and human rights".

She further reminded the British government of the need for strong international action stating:

"The government of Sri Lanka only understands very firm action. To rely on that government to seek out those who committed those atrocities, or to take action is simply a fool's errand, and it has to stop.” 

Elliot Colburn, Member of Parliament for Carshalton and Wallington & Chair of the APPG for Tamils 

Colburn highlighted the weakness of the draft resolution stating that it "fell well short of providing the action that was needed" and called upon to UK to show global leadership on this issue. His statement further highlighted the continued and escalating attacks on Tamils in Sri Lanka noting:

The terrorism investigation department has been increasing state surveillance culture, especially in the north, Tamil-populated part of the island. The state-supported demolition of a Tamil memorial monument at Jaffna University and attempts to prevent Tamil memorial events from taking place at all have been causing anguish among the community, occupying private land in the name of security and so much more.

Dawn Butler, Member of Parliament for Brent Central

Butler commended the hunger strike of Ambihai Selvakumar, director of the International Centre for the Prevention of Genocide, which aimed at drawing international attention to the genocide in Sri Lanka. Her statement questioned why the government refused to meet her demands.

Robert Halfon, Member of Parliament for Harlow

In his remarks, Halfon called for strong international action from the UK and recognition of the Tamil genocide as well as proper accountability mechanisms.  

He statement noted

"The Sri Lankan state continues to target the Tamil people in all aspects of their lives through surveillance, denying them their livelihoods, physical security, education, economic security, culture, healthcare, freedom of expression and freedom of worship".

He further questioned

"What action are the Government taking to prevent future cycles of violence and to promote autonomy for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, as forecast in the latest UN report?"

Theresa Villiers, Member of Parliament for Chipping Barnet

Villiers called upon the government  "to use their Magnitsky sanctions regime to target the men the UN believes are culpable for the atrocities that took place during the Sri Lankan civil war".

She notes that it is a key request of her British Tamil constituents and would "help break the deadlock and open the way for justice for Tamils and a better future for Sri Lanka".

Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Member of Parliament for Slough

Dhesi expressed deep concern over religious freedom in Sri Lanka and highlighted the need to heed the voices of Tamil victims. He further called on the UK to "step up to the plate on the international stage and impress upon the Sri Lankan Government the need to respect universal human rights and the critical need to follow the path of accountability, justice and reconciliation".

Bob Blackman, Member of Parliament for Harrow East

Blackman shared Dhesi's concerns over religious persecution and called on the government to strengthen the resolution.

Jim Shannon, Member of Parliament for Strangford & chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief

Shannon highlighted deep concerns over Sri Lanka's human rights record and religious freedom. She noted in her statement that:

"The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka has documented an estimated 387 attacks or violations targeting Christians specifically".

She further added that 

"When it comes to Muslims in Sri Lanka, according to CSW, religious intolerance towards that community predates the 2019 Easter bombings. Many propagators of hate speech towards Muslims play on economic factors. Anti-Muslim rumours are also a regular feature of life on Sri Lankan social media".

Shannon also highlighted the privilege of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by the state.

Chris Grayling, Member of Parliament for Epsom and Ewell

Grayling's remarks reflected on the sacrifices Selvakumar made during her hunger strike but ultimately welcomed the UNHRC's resolution noting that it provided "a framework for continued international engagement on human rights and post-conflict accountability".

He further states:

"It calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to investigate and prosecute all allegations of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international law. It highlights concerns about the human rights situation, including the protection of Tamils. Those things are the minimum necessary to start Sri Lanka back on the road to justice and stability".

Sam Tarry,  Member of Parliament for Ilford South

In Tarry's statement, he highlighted not only the deteriorating human rights conditions in Sri Lanka but further highlighted the failings of the British government.

"The Labour party is committed to defending the rule of law and human rights across the world. It is troubling that the Foreign Secretary was recently recorded saying that the UK could pursue trade deals with Governments who commit human rights abuses. Does that include the Sri Lankan Government? It is deeply concerning that the Government are yet to implement Magnitsky sanctions against members of the Sri Lankan Government who are found to be complicit in serious human rights abuses, and makes the UK an outlier among its allies".

Anthony Mangnall, Member of Parliament for Totnes & chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative

Mangnall highlighted the "incredibly limited" progress the previous Sri Lankan administration made and the current government's withdraw from the UN Resolution. He further highlighted continued issues of sexual violence drawing on a recent UN report which detailed

“credible allegations, through well-known human rights organizations, of abductions, torture and sexual violence by Sri Lankan security forces since the adoption of Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, including during the past year”.

Margaret Ferrier, Member of Parliament for Rutherglen and Hamilton West

In her statement, Ferrier highlighted the direct role the Rajapaksa family played in perpetrating crimes against humanity as well as the struggle of the families of the disappeared to receive justice.

"At least 78 of the protesters have sadly passed away since the beginning of the protest, without ever learning the truth about what happened to their families. There is, at present, no prospect that these families will ever know real accountability from officials responsible via the domestic justice system in Sri Lanka, the independence of which has been severely compromised by the Rajapaksa Administration" she notes.

Ferrier further calls on the UK to follow US leadership and designate "both General Silva and Secretary of Defence Gunaratne on the UK sanctions list". She further called for on the government to immediately "halt UK defence engagement with the Sri Lankan armed forces and withdraw our resident defence adviser in Colombo".

"That post", she notes "was established in January 2019 [...] to hasten the development of a modern, accountable and human rights compliant military,” However, she highlights that "the post has created is a legitimisation mechanism for the Sri Lankan military and state".

"The UK has a long record of training Sri Lankan military and security forces on human rights issues, but there is no evidence of significant changes in the approach of the military to human rights, nor of effective vetting or accountability in the army for those accused of serious human rights violations. The UK must not remain complicit in these grievous crimes", she states.

She concludes by remarking that:

"If our engagement is truly aimed at preventing further human rights violations, we must take real steps to remind the Sri Lankan Government that they cannot expect military engagement and support unless those human rights violations are addressed".

Wes Streeting Member of Parliament for Ilford North

MP for Ilford North, Wes Streeting also highlighted Sri Lanka's failure "to honour the existing commitments" to achieve accountability and justice. 

"Not only do we have a Government who have withdrawn from the commitments that Sri Lanka made to the international community, but we have back in power the same cast of characters who were responsible for perpetrating human rights abuses during the civil war, and resistance to any sense that they should be accountable for their historical actions and for ongoing human rights violations."

Streeting asked the Minister what steps the UK will take "beyond the resolution" and called on the UK to "take bilateral action to apply Magnitsky sanctions against the rogues and criminals who perpetrated human rights abuses."

Taiwo Owatemi, Member of Parliament for Coventry North West

Taiwo Owatemi, MP for Coventry North West, brought attention to Mrs Ambihai Selvakumar's hunger strike, which called on the UK government to refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

"The fact that Mrs Selvakumar feels that this is the only way to get her voice heard is deeply saddening," Owatemi stated. 

Commenting on Sri Lanka's withdrawal from the UNHRC process, Owatemi noted the "increasing concerns about their commitment to peace and justice."

"We have seen an acceleration of the militarisation of civilian Government functions, the erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions, increasing marginalisation of the Tamil and Muslim communities and even the destruction of a memorial to the victims of the war. There is ongoing impunity and obstruction of accountability for the crimes and human rights violations that have occurred," she added. 

Owatemi also asked the Minister if the UK will "commit to using those sanctions to prevent further abuses in Sri Lanka."

Stephen Timms, Member of Parliament for East Ham 

Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, suggested following the US in sanctioning Sri Lankan army commander Shavendra Silva who "led the ground assault on the beaches of Mullivaikkal at the end of the civil war, attacking civilians, hospitals, medical staff and no-fire zones." 

Timms called on the Minister to extend these sanctions to Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, Kamal Gunaratne who "led a February 2009 assault, attacking civilian hospitals and food distribution points. He commanded the Joseph army camp, which was notorious for torture after the war. The UN has named him; will we sanction him? 

"Why on earth do we have a resident defence adviser in Colombo, providing training and legitimacy? He has met at least five people who have been credibly accused of mass atrocities. Surely that adviser must now be withdrawn," Timms stated. 

The MP highlighted that Sri Lanka has merely "paid lip service" to the international community at the UNHRC. 

"The calculation seemed to be that if they paid lip service to engaging, the international community would leave them alone. They were right: there was no serious effort to hold Sri Lanka to account. The new Sri Lankan Government, elected in 2019, includes guilty men, as we have heard. They are no longer pretending; they have simply withdrawn."

Gareth Thomas, Member of Parliament for Harrow West

Speaking next Thomas remarked that:

“There is deep, deep frustration with the apparent impunity of the Rajapaksa family and their supporters from either domestic or international accountability. There’s anger with the current UK Government for its tolerance and complicity at the international level.” 

He further added that

“There is disbelief too that Tamil refugees might be returned to a country so obviously ravaged by human rights abuses and there is a demand [...] for Britain to use the powers [...] to account those clearly implicated in serious human rights abuses [...] The Tamil community want ministers to back a call for Sri Lanka to be referred to the International Criminal Court”

Thomas further applauded the hunger strike and called on the government to follow the High Commissioner's recommendations and impose sanctions on Shavendra Silva and Kamal Gunaratne.

Thomas also spoke on the issue of Tamil asylum seekers, highlighting reports from Amnesty International And Freedom from Torture which highlighted the need for the Home Office to "take another look with the Foreign Office at the [guidance] it uses to judge whether refugees should be returned to Sri Lanka”

“Quite clearly given the scale of torture and other human rights abuses, it would be totally wrong to return people with credible concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka. I look forward to the minister finally taking some serious action against Sri Lanka”, he maintains.

Anne McLaughlin, Member of Parliament for Glasgow North East 

Anne McLaughlin, Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow North East, also spoke, stating that "it is a crime against humanity itself that nobody's been found accountable since this war ended 12 years ago."

McLaughlin highlighted several instances where she heard firsthand the injustices faced by Tamils in Sri Lanka. "One man gave me a copy of a book he'd written about his account as abuses against the Tamil community. He was so afraid of what might happen [...] that he removed the cover and replaced it with another," McLaughlin stated.

"I met two teenage girls living in Glasgow who'd sought asylum. They watched their father shot to death in front of them by a Sri Lankan army soldier. He made them watch as he put a bullet through [his] brain. Should that soldier be tried or hailed as a war hero?" She went on to say. 

McLaughlin commented on the 20th amendment calling it "the most significant signal that there is no respect for the rule of law." She also went on to offer her opinion on the UK's next steps, stating, "the UK Government must step up its commitment to reconciliation, accountability and human rights."

 

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