Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

British politicians call for ICC referral, trade concessions and suspension of military co-operation in Sri Lanka

British politicians called on the UK government to exert more pressure on Sri Lanka by referring them to the International Criminal Court, imposing targeted sanctions and to evaluate it's military co-operation over the island's longstanding history of human rights abuses. 

Opening last week's Westminster Hall debate, Elliot Colburn, the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPGT) and MP for Carshalton and Wallington explained that despite 15 years passing since the Mullivaikkal genocide, which saw the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamils at the hands of the Sri Lankan state, the situation on the island "remains precarious".

"Impunity reigns, human rights violations persist and heavy militarisation casts a long shadow. Sri Lanka’s failure to address accountability and pursue transitional justice mechanisms hinders any hope for lasting peace and reconciliation," Colburn said. 

Colburn pointed out that there has not been any "concrete action" from Sri Lanka in regards to accountability and added that there is a "clear lack of political will to deliver justice for Tamil victims."

He went on to explain that the current regime has established a new commission which will reportedly investigate the atrocities committed during the armed conflict. 

"Sri Lanka has a long history of truth commissions—they have held over 15 since independence—but none of them have delivered meaningful justice or accountability, and the proposed truth and reconciliation committee seems destined to follow the same path," Colburn said. 

"Truth-telling is crucial for transitional justice, but it should not come at the expense of holding perpetrators accountable [...] A genuine TRC should prioritise justice for victims, not serve as a tool for escaping international pressure," he added. 

Colburn also stated that the UK's relationship with Sri Lanka "needs a critical review" and called on the government to suspend military operations until the Sri Lanka removes personnel implicated in human rights violations from its security forces.

"The UK should also refuse diplomatic access and diplomatic roles to anyone accused of such abuses. Trade deals and concessions require re-evaluation in light of Sri Lanka’s failure to uphold human rights commitments, and sanctions are a potential tool to pressure reform."

Colburn further demonstrated how the UK and the international community can hold Sri Lanka to account for human rights abuses. 

"The International Criminal Court offers another avenue for justice. The UK can collaborate with civil society to submit communications to the ICC’s prosecutor, urging a preliminary examination of potential crimes that fall under that court’s jurisdiction," Colburn said.

"Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s potential breaches of human rights treaties cannot be ignored. The International Court of Justice can be used to address the issues we are talking about —specifically, torture, enforced disappearance and racial discrimination," he added.

In his speech, Jim Shannon, the MP for Strangford, highlighted the ongoing Sinhalisation of the North-East. 

"Sri Lankan Government agencies unlawfully occupied the property and religious sites of minority Tamil and Muslim communities," he said. 

Shannon added that last year, a Mullaitivu District Judge T. Saravanarajah resigned and fled the island due to death threats and mounting pressure from the Sri Lankan government over the contentious Kurunthurmalai site in Mullaitivu. Judge Saravanarajah revealed that various individuals in government had been exerting immense pressure on him to alter his judgements in these cases.

Dame Siobhain McDonagh, MP for Mitcham and Morden kicked off her speech by saying that the Tamil community is "hard-working and entrepreneurial, and that has given so much to our country and our capital city."

McDonagh echoed calls for accountability for past crimes and the current human rights abuses Tamils in the North-East continue to face. 

She went on to call for the repeal of the 6th Amendment of Sri Lanka's constitution, which makes it a criminal offence to establish a separate state within Sri Lanka. McDonagh stated that the 6th Amendment "prevents Tamils at home and abroad from coming together freely to express their political aspirations."

McDonagh slammed the UK's "mealy-mouthed diplomacy" when engaging with Sri Lanka on human rights issues. 

"There seems to be an attitude in the Foreign Office, which I have witnessed during Labour Governments and Conservative Governments, of there always being a need for discussion and encouragement.

Nothing that I have seen in Sri Lanka over the years since the civil war suggests that the Sri Lankan Government will ever react to anything but force and determination, rather than encouragement or negotiation. Hundreds of thousands of people who disappeared during the civil war have still not been found, and not one person has been prosecuted for committing a war crime," McDonagh said. 

Speaking in the debate, Brendan O'Hara, MP for Argyll and Bute, said that "from the state’s [Sri Lanka] inception, the Tamil minority has been treated as outsiders in their own land."

O'Hara made reference to the Sri Lankan government's discriminatory policies such as the 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Act and the 1956 Sinhala Only Act which quickly followed the island's independence from the British. 

"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," O'Hara said.

"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," he added. 

Anna McMorrin, MP for Cardiff North, who was speaking on behalf of Catherine West, the shadow Foreign Minister for Asia and the Pacific, said that the Sri Lankan government "have sought to evade accountability and delay scrutiny." 

She went on to express the concerns raised by international organisations over the current regime's Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation.

"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," she said. 

In her speech, McMorrin highlighted a recent incident at Vedukkunaari Hill temple in Vavuniya in which 8 worshippers were assaulted and arrested whilst they attended a religious event to mark Shivarathri earlier this month. 

"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," she noted. 

Responding to the debate, Andrew Mitchell, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, said human rights in Sri Lanka remains a priority for the UK government and they continue to monitor the situation on the island. 

Mitchell addressed Colburn's concerns over the UK's engagement with Sri Lanka's military which stands credibly accused of human rights violations. 

"The British strategy for defence engagement in Sri Lanka focuses primarily on professional military education, strategic leadership and international development. We continuously monitor the context and viability of the approach to ensure that UK assistance is in line with our values and consistent with our domestic and international human rights obligations, and assures the process of selecting appropriate personnel for any UK-sponsored training," Mitchell said. 

He went on to express the UK government's concerns over the current human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

"Civil society continues to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment by state authorities. Those points were eloquently set out during some of the contributions we have heard today. We are concerned about a trend towards a more constrained civic space, including the use of laws to limit freedoms of expression and assembly, such as the misuse of the international covenant on civil and political rights, or the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was mentioned earlier. Britain continues to call for the replacement of the draconian PTA with legislation that is consistent with Sri Lanka’s international obligations and to uphold a moratorium on the use of the provisions of the PTA," he said. 

He went on to add there have been concerns about the recently passed Online Safety Act. International human rights organisations have expressed their fears over the impact this legislation will have on freedom of expression. Tamils in the North-East, have faced reprisals for posts on social media for years but this is now expected to spread island-wide. 

"It has the potential to restrict severely online communication and could criminalise many forms of expression. Proposals to strengthen the regulation of non-governmental organisations and broadcast media raise fears of efforts to restrict civic space," Mitchell said. 

Mitchell also called on the Sri Lankan government to engage with the UN Human Rights Council even though Sri Lanka has continously reneged on its commitments to the international community. At the 55th session of the UNHRC, Sri Lanka's Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry said that the government once again rejected a resolution that calls for a hybrid accountability mechanism to prosecute for war crimes committed against Tamils. 

The minister maintained that the UK "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."

Read the full text of the debate here

We need your support

Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Tamil journalists are particularly at threat, with at least 41 media workers known to have been killed by the Sri Lankan state or its paramilitaries during and after the armed conflict.

Despite the risks, our team on the ground remain committed to providing detailed and accurate reporting of developments in the Tamil homeland, across the island and around the world, as well as providing expert analysis and insight from the Tamil point of view

We need your support in keeping our journalism going. Support our work today.

For more ways to donate visit https://donate.tamilguardian.com.