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‘Cracking down on memorials should be a red line’ – Elliot Colburn MP speaks with Tamil Guardian

In advance of the 15th anniversary of the Mullivaikkal genocide, Elliot Colburn, MP for Carshalton and Wallington and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPGT) sat down with Tamil Guardian for a wide-ranging conversation on genocide recognition; bringing Sri Lanka before the ICC; and upholding the rights of Tamils for self-determination.


‘Cracking down on memorials should be a red line’

Commenting on the anniversary, Colburn noted that Mullivaikkal represents one of the “most sombre moments in the Tamil calendar”. An estimated 169,000 Tamils were killed the final military campaign in Mullivaikkal which many have deemed as a genocide. The Sri Lankan military engaged in the indiscriminate bombing of “no-fire zones”, summary executions and forced disappearances.

He further lamented the continued crackdown by Sri Lanka’s security forces on memorials across the North-East, the Tamil homeland, by Sri Lanka’s security forces, which occurs each year. He maintained that the UK should draw a red-line concerning the crackdown on these memorials.

“You cannot in a so called free and free and open democracy and society crack down on people from memorialising these events […] The UK must use its leverage to be able to push the Sri Lankan authorities to allow these memorials, regardless of how they may feel about this, as that’s what you’re supposed to do in a free and fair democracy” Colburn told the Tamil Guardian.

He added, “every single year, we get this, we get the same stories come back of the services being disrupted. People being arrested for no good reason. And it's time that we sent a stronger message. This must stop”.


Genocide recognition

Asked about the need for the UK to recognise the events in 2009 as a genocide, Colburn noted his approval and the efforts that the APPGT were taking to push political parties to acknowledge the genocide.

He explained that the UK’s process was to leave it for international bodies such as the UN or the international legal bodies to make this determination but noted that the APPGT has long held the belief that the events marked a genocide.

“It's an important message that we send that we recognise that this was a concerted effort to get rid of Tamils, we must recognise that and call it out for what it is, which is a genocide” he told the Tamil Guardian.

Asked about the Genocide Determination Bill, a private members bill in the House of Lords, he detailed his approval for the idea. The idea would permit UK courts to decide as to if a potential genocide is occurring and to call upon the Secretary of State to take action.

Whilst Colburn noted that it was unfortunately unlikely to be see in the House of Commons, he approved of an approach that would enable the UK to make its own determination.

“I would like to see a mechanism for the UK to go into determining these things on their own. I see no reason why sovereign Parliament can't do that. I would like parliament to be the ultimate arbitrator as the elected part of our democracy rather than the courts […] I would like to see the UK have a form of discussion about how we can start to do that rather than relying on international bodies to do it for”.


Engaging with Tamils

Reflecting on his engagement with Tamil constituents, Colburn noted that the largest single diaspora in his constituency are Tamils and described his pride in seeing how strong his local community is.

He expressed his support for the success and achievements of British Tamils, detailing that an estimated one in ten doctors in the NHS are Tamil and that Tamils were amongst the team of scientists working on a vaccine to tackle COVID. This is in addition to the tremendous charity work they do.

He further stated that one his proudest moments was being able to push the UN Human Rights Council resolution further than originally planned and to pull together international partners in support of the resolution. The latest resolution enables the UN Office of Human rights to collect new evidence of potential war crimes which may be used in a future trial.


Sanctions, demilitarisation and human rights

Commenting on the further actions the UK should take, he maintained that there was a need to follow the lead of the US and Canada and impose sanctions on Sri Lankan officials accused of war crimes.

Colburn has been a leading voice calling for the sanctioning of Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defence Staff, Shavendra Silva. As the former commander of the 58 Division, Silva is accused of multiple crimes, including the execution of surrendering Tamils. He is currently barred from entry to the United States due to his role in war crimes. Under multiple Sri Lankan governments, however, he has been praised and promoted.

He also discussed Sri Lanka’s IMF bailout and noted that whilst he was unable to explicitly link human rights to the bailout; he feels that a focus on the repayment of debt should be the pursuit of demilitarisation of the North-East. Colburn details how Sri Lanka’s dire financial straits can be directly connected to massive overspending on defence. 

“I think sanctions and the repayment of the IMF, our two are the most powerful levers that we have”, he maintained. 


Bringing Sri Lanka before the ICC

The conversation also considers the need to bring Sri Lanka before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the genocide committed. Whilst Tamils have frequently called for Sri Lanka to be brought before the ICC, a common refrain is that such a move may be blocked by states such as China or Russia.

Colburn noted;

“I've never seen China or Russia’s role as a reason not to not go ahead with it. The APPGT has long been supportive of this. I think one of the challenges, and one of the frustrations is that there is so much evidence out there of the war crimes that were committed. And yet, it for many, it feels as if there hasn't been a forum to hold people accountable for that. There are people credibly accused of those war crimes still active at the very top of Sri Lankan society. Where is the justice in that? Where's the accountability?”

He added:

“It has the potential to ensure that Tamils finally had their voices heard on the international stage […] Because for so long, we've had resolution after resolution being kicked back and be ignored”.


Sri Lanka’s Truth and Justice Commission

Colburn also slammed Sri Lanka’s proposed Interim Secretariat for the Truth and Reconciliation Mechanism (ISTRM) by maintain that the UK should remain sceptical given the failure of previous commissions, such as the Office of Missing Persons.

“I think the UK should respond very sceptically and refuse to see those Commission's or the Office of Missing Persons as anything other than just a smokescreen until they actually start yielding results” he noted.


Sri Lanka’s counter-terrorism legislation

Colburn also condemned Sri Lanka’s proposed replacement to the draconian prevention of Terrorism Act, the Anti-Terrorism Bill. The bill has received widespread criticism from human rights experts for granting unchecked powers to Sri Lanka’s police forces and being overly vague. Sri Lanka’s security forces have been accused of a litany of human rights abuses including arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings. 

“We've always held as a country that we oppose such things, and we need to try and use our bilateral measures to bring about change” he said, adding that Britain must urge Sri Lanka to bring its counter-terrorism legislation in line with international human rights law and that this should be “a prerequisite for our engagement”.


A need for a ‘critical review’

Commenting on the island’s economy, Colburn detailed that Sri Lanka’s economic collapse, and the fleeing of the Rajapaksa’s as indicative of deeper structural problems. Whilst noting that the UK does not want to drive Sri Lanka into the arms of China and Russia, he maintained “that must not stop us from pursuing our human rights agenda”.

He further stressed the need to consider “targeted sanctions, ICC referrals, and looking at things such as our trade arrangements, and the IMF bailout, as mechanisms to bring about change”.

He also highlighted the efforts the UK was supporting in demining areas in the North and East. He also placed emphasis on a multilateral response in encouraging change in Sri Lanka without pushing the island towards Russia and China.



The interview concluded with a focus on the right of self-determination. Colburn stressed that a central issue is “devolution of power within the island itself”. 

“There has been no attempt at a border poll, there has been no attempt at devolution, and there's been no attempt at regional governments […] Instead, we've seen is the opposite. We've seen a heavy military presence in the Northeast and the Tamil populated parts of the country” he stated.


He added:

“For the last several decades now, we have seen next to no progress being made on everything from self-determination; accountability; getting rid of those in government who are responsible for the genocide […] Unless we actually see some large, tangible change in the island, people will lose stake. And I don't blame them”.


He concluded emphasising the special duty Britain holds towards Sri Lanka, not only as Sri Lanka is a Commonwealth country, but because of the influence the UK wields over the island. He reaffirmed his commitment, and those of his colleagues, “to fight tooth and nail” to address these issues.

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