Writing in the Tamil Guardian today, Labour’s shadow foreign affairs minister, Kerry McCarthy, called on the British government to: (1) Be unequivocal and unwavering in its support for an independent, international inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka; (2) Make every effort to secure widespread support for a robust resolution at the UN Human Rights Council; and (3) Ensure an international inquiry commences swiftly.
Naturally, the crisis in Ukraine and efforts to secure a diplomatic resolution are foremost in our minds at the moment, but we cannot allow the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), starting this week in Geneva, to be overlooked.
Throughout March, the Council will be discussing a range of important issues and the most serious of human rights violations. On Sri Lanka specifically, David Cameron has a personal responsibility to push for action and, with the UK re-taking a seat on the Council this year, he has a prime opportunity to do so.
The Prime Minister was praised for raising human rights concerns when he visited Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) last November. It was by no means clear that this was his original intention, having rejected Labour’s calls for him to use his potential attendance at CHOGM as leverage, to try to secure progress on human rights in the run up to the event. Having come under strong pressure from campaigners, Channel 4 News, members of the public and Labour’s frontbench, the Prime Minister was forced to change his agenda at the last minute, but at least his overdue intervention was a positive step.
It was, however, deeply disappointing that he failed to call then for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes by both sides during the Sri Lankan civil war. The Prime Minister overlooked President Rajapaksa’s repeated failures since the war ended in 2009 to deliver an independent, credible investigation, to address human rights abuses suffered by Sri Lankans to this day, or to implement the recommendations of his own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission – the President’s attempt to draw a line under the past atrocities in which 40 000 civilians lost their lives.
Labour has been calling for an international inquiry since 2011. The Prime Minister’s ultimatum – giving President Rajapaksa until this March to start his own inquiry – was naïve to say the least.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has now, predictably, confirmed that Sri Lanka has not made the necessary progress, just as it had not during the preceding months and years. The High Commissioner conclusively recommended initiating an international investigation and the junior Foreign Office Minister, Hugo Swire, confirmed last week that the Government will be supporting this at the Human Rights Council.
The Government has Labour’s full support in this, but the Prime Minister must learn from his past mistakes and cannot rely on a last minute intervention. He chose to go to CHOGM last year - against the advice of human rights experts and world leaders – and he cannot turn his back on the people of Sri Lanka once the cameras are off.
Over the next month, the Prime Minister must:
1) Be unequivocal and unwavering in support for an independent, international inquiry
The case for an international investigation is beyond doubt. The Prime Minister must now demonstrate a personal commitment to ensure the final resolution at the HRC mandates an international investigation. Nothing less will do.
2) Make every effort to secure widespread support for a robust resolution
Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, and I have been pressing both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to make concerted efforts to secure votes at the HRC and reduce the risk of a resolution being watered down. We have received only vague replies, so the Government must now prove they are not only working with those countries that are minded to support an inquiry but also of lobbying the more reticent Human Rights council members to build broader support and demonstrate the extent of the international community’s concern.
The resolution too must address the ongoing human rights concerns in Sri Lanka, including the prevalence of sexual violence, the role of the military, the attacks on religious minorities and the intimidation of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists.
3) Ensure an international inquiry commences swiftly
The Prime Minister allowed President Rajapaksa another 4 months to deliver the inquiry he has been avoiding for 4 years. An international investigation has been delayed for long enough so the HRC not only needs to agree on the principle of an international inquiry, but also on the actual details of the inquiry and its resources to guarantee swift progress.
When we have asked Foreign Office Ministers about the text of a resolution, the terms of reference for an inquiry and its membership, we have been told it’s “too soon” for this or “too early to make a judgement” on when an international inquiry could commence and conclude.
After a 26 year war, the people of Sri Lanka have been waiting since 2009 for truth, justice and reconciliation. This is not “too early” - action by the international community cannot come soon enough.
Agreement at the HRC will require strong leadership and personal diplomacy. The Prime Minister cannot delegate this to junior Ministers alone. He made a commitment to the people of Sri Lanka back in November and now it is time for David Cameron to deliver.