Sir Ed Davey, the newly elected Liberal Democrats leader, has backed calls for sanctions against Sri Lankans accused of war crimes and called for greater recognition of the genocide of Tamils, as he spoke on the issues Eelam Tamils face in their pursuit for justice with the Tamil Guardian last week.
Speaking to Tamil Guardian on his plans for the party’s policy on Sri Lanka, Davey slammed Colombo’s withdrawal from commitments made to the UN Human Rights Council and pledged to ensure that any future British trade and economic engagement with Sri Lanka has human rights at its centre.
Justice, accountability and genocide
“One of the real, real tragedies of a situation like you see in Sri Lanka is that it’s never given the prominence and priority that it deserves. It’s always an afterthought,” said Ed Davey in conversation with the Tamil Guardian. More than eleven years on since the massacres at Mullivaikkal and with continued reports of militarisation and human rights abuses, it continues to be one that his party takes very seriously.
The previous Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, recognised the massacres which took place against the Sri Lankan Tamil people in 2009 as genocide. Speaking to the Tamil Guardian last week, Davey does the same.
When asked about genocide recognition, MP Davey stated, “The evidence of what happened in 2009 is so clear now”.
“I’ve seen evidence after evidence. Film, photographic evidence, witness accounts.”
“It’s difficult, impossible, I think, to come to any other conclusion that there was a genocidal act.”
“And therefore, we've got to be a part within the UK, and the international community of raising that. And genocide is a very, very serious accusation, of course, one of the most serious accusations that could ever be levelled against the government. And that's why I repeat, the UN can't just turn away from this, it has to find a way of holding to account these political leaders who are still there. It's not like they've gone away. They're still there. They're now back in power.”
Although the MP acknowledged that “even when they [Sri Lanka] were at the UNHRC and making those commitments, they weren’t honouring them,” he believes that their outright withdrawal from the UN resolution has made them “a pariah in the fact of the UN”.
The resolution, one of several passed on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, mandated the setting up of an accountability mechanism with foreign judges and lawyers. Sri Lanka has vowed not to let that happen.
Davey made clear that for the Tamil people to achieve justice and accountability, the international community needs to play a key role in applying pressure on the Sri Lankan government.
The MP said: “For the international community to turn a blind eye is unacceptable.
Whether it is the United Nations Human Rights Council, or whether it is other bodies, we need to send a very strong signal.”
Davey stated that in addition to the UN and international bodies needing to apply pressure on the Sri Lankan government, pressure also needs to be applied on regional players.
“We have to go to those regional players who have frankly sided with the Rajapaksa family to try to get them to change their position.”
“That can be looking at anywhere from Beijing to New Delhi to Tehran to a whole range of different capitals, where regional players have not been helpful.”
The Lib Dem leader went on to call the return of the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka “extremely bad news”.
“I'm not surprised if Tamils on the island Sri Lanka and the whole Tamil diaspora are extremely alarmed by this development. One, I have to say, can't be as hopeful as one would have wanted to be it. And you can't pretend otherwise, this is a bad development, the way the Rajapaksas have behaved in the past to the Tamil community has been appalling. Worse than that, and, you know, we somehow have to find a way of bringing them to justice and to actually do the right thing.
“The evidence of the past is that the Rajapaksa will be a block to justice.”
In response to this failure of accountability efforts, Davey supported the options of going to an International Criminal Court or setting up an alternate international tribunal.
“It could be referenced to the court,” he said. “But I don't think, I don't think the UN can just stand by and do nothing.”
Trade and sanctions
When Davey was asked whether he believes that the Magnitsky-style sanctions that were recently passed should include Sri Lankan war criminals, he did not hesitate to respond “Yes.”
The politician did not shy away from making clear that he would like to see some names of Sri Lankan officials on the sanctions list which currently holds names of officials from Russia and Saudi Arabia.
“It's a no brainer,” he said. “I mean, I've long discussed with friends and colleagues, and many of my friends in the Tamil community, the need to take sanctions against individuals. This legislation gives us a stronger vehicle for doing that, and therefore I welcome it.”
Interestingly, Davey, at several points in the interview touched on the idea of trade interests having taken precedence over humanitarian concerns in the UK’s foreign policy, implying that the UK’s need for positive trade relations with Sri Lanka have previously side-lined humanitarian concerns.
Davey looked back to his time as trade minister between 2010 and 2012 and spoke of how he had to stand off several UK and EU officials who wanted to grant Sri Lanka back their GSP plus trade benefits which were taken away in 2009.
“There were various forces in the UK and in the EU trying to pressure me, as the UK trade minister, to give back those trade benefits to Sri Lanka,” he said.
“I held out and said absolutely no because Sri Lanka then was in breach of so many of the international conventions that you are supposed to adhere to get those benefits.”
Unfortunately, the benefits were restored to Sri Lanka in 2017, however, Davey described how he worked closely with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPG) to try to get the privileges taken away again.
“I still feel, and I've argued this on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils here in Westminster, that frankly, Sri Lanka is in breach of the many conventions that it's supposed to adhere to, to get those trade benefits,” he added.
The current situation, with the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit negotiations, made the Lib Dem leader even more worried about the side-lining of human rights concerns at a time when re-establishing trade deals is of priority.
He said: “I worry that we could be in that situation were trade comes first.”
“Our policy is really clear,” he continued.
“Human rights considerations must be a key part of those discussions, we argued that when Britain was in the EU. We were part of a number of political parties and movements who've got human rights considerations attached to trade deals. I think, you know, we have relatively few tools in any nation to try to help people who are oppressed and have suffered, you know, things like genocide, and therefore, we need to use them when we can.”
“You've got to sort of make sure that there's a path going the right direction, but you've got to be clear that you're not being hoodwinked, and we've seen this Sri Lankan government hoodwink the international community time after time, and you know, I’m surprised anyone believes anything they say.”
Asylum seekers and the British Tamil community
On the topic of asylum seekers, Ed Davey explained that he himself had dealt with individual cases in his constituency. He noted that he had, on multiple occasions, tried to get the UK Home Office to accept that sending people back would be dangerous and illegal.
Davey said that the party have a strong policy on asylum seekers and work to ensure that people’s cases are properly heard and not merely “processed as if they’re just numbers.”
He stated that he, along with Lib Dem colleague Christine Jardine, were campaigning for not just Tamil asylum seekers, but asylum seekers generally, to be allowed to work once initial security tests are completed and have been here for three months.
“Asylum seekers are some of the most marginalised people in our society when sometimes they are not allowed to work until they get refugee status, which sometimes can be years,” he said. “Once they've gone through the initial tests and security tests, they should be allowed to work from three months of being here, and that would dramatically transform some people's lives.”
Despite the challenges faced by the Tamil diaspora, Davey acknowledged that the British Tamil community has made massive contributions to like in the country.
“I think the British Tamil community is one of the most amazing communities I've ever had the privilege to serve and work with and get to know,” he said. “In Kingston we’ve got an amazing Tamil community. We have the Kingston Institute of Tamil Culture. There’s quite a lot of cricket played.
He stated that the “contribution in all walks of life is amazing” and should be recognised.
“Given many of the people who’ve come to the UK from Sri Lanka who are Tamils have had shocking experiences, I think it’s a very good thing that we’re able to bring them into our country and our society. And I just sometimes think that’s not appreciated enough.”
For the whole transcript of the interview here.