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'Scotland's actions on human rights is totally inadequate' - MSPs raise concern over training contract with Sri Lankan police

Speaking at a debate in Scottish parliament over Scotland's place in the world, the Scottish Labour Party called for an amendment to Scottish Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development's motion on "Championing Progressive Values".

Opposition to the motion, which was led by Alex Rowley, Labour Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Mid Scotland and Fife, called for amendment which slammed the Scottish government for its "inaction regarding Police Scotland providing training to the police forces of countries, such as Sri Lanka, which it considers are engaging in human rights abuses and repression”.

The proposed amendment was defeated with 26 voting for the amendment and 94 voting against it. 22 of the votes came from the Labour party and 4 came from the Liberal Democrats whilst 59 Scottish National Party MSPs voted against the amendment, as well as 28 Conservative and Unionist Party MSPs, and 7 Green Party MSPs.

The proposed amendment read:

“recognises Scotland’s distinctive profile on the world stage and that successive Scottish administrations have sought to support and empower partner countries around the world; regrets the actions taken by the UK Government in taking the deplorable decision to cut its Official Development Assistance by a third, which will hit the world’s poorest communities at a time of great need; notes the increasingly interdependent nature of the world and the necessity of cooperation between nations to address global challenges, including the moral responsibility of those in the Global North, including Scotland, to work on climate protections for those in the Global South, and the need to end the vaccine apartheid; calls on the Scottish Government to support the roll-out and sharing of vaccines to the Global South, considers that the Scottish Government’s failure to address poverty, inequality, intolerance and violence against women in Scotland undermines its ability to promote progressive values abroad, and regrets the Scottish Government’s inaction regarding Police Scotland providing training to the police forces of countries, such as Sri Lanka, which it considers are engaging in human rights abuses and repression.”

Scottish Labour speak out against Police Scotland's training


Speaking in Parliament, Mercedes Villalba, Labour MSP for North East Scotland, highlighted the failures of the Scottish government to stand up for human rights and noted that the government's rhetoric is devoid of substance.

This is evidenced in Police's Scotland's international development and innovation unit, she noted. 

"That unit is proactively offering training and technical advice to some of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to human rights abuses. Several organisations, from Pax Christi Scotland to Freedom from Torture, have highlighted that the Sri Lankan regime is engaging in the use of torture and state surveillance of human rights defenders. Police Scotland has claimed that its training activities with the Sri Lankan police are helping to promote gender equality and tackle gender-based violence, but, as recently as August, the Sri Lankan police confirmed that cases of intimate partner violence would not be taken to court. Therefore, how can anyone say that that training is working?" she stated.

She further highlighted concerns over the technical assistance Police Scotland was providing to the police force in Colombia, "a country that has faced long-standing allegations of human rights abuses and which launched a major crackdown on recent protests".

"What is the Scottish Government’s response to that alarming activity? To repeatedly pass the buck to Police Scotland. There is no point in having a justice secretary who is not prepared to stand up for human rights and hold the police to account when things go wrong, yet we have exactly that in Keith Brown. He avoids answering questions about human rights abuses, and he has nothing to say about Police Scotland providing political cover and legitimacy to those human rights abusers" Villalba told parliament.

She further questioned if members "will urge the justice secretary to seek an immediate suspension of Police Scotland’s activities with any country that engages in human rights abuses?" In addition, she detailed the need for a full-scale review of the international development and innovation unit’s activities.

Speaking in support of the motion, Foysol Choudhury, Labour MSP for Lothian, expressed deep concern over the "Scottish Government’s poor stance on Police Scotland’s provision of training to the police forces of countries such as Sri Lanka". 

He noted that "in recent months, the Sri Lankan police have allegedly been responsible for torture and extrajudicial killings and have been implicated in a large pattern of such abuses over many years, despite receiving Police Scotland training on an almost continuous basis since 2013".

He further quoted Yasmine Ahmed, UK Director of Human Rights Watch, who stated:

“Police Scotland should halt its Sri Lanka training program until the Sri Lankan government and police demonstrate a willingness to reform”.

Scottish Government's response

Responding to the concerns raised on Sri Lanka, to Scottish Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development, Jenny Gilruth stated:

"It is vital that, if we espouse an international development offer with human rights at its heart, we ensure that our contributions internationally are coherently linked to that agenda. I understand that the UK Government is funding work through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in that regard. I also understand that, of course, operational issues are a matter for the chief constable. However, I assure Labour that I am keen to meet Police Scotland and hold discussions with the organisation in the spirit of the dialogue that I initiated with it during the international development review".

The statement comes as Scotland's Justice Minister, Keith Brown, faces increasing scrutiny for misleading the Scottish parliament over why Police Scotland had suspended its training programme with Sri Lanka's police forces.

In August it was reported that Police Scotland had suspended its training programme since May pending a human rights review by the UK Foreign Office. This was later reaffirmed in a letter to Labour MSP Mercedes Villalba.

However, in September Brown provided a conflicting written statement noting that the reason for suspending the programme was "due to the coronavirus pandemic”. Villalba slammed Brown's response noting that this raised an "issue of transparency".

Read the full debate here.
Read the vote count here.

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