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As Sri Lanka faces increased human rights scrutiny, Britain seeks deep ties

Following the passage of a scathing resolution in European parliament, condemning Sri Lanka’s human rights record, UK Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad, has met with Sri Lanka’s to discuss deepening bilateral relations.

According to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry, the discussion focused on “trade and investment, climate change and sustainable development, scientific and technical cooperation, and COVID-19 mitigation”. In March, Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment (BOI) reported that in the first 9 months the UK outpaced China in terms of foreign direct investment, accounting for 24% whilst China only accounted for 12%. Sri Lanka’s Central Bank has reported US $ 548 million in total FDI in the nine months to September 2020, compared to the US $ 793 million in the same period in 2019.

The meeting follows increased scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s human rights record with the EU resolution calling on the European Council to consider repealing the GSP+ trading agreement and impose sanctions on Sri Lankan officials implicated in war crimes. US Congresswoman, Deborah Ross, introduced a bipartisan House Resolution calling for an "effective international mechanism for accountability" and a "permanent political solution" in Sri Lanka.

The UK has faced increased parliamentary scrutiny for its continued investments in Sri Lanka, with leading opposition parliamentarians questioning the use of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund budget and its Overseas Security and Justice Assistance (OSJA) guidance. Britain's Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Stephen Kinnock, and Liberal Democrats leader, Edward Davey, has called for sanctions on Sri Lankan officials implicated in war crimes.

The latest published figures from the government detail that between April 2016 and March 2018, the UK spent a total of £2.46 million from the CSSF towards "increasing stability and reducing the risk of a return to the conflict" in Sri Lanka. 

Money was allocated toward police reform, defence engagement, anti-corruption and transitional justice amongst other concerns. Whilst the government claimed an overall output score of "A", the latest UN Human Rights Council report warned of the "seeds of future violence and conflict" due to the ongoing human rights violations carried out by Sri Lanka's military and police forces.

British Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, James Heappey, has further reported that Britain provided “counter-terrorism assistance to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces”.

This came despite growing concerns over the human rights abuses of Sri Lanka's armed forces outlined in the UN Human Rights Council report which noted "disturbing patterns of extrajudicial killings, abductions, enforced disappearances and torture by the security forces". 

According to the International Truth and Justice Project, there have been 178 documented credible cases of torture from 2015-2018, excluding 22 individuals abroad who reported torture following the UN special investigation. Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power in late 2019, at least 5 cases have been documented abroad of abduction, torture and sexual violence of Tamils. The ITJP notes, "this likely represents the tip of the iceberg".

Read Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry statement here.

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