British MPs, highlighting the need for the new government of Sri Lanka to take concrete steps to reconcile with Tamils, called for increased pressure on Sri Lanka to cooperate with the UN inquiry into mass atrocities, whikst debating the issue of ‘Tamils in Sri Lanka’ at the House of Commons on Wednesday morning.
Noting concerns about the new Sri Lankan government’s demeanour towards the Tamil community, and later highlighting that “only a political solution that recognises the rights of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, including that to self-determination, can address the root cause of the conflict”, the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPGT), MP Lee Scott, said,
“I am concerned, however, that the new Government of Sri Lanka have stated that they will not change the policy towards the Tamil community in Sri Lanka or demilitarise the areas in which Tamil people live.”
Mr Scott added that further pressure on Sri Lanka, through action such as “vetoing future loans from the international Monetary Fund (IMF)” may be an avenue to encourage change for Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Expressing concern at the make-up of the new Sirisena government, Mr Scott added, “The new president was a member of the same party as his predecessor.”
Agreeing with calls by Dame Angela Watkinson for pressure, during the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs and the Commonwealth Hugo Swire’s visit to Sri Lanka, on the new presidency to sign up to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Mr Scott added,
“The Minister needs to say, please honour what the UN, the Prime Minister of Britain on his visit to Sri Lanka, the President of America and various other Heads of State have asked for.”
Noting the importance of releasing, on schedule, the findings of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCR) investigation into Sri Lanka (OISL), Mr Scott stressed,
“It is quite possible that the new Government of Sri Lanka will ask for such a delay and, on the surface, it might appear unreasonable for people such as me and my colleagues to ask for that report not to be delayed, because a delay would give the new Government a chance to co-operate. Unless they are going to co-operate fully and abide by every single rule asked of them, however, I cannot see the point of any delay.”
Reiterating that the House of Commons was resolute on seeking justice for the Tamil people and calling on nations to pressure Sri Lanka to co-operate “fully” with the UN and “sign the Rome statute on the International Criminal Court,” the APPGT chair, added,
“I assure the Sri Lankan Government that many Members of this House—look at the numbers present for the debate—will not forget and allow the matter to disappear. We are seeking justice for those people who no longer have a voice.”
“Let us all work together, whoever the government of Britain are after 7 May, to make sure that the Sri Lankan Government—and, specifically, those responsible for the atrocities—do not get away with these atrocities, and that we honour the memories of those who lost their lives,” Mr Scott concluded.
MP Siobhain McDonagh, adding to the debate, outlined key issues, “including a comprehensive political settlement to the Tamil national question,” that the Sri Lankan government would need to resolve for peace on the island.
“They must address the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from the end of the country’s armed conflict; secondly, they must end the culture of impunity that has blighted the country for so long; thirdly, they should negotiate a comprehensive political settlement to the Tamil national question; and, fourthly, they must ensure that the rights and freedoms of all Sri Lanka’s citizens are respected and protected,” said Ms Mcdonagh.
Welcoming the new presidency of Sirisena, Ms Mcdonough added,
“Significantly, although Sirisena may have stated that his Government’s priority will be “ethnic and religious reconciliation”, it is deeply unfortunate that his 100-day plan provides no explicit measures to address the key concerns of minority communities.”
Ms McDonough further noted, “People are right to be sceptical about Sirisena’s sincerity, given that he is not prepared to engage with the work of the OHCHR and has vowed to protect Mahinda Rajapaksa and other senior Government and military figures from possible future war crimes charges.”
Outlining concern over reports of another domestic Sri Lankan investigation into war times atrocities, Ms McDonagh, citing the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, added,
“Impunity has been the rule in the country for too long and, as the UN high commissioner has said, the consequence has been that national accountability, mechanisms have consistently failed to establish the truth and achieve justice.”
Ms Mcdonagh, reminding the House of Commons that Sirisena served as the defence minister, during the final stages of the conflict, called for concrete the British government to state what the consequences would be should Sirisena’s government continue to snub the UN process.
“Given the seriousness of the issue, no measures should be taken off the table, including possible sanctions and travel bans, if Sirisena’s government fail to comply,” she added.
Stressing the need for concrete steps to be taken by the new Sri Lankan government to show commitment to bringing peace to the island, Ms McDonagh called on the British government to “make a formal request that the Government of Sri Lanka join more than 150 other countries by finally signing the declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict; place conditions on aid and inward investment into the island, specifying the need for accountability, and the promotion and protection of human rights; urge President Sirisena to publish a long-term plan, along the lines of his road map for his first 100 days in office, stipulating how he intends to address the concerns of minority communities, and to ensure truth, justice and accountability; and call on the Sri Lankan authorities to address the Tamil national question, and enter into immediate and meaningful negotiations with elected Tamil representatives and others to ensure a comprehensive and permanent political solution.”
“In addition, the British Government should request that President Sirisena, as an act of good will to the Tamil community: revoke the proscription of Tamil diaspora groups and individuals, which was implemented under the rule of Rajapaksa; call on Sri Lanka to demilitarise the Tamil majority areas of the island, release all political prisoners who have not been charged with any offence and revoke the draconian measures in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows for 18 months’ detention without charge; and closely monitor the human rights situation on the island, particularly in relation to religious and ethnic minorities,” she concluded.
Adding to the debate MP Robert Halfon, said,
“I believe that there has been a genocide of the Tamils. The Tamils have for decades been demonised and marginalised. They have been imprisoned in camps and annihilated.”
Highlighting barriers towards accountability in Sri Lanka, Mr Halfon said ,
“Given the fact that one of the key participants in the Government, General Sarath Fonseka, is an alleged war criminal, and the lack of a constitutional obligation for Sri Lanka to undertake war crimes investigations, there is still a huge way to go.”
Reiterating calls for the removal of the Prevention of Terror Act in Sri Lanka, Mr Halfon concluded,
“The Tamils deserve international recognition of the genocide of their people, and I ask the Minister to comment on that. They deserve their right of self-determination, and to be treated equally before the law.”
Expressing concern over demographic changes in the North-East of Sri Lanka, Northern Irish MP, Jim Shannon, added,
“There are concerns from some members of the Tamil community that the Government are undertaking a practice of “Sinhalisation” of the area. Estimates have suggested that there are 150,000 Sinhalese soldiers in the Vanni. At one soldier for approximately every five civilians, the ratio of soldiers to civilians is considered one of the highest in the world. Given the figures, it is unsurprising that people are concerned by the so-called Sinhalisation.”
Highlighting the sexual exploitation of Tamil women in the North-East, Mr Shannon, added
“Tamil women are also vulnerable to sexual violence, because they are often coerced into sexual relationships with Sinhalese soldiers, sometimes for the promise of marriage and sometimes for money.”
MP Bob Blackman, encouraging Sri Lanka to cooperate with the international community, in an open message to the new Sri Lankan government said, “it is vital that you open yourselves up to scrutiny over the war crimes that were committed, that we find out what happened to the individuals who are missing and that the individuals responsible for such decisions are held to account.”
Stressing the need to pressure Sri Lanka to co-operate with the OISL and, dismissing another Sri Lankan domestic inquiry into war crimes, MP John McDonnel, said,
“many see that as just a diversionary process, It is impossible to see how it can be regarded as independent and effective or how it can secure the confidence of the Tamil people in particular, but also the international community.”
Highlighting the financial sway that the EU and UK had over Sri Lanka, Mr McDonnel, added,
“Our best weapon for securing co-operation is our economic influence. Nothing has worked until we have threatened the withdrawal of economic co-operation.”
Urging the British government to set a deadline for the new government to co-operate wih the international investigation, he added,
“I do not say that lightly, because no one wants to inflict economic harm on another population, At the same time, I do not see any other way in which we can secure co-operation.”
Adding to calls for an “end to ethnic cleansing of Tamil areas and an “end to sexual crime against women,” Mr McDonnel concluded,
“We should send a message to the president that we are not going away, and that we will continue our search for peace and justice whatever parliamentary mechanisms and influence we have.”
MP Kerry McCarthy emphasising the need to release the OHCHR report into Sri Lankan atrocities, added, “ the election of a new President should not be used as a reason to delay that.”
Ms McCarthy raised calls for the protection of witnesses and human rights defenders in Sri Lanka, and called on the new president to take positive steps towards, “Justice regarding enforced disappearances, whilst noting that “demilitarisation will also be key.”
“The aim must be justice, accountability and meaningful progress for not just the Tamil community, but all Sri Lankan people,” she concluded.
Responding to issues raised by MPs the Minister of State for Europe, MP David Lidington, said,
“We will not ignore the challenges that Sri Lanka faces, including the challenges faced by Tamil communities in the north and east of the island.”
“The challenges faced by the Tamil community include the settlement of internally displaced people, land issues, militarisation and the need for an overall and enduring political settlement,” Mr Lidington stressed.
He further noted that the UK asylum policy "has not changed as a result of the election in Sri Lanka."
Noting that the a political solution for the North-East of Sri Lanka was a key issue at the EU, he added,
“We also have very high on our list of priorities for our conversations with the new Sri Lankan Government the need for a lasting political settlement for the north, and a credible domestic reconciliation process, along with accountability for alleged violations and abuses of human rights during what was, as has been said in the debate, a long and bloody 30-year conflict.”