British Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Alistair Burt, in a statement at the debate said that the British government still supports a domestic mechanism to probe the human rights allegations in Sri Lanka as opposed to an international mechanism.
He also said that Britain has not yet taken a stand on next year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka although Canada has warned it may boycott it unless Sri Lanka shows progress on investigating some of the human rights allegations.
Burt also said there was no proof that failed asylum seekers who are deported back to Sri Lanka from Britain are abused by Sri Lankan authorities on their return.
Sri Lanka (Human Rights)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Newmark.)
Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab):
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka at a significant moment in the country’s post-conflict history. Next week will see the start of the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Among the many pressing human rights issues from around the world that are due to be discussed, a debate and vote are likely on whether an independent, international commission of inquiry should be established to investigate the credible allegations of war crimes perpetrated at the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict in 2009. I, and many hon. Members present today, urge the Government to take action; I believe strongly that an international investigation must be initiated. The creation of an international inquiry has been called for by the world’s leading human rights and conflict prevention bodies, and, most significantly, by the UN Secretary-General’s panel of experts on Sri Lanka.
An estimated 40,000 civilians, many of whom were Tamils, died during the final days and weeks of the war. The victims and their families deserve to know the truth about what happened, and those responsible should be held to account.
A credible and independent inquiry is not possible within Sri Lanka, and President Rajapaksa’s regime has sought to censor and condemn anyone who has raised concerns about the Government’s actions during the war. The recently released report by Sri Lanka’s discredited Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission—the LLRC— whitewashed credible allegations of Government atrocities.
Sri Lanka has a long history of failing to investigate abuses of human rights, and without an international investigation, I fear that truth, accountability and justice will become yet another casualty of Sri Lanka’s long and bloody conflict. Without such an investigation, the pervasive culture of impunity in Sri Lanka that has such a detrimental impact on human rights on the island will continue unchecked. Without an international investigation and accountability for war crimes, prospects for reconciliation and long-lasting peace will diminish.
I wish to focus on three key areas that are fundamental to the debate on human rights in Sri Lanka: first, the failure of the President’s regime and the LLRC to address war crimes allegations; secondly, how that failure must be set in the context of the failure by the current Government—and previous Governments—to enact effective processes of accountability for human rights abuses; and finally, how those two elements reflect and encourage the culture of impunity that exists in Sri Lanka.
Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab):
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. Does he agree that another problem in Sri Lanka is that it is considered the fourth most dangerous place for the media? Some 40 journalists have been killed, and it is therefore impossible to get an internal, independent voice.
I fully support my right hon. Friend’s intervention, and I will develop that point later in my speech.
The UN panel of experts, two UN special rapporteurs on extra-judicial killings, the US State Department, the European Commission, Channel 4, the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the elders and others, have documented allegations of egregious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law that were committed by the Government and the Tamil Tigers during Sri Lanka’s conflict. The Sri Lankan authorities, however, have continually refused to address adequately those serious claims. The findings of the UN panel of experts, which stated that,
“most civilian casualties in the final phase of the war were caused by government shelling”
were dismissed as “fundamentally flawed.”
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con):
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He has referred on a number of occasions to the report by the UN panel of experts, which I am sure he has read in full. How does he equate his comments with the acknowledgement in paragraph 53 of that report that
“this account should not be taken as proven facts, and any effort to determine specific liabilities would require a higher threshold.”?
Is it not clear that, while the report sets out a narrative and raises legitimate concerns, it must not be taken as a factual account?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will develop that argument later in my remarks. The demand for information from other sources indicates that there is a flaw and that further investigations are needed.
The Channel 4 documentary, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, is horrifying, and—I am sure all hon. Members will agree—made for difficult viewing. Disturbing footage captured on mobile phones as war trophies, by both Tamils under attack and Government soldiers, showed the extra-judicial executions of prisoners and the aftermath of the targeted shelling of civilian camps. Dead female Tamil fighters appeared to have been raped or sexually assaulted, abused and murdered.
Since its original transmission, the programme has been screened at the UN in Geneva and New York, and shown to politicians at the European Parliament and US Senate. It has prompted comments from leading political figures in the UK and around the world. The programme has been denounced by the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, as depicting “baseless accusations” of Government atrocities. Last week, however, the Sri Lankan army announced that it has appointed a five-member court of inquiry to examine the evidence shown in the programme, as well as the report by the presidentially-appointed war panel, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. A follow-up programme is to be aired next month, exploring the reasons behind the apparent international inaction after accusations of war crimes. The work of two UN special rapporteurs, who have authenticated footage of war time abuses in Sri Lanka, has been similarly dismissed.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con):
I am impressed with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, as, I am sure, is the whole House. Surely, however, the tribunal that has been announced by the Sri Lankan army is a welcome development. That the army is willing to investigate allegations of offences committed by its soldiers is a move that one would expect from armed forces in any democratic society and must be welcome.
We all welcome such a move, but later in my remarks I will argue that people are suspicious about such tribunals and also about the commission’s inquiries.
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op):
Is not it of some concern when the army is investigating itself, and was not the LLRC report meant to be the report that went into all the issues that people were concerned about? That is the failure in this instance, and we need to address it in this debate.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree with the point that he raises.
For more than two years, Sri Lanka maintained that it pursued a “humanitarian rescue operation” in the final stages of the war, with a policy of “zero civilian casualties”. Not until August 2011 did the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry concede for the first time that Government forces caused civilian deaths, but they took no responsibility for violating the laws of war. Indeed, the LLRC was appointed by President Rajapaksa only in the wake of domestic and international pressure to deal with issues of wartime accountability.
From its inception in May 2010 to the release of its long-delayed report in December 2011, the LLRC has shown that it is not fit for purpose. According to the UN panel of experts on Sri Lanka, the LLRC failed to satisfy international standards for independence and impartiality; it was compromised by its composition and the deep-seated conflicts of interest of some of its members. The UN panel stated that the LLRC mandate was
“not tailored to investigating allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, or to examining the root causes of the decades-long ethnic conflict”.
In essence, it was a “deeply flawed” accountability mechanism.
The concerns that I have set out have only been reaffirmed with the publication of the LLRC report. The LLRC’s conclusions on the prosecution of the conflict contradict many of the findings of the UN panel of experts, with Government forces largely exonerated of any culpability for alleged atrocities. In the light of that, many countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, as well as international non-governmental organisations, have criticised the LLRC’s failure adequately to address the allegations of war crimes.
The British Government have stated that
“many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN panel of experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 21WS.]
They say that the LLRC report does not provide a serious and full response to the evidence of the UN panel, the UN special rapporteurs or the “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” documentary. Indeed, following the broadcast of that programme last June, the British Government stated that if Sri Lanka did not respond positively to the findings and recommendations of the UN panel report and the concerns of the international community, they would support calls to
“revisit all options available to press the Sri Lankan government to fulfil its obligations”.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab):
Like all of us, I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s extremely well researched and detailed speech. In connection with the issue of the LLRC’s credibility, he will be familiar with the Amnesty International report titled “Twenty Years of Make-Believe”, which lists all the previous problems with these commissions. Is he aware of any credible body, agency or nation anywhere on earth that gives credibility to the LLRC’s report? We have heard many people say that it has no credibility. Is anyone speaking on the other side?
I thank my hon. Friend for that timely intervention. I am sure that the Minister will respond to it. I cannot at this stage find whether there is anyone such as my hon. Friend describes, but I will definitely be looking through the papers to see whether I can find anyone.
Given that the British Government have consistently called for a credible and independent inquiry into
“all allegations of grave abuses”,
it follows that the UK should be willing to support an investigation under international auspices, in the light of the LLRC’s unsatisfactory conclusions. It is clear that independent credible investigations of human rights abuses cannot be achieved within Sri Lanka. The actions of the Rajapaksa regime and the conclusions of the LLRC support that case. Indeed, the need for an international investigation becomes even more acute when set against the backdrop of systematic Government failure to provide credible processes of accountability for rights abuses over many years. The current and previous Sri Lankan Administrations have established a number of domestic commissions of inquiry to investigate human rights abuses. However, they have often failed to provide accountability and justice for the violations identified.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab):
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful case. Does he agree that this is not just a matter of looking back at what happened and ensuring that it is properly and fully investigated? The UN Committee Against Torture, in its examination of Sri Lanka last November, concluded that it has serious concerns about
“the continued and consistent allegations of widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of suspects in police custody”.
The report also states that
“torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by state actors, both the military and the police, have continued in many parts of the country after the conflict ended in May 2009 and is still occurring in 2011”.
It is the UN Committee Against Torture reporting that. This is not a matter simply of looking back to what happened before and during the war.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con):
Is not the issue one of accountability and not that we simply want to dismiss the LLRC report? Amnesty itself says that the report contained some good human rights recommendations. The Sri Lankan Government say that they themselves are capable of prosecuting violators in a court of law. Is not the issue how a high standard is brought to bear and people are properly held to account?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that it would be better if I continued my speech, because the answers to the questions being raised now are ones that I will be developing later in my speech. I will definitely return to the issue.
Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system, which has been weakened in recent years due to the centralisation of power with the President, cannot even offer a credible domestic avenue to pursue accountability. As Amnesty International has stated, the system
“is subject to political pressure, lacks effective witness protection and is glacially slow…The system is so degraded that the vast majority of human rights violations over the past 20 years have never been investigated, let alone heard in court.”
That is the point that my learned colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), raised.
The failure to hold those responsible to account for rights abuses has led to the development of a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka where anything goes, particularly in the Tamil majority areas of the north and the east. The militarisation of the region and the resultant impact on independent, civilian administration means that many Tamils fear that their culture and identity are under existential threat.
Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op):
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. I agree with all the points that he has made so far. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) highlighted the ongoing human rights abuses. Does that not call into question the decision of the current UK Government to deport many Tamil refugees who are in the UK? Should we not seek from the Minister replying to the debate an explanation of the Government’s policy on deportations back to Sri Lanka? I ask that question of my hon. Friend in the context of a constituent whose brother is about to be deported back to Sri Lanka. This is a brother who lost a sister fighting for the Tamil Tigers and who understandably is worried about what will happen to his last relative should the family history be known when he returns to Sri Lanka.
Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair):
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for his intervention. I am sure that the Minister has taken note of his question and will answer it. I will definitely be developing that issue later in my speech as well.
More than 160,000 people who were displaced at the end of the war and in the years before 2009 remain in camps or are living with host communities or in transit situations. Many live in tents and are without access to the most basic amenities, such as health care, sanitation, housing and education. Terrible human rights abuses are being perpetrated. Murder, assault, corruption, torture and sexual harassment are commonplace. Although wartime emergency laws have been rescinded, draconian powers of arrest and detention remain in effect. Thousands of suspected ex-combatants are still being detained without trial or access to legal representation.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con):
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s case, and I have spoken on behalf of the Tamil community a number of times, but he has just said that thousands of people are still being detained. At the end of the war, political prisoners—ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam cadres—numbered 11,000; the Sri Lankan Government now say they still have 300 in detention. Will the hon. Gentleman explain exactly where he thinks the rest of those who are in detention are? We do this cause no good if we are not accurate.
If the hon. Gentleman reads the full report, he will find out that all the figures are there. I am not totally ignoring what the Sri Lankan Government are saying, but we can pick up the figures from the facts and reports that are coming through and from the people we meet through our constituency casework. I am sure the Minister will talk about this, but the exact figures are in the report, and if the hon. Gentleman reads it fully, he will find them.
Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab):
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On this point, does he agree that it would be useful if the Sri Lankan Government produced a list of all the prisoners they hold in their custody so that the matter can be cleared up once and for all?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is an important point, and I am sure we will get answers from other Members, the Minister or perhaps the high commissioner himself—his representative is sitting here and will be taking a note of these points.
It was only in November last year that the UN Committee Against Torture produced a damning report on allegations pertaining to the ongoing use of torture and ill treatment by state actors, including the military and police. Highlighting allegations of threats to, and harassment of, human rights defenders, defence lawyers, journalists and others, the committee stated:
“It regrets that, in many cases, those allegedly responsible for acts of intimidation and reprisal appear to enjoy impunity.”
In addition to his Government’s failure to promote and protect human rights, President Rajapaksa has failed to adhere to his 2009 commitment to
“address the aspirations and grievances of all communities”
and pursue meaningful reconciliation after decades of political violence and conflict. A political solution to the ethnic conflict through devolution and negotiations with Tamil and other minority political representatives has not been forthcoming. Instead, as the International Crisis Group noted, the Government’s post-war agenda
“has been further to centralise power, expand the role of the military, undermine local civilian authorities, and politicise the institutions that should uphold the rule of law and combat impunity”.
All those who now speak publicly against the Government are imprisoned, leaving an all-powerful family Government who are becoming more centralised and heavy-handed. Economist and opposition figure Harsha de Silva says the army is becoming involved in hotels, farming, construction, golf courses, sports stadiums and even in running roadside tea stalls. The main political threat to Rajapaksa’s rule is former general turned popular presidential candidate, Sarath Fonseka, who currently resides in a Colombo jail.
Colleagues of two political activists, Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Murugananthan, who went missing in Sri Lanka’s north on 9 December, fear the men are in grave danger. On 9 January, hundreds of clamouring demonstrators marched through the capital, Colombo. They demanded that the Government release the activists,
put an end to abductions in the north and pull the military out of former conflict areas. In fact, the opposite is happening.
Mr Weeraraj and Mr Murugananthan spent many of the months before they went missing campaigning on behalf of thousands of missing Tamils, many of whom were last seen in the custody of the security forces. The two were intercepted in the northern city of Jaffna by men on motorcycles. They were bundled into a white van and taken away. That pattern is now all too familiar. In a report in December, the LLRC wrote that it was alarmed by the large number of complaints of
“abductions, enforced or involuntary disappearances, and arbitrary detentions”.
Sinhalese and Muslims, who count as a separate ethnic group in Sri Lanka, are now being targeted in addition to Tamils, and some are turning up dead. On 3 January, Dinesh Buddhika Charitananda, a 25-year-old ethnic Sinhalese, was abducted at night. His body was later found near a river in a Colombo suburb. In October, Mohamed Niyas, a Muslim astrologer, was taken away in a white van by a group of gun-toting men and found dead three weeks later.
According to the Bangkok-based Asian Human Rights Commission, there is a “commonly held belief” that the abductions and murders are happening with
“the direct or indirect knowledge of the police and often also with the tacit approval of political authorities”.
The families of the two activists, Mr Weeraraj and Mr Murugananthan, have now petitioned the United Nations, and a spokesman for Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, says the case of the abductions is being sent to the UN Human Rights Council for investigation. The families turned to an international body because they could not get action from the local authorities.
Such allegations raise questions about the deportation of Sri Lankans from Britain. The UK Border Agency is to continue forced-removal flights, despite human rights organisations warning of mistreatment. The agency has carried out two large-scale deportations to Sri Lanka since June, the last of which left Luton airport in September, despite the concerns of several rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which believe that deported Tamils may be at risk of arbitrary arrest and mistreatment.
One London-based non-governmental organisation, Freedom from Torture, which provides medical services to torture victims, has said that it has gathered evidence demonstrating that prisoners in Sri Lanka still faced severe mistreatment this year—more than two years after the island’s 26-year civil war came to an end.
Last month, the UN Committee against Torture reported that it was
“seriously concerned about the continued and consistent allegations of widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”,
after hearing submissions from a number of NGOs and the Sri Lankan Government. The committee also expressed concern at
“the prevailing climate of impunity”
in Sri Lanka.
In a case recently referred to in a UK Border Agency report, Freedom from Torture noted that, in spring this year, a Sri Lankan national known as Rohan was tortured after travelling back from the UK. According to Freedom from Torture, Rohan, who held a UK student visa, claimed that after returning to Sri Lanka to visit a sick relative, he was held by officials at Colombo airport and detained for three days, during which he was beaten and stripped and his skin was burned with heated metal. On the strength of his evidence of torture, he was later granted asylum in the UK.
The UK Border Agency has warned officials who are deciding asylum claims that NGOs have serious concerns about forcibly returned Tamils. However, the agency is also circulating a report that quotes senior Sri Lankan intelligence officials as saying that Tamil detainees are inflicting wounds on themselves to create scars that will support later asylum claims.
In the light of plans for a further mass removal flight on 28 February, I call upon the Government to do more to ensure that they are not returning individuals to a risk of torture in Sri Lanka. The fates of almost all those who have been returned on the charter flights thus far are unknown.
In response to concerns raised by Freedom from Torture about the risk of torture for Tamils returning to Sri Lanka, the Minister has provided public assurances about monitoring arrangements in place for those forcibly returned. He has indicated that for the recent charter flights, returnees were met by UK Government officials, provided with contact details for the British high commission in Colombo and given a small payment for onward travel. Against the backdrop of torture risks for those who return from abroad, there is widespread concern that those are woefully inadequate protections against torture. However, worse still, it is has just emerged that even those basic protections do not apply to anyone forcibly removed other than by charter flight.
Could the Minister please explain how many people have been forcibly removed to Sri Lanka otherwise than by charter flight since the civil war ended? Why are those forcibly returned on ordinary flights not met at the airport and provided with an assistance package? Why was that disparity in protection not disclosed when the Minister was asked to explain the monitoring arrangements for anyone forcibly returned to Sri Lanka? How does the Minister intend to remedy that protection gap? What do the Government intend to do to verify the safety of those returned in the months following their return?
Sri Lanka’s entire approach to accountability, justice and reconciliation must be challenged to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent for the future. A failure to investigate alleged war crimes during the conflict undermines international law and respect for human rights and potentially sows the seeds for future conflict on the island.
Kofi Annan has stated that
“the international community cannot be selective in its approach to upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
Impunity in Sri Lanka, where violations were on a massive scale and yet the UN failed to act, sets dangerous precedents. It sends a message to Sri Lankans that the UN is irrelevant there, and it could re-enforce that message globally. That could create a situation where states that have not ratified the Rome statute would feel that they are beyond the reach of international justice and that crimes committed in the name of combating terrorism can simply be ignored.
The international community’s failure to take timely action in 2009 endangered hundreds of thousands of civilian lives in Sri Lanka. Continued inaction threatens future generations and institutions that are critical to the protection of rights in Sri Lanka and internationally. Sri Lanka’s failure to ratify the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court means that the court cannot act without a referral from the United Nations Security Council. Far from referring the situation to the court, the UN has not even established an effective system to document the extent of violations. It has never revealed what it knew about the final days of conflict or acknowledged the scale of the abuse that took place. The end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka should have been an opportunity for the country to turn a page on impunity. It is crucial that the UN and the UK should support genuine international efforts to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to give better protection to the rights of all Sri Lankans and ensure that violations, which became so commonplace in the past, are not repeated.
I call on the Minister to address the clear failings of the LLRC to deliver progress on accountability and acknowledge the need for the international community to act decisively during this session of the UN Human Rights Council to put the necessary machinery in place and to ensure that the UK plays a proactive and leading role in efforts to secure the strongest possible resolution on accountability for serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka, that any Human Rights Council resolution is not limited to the conflict period and that it includes within its scope accountability for torture and other continuing violations that make it impossible to secure a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.
Reconciliation and sustainable peace must be built on the foundations of a credible truth and accountability process for the alleged crimes committed in the final months of the civil war. A genuine mechanism for truth, accountability and justice would challenge the prevailing culture of impunity and could play an important role in reducing the perpetration of human rights abuses. However, such a process can be satisfactorily conducted only under international auspices. Investigations of a similar nature have been voted for and conducted by the UN Human Rights Council on Libya, Syria and Ivory Coast in recent months.
The number of concerned hon. Members present at this Westminster Hall debate demonstrates the strength of parliamentary support for strong diplomatic action to be taken by the British Government. Many other hon. Members who could not be here this morning, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who had a pressing constituency engagement, have assured me of their support; so it is not only the Members who are present who are concerned. Others who could not get here support my argument and ask for the same demands to be met.
The next generation of Sri Lankans, whether they are Tamil or otherwise, deserve a future in which they can move on from the horrors that they and their families have experienced and the losses they have suffered on all sides. They deserve to know what happened and to be able to reflect on it as one of the most significant times in their nation’s history, for which those responsible are brought to justice. Only then will there be true and lasting peace.
Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair):
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I want to point out that I intend to start the wind-ups at about 10.40. As hon. Members can see, many of them want to speak, so I ask right hon. and hon. Members to be as brief as they can. Let us try to allow as many hon. Members to speak as possible.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con):
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing the debate and on his speech. Given the time, I shall not give the speech I have prepared, but will refer to various points.
The tremendous turnout today for a Westminster Hall debate shows the depth of feeling of Members throughout the House about getting justice for all in a country that has been troubled since independence in 1948; but what is this really about? We have had many debates in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber. Many words have been spoken by the previous and present Governments, but the time has come for action. To go back to when innocent people lost their lives—I am not making accusations against any individual, as that is not my role as a Member of Parliament—someone needs to identify who did it: who killed people. Then justice must be done.
I thought, as many others did, that we had seen the end of camps where people were detained for years—however many people might be in them. Again, I cannot give numbers, and I am not sure that anyone can. That in itself is a problem. In meetings that I and other hon. Members of all parties have had with the Sri Lankan high commission we have requested, “Please prepare a list.” It cannot be that difficult. If the numbers are as low as has been suggested, it is a relatively simple thing to do. If they are not, it is still not that difficult to do. Families in the diaspora and in Sri Lanka need to know what happened to their relatives.
I want to make it clear that I am not making any allegations, but I am asking questions about what is alleged to have happened. It is alleged that a number of babies and young children went missing at the end of the conflict some two years ago. What happened to them? Anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of them are still alive and have perhaps been adopted by families and do not know who their original families are. I do not know whether that story is true, but people who have lost their nieces, nephews or their own children have a right to know what happened to them.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con):
Does my hon. Friend not agree that the failure still to have answers to those questions demonstrates that the LLRC process was flawed and that we will only get answers if we have a genuinely independent investigation?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. During the conflict, we saw reports of murder, rape and torture. Now we are hearing about people being resettled into other people’s jobs and being moved into homes and areas where Tamils had lived. No one can deny what we saw in the Channel 4 programme; it was there. Some people have said that it was not correct and that it was not edited in the right way, but no matter how the programme was edited, someone is still dead at the end of it, killed by someone else. If there is ever to be reconciliation, we must have answers. Those answers are needed not only by the Tamil people, but by everyone in Sri Lanka, so that everyone can live in democracy and harmony. That can only be done if justice is done.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con):
On accountability and independence, does my hon. Friend agree that the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council is an ideal opportunity for that mechanism to be set forth, so that we have a genuinely independent process and that the questions that he properly raised can be answered?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I will personally go to the Human Rights Council to try to ensure that that happens. I will be with other hon. Members from all parts of the House.
The Americans have explicitly stated that if the internal mechanism is flawed and accountability is not addressed, they will put pressure on an international mechanism to probe human rights abuses. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether we can support the Americans at the UN in Geneva.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op):
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should also look at other international channels apart from the United Nations, given that the Human Rights Council took a deplorable decision in the previous consideration not to support an international inquiry into the event? The British Government should also raise the matter within the Commonwealth and follow the lead of the Canadian Prime Minister, who said that unless the situation in Sri Lanka changes, he will not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo in 2013.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that we need to pursue every avenue, including, if necessary, going to the Commonwealth.
Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con):
My hon. Friend rightly talks about what the Americans have said, but they used the word “if”. They said, “if accountability is seen to be failing.” Does he not agree that given the recent publication of this report and, notwithstanding the understandable scepticism, the signs of progress, should not more time be given to see whether those involved can genuinely and accountably deliver? If they do not, then we hold them to account.
Forgive me. My hon. Friend and I agree on a number of issues, but not on this one. No, I do not believe that any more time should be given. I mean no offence to him.
When someone has had an accusation made against them, I have some concern about them taking high position until that accusation has been proved not to be true. Allegations have been made against Major-General Shavendra Silva, who is the Sri Lankan deputy ambassador to the United Nations and who has recently been appointed to a special advisory group on peacekeeping operations. Until he is fully cleared of those allegations, should he be in a position of such high authority?
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab):
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Mannar has provided a list of more than 2,000 people in his congregation who have disappeared and that he cannot get answers to where they have gone?
Yes, I was aware of that. I have also been made aware of other such lists of people who are no longer there. Something must have happened to them.
I appreciate that other Members want to speak, so I will finalise my words shortly. The Tamil people deserve justice; everyone in Sri Lanka deserves justice. Anyone who has committed a crime must pay the price; they need to be tried. Then and only then can reconciliation go forward. If we do not fight for justice, each of us, no matter what our political party and no matter who is in government, either now or when the atrocities took place, must hang our heads in shame. I fear that with everything that is going on in the world—whether in Syria, Libya, Somalia or in other countries—a lot of people, including, forgive me, the Government of Sri Lanka will hope that this issue goes on the back burner, but I can give an assurance today, on behalf of Members from all parts of the House, that it will not do so. We want justice for everyone, and it needs to be done as quickly as possible.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab):
Last month, I was one of the signatories nominating Channel 4 News for the Nobel peace prize in recognition of its work in highlighting human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Parliamentarians around the world were shocked when Channel 4 broadcast a harrowing documentary, using video from victims and perpetrators that proved, according to the UN special rapporteur, “definitive war crimes”. I imagine that all of us have seen that programme, and none could forget the impact that it had on us. The Minister himself gave an eloquent speech after watching that programme. It showed the routine shelling of civilians in hospitals and safe zones, video evidence of executions carried out in cold blood at point blank range. Disgusting scenes were shown of dead, semi-naked women, who had obviously been sexually assaulted then shot dead, being thrown on to the back of lorries, while soldiers joked about who was the best looking.
In the nomination letter, I said:
“By bringing to light the breaches of international conventions by the Government of Sri Lanka in a bold manner and by piecing together numerous forms of evidence in a coherent way, the value of independent journalism to the building of a peaceful global order in the century ahead has been amply demonstrated.”
It is easy to forget quite how dreadful the conflict was. Some 100,000 people were killed—40,000 civilians in the last few months alone. The UN identified
“serious violations of international humanitarian law”
and the European Commission described
“unlawful killings perpetrated by soldiers, police and…groups with ties to the Government.”
Although the previous British Government may have come to realise what was going on too late, they are widely recognised for taking a lead in standing up against those abuses. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) was widely praised for visiting Sri Lanka and imploring the Government there to stop shelling their own people. Thanks to his influence, we brought an end to Generalised System of Preferences—GSP Plus—which gave preferential trading status to Sri Lanka in Europe, prevented it from hosting a Commonwealth conference and voted against an IMF deal worth $2.5 billion.
I hope my hon. Friend will understand but I will not give way. I want others to be able to speak, so I must do this quickly. Britain has a proud record of leading world opinion. The grip we had in leading international opinion is, I believe, one reason why the United Nations has placed so much emphasis on accountability for war crimes. Yet despite the UN stressing that
“not to hold accountable those who committed serious crimes…is a clear violation of Sri Lanka’s international obligations”
and despite the Panel for Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka calling for an independent, international investigation into war crimes, Sri Lanka instead established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that was clearly not independent. After all, it was comprised of people who supported the Sri Lankan Government’s behaviour during the civil war and, according to the Sri Lankan Government, the LLRC’s job was to
“relegate the past to history.”
Fears that that commission would reach unsatisfactory conclusions now appear to be well-founded. Indeed, the Minister himself has said:
“The British Government is, on the whole, disappointed by the report’s findings and recommendations on accountability…These leave many gaps and unanswered questions…We note that many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN Panel of Experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered. We believe that video footage, authenticated by UN Special Rapporteurs, should inform substantive, not just technical, investigations into apparent grave abuses.”
Most observers have come to similar conclusions. For example, Freedom from Torture has said:
“On the all important question of accountability, the Commission has completely failed to deliver.”
Internationally, the LLRC is seen as an attempt to brush war crimes under the carpet.
However, although our words have sounded damning, I must say that the Tamil community are increasingly concerned that British actions are anything but damning. Freedom from Torture’s chief executive, Keith Best, has said:
“The UK government has insisted that Sri Lanka demonstrate ‘progress’ on accountability for international crimes by the end of 2011…but there is no getting around the fact that the necessary progress has not been achieved”.
How can Britain respond? Despite the lack of progress; despite the widespread evidence of torture; despite the fact that more than 300,000 Tamils are being held in camps after the war, with many of them still living in deplorable conditions described by the International Crisis Group as being
“devoid of the most basic amenities”;
despite independent reporters still not being permitted to report; and despite allegations of all sorts of ongoing human rights abuses, Britain has embarked on a policy of sending planeloads of Tamils back to Sri Lanka even though there is a genuine and understandable fear about how they might be treated there. How does that look to the rest of the international community? What it looks like is an endorsement by Britain of the appalling behaviour of the Sri Lankan Government and a snub to Tamils who fear for their safety. Understandably, Tamils look at us and say that, if Britain were serious about its criticisms of Sri Lanka, those flights would not be taking off.
What is even worse is that, while everyone else has been increasingly frustrated by Sri Lanka’s efforts to use the LLRC to wriggle out of its legal obligations to investigate war crimes, not once have we heard from the mouth of a British Minister these words: “We support an independent international mechanism to conduct investigations into the alleged violations that took place in Sri Lanka.” Those are not radical words; they simply repeat what the UN panel of experts has asked for.
Britain’s Tamil community is understandably impatient. The US is bringing a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council and the European Parliament has passed a motion demanding
“a UN commission of inquiry into all crimes committed”.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) has said that the Labour party supports an international commission to investigate the “acts of unconscionable violence” perpetrated in the final months of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict in 2009. Britain’s recent reticence and reluctance to join in that support for the UN panel of experts is extremely disappointing and has no doubt been noted by many Tamils here in the UK. I hope that the Minister will be able to rectify that situation today.
Britain is respected around the world for taking brave and principled leads, as we did in supporting military action in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Libya; in imposing sanctions against Robert Mugabe and Bashar al-Assad; and in helping establish the International War Crimes Tribunal. Surely we can join the moderate voices supporting the calls by the UN panel of experts for an “independent international investigation”.
I hope that the Minister will remember how he felt, and how we all felt, when we saw the Channel 4 documentary on Sri Lanka: numb; angry; and driven to right the horrific wrongs that were shown. Crimes such as those must be investigated and justice must be served. Kofi Annan has said that
“the international community cannot be selective in its approach to upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
On behalf of my constituents, I implore the Minister to consider the message that Britain is sending the world by forcing Tamils on to planes to go back to a country where torture continues, and by failing to support loudly the UN panel of experts. I hope that today we can reassure British Tamils that Britain is serious about doing the right thing, and that we will take a lead on human rights in the international community.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):
I commend the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this very timely debate. At the outset of my remarks, however, it is important to stress that Sri Lanka has many things to be proud of. Its record on literacy, child mortality and life expectancy is among the best in south Asia and, indeed, one of the best of any developing country. Sri Lanka also has a proud tradition of democracy and the rule of law.
Sri Lanka ought to be an aspiring leader within south Asia and, indeed, the democratic Commonwealth, but the truth is that gaining such a status demands the highest possible standards of human rights, and the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this debate and from many other debates and commentaries around the world is that, during and since the violent conclusion of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka’s record has not met those high standards. That casts a rather dark shadow over the country’s otherwise proud record in development and democracy.
The UN panel of experts produced its report in 2011, which found credible allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in Sri Lanka. The report also highlighted the fact that a staggering number of civilians—40,000—were killed in the closing weeks of the war in Sri Lanka and, critically, it called for an international accountability mechanism, which several hon. Members have already referred to.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD):
On accountability, does my hon. Friend share my concern about the committee of inquiry that has been set up by the Sri Lankan army and that was appointed by Lieutenant-General Jayasuriya, who was the commander of the security forces in the Vavuniya area during the last few years of the war? Moreover, does he hope that the Minister, when he responds to this debate, will indicate that that is not the sort of accountability that the British Government believe is effective in holding people to account?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In fact, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall pointed out that there has been a series of internal commissions and inquiries within Sri Lanka, none of which have really had much credibility. Possibly the most credible of them has been the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which produced a report last year, and it is important to acknowledge that that report made some tough recommendations in relation to detainees and media freedom. Furthermore, it dispelled the myth that there was no shelling of civilians and that, for instance, the shelling of hospitals by Government forces did take place. In that sense, that report by the LLRC was an important step forward.
Nevertheless, I should still like to hear from the Minister what progress he thinks has been made in implementing the recommendations of the LLRC report. For instance, Human Rights Watch reported only last month that there are still several thousand people in Sri Lanka who, having initially been detained under the emergency regulations, are still in custody. Many of them have been held for years without trial, which is in violation of international law. The Sri Lankan Government have so far refused even to publish lists of those who have been detained. Of course, as several hon. Members have pointed out, there are severe limitations to the LLRC report, particularly in relation to the army’s conduct and to accountability for possible war crimes and humanitarian crimes that may have been committed.
More fundamentally, however, there are other, deeper issues with Sri Lankan society. The Foreign Office’s own human rights report highlighted, for example, issues of torture. The report quoted the statement by the World Organisation Against Torture that
“it had received credible testimonies of torture from across the country, including in cases not related to the ethnic conflict or terrorism”.
The report also raised issues about human rights defenders, freedom of expression and other concerns, which I probably do not have time to go into today.
The role of the army in Sri Lankan society is an increasing concern. Earlier this month, The Economist highlighted the role of the Sri Lankan President’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the country’s defence secretary. The Economist said:
“His brother, Basil, calls him “fully vegetarian, the nicest, kindest person in the family”, yet he is widely feared.”
The article continued:
“A Tamil leader says the army oversees “oppressive, insulting, humiliating” rule in the north, with tales of land grabs, murders and rape. In Colombo, political observers worry about the militarisation of politics.”
The article went on:
“Some local journalists are warned by editors never to write about him”—
that is, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It concluded on Gotabaya:
“Asked if he frightens people, he says: “If they don’t criticise me, it is because there is nothing to criticise.””
I leave hon. Members to draw their own conclusions.
Obviously, there are also specific cases, such as those of Mr Weeraraj and Mr Murugananthan, the activists who have disappeared, and indeed the continuing case of Sarath Fonseka, a former general, who had the temerity to stand against Mahinda Rajapaksa in a presidential election. Can the Minister tell us—if not now, then in writing—what representations are being made on those specific cases to the Sri Lankan Government? Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and others have raised the issue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. It has also been raised, as has been mentioned, by the Canadian Government.
In conclusion, I want to ask the Minister three specific questions. First, has he raised the issue of an independent accountability mechanism, as recommended by the UN panel of experts, with the Sri Lankan Government, within the EU and at UN level? If so, what progress has been made? I do not want words put into the Minister’s mouth, but it is important for us to know that those discussions are taking place. Secondly, what is our response to the Government of Canada and others who have questioned whether it is right for Sri Lanka to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, given Sri Lanka’s record on human rights? Thirdly, I emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall about the continued deportation of Sri Lankans from this country, when such deep concerns are raised by the Foreign Office about the treatment of detainees and those in custody. Obviously, the Minister has to be diplomatic, but it is time to send a clear message that, as a democratic Commonwealth country with high aspirations, Sri Lanka’s record on human rights and accountability for crimes committed is simply not good enough and has to change.
Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair):
May I remind right hon. and hon. Members that the wind-ups will start at 10.40?
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP):
Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate. Last year, my political researcher got married and she had her honeymoon in Sri Lanka. She regaled me with many stories about Sri Lanka—the ones that she could tell me about, of course. We see the tourist veneer, which is the good part of Sri Lanka. We do not see the underbelly of the political displacement taking place. People have been killed and more than 1 million people have been displaced.
Other hon. Members have spoken about Amnesty International. Its report referred to the
“escalating political killings, child recruitment, abductions and armed clashes”,
a climate of fear…spreading to the north by the end of the year”.
It outlined the violence against women and also referred to the death penalty. Sri Lanka has not officially used the death penalty since 1976, but there are well-documented cases of disappearances and murders. Non-partisan humanitarian organisations, notably Human Rights Watch, contradict official statements. Human rights violations include murder, rape and land grabs. People from all walks of life are disappearing.
I commend the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for her comment on the sending back of Sri Lankans who have come to the United Kingdom and who will be forcibly repatriated without any consideration. Will the Minister comment on that?
I want to speak on an issue that concerns me greatly: evangelicals and Christians in Sri Lanka. Today, we have talked about the Tamils and their human rights. I want to talk about the rights of Christians. I have regular contact with Release International. It provides prayerful and practical support for those who need help. There have been attacks on Christians in south and west Sri Lanka recently. Several people have been injured and many have had their homes damaged. Attackers have shouted threats. Christians have left the area. Families have fled to the jungle. Local police have been informed, but no one has been made accountable. Why did this happen?
On July 10 last year, a pastor in Ampara district was hospitalised after being beaten by a Buddhist monk and others. The pastor from Mount Carmel church in—I will not try to pronounce the name of the place; in an Ulster accent, it will not come out right—attended a meeting about land distribution that was convened by the monk, and the pastor was attacked by those present. He was also later assaulted in his home. He was taken to Ampara hospital with injuries to his arm and severe pains in his stomach. In the Puttalam district in western Sri Lanka, the Prayer Tower church in Mahawewa was desecrated with excrement on June 5. Later on the same day, some 200 protestors carrying placards and clubs demanded the church’s closure. A lay preacher who tried to remonstrate with protestors was beaten.
Evangelical Christians face violence and opposition in the Buddhist-majority nation. Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka have caused concern among Protestant Christians by renewing their calls for anti-conversion laws. Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with Sri Lanka in relation to that?
The Jathika Hela Urumaya party, which has been pushing for legislation banning forced conversion since 2004, renewed its campaign in a press statement this month. It is clearly targeted at those of an evangelical, Protestant and Christian disposition. The JHU’s Prohibition of Religious Conversions Bill proposes to “ban fundamental Christian groups in the island”. Sri Lankan Protestants, especially evangelicals who are a particular target for discrimination and even persecution, fear that the law outlined in the Bill could be used to limit their church activities. Will the Minister respond to that as well?
Release sources inside Sri Lanka say that Christians are also concerned about a loosely worded circular issued in September by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It stipulates that building or maintaining places of worship
“must be sanctioned by prior approval of the Ministry.”
Release sources say that some existing churches have already been informed that they are illegal and must close because they do not have state approval. That clearly outlines my concerns.
According to our sources, evangelical churches in particular are facing increased pressure from the state, with “indiscriminate closure and threats”. Applications to register formally are “routinely rejected”, and there is evidence that planning permission is being denied for non-church buildings—even houses—if the applicant is a Christian individual or organisation.
We have a responsibility and a duty not only because Sri Lanka is a former British colony; we have a duty to use our influence to ensure that basic human rights are adhered to. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country—I have never visited, but people tell me that it is—that has been ravaged by war. I represent Sri Lankans in Northern Ireland. We have had our 30 years of troubles, which have impacted on our economy, but we are getting better. The potential of Sri Lanka is being shrouded by atrocities and human rights desecrations. We must apply diplomatic pressure to bring about change. I urge everyone here to support the people of Sri Lanka. They have no voice to speak for themselves. We must be that voice for them.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. In the few minutes that I have left, I will first declare, as is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, that I visited Sri Lanka in January. I will visit again at the beginning of March with the charity, International Alert.
I have listened with great interest to the contributions made by hon. Members today. Some important points have been raised, although I would add that the unanimity of view of Members here is perhaps not as clear-cut as some contributions would lead us to believe. While I was in Sri Lanka, I saw quite a lot of positive progress being made. I am not dismissing the genuine concerns that many individuals have raised, but at the same time they should be seen in the context of what is being done. A great deal of rehousing work is being done, with nearly 50,000 houses having been built. Resettlement is going well. I visited Manik Farm, one of the internally displaced person camps. I met people there and heard that they were keen to be resettled back to the places from which they had been displaced. I also saw that the conditions in which they were living at that time were not as is sometimes described. They had good facilities.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con):
Does my hon. Friend accept that the Sri Lankan military have now occupied more than 7,000 sq km of land in the Tamil majority areas in the north and east, for which they have no credible property rights?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Throughout the period of conflict, the military occupied large swathes of land in the north and east, and they continue to occupy parts of land. One of the things that I saw while I was there is that the military are now contracting the spaces that they occupy. That does not take away from the genuine concerns that are raised about the military presence in the north and east, but it is none the less a fact on the ground that the amount of land that they are occupying is reducing, as that land is returned to its rightful owners. There have been areas of progress in Sri Lanka. I had hoped to say more on them, but I am conscious of the time.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I do not have any further time to give way. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman.
The LLRC, which has been the topic of much discussion this morning, makes a number of strong and good recommendations. In some areas, it has been criticised. Understandably, hon. Members have raised some of those issues this morning—for what it does not say, as much as for what it does say. In responding to the LLRC, we should recognise some of the actions that the Sri Lankan Government are taking. During my visit there, when I met representatives, whether parliamentarians or Ministers, I found that the issue was being taken seriously.
It is welcome that the Attorney-General is investigating allegations made throughout the process and that police investigations have begun into allegations made to the LLRC. It is welcome that an army court of inquiry has been established to consider not just the allegations raised with the LLRC but the Channel 4 documentary, which, although disputed, is now being investigated.
Welcome progress is being made, and we are in danger of damaging that progress if we rush wholeheartedly to the UN Human Rights Council and ask for action now. Sri Lanka must be given time and space to deal with the issues, along with an understanding of the context and history of the recent experiences in that country. The issues must be addressed fully, but we must give Sri Lanka the opportunity to address them internally before rushing to take international action.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab):
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate. Ever since the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was published, I have thought that Parliament needed to discuss it. The turnout today has meant that Members have had to rush their contributions and many have not had the chance to speak. Perhaps the Backbench Business Committee or the Government ought to consider a full day’s debate on the Floor of the House, like the one we had on Somalia just before the half-term recess. I think that many Members would be keen to make more of a contribution.
We have heard accounts of appalling abuses in Sri Lanka. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) discussed violence perpetrated against women, which has not received sufficient attentions. There are also concerns about displaced people. Many Members have referred to the Channel 4 film “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”. I attended a recent exhibition in Parliament with photographic evidence of some of the abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka. I do not want to cut into the Minister’s time, and I do not think it would be a good use of my time to detail those abuses—they are on the record and in the public domain—but it is worth restating that the UN panel of experts found credible the allegations of a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some of which could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Attempts have been made to dismiss some of the evidence produced, including attempts to rubbish the Channel 4 film by suggesting that the footage of violence against women could have been faked. It is important to put on record that, although the UN panel of experts was not given as much access as we would have liked, it found that the original allegations were credible.
I support everything that the hon. Lady is saying. Is she aware that in November 2011, the UN Committee Against Torture reported that the Sri Lankan military behaved as though they were above the law and noted threats and harassment against human rights workers, defence lawyers and journalists?
Again, we must take seriously the fact that the allegations have been substantiated. They are, for all intents and purposes, a fact, and we must proceed on that basis, rather than still debating which side is right or wrong about the allegations. It is notable that the LLRC report makes no mention of torture in 338 pages.
Notwithstanding some concerns about time for the LLRC report, there has been a general consensus in this room about its significant shortcomings and failures. Does my hon. Friend agree that Government action is called for to address those shortcomings, and that the call for an international independent investigation must be sustained?
Labour was concerned about the LLRC’s composition and terms of reference, and the report’s flaws have borne out that concern. As the shadow Foreign Secretary said last year, we were not convinced that the commission could do its work even with international participation, and we thought that an international commission was needed to consider the evidence. That is still the Labour party’s stance.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement in response to the publication of the LLRC report was critical to a degree, but perhaps not as critical as Members feel it should have been. Will the Minister explain in more detail exactly what he sees as the report’s flaws? Is it the Government’s stance that the LLRC is a sufficient basis for moving forward and that it is all about implementing the recommendations, setting a time scale and making progress, or does he think that the report, although useful in parts, is not a sufficient foundation for moving forward and that an international investigation is needed instead?
I particularly hope that the Minister can give more clarity on what the UK Government’s stance will be at the UN Human Rights Council in March. It has been said that the US will introduce a resolution calling for further action. I would be interested to know whether the Government support the US on that. A time scale is needed, as is a mechanism for ensuring that the recommendations in the LLRC report are not just allowed to drift.
I was concerned to hear the Sri Lankan high commission mention the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which took decades to be implemented and reach its conclusions, and the Stephen Lawrence investigation, which took 18 years. We should not be using that sort of time scale, or thinking that it will be decades before prosecutions are brought or resolutions are found. The US Government’s suggestion that report-backs should be made at future Human Rights Council meetings in June and September is a good starting point for setting a time scale and moving the agenda forward.
On deportations, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) has had to leave, but he mentioned a constituent’s case. I appreciate that it is not in his portfolio, but will the Minister clarify the UK Government’s stance on deportations to Sri Lanka? A flight is due to leave on 28 February, and people are concerned about that.
To his knowledge, have there been any allegations of mistreatment on return of those forcibly removed by the UK to Sri Lanka? What attempts have the UK Government made to monitor suggestions that people returned forcibly to Sri Lanka will be at risk? Are efforts made to investigate such allegations? What does he think would qualify as a substantiated allegation in a context where victims and family members might be reluctant or not in a position to come forward to give evidence of their concerns?
I will let the Minister reply, but the main thing that I want him to confirm is whether he sees the LLRC report as a basis for moving forward or whether he thinks an international commission is needed. Does he think that the UN is the right body to take things forward? Does he support not just an international investigation but a much stronger mechanism to ensure that justice is done for the victims of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka? The culture of impunity that has been allowed to develop must no longer continue.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this debate, for how he introduced it and for the content that he delivered. Numerous colleagues have spoken. I do not have time to mention them all, but I welcome the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Mr Scott), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Stockton South (James Wharton), and by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who spoke for the Opposition, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Several interventions were also made.
I agree, not for the first time, with the hon. Member for Bristol East. Once again, my portfolio produces opportunities for debate for which an hour and a half is plainly insufficient. I could have spent a good length of time responding to the speech of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, let alone all the contributions made by others. Both the passion with which colleagues have dealt with the matter and their knowledge of this complex issue are reflected by their taking part in such numbers.
Before I answer colleagues’ specific questions, this is an opportunity for me to put on record how we currently see things and deal with the first issue raised by the hon. Member for Bristol East, which is how we view the report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
I am pleased to be sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), who has been active on the issue.
Given that we are Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, and given our unique role in the Commonwealth, if the LLRC’s recommendations are not implemented by the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in September, will Britain seriously consider boycotting the Commonwealth leaders’ summit in 2013?
Let me come to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting a little later. We recognise that we have a long-standing relationship with Sri Lanka and all its peoples. We appreciate our international responsibility, in company with others. Let me develop where our policy is, which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and others will find helpful.
Our policy towards Sri Lanka is built on the United Kingdom’s values and on British interests. It will balance the future of the people in Sri Lanka, who must get on with their lives after terrible years of conflict, with the need for a sense of justice about the events of the past. We express again our abhorrence at some of the events that concluded the conflict, which still leave questions for the Sri Lankan Government to answer, just as we do at the campaign of violence, suicide bombings, the use of child soldiers and terrorism practised by the LTTE during the conflict—a conflict that, after decades, has left recent scars that still need to be healed.
Our policy is not starry-eyed about allegations against the Sri Lankan Government or unaware of concerns about current human rights issues. However, we acknowledge open statements from the Sri Lankan Government about what needs to happen to reconcile and move forward, and we recognise the sovereign Government’s ability to make things happen through implementing measures set out by the LLRC and through addressing issues that were not dealt with satisfactorily in the report.
We will work with other like-minded Governments, inside and outside the Commonwealth, to see that Sri Lanka upholds its professed values. Where we have expertise that may help, we will offer it, in reliance on Sri Lanka meaning what it says. Where that proves not to be the case, we will, privately and publicly, bilaterally and in conjunction with others, say and do what this House would expect us to do.
The Government’s written statement on the LLRC on 12 January states that
“we continue to believe it is important that an independent, credible and thorough mechanism is put in place to investigate all allegations of grave abuses.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 21WS.]
Will the Minister explain exactly what that means in current circumstances?
We still believe that. Let me marry that with the remarks that I will make to the hon. Member for Bristol East about the LLRC report.
Does the report form a basis for progress? Yes, it does. We said that there are some aspects of it, particularly in relation to reconciliation and justice, where clear suggestions for the way forward have been made. We said that they had possibilities, and I said clearly that implementation of the recommendations is the real test of Sri Lanka’s progress.
There are other areas where we did not believe the LLRC provided an adequate basis for going forward, principally in relation to accountability issues. We believe that more must be done with regard to those. As either the hon. Member for Bristol East or another hon. Member quoted earlier,
“we note that many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN panel of experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered.”
That includes Channel 4’s documentary. The quotation continues:
“We believe that video footage, authenticated by UN special rapporteurs, should inform substantive, not just technical, investigations into apparent grave abuses.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 21WS.]
Accordingly, our approach is to work with both the Sri Lankan Government and international partners on the different aspects. Where we believe the Sri Lankan Government can and should make progress, we still believe that a process led in Sri Lanka is better than one led internationally. However, where progress cannot be made, we reserve the right to work with international partners to apply pressure to ensure that it is made. That remains our position on an independent investigation and the international aspect of it.
Will the Minister give way?
There is much in the report that can contribute to the pursuit of enduring peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, but that can happen only if the recommendations are implemented in a timely fashion. We call on the Government of Sri Lanka to move quickly to implement the recommendations and to address questions of accountability for alleged war crimes that were left unanswered by the LLRC report.
Will the Minister give way just very briefly ?
I cannot. I have four minutes.
I will deal with two or three major issues raised by colleagues in the debate. First, I will deal with the deportations, which is an important issue. All asylum and human rights applications from Sri Lankan nationals are carefully considered on their individual merits, in accordance with our international obligations and against the background of the latest available country information. The situation in Sri Lanka is still evolving, and where individuals can demonstrate that they face a real risk of prosecution and/or ill treatment on return, they are granted protection. It is only when the UK Border Agency and the courts are satisfied that an individual is not in need of international protection and has no leave to remain in the UK that removal is sought. We do not routinely monitor the treatment of individual unsuccessful asylum seekers once they are removed from the UK. They are, by definition, foreign nationals who have been found, as a matter of law, not to need the UK’s protection, and it would be inconsistent with such a finding for the UK to assume an ongoing responsibility for them when they return to their own country.
The Foreign Office follows the human rights situation in Sri Lanka closely. For chartered flight operations, we currently make a small payment to enable returnees to travel to their home town or village. We also ensure that UK Government representatives are present at the airport. Every returnee, whether on scheduled or chartered flights, is provided with the contact details of the British high commission in Colombo, should they want to make contact with the migration delivery officer based there.
We are aware of media allegations that returnees are being abused. All have been investigated by the high commission, and no evidence has been found to substantiate any of them.
Will the Minister give way?
No. I hope the hon. Lady forgives me, but I have three minutes to deal with the rest of the issues.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall brought up the discrepancy between scheduled and chartered flights, which I acknowledge. As I said, we give everyone the same information, and we have been able to meet chartered flights. I have now asked colleagues in Colombo to see what we can do to meet scheduled flights as well, where that is practicable. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the same information is given to everyone to allow people to contact us in private—not the Sri Lankan authorities—and so far we have not been able to substantiate allegations. However, we remain open to anything that would do that, because it is essential that those returned are safe.
For the avoidance of doubt, I will also deal with the issues related to the Human Rights Council. We have raised the issue of Sri Lanka at the council under item 4, countries of concern. We also raised specifically the Channel 4 footage in the interactive dialogue with UN special reporters last June. We will continue to work with international partners to support Sri Lanka in its pursuit of enduring peace and reconciliation. We are aware that the US is preparing a draft resolution for the Human Rights Council, and we are likely to support it.
In relation to the Conservative Heads of Government—[Laughter.] If only. It was a Freudian slip. In relation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka next year, it is too early for us to make the same pronouncement as the Canadians. There is much to be done before the meeting. We are conscious, as everyone in Sri Lanka is, of the importance of that meeting and its ability to stand for the highest values of the Commonwealth. No one is unaware of that position.
I conclude by repeating some earlier remarks. A number of specific issues will be answered by letter. The ongoing question is, if such things are going on, what are we going to do? We will work with the Sri Lankan Government on the implementation of LLRC and other human rights recommendations to deliver what they have declared they will deliver. We will work with international partners—Commonwealth and others—to urge action in areas where adherence to Commonwealth or human rights values is still lacking. We are conscious of the power of international bodies, such as the Human Rights Council and CHOGM, to apply pressure and to encourage the raising of standards. We are also conscious of time scales. Our activity will be both public and private, and I will regularly update colleagues. No one should doubt that there is still much to do in Sri Lanka, and no one should doubt that the UK Government recognise that.