British Lords debate Commonwealth

chogm 2    The United Kingdom’s House of Lords debated the future of the Commonwealth on Thursday, with many peers expressing their concern over Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Conservative Lord Naseby, chair of the All Party Sri Lanka Group responded to criticism with a glowing account of the flourishing democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka. Baroness Warsi, the Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs responded to the debate with the message that the British delegation would be taking a clear message for Sri Lanka to CHOGM.

See the Hansard text for full transcript of the debate on the Commonwealth. Comments on Sri Lanka reproduced below:

Lord Luce, Crossbench:

“Sri Lanka’s human rights record in recent times has been disappointing. Our Government have made it clear that we expect to see at CHOGM concrete progress on human rights, judicial independence, free and fair regional elections and proper access and freedom of movement for civil society and the media. The Prime Minister has decided to participate in this conference, while Canada’s Prime Minister will not attend and is reviewing Canada’s funding programme for the Commonwealth…The reputation of the Commonwealth is at stake.”

Lord Chidgey, Liberal Democrat:

“Despite the [Commonwealth] charter’s intention to strengthen the Commonwealth, the controversy over Sri Lanka hosting this year’s CHOGM while claims of war crimes committed against the Tamil Tigers remain unresolved threatens to undermine the Commonwealth’s fundamental values. The Prime Minister of Canada, with a nod to the large Tamil community in his country, has withdrawn from the CHOGM, as we have heard. However, there is a much larger Tamil population in southern India, and should India choose to respond to the general concerns, it could have a far greater influence.”

Lord Wills, Labour:

“There is always a case for constructive engagement, which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has just set out very well, and encouraging those who transgress gently and gradually towards redemption.

However, too much constructive engagement can be misread as validating breaches of those strong, clear values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In my view, that is the case when Sri Lanka, which has shown contempt for those values consistently, despite many international representations to it about its conduct, is still being allowed to host this Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and so shortly become the Commonwealth chair-in-office, voicing in international forums the Commonwealth position, including, presumably, the articulation of those core values.

The Sri Lankan Government host this meeting having made scant effort to secure accountability for the appalling atrocities committed by their forces in the brutal civil war, graphically documented by the UN and by the Channel 4 film which showed the deliberate targeting of hospitals by heavy artillery, deliberate denial of food and medicine to civilians in the no-fire zone and summary executions of civilians. Despite considerable international pressure on them to mend their ways, the Sri Lanka Government continue to target journalists and human rights activists. There are well substantiated reports of enforced disappearances, and the Government orchestrated the impeachment of the Chief Justice after she ruled against the Government in a key case.

No doubt the Minister will say that she deplores all that and that the Government will continue to make representations to the Sri Lankan Government about their concerns— at least, I hope that she will say that— but I hope that she is in no doubt about how that Government will present this Government’s decision to attend the Colombo meeting. When the then Culture Secretary decided to spend his Christmas holiday in Sri Lanka, just six months after the end of the civil war and all those atrocities, the state-run broadcaster in Sri Lanka claimed that “his arrival despite the accusations made by the British government on the human rights record of Sri Lanka is an indication that the charges have not been authenticated”. What does the Minister think the reaction in Sri Lanka will be when the visitor is not just the Culture Secretary but the Prime Minister and the heir to the Throne as well?

As we have heard, the Canadian Prime Minister has understood the significance of attending this meeting. He is not going because, he says, “It is clear that the Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values”’. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain exactly why the Government have not adopted the principled stand of the Canadian Prime Minister. If the Sri Lankan Government continue to refuse to show greater commitment to these Commonwealth values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, how long are the Government going to continue to make representations before they conclude that they have failed to make any progress, and then what will they do? What damage does the Minister think will be done to the credibility of the Commonwealth when those strong, clear values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law are being flouted in the country which is the next Commonwealth chair-in-office?”

Lord Moynihan, Conservative:

“Now, increasingly, [the spotlight] is focusing on the question of why the Sri Lankan Government have not yet independently or credibly investigated the allegations of war crimes; why there continues regrettably to be a lack of accountability for human rights violations; why the concerns of UN human rights chief Navi Pillay have not been addressed in full; and why political intervention with the media and judiciary go, as my noble friend Lord Black stated, far beyond the norms of acceptability.”

“We should not turn a blind eye to the dogmatic reaction from Keheliya Rambukwella that Prime Minister Harper’s decision not to go to CHOGM in Sri Lanka is “a lone battle”. In fact, the lone battle is that being waged by the Sri Lankan Government.”

Lord Browne of Ladyton, Labour

“How can we not be appalled by the idea of [relaunching CHOGM in Sri Lanka], as the Canadian Government were?”

Lord Anderson of Swansea, Labour:

“Next month’s CHOGM is in Sri Lanka. In my judgment, it was sad that that venue was chosen, and a mistake on the part of the Government to be represented by the Prime Minister. If we are to be represented at all, perhaps it should be by a junior Minister. It is absurd also that Sri Lanka will now be the chairman in office, and, equally, will be a member of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, when the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka has made it clear that the country wants no interference from outsiders.”

Baroness Prashar, Crossbench:

“The fact that the President of Sri Lanka will become the chair-in-office after CHOGM for two years is a matter of grave concern. “

Lord Naseby, Conservative:

“My Lords, as the House may know I am chairman of the All Party Sri Lanka Group, which I started in 1975. I try to go to Sri Lanka once a year. My very best friend is an active Tamil living in the south of the country, leading the campaign for the rebuilding of Jaffna hospital, so I do not take all my information from the high commission in London.

Let me say at the start that Sri Lanka is a founder member of the Commonwealth and a very proud member. It is even more proud to hold this CHOGM convention. There are four core values: democracy, freedom of the media, human rights and trade. Let us start with democracy. There always have been elections in Sri Lanka. Only once, under JR Jayewardene did the then president decide that, because he had done so well in the provincial elections, he did not need to rerun to be president. Nevertheless, the turnout embarrasses us. It is more than 80%, nearly 90% quite often. Its register embarrasses us—it is better than ours. No one, so far, in Sri Lanka has been prevented from voting, as happened in parts of the United Kingdom in our last general election. In addition, it has had two female presidents. So far, we have had only one female leader.

On the media, there was censorship during the war; of course, there was. We had censorship in the United Kingdom during the war. When I went there just over a year ago, I saw every leading editor in the English language press, including from theSunday Leader, which is every bit as strong as Private Eye, the New Statesman, or any other publication. When asked, individually, in a room that was not bugged, not one said that they suffered from censorship. There is no censorship. Yesterday I telephoned the Sri Lankan Government and asked about CHOGM. The statement that I was given was that all accredited media will be given access to CHOGM. I believe that that is absolutely fundamental, and I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench makes a note of that.

Human rights are a challenge; of course they are. After 26 years of war that decimated the top half of Sri Lanka, it is as bad as Germany was in 1945. There are huge problems of infrastructure that are now being addressed. I hope that everybody who goes there will look at the way in which it is being rebuilt. There are new homes, new schools, the reopened railway line, and so on. We can travel up and down Sri Lanka, as the cook of another friend of mine did all the way from Jaffna by bus, without being stopped once or needing papers. People can go where they like and every member of CHOGM can go wherever they like or see whoever they wish. There are still challenges. The LLRC, which was boycotted by the human rights groups has gone quite a long way, and makes further progress each month.

Of course, other areas have still to be addressed. There are two outstanding: one is alleged war crimes. We are beginning to get the answers from the census—the first census done by Tamil teachers in the Tamil area showing that in the last days of the war somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 people were killed. That confirms what the in-country UN report says—not the external report that is being advised by the Global Tamil Forum and other parties; it is what the in-country report says about the same figures. So we are beginning to get somewhere there.

As to the Chief Justice, all I can say to my noble friend is that I am not a lawyer. However, I have now checked the constitution and there is provision in it for the Chief Justice to be removed, and that provision has been followed. We should remember that the Motion to remove her was initially moved by the Opposition.

There are problems still but they are being worked on. Trade will provide a wonderful opportunity.

The members of CHOGM will be very welcome in this beautiful country where, thankfully, they nearly all speak English and foreigners will find it much easier. The delegates will be able to go anywhere and see anyone they like and they will be greeted by just one word, “ayubowan”, which means “welcome” in Sinhalese.”

Lord Triesman, Labour:

“Let us be frank about Sri Lanka and the confounding decision to hold CHOGM in Colombo. The regime stands credibly accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes, of ongoing perpetration of the most serious human rights violations, suppression of opposition, media comment and the rights of free assembly. Those will increase during CHOGM as it tries to ensure that it is not disrupted in any sense. That is obviously what led to Canada’s decision, and I do not want to comment further on that.”

My right honourable friend Douglas Alexander summed it up in clear terms up in March when he said:

“I have called previously on the British Government to use the prospect of the summit to encourage Sri Lanka to meet its international obligations and to address concerns about on-going human rights violations”.

He repeated that six weeks later. I fear that, although there has been a response to Questions in the other place, it is at best muted. It needs to go far further.

Surely, the response to date cannot be regarded as adequate to the circumstances pertaining in Sri Lanka. First, the United Kingdom delegation could not be more heavyweight: it includes the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State. In my view, the Government took the decision too early, before they could have taken effective soundings, six months ahead of the summit. Why was the decision taken before the facts were known?

Secondly, the Government have said nothing so far about the Sri Lankan President becoming the Chairman-in-Office of the Commonwealth for the next two years. From a Commonwealth point of view, I believe that that is simply unacceptable and I am eager to hear what is the Government’s position on that. Thirdly, what will the Government say to Sri Lanka about civil rights abuses, the restrictions being imposed during CHOGM and the planned restrictions on the international media? Just getting the licence to go there is not the issue; it is whether you can then perform the functions of a journalist. Let us be clear: journalists can often get permission to go somewhere; it is whether they can perform the functions of a journalist that matters.”

Baroness Warsi, Senior Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs:

“Given the considerable importance that the Government place on the promotion and protection of human rights in the Commonwealth, some have quite rightly questioned why my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will attend this year’s meeting in Sri Lanka. We will attend CHOGM because it is the right thing to do for the Commonwealth, but in doing so we will take a very clear message. It is a message that the British Government have given consistently in this Parliament and in our contacts with the Sri Lankan Government at every level: that Sri Lanka must make progress on human rights, reconciliation and a political settlement. It is also vital that the media are able to travel to Sri Lanka and report freely. I hear what my noble friend Lord Naseby said, but we will continue to press the Sri Lankan Government to honour their public assurances on this matter. CHOGM will highlight the work yet to be done to achieve the aims to which the Sri Lankan Government have agreed, in follow-up to their own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s report. The Commonwealth should look closely at what it can do to help to support Sri Lanka in making the progress that we all expect.

The noble Lords, Lord Wills and Lord Browne, specifically raised the question of our approach to CHOGM. Our approach can be reflected in the way in which we have handled the situation in other fora. At the Human Rights Council in March this year we co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka. It is important to recognise the progress that has been made—for example, on reconstruction and de-mining—but I accept that much more needs to be done. The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and others will deliver a strong message to the Sri Lankan Government on our concerns and the need for progress, but we feel that engagement is the right way forward.”

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