We will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and call for an international investigation. We will play an active role in building international support for that approach ahead of the March meeting. However, that we face an uphill struggle to secure the passage of an appropriately robust resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, but I assure him that the FCO network is already hard at work with the resolution’s main sponsor, the United States, to mobilise opinion and the necessary majority, and that our campaign at the Human Rights Council will be led at ministerial level. This was stated by the British Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Mark Simmonds in the House of Commons during the debate on the “Fourth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee” on 23 Jan 2014.
Sir Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Chope. Last October, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published its annual critique of the human rights work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Office responded in December, and I am pleased that we have the opportunity to debate the report.
In that spirit of greater accountability, we welcome the Foreign Office’s decision to define more clearly the criteria for countries of concern. Its authoritative analysis of conditions in those countries is to be congratulated, but the Committee questions why the extent of our engagement in a particular country, or the impact of the human rights situation there on our interests, should be regarded as factors in evaluating human rights standards.
Our report considers more closely three countries on the list: Sri Lanka, Burma and Russia. Sri Lanka courted particular controversy as the venue for the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary attended, as well as His Royal Highness Prince Charles. The Committee felt that the previous Government displayed a striking lack of consistency in 2009 by objecting to the proposal that Sri Lanka might host the 2011 meetings on human rights grounds but not to the proposal that it might host the 2013 meetings. That appears timid.
The Foreign Office should have taken a more principled stance in 2009 and, to be fair to my Opposition colleagues, a more robust stand after 2011. However, in the circumstances, I believe that the Prime Minister was right to attend, but only on the condition that he press the authorities relentlessly on human rights and seek assurances that people who spoke out on human rights were not harassed by security forces. Will the Minister confirm that assurances were indeed given and observed?
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op)
I want to make three points. Mention has already been made of Sri Lanka. Members will know that for a long time I have taken an interest in what happened at the end of the civil war there. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), has already referred to some of the issues, so I will not repeat his comments, but it is clear that the Commonwealth did not confront the situation in Sri Lanka in a good way. The question now is whether or not, by March, the Government of Sri Lanka will come forward with credible proposals, as called for by the Prime Minister. If not, the British Government have said that they will refer the matter to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The council has not always had a good record, although the Human Rights Watch report that I saw yesterday refers to an improvement, which I think reflects recent changes to its membership. However, several authoritarian friends of the Rajapaksa family sit on the council, so I am not necessarily convinced that that route will get the solution we want.
Will the Minister could address the issue of Sri Lanka in his reply and let us know what is going to happen if its Government do not come forward with a credible, independent inquiry into the events of 2009? Many countries around the world have been calling for such an inquiry, not just the Tamil diaspora. Another mass grave was discovered in a place called Mannar in December. I understand that so far 31 skulls have been discovered, placed on top of each other. Another mass grave was discovered in the centre of Sri Lanka a year ago. It is quite clear that there are questions to be answered about the firing in the so-called no fire zone and the deaths of 40,000 people there in early 2009, just five years ago.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I begin by strongly supporting the Committee’s recommendation that the extent of the UK’s engagement in a particular country, or the impact of the human rights situation in that country on wider UK interests, should no longer be included in the criteria used to identify countries to be placed on the list of countries of concern. I can see no case for a country’s inclusion being dependent on whether the UK can—as Baroness Warsi, the Senior Minister of State, said in her evidence to the Committee—“make a difference”. Apart from anything else, many of the countries already on the list have seen little or no improvement despite being categorised as a country of concern and therefore presumably having been pressed further by the UK to improve human rights.
No one pretends that it is easy to effect change in brutal regimes that are strangers to the concept of basic human rights, but bringing UK interests into the equation, in the way that that is being done, devalues our own commitment as a country to the need to uphold universal human rights.
Of course, one tactic for making a difference and influencing countries of concern is to refuse to allow them international status by holding major events. I personally regret that the Prime Minister chose to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo. In the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on the Commonwealth, which was published in November 2012, the Committee took the view that the Prime Minister:
“should publicly state his unwillingness to attend CHOGM unless he receives convincing and independently verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights in Sri Lanka”.
No such evidence was forthcoming. In fact, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International took the view that the opposite was the case. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister decided to go to CHOGM and stated that he would “shine a light” on the situation in Sri Lanka. To be fair, he did so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South has said, the Prime Minister also called for an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes if no credible domestic investigations are carried out by March 2014.
The human rights situation in Sri Lanka will come before the UN Human Rights Council next at its 25th session, which is to be held from 3 to 28 March 2014. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will present a comprehensive report on the implementation of Human Rights Council resolution 22/1 on Sri Lanka of March 2013.
Will the Government follow up on the Prime Minister’s commitment by working with others to obtain agreement for the establishment of an international investigation into allegations of crimes under international law by all sides in Sri Lanka? Also, what action will the Government take to keep up the pressure on the Sri Lankan Government about ongoing human rights abuses?
As the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Committee, has said, of particular concern to the Committee are instances where allegations have been made of the torture of Sri Lankan Tamils who had been returned from the UK as failed asylum seekers. The Government previously maintained that they had no substantiated evidence that people returned by the UK immigration authorities to Sri Lanka had been maltreated. It is very important that we hear from the Minister whether the Government still stand by that opinion. It is not repeated in the FCO’s 2012 report and we did not get a straight answer from Baroness Warsi, who appeared before the Committee, when she was asked about it. Can we have a straight answer from the Minister who is here today when he responds to the debate?
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Given my limited time, I will focus on the countries singled out by the Committee. First, the UK was right to object in 2009 to Sri Lanka’s hosting CHOGM in 2011. As Baroness Warsi noted in her evidence, we also raised concerns then about the prospect of 2013. That was regarded as something that ought to be kept under review, if there was no improvement in the human rights situation.
It is disappointing that a more robust position was not taken in 2011. It is well known that the Opposition disagreed with the Government’s decision to send the highest possible delegation to CHOGM and we still do not understand why the Government felt it necessary to confirm who would attend six months before the event. That removed a powerful lever that they could have used on Sri Lanka in the intervening period, to get it to try to improve its human rights situation.
The FCO states that the Government “used the run-up to the Summit to urge Sri Lanka to make progress on human rights concerns”,about implementing the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and to allow unrestricted media and NGO access. Of course, the latter did not materialise, as the likes Channel 4 news attest to.
It is interesting that the list of subjects raised before the summit does not include an independent and credible investigation into alleged violations of international law. The Prime Minister’s call at CHOGM for an investigation was too little, too late. Reports from Sri Lanka indicate that the President is no more inclined to meet the request for an inquiry than he was before CHOGM.
I urge the Foreign Office to start talks with its international counterparts now. Doing nothing until the March deadline will leave it too late to agree terms of reference for or the composition of an international inquiry at the Human Rights Council in March, thereby leaving the Sri Lankan people waiting still longer for justice and reconciliation. As the Foreign Office’s update this month disappointingly confirms, there has been no improvement in human rights since CHOGM and little commitment to addressing sexual violence. Sri Lanka has still not signed up to the preventing sexual violence initiative, although the Foreign Secretary has said that he is still hopeful that it will.
Given the concern about ongoing violations, I would appreciate an update on the safety of the human rights defenders whom the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary met during their visits. I echo the point about the deportation of Sri Lankan nationals. In light of the severity of the torture allegations, it is disturbing that that issue was taken out of the FCO’s latest human rights report and that Baroness Warsi “declined to give a direct answer” to the Committee. I hope the Minister agrees that the Foreign Office cannot be silent on such allegations and that he will commit to working with the Home Office and organisations such as Freedom from Torture and to upholding article 3 of the UN convention against torture.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mark Simmonds): I want quickly to address the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South and others about Sri Lanka. When launching the human rights report in Westminster earlier this week, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch said that the Prime Minister was right to go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka and commended the Government’s determination to secure a tough resolution at the March UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, which included a mechanism for an international inquiry. I want to ensure that the House understands that if a credible domestic process has not properly begun by March 2014, we will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and call for an international investigation. We will play an active role in building international support for that approach ahead of the March meeting. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) is right, however, that we face an uphill struggle to secure the passage of an appropriately robust resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, but I assure him that the FCO network is already hard at work with the resolution’s main sponsor, the United States, to mobilise opinion and the necessary majority, and that our campaign at the Human Rights Council will be led at ministerial level.