Swire: The time has come for a genuinely credible investigation with an international dimension

British parliament    Speaking at a debate on Sri Lanka at the House of Commons on 25 March 2014, British Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth office, Hugo Swire, said an international investigation in Sri Lanka will help the Sri Lankan people to move forward following the end of the war. The debate ” Tamils (Sri Lanka)” was requested by Conservative party MP Lee Scott, who also heads an all party group for Tamils.

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I secured this debate to call for justice for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka—indeed, for everyone living there—after a long struggle over many years. I thank my right hon. Friends the Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister for getting us to the stage we are at now. I also want to express gratitude to the United States, Macedonia, Montenegro and Mauritius for jointly tabling the resolution that is currently before the United Nations in Geneva.

After all this time, when it is quite obvious that the Sri Lankan Government are not going to deal with matters themselves, we need a comprehensive international investigation. I am pleased that such an investigation is included in the UN’s draft resolution, and although I know that that is still being worked on, I would like to put a number of points to the Minister. I would like to see put forward as tough a resolution as is humanly possible. I have seen that the current draft resolution says that crimes up to 2009 would be investigated, but many crimes have been committed since then that must be looked into as well. The demilitarisation zone should be expanded to include the east of the country, where crimes have been perpetuated, as well as the north.

It is also important for there to be a free political stage—people should not be persecuted for trying to speak up and stand as opposition parties in Sri Lanka, as they are currently.

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I am grateful for the Hon. Gentleman’s generosity in giving way so early in the debate. I am sure that he will agree with my Hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), who said in a debate a few weeks ago that the Home Office and the UK Border Agency should stop deporting Tamils to Sri Lanka while the resolution is being discussed by the UN.

Mr Scott: It is important that anyone who fears for their life and their future should not be deported to Sri Lanka at this time. It is vital that the resolution goes through. Neither I nor anyone else should do anything today to try to hinder that, but we must also think about where we go from here. Let us hope that the resolution goes through later this week, but where do we go then? The Sri Lankan Government have never given any signal that they intend to carry out their duties as a Government representing all peoples in their country, so nothing should be taken off the table when considering what we must do to ensure that the resolution is adhered to and justice is done. Without question, before there can be even a chance of reconciliation, there must be justice.

I call for peace for all in Sri Lanka. The accusation has been levelled at me that I am speaking on behalf of only one people. I am talking on behalf of everyone—I do not want anyone in Sri Lanka to suffer, whatever their religion or background might be. It is not for me to say who is guilty or not; the whole point of a comprehensive international investigation is to find that out. Someone was responsible for the death of women and children, for the rape of women and for the persecution that has gone on, and they must be held to account.

I commend the action taken so far, particularly the Prime Minister’s words in Brussels last week. He explained exactly why the UK has called for and is backing the UN resolution. Constituents who have come to see me have a right to know what has happened to their families. There have been so many disappearances— they have a right to know what has happened to their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews in Sri Lanka. The only way forward is through a comprehensive international investigation.

Time is very limited today, so I will restrict my words as I know that colleagues wish to speak. I want to say something that I have said on a number of occasions: if we do not get the justice that people so rightly deserve, we should hang our heads in shame, no matter what our political party. We must work together, just as my right hon. Friends in the Government are doing.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the aims of this week’s resolution is to build the biggest and broadest coalition of world support for whatever measure is passed, rather than a narrow base? We must demonstrate the world’s opinion of the situation in Sri Lanka. By necessity, that means being forced to compromise on some of the wording in order to achieve a worldwide position, but hopefully we will bring all powers into the decision-making process and so increase the pressure on Sri Lanka for a proper resolution of the situation there.

Mr Scott: I thank my Hon. Friend for his comments. I believe that we must get through the toughest resolution we can. I was at the United Nations in Geneva and of course I heard the comments from some of the countries that do not support the resolution. I will not name them all, but I will point out the slight irony of the Russian ambassador saying that he does not believe that a country should involve itself in another country’s affairs, although that is another matter. None the less, I recognise the fact that many countries do not support the resolution, and it is vital that we have as wide a base of support from the world community as possible. I hope and pray that sufficient numbers will support the resolution and that it will go through. There will of course have to be compromises, but I want it to be as tough as possible, on the grounds that I laid out at the start of my speech.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman share my hope that, should the resolution be passed this week, the UN will take immediate action, as it has done over recent months, to initiate its own investigations as a matter of priority?

Mr Scott: I thank the Hon. Gentleman for his intervention and totally agree with him. The UN should play a vital role. I would like to conclude by saying that once the resolution goes through—I hope and pray that it will—it is important that the UK helps in any way it can. I know that that will happen. We must help to gather evidence, some of which now goes back a long time, and make the investigation work. We must also take nothing off the table and do what is necessary to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government comply with the resolution once it is passed.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Good afternoon, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this debate at such an apposite time. Although I believe, like him, that the UN resolution on Sri Lanka is a move in the right direction, my constituents are concerned that it excludes some issues—including, notably, the period since the conflict ended. The atrocities committed during the conflict were appalling. President Rajapaksa headed a regime that most observers believe committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. During the conflict, it dropped cluster bombs on the area it had designated a no-fire zone. Even now, nearly 150,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for.

But the transgressions have continued. With no commitment to an independent international investigation that would lead to reconciliation, the political situation in Sri Lanka is worsening. The UN human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, has said that; “although the fighting is over, the suffering is not”, and that Sri Lanka is “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.”

Amnesty describes a Government “cracking down on critics through threats, harassment, imprisonment and violent attacks.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said that “anyone remotely connected with the losing side…is being hunted down, tortured and raped, five years after the guns fell silent.”

More than half the abductions mentioned in the report took place in the last year alone. Tamil places of worship are routinely targeted. A policy of displacement through militarisation led the UN special rapporteur in December to describe the living conditions of tens of thousands of Tamils as “very precarious”. Human rights campaigners have been targeted, including Balendran Jeyakumari, who was arrested and assaulted earlier this month and whose defenders were also detained when they tried to investigate. Earlier this month, the leading Sri Lankan Catholic Bishop Rayappu Joseph was accused of treason. Sri Lanka is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist, and there have been thousands of disappearances. According to Freedom from Torture, Sri Lanka is now the country from which it gets the most referrals. Human Rights Watch has also released a shocking report on the rape and sexual abuse of Tamil detainees.

The Sri Lanka regime has shown that it cannot be trusted to act fairly towards the Tamil community. During the conflict, it fired cluster bombs, white phosphorus and rockets at Tamils. Now it represses Tamils in other ways. My constituents want Britain to do all we can to ensure that the UN resolution is a first step towards justice and reconciliation. If we had done more sooner, we might be in a better place now, but we are where we are. The Minister must ensure that Britain monitors the human rights situation vigorously and supports the work of the commissioner. I look forward to his response.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I thank my Hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) for securing this timely debate on the situation of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and I pay tribute to him for his tireless work as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Tamils in raising the profile of human rights issues in Sri Lanka and seeking progress on accountability for the events that took place during the war, both of which are vital if Sri Lanka is to put its past behind it, thrive in future and achieve lasting peace. I also thank him for acknowledging this Government’s work to secure a strong resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this week. As he knows, I was in Geneva a few weeks ago and made a speech there in support of the motion with which we are closely involved.

As my Hon. Friend knows, human rights in Sri Lanka is an issue that has rightly occupied a great deal of my time since I took over the Sri Lanka portfolio from my predecessor, my right Hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt); it took up a lot of his time too. The decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka last November, although criticised by the Labour Opposition at the time, was absolutely the right thing to do, as it brought the concerns of many Sri Lankan people into sharp focus both here in the United Kingdom and around the world.

My right Hon. Friend the Prime Minister saw the situation for himself when he visited the north, as the first Head of Government to do so since 1948. People came out in force to make their voices heard, tell their stories and demand the truth following Sri Lanka’s appalling war. Separately, my right Hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I met civil society and religious leaders and heard about continuing impunity for human rights violations including, as the Hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, disappearances, sexual violence and attacks on religious minorities.

While there, we were also reminded that Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, with the opportunity to build a strong, peaceful and prosperous future. But to do so, the Government of Sri Lanka need to show magnanimity and build the foundations for successful reconciliation. That means going beyond the important steps of reconstructing areas badly affected by the war, reintegrating child soldiers, resettling internally displaced people and de-mining. Incidentally, I am pleased that the United Kingdom contributed an additional £2.1 million last year to support de-mining work in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka also needs to establish the truth for those who seek it, restore livelihoods to those who have lost them, deliver a sustainable political settlement, ensure an end to impunity, and ensure the independence of the judiciary and space for freedom of speech.

Much of that was reflected in the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, where he raised the United Kingdom’s concerns directly with President Rajapaksa, which he would have been unable to do if he had not gone there in the first place. The Prime Minister made it clear that if Sri Lanka had not properly begun a credible, independent domestic investigation by March, he would use the UK’s seat on the Human Rights Council to call for an international investigation.

Siobhain McDonagh: I was always taught that self-praise is no praise. There are many people who must be praised for struggling since 2009 to bring to light the evidence of the terrible atrocities that happened in Sri Lanka. One of them is the film producer Callum Macrae, whose film “No Fire Zone” is up for a documentary award in the One World film festival. Will the Minister congratulate Callum Macrae and extend his thanks to the other people who fought nobly when nobody was prepared to listen?

Mr Swire: I pay tribute to all those who have lifted the veil over what has gone on in Sri Lanka, including Channel 4, whose programmes have been dismissed by some elements in the Government in Sri Lanka. A lot of people have been campaigning for the investigation, which I hope will achieve support in the next 48 hours.

The time has come to address these things. The 24 February report of the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, bore out the concerns expressed to us in November. Its assessment was that human rights concerns continue, including compulsory land acquisition, shrinking space for civil society and media, rising religious intolerance and the undermining of independent institutions such as the judiciary. The report also assesses that the Government of Sri Lanka have “failed to ensure independent and credible investigations into past violations of international human rights and humanitarian law” on both sides during the war, which Ms Pillay attributes to a lack of political will.

The British Government strongly support that assessment. It is of deep concern that yet again the Government of Sri Lanka have failed to implement the recommendations of a Human Rights Council resolution. Additionally, Ms Pillay’s remarks during her visit to Sri Lanka last year that the country is “showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction” are also of great concern to us.

Sri Lanka’s failure to investigate human rights violations is the reason why, when I represented the UK at the high-level segment of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 3 March, I called for the international community to act and strongly encouraged the Human Rights Council to unite in supporting the call for an international investigation contained in the draft resolution on Sri Lanka. We are determined to win the council vote, which will take place later this week. The UK has taken a forward-leaning position and provided leadership, and will help break new ground if the council is successful in establishing an international mechanism. That is why my right Hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, my ministerial colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and I have personally engaged with the majority of Human Rights Council countries. On 21 March, my right Hon. Friend the Prime Minister led a call for European Council conclusions that put the EU’s full support behind the resolution.

We have been encouraged by the responses, but will continue to press hard for support right up until the vote takes place. We are taking nothing for granted. We have been working extremely closely with non-governmental organisations and other interested groups and listening to their views and aspirations. I take this opportunity to pay tribute again to all the individuals in this House and outside it who have campaigned for this moment. The time has come for a genuinely credible investigation with an international dimension to assess once and for all what went on. It will only help all the people of Sri Lanka move forward. (House of Commons)

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