Interview with APPG-T Chair James Berry

DiasporaAs discussions on how to deal with the findings of the UN investigation into Sri Lanka’s mass atrocities (OISL) reach fever pitch, the newly elected chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, James Berry, spoke to the Tamil Guardian last week.

Speaking ahead of the release of the UN report into mass atrocities and after meeting the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, the APPG-T chair reiterated calls for normalcy in the North-East and stressed the need for any process to deal with the findings of the OISL to have the full confidence of the victims.

TG: What influenced your decision to become the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils and how has your tenure been so far?

The Tamil community plays a very important part in the life of the borough and contribute at every level of society, from being the Council’s deputy leader to doctors in the NHS, shop owners and other successful business people.

I have the opportunity to engage with the Tamil people through my everyday life but have also had the opportunity to attend Pongal celebrations at Tamil schools in my borough. Just recently there was a massive Tamil school sports day which was a great thing to be a part of.

I have been fortunate enough to be selected for a parliamentarian seat with a significant Tamil population. And am very much aware that it is those issues above many others that are of key concern to Tamil constituents. I have since the election been elected as chair of the APPG-T by fellow MPs, which is an independent cross-party group, which looks to promote Tamil interests and in particular a peaceful resolution of tensions in Sri Lanka. And it is principally through that role that I have a platform to influence the debate both in parliament amongst MPs and perhaps more generally in the UK, and make sure the government (UK) makes good its commitment to a thorough investigation into human rights abuses during the civil war.

We were honoured to have the visit from the chief minister, who also had meetings with the foreign office. He shared information on key priorities of Tamils in the North of Sri Lanka. We were aware of some of the priorities such as an international independent inquiry, de-militarisation of the North and return of land seized by government. One of the other things that were apparent was the need for economic development in the north and east and how after the war there has been a lack of investment. What he was encouraging was both a more sensible approach from the Sri Lankan government and for an opportunity for the predominantly Tamil provinces to do business with the world. The British government is looking to promote trade with other countries and I don’t think the Tamil provinces should be any different.

The Tamil diaspora has a lot to ofer in terms of wealth and knowledge. Now is the time to make sure there is a route to facilitate the Tamil diaspora from contributing. The problem at the moment seems to be that everything has to go through Colombo, and that doesn’t seem to be a practical way forward. Obviously there may be apprehension from Sri Lanka’s government about the funding of terrorism, however as long as there are proper checks and balances in place there should be no issue. At the moment Sri Lanka seems to be incredibly restricted and there seems to be a stronghold on the North. Obviously at the moment you can’t fly out of the North to Chennai for instance.

One of the things we can do locally is to encourage our local councils in the UK to twin with provinces in Sri Lanka. I would encourage other councils to do the same things, and I’m sure that MPs on the APPG will be encouraging their local councils to do so.

TG:What are your views on the recent results of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election?

The issues that the TNA has been elected on and have a political mandate on are all issues that we are considering any way. And it merely underscores through the ballot box, the information that we have from our British Tamil constituents about what the priorities for the Tamil people are. Whilst some of those may be things that are difficult to realise, I think I do see it as one of our roles as the APPG-T.

As those things are on the agenda. On issues like full devolution, my own view is that when there are calls for full devolution they should be put to a referendum by the people in the region, like we did in Scotland. Tamils have the right to call for independence but even for Scotland to get their referendum it was a 20 year process of devolving powers before the final decision to vote on a referendum. Obviously part of the LTTE’s aim was to get complete independence through violence and that failed. The method was unacceptable because it was a violent one, but also the aim didn’t succeed. Now obviously devolution is a more modest ambition. When you have people in a country that have clear calls for devolution like the Tamils in Sri Lanka, who also have a provincial council that’s run by a chief minister that’s very highly regarded across the political spectrum, I think it is a very positive call by the Tamil people. I think it is definitely something that the government should be exploring instead of setting its face against it entirely which is what it seems to be doing.

TG: Recent reports stemming from a visit by a US envoy to Sri Lanka, suggest that a resolution for a domestic accountability process with international oversight may be tabled at the United Nations Human Rights Council. What are your views on a process to deal with the findings of the OISL report?

If what the envoy said is final, I find that the US resolution will table a resolution supporting a domestic process to international standards to further deal with the findings of the report very surprising. I find the statement premature given the report is not publicaly available. Given that the US hasn’t seen the report I find it surprising and premature that they could set out what resolution they plan of tabling before knowing the contents of the report. This is a report into actions at the end of the civil war in No Fire Zones. I’ve spoken to family members of people that were shot in the No Fire Zone whilst holding a white flag. Which anyone with a cursory knowledge of international human rights law knows is completely unacceptable. To say that that kind of allegation can be tested in a domestic setting is really straining credulity. And whilst there is a very respectable argument that we need to focus on issues of devolution and economic development to move on, there are very real grievances on both sides, particularly on the Tamil side. Clearly as it stands certainly on the Tamil side there is no faith in a domestic process. Any process must have a buy in from the victim community and those who are accused. I can’t see how a domestic process would command the respect of the accusers, the accused and the public at large.

We have put in an application for a parliamentary debate on the OISL in September. We will keep trying to set up that debate and continue to ask questions of ministers. We will also be issuing statements of our own once the report is published. What I want to consider is the contents of the OISl report and how the British government should be responding in terms of influencing the international debate. I assumed that there would be broad support for an independent international investigation apart from a few rogue states and Sri Lanka itself. But apparently it was quite a difficult sell. So that concerns me, and that’s why our role as APPGT is important in calling for an independently constructed tribunal. I do think the British government has done a lot in terms of getting the investigation. I think that only when we have seen the contents of the report can we decide on what tribunal is appropriate. Some of the crimes that are outlined in the report may even be crimes that cannot be tried domestically in Sri Lanka at the moment.

TG: A recently released report by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) Sri Lanka has found that there is a continued climate of sexual violence and torture against Tamils under Sri Lanka’s new government, with documented evidence of torture occurring as recently as July 2015. What will the APPG-T look to do with the findings and recommendations of this report?

It will be the case of working with British human rights groups and FCO to ensure the Sri Lanka government responds fully to these accusations. They are very serious accusations, and we are not in a time of war on the island anymore. We are in a time of peace in Sri Lanka. Obviously there are allegations of crime on both sides. However the fact that the north is still largely militarised and that there appears to be sexual abuse of women in the North is no longer or ever was acceptable. And the idea that use of rape and sexual abuse has also been used as a tool of war and punishment is something that the UK has led on with campaigns against that. We will work with NGOs and our FCO to make sure that GOSL deals with allegations and ensure that there is no space for this behaviour. It has to be an international effort to improve the situation for Tamils in Sri Lankan, whiles in my view in think Britain can also lead those calls. (Tamil Guardian)

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