A number of British MPs, speaking at the House of Commons debate ‘Tamils in Sri Lanka’ on 28 January 2015 highlighted the failures of the international community to protect Tamils and the need of the new government of Sri Lanka to take concrete steps to reconcile with Tamils. The chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPGT), MP Lee Scott, said:
Following the recent elections in Sri Lanka, we have seen a change from President Rajapaksa to President Sirisena. However, the new Government of Sri Lanka have stated that they will not change the policy towards the Tamil community in Sri Lanka or demilitarise the areas in which Tamil people live.
Only a political solution that recognises the rights of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, including that to self-determination, can address the root cause of the conflict. The Sri Lankan constitution already provides for an autonomous assembly, much as Scotland or Wales has in the United Kingdom. That assembly should be given to the Tamils. People should have power over their own destinies. I am calling not for changes to the existing constitution, but for people to honour the existing constitution.
The change in Sri Lanka’s political leadership should create a chance for the accountability process to work and help those who need justice. It should not be used as an excuse to delay that justice further and kick it into the long grass. I am fairly sure that with everything else going on in the world, the Sri Lankan Government hope that the issue will quietly go away and that people will forget about it. However, I assure the Sri Lankan Government that many Members of this House—look at the numbers present for the debate—will not forget and allow the matter to disappear. We are seeking justice for those people who no longer have a voice.
President Sirisena has a laudable programme for reform, and I hope that, as he has stated is his aim, he is able to lay the foundations of a “disciplined society rich in cultural and moral values where all could live in harmony irrespective of differences”.
However, Sri Lanka will be truly set on the path to a sustainable and lasting peace only if the new Government take meaningful steps on several key issues: first, they must address the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from the end of the country’s armed conflict; secondly, they must end the culture of impunity that has blighted the country for so long; thirdly, they should negotiate a comprehensive political settlement to the Tamil national question; and, fourthly, they must ensure that the rights and freedoms of all Sri Lanka’s citizens are respected and protected. However, Sirisena has already rejected the mandate of the current UN investigation into war crimes allegations in Sri Lanka and has given no indication that he would be willing to grant greater autonomy to the Tamil and Tamil-speaking Muslim areas of the north and east of the island.
I agree with the assessment of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice that a democratic mandate for President Sirisena “cannot be any more a mandate for impunity than was the previous election victory of Rajapaksa. Only if he makes a firm commitment to dealing with war crimes allegations—with the support of the international community—can he hope to secure a just and lasting peace.”
I therefore intend to discuss why the British Government must remain eternally vigilant with regard to the situation in Sri Lanka. International efforts to ensure accountability and reconciliation on the island deserve our full and unwavering support. With the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights close to publishing its comprehensive report on war crimes allegations, the British Government, in concert with other countries and members of the United Nations Human Rights Council, must be prepared to hold the Government of Sri Lanka to account if they reject the report’s findings and fail to co-operate with its recommendations.
After years of misrule, Sri Lanka was crying out for new leadership. I applaud those who, in the face of much intimidation, voted Rajapaksa out, especially the Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims who had been so badly treated by his regime. In fact, the votes from the Tamil and Muslim communities were absolutely pivotal in securing Sirisena’s victory. Although Rajapaksa swept almost all Sinhala-dominated provinces, Sirisena received the support of about 80% of the Tamil vote and gained an even greater number of votes from Muslims.
It is on that issue that the British Government, through their bilateral relations with Sri Lanka, and as part of multilateral organisations such as the UN, must make their voice heard. We should do all that we can to ensure that President Sirisena’s Administration understand the importance that we attach to Sri Lanka’s addressing the outstanding issues arising from the armed conflict and its aftermath.
A matter of days after Sirisena’s presidential election victory, Pope Francis arrived on the island. Addressing the crowds at Colombo airport, His Holiness said: “Sri Lanka for many years knew the horrors of civil strife, and is now seeking to consolidate peace and to heal the scars of those years. It is no easy task to overcome the bitter legacy of injustices, hostility and mistrust left by the conflict. It can only be done by overcoming evil with good and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace. The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity.”
I agree wholeheartedly with His Holiness’s sentiments, and his statement is an implicit endorsement of the UN inquiry.
President Sirisena has spoken of how his Government intend to “have a foreign policy that will mend our ties with the international community and all international organisations in order that we derive maximum benefit for our people.”
The perfect way for him to show that he is sincere in his intentions is for his Government to accept the mandate of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and co-operate with its war crimes investigation. However, people are right to be sceptical about Sirisena’s sincerity, given that he is not prepared to engage with the work of the OHCHR and has vowed to protect Mahinda Rajapaksa and other senior Government and military figures from possible future war crimes charges.
In addition, the British Government should request that President Sirisena, as an act of good will to the Tamil community: revoke the proscription of Tamil diaspora groups and individuals, which was implemented under the rule of Rajapaksa; call on Sri Lanka to demilitarise the Tamil majority areas of the island, release all political prisoners who have not been charged with any offence and revoke the draconian measures in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows for 18 months’ detention without charge; and closely monitor the human rights situation on the island, particularly in relation to religious and ethnic minorities. I look forward to the Government’s response, and I apologise to hon. Members for speaking for so long Ms Siobhain McDonagh said.