British House of Commons debate on Tamil civilian plight in Sri Lanka


June 16, 2010:

11.00 am Siobhain McDonagh: (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I am grateful for the chance to highlight again the appalling treatment of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan Government.

Many hon. Members share my interest in the subject, and although the debate is short, I will take as many interventions as I can. I pay tribute to the former hon. Member for Enfield North, my great friend Joan Ryan, who has always been one of the most powerful and passionate supporters of human rights and who continues to care deeply about what has happened to the Tamil community.

Before I begin my speech properly, I want to go over some old ground, as there have been several very good debates about the Sri Lankan Government’s treatment of Tamils in the past 18 months or so. In that time, hon. Members persuaded the previous Government to support a number of measures, including an end to GSP plus—the generalised system of preferences, which is a preferential trading agreement between the European Union and Sri Lanka. GSP plus was stopped because the European Commission conducted a major study of human rights in Sri Lanka and found a variety of abuses, including the lack of a free press, unlawful killings, torture, disappearances and so on. For similar reasons, the Commonwealth decided not to make Sri Lanka the host of the next Commonwealth conference, largely as a result of the British Government’s leadership.

I would welcome the opportunity to hear confirmation from the new Government that they support the decisions on GSP plus and the Commonwealth conference. Those decisions have been debated several times in the House of Commons, and many hon. Members have spoken in favour. Can the Minister confirm that the present Government will support them?

The reason why I called for the debate is that since Britain acted against Sri Lanka’s human rights record, even more disturbing questions have emerged about Sri Lanka’s activities. I am referring to evidence of war crimes. I shall quote from the International Crisis Group report of 17 May, which is called, very starkly, “War Crimes in Sri Lanka”, but first I shall mention a report by Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi, who are members of The Elders, a group of eminent global leaders brought together in 2007 by former South African President Nelson Mandela, who is a hero to many of us here. Their report states:

“There is a growing body of evidence that there were repeated and intentional violations of international humanitarian the last months of the war.”

They note that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has decided to appoint “a commission on lessons learnt and reconciliation”and call that“a step in the right direction”.However, they say that it is “not nearly enough.” They go on to say:

“There is no indication, as yet, that the commission intends to hold anyone to account for any violations of domestic or international law.Without a clear mandate for legal accountability, the commission has little chance of producing either truth or reconciliation. Nor will victims and witnesses feel safe in giving evidence.”

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the excellent work that she has done on this issue. In the last Parliament, the then Government appointed a special envoy to try to cut through the difficulties of talking to the Sri Lankan Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is perhaps one appointment that the present Government can make to show their determination to try to deal with the horrific consequences of the war?

Siobhain McDonagh: I agree. I thank my right hon. Friend for all his work on behalf of the Tamils and I ask the Minister to address the point that he raises.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the United Nations Human Rights Council failed to carry out its duty to investigate war crimes and abuses on both sides in the conflict in Sri Lanka, and that that is an indictment of those members of the UN system that blocked it—specifically, China, India and Russia?

Siobhain McDonagh: I agree. As I have often admitted, I am a novice in international issues. When dealing with these matters, I have been shocked by the behaviour and procedures of the UN.Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi believe that an independent international inquiry is needed. They say:

“In our experience in South Africa and other countries, these kinds of inquiries work best alongside a full and open reconciliation process. This would allow the suffering—and mistakes—of all communities during decades of war to be acknowledged.”

What happened to Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka was disgraceful, but equally disgraceful is the fact that what took place there was so hard to document because of the restrictions on monitoring and reporting and the lack of a free and open press.

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that however an international investigation is conducted, one of the most major things that needs to be dealt with now—indeed, it should have been dealt with a long time ago—is that not one displaced person should still be in a camp, not one person should still be suffering and everyone should be returned to their homes in safety? That should happen immediately.

Siobhain McDonagh: I agree.Independent analysis was extremely difficult, but the ICG report is the most comprehensive investigation so far into what happened. It concludes:

“The Sri Lankan security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam…repeatedly violated international humanitarian law during the last five months of their 30-year civil war...Evidence...suggests that these months saw tens of thousands of Tamil civilian men, women, children and the elderly killed, countless more wounded, and hundreds of thousands deprived of adequate food and medical care, resulting in more deaths.”

Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s words about the former hon. Member for Enfield North, who was indeed a true champion of the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. The evidence that my hon. Friend has presented is overwhelming. In the light of the failure of the United Nations to do anything in relation to human rights in Sri Lanka, is it not now incumbent on the west and particularly the United Kingdom to take a lead in having an independent investigation into these war crimes?

Siobhain McDonagh: I agree, and I hope to deal with that point in my speech.

To be fair, we already knew that these things were happening. However, the ICG goes further than previous studies and convincingly argues that there are“reasonable grounds to believe the Sri Lankan security forces committed war crimes with top government and military leaders potentially responsible.”

Of course, the report also accuses the LTTE and its leaders of war crimes, but it says that
“most of them were killed and will never face justice.”

It adds:“While some of the LTTE may go on trial in Sri Lanka, it is virtually impossible that any domestic investigation...would be impartial given the entrenched culture of impunity.”

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that it is an absolute priority now for the Government of Sri Lanka to release the people who are still in the camps, who have been there for so long; to ensure the freedom of journalists; and to begin constitutional change in earnest to bring about a political settlement?

Siobhain McDonagh: I agree, but we know from experience that expressing pious desires does not work with the Sri Lankan Government; we have to be tough and do something about it.

As a result of the evidence that the ICG has found, it argues:

"An international inquiry into alleged crimes is essential given the absence of political will or capacity for genuine domestic investigations, the need for an accounting to address the grievances that drive conflict in Sri Lanka, and the potential of other governments adopting the Sri Lankan model of counter-insurgency in their own internal conflicts."

That is serious stuff. The report goes on to say that there is“credible evidence that is sufficient to warrant an independent…investigation”.

That includes the intentional shelling of civilians, the intentional shelling of hospitals, such as those at Ponnambalam and Putumattalan, and the intentional shelling of humanitarian operations, notably operations from the UN’s PTK—Puthukkudiyiruppu—hub.

The report adds:

“The consequences of the security forces’ shelling were made substantially worse by the government’s obstruction of food and medical treatment for the civilian population, including by knowingly claiming the civilian population was less than one third its actual size and denying adequate supplies.”

The evidence cited by the group is substantial, including“numerous eyewitness statements...hundreds of photographs, video, satellite images, electronic communications and documents from multiple credible sources.”The ICG complains that the Sri Lankan Government “declined to respond to Crisis Group’s request for comment on these allegations.”

The House has already looked into many other allegations. A variety of news outlets and broadcasters have described terrible actions in the last days of the civil war. Few could not have been moved by the terrible pictures on Channel 4 of imprisoned Tamil soldiers being shot in cold blood. The ICG admits that it has looked at only a small number of the alleged violations. It has not looked into, for example,“the recruitment of children by the LTTE and the execution by the security forces of those who had laid down their arms and were trying to surrender.”

Despite that, the ICG states:“The gravity of alleged crimes and evidence not a case of marginal violations of international humanitarian law...There is evidence...both sides condoned gross and repeated violations that strike at the heart of the laws of war.”

It is therefore hard not to agree that the allegations should be looked at independently by an international inquiry.

I praised the previous British Government for taking action against human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, but the ICG is much more critical of the wider international community. It concludes:

“Much of the international community turned a blind eye to the violations when they were happening. Some issued statements calling for restraint but took no action as the government continually denied any wrongdoing. Many countries had declared the LTTE terrorists and welcomed their defeat. They encouraged the government’s tough response while failing to press for political reforms to address Tamil grievances or for any improvement in human rights.”

The report therefore places the onus on the international community to make up for its past and to conduct a full investigation into the last year of hostilities.

Many of my constituents had family members who were caught up in the hostilities. Some of their friends and families are dead, or spent many months in temporary camps for internally displaced people that were little more than concentration camps. Many Members still get Tamils coming to their surgeries with their stories. I do not believe that any of us can have been unmoved by the testimony of our constituents.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): I agree with the powerful case that my hon. Friend is making. One of my constituents who returned to Sri Lanka was detained on arrival in Colombo, and I have written to the Foreign Secretary this week to ask for the Government’s intervention in the matter. Does my hon. Friend agree that that case illustrates how the Government in Sri Lanka are continuing to persecute Tamils in every way that they can, and that there is no possibility of the diaspora being able to return while such detentions and interrogations continue?

Siobhain McDonagh: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s comments. Will she also ask the Minister to explain the Government’s policy on its relationship with India and China in respect of an independent investigation into the alleged war crimes? If there is to be sufficient international pressure to get such an investigation, they clearly have a key role to play. What will the Minister do to raise the issue with those key neighbours of Sri Lanka?

Siobhain McDonagh: I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he did while in government, particularly his work with the EU to get suspension GSP plus. I hope that the Minister will take his questions on board.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I give testament to the substantial amount of work that my hon. Friend has done, not only in securing this debate but in her work with the Tamil community in London. I certainly have benefited from it working with the Tamil community in Walthamstow.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) about the continuing persecution of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and use of camps for displaced persons, and that it is vital that we keep up the pressure on the Sri Lankan Government over how they are acting now, as well as seeking an international inquiry, if we are to gain any kind of redress for the Tamil community and ensure that their human rights are protected? Does she also agree that it is vital that the Government commit to continuing not only the suspension of GSP plus but the aid that was being given to help those who were displaced and put into the camps? The previous Government committed to such aid to help people not only to go home but to build lives full of prosperity and peace, which we want for everyone in Sri Lanka.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): I draw to Members’ attention that interventions are to be short.

Siobhain McDonagh: Thank you, Dr McCrea, but may I say how absolutely right my hon. Friend’s comments are? I may not get through all my speech, because we do want the Minister to be able to address all of our concerns. There are so many Members here because they are concerned about their Tamil communities and their extended families in Sri Lanka.

Children are being separated from their parents, people in hospitals are being bombed and soldiers are shooting indiscriminately. On previous occasions, Conservative Members argued that it would not be constructive for Britain to threaten to take action against Sri Lanka. They said that economic action would not help. However, in the past few weeks, the Sri Lankan Government have been acting in ever more paranoid ways.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary, recently appeared on the BBC threatening to execute Sarath Fonseka, the army commander who delivered victory over the Tamil Tigers, because he had suggested that top Government officials may have ordered war crimes during the final hours of the Tamil war. That is not the approach of a reasonable Government whose priority is peace and reconciliation. That was not the first time that we have seen compelling evidence of atrocious behaviour by the Sri Lankan Government.

In October, the European Commission published a report on human rights in Sri Lanka since the war. It stated:

“During the period covered by the investigation, there has been a high rate of unlawful killings in Sri Lanka, including killings carried out by the security forces, persons for whom the State is responsible and the police...extra-judicial killings were widespread and included political killings designed to suppress and deter the exercise of civil and political rights...Unlawful killings perpetrated by soldiers, police and paramilitary groups with ties to the Government, have been a persistent problem.”

In other words, there is enough evidence to conclude that war crimes could have taken place in Sri Lanka, and therefore they should be investigated.

Last year, when the Conservative party was in opposition, its spokesman, the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), criticised Britain for seeking action against Sri Lanka for abuses. He complained that Britain“voted against the $2.5 billion International Monetary Fund package in July and are now considering ending the EU’s special trade privileges”.

He asked:

“Is that really the most constructive way to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to promote a long-term reconciliation?”—[Official Report, 21 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 895.]
I am sorry that the Conservative position at that time was that reconciliation required inaction. I hope that that is not the case now.

I believe that a boycott of Sri Lankan goods by British citizens will help Sri Lanka to resolve its past, in the same way that the boycott of South Africa helped that country to bring about peace and reconciliation. In my view, doing nothing will only make matters worse. As the ICG said,

“Now a number of other countries are considering ‘the Sri Lankan option’—unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues—as a way to deal with insurgencies and other violent groups.”

It argues:

“To recover from this damage, there must be a concerted effort to investigate alleged war crimes by both sides and prosecute those responsible.”

Although Sri Lanka is not a member state of the International Criminal Court and it is therefore unlikely that the UN Security Council would refer the matter to it in the short term, the ICG’s conclusion is that:

“A UN-mandated international inquiry should be the priority, and those countries that have jurisdiction over alleged crimes…should vigorously pursue investigations.”

If countries such as ours do not take that action, disreputable Governments around the world may look at the Sri Lankan option and ask, “What’s to lose?” We must not let that happen.

11.17 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt):

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate and on the number of colleagues who have attended it. I appreciate that the issue raises a great deal of concern among Members and our constituents.
I appreciated the brevity of colleagues’ interventions and would be grateful if those who are already on the record listened to the bulk of my remarks before intervening. I am not sure whether I can compete with the hon. Lady’s speed and clarity, but I will do my best. This is the first occasion on which I have spoken on Sri Lanka as Minister, and I know how much interest the debate will generate in the community.

The United Kingdom has long-standing historical connections with Sri Lanka. Our two peoples are united by many ties of family and culture, as well as business, tourism and education. Our primary objective, therefore, is to support the development of a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka.

Let me turn immediately to the first of the concerns raised by the hon. Lady: the war crimes. Sri Lanka is now emerging from a prolonged and painful period of bloody internal conflict. We have seen immense suffering across all the communities in Sri Lanka, and the country’s development has been blighted by terrorism. Sri Lanka can now blossom and grow, and we want to work with the Sri Lankan Government and all their people to achieve that.

For any country emerging from conflict, there must be a balance between looking forward to new opportunities and development, and dealing with the past with honesty and compassion. The decades-long conflict in Sri Lanka has seen the country’s Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities riven by mistrust and suspicion.

There are serious allegations of the most atrocious violence and abuses having been committed by all sides over the past 30 years. Most recently, serious allegations have been made of war crimes by both Government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the final stages of the conflict in early 2009.

Our view is that the allegations will haunt the country for many years to come and will hinder much-needed reconciliation between the communities unless there is an honest process of accountability for the past.

President Rajapaksa made a commitment to the UN Secretary-General last year that he would take measures to address possible violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. He has now announced the establishment of a lessons learned and reconciliation commission. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written to the President to encourage him to ensure that the commission produces recommendations that address the past allegations and allow all communities in Sri Lanka to live and work together in peace and security. I have today spoken to Foreign Minister Peiris to emphasise the need for a credible and independent process of accountability.

Siobhain McDonagh: We wish the Minister well and want him to make progress with his speech but, for us, the position seems incredible. Do the British Government actually believe that the current Sri Lankan Government have the wherewithal to carry out such a reconciliation inquiry, given that Sri Lanka is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists?

Alistair Burt: We take the view that the Government of Sri Lanka are committed to a process, understanding the extraordinary degree of international concern and recognizing the need for credibility in what happens. The responsibility of an inquiry and an investigation is primarily with the Sri Lanka Government—something that we understand, as did the previous Government, and we are proceeding accordingly.

Barry Gardiner: In taking the matter forward, I ask the Minister to pay heed to the establishment in the diaspora of the transnational Government elections that took place recently? Will he give a commitment that the British Government will work with those who were elected from the diaspora in the United Kingdom to ensure precisely that all the views of the wider Tamil community are taken into account in the Government’s thinking?

Alistair Burt: We shall continue to listen to everyone in such circumstances. It is not for us to dictate how an inquiry should work or what voices it should listen to, but this Government will continue the policy followed by the previous Government and be open to the views of all those in the community.

Keith Vaz: I congratulate the Minister on his appointment; I am sure that his work will be a very valued addition to the Foreign Office. When he next speaks to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, will he raise with him the newspaper reports that a Chinese firm has been contracted to go into Sri Lanka to remove the evidence of those who have been buried there? It is a very serious matter, and it will obviously affect any investigation that takes place. Will he ask the Foreign Minister whether such reports are true? Has a Chinese firm been instructed to remove the evidence?

Alistair Burt: I shall make sure that an inquiry looks into the issue the right hon. Gentleman has raised.

The establishment of a lessons learned and reconciliation commission is a step in the right direction, but to be credible it needs to show itself to be a strong, independent voice. We urge the Sri Lankan Government to draw on the experience of other countries that have set up successful post-conflict commissions. I said very clearly to the Foreign Minister today that, no matter how painful they are, experiences in South Africa, Rwanda and, indeed, in our country have shown that the only way to deal properly with reconciliation is to be honest and open and to get absolutely to the heart of the matter.

There must be proper public consultation, sufficient time to examine evidence and a clear and realistic mandate.

In particular, we hope that the commission can investigate fully the recent allegations of war crimes. We also encourage the Government to address urgently the issue of witness protection in Sri Lanka, mentioned by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden. That will be essential if the commission is to get to the truth in its investigations. We recognise that it is for the Government of Sri Lanka to take the lead in addressing allegations of war crimes, but we also support the UN Secretary-General’s proposal for a panel of experts to advise on accountability issues.

We trust that the Government of Sri Lanka will co-operate fully with the Secretary-General’s panel to help their own domestic process.

We believe that lasting peace will come about only when Sri Lanka addresses the underlying causes of the conflict and ensures that all communities are treated with fairness and respect. Following elections earlier this year, the President and Government of Sri Lanka have a renewed political mandate. We urge them to use the mandate to take meaningful steps towards long-term, inclusive political action.

We welcome the commitment of the President in his joint declaration with the Indian Prime Minister on 9 June to develop a political settlement that is acceptable to all communities, in which the people of Sri Lanka can“lead their lives in an atmosphere of peace, justice and dignity, consistent with democracy, pluralism, equal opportunity and respect for human rights.”

The United Kingdom stands ready to support Sri Lanka to make good on those commitments, and to take decisive steps to establish a long-term political solution to the island’s divisions.

I hope that the Sri Lankan diaspora in the UK can also play a role. The diaspora’s support following the humanitarian crisis undoubtedly helped to alleviate the hardship of many individuals and their families, and we thank them for their contribution. I hope the diaspora will find meaningful ways to engage with communities across Sri Lanka in pursuit of a lasting and agreed political solution.

Mr Love: I thank the Minister for his contribution, which is coming across very well. However, all the evidence emerging from Sri Lanka is that those wise words are unlikely to persuade the Government. That therefore leads me to GSP plus. Can he give us an assurance today that the British Government will continue to look critically at GSP plus in the light of what is happening in Sri Lanka?

Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next but one paragraph. Let me deal first with the humanitarian situation touched on by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Mr Scott) and for Harlow (Robert Halfon). A focus of much international attention in the past year has rightly been the humanitarian needs of nearly one third of a million Sri Lankan citizens who are displaced due to the conflict. We continue to support the humanitarian response in Sri Lanka as people strive to re-establish their lives. We have been concerned at the long delay in returning internally displaced persons from the camps to their homes, and the restrictions placed on their freedom of movement. We note the progress the Government of Sri Lanka have made in releasing IDPs from their camps to the home areas, but urge that this progress continue.

United Nations figures from 3 June show that some 60,000 displaced persons remain in the camps, compared with an immediate post-conflict figure of 280,000. However, many humanitarian agencies do not enjoy full humanitarian access to them once they return to their home areas. This limits the effectiveness of the assistance we and other donors are able to provide. Concerns remain about the situation of some 8,000 ex-combatants of the LTTE held in detention. Despite repeated calls by the international community, the International Committee of the Red Cross has not been allowed access to this population. We therefore urge the Government of Sri Lanka to establish clearly the legal status of these people and to allow the ICRC access in line with international norms.

As for the GSP scheme, in a meeting with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister recently, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence called upon the Government of Sri Lanka to make progress on human rights and reconciliation. We remain concerned about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. There have been widespread and persistent allegations of human rights abuses by both state and non-state actors. There have been attacks on the media, including the murder and disappearance of prominent journalists. We support the EU statement made at the UN Human Rights Council last week, expressing concern about the situation of journalists and human rights defenders and the lack of adequate investigations of alleged violations of human rights. We urge the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure that human rights for all communities receive full protection.

Strengthening the mechanisms for the protection of human rights in Sri Lanka will be an essential part of building strong and durable peace and stability. We hope to see these translate into evidence on the ground that the Government are following through with those commitments, and building confidence in the rule of law and good governance. The UK supports the EU’s decision of 15 February to remove GSP plus trade preferences from Sri Lanka from August 2010. The European Commission report of 19 October 2009 on Sri Lanka’s failure to implement core human rights conventions, which are a requirement of the scheme, made this a clear decision.

We also support the moving of the Commonwealth conference, which the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned. We know that the Government of Sri Lanka are taking steps to address the Commission’s concerns. We encourage constructive engagement between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Commission, so that the concerns in the Commission report can be properly addressed. The GSP scheme brings significant benefits to all in Sri Lanka; we recognise that it plays a role in the ongoing development of Sri Lanka’s economy and that economic development has a role in the reconstruction process. We sincerely hope that Sri Lanka will therefore take all the necessary steps to ensure GSP plus is retained.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), Des Browne did a very good job for us. We have not come to any decision on special envoys yet, but I know him very well and will certainly talk to him. It was disappointing that he was not well received by the Government of Sri Lanka, which might limit his effectiveness. We believe that this is an historic moment for Sri Lanka, but it will only get somewhere if it moves forward.

Listening to the concerns expressed by Members and by the international community will be a welcome sign for the reconstruction and reconciliation that we all wish to see among all communities led by the Government in Sri Lanka.

11.30 am - Sitting suspended.

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