Westminster Hall Debate - Tamils' Rights (Sri Lanka)

Before the UN Human Rights Council Session in Geneva, I had the opportunity to speak in a debate on Tamils' rights in Sri Lanka. 

Joan Ryan (Enfield North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) on calling this timely debate and on his recent appointment as chair of the Tamil all-party group, to which I am pleased to have been appointed vice-chair.

The Tamil cause is important to me. I am proud to have served as the chief executive of and policy adviser to the Global Tamil Forum, an organisation that is passionately committed to human rights, accountability, reconciliation and lasting peace in Sri Lanka. I am also pleased to support the British Tamils Forum. Many members from the Tamil community have made representations to me. They have suffered terrible human rights violations, both during the armed conflict and in its aftermath. I remain deeply concerned about the ongoing treatment of the Tamil people on the island.

I was delighted to see the back of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. His authoritarian Government did so much to undermine the rule of law and repress the rights of Tamils and other communities. It is to President Sirisena’s credit that he has sought to reduce the powers of the presidency, appointed civilian rather than military governors to the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern provinces and released some Tamil political prisoners and land.

However as the compelling report by the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka pointed out,

“systematic and widespread crimes against humanity have not ceased with the change of government.”

We have heard that today. Tamil families continue to report being at the mercy of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows for arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without charge. In the north and east of Sri Lanka, the Tamil National Alliance has expressed particular concern about the return of Tamil internally displaced people and refugees. Gender-based violence continues to be committed by members of the military against Tamil war widows, and the militarisation of Tamil areas over the past six years and the commercial exploitation of Tamil lands by the armed forces are hindering economic recovery and entrenching poverty.

After suffering repression and marginalisation for decades, what confidence can the Tamil people have that genuine change will be effected? Where is the Government’s commitment to a comprehensive political settlement that addresses the issue of Tamil self-determination? Can the Tamil people have any confidence that the human rights violations committed against them during and since the armed conflict will finally be addressed? The answer to that question is of particular importance given the timing of today’s debate—as we have heard, the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council is under way.

We know from the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the forthcoming report on Sri Lanka will present “findings of the most serious nature”.

The atrocities committed in the final months of the armed conflict were some of the worst the world has seen. Tens of thousands of Tamils were slaughtered, with many more unaccounted for. The culture of impunity that allowed terrible human rights violations and crimes against humanity to take place still exists in Sri Lanka today.

Only through a credible accountability and justice process will Sri Lanka be set on a path to genuine reconciliation and a sustainable peace. I note the statement made by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister yesterday, in which he said that his Government would seek to establish a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission and a new office on missing persons. Those are important developments, but as the Tamil National Alliance MP, Mr Sumanthiran, has said:

“Whatever procedures are instituted…the international community must get the Government of Sri Lanka to agree to full international participation, because the process must have credibility”.

As the democratically elected voice of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, the TNA must be listened to.

Tamils are right to have serious misgivings about any notion of domestic inquiries: let us not forget that Sri Lanka has an appalling record of either whitewashing or failing to investigate human rights abuses. The state has been complicit in the alleged perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict. President Sirisena was a Government Minister in the final years of the war and has rejected outright the evidence of serious human rights abuses uncovered by Callum Macrae’s groundbreaking “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” documentary. Domestic processes without full international involvement will be neither durable nor credible.

Along with many Tamils in the UK, Sri Lanka and around the world, I want to know what pressure the Government will bring to bear to ensure that any resolution relating to Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council includes cast-iron guarantees of international involvement. 

As Mr Sumanthiran says, more than anything else, the process must have credibility in the minds of victims. That is the least we can expect after so many promises of an independent international inquiry. The next few weeks will have such an important bearing on the future of Sri Lanka in terms of its past, its future and its current human rights situation, so it is vital that the Minister takes all those points on board when considering the UK’s position. I look forward to hearing his response.

You can find the full Hansard transcript of this debate here. 

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