On Thursday 18 March, the UK parliament held a debate in the House of Commons discussing “UK commitments to reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.” Twenty two MPs took part in the debate, with over half of them calling for the UK to designate Sri Lankan officials under their new sanctions regime. The Hansard record of the debate is here. You can watch the recording of the debate and read our reflections below.
Now that the Human Rights Council has adopted the resolution on Sri Lanka, we call on the UK government to heed the calls of MPs to review bilateral relations and take action to place human rights at the centre of its engagement with the Sri Lankan state.
MPs from across the political spectrum made repeated references to the culture of impunity since the war, enforced disappearances, and the surveillance and harassment of civil society and human rights defenders. Many put the cycles of violence into the current context of the tightening grip on power by the Rajapaksa family, who control nearly a quarter of Sri Lanka’s budget through their ministerial portfolios. MPs highlighted the increasing discrimination against Muslims and other religious minorities in government policy, highlighting the pain caused by the forced cremations policy. Bob Blackman and Jim Shannon, the Chair of the APPG on Freedom of Religion, linked the deteriorating human rights situation directly to extreme Buddhist nationalism at the highest levels of government.
MPs expressed frustration at the slow pace of international action on Sri Lanka, and called on the government to act in five key areas: sanctions, trade, military engagement, diplomatic postings, and international mechanisms for accountability.
Calls for action from MPs
Fourteen of the MPs who spoke at the debate called for the British government to use its new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime to hold individuals at the top levels of the Sri Lankan government accountable for their involvement in the atrocities committed at the end of the war. Since Shavendra Silva was designated by the US State Department last year, many MPs made a strong call to include him and the Secretary of Defence, Kamal Gunaratne, on the UK sanctions list. Silva has been credibly accused of direct responsibility for attacks on a series of towns and villages in the north in the final stages of the war, including indiscriminate and intentional attacks against the civilian population, attacks on hospitals and medical staff, attacks on No Fire Zones, and the use of prohibited and indiscriminate weapons. Gunaratne has been credibly accused of leading assaults on civilian hospitals, makeshift hospitals and food distribution points, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian objects in the same period. In the absence of any prospect of domestic justice or security sector reform, sanctions send a message to the government that promoting perpetrators is not acceptable and indicate that the international community will not turn a blind eye to impunity.
Four MPs called on the government to use trade conditions to insist that the Sri Lankan state complies with its international human rights obligations and some pointed to the repeal of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act as an important condition. The debate came in the same week that human rights groups were responding with shock to leaked comments by the UK’s Foreign Secretary that suggested he was prepared to disregard poor human rights records in order to make trade agreements, making the calls for human rights to be at the centre of trade and aid relationships with Sri Lanka all the more pointed.
Five MPs called on the government to review or halt its defence engagement with Sri Lanka, including by withdrawing the resident Defence Advisor from Colombo. MPs expressed their concern that the Defence Advisor’s activities lend legitimacy to the Sri Lankan military, since he has publicly met with at least five individuals who have been credibly accused of involvement in war crimes. Stephen Kinnock also raised Police Scotland’s 90 deployments to Sri Lanka: in over a decade of training, there has been no meaningful security sector reform, suggesting that the UK training of the Sri Lankan army and police has had limited impact and has not resulted in an improvement in respect for human rights. The UK must examine carefully its relationship with the Sri Lankan military and apply strict vetting procedures to ensure they are not providing training to those accused of human rights violations or inadvertently legitimising credibly accused individuals through joint working and diplomatic meetings
There were also calls from Stephen Kinnock and Anne McLaughlin focused on managing diplomatic engagement with Sri Lanka. The government should more carefully screen diplomats posted from Sri Lanka to the UK and refuse individuals who have been credibly accused of human rights violations, demonstrating to the government of Sri Lanka that these individuals will be held accountable abroad. Further, the government must vet Sri Lankan officials before all UK diplomatic engagements and meetings in Sri Lanka. Finally, Stephen Kinnock called for UK diplomats in Sri Lanka to balance their engagement with the Sri Lankan government with more meetings with civil society and victim-survivor communities, particularly through more visits to the North and East of the island. This would help protect marginalised communities and human rights defenders, whose activism places them in danger of reprisals, intimidation and surveillance by the Sri Lankan state.
Ed Davey was among the many MPs who supported international action at the Human Rights Council, stating that “domestic mechanisms for accountability in Sri Lanka have failed, they just cannot be relied on… The Sri Lankan government will continue to deny, to delay, to evade.” Many speakers expressed their hope that the government will work hard to see the full implementation of the resolution on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council, which has been adopted since the debate took place. The UK can support implementation by ensuring that the evidence gathering mechanism is adequately resourced and able to collect, consolidate, analyse, and preserve evidence of human rights violations. This will be crucial to support future accountability processes, advocate for victims and survivors, and support investigations and trials, including prosecutions under the principles of universal jurisdiction.
Some went a step further with reference to the HRC resolution, disappointed that the resolution makes no reference to referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and calling explicitly for the UK to pursue Sri Lanka’s referral to the ICC at the Security Council despite the likely veto by Russia and China, asking, “Who are we to cast the veto of other Security Council members before they even have the chance to?” MPs argued that lack of action from the international community feeds the government’s confidence in its license to act with impunity, while government officials continue to deny war crimes took place and promise to protect soldiers and allies from prosecution. MPs claimed that supporting a referral to the ICC at the Security Council, whether it is vetoed or not, would be a powerful symbol for the Tamil community around the world (and the half million Tamils in the UK) and a loud message to the Sri Lankan government that this culture of impunity will not be tolerated.
In his response, Minister for Asia Nigel Adams noted that the government shared MPs’ concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, noting surveillance and harassment of civil society, militarisation, and the worrying developments in the 20th amendment to the constitution. He noted that Sri Lanka remains a human rights priority country. The Minister pointed to the UK’s role in the Core Group on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council but did not respond to many of the points raised by MPs on action the UK government could take outside the Council. On sanctions, he refused to speculate on future designations.
Now that the resolution on Sri Lanka has been adopted by the Human Rights Council at its 46th session, we would like to see the UK government providing support for the fullest implementation of the resolution, including through financial contributions where necessary. However, action at the council must be backed up by other action to place human rights at the centre of bilateral relations with Sri Lanka.
We call upon the UK Government to:
- Apply sanctions against individuals credibly accused of gross human rights violations and war crimes, including Army Commander General Silva, to deter future abuses as soon as possible;
- Halt UK defence engagement with the Sri Lankan military and withdraw the resident Defence Advisor from Colombo as part of the process of holding the Sri Lankan military accountable for past and ongoing violations – a condition of UK engagement set out by the Ministry of Defence.
- Establish a vetting and screening policy for meetings between UK diplomats and Sri Lankan officials to ensure they are not lending legitimacy to individuals credibly accused of involvement in war crimes and human rights violations and strengthen vetting for Sri Lankan diplomats posted to London.
- Consider applying strategic conditionalities to aid and trade where they will incentivise the government to respect human rights and the rule of law and not cause harm to the general population – for example reinstating the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and other human rights obligations as a condition of maintaining reduced trade tariffs through the GSP Enhanced Framework.
- Support efforts to investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka under the principle of universal jurisdiction (UJ) as recommended by the High Commissioner, including by strengthening UJ legislation in the UK and providing adequate resources to investigative bodies.
- Call on the UN to immediately suspend the deployment of all Sri Lankan peacekeepers and for all UN engagement with Sri Lanka to be guided by the Secretary General’s Call to Action on human rights.