Ed Davey – 2021 Speech on Sri Lanka

The speech made by Ed Davey, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, in the House of Commons on 18 March 2021.

I thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for leading this debate. I am proud to have worked with her for many years on the APPG, standing up for justice and human rights for Tamil people. Over those years, we witnessed time and again Tamil people being harmed by the Sri Lankan Government and let down by the international community.

Human rights are again under attack in Sri Lanka. Recent reports from numerous human rights organisations, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, paint a disturbing picture. From the appalling treatment of Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Christian communities during covid, when the Sri Lankan Government for months prevented burials of their dead in the traditional manner, to the continuing human rights abuses against the Tamil population across the island, things are getting worse, as the international community wrings its hands.

It is clear that domestic mechanisms for accountability in Sri Lanka have failed again in recent years; they cannot be relied on. An international mechanism has always been needed to enable allegations of genocide, war crimes and human rights abuses to be properly examined and investigated. Many of us had campaigned for such a mechanism for nearly 12 years since the end of the civil war. Eventually, at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Sri Lankan Government signed up to a mechanism, albeit one involving significant compromise by those of us who felt it did not go far enough, and who did not trust the Sri Lankan Government to deliver.

Sadly, time has proven us right. The Sri Lankans did not deliver on any of the promises made to the international community and then, last March, walked away totally. It is clear that the Sri Lankan Government will continue to deny, to delay and to evade. That is why we urgently need a new international solution.

The 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council is currently under way, giving the UK the opportunity to demand accountability in Sri Lanka, but regrettably the draft resolution on Sri Lanka totally fails to rise to the challenge, even though the UK is a leader of the core group. As it stands, the draft resolution is too vague and lacks a robust commitment to international accountability mechanisms. Section 6 is simply far too weak. That is why Liberal Democrats continue to call on the UK Government to work with international partners to ensure a proper international, independent investigative mechanism to establish what is happening in Sri Lanka. There must be a robust international mechanism that ensures that evidence can be collected and files can be prepared for prosecution.

The British Tamil community is growing frustrated at the lack of meaningful progress in finding justice, and I share that frustration. It is time for the UK to undertake bilateral actions to push for accountability. I have long called for an end to arms exports to Sri Lanka. For Sri Lanka to be listed as a human rights priority country in the Foreign Office’s own recent annual human rights report is preposterous, and arms exports are still not banned. The Government should look at Magnitsky-style sanctions against individuals involved in perpetrating human rights abuses.

The truth is that Sri Lanka is part of the global struggle between the US and China. It is part of the geopolitics of our world, and it is time that democratic countries worked together to support the democratic and human rights of the Tamil people and stopped allowing the Sri Lankan Government to become increasingly under the influence of Beijing. It is time we stood up for the human rights of the Tamil people.