Robert Halfon – 2021 Speech on Sri Lanka

The speech made by Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, in the House of Commons on 18 March 2021.

I declare an interest: in October 2020, the British Tamil Conservatives made a donation to the Harlow Constituency Conservative Association.

It is estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 civilians were killed in the final five months of the Sri Lankan conflict. At the end of the war, in 2009, some 280,000 Tamils remained incarcerated for years in camps surrounded by barbed wire, with thousands of enforced or involuntarily disappearances. Their relatives continue to search for their whereabouts and for justice. Twelve years on from the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, little progress has been made to secure justice and autonomy for the Tamil community. Still there is no real accountability.

The Sri Lankan state continues to target the Tamil people in all aspects of their lives through surveillance, denying them their livelihoods, physical security, education, economic security, culture, healthcare, freedom of expression and freedom of worship. In February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a report expressing deep concern at the situation in Sri Lanka. She said that there are

“clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations”.

What action are the Government taking to prevent future cycles of violence and to promote autonomy for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, as forecast in the latest UN report? In 2014, the UK led the international efforts that successfully passed a key resolution in the UN Human Rights Council to promote accountability, justice and reconciliation. In 2015, Sri Lanka agreed to co-sponsor a resolution to promote accountability, justice and reconciliation, but despite that pledge and repeated extensions to their deadlines by the UN Human Rights Council members, successive Sri Lankan Governments have delayed and obfuscated at every turn. In 2019 Sri Lanka unilaterally withdrew from the resolution, walking away from its international obligations. The Sri Lankan Government have repeatedly reneged on their pledges to investigate and prosecute wartime atrocity crimes.

Now is the time for strong international action, led by the UK once again, to secure justice for the Tamil community, recognition of the genocide and a proper accountability mechanism. In February, tens of thousands of people joined one of the largest rallies in the Tamil homeland since the end of armed conflict in 2009. They marched for five days, from the east to the north of the island, calling for justice. That same month, 500 British Tamil organisations wrote to our Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, seeking an independent mechanism for evidence collection and the referral of Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court.

Twelve long years have passed. I urge the Minister to listen to the Tamil community here in the UK and in Sri Lanka, to recognise the genocide, secure justice for the Tamil community by taking on board the recommendation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court.