Siobhain McDonagh – 2021 Speech on Sri Lanka

The speech made by Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, in the House of Commons on 18 March 2021.

I beg to move,

That this House notes with concern the reports of a systematic attack in Sri Lanka on democratic governance, the rule of law and human rights including renewed discrimination against the Tamil and Muslim communities; is profoundly concerned that the Sri Lankan Government has refused to investigate accusations of war crimes including by key members of the current government and has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1; welcomes the significant leadership role played by successive UK Governments at the Human Rights Council and urges the Government to provide clear policy direction and leadership to ensure a new substantive resolution is passed at the upcoming Council session in March 2021 that will enable continued monitoring by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and mandate a mechanism to gather, preserve and analyse evidence of violations for future investigations and prosecutions; and calls upon the Government to develop a consistent and coherent policy to assist the Sri Lankan people through its trade, investment and aid programmes, and in its diplomatic and military relations.

I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for approving this debate and the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for co-sponsoring it. I proudly declare my interest as the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils. For 12 long years since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, I have stood alongside my Tamil constituents on the road to truth, justice and accountability. Those 12 years have presented them with so many challenges, so little progress and so much pain. The images of the final days of the civil war are scarred on my memory. No one who saw them could possibly forget them, and the mass violation of human rights left a stain of injustice on Sri Lanka. The world looked away, but today we will not.

I shall introduce today’s debate by running through a decade-long quest for justice. I will continue with the last UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka—a resolution that the country itself disappointingly withdrew from—and I will finish by highlighting the urgent need to strengthen the new resolution on the table in Geneva, because the measure of success for global Britain comes not just in rhetoric but in the actions that we take on the international stage, particularly in the face of international justice.

But first, the history. In 2009, in the final few months of Sri Lanka’s civil war, tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives. We all remember the horror of the Mullivaikkal massacre, the most recent peak of genocidal killings against the Tamil people committed by the Sri Lankan state. The current Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was President and his brother Gotabaya, the current President, was Defence Secretary. They are the present-day link to the atrocities of the past. The bombing of the Government-designated no-fire zone, where Tamil civilians took refuge, is as utterly horrifying today as it was 12 years ago, as are the findings of experts that Government forces even systematically shelled hospitals.

Amnesty International estimates that, since the 1980s, there have been at least 60,000 and as many as 100,000 cases of enforced disappearance in Sri Lanka, the vast majority from the Tamil community. These figures illustrate the scale of the suffering, the uncertainty surrounding the facts and the urgent need for resolution. Members will have heard of the horror of rape, torture and murder used during the civil war, the stories of the mass violation of women’s rights—stories that brought the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to urge investigations into sexual violence. They are stories we could never forget, but, to this day, no one has been held accountable for international crimes that have led many to accuse the Sri Lankan Government of genocide against the Tamil community.

The pursuit of justice must now move decisively forward with more sincerity from the international community. The Human Rights Council meeting happening now provides the perfect opportunity. Before turning to today’s resolution, it is important to consider the resolution that came before. Passed in 2015, with the consensus of Sri Lanka, it promised the establishment of a process of justice, accountability, reform and reconciliation, but six years on, Sri Lanka has made it clear that it has absolutely no intention of pursuing prosecutions or legal redress for war crimes. Its withdrawal from the process altogether could not have spelled this out more clearly. The little progress made has been rolled right back. The ongoing Human Rights Council meeting is our chance to finally secure progress, making it clear that a country cannot fail to fulfil international commitments. To do so risks undermining the credibility of the council as a mechanism of accountability.

I turn to the current resolution, to which the UK is a penholder. Disappointingly, it falls short. First, there is no recommendation to pursue criminal accountability by referral to the International Criminal Court. I could barely believe my eyes reading the Government’s reasoning, citing “insufficient…Security Council support”. Who are we to cast the veto for China or Russia before they have done so themselves? Our role on the international stage must be to send the loudest message that impunity will not be tolerated, not to pre-empt the inaction of other nations.

Secondly, there is a clear need for an international, impartial and independent mechanism to investigate the most serious international crimes. The Minister may point to resolution operative paragraph 6, but can he confirm whether preparation of files to facilitate criminal proceedings will be carried out in accordance with international criminal law standards? The resolution must be absolutely clear about the requirement to establish a IIIM to investigate allegations of war crimes, secure evidence, identify perpetrators and prosecute those responsible. The High Commissioner for Human Rights should continue to monitor and report on human rights in Sri Lanka, providing recommendations to ensure justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators. To rely, as the Foreign Office argues, on the Sri Lankan Government to investigate and prosecute all allegations of gross human rights violations is simply unrealistic, falling far short of our moral responsibility.

Thirdly, why have we not applied sanctions against those credibly accused of gross human rights violations? The US has designated General Silva and his immediate family over his role in extrajudicial killing of Tamils. It is an immediate step that we could take and the Minister cannot point to a veto as an excuse for our inaction. We must ensure a coherent approach to aid, trade and diplomatic and military engagement with Sri Lanka, consistent with the international obligations to human rights. That is long overdue.

Let me turn to the present day. Human rights are under attack in Sri Lanka again, with President Rajapaksa waging a campaign of war. Many of those who face serious wartime abuse allegations have been appointed to senior Government positions. Members of the Rajapaksa family hold nine ministerial roles, including seven Cabinet posts, and manage almost a quarter of the budget. It is total control. President Rajapaksa even pardoned one of the few members of the security forces to be convicted of human rights violations, Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake. That was unsurprising, given his stated determination to protect so-called war heroes during the presidential campaign.

The intimidation is perhaps best demonstrated by the demolition of the Mullivaikkal memorial at Jaffna University in January. That same month, the damning report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that Sri Lanka was on an

“alarming path towards recurrence of grave human rights violations”,

and called on the UN Human Rights Council to take strong action to promote accountability and reconciliation.

This is not just about the human rights of Tamils: the Rajapaksa Government even insisted on the forced cremation of those who died from coronavirus, thereby disregarding the religious beliefs of the Christian and Muslim communities in the country. The ongoing attack on human rights is undeniable. As we are a penholder to the UN resolution, the world will watch closely the strength of our response.

I look around the Chamber and, unless I am mistaken, I cannot see the Foreign Secretary. Perhaps I should not be surprised; he repeatedly declined to meet the APPG for Tamils in the build-up to the UN Human Rights Council meeting. I ask the Minister, with all due respect: where is the Foreign Secretary? The Foreign Secretary under the Labour Government personally flew to Sri Lanka at the end of the civil war to press for a ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary’s absence not only today but in the months leading up to the Human Rights Council meeting will be felt strongly by the Tamil community.

Before I conclude, let me turn to the Tamil community. There are half a million Tamils throughout the UK. They are a hard-working, respectful and dedicated community who have my utmost respect. We owe a debt of thanks to the huge number of Tamils who are working tirelessly on the frontline of our NHS. I sincerely thank them and say loud and clear that however long the road to reconciliation may still be, we will keep fighting for justice and human rights until they are achieved.