Theresa Villiers – 2021 Speech on Sri Lanka

The speech made by Theresa Villiers, the Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet, in the House of Commons on 18 March 2021.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding a visit I made almost exactly a year ago to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to make the case for justice for the Tamil people.

Terrible crimes were committed during the conflict in Sri Lanka. Over a decade later, as we have heard today, human rights abuses against Tamils persist. In a deeply worrying report in January, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, highlights

“the accelerating militarisation of civilian governmental functions, reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, exclusionary rhetoric, intimidation of civil society”.

Domestic initiatives to secure accountability for war crimes have failed to produce results, and Ms Bachelet fears that this entrenched impunity could contribute to past crimes being repeated. Not one of the individual cases identified by the UN as emblematic has led to a successful prosecution. In one of the few cases where a member of the military was convicted for murdering a Tamil, President Rajapaksa chose to issue a pardon. Some of those implicated in war crimes have even been appointed to senior positions. More than 40 civil society institutions have reported harassment and surveillance. Reporters Without Borders points to “an alarming resurgence” in attacks on Tamil journalists. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights continues to receive credible allegations of abductions, torture and gender-based violence by security forces. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is still used to detain people, years after the Sri Lankan state promised to repeal it.

Driven forward by David Cameron’s Government after his historic visit to Jaffna—the first by a major world leader—much hope centred on UNHRC resolutions 30/1 and 40/1. That Conservative-led Government played a crucial role in securing those very significant resolutions. Ministers and officials under this present Conservative Government continue to lead efforts to secure a tough new resolution at the UNHRC session under way as we speak in Geneva. Welcome progress has been made on that resolution, but the international community needs to match words with deeds. If it does not, this new resolution could run into the sand, like the previous ones.

I call on the Minister today; it is time for the UK Government to use their Magnitsky sanctions regime to target the men the UN believes are culpable for the atrocities that took place during the Sri Lankan civil war. That is one of the key asks of my British Tamil constituents. I believe that could finally help break the deadlock and open the way for justice for Tamils and a better future for Sri Lanka.