20 March 2024
Sri Lanka: Human Rights

Andrew Mitchell, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, replies on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate on human rights in Sri Lanka.

The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Mr Andrew Mitchell)

I believe this is the first time we have been joined in such an endeavour during our time in the House together, Dame Maria, and it is a huge privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing the debate, and I congratulate him on the way in which he presented what he had to say to us. Somewhat similarly to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), I am standing in for the Minister for the Indo-Pacific, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), as she is unable to attend, but it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government to the excellent and interesting debate we have just heard. I am extremely grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members who have spoken. I will seek to respond to all points raised, and if I omit any, I will of course immediately write to hon. Members.

One point I want to pick up at the outset, which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, is to do with the British military engagement in Sri Lanka, but I hope to pick up the rest of his points during my remarks. The British strategy for defence engagement in Sri Lanka focuses primarily on professional military education, strategic leadership and international development. We continuously monitor the context and viability of the approach to ensure that UK assistance is in line with our values and consistent with our domestic and international human rights obligations, and assures the process of selecting appropriate personnel for any UK-sponsored training.

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who was questioning me just an hour or so ago on issues to do with Hong Kong. I recognise the specific interest and experience he brings to a debate like this because of his knowledge and understanding of reconciliation, conflict and healing. I heard him say—and how right he is—that he speaks up always in this House for human rights and for the voiceless.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame Siobhain McDonagh) spoke movingly on behalf of her Tamil constituents, and I will seek to come to at least some of her comments. Likewise, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) raised important issues from his experience of these matters. The hon. Member for Cardiff North raised a number of points that I will come to, but she asked me two specific questions. The first was about human rights sanctions, and as I think she inferred, we certainly keep such matters under review as appropriate, but she will not be particularly surprised to hear me say that we do not discuss them in advance and neither would we discuss our thinking across the Floor of the House. She also, secondarily, made a point about the importance of accountability. I will come to some of this in my further remarks, but I want to be very clear to her that we regard transparency and accountability as fundamental parts of reconciliation. I will say more about that in a moment.

Let me turn to the current situation. Human rights in Sri Lanka remain a priority for the Government, and we monitor closely the situation and developments there. The fact that Sri Lanka is a human rights priority country for the British Government reflects our concerns about a range of human rights issues and, quite rightly, hon. Members have highlighted a number of those concerns.

Civil society continues to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment by state authorities. Those points were eloquently set out during some of the contributions we have heard today. We are concerned about a trend towards a more constrained civic space, including the use of laws to limit freedoms of expression and assembly, such as the misuse of the international covenant on civil and political rights, or the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was mentioned earlier. Britain continues to call for the replacement of the draconian PTA with legislation that is consistent with Sri Lanka’s international obligations and to uphold a moratorium on the use of the provisions of the PTA.

We are also concerned about the Online Safety Act, which was recently passed. It has the potential to restrict severely online communication and could criminalise many forms of expression. Proposals to strengthen the regulation of non-governmental organisations and broadcast media raise fears of efforts to restrict civic space.

Elliot Colburn 

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On the point about the online space, it is indeed being encroached on internationally. In fact, here in the United Kingdom, the Tamil Guardian and other Tamil publications have faced deplatforming from places like Meta, Facebook and Instagram, for example, due to complaints made elsewhere in the world under the auspices of the PTA and other bits of legislation. Can he perhaps take away the question of how we can protect the rights of Tamils to express themselves freely online when they are outside the geographical space of the island?

Mr Mitchell 

Yes, I will certainly take that away, as my hon. Friend requests, and I hope that some of what I will have to say will assist in addressing that point. We want to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to hold comprehensive consultations with stakeholders and enact amendments to align legislation with Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations.

As this House acknowledged in a debate—I think, in December—a number of different communities, including Tamils and Muslims, face marginalisation by state authorities. There have been increasing tensions around land, which have sometimes centred around religious sites, such as the most recent incident at a Hindu temple in Vavuniya. These actions and incidents have troubling implications for freedom of religion or belief. There have been reports of state-sponsored settlement of traditional pastureland in Batticaloa, which threatens the livelihoods of local farmers. These events have increased the risk of communal tensions and stoked perceptions of forced displacement from traditional Tamil areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka. There have been several incidents of heavy-handed policing of peaceful protests and commemorations, and the ongoing special police operation, which is ostensibly aimed at combating drug trafficking, has raised serious concerns over arbitrary arrests, seizures of property and ill treatment in detention.

I now turn to what Britain specifically is seeking to do: promoting human rights, reconciliation and justice, and accountability. Those are key strands of the UK Government’s policy towards Sri Lanka. The Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, raises our concerns about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka on a regular basis. When she visited Sri Lanka in October, she raised concerns with the President, the Foreign Minister and the Justice Minister, and she again saw the Sri Lankan Justice Minister when he was in Britain last week.

When in Sri Lanka, my right hon. Friend met the governor of Northern Province, Tamil representatives and members of civil society. She raised the need for progress on human rights for all communities in Sri Lanka, and the need for justice and accountability for violations and abuses committed during and following the armed conflict. The British Government have an £11 million programme that supports human rights and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. We have specific projects and programmes that help to tackle the legacy of the conflict, support civil society and democratic processes, promote gender equality and reduce inter-community tensions.

We have been a leading member of the core group of countries in the United Nations Human Rights Council that work to improve human rights, justice and accountability throughout Sri Lanka. We have worked within the UN human rights system to raise concerns and build international support to strengthen human rights. We used our statement to the UN Human Rights Council on 4 March to raise our concern on recent legislative developments relating to human rights, reconciliation and civic space.

Our statement urged the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure meaningful consultation on the proposed commission for truth, unity and reconciliation. Britian has stressed the importance, as I mentioned in my early remarks to the hon. Member for Cardiff North, of transparency, accountability and inclusivity in any process, and of building meaningfully on past work and recommendations that address the root causes of conflicts and impunity.

The British delegation in the UN Human Rights Council led work on the most recent resolution on Sri Lanka. We remain ready to support Sri Lanka in addressing the UK-penned resolution 51/1. In the resolution, we focused international attention on the human rights situation and shortcomings. We succeeded in renewing the mandate of UN human rights experts to report on these issues and to preserve evidence of abuses and violations—turning specifically to the point the hon. Lady made—committed during the armed conflict, so that justice can be pursued. We call on the Government of Sri Lanka to engage constructively with all UN human rights initiatives, and to take up the offers of support available to them.

There are some positive signs. We welcome steps taken by the Sri Lankan Government to address some of the community grievances, and civil society and international community concerns. The release of some disputed lands is a helpful step, as is the release of some long-term PTA detainees. We welcome the Government’s initial steps to engage with representatives of the Tamil community on a long-sought political settlement. We have urged the Government to consider further confidence-building measures and engagement. We welcome steps taken by the Government of Sri Lanka to improve connectivity between the north and countries in the region, including through regular flights. That should help increase economic opportunities for Tamils and others in those communities.

I will conclude on this note. Britain closely monitors human rights developments in Sri Lanka. We welcome the ongoing attentions and contributions of right hon. and hon. Members, and the spotlight they bring to this issue. We are concerned by the ongoing land disputes, the continued harassment and surveillance of civil society and the limitations on freedoms of expression, assembly and association, including through recent and proposed legislation. We will continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to adhere to their human rights obligations, fulfil their commitments on transitional justice and legislative reform, and take steps to build trust in their institutions.

Our projects and programmes in Sri Lanka will continue to target the drivers of conflict and support improvements in human rights. Ministers and officials will continue to engage with the Government and wider society on human rights and transitional justice. We will remain a leading voice on the international stage, working with civil society and through the United Nations to deliver meaningful human rights improvements for the Tamils and all the people of Sri Lanka.