Britain says must push hard to pass resolution against Sri Lanka

British Parliament

Britain says it faces an uphill struggle to secure the passage of an appropriately robust resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in March against Sri Lanka but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is working hard to mobilize opinion and get the necessary majority.

“We face an uphill struggle to secure the passage of an appropriately robust resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, but I assure him that the FCO network is already hard at work with the resolution’s main sponsor, the United States, to mobilise opinion and the necessary majority, and that our campaign at the Human Rights Council will be led at ministerial level,” Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Mark Simmonds told UK Parliament during the debate on Sri Lanka on Thursday.

The full debate:

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South, Conservative)

Last October, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published its annual critique of the human rights work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Office responded in December, and I am pleased that we have the opportunity to debate the report.

Our report considers more closely three countries on the list: Sri Lanka, Burma and Russia.

Sri Lanka courted particular controversy as the venue for the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary attended, as well as His Royal Highness Prince Charles. The Committee felt that the previous Government displayed a striking lack of consistency in 2009 by objecting to the proposal that Sri Lanka might host the 2011 meetings on human rights grounds but not to the proposal that it might host the 2013 meetings. That appears timid.

The Foreign Office should have taken a more principled stance in 2009 and, to be fair to my Opposition colleagues, a more robust stand after 2011. However, in the circumstances, I believe that the Prime Minister was right to attend, but only on the condition that he press the authorities relentlessly on human rights and seek assurances that people who spoke out on human rights were not harassed by security forces. Will the Minister confirm that assurances were indeed given and observed?

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South, Conservative)

More disappointing was the Government’s answer to the question whether they still hold the view that there is no substantiated evidence of Sri Lankans returned home from the UK being tortured or maltreated. Simply stating that the Foreign Office is not aware of any new evidence since the original answer was submitted ducks the issue. Will the Minister clarify what is meant by “the original answer”? Can he give us an assurance about cases that occurred before that time?

Mike Gapes (Ilford South, Labour)

The universal values of the 1948 universal declaration of human rights are under attack and are being eroded. That is partly due to some issues and conflicts that have already been touched upon, but, unfortunately, it is also due to the shift of economic and political power and influence in the world, which is moving away from the transatlantic agenda of those who wrote the declaration towards other regions of the world with different political histories and traditions. We will have a big fight in this century to maintain those universalist human rights values. It is important, however, that we recognise that there are countries in south and east Asia that are democratic and pluralistic and hold to those values. Such countries include the Republic of Korea and Taiwan, which I recently visited, where people believe in democracy, pluralism and human rights. It is important that we recognise the fact that we have friends in that part of the world and work with them.

I want to make three points. Mention has already been made of Sri Lanka. Members will know that for a long time I have taken an interest in what happened at the end of the civil war there. The Chair of the Select Committee, Sir Richard Ottaway, has already referred to some of the issues, so I will not repeat his comments, but it is clear that the Commonwealth did not confront the situation in Sri Lanka in a good way. The question now is whether or not, by March, the Government of Sri Lanka will come forward with credible proposals, as called for by the Prime Minister. If not, the British Government have said that they will refer the matter to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The council has not always had a good record, although the Human Rights Watch report that I saw yesterday refers to an improvement, which I think reflects recent changes to its membership. However, several authoritarian friends of the Rajapaksa family sit on the council, so I am not necessarily convinced that that route will get the solution we want.

Will the Minister could address the issue of Sri Lanka in his reply and let us know what is going to happen if its Government do not come forward with a credible, independent inquiry into the events of 2009? Many countries around the world have been calling for such an inquiry, not just the Tamil diaspora. Another mass grave was discovered in a place called Mannar in December. I understand that so far 31 skulls have been discovered, placed on top of each other. Another mass grave was discovered in the centre of Sri Lanka a year ago. It is quite clear that there are questions to be answered about the firing in the so-called no fire zone and the deaths of 40,000 people there in early 2009, just five years ago.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, Labour)

I begin by strongly supporting the Committee’s recommendation that the extent of the UK’s engagement in a particular country, or the impact of the human rights situation in that country on wider UK interests, should no longer be included in the criteria used to identify countries to be placed on the list of countries of concern. I can see no case for a country’s inclusion being dependent on whether the UK can—as Baroness Warsi, the Senior Minister of State, said in her evidence to the Committee—“make a difference”. Apart from anything else, many of the countries already on the list have seen little or no improvement despite being categorised as a country of concern and therefore presumably having been pressed further by the UK to improve human rights.

No one pretends that it is easy to effect change in brutal regimes that are strangers to the concept of basic human rights, but bringing UK interests into the equation, in the way that that is being done, devalues our own commitment as a country to the need to uphold universal human rights. For example, Bahrain has already been mentioned by several colleagues and I have had strong representations from constituents who believe that it should be rated as a country of concern because of human rights abuses. However, they also believe that that is not being done because of the UK’s interests in selling military equipment to Bahrain. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how that can be classified as an objective evaluation, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office says is the case in the criteria for countries of concern. There seems to be inconsistency; some countries that are left off the list are just as bad as some of the countries that are on it.

Of course, one tactic for making a difference and influencing countries of concern is to refuse to allow them international status by holding major events. I personally regret that the Prime Minister chose to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo. In the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on the Commonwealth, which was published in November 2012, the Committee took the view that the Prime Minister:
“should publicly state his unwillingness to attend CHOGM unless he receives convincing and independently verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights in Sri Lanka”.

No such evidence was forthcoming. In fact, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International took the view that the opposite was the case. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister decided to go to CHOGM and stated that he would “shine a light” on the situation in Sri Lanka. To be fair, he did so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South has said, the Prime Minister also called for an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes if no credible domestic investigations are carried out by March 2014.

The human rights situation in Sri Lanka will come before the UN Human Rights Council next at its 25th session, which is to be held from 3 to 28 March 2014. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will present a comprehensive report on the implementation of Human Rights Council resolution 22/1 on Sri Lanka of March 2013.

Will the Government follow up on the Prime Minister’s commitment by working with others to obtain agreement for the establishment of an international investigation into allegations of crimes under international law by all sides in Sri Lanka? Also, what action will the Government take to keep up the pressure on the Sri Lankan Government about ongoing human rights abuses?

As Sir Richard Ottaway, the Chairman of the Committee, has said, of particular concern to the Committee are instances where allegations have been made of the torture of Sri Lankan Tamils who had been returned from the UK as failed asylum seekers. The Government previously maintained that they had no substantiated evidence that people returned by the UK immigration authorities to Sri Lanka had been maltreated. It is very important that we hear from the Minister whether the Government still stand by that opinion. It is not repeated in the FCO’s 2012 report and we did not get a straight answer from Baroness Warsi, who appeared before the Committee, when she was asked about it. Can we have a straight answer from the Minister who is here today when he responds to the debate?

Kerry McCarthy (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Bristol East, Labour)

Given my limited time, I will focus on the countries singled out by the Committee. First, the UK was right to object in 2009 to Sri Lanka’s hosting CHOGM in 2011. As Baroness Warsi noted in her evidence, we also raised concerns then about the prospect of 2013. That was regarded as something that ought to be kept under review, if there was no improvement in the human rights situation.

It is disappointing that a more robust position was not taken in 2011. It is well known that the Opposition disagreed with the Government’s decision to send the highest possible delegation to CHOGM and we still do not understand why the Government felt it necessary to confirm who would attend six months before the event. That removed a powerful lever that they could have used on Sri Lanka in the intervening period, to get it to try to improve its human rights situation.

The FCO states that the Government “used the run-up to the Summit to urge Sri Lanka to make progress on human rights concerns”, about implementing the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and to allow unrestricted media and NGO access. Of course, the latter did not materialise, as the likes Channel 4 news attest to.

It is interesting that the list of subjects raised before the summit does not include an independent and credible investigation into alleged violations of international law. The Prime Minister’s call at CHOGM for an investigation was too little, too late. Reports from Sri Lanka indicate that the President is no more inclined to meet the request for an inquiry than he was before CHOGM.

I urge the Foreign Office to start talks with its international counterparts now. Doing nothing until the March deadline will leave it too late to agree terms of reference for or the composition of an international inquiry at the Human Rights Council in March, thereby leaving the Sri Lankan people waiting still longer for justice and reconciliation. As the Foreign Office’s update this month disappointingly confirms, there has been no improvement in human rights since CHOGM and little commitment to addressing sexual violence. Sri Lanka has still not signed up to the preventing sexual violence initiative, although the Foreign Secretary has said that he is still hopeful that it will.

Given the concern about ongoing violations, I would appreciate an update on the safety of the human rights defenders whom the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary met during their visits. I echo the point about the deportation of Sri Lankan nationals. In light of the severity of the torture allegations, it is disturbing that that issue was taken out of the FCO’s latest human rights report and that Baroness Warsi “declined to give a direct answer” to the Committee. I hope the Minister agrees that the Foreign Office cannot be silent on such allegations and that he will commit to working with the Home Office and organisations such as Freedom from Torture and to upholding article 3 of the UN convention against torture.

Mark Simmonds (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Boston and Skegness, Conservative)

The debate has been stimulating, well informed and productive. We have heard significant contributions, none more so than that of my right hon. Friend Sir Richard Ottaway, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who in a detailed and articulate speech highlighted several of the key aspects of the FCO and FAC reports on the important subject of human rights. He was also right to put those in the context of some of the Foreign Secretary’s remarks. The Foreign Office has listened carefully to the Committee’s constructive suggestions.

I will try to reply to the many issues about which hon. Members spoke, if they will bear with me. I apologise if I do not deal with everything that was raised, but I shall ensure that hon. Members’ important points are followed up in writing so that all who participated in the debate receive specific responses.

I want quickly to address the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South and others about Sri Lanka. When launching the human rights report in Westminster earlier this week, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch said that the Prime Minister was right to go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka and commended the Government’s determination to secure a tough resolution at the March UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, which included a mechanism for an international inquiry. I want to ensure that the House understands that if a credible domestic process has not properly begun by March 2014, we will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the United

Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and call for an international investigation. We will play an active role in building international support for that approach ahead of the March meeting. Mike Gapes is right, however, that we face an uphill struggle to secure the passage of an appropriately robust resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, but I assure him that the FCO network is already hard at work with the resolution’s main sponsor, the United States, to mobilise opinion and the necessary majority, and that our campaign at the Human Rights Council will be led at ministerial level.

There are many other aspects that I could cover in response to the speeches of right hon. and hon. Members, but I want to pick up a point made by Sandra Osborne. I want to assure those hon. Members who still harbour worries that the criteria for selecting countries of concern have become subjective. They have not; they remain objective. We continue to prioritise our efforts on the basis of our influence, not our interest, and that will remain the case.

Jeremy Corbyn made some good points but, if I may, I will respond to him in writing, given the time pressure that we are under. Some of what he said about the universal periodic review of rights is absolutely on the right lines. I will also respond to the hon. Members who made points about Russia and elsewhere.

(Courtesy: DM Online)