Westminster Hall Debate: Truth and Reconciliation Commission - Sri Lanka

Yesterday, Mark spoke in his role as Minister for Asia and the Pacific on behalf of the Government in the Westminster Hall debate tabled by Paul Scully MP regarding the situation in Sri Lanka. To read the debate on Hansard, click here.

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Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission in Sri Lanka.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am delighted to be joined by fellow members of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils. The turnout represents the depth of feeling, particularly among the Tamil diaspora, in our constituencies. Yesterday, I led a debate in this Chamber on cystic fibrosis, which was the first time I have seen it with standing room only. The fact that there are fewer Members here for this debate does not negate its importance. Every Member in this Chamber represents many thousand members of the Tamil diaspora, who remain concerned about what is happening in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Government’s slow progress in meeting the terms of UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, which the Sri Lankan Government co-sponsored.

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The Minster for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to his passionate commitment to Sri Lanka, which predates his arrival in this House, although since then he has been an energetic leader as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils and on a range of issues in Burma too, as discussed.

Needless to say, I am also grateful for the attention and commitment of the other Members present: the right hon. Members for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), and the hon. Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I will try to respond to all the points made.

Let me offer my condolences to the families and friends of those who were killed in the recent intercommunal violence in Sri Lanka. Right hon. and hon. Members ​will know that that violence was not Sinhalese-Tamil, but Sinhalese against other communities, and it came in the immediate aftermath of highly contested local elections. Inciting violence in the name of religion or ethnicity clearly has no place in any civilised society. We support the Sri Lankan Government’s swift action to bring the violence to an end, but equally we implore the authorities properly to respect human rights in doing so.

We welcome the ending of the state of emergency that was announced yesterday morning, but we urge the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that there is an independent judicial holding of the perpetrators of that violence to account. Those events are yet another reminder of the continued importance of rebuilding trust and mutual respect between the communities and of the potentially tragic cost when that does not happen. The establishment of a truth-seeking commission is and always was an essential part of that process. I would like to update the House on Sri Lanka’s progress on reconciliation and on the UK’s action bilaterally and within the international community to support that process.

Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 as long ago as October 2015 was a truly historic moment. It was, at least verbally, a strong commitment to address the legacy of its long-running and devastating civil war, a commitment subsequently extended by two years last year in resolution 34/1. In co-sponsoring those resolutions, Sri Lanka pledged to establish a commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence, to sit alongside other mechanisms as part of a comprehensive truth and justice process. The UK, understandably and rightly, enthusiastically supported those resolutions. It is right to say that the Sir Lankan diaspora in this country—disproportionately Tamil as it is, for obvious reasons, rather than Sinhalese—on all sides was very much in favour and made that plain to the UK Government.

We remain absolutely committed to the full implementation of those resolutions as the single best way to secure the lasting reconciliation and peaceful future that are in the interests of all Sri Lankans, and which they so richly deserve. There has been some small recent progress, but in all candour I must tell the House that it has been slower than we would have anticipated or liked. An office of missing persons is close to being operational and has appointed seven commissioners. The Sri Lankan Government have passed a law to prevent and criminalise enforced disappearances. I understand that a draft law to establish an office of reparations has been approved by the Sri Lankan cabinet. I also understand that draft legislation for a truth-seeking commission—an important part of this whole process—has been prepared, drawing upon the work of a country-wide consultation taskforce.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)

The Minister may be about to come on to this, but in the UK’s pressure on the Sri Lankan Government, what have the UK Government been saying about when they want the truth and reconciliation commission to be established?

Mark Field

I will come on to that, but when I visited Sri Lanka last year, that was the No. 1 priority—to discuss exactly what progress was being made, what the stepping stones were and, in legislative terms, what ​the difficulties or delays were. That is very much in mind, and obviously it is in the mind of our high commissioner in Colombo in his regular interactions with members of the Sri Lankan Government.

The legislation is under review, given the consultation that has just taken place, and is not yet publicly available. We hope to have progress on that shortly. I very much hope that it can proceed without further delay, together with work to establish the planned judicial mechanism, on which there has also been regrettably little progress.

This week marks the first anniversary of resolution 34/01. The UK will lead a statement at the Human Rights Council in Geneva tomorrow on behalf of the core co-sponsors: Macedonia, Montenegro, the United States and the UK. The statement will review Sri Lanka’s progress against its commitments following the update report to be presented tomorrow by the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It would probably not be appropriate for me to pre-empt the final wording of the co-sponsors’ statement here, but I expect that it will reflect our assessment that: first, Sri Lanka is safer and freer now than it was in 2015; secondly, it continues to engage constructively at times with the international community; and thirdly, it has the opportunity to advance towards long-term, sustainable reconciliation. However, the statement will also make it clear that the pace of progress has been disappointingly slow and that much remains to be done, including on the implementation of transitional justice mechanisms, of which the truth and reconciliation commission is an important part.

I will touch on the point on the GSP plus, which the right hon. Member for Enfield North made. I recognise the concerns that she raised and would like to make it absolutely clear that, although there has been progress and we have allowed some recognition of the efforts that Sri Lanka has made so far, I would not want the Sri Lankan Government to be under any illusion that being allowed to go for the GSP plus somehow gets them off the hook. We feel that is an entirely acceptable position.

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)

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Mark Field

I am afraid I am running out of time and I want to finish this point. Subject to the scheme’s rigorous monitoring for ensuring continued compliance, the first report was published in January and we will have further reports.

On the diaspora point that was made powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, he is right that we need to try to encourage the Sri Lankan diaspora here in the UK to play their part. Improving the economy and the GSP plus is part of that. In that sense, it is a slightly positive way forward, but I would not want there to be any misapprehension about what was going on.

Last October I met Foreign Minister Marapana in Colombo and encouraged the Government to focus on four steps that the UK Government believe, if implemented together, would enable conditions for stability, growth and long-term prosperity for all Sri Lankans. They are: to deliver meaningful devolution through constitutional reform; to establish credible mechanisms for transitional justice; to return to the rightful owners all remaining private land that is still held by the military—right hon. ​and hon. Members will know that that is a major stumbling block; and to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with human rights compliant legislation, which we have not had in Sri Lanka to date. We will continue to press the Government of Sri Lanka to make real progress in those areas.

The UK diplomatic work, through our funding of more than £6.5 million from the bespoke conflict, stability and security fund, is having at least some positive impact. When I visited Jaffna in the far north of the country, I saw at first hand how our funding is helping to clear land mines. That is vital to families who have already been waiting far too long to return to their ancestral homelands and to rebuild their lives. Our long-running community policing programme is also helping police officers to serve all communities better, and to give greater support to women and children and their rights.

All that activity remains worthwhile, but I am proud of the UK’s continuing role working alongside local communities in the east of the country to promote inter-faith and intercommunal dialogue, in a part of the country where there is a much more mixed population than in others. Through the UN’s Peacebuilding Priority Plan, together with other international donors, we continue to provide technical support on reconciliation efforts that include transitional justice.

The UK’s message to Sri Lanka remains resolute: we absolutely expect the Government to implement in full their commitments made in good faith in the aftermath of a time of terrible conflict. As a close partner but also as a candid friend, we shall continue to support and encourage the Sri Lankan Government to make further and faster progress, particularly on transitional justice.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be well aware that part of the difficulty is that national elections are looming and there is more political instability than perhaps we might have anticipated back in 2015. As a consequence, I share the very great frustrations that have been raised in the debate about the slow pace of change. However, as we know full well from our experience in Northern Ireland, progress on reconciliation is vital to redress historical grievances, to strengthen human rights and the rule of law, but also to lay the foundations for the lasting legacy that all Sri Lankans rightly crave. That process could be a lot slower than we all wish, but the great prize is there for the taking. I believe it is what all Sri Lankans deserve.

Question put and agreed to.