My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Naseby for bringing this important subject before your Lordships’ House. I am a friend of Sri Lanka. I have visited the country three times and met its leaders and other senior figures. I also enjoy a healthy long-standing relationship with its high commissioner in London. Here in Parliament, I am a vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka. I have raised issues relating to Sri Lanka on several occasions in your Lordships’ House. I believe that it is in the political and economic interests of the United Kingdom to maintain a close and productive relationship with Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka was torn apart by civil war. Conflict prevailed for 26 years and caused immeasurable suffering. An estimated 100,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more lost their homes. It has been eight years since the fighting ceased. People are now returning to their communities and attempting to rebuild their lives. In order for permanent peace to be achieved, the Sri Lankan Government are making the necessary reforms towards reconciliation. I am pleased that this is being done. However, they must ensure that all communities feel that proper and transparent justice has been served for the atrocities that took place. Until this happens, wounds cannot be fully healed.
It is important to note some of the specific positive measures that have already been taken by the Sri Lankan Government. A national policy on reconciliation and coexistence has been approved to serve as a framework to prevent conflict reoccurring. A task force has held public consultations to inform the development of new and transitional systems of justice and reparations. Powers have been devolved from the presidency to the Parliament, and presidential term limits have been reintroduced. Independent bodies have also been set up to maintain oversight of key public institutions, including the police and the judiciary. The security services are also being trained to fully comply with international human rights law, particularly with regard to people who have been arrested or detained. It is important that we applaud this progress and use it to provide further incentives for Sri Lanka to continue such momentum.
The European Union took this approach earlier this year, when it granted Sri Lanka enhanced market access status through the generalised scheme of preferences, which is commonly known as GSP+. This removes around two-thirds of import duties on Sri Lankan products entering the EU market. The EU Trade Commissioner stated that this was a vote of confidence that Sri Lanka will maintain its progress in implementing international conventions. She also mentioned that the situation was still unsatisfactory in many areas and that more work needed to be done.
Indeed, there is some concern that the progress of reform has slowed in recent months. Much more assertive efforts need to be made in a number of respects. Of particular concern are the tens of thousands of people who are still unaccounted for. Many people are still seeking the truth about what happened to their friends and family during the war. There are horrific accounts of people being forcibly removed from their homes by heavy-handed military or police officers. There are many allegations of human rights abuses on both sides. Whatever the truth, it is important that the allegations are investigated swiftly and with transparency. The integrity and impartiality of the judiciary will be crucial in this respect.
The Government recently introduced the Office of Missing Persons. This office will attempt to search and trace those who are missing and determine the circumstances in which they went missing. It is now important that progress is accelerated. I support the calls for Sri Lanka to produce a timetable for implementation of further reforms, particularly with regard to transitional justice mechanisms. There also needs to be much faster movement towards revising the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is viewed by many as a key cause of human rights abuses.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism visited Sri Lanka in July. His report stated that positive steps were being taken, but that Sri Lanka was still falling short on measures that would achieve long-term solutions and benefit all communities. Specifically, he said that he was encouraged by the Government’s zero tolerance of the use of torture, but that it had become so endemic in the security sector that it remained a little bit of a problem. In short, the Sri Lankan Government are trying to put—and seem committed to putting—the right policies in place. However, the level of fundamental change required in practice is proving somewhat difficult in some areas.
Last month, President Sirisena made an address to the United Nations. He spoke of the importance of protecting and strengthening democracy and of using power responsibly. He was also clear in his commitment to build a society that promotes true freedom and equality. He was equally clear on the need for support from the United Nations in order to fully achieve these aims. I received his speech as an acknowledgement of the work that still lies ahead, but also as a plea for respectful support from the international community. There was clearly a sense of caution that, if measures are imposed too heavily and hastily, there is a risk of destabilising progress. What was my noble friend the Minister’s reaction to this speech?
I must also mention the importance of economic prosperity for Sri Lanka. I held a debate in your Lordships’ House on increasing bilateral trade between the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. Trade can serve as a route to improve the financial position of many and can assist a country’s economic and social development. Sri Lanka has much to offer and I hope that we will look more closely at furthering our trading relationship with it, particularly as we look beyond Europe.
Since the conflict ended, successive Sri Lankan Governments have set a course for the island to become a major commercial maritime hub. I reiterate what I have said in your Lordships’ House with regard to trade with Sri Lanka. Britain should look carefully at the opportunities to exploit the rapidly changing economic landscape of this region. There are already about 100 British companies successfully operating in Sri Lanka in an environment that is already seen as one of the most liberalised economies in south Asia. Yet more rapid growth is expected, with an array of free trade agreements coming on stream to facilitate access to massively expanding Asian marketplaces. Sri Lanka should be seen as an excellent staging post for British businesses in the post-Brexit era to penetrate major markets from India to China. What positive action is being taken to accelerate trade between Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom?
Sri Lanka has undergone extreme turmoil and is still in the early stages of reconciliation. Peacebuilding is slow and often frustrating. The unity Government have made strides that were not possible just five years ago. We must recognise this and understand the fragile climate that still exists. I hope we can move forward with a policy of positive engagement, firm scrutiny and support for Sri Lanka. Finally, I would ask my noble friend how best we can achieve these objectives.