Sri Lanka

My Lords, I thank my noble friend, Lord Naseby, for this timely debate regarding Sri Lanka and Resolutions 30/1 and 34/1.?

I have visited Sri Lanka on three occasions. I have travelled to various parts of the country and met Sri Lanka’s leadership and other senior figures. My travels to and around Sri Lanka also allowed me to see first-hand the situation on the ground. Sri Lanka suffered a 26 year-long civil war that produced a great deal of suffering. The conflict ended 10 years ago and Sri Lankans are well on their way to reconcile, rebuild and reform.

During my visits to Sri Lanka I visited the Northern and Eastern provinces, where some of the land was occupied by the security services. The Tamil politicians were against the Government. I visited the Menik Farm camp for displaced Tamils. While much of the propaganda at the time was that they were confined to the camps, I observed that even at that time the displaced persons could come and go as they wished, and in fact I spoke to some of them. It is important that the displaced persons should be settled and rehabilitated. During my discussions with various Sri Lankans, I was made aware that there was a great deal of concern about missing persons.

I went to Kilinochchi, where demining was being undertaken by the HALO Trust, and I noted that it was indeed a very slow process. In Jaffna, I talked to ex-combatants who were being trained by the Government to obtain skills. Even today I closely follow the developments in Sri Lanka, and I cannot help noting the tremendous progress that the country has made to tackle burning issues, especially over the last three years.

I shall outline some of the key achievements of the country since then. The UK has now become the sponsor of the resolutions, which makes it imperative for us to take stock of those developments. The Sri Lankan Government have now declared that the country will be free of landmines by 2020, and Sri Lanka is part of the landmine ban convention signed in Ottawa in September 1997, which was supported by the UK as well. Over 880,000 displaced persons have been resettled since the end of the conflict in 2009. Sri Lankan security forces have returned 90% of the state and private land they had been occupying and the remaining figure is less than 10%. Over 12,000 ex-combatants, including around 600 child soldiers, have been rehabilitated and reintegrated into society, with some pursuing higher studies or other vocations.

As I said earlier, I have spoken to some of the ex-combatants. Sri Lanka has now taken ownership of mechanisms created under the four pillars of transitional justice: truth, reconciliation, accountability and guarantees of non-recurrence. This includes the Office on Missing Persons, which has been set up and is now functioning well. It is due to open 12 regional offices. Sri Lanka has also ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances and, incidentally, the country is now party to all nine core United Nations human rights instruments.

Another mechanism of transitional justice is the Office for Reparations, established and passed in Parliament on 10 October 2018. Today, the commissioners are in the course of being appointed. The draft framework for a truth and reconciliation commission has been submitted to the Cabinet Ministers by the Prime Minister.?

An area for reform which has had national and international attention is the review and repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This will be replaced by the counter terrorism Act, which is in line with human rights standards. A Bill was presented in Parliament last year, after which it was challenged by some parties in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the country has proposed some amendments which are now being considered at the committee stage in Parliament.

The Government have also become party to the optional protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which shows that they are taking allegations of torture very seriously and remain committed to carrying out investigations and prosecuting perpetrators. Sri Lanka has also retained a moratorium on the death penalty since 1976; I very much appreciate this action, as I am totally against the use of the death penalty.

These are some of the steps Sri Lanka has undertaken to engage fully with UN conventions on human rights. Sri Lanka respects the UN’s systems and processes, has transparent processes and legislation regarding human rights and welcomes UN investigations into compliance. Furthermore, there is reconciliation between political parties where moderate Tamil parties play a significant role in democracy and government. As I mentioned earlier, the Tamil politicians were previously totally against the Government. I also add that, during the recent constitutional problems, the Tamil National Alliance played a key role and supported the democratic institutions in the country.

After 10 years of conflict, I feel it is fair to say that Sri Lanka is now graduating to upper middle income status. It is a recipient of the GSP+ tariff concessions of the European Union, which are based on adherence to core UN conventions on human rights, labour rights and the environment. Lonely Planet has termed Sri Lanka the best destination to visit for 2019, and I hope to visit as soon as I can. With the upcoming Port City on its western coast, it is fast becoming a hub in the Indian Ocean. It will bring more trade to the country and wealth and prosperity to all Sri Lankans.

Last October, I had the pleasure of receiving a personal briefing on Sri Lanka’s development plans from the Minister in charge, Mr Ranawaka. I have developed a good relationship with the Sri Lankan High Commission here in London and I would like to make a personal comment on Sri Lanka’s spirit for reconciliation between the communities. Throughout the year, the high commission holds different functions to celebrate religious holidays. Last year, I attended and spoke at the Christmas celebration held at the high commission. Even though Christians are a minority in Sri Lanka, making up 8% of the population, Christmas is celebrated in the country and at the high commission in London. It was significant that the diaspora attended the function at the Sri Lanka High Commission; it was a good example of promoting reconciliation, with the Sinhalese and Tamil chaplains of the Catholic Church in attendance.

Finally, I ask the Minister whether the Government appreciate the important progress Sri Lanka has made. What is being done to help Sri Lanka and what more can be done? I also ask whether there is any point in the resolutions being continued. Can there now be closure??

Link to Full Debate on Hansard

Updated: 10/01/2020 — 2:00 PM