By Colombo Telegraph –
“The role of the army in Sri Lankan society is an increasing concern. Earlier this month, The Economist highlighted the role of the Sri Lankan President’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the country’s Defence Secretary. The Economist said: “His brother, Basil, calls him “fully vegetarian, the nicest, kindest person in the family”, yet he is widely feared.”The article continued: “A Tamil leader says the army oversees “oppressive, insulting, humiliating” rule in the north, with tales of land grabs, murders and rape. In Colombo, political observers worry about the militarisation of politics.”” Martin Horwood said. Participating the debate on Sri Lanka’s human rights in the Westminster Hall he further said “The article went on: ‘Some local journalists are warned by editors never to write about him’— that is, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It concluded on Gotabaya: ‘Asked if he frightens people, he says: ‘If they don’t criticise me, it is because there is nothing to criticise.’”
The full statement is reproduced below:
I commend the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this very timely debate. At the outset of my remarks, however, it is important to stress that Sri Lanka has many things to be proud of. Its record on literacy, child mortality and life expectancy is among the best in south Asia and, indeed, one of the best of any developing country. Sri Lanka also has a proud tradition of democracy and the rule of law.
Sri Lanka ought to be an aspiring leader within south Asia and, indeed, the democratic Commonwealth, but the truth is that gaining such a status demands the highest possible standards of human rights, and the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this debate and from many other debates and commentaries around the world is that, during and since the violent conclusion of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka’s record has not met those high standards. That casts a rather dark shadow over the country’s otherwise proud record in development and democracy.
The UN panel of experts produced its report in 2011, which found credible allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in Sri Lanka. The report also highlighted the fact that a staggering number of civilians—40,000—were killed in the closing weeks of the war in Sri Lanka and, critically, it called for an international accountability mechanism, which several hon. Members have already referred to.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In fact, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall pointed out that there has been a series of internal commissions and inquiries within Sri Lanka, none of which have really had much credibility. Possibly the most credible of them has been the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which produced a report last year, and it is important to acknowledge that that report made some tough recommendations in relation to detainees and media freedom. Furthermore, it dispelled the myth that there was no shelling of civilians and that, for instance, the shelling of hospitals by Government forces did take place. In that sense, that report by the LLRC was an important step forward. Nevertheless, I should still like to hear from the Minister what progress he thinks has been made in implementing the recommendations of the LLRC report. For instance, Human Rights Watch reported only last month that there are still several thousand people in Sri Lanka who, having initially been detained under the emergency regulations, are still in custody. Many of them have been held for years without trial, which is in violation of international law. The Sri Lankan Government have so far refused even to publish lists of those who have been detained. Of course, as several hon. Members have pointed out, there are severe limitations to the LLRC report, particularly in relation to the army’s conduct and to accountability for possible war crimes and humanitarian crimes that may have been committed.More fundamentally, however, there are other, deeper issues with Sri Lankan society. The Foreign Office’s own human rights report highlighted, for example, issues of torture. The report quoted the statement by the World Organisation Against Torture that “it had received credible testimonies of torture from across the country, including in cases not related to the ethnic conflict or terrorism”.The report also raised issues about human rights defenders, freedom of expression and other concerns, which I probably do not have time to go into today. The role of the army in Sri Lankan society is an increasing concern. Earlier this month, The Economist highlighted the role of the Sri Lankan President’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the country’s defence secretary. The Economist said: “His brother, Basil, calls him “fully vegetarian, the nicest, kindest person in the family”, yet he is widely feared.”The article continued: “A Tamil leader says the army oversees “oppressive, insulting, humiliating” rule in the north, with tales of land grabs, murders and rape. In Colombo, political observers worry about the militarisation of politics.”
The article went on: “Some local journalists are warned by editors never to write about him”— that is, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It concluded on Gotabaya: “Asked if he frightens people, he says: “If they don’t criticise me, it is because there is nothing to criticise.””
I leave hon. Members to draw their own conclusions.
Obviously, there are also specific cases, such as those of Mr Weeraraj and Mr Murugananthan, the activists who have disappeared, and indeed the continuing case of Sarath Fonseka, a former general, who had the temerity to stand against Mahinda Rajapaksa in a presidential election. Can the Minister tell us—if not now, then in writing—what representations are being made on those specific cases to the Sri Lankan Government? Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and others have raised the issue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. It has also been raised, as has been mentioned, by the Canadian Government.
In conclusion, I want to ask the Minister three specific questions. First, has he raised the issue of an independent accountability mechanism, as recommended by the UN panel of experts, with the Sri Lankan Government, within the EU and at UN level? If so, what progress has been made? I do not want words put into the Minister’s mouth, but it is important for us to know that those discussions are taking place. Secondly, what is our response to the Government of Canada and others who have questioned whether it is right for Sri Lanka to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, given Sri Lanka’s record on human rights? Thirdly, I emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall about the continued deportation of Sri Lankans from this country, when such deep concerns are raised by the Foreign Office about the treatment of detainees and those in custody. Obviously, the Minister has to be diplomatic, but it is time to send a clear message that, as a democratic Commonwealth country with high aspirations, Sri Lanka’s record on human rights and accountability for crimes committed is simply not good enough and has to change.