By Colombo Telegraph -
Wednesday 22 February 2012
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Newmark.)
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka at a significant moment in the country’s post-conflict history. Next week will see the start of the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Among the many pressing human rights issues from around the world that are due to be discussed, a debate and vote are likely on whether an independent, international commission of inquiry should be established to investigate the credible allegations of war crimes perpetrated at the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict in 2009. I, and many hon. Members present today, urge the Government to take action; I believe strongly that an international investigation must be initiated. The creation of an international inquiry has been called for by the world’s leading human rights and conflict prevention bodies, and, most significantly, by the UN Secretary-General’s panel of experts on Sri Lanka.
An estimated 40,000 civilians, many of whom were Tamils, died during the final days and weeks of the war. The victims and their families deserve to know the truth about what happened, and those responsible should be held to account.
A credible and independent inquiry is not possible within Sri Lanka, and President Rajapaksa’s regime has sought to censor and condemn anyone who has raised concerns about the Government’s actions during the war. The recently released report by Sri Lanka’s discredited Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission—the LLRC— whitewashed credible allegations of Government atrocities.
Sri Lanka has a long history of failing to investigate abuses of human rights, and without an international investigation, I fear that truth, accountability and justice will become yet another casualty of Sri Lanka’s long and bloody conflict. Without such an investigation, the pervasive culture of impunity in Sri Lanka that has such a detrimental impact on human rights on the island will continue unchecked. Without an international investigation and accountability for war crimes, prospects for reconciliation and long-lasting peace will diminish.
I wish to focus on three key areas that are fundamental to the debate on human rights in Sri Lanka: first, the failure of the President’s regime and the LLRC to address war crimes allegations; secondly, how that failure must be set in the context of the failure by the current Government—and previous Governments—to enact effective processes of accountability for human rights abuses; and finally, how those two elements reflect and encourage the culture of impunity that exists in Sri Lanka.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. Does he agree that another problem in Sri Lanka is that it is considered the fourth most dangerous place for the media? Some 40 journalists have been killed, and it is therefore impossible to get an internal, independent voice.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He has referred on a number of occasions to the report by the UN panel of experts, which I am sure he has read in full. How does he equate his comments with the acknowledgement in paragraph 53 of that report that
“this account should not be taken as proven facts, and any effort to determine specific liabilities would require a higher threshold.”?
Is it not clear that, while the report sets out a narrative and raises legitimate concerns, it must not be taken as a factual account?
I am impressed with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, as, I am sure, is the whole House. Surely, however, the tribunal that has been announced by the Sri Lankan army is a welcome development. That the army is willing to investigate allegations of offences committed by its soldiers is a move that one would expect from armed forces in any democratic society and must be welcome.
From its inception in May 2010 to the release of its long-delayed report in December 2011, the LLRC has shown that it is not fit for purpose. According to the UN panel of experts on Sri Lanka, the LLRC failed to satisfy international standards for independence and impartiality; it was compromised by its composition and the deep-seated conflicts of interest of some of its members. The UN panel stated that the LLRC mandate was “not tailored to investigating allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, or to examining the root causes of the decades-long ethnic conflict”. In essence, it was a “deeply flawed” accountability mechanism.
The concerns that I have set out have only been reaffirmed with the publication of the LLRC report. The LLRC’s conclusions on the prosecution of the conflict contradict many of the findings of the UN panel of experts, with Government forces largely exonerated of any culpability for alleged atrocities. In the light of that, many countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, as well as international non-governmental organisations, have criticised the LLRC’s failure adequately to address the allegations of war crimes.
The British Government have stated that “many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN panel of experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 21WS.]
They say that the LLRC report does not provide a serious and full response to the evidence of the UN panel, the UN special rapporteurs or the “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” documentary. Indeed, following the broadcast of that programme last June, the British Government stated that if Sri Lanka did not respond positively to the findings and recommendations of the UN panel report and the concerns of the international community, they would support calls to “revisit all options available to press the Sri Lankan government to fulfil its obligations”.
Like all of us, I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s extremely well researched and detailed speech. In connection with the issue of the LLRC’s credibility, he will be familiar with the Amnesty International report titled “Twenty Years of Make-Believe”, which lists all the previous problems with these commissions. Is he aware of any credible body, agency or nation anywhere on earth that gives credibility to the LLRC’s report? We have heard many people say that it has no credibility. Is anyone speaking on the other side?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful case. Does he agree that this is not just a matter of looking back at what happened and ensuring that it is properly and fully investigated? The UN Committee Against Torture, in its examination of Sri Lanka last November, concluded that it has serious concerns about “the continued and consistent allegations of widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of suspects in police custody”.
The report also states that “torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by state actors, both the military and the police, have continued in many parts of the country after the conflict ended in May 2009 and is still occurring in 2011”.
It is the UN Committee Against Torture reporting that. This is not a matter simply of looking back to what happened before and during the war.
Is not the issue one of accountability and not that we simply want to dismiss the LLRC report? Amnesty itself says that the report contained some good human rights recommendations. The Sri Lankan Government say that they themselves are capable of prosecuting violators in a court of law. Is not the issue how a high standard is brought to bear and people are properly held to account?
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. I agree with all the points that he has made so far. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) highlighted the ongoing human rights abuses. Does that not call into question the decision of the current UK Government to deport many Tamil refugees who are in the UK? Should we not seek from the Minister replying to the debate an explanation of the Government’s policy on deportations back to Sri Lanka? I ask that question of my hon. Friend in the context of a constituent whose brother is about to be deported back to Sri Lanka. This is a brother who lost a sister fighting for the Tamil Tigers and who understandably is worried about what will happen to his last relative should the family history be known when he returns to Sri Lanka.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s case, and I have spoken on behalf of the Tamil community a number of times, but he has just said that thousands of people are still being detained. At the end of the war, political prisoners—ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam cadres—numbered 11,000; the Sri Lankan Government now say they still have 300 in detention. Will the hon. Gentleman explain exactly where he thinks the rest of those who are in detention are? We do this cause no good if we are not accurate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On this point, does he agree that it would be useful if the Sri Lankan Government produced a list of all the prisoners they hold in their custody so that the matter can be cleared up once and for all?
Sinhalese and Muslims, who count as a separate ethnic group in Sri Lanka, are now being targeted in addition to Tamils, and some are turning up dead. On 3 January, Dinesh Buddhika Charitananda, a 25-year-old ethnic Sinhalese, was abducted at night. His body was later found near a river in a Colombo suburb. In October, Mohamed Niyas, a Muslim astrologer, was taken away in a white van by a group of gun-toting men and found dead three weeks later.
According to the Bangkok-based Asian Human Rights Commission, there is a “commonly held belief” that the abductions and murders are happening with “the direct or indirect knowledge of the police and often also with the tacit approval of political authorities”.
The families of the two activists, Mr Weeraraj and Mr Murugananthan, have now petitioned the United Nations, and a spokesman for Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, says the case of the abductions is being sent to the UN Human Rights Council for investigation. The families turned to an international body because they could not get action from the local authorities.
Such allegations raise questions about the deportation of Sri Lankans from Britain. The UK Border Agency is to continue forced-removal flights, despite human rights organisations warning of mistreatment. The agency has carried out two large-scale deportations to Sri Lanka since June, the last of which left Luton airport in September, despite the concerns of several rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which believe that deported Tamils may be at risk of arbitrary arrest and mistreatment.
One London-based non-governmental organisation, Freedom from Torture, which provides medical services to torture victims, has said that it has gathered evidence demonstrating that prisoners in Sri Lanka still faced severe mistreatment this year—more than two years after the island’s 26-year civil war came to an end.
Last month, the UN Committee against Torture reported that it was “seriously concerned about the continued and consistent allegations of widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”, after hearing submissions from a number of NGOs and the Sri Lankan Government. The committee also expressed concern at “the prevailing climate of impunity” in Sri Lanka.
In a case recently referred to in a UK Border Agency report, Freedom from Torture noted that, in spring this year, a Sri Lankan national known as Rohan was tortured after travelling back from the UK. According to Freedom from Torture, Rohan, who held a UK student visa, claimed that after returning to Sri Lanka to visit a sick relative, he was held by officials at Colombo airport and detained for three days, during which he was beaten and stripped and his skin was burned with heated metal. On the strength of his evidence of torture, he was later granted asylum in the UK.
The UK Border Agency has warned officials who are deciding asylum claims that NGOs have serious concerns about forcibly returned Tamils. However, the agency is also circulating a report that quotes senior Sri Lankan intelligence officials as saying that Tamil detainees are inflicting wounds on themselves to create scars that will support later asylum claims.
In the light of plans for a further mass removal flight on 28 February, I call upon the Government to do more to ensure that they are not returning individuals to a risk of torture in Sri Lanka. The fates of almost all those who have been returned on the charter flights thus far are unknown.
In response to concerns raised by Freedom from Torture about the risk of torture for Tamils returning to Sri Lanka, the Minister has provided public assurances about monitoring arrangements in place for those forcibly returned. He has indicated that for the recent charter flights, returnees were met by UK Government officials, provided with contact details for the British high commission in Colombo and given a small payment for onward travel. Against the backdrop of torture risks for those who return from abroad, there is widespread concern that those are woefully inadequate protections against torture. However, worse still, it is has just emerged that even those basic protections do not apply to anyone forcibly removed other than by charter flight.
Could the Minister please explain how many people have been forcibly removed to Sri Lanka otherwise than by charter flight since the civil war ended? Why are those forcibly returned on ordinary flights not met at the airport and provided with an assistance package? Why was that disparity in protection not disclosed when the Minister was asked to explain the monitoring arrangements for anyone forcibly returned to Sri Lanka? How does the Minister intend to remedy that protection gap? What do the Government intend to do to verify the safety of those returned in the months following their return?
Sri Lanka’s entire approach to accountability, justice and reconciliation must be challenged to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent for the future. A failure to investigate alleged war crimes during the conflict undermines international law and respect for human rights and potentially sows the seeds for future conflict on the island.
Kofi Annan has stated that “the international community cannot be selective in its approach to upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
Impunity in Sri Lanka, where violations were on a massive scale and yet the UN failed to act, sets dangerous precedents. It sends a message to Sri Lankans that the UN is irrelevant there, and it could re-enforce that message globally. That could create a situation where states that have not ratified the Rome statute would feel that they are beyond the reach of international justice and that crimes committed in the name of combating terrorism can simply be ignored.
The international community’s failure to take timely action in 2009 endangered hundreds of thousands of civilian lives in Sri Lanka. Continued inaction threatens future generations and institutions that are critical to the protection of rights in Sri Lanka and internationally. Sri Lanka’s failure to ratify the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court means that the court cannot act without a referral from the United Nations Security Council. Far from referring the situation to the court, the UN has not even established an effective system to document the extent of violations. It has never revealed what it knew about the final days of conflict or acknowledged the scale of the abuse that took place. The end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka should have been an opportunity for the country to turn a page on impunity. It is crucial that the UN and the UK should support genuine international efforts to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to give better protection to the rights of all Sri Lankans and ensure that violations, which became so commonplace in the past, are not repeated.
I call on the Minister to address the clear failings of the LLRC to deliver progress on accountability and acknowledge the need for the international community to act decisively during this session of the UN Human Rights Council to put the necessary machinery in place and to ensure that the UK plays a proactive and leading role in efforts to secure the strongest possible resolution on accountability for serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka, that any Human Rights Council resolution is not limited to the conflict period and that it includes within its scope accountability for torture and other continuing violations that make it impossible to secure a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.
Reconciliation and sustainable peace must be built on the foundations of a credible truth and accountability process for the alleged crimes committed in the final months of the civil war. A genuine mechanism for truth, accountability and justice would challenge the prevailing culture of impunity and could play an important role in reducing the perpetration of human rights abuses. However, such a process can be satisfactorily conducted only under international auspices. Investigations of a similar nature have been voted for and conducted by the UN Human Rights Council on Libya, Syria and Ivory Coast in recent months.
The number of concerned hon. Members present at this Westminster Hall debate demonstrates the strength of parliamentary support for strong diplomatic action to be taken by the British Government. Many other hon. Members who could not be here this morning, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who had a pressing constituency engagement, have assured me of their support; so it is not only the Members who are present who are concerned. Others who could not get here support my argument and ask for the same demands to be met.
The next generation of Sri Lankans, whether they are Tamil or otherwise, deserve a future in which they can move on from the horrors that they and their families have experienced and the losses they have suffered on all sides. They deserve to know what happened and to be able to reflect on it as one of the most significant times in their nation’s history, for which those responsible are brought to justice. Only then will there be true and lasting peace.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing the debate and on his speech. Given the time, I shall not give the speech I have prepared, but will refer to various points.
The tremendous turnout today for a Westminster Hall debate shows the depth of feeling of Members throughout the House about getting justice for all in a country that has been troubled since independence in 1948; but what is this really about? We have had many debates in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber. Many words have been spoken by the previous and present Governments, but the time has come for action. To go back to when innocent people lost their lives—I am not making accusations against any individual, as that is not my role as a Member of Parliament—someone needs to identify who did it: who killed people. Then justice must be done.
I thought, as many others did, that we had seen the end of camps where people were detained for years—however many people might be in them. Again, I cannot give numbers, and I am not sure that anyone can. That in itself is a problem. In meetings that I and other hon. Members of all parties have had with the Sri Lankan high commission we have requested, “Please prepare a list.” It cannot be that difficult. If the numbers are as low as has been suggested, it is a relatively simple thing to do. If they are not, it is still not that difficult to do. Families in the diaspora and in Sri Lanka need to know what happened to their relatives.
I want to make it clear that I am not making any allegations, but I am asking questions about what is alleged to have happened. It is alleged that a number of babies and young children went missing at the end of the conflict some two years ago. What happened to them? Anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of them are still alive and have perhaps been adopted by families and do not know who their original families are. I do not know whether that story is true, but people who have lost their nieces, nephews or their own children have a right to know what happened to them.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that the failure still to have answers to those questions demonstrates that the LLRC process was flawed and that we will only get answers if we have a genuinely independent investigation?
On accountability and independence, does my hon. Friend agree that the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council is an ideal opportunity for that mechanism to be set forth, so that we have a genuinely independent process and that the questions that he properly raised can be answered?
apart from the United Nations, given that the Human Rights Council took a deplorable decision in the previous consideration not to support an international inquiry into the event? The British Government should also raise the matter within the Commonwealth and follow the lead of the Canadian Prime Minister, who said that unless the situation in Sri Lanka changes, he will not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo in 2013.
progress, should not more time be given to see whether those involved can genuinely and accountably deliver? If they do not, then we hold them to account.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Mannar has provided a list of more than 2,000 people in his congregation who have disappeared and that he cannot get answers to where they have gone?
Last month, I was one of the signatories nominating Channel 4 News for the Nobel peace prize in recognition of its work in highlighting human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Parliamentarians around the world were shocked when Channel 4 broadcast a harrowing documentary, using video from victims and perpetrators that proved, according to the UN special rapporteur, “definitive war crimes”. I imagine that all of us have seen that programme, and none could forget the impact that it had on us. The Minister himself gave an eloquent speech after watching that programme. It showed the routine shelling of civilians in hospitals and safe zones, video evidence of executions carried out in cold blood at point blank range. Disgusting scenes were shown of dead, semi-naked women, who had obviously been sexually assaulted then shot dead, being thrown on to the back of lorries, while soldiers joked about who was the best looking.
In the nomination letter, I said: “By bringing to light the breaches of international conventions by the Government of Sri Lanka in a bold manner and by piecing together numerous forms of evidence in a coherent way, the value of independent journalism to the building of a peaceful global order in the century ahead has been amply demonstrated.”
It is easy to forget quite how dreadful the conflict was. Some 100,000 people were killed—40,000 civilians in the last few months alone. The UN identified “serious violations of international humanitarian law” and the European Commission described “unlawful killings perpetrated by soldiers, police and…groups with ties to the Government.”
Although the previous British Government may have come to realise what was going on too late, they are widely recognised for taking a lead in standing up against those abuses. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) was widely praised for visiting Sri Lanka and imploring the Government there to stop shelling their own people. Thanks to his influence, we brought an end to Generalised System of Preferences—GSP Plus—which gave preferential trading status to Sri Lanka in Europe, prevented it from hosting a Commonwealth conference and voted against an IMF deal worth $2.5 billion.
Britain is respected around the world for taking brave and principled leads, as we did in supporting military action in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Libya; in imposing sanctions against Robert Mugabe and Bashar al-Assad; and in helping establish the International War Crimes Tribunal. Surely we can join the moderate voices supporting the calls by the UN panel of experts for an “independent international investigation”.
I hope that the Minister will remember how he felt, and how we all felt, when we saw the Channel 4 documentary on Sri Lanka: numb; angry; and driven to right the horrific wrongs that were shown. Crimes such as those must be investigated and justice must be served. Kofi Annan has said that “the international community cannot be selective in its approach to upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
On behalf of my constituents, I implore the Minister to consider the message that Britain is sending the world by forcing Tamils on to planes to go back to a country where torture continues, and by failing to support loudly the UN panel of experts. I hope that today we can reassure British Tamils that Britain is serious about doing the right thing, and that we will take a lead on human rights in the international community.
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.
On accountability, does my hon. Friend share my concern about the committee of inquiry that has been set up by the Sri Lankan army and that was appointed by Lieutenant-General Jayasuriya, who was the commander of the security forces in the Vavuniya area during the last few years of the war? Moreover, does he hope that the Minister, when he responds to this debate, will indicate that that is not the sort of accountability that the British Government believe is effective in holding people to account?
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.
Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate. Last year, my political researcher got married and she had her honeymoon in Sri Lanka. She regaled me with many stories about Sri Lanka—the ones that she could tell me about, of course. We see the tourist veneer, which is the good part of Sri Lanka. We do not see the underbelly of the political displacement taking place. People have been killed and more than 1 million people have been displaced.
Other hon. Members have spoken about Amnesty International. Its report referred to the “escalating political killings, child recruitment, abductions and armed clashes”, which created a climate of fear…spreading to the north by the end of the year”.
It outlined the violence against women and also referred to the death penalty. Sri Lanka has not officially used the death penalty since 1976, but there are well-documented cases of disappearances and murders. Non-partisan humanitarian organisations, notably Human Rights Watch, contradict official statements. Human rights violations include murder, rape and land grabs. People from all walks of life are disappearing.
I commend the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for her comment on the sending back of Sri Lankans who have come to the United Kingdom and who will be forcibly repatriated without any consideration. Will the Minister comment on that?
I want to speak on an issue that concerns me greatly: evangelicals and Christians in Sri Lanka. Today, we have talked about the Tamils and their human rights. I want to talk about the rights of Christians. I have regular contact with Release International. It provides prayerful and practical support for those who need help. There have been attacks on Christians in south and west Sri Lanka recently. Several people have been injured and many have had their homes damaged. Attackers have shouted threats. Christians have left the area. Families have fled to the jungle. Local police have been informed, but no one has been made accountable. Why did this happen?
On July 10 last year, a pastor in Ampara district was hospitalised after being beaten by a Buddhist monk and others. The pastor from Mount Carmel church in—I will not try to pronounce the name of the place; in an Ulster accent, it will not come out right—attended a meeting about land distribution that was convened by the monk, and the pastor was attacked by those present. He was also later assaulted in his home. He was taken to Ampara hospital with injuries to his arm and severe pains in his stomach. In the Puttalam district in western Sri Lanka, the Prayer Tower church in Mahawewa was desecrated with excrement on June 5. Later on the same day, some 200 protestors carrying placards and clubs demanded the church’s closure. A lay preacher who tried to remonstrate with protestors was beaten.
Evangelical Christians face violence and opposition in the Buddhist-majority nation. Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka have caused concern among Protestant Christians by renewing their calls for anti-conversion laws. Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with Sri Lanka in relation to that?
The Jathika Hela Urumaya party, which has been pushing for legislation banning forced conversion since 2004, renewed its campaign in a press statement this month. It is clearly targeted at those of an evangelical, Protestant and Christian disposition. The JHU’s Prohibition of Religious Conversions Bill proposes to “ban fundamental Christian groups in the island”. Sri Lankan Protestants, especially evangelicals who are a particular target for discrimination and even persecution, fear that the law outlined in the Bill could be used to limit their church activities. Will the Minister respond to that as well?
Release sources inside Sri Lanka say that Christians are also concerned about a loosely worded circular issued in September by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It stipulates that building or maintaining places of worship “must be sanctioned by prior approval of the Ministry.”
Release sources say that some existing churches have already been informed that they are illegal and must close because they do not have state approval. That clearly outlines my concerns.
According to our sources, evangelical churches in particular are facing increased pressure from the state, with “indiscriminate closure and threats”. Applications to register formally are “routinely rejected”, and there is evidence that planning permission is being denied for non-church buildings—even houses—if the applicant is a Christian individual or organisation.
We have a responsibility and a duty not only because Sri Lanka is a former British colony; we have a duty to use our influence to ensure that basic human rights are adhered to. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country—I have never visited, but people tell me that it is—that has been ravaged by war. I represent Sri Lankans in Northern Ireland. We have had our 30 years of troubles, which have impacted on our economy, but we are getting better. The potential of Sri Lanka is being shrouded by atrocities and human rights desecrations. We must apply diplomatic pressure to bring about change. I urge everyone here to support the people of Sri Lanka. They have no voice to speak for themselves. We must be that voice for them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. In the few minutes that I have left, I will first declare, as is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, that I visited Sri Lanka in January. I will visit again at the beginning of March with the charity, International Alert.
I have listened with great interest to the contributions made by hon. Members today. Some important points have been raised, although I would add that the unanimity of view of Members here is perhaps not as clear-cut as some contributions would lead us to believe. While I was in Sri Lanka, I saw quite a lot of positive progress being made. I am not dismissing the genuine concerns that many individuals have raised, but at the same time they should be seen in the context of what is being done. A great deal of rehousing work is being done, with nearly 50,000 houses having been built. Resettlement is going well. I visited Manik Farm, one of the internally displaced person camps. I met people there and heard that they were keen to be resettled back to the places from which they had been displaced. I also saw that the conditions in which they were living at that time were not as is sometimes described. They had good facilities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate. Ever since the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was published, I have thought that Parliament needed to discuss it. The turnout today has meant that Members have had to rush their contributions and many have not had the chance to speak. Perhaps the Backbench Business Committee or the Government ought to consider a full day’s debate on the Floor of the House, like the one we had on Somalia just before the half-term recess. I think that many Members would be keen to make more of a contribution.
We have heard accounts of appalling abuses in Sri Lanka. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) discussed violence perpetrated against women, which has not received sufficient attentions. There are also concerns about displaced people. Many Members have referred to the Channel 4 film “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”. I attended a recent exhibition in Parliament with photographic evidence of some of the abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka. I do not want to cut into the Minister’s time, and I do not think it would be a good use of my time to detail those abuses—they are on the record and in the public domain—but it is worth restating that the UN panel of experts found credible the allegations of a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some of which could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Attempts have been made to dismiss some of the evidence produced, including attempts to rubbish the Channel 4 film by suggesting that the footage of violence against women could have been faked. It is important to put on record that, although the UN panel of experts was not given as much access as we would have liked, it found that the original allegations were credible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this debate, for how he introduced it and for the content that he delivered. Numerous colleagues have spoken. I do not have time to mention them all, but I welcome the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Mr Scott), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Stockton South (James Wharton), and by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who spoke for the Opposition, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Several interventions were also made.
I agree, not for the first time, with the hon. Member for Bristol East. Once again, my portfolio produces opportunities for debate for which an hour and a half is plainly insufficient. I could have spent a good length of time responding to the speech of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, let alone all the contributions made by others. Both the passion with which colleagues have dealt with the matter and their knowledge of this complex issue are reflected by their taking part in such numbers.
Before I answer colleagues’ specific questions, this is an opportunity for me to put on record how we currently see things and deal with the first issue raised by the hon. Member for Bristol East, which is how we view the report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.