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Sri Lanka must deliver on commitments - British MPs debate

Sri Lanka's President Sirisena "made a commitment to the UN on behalf of his country and he must now deliver it", no matter the domestic political situation, British MP, James Berry said during a parliamentary debate.

Mr Berry, the Conservative MP for Kingston and Surbiton, and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, opened a debate on human rights in Sri Lanka and the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council, today in Westminster Hall.

"I have not just my own concerns as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group but concerns that my Tamil constituents have raised with me," Mr Berry said. "They are concerned that UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 should not be just one more in a long catalogue of unfulfilled promises of justice for the atrocities suffered in the 2009 civil war."

"We were all clear that the resolution did not go as far as the Tamil community wanted but that without consensus, there would have been no resolution at all. It was accepted with good grace that it was a compromise, but we were clear at the time and remain clear that as a compromise, it should be delivered in full, without equivocation and without backsliding."

Labour MP for Enfield North, Joan Ryan, said "many of the key promises made by the Government of Sri Lanka in 2015—justice, accountability, human rights protections, reconciliation—have not been fulfilled."

Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, said she was concerned "that failed asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka since the election of the new Government in January 2015 have reportedly been tortured".

"Information from Freedom from Torture indicates that we must keep pursuing the Government of Sri Lanka," Ms McDonagh further said.

James Berry described the reports from Freedom from Torture, "whose No. 1 referral group is Tamils in Sri Lanka", as "shocking".

"I know that the Government of Sri Lanka dispute what Freedom from Torture says, but even if we do not necessarily consider that, we must consider the recent report by the UN special rapporteur on torture, which was critical of how the Sri Lankan Government handle torture and the fact that the impunity of the security services allows it to continue."

Responding to the DUP MP for North Antrim, Ian Paisley, who said "we should recognise that slow progress has been made towards a new, changed and beneficial society,", Wes Streeting - Labour MP for Ilford North - said "the issue is the Sri Lankan Government’s refusal to adhere to the commitments they signed up to on international involvement in the prosecution of historic war crimes. It is not about the wording of the resolution but about their unwillingness to follow what they signed up to."

James Berry re-iterated that a basic concern was that "the Government of Sri Lanka intend to turn up to Geneva this week and over the next few weeks to dazzle the international community with a list of clauses in the resolution on which they have made progress and a list of UN conventions that they have ratified, but to weasel out of the justice mechanism by saying that it is all rather difficult and hoping that Sri Lanka will simply drop off the UN Human Rights Council’s agenda and the whole business will be forgotten."

Sir Hugo Swire, Conservative MP for East Devon and former Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said Sri Lanka's national unity government were trying to "maintain a delicate balance" and that arguments should be made "with a greater understanding of the domestic political situation in Sri Lanka."

"I well understand the domestic political situation in Sri Lanka," James Berry responded, "but the fact is that President Sirisena signed up to the resolution in order to bring Sri Lanka back in from the cold on the world stage. He received congratulatory comments at the time from a number of world leaders and from Secretary of State Kerry, and he now needs to deliver his side of the bargain, not say “This is all very difficult to deliver domestically.” He has made a commitment to the UN on behalf of his country and he must now deliver it."

Ian Paisley suggested "we need to be careful not to tell another country that it must now have an international inquiry on a domestic issue", to which Mr Berry responded "we are not demanding anything of the Sri Lankan Government that the UN Human Rights Council has not already demanded and that they have not already agreed to. We are only trying to get them to deliver what they have already agreed to."

"The Sri Lankan judicial system is not equipped to investigate and prosecute crimes of this nature. The international mechanism was seen as critical for confidence building, both for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and for the diaspora around the world," Wes Streeting said, further re-iterating "the Sri Lankan Government have signed up to this."

While Mr Berry outlined the atrocities committed by government forces in 2009, Tobias Ellwood, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, emphasised that he was talking about "the then Government."

Mr Paisley further asked James Berry if he would accept the need to investigate “Tamils” for using “the people of Sri Lanka” as human shields, to which Mr Berry restated his stance “that both sides need to have confidence in the process."

Listing various areas in which he believed the Sri Lankan government to have made progress, Sir Hugo said "I hope that, in Geneva, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), will congratulate the Sri Lankan Government on what they have achieved to date but also point out that the commitments they have made on which, by and large, they are falling short. They still have tremendous good will from the international community."

The former minister also said "I believe that there should be one all-party Sri Lanka group, not a division between the Tamils and the others."

Responding for the UK government, Tobias Ellwood said "important progress has been made but, as has been highlighted, much more needs to be done. The progress includes increased engagement with the UN, ratification of the convention on enforced disappearances, the start of a process of constitutional reform, the passing of a law to establish an office of missing persons, a nationwide consultation on transitional justice, an improved environment for civil society and human rights defenders, and the return of some of the land held by the military to its civilian owners. Although we should recognise that those are all important developments and that progress was not made under the previous Government, more clearly needs to be done."

"In conclusion, it is clear that bringing about reconciliation and the conditions for lasting peace in Sri Lanka will require a concerted effort from the Government, the Opposition, civil society and everyone who has an interest in supporting a brighter future for the country. For our part, the Government will continue to support and encourage the people and Government of Sri Lanka along that path. We will recognise and welcome progress when it is made and will continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to deliver in full on their commitments, for the benefit of the people."

Read the full transcript of the debate on Hansard.