Westminster debates history and human rights in Sri Lanka … and India

Extracts from House of Commons debate on Human Rights on the Indian Subcontinent

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): We have already heard much discussion today of the value of human rights. Human rights are indivisible, self-evidently of great value and internationally applicable, as the hon. Member forSlough (Fiona Mactaggart) explained rather more eloquently that I will attempt. Human rights must also be understood in context—the context of where a country has been and where it is trying to go. That does not devalue the human right itself or the right to the individuals there. When we comment on other nations, their actions or the actions of those within them, we must have a full understanding of the historical context and of what has happened there to lead to the situation today. It is against that background that I would like to talk about Sri Lanka.Sri Lanka has only recently emerged from three decades of horrendous civil war, a civil war that claimed countless thousands of lives, both in the north among the Tamil community and in the south among the Sinhalese majority, with Government Ministers, ordinary people and Ministers and representatives of foreign Government being killed throughout that time of great conflict. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the breakaway group in the north and east of the country, waged a war using terrorist tactics including assassinations, suicide attacks, vehicle bombs, attacks on trains and buses, and even attacks from the air, in order to try to force the Sri Lankan Government to accede to demands for a breakaway state within what they perceived to be the boundaries of their own nation. Years of negotiations on ceasefires and attempts to bring an end to the hostilities failed or made no real progress, with neither side sufficiently trusting the other.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend talks about history and human rights, and that is important. Before British colonisation ofSri Lanka the Tamils had their own kingdom in the north. Does he not agree that one of the problems that we face today arises from the effects of colonisation?

James Wharton: I agree that we, as the inheritors of the legacy of the British empire, have a duty to acknowledge our role in many of the problems that were created throughout the world by the way in which the empire ceased to be and by the legacies that we left behind. That is one reason why it is perfectly valid and right for this House to debate these issues today and for us as a nation to do what we can to set others on the right path by applying pressure and giving assistance where we can, so that where there are troubles and problems in the world we can make a small but, I hope, significant contribution to resolving them. In Sri Lanka, that legacy is part of its history, but its more recent history is that terrible civil war, which after years of negotiations had not been brought to an end and was continuing to hold back and drag down a country that has so much potential and could do so much for its own people and on the international stage.

In 2006, the Sri Lankan Government launched a campaign to bring the civil war to an end. It was an effective but ruthless military campaign of the sort

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necessary to put down an organisation such as the LTTE using military means. We have heard much discussion of some of the atrocities that are alleged to have been committed during that campaign, but in the context in which it happened we must all understand that the LTTE was one of the worst oppressors of the Tamil people during and before the conflict. That context must be understood and appreciated: the LTTE fought using civilian clothes, used civilians as human shields and had thousands of child soldiers in the field.

Mr Scott: Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever might have happened during what was a terrible conflict, which nobody can deny, it still does not change the fact that civilians were massacred after the event?

James Wharton: My hon. Friend is of course right, and that is why I started my speech by talking about the value of human rights and their importance objectively, but that does not mean that the context in which we comment on other countries is not important, and that is what I want to discuss in my closing remarks.

That campaign having ended, we must acknowledge whereSri Lankais and where it is going; where it is today and where it is going tomorrow. It is all too easy to be consistently critical of others who fall short of the standards that we may choose to set for them ourselves, but we should not do so without acknowledging where progress is being made. The end of the campaign has brought great benefits toSri Lanka. We have seen the eradication of terrorism on the island, and elections are taking place in the north and east, as those areas join what is becoming a mature democracy throughout the rest ofSri Lanka.

Siobhain McDonagh: Does the hon. Gentleman think that democratically elected Governments should be held to a higher standard than any other group or institution in society? Does he think that it is legitimate for a democratically elected Government to drop cluster bombs on hospitals?

James Wharton: No, I do not. The hon. Lady will be unsurprised to hear that I do not believe that it is legitimate for a Government, whether democratically elected or not, to drop cluster bombs on hospitals. As I conclude my comments, however, I shall turn to the issue of reconciliation—what is being done, what must be done, what should be done and what we all would like to be done—inSri Lanka.

First, I shall comment on some of the positive results of the conclusion to a three-decade-long civil war that claimed so many lives. The right to dissent and to freedom of expression in the north and east is now stronger than it had been for the preceding 30 years. De-mining operations are starting to make real progress in clearing up the hundreds of thousands of landmines and unexploded ordnance that litter the Sri Lankan countryside. The British Government are making a contribution to that work through DFID, the Mines Advisory Group and the HALO Trust, clearing up about 100,000 landmines and unexploded ordnance throughout the country.

The rehabilitation and re-homing of former LTTE combatants and of displaced people is well under way. Some 300,000 were displaced by the conflict, but only about 6,000 are now left in the welfare camps, because

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they have been given the opportunity, facilitated by the work of the Sri Lankan Government, to go home. The reconciliation and accountability that is such an important part ofSri Lankamoving forward has begun. The LLRC, although it has come in for some criticism today, has not yet given its final recommendations, and we should reserve judgment until it reports. Only recently, the Sri Lankan Government have approved a national action plan for the development of human rights that will, I hope, be implemented over the coming years, so that we are able to judge them on its success.

A lot of progress still needs to be made. We must not be an uncritical friend ofSri Lanka’s, but we must be a friend ofSri Lankaand of the Sri Lankan people. I hope that the House will support that.

 Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that seeking a judgment on behalf of one side is a bit pejorative and that what we really need is to create healing between two groups of people that have both been harmed by a very damaging terrorist war?

4.53 pm

Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): May I first declare that I have an interest? I am the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group onSri Lanka and I visited that country with the hon. Member forEdmonton (Mr Love) at the behest of the Sri Lankan Government to review the reparations resulting from the tsunami.

Sri Lankais a country that is coming to terms with the consequences of considerable strife and conflict. It takes time to overcome the horrors of conflict. We should therefore tread carefully and be cautious of making judgments without very clear facts and evidence. We should be especially careful not to give fuel to the most blatant of propaganda, not least because we experienced that in a part of our nation and should understand a little more.

Mr Scott: Does my hon. Friend believe that the Channel 4 programme and the UN report were both propaganda?

Mr Binley: I think that the Channel 4 programme is open to question and that those questions have not been answered. However, the United Nations report is credible and we should be cognisant of that fact. The British Government have also recognised that, and it is right to call for an independent, thorough and credible investigation into the allegations of violations of human rights laws. I totally support such

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an investigation, but it should be into the violations on both sides of the conflict. I fear that point has been missed a little today.

The roots of the conflict run very deep. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought a separatist campaign for the best part of 30 years and we have heard some of the horrors of that campaign from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott). The Channel 4 documentary painted a truly horrendous picture, but we are not sure that it told the whole story. Images were brutal, horrific and degrading and if they were true that was totally unacceptable and intolerable, but nothing in the broadcast showed direct evidence of the Sri Lankan Government’s culpability and we must be sure of that before we start talking about it.

Mr Scott rose

Mr Binley: Before my hon. Friend leaps to his feet, let me say that I think he has seen too many television documentaries to believe everything that he sees on our television programmes.

Mr Scott: My hon. Friend is being most generous in giving way again. If he agrees that there should be an independent inquiry, as he has said, does he agree that the Sri Lankan Government should agree to such an inquiry? Obviously, it would show them to be innocent if they are.

Mr Binley: I agree with my hon. Friend and I press the Sri Lankan Government to do so.

Contrary to what the broadcast stated, every effort was made by the Sri Lankan Government to extract civilians from the combat zone during the conflict. Local journalists were given access to the front line and members of the Sri Lankan armed forces sacrificed their lives to save about 300,000 civilians trapped by Tamil Tigers. Those are not my words but those of Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesman inSri Lanka, who has written:

“It remains a credit to many of the front line SLA (Sri Lanka Army) soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, they so often seem to have made the effort to draw civilians out from the morass of fighting ahead of them in an attempt to save lives”—

that from a hostile witness againstSri Lanka.

Robert Halfon: On many issues, my hon. Friend and I are at one, but on this one I think we take a very different view. He has quoted one United Nations individual, so may I quote the former President of Finland who is an international mediator? He has said:

“Countries operating outside international norms watch each other carefully. They will be taking courage fromSri Lanka’s apparent success at avoiding international reproach. This is a worry for all those who want to see more democracy, greater respect for human rights and less violence in the world.”

Mr Binley: Of course, I accept that statement from my hon. Friend with no problem whatever.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being customarily generous in giving way, but I join some of his hon. Friends and many Opposition Members who share concerns about the way in which Sri Lanka has conducted itself, particularly since the end of the conflict. It is a matter of record as, surely, he will be generous to recognise, that the International Committee of the Red

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Cross was for far too long denied access to prisons inSri Lanka, which held many of those whom the Sri Lankan Government had chosen to detain.

Mr Binley: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and I have made those concerns known to the Sri Lankan Government.

Sri Lankaneeds a chance to heal, but that will not happen in an atmosphere of hiatus and emotive external interventions. We must all be careful because, as has been said, we share responsibility for the situation. That is clear, and we have to do all we can to help the Sri Lankan Government, who are trying to make considerable advances. They are trying to address the alleged crimes and human rights abuses and they are trying to provide a credible process for overcoming the issues facing internally displaced people. They are trying to achieve a sustainable political settlement, including on devolution, and those casting aspersions need to be careful about the statements that they make of what they say are facts but often are not.

As stated, one consequence of the conflict has been the significant numbers of internally displaced persons. I said that I had visited Puttalam, where I saw 160,000 people in the most terrible conditions, and that I talked to many of them. They said that they were displaced by shelling and demolition. Equally, though, some had been displaced by, and were scared of, the Tamil Tigers. That needs to be understood as well, if we are to be balanced in our judgment.

Mr Scott rose—

Mr Binley: I cannot afford the time.

The process of reconstruction is taking longer than we would like, butSri Lankais a small country and we need to recognise that its resources are limited too. I believe that we should giveSri Lankaevery opportunity and support to help them create a united country. I hope that that succeeds, as we must all do, but equally I hope that the independent inquiry will take place, because it will put to rest some of the propaganda that is actually hindering progress in that nation.



“SL and India attacked in British Commons on accountability issues” from  Sunday Island, 18 Sept 2011
by Shamindra Ferdinando

Amidst ongoing efforts in the British parliament to isolateSri Lankaover alleged accountability issues,India, too, has come under heavy flak regarding conduct of its troops inJammu and Kashmir. A section of MPs representing Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats attacked both Sri Lankan and Indian governments over accountability issues during a three-hour debate last Thursday (Sept. 15) on human rights in the Indian Sub-continent.

 The British parliament has taken up the two issues together, though known LTTE sympathizer Lee Scott (Ilford North/Conservative) and Steve Baker (Wycombe/Conservative) called for separate debates on the situation inSri LankaandKashmir, respectively.  MP Baker supported the LTTE’s demand for an independent international investigation targeting Sri Lanka on the basis of UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s report, which dealt with accountability issues in Sri Lanka and ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ telecast by UK’s Channel 4.  

 The debate took place in the wake of controversy overUKcomplicity in secret CIA operation which subjected those considered a threat to US-European security interests to extra-judicial action, arming of the ousted Libyan regime and abuses in Iraq.

 The recent British move had disturbed those seeking to secure India’s support for a common front targeting Sri Lanka ahead of forthcoming UNGA in New York (in Sept.) and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia (Oct.).

Sri Lankan parliamentary sources told The Sunday Island. “Don’t forget the LTTE is pushing the Commonwealth to preventSri Lanka’s participation at the CHOGM 2011 inPerth,” sources said.

Responding to a query, an official with the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs pointed out that the debate took place in the immediate aftermath of Canadian Premier Stephen Harper’s threat to boycott CHOGM 2013 inColombounlessSri Lankaresponded positively to concerns raised by the international community.

 During the debate, Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab) told the UK pushed for issue of civil rights and justice in Kashmir needed to be on the diplomatic agenda of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and that it should  negotiate on this issue. The MP emphasized the need to deal with the human rights abuses and take follow-up action. John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD), too, called for action on the part of the UK government to investigate the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.

 Several MPs lashed out atIndiafor using India’s Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act to target civilians living under its control.

The Indian press quoted External Affairs Ministry Spokesman Vishnu Prakash as having said that there were effective mechanisms within the country’s democratic framework to address any “grievance or aberration.” The official asserted that the debate initiated by back-benchers didn’t reflect the position of theUKgovernment. 

 Ministerial sources pointed out that Indian politicians, too, routinely criticized Sri Lanka and debated the issue at the expense of national reconciliation efforts, while Tamil Nadu State Assembly went to the extent of passing resolution demanding economic sanctions against Sri Lanka. None other than Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has dismissed the TN move.

Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab) attacked the Indian government position during the unprecedented debate. MacShane is quoted as having said: I have just received a communication from an Indian paper called Daijiworld. The headline reads, “Indiareacts strongly to British parliamentary debate onKashmir”. We have not even had the debate and already a parliamentary democracy is telling us that we should not be having it. That is not quite a point of order, but this really is an insult from the Indian journalists who say we should not even be debating this in our own House of Commons.’’

But to the credit of MP Steve Baker, the lawmaker acknowledged that the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act was very much in line with the principle at least of our own control orders and terrorism prevention and investigation measures. “The House should therefore not be too quick to condemn the principle of whatIndiais doing. It is very much in line with what we have done.”

MP Lee Scot lashed out at Sri Lanka over accountability issues, while reiterating unsubstantiated allegations by the UNSG’s report and ‘Sri Lanka’s Killings Fields’ produced by UK’s Channel 4 News. The MP alleged the Sri Lankan government of killing 40,000 men, women and children during the final phase of the conflict.

Sri Lankan officials said that UK lawmakers seemed to be confused regarding the situation in Sri Lanka. They pointed out that one MP (Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con) referred to 17,000 Tamils caged behind bars and 200,000 held in transit camps, whereas less than 3,000 LTTE cadres remained in custody out of 11,900 detained at the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009. The total number of IDPs was very much less than 10,000, they said.

They said another MP referred to those driven out from the North by the LTTE in 1990 as Tamils and went on to estimate the displaced living at Puttalam at 160,000. Sources alleged that British MPs were either ignorant or purposely playing with figures at the behest of the LTTE, which could influence those Sri Lankan Tamil voters living in various constituencies.

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