I am privileged to represent a significant number of Sri Lankan Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil constituents who often tell me that Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Having been fortunate to visit the island twice, I know this to be true, yet it has one of the ugliest of recent histories.
In 2009, a quarter-century long civil war came to a violent conclusion. Terrible human rights abuses took place during the conflict, with murder, disappearances, sexual violence, the use of child soldiers, the use of civilians as human shields and the bombing of hospitals all chronicled by witnesses to international human rights organisations.
Since then, there has been some progress, but if there is to be the type of peace that offers real long-term security, and the chance for all of Sri Lanka’s communities to live together, then it is essential that there is a sustained truth and reconciliation process that ensures that human rights abuses begin to be properly dealt with.
In a recent submission to the United Nations human rights council, Amnesty International said that the UN’s working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances has transmitted more than 12,000 complaints to Sri Lanka. Although the second highest in the world, these represent only the ‘tip of the iceberg’, with the Sri Lankan government acknowledging in May that they had received at least 65,000 complaints of enforced disappearances since 1995.
That is 65,000 people who have disappeared in 20 years. The majority of them, though not all, are Tamil. All 65,000 had families and loved ones who are grieving, who have no closure and who, certainly at the moment, have little hope of any justice.
While it was always unlikely that President Mahinda Rajapakse, who had presided over the brutal final months of the conflict, would offer a truth and justice process, it was encouraging that the new President – Maithripala Sirisena – indicated his government’s willingness to co-sponsor a resolution to the UN human rights council in October last year, alongside the United Kingdom, the US and other countries.
The resolution — a significant step away from the international community’s previous support for a full independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes at the end of the conflict and other allegations of human rights abuses levelled at both sides — nevertheless called for measures to advance accountability, reconciliation, human rights and the rule of law. Crucially, it called for international involvement in the prosecution of alleged war crimes and the establishment of a special court, ‘integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators’, with an independent Sri Lankan investigative and prosecuting body.
Such a process is vital if the families of those who have disappeared, or whose loved ones have suffered other human rights abuses are to find security and justice.
However, since then there have been a number of worrying public statements from key figures in the Sri Lankan government suggesting that the judicial process will have no international involvement at all.
The Sri Lankan government have pledged to lift the catch-all prevention of terrorism act, which Human Rights Watch have described as the legislation used to facilitate thousands of human rights abuses over the years, including torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. However, no time commitment has yet been given and many people remain held without trial as a result.
The Sri Lankan military are also still a significant presence in the Tamil-majority areas in the north and east of the country. The Sri Lankan government agreed in the Human rights council resolution last year that it would accelerate the return of land to its rightful owners. But the military’s presence in the north and east remains all-pervasive, with many ordinary businesses such as tourist resorts, and even shops selling basic goods, controlled by the armed forces. Economic development, particularly Tamil-owned economic development, lags far behind that in other areas of the country.
With our historic links and strong commitment to international human rights, Britain has a particular responsibility to push for a strong, effective judicial process to investigate human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, and to ensure that those who are responsible for committing atrocities are held to account.
Last week I led a debate in parliament on these issues, and was disappointed to learn that our government has not yet offered any British judges to the special court, and has not done enough to ensure that President Sirisena delivers on the initial promises he made. The worry is that this is yet another example of the government downgrading the status of human rights in our foreign policy.
Gareth Thomas MP is member of parliament for Harrow West. He tweets at @GarethThomasMP
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