Robert Halfon is the Member of Parliament for Harlow. Follow him on Twitter.
Today there was a major debate in Westminster Hall. With many other backbench Conservative MPs, I urged the Government to speak out against the persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
As many ConservativeHome readers know, the years between 1983 and 2009 saw a bitter civil war between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers. During that long and bloody conflict, both sides were responsible for atrocities. But following the ceasefire three years ago, Tamil civilians have been subject to outrageous abuse of their basic human rights. In 2009, for example, 300,000 Tamil civilians were displaced or caged up in barbaric internment camps. As late as November last year, 7,000 remained in these camps. Many more are unable to return home. Thousands are forced to live in tents without access to basic health care, sanitation and education. Even worse: the Sri Lankan military is still occupying 7,000 square miles of Tamil land in the North and East, where they have no credible property rights.
The UN Committee Against Torture has said that the military behaves as if it was above the law; threatening and harassing human rights workers, defence lawyers and journalists. There are reports of violent suppression of Tamil dissidents, disappearing civilians, and secret executions. The Committee to Protect Journalists have said that Sri Lanka still has the 4th highest unsolved rate of journalist murders in the world. For far too long, Sri Lanka has assured the world that they are making improvements, but refused to give concrete details of the Tamil families still detained in camps. Very limited access is given to foreign journalists. It is without doubt a hideous regime.
Of course there will be many who say “Sri Lanka is the other side of the world. What can Britain do?” But the truth is that Britain is in a surprisingly powerful economic and political position to ask Sri Lanka to respect the human rights of all its people. After China, we are Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, and their main source of Western tourism. In 2009, Britain imported over £600 million worth of goods and services from Sri Lanka. The UK should be ready to look elsewhere for these imports, if Sri Lanka refuses to improve their tragic record on human rights.
Britain also holds a unique place within the Commonwealth. This is relevant, as Sri Lanka is due to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in 2013. The Canadian Prime Minister has already said that he will boycott the summit if Sri Lankan authorities continue to brutally oppress the Tamils. As I said in Parliament today, this is an action that the British Government should seriously consider. I believe that the international community must now outline a clear set of expectations for Sri Lanka, and give them a firm deadline to comply.
First, if Sri Lanka does not implement the recommendations of the “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC) by the time it meets again this September, I believe that Britain should boycott the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in Sri Lanka. Second, Sri Lanka must prove that it is making clear progress towards the following, before the Heads of Government Summit:
- Persecution of the Tamils and other minorities must stop – once and for all
- Concrete steps must be taken to demilitarise the north and east of Sri Lanka
- Civil administration must be restored
- Tamils and other minorities must have basic human rights: the right to life, a fair trial, freedom of expression, movement and assembly
- The Sri Lankan Government must publish a list of all prisoners, and where they are being held
- The International Committee of the Red Cross must have access to all detention centres
- A neutral Commission must be appointed, by the UN, to safeguard property rights in Tamil areas, and to oversee resettlement programmes
- Above all, Sri Lanka must comply with the recommendations of the UN panel of Experts report, and arrive at a durable justice for the Tamil-speaking minority
If the above goals are not met by the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in 2013, the international community must then consider what further legitimate and peaceful pressure that it can put on the Sri Lankan regime. Economic sanctions must remain on the table, including sanctions on overseas investment and tourism.
We must make it very clear to the Government of Sri Lanka that they cannot continue to act like a rogue nation. Enough is enough. Clearly the Tamil Tigers were highly dangerous, but they are no longer a threat. And yet persecution continues. The excuse of “security” must not be used as a cover to wipe out the inheritance of the Tamil-speaking minority.