The UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has noted that given the time that has passed since the launch of the international inquiry, and the constraints placed on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) team, they believe that the UK Government should be ready to consider all possible options, including sanctions, to convince Sri Lanka to allow access.
“We recommend that the Government negotiates with its EU partners to remove GSP status from Sri Lanka, if the Government of Sri Lanka does not allow the OHCHR investigating team into the country and uphold the right of human right defenders to engage with the UN human rights system,” the Foreign Affairs Committee said in a report handed over yesterday.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has also recommended that the UK Government encourage the new Indian administration to give public support to the OHCHR international investigation on Sri Lanka.
The Foreign Affairs Committee’s remit is to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which includes the diplomatic service.
The Committee is appointed by the House of Commons. It comprises 11 backbench Members of Parliament from Government and Opposition parties, and is calculated to reflect the membership of the House as a whole. (Colombo Gazette)
Foreign Affairs Committee comments on Sri Lanka:
Sri Lanka was designated a country of concern for the fifth consecutive year in the FCO’s 2013 Report. The Government noted some progress in post-conflict issues but expressed “serious concerns” about the human rights situation in the country, specifically:
· Restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly;
· Intimidation and harassment of human right defenders;
· Attacks on journalists and further decline in press freedom;
· A further decline in women’s rights, including the decision by the Government of Sri Lanka not to sign up to the UN Declaration on the commitment to end sexual violence in conflict;
· The impeachment of the Chief Justice, exacerbating concerns about the culture of impunity;
· Violence against religious minorities and restrictions on freedom of religion; and
· Allegations of torture in police custody.
A number of these issues were echoed in a written submission to our inquiry from the Global Tamil Forum.
The 2013 CHOGM in Colombo
The Prime Minister attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in November 2013 despite pressure to boycott the event in order to register disapproval of the repressive actions of the Government of Sri Lanka. In our report last year on the FCO’s human rights work in 2012, we noted that the Government had chosen to attend despite scant evidence of progress in political and human rights in Sri Lanka. The FCO, in response to calls to boycott the event, said that the “British delegation to CHOGM will…deliver a clear message that Sri Lanka needs to make concrete progress on human rights”.
30. In our report last year, we also raised concerns about the treatment of human rights defenders in Sri Lanka. We recommended that the Prime Minister, prior to the CHOGM, should obtain assurances from the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure that people who approached him to talk about human rights would not face reprisals or harassment by security forces. The FCO, in its response to our report, said that it had emphasised to the Sri Lankan government that human rights defenders, journalists and members of the public, who met with ministers during CHOGM, should not face any reprisals. It is not clear to us from this response whether the people who spoke with the Prime Minister had faced reprisals or been subject to harassment: we recommend that the FCO, in its response to this report, outline how it monitored whether people who spoke with the Prime Minister about human rights have faced reprisals, and whether the FCO has any knowledge of reprisal attacks on people who met the British delegation during its visit to Sri Lanka in November 2013.
UN inquiry into alleged violations of international law
During the 2013 CHOGM, the Prime Minister called on the Government of Sri Lanka to launch a credible domestic process to ensure accountability for alleged violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law on both sides during the country’s civil war. The Prime Minister said that if the Government of Sri Lanka did not take this step by March 2014, the UK would use its position on the UN Human Rights Council to seek an international investigation.
On 13 March 2014, the Government stated that as no credible processes had been set up, “the time has now come for international action on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka”. At the 25th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, the UK, Macedonia, Mauritius, Montenegro and the USA jointly sponsored a draft resolution on Sri Lanka, which was adopted on 27 March. The resolution established an international inquiry, under the auspices of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), into the allegations of human rights abuses during the civil war, and called on the Government of Sri Lanka to make progress on human rights and reconciliation. The Prime Minister, in responding to the outcome of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council, said that this was “a victory for the people of Sri Lanka”. Human Rights Watch described the UK as “one of the most effective advocates” for an international investigation in the run-up to the 25th session of the UNHRC, and welcomed the strong resolution on Sri Lanka.
The Government of Sri Lanka has been vocal in its criticism of Western countries for launching the investigation. President Rajapakse said that “no-one knows why the West is pushing for the investigation” and was convinced there were “hidden agendas”. He insisted that his administration was being “bullied by western powers over how it has handled its post-war reconstruction and reconciliation efforts”. The Sri Lankan Minister for Mass Media, Keheliya Rambukwella, stated that Sri Lanka would “take legal action against anyone who testifies before this [OHCHR] commission, if the evidence submitted by them is in violation of the country’s Constitution”. Human rights organisations have reported that threats and attacks against human rights defenders who have submitted information to the UN have been “perpetrated with impunity”. The Sri Lankan Parliament has passed a government-backed resolution not to allow the OHCHR investigation team into the country. At the time of writing, the OHCHR investigation team has not been granted visa entry into Sri Lanka.
UK policy on Sri Lanka
We asked Baroness Warsi what the UK was doing about Sri Lanka’s non-cooperation with the inquiry. She replied that the UK was continuing with “international partners to persuade and convince the Sri Lankans that it is in their interest to co-operate with this report, but if they do not co-operate, this report and this inquiry will still go ahead”. Baroness Warsi did not want to “speculate” on what might happen if the investigation team did not get access to Sri Lanka.
The UK has been firm in promoting accountability and justice in Sri Lanka but, as Baroness Warsi noted, the Commonwealth is “divided on this issue”. Press reports support that Australia and India, for instance, are not in favour of holding an international inquiry at this stage. The change of administration in India however provides the British Government with an opportunity to garner support for the investigation from a major regional and Commonwealth partner. We recommend that the Government encourages the new Indian administration to give public support to the OHCHR international investigation on Sri Lanka.
Despite the anti-Western rhetoric, the European Union remains Sri Lanka’s main export destination with trade flows between the two coming to €3.5 billion, with a major trade surplus of €1.1 billion in Sri Lanka’s favour. Sri Lanka had previously received preferential tariff benefits under the EU’s scheme for imports known as the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+). GSP+ is one of three non-reciprocal, preferential import regimes for developing countries under the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). Under GSP+, the EU provides additional preferences, beyond standard GSP treatment, to economically vulnerable developing countries which have ratified and effectively implemented 27 international conventions in the fields of human and labour rights, sustainable development and good governance. The EU has temporarily withdrawn GSP+ status from Sri Lanka for failing to implement effectively three of these 27 international conventions. Sri Lanka still benefits from favourable trade concessions to the EU market through GSP, and the EU has no restrictive measures in force on Sri Lanka.
Given the time that has passed since the launch of the international inquiry, and the constraints placed on the OHCHR team, we believe that the Government should be ready to consider all possible options, including sanctions, to convince Sri Lanka to allow access. We recommend that the Government negotiates with its EU partners to remove GSP status from Sri Lanka, if the Government of Sri Lanka does not allow the OHCHR investigating team into the country and uphold the right of human right defenders to engage with the UN human rights system.