The UK still believes that a process led in Sri Lanka is better than one led internationally, said the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt, participating in a debate on the situation in Sri Lanka in the House of Commons yesterday (22).
Commenting on the LLRC report he said that there is much in the report that can contribute to the pursuit of enduring peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
Speaking with regard to deportations of asylum seekers, Alistair Burt stated “we are aware of media allegations that returnees are being abused. All have been investigated by the high commission, and no evidence has been found to substantiate any of them”.
We recognize that we have a long-standing relationship with Sri Lanka and all its peoples, he said.
Here are some excerpts from the Burt's statement in the House of Commons:
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I thank the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this debate, for how he introduced it and for the content that he delivered. Numerous colleagues have spoken. I do not have time to mention them all, but I welcome the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Mr Scott), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Stockton South (James Wharton), and by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who spoke for the Opposition, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Several interventions were also made.
I agree, not for the first time, with the hon. Member for Bristol East. Once again, my portfolio produces opportunities for debate for which an hour and a half is plainly insufficient. I could have spent a good length of time responding to the speech of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, let alone all the contributions made by others. Both the passion with which colleagues have dealt with the matter and their knowledge of this complex issue are reflected by their taking part in such numbers.
Before I answer colleagues’ specific questions, this is an opportunity for me to put on record how we currently see things and deal with the first issue raised by the hon. Member for Bristol East, which is how we view the report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
I am pleased to be sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), who has been active on the issue. Given that we are Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, and given our unique role in the Commonwealth, if the LLRC’s recommendations are not implemented by the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in September, will Britain seriously consider boycotting the Commonwealth leaders’ summit in 2013?
Let me come to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting a little later. We recognise that we have a long-standing relationship with Sri Lanka and all its peoples. We appreciate our international responsibility, in company with others. Let me develop where our policy is, which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and others will find helpful.
Our policy towards Sri Lanka is built on the United Kingdom’s values and on British interests. It will balance the future of the people in Sri Lanka, who must get on with their lives after terrible years of conflict, with the need for a sense of justice about the events of the past. We express again our abhorrence at some of the events that concluded the conflict, which still leave questions for the Sri Lankan Government to answer, just as we do at the campaign of violence, suicide bombings, the use of child soldiers and terrorism practised by the LTTE during the conflict—a conflict that, after decades, has left recent scars that still need to be healed.
Our policy is not starry-eyed about allegations against the Sri Lankan Government or unaware of concerns about current human rights issues. However, we acknowledge open statements from the Sri Lankan Government about what needs to happen to reconcile and move forward, and we recognise the sovereign Government’s ability to make things happen through implementing measures set out by the LLRC and through addressing issues that were not dealt with satisfactorily in the report.
We will work with other like-minded Governments, inside and outside the Commonwealth, to see that Sri Lanka upholds its professed values. Where we have expertise that may help, we will offer it, in reliance on Sri Lanka meaning what it says. Where that proves not to be the case, we will, privately and publicly, bilaterally and in conjunction with others, say and do what this House would expect us to do.
The Government’s written statement on the LLRC on 12 January states that
“we continue to believe it is important that an independent, credible and thorough mechanism is put in place to investigate all allegations of grave abuses.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 21WS.] Will the Minister explain exactly what that means in current circumstances?
We still believe that. Let me marry that with the remarks that I will make to the hon. Member for Bristol East about the LLRC report.
Does the report form a basis for progress? Yes, it does. We said that there are some aspects of it, particularly in relation to reconciliation and justice, where clear suggestions for the way forward have been made. We said that they had possibilities, and I said clearly that implementation of the recommendations is the real test of Sri Lanka’s progress.
There are other areas where we did not believe the LLRC provided an adequate basis for going forward, principally in relation to accountability issues. We believe that more must be done with regard to those. As either the hon. Member for Bristol East or another hon. Member quoted earlier,“we note that many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN panel of experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered.”
That includes Channel 4’s documentary. The quotation continues:
“We believe that video footage, authenticated by UN special rapporteurs, should inform substantive, not just technical, investigations into apparent grave abuses.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 21WS.]
Accordingly, our approach is to work with both the Sri Lankan Government and international partners on the different aspects. Where we believe the Sri Lankan Government can and should make progress, we still believe that a process led in Sri Lanka is better than one led internationally. However, where progress cannot be made, we reserve the right to work with international partners to apply pressure to ensure that it is made. That remains our position on an independent investigation and the international aspect of it.
Will the Minister give way?
There is much in the report that can contribute to the pursuit of enduring peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, but that can happen only if the recommendations are implemented in a timely fashion. We call on the Government of Sri Lanka to move quickly to implement the recommendations and to address questions of accountability for alleged war crimes that were left unanswered by the LLRC report.
Will the Minister give way just very briefly ?
I cannot. I have four minutes.
I will deal with two or three major issues raised by colleagues in the debate. First, I will deal with the deportations, which is an important issue. All asylum and human rights applications from Sri Lankan nationals are carefully considered on their individual merits, in accordance with our international obligations and against the background of the latest available country information. The situation in Sri Lanka is still evolving, and where individuals can demonstrate that they face a real risk of prosecution and/or ill treatment on return, they are granted protection. It is only when the UK Border Agency and the courts are satisfied that an individual is not in need of international protection and has no leave to remain in the UK that removal is sought. We do not routinely monitor the treatment of individual unsuccessful asylum seekers once they are removed from the UK. They are, by definition, foreign nationals who have been found, as a matter of law, not to need the UK’s protection, and it would be inconsistent with such a finding for the UK to assume an ongoing responsibility for them when they return to their own country.
The Foreign Office follows the human rights situation in Sri Lanka closely. For chartered flight operations, we currently make a small payment to enable returnees to travel to their home town or village. We also ensure that UK Government representatives are present at the airport. Every returnee, whether on scheduled or chartered flights, is provided with the contact details of the British high commission in Colombo, should they want to make contact with the migration delivery officer based there.
We are aware of media allegations that returnees are being abused. All have been investigated by the high commission, and no evidence has been found to substantiate any of them.
Will the Minister give way?
Alistair Burt: No. I hope the hon. Lady forgives me, but I have three minutes to deal with the rest of the issues.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall brought up the discrepancy between scheduled and chartered flights, which I acknowledge. As I said, we give everyone the same information, and we have been able to meet chartered flights. I have now asked colleagues in Colombo to see what we can do to meet scheduled flights as well, where that is practicable. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the same information is given to everyone to allow people to contact us in private—not the Sri Lankan authorities—and so far we have not been able to substantiate allegations. However, we remain open to anything that would do that, because it is essential that those returned are safe.
For the avoidance of doubt, I will also deal with the issues related to the Human Rights Council. We have raised the issue of Sri Lanka at the council under item 4, countries of concern. We also raised specifically the Channel 4 footage in the interactive dialogue with UN special reporters last June. We will continue to work with international partners to support Sri Lanka in its pursuit of enduring peace and reconciliation. We are aware that the US is preparing a draft resolution for the Human Rights Council, and we are likely to support it.
In relation to the Conservative Heads of Government—[Laughter.] If only. It was a Freudian slip. In relation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka next year, it is too early for us to make the same pronouncement as the Canadians. There is much to be done before the meeting. We are conscious, as everyone in Sri Lanka is, of the importance of that meeting and its ability to stand for the highest values of the Commonwealth. No one is unaware of that position.
I conclude by repeating some earlier remarks. A number of specific issues will be answered by letter. The ongoing question is, if such things are going on, what are we going to do? We will work with the Sri Lankan Government on the implementation of LLRC and other human rights recommendations to deliver what they have declared they will deliver. We will work with international partners—Commonwealth and others—to urge action in areas where adherence to Commonwealth or human rights values is still lacking. We are conscious of the power of international bodies, such as the Human Rights Council and CHOGM, to apply pressure and to encourage the raising of standards. We are also conscious of time scales. Our activity will be both public and private, and I will regularly update colleagues. No one should doubt that there is still much to do in Sri Lanka, and no one should doubt that the UK Government recognize that.