Shock and outrage at the Labour Party conference over torture in Sri Lanka

Campaigns and Communications Manager Camilla Jelbart-Mosse is blogging from the Labour Party Conference about working with Human Rights Watch and Channel 4 to demand justice for Sri Lankans caught in the 'killing fields'. 

Fresh from the frontline in Libya, Channel 4’s Jonathan Miller dropped into the Labour Party conference on Sunday night to chair Freedom from Torture and Human Rights Watch’s timely fringe event on the desperate need for justice and accountability in Sri Lanka – and to cover lessons that can be drawn from the Sri Lanka “case” for the protection of human rights within UK foreign policy.

Fresh evidence of torture 

With another charter flight scheduled to leave London on Wednesday to forcibly remove a group of refused Sri Lankan asylum seekers (including Tamils) Freedom from Torture presented fresh evidence that torture continues long after the cessation of hostilities in the country. Emma Reynolds MP, Shadow Minister for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) spoke very powerfully about her involvement in a parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka last year, including a visit to a “rehabilitation camp” where detainees have been held now for over two years with no legal recourse to challenge their detention.

She was pressed by members of the audience, including Labour councillors, to ensure that Labour did everything it could to spur the UK government into action and throw its weight behind a thorough, international investigation into the serious violations that have been committed.

Praise was heaped upon Channel 4 for the instrumental role they have played in keeping Sri Lanka on the agenda, not least by uncovering and broadcasting shocking mobile phone footage of extra-judicial killings and clear evidence of multiple rapes and mutilation in the hard-hitting documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.

Audible gasps filled the room as some of the documentary was shown last night and one audience member spoke afterwards about how his “blood boils” to see what has happened to people yet impunity reigns. Jonathan spoke about working undercover in Sri Lanka after the end of the war and the triumphalism he witnessed which felt like the vanquishing of a people, not only the vanquishing of an insurgent group – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – which, it must be remembered, committed it’s fair share of grave abuses.

Uk government reluctance for an impartial investigation

David Mepham, UK Director at Human Rights Watch, criticised the UK government for having yet to declare its support for an independent, impartial investigation into war crimes, as recommended by the UK Panel of Experts report on Sri Lanka – which this month was sent to the Human Rights Council by the UN Secretary General – until Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) reports its findings in November.

The UN Panel has already demonstrated that the LLRC cannot meet international standards and Human Rights Watch, who have been following the situation closely, has zero confidence that the process will get to the truth. The UK government, however, seems reluctant to look beyond this domestic body in the short-term. Human Rights Watch’s analysis is that the trade-off between peace and justice argument which has been deployed in much foreign policy debate is often massively overplayed and impunity is a deeply-rooted barrier to lasting peace.

Freedom from Torture Sri Lankan client detained and tortured  

Freedom from Torture’s Keith Best introduced video footage from one of our clients, Rohan, who couldn’t be there in person due to safety concerns for his family if he were to be identified. Rohan (whose brother had been recruited by the LTTE as a child some years before) had fled torture in Sri Lanka in 2009, coming to the UK on a student visa. Just a few months ago, he returned to his country for a family emergency and was picked up by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) at the airport, detained and subjected to relentless beatings and was burned with hot instruments, leaving horrendous scars on various parts of his body.

Sadly, Rohan is not alone: Freedom from Torture has a number of clients who have returned to Sri Lanka and been detained either at the airport or in Colombo for interrogation and torture. Amnesty International documented the detention and torture of a number of refused asylum seekers returned by Australia in September 2010.

Keith Best asked: “What does the UK government know about the fate of those people that it forcibly removed to Sri Lanka back in June? Nothing. There is no sign of monitoring in place to assess the safety of those returned. With the evidence we and others continue to highlight demonstrating that torture continues in Sri Lanka – and the high numbers of Tamils who remain in an “at risk” category in the country according to international sources, often due to suspected or proven links to the LTTE – this Government needs to be very, very sure it is not exposing those it removes to a risk of torture on return.”

Jonathan Miller said “I've been blown away by the sheer number of Sri Lankans who are on Freedom from Torture's books and the organisation's role in publicising removal flights from the UK, which raises very serious concerns about the Home Office and its vetting process for refugees going back to places with such a grim record."

Read Freedom from Torture's briefing on torture in Sri Lanka and why we are calling for the UK government to:

  • Urgently put in place an effective monitoring system for Sri Lankans forcibly returned from the UK;

  • Work with the international community to investigate what is happening to Tamils who are returning to Sri Lanka, whether voluntarily or forcibly; and

  • Immediately announce its support for an international investigation of the atrocities committed by both sides during the final stages of the civil war.