Last month I was proud to nominate Channel 4 News for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Their astonishing documentary, ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’, dramatically revealed war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict in 2009, and has alerted Governments across the world of the need to respect human rights.
The images broadcast by Channel 4 were among the most harrowing ever to appear on TV. They depicted what the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings described as evidence of “definitive war crimes”.
40,000 civilians, mostly from the Tamil community, were killed in the last few months of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict alone.
The UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts has stated there was a “grave assault on the entire regime of international law”. Since the war’s end, the UN Committee Against Torture has raised serious concerns about allegations of widespread on-going “torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by state actors, both the military and the police”.
Justice must prevail and that is why, in a Parliamentary debate last week, I and fellow Labour MPs called on Britain to support an independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes.
The previous Labour Government is widely acknowledged for taking a lead against abuses in Sri Lanka. In 2009, Gordon Brown was the first international statesman to call for a ceasefire, while David Miliband, then Foreign Secretary, was widely praised for visiting the island, as the fighting continued, to implore the Sri Lankan government to protect civilians.
Thanks to Gordon’s and David’s influence, as serious allegations of Sri Lankan Government complicity in human rights abuses emerged, Labour helped bring an end to preferential trading status for Sri Lanka in the EU, prevented the country hosting a Commonwealth summit, and voted against an IMF deal worth $2.5 billion.
The principled stand Labour took has been reaffirmed since by Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, who has given the Party’s full support for an independent, international commission to investigate what he calls “acts of unconscionable violence”.
The UN Panel of Experts agrees. They recommend an international investigation, and indeed it is a duty under international law to provide accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Such an investigation is vital, especially as Sri Lanka’s own domestic investigation, the ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC), has been roundly criticised. For instance, the Panel of Experts called it “fundamentally flawed”.
But although our Coalition Government have admitted the LLRC findings “leave many gaps and unanswered questions”, how have they chosen to respond?
Britain has embarked on a policy of sending planeloads of Tamils back to Sri Lanka, even though there is a genuine and understandable fear of how they might be treated on their return.
This looks like an endorsement by Britain of the appalling behaviour of the Sri Lankan Government, and a snub to Tamils whose families and friends may have been killed or subjected to other abuses.
And even worse, not once have we heard from the mouth of a British Minister these words: “We support an independent international investigation into violations that took place in Sri Lanka.”
The US is bringing a resolution on this matter at the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council Session in Geneva, while the European Parliament has called for “a UN commission of inquiry into all crimes committed”.
Britain should be at the front of those supporting action, instead of letting war criminals off the hook.
Britain is respected around the world for taking brave and principled leads, just as we did in supporting military action in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Libya, and just as Channel 4 did with “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”.
Perhaps the Government’s reticence owes more to the visits of free trade campaigner Adam Werrity and his friend Liam Fox to meet members of the Sri Lankan Government. But do we want Britain’s approach to international relations to be symbolised by Adam Werrity or by Channel 4 News?
In my letter nominating Channel 4 News to the Nobel committee, I said “By bringing to light the breaches of international conventions by the Government of Sri Lanka in a bold manner and by piecing together numerous forms of evidence in a coherent way, the value of independent journalism to the building of a peaceful global order in the century ahead has been amply demonstrated.”
Crimes such as those revealed in Channel 4’s documentary deserve to be investigated. Justice must be served.
Siobhain McDonagh is Member of Parliament for Mitcham and Morden, and Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils