Cameron must speak up over Sri Lanka's human rights abuses

Ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the PM must show leadership and prevent the regime from presenting an airbrushed image to the world.

Next month, Sri Lanka is due to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in its capital Colombo. Hosting the summit is an honour that was rightly denied to the country two years ago because of the its fragile state after the civil war. But just how much progress has Sri Lanka made on human rights since 2011? Many, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, and Amnesty International have warned that Sri Lanka has not yet done enough.

There is little evidence that the Sri Lankan regime is truly committed to addressing human rights concerns. It has failed to fully implement the post-war Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and its people are still waiting for a credible, independent investigation into the alleged atrocities committed during the war when tens of thousands lost their lives. It is still, quite rightly, designated by the Foreign Office as a 'country of concern'.

Sadly, it is not only historic wrongs that need to be redressed. In March this year, the UN Human Rights Council expressed its concern at the "continuing reports" of "enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society and journalists, threats to judicial independence and the rule of law, and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief."

In August – the same month we heard reports that protestors demonstrating over access to drinking water were killed by the Sri Lankan army - the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited Sri Lanka. She concluded that the state "is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction". Amongst other concerns, she noted the expanding military presence; the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual harassment and abuse, including from the military; a surge in the incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities; and the intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders she met during her visit.

A new documentary just released in association with Channel 4, No Fire Zone: The killing fields of Sri Lanka, provides further harrowing evidence from the war, underlining the need for an international inquiry and for the international community to stand up for the people of Sri Lanka. It should be compulsory viewing for anyone considering going to Colombo next month.

Given this continued concern about the human rights record of the regime, it is only right that questions are asked about the propriety of Sri Lanka hosting the Commonwealth meeting. But given the time scale and the fact that the Commonwealth collectively agreed on Colombo as the 2013 venue, it is now not a question of whether CHOGM will go ahead in Sri Lanka, but a question of who will attend. And will those who do attend use the platform to speak out against continued human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, or will they allow the regime to use the occasion to present an airbrushed image to the world?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has used CHOGM to send a clear signal to the Sri Lankan regime, announcing two years ago that he would boycott the summit unless there was progress on human rights and democracy. He confirmed this week that he will boycott CHOGM because Sri Lanka has failed to uphold Commonwealth values. His government is now reviewing Canada’s financial contributions to the Commonwealth.

The Indian government has so far refused to say whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will attend. Sadly, David Cameron has declined to show any such leadership. He inexplicably forfeited an opportunity to exert pressure upon the Sri Lankan regime by prematurely confirming in May that both he and the Foreign Secretary would be going to CHOGM in November, regardless of the human rights situation.

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, managed to muddle the picture earlier this year by assuring MPs there would be "consequences" if human rights violations continue in the run-up to CHOGM. We tried asking the Foreign Office what these "consequences" would be, or under what circumstances they would be considered, but to no avail.

We tried again after the disturbing report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights but Foreign Office Ministers left little doubt that the UK will still be represented by the Prime Minister.

It is not yet too late for David Cameron to speak up on Sri Lanka’s human rights failings, or to call for unimpeded access for media and NGOs visiting Sri Lanka for CHOGM, or to press for the implementation of the LLRC recommendations going forward.

Human rights are too important to be brushed under the carpet. We need leadership from our Prime Minister, and the few weeks we have left in the run up to CHOGM is the time and place to show this.

Sri Lankan paramilitary Special Task Force commandos on patrol in Colombo on August 12, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

Getty Images.
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.