Will David Cameron Apply Magnitsky Sanctions On Sri Lanka After Promoting Investment For Its Controversial Port City Project?

UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron must recuse himself from imminent decisions on whether to apply Magnitsky Sanctions to alleged Sri Lankan war criminals, said eight international human rights groups*, after it emerged that Cameron was employed as recently as this year to promote investment for the controversial Port City project in Sri Lanka, which is being built by a Chinese state firm.

Human rights group, the ITJP (International Truth and Justice Project) has submitted two sanctions submissions for alleged war crimes committed by retired Sri Lankan military leaders – former Army Commander, Shavendra Silva[1] and more recently Jagath Jayasuriya – both awaiting decisions before Human Rights Day on 10 December. At the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative summit last November, the UK announced that it would prioritise sanctions for individuals alleged to have been complicit in conflict-related sexual violence.

“We have made a compelling case that retired Sri Lankan army General Jagath Jayasuriya should be designated under the UK’s Magnitsky sanctions regime for his role heading the notorious detention site known as Joseph Camp, where hundreds of people have been tortured and raped over the years”, said ITJP’s Executive Director Yasmin Sooka, who sat on a UN Panel that investigated allegations of war crimes after the civil war ended in Sri Lanka. “Many of those Tamil torture and rape victims now have asylum in the UK. Given the UK’s declaration at the PSVI initiative last year to end sexual violence and to hold those responsible accountable, the failure to act against perpetrators of torture and sexual violence is deeply disappointing”.

In 2017 the ITJP and partners in Latin America filed a number of universal jurisdiction cases against Jagath Jayasuriya for his role in Joseph Camp and his command of the final bloody phase at the end of the civil war in 2009. Unfortunately, he was tipped off and fled home before an arrest warrant could be issued.[2] Again in 2019, the ITJP and Australian Centre for International Justice filed a criminal complaint against him in Australia, a country he continued to visit with impunity[3], followed up by a sanctions submission in 2022 which Australia declined to act upon. Evidence on his role has also been shared with the UK and US Governments who have yet to make public their intentions with respect to designations.

Martyn Day SNP MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk organised a Westminster Hall debate on ‘Sri Lanka Tamils and Human Rights’ (5 December) attended by MPs across political parties including Elliot Colburn, Ed Davey, John McDonnell, Siobhain McDonagh, Dame Maria Miller and Jim Shannon. There were calls for greater transparency around David Cameron’s position and the urgency for sanctions to be applied to war criminals. (Hansard transcription here).

“Our Foreign Secretary needs to come forward and be honest about his role in promoting the Chinese Government’s plan for a new port in Colombo. It does not bode well. Let us show Sri Lankans and Tamils something different. Let us take a different path and make some progress.” – Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden.

The clear message from MPs was that the UK lags behind the United States and Canada in terms of sanctions for Sri Lanka.

“This is not about a lack of evidence; it’s a lack of political will on the part of the UK, which is the penholder at the Human Rights Council in Geneva and is responsible for leading the international community in holding Sri Lanka accountable for its war time past as well as the current torture and sexual violence. Now that someone paid to promote Sri Lanka has been appointed as foreign secretary, how seriously can victims take the UK’s policy on accountability for Sri Lanka?” said Ben Kumar Morris, Campaign Director at the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.

The Colombo Port City project is widely viewed as a mega infrastructure project aligned with the Rajapaksa family, two of whom – Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa – were sanctioned in Canada for their alleged role in war crimes[4]. Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court recently named the three Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda, Gotabaya and Basil, as responsible for the country’s economic crisis in 2022, ruling that their actions brought about a total economic breakdown and collapse of public order and a complete undermining of rule of law[5]. Port City, which has been designed to operate outside of Sri Lanka’s existing laws, has the potential to initiate further corruption and is intended to benefit political elites and the interests of China, which has been deeply criticised in Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lankans do need the UK’s help in this time of unprecedented economic crisis but that doesn’t mean investment for a city that sits outside the normal Sri Lankan labour laws, taxation system, and with inadequate financial oversight,” said Brito Fernando, a veteran human rights activist and president of the Families of the Disappeared (FOD). “It means support for holding those complicit in war crimes and economic crimes accountable. It means finding money to feed babies, and help the poor, not the rich”.

The International Monetary Fund’s September 2023 Governance diagnostic report on Sri Lanka also raised the issue of tax exemptions for the Port City project being given without sufficient scrutiny. The report noted that “The Port City Act will grant wide-ranging exemptions for up to 40 years to offshore financial services, information technology and communication operations, and the tourism sector.[6]” The IMF complained there had been no analysis of whether the potential benefit of the incentives exceeded the social costs.

“The UK has long dragged its feet on sanctions for Sri Lanka. How can victims have any faith in our government now that we learn the Foreign Secretary – whom we trusted because when he was Prime Minister and attended CHOGM, took the time to visit Jaffna in 2013 and meet with the victim community – how can he be so easily co-opted?” said Mrs Jenifer Weerasinghe, whose son was abducted in 2008. Fingers pointed to the top of the Navy and the case is still ongoing 15 years later. “The only way I will have faith in the system again is if they sanction Sri Lankan Generals.”

“The UK’s lack of political will to hold Sri Lanka accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide allegedly committed during the armed conflict risks undermining existing actions taken by the international community to further accountability in Sri Lanka. It also emboldens the Sri Lankan government’s culture of impunity, which leads to Sri Lankan war criminals continuing to occupy positions of authority, as well as a worsening human rights crisis for the Tamils in the North-East, putting the country at further risk of ethnic conflict and instability. The Foreign Secretary’s work in Sri Lanka brings into question the UK’s commitment to ensuring that there is meaningful accountability for Tamil victims and survivors. The British government should respond to calls by the Tamil community, iNGOs, and the UN for increased bilateral pressure on Sri Lanka through targeted sanctions and trade conditions,” said Archana Ravichandradeva, Executive Director at People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL).

*This press release is supported by the following eight human rights groups:

International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP)

People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL)

Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice (SLC)

National Fisheries Solidarity Organisation (NAFSO)

Families of the Disappeared (FOD)

Australian Centre for International Justice (ACIG)

Centre for Society and Religion, Sri Lanka (CSR)

International Working Group on Sri Lanka (IWG)

[1] https://itjpsl.com/press-releases/time-for-the-uk-to-sanction-sri-lankas-army-commander

[2] https://itjpsl.com/reports/the-case-against-jagath-jayasuriya

[3] https://itjpsl.com/press-releases/joint-media-release-afp-fails-to-investigate-visiting-sri-lankan-general-for-war-crimes-groups-now-declare-timetosanction-under-australias-new-magnitsky-regime

[4] https://www.international.gc.ca/world-monde/international_relations-relations_internationales/sanctions/sri_lanka.aspx?lang=eng

[5] https://www.jurist.org/news/2023/11/sri-lanka-supreme-court-rules-government-officials-breached-public-trust-in-management-of-the-economy/ and Transparency International Sri Lanka: https://www.tisrilanka.org/tisl-files-petition-in-the-sc-demanding-accountability-for-the-economic-crisis/

[6] IMF Country Report No. 23/340, Footnote 88.