“It is difficult, therefore, to avoid the conclusion that the reason why the third visit was registered and the two earlier ones were not, was that Mr Paisley was conscious of the potential embarrassment that would be caused to him were it to become publicly known that he had accepted very expensive hospitality, for himself and his family, from a foreign government accused of serious human rights violations.”
This key passage from the House of Commons Standards Committee report into DUP MP, Ian Paisley, cuts to the heart of the this latest political scandal: his non-declaration of two lavish (£50,000+) family holidays in 2013, paid for by the Sri Lankan government, and his subsequent lobbying of then-Prime Minister David Cameron allegedly not to support a United Nations resolution to establish an investigation into human rights abuses in the country.
The Commons found his behaviour breached its rules on paid advocacy and so his actions led to one of the most serious sanctions – suspension for 30 sitting days – the longest suspension period to be handed down to an MP since the end of World War 2. He is not expected to return to the chamber until November. The North Antrim MP could also face a by-election if 7,500 of his constituents (10% of the eligible electorate) sign a petition demanding his “recall”.
The severity of the sanction reflects the seriousness of the offence, as considered by his peers in the House of Commons.
The human rights violations referred to in the report could hardly be more serious either. During the 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka, it is estimated that some 100,000 people lost their lives, with perhaps another 65,000 suffering enforced disappearance – most likely dead too. In the closing months of the war, in 2009, the Sri Lankan Government forces engaged in all-out war on the LTTE (the so-called Tamil Tigers), which led to the deaths of up to 40,000 civilians, according to estimates by a UN-appointed panel of experts.
Both sides were responsible for human rights abuses, but the much heavier toll came from government forces, as they launched aerial bombardments of heavily civilian areas. The UN panel accused the government of shelling hospitals, no-fire zones and UN hospitals, and blocking delivery of humanitarian aid to victims of the war.
Since 2012, a number of resolutions calling for international investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka have been passed in the UN, including one at the Human Rights Council in March 2014 – which Mr Paisley urged the PM to oppose. It is worth noting that the UK Government ignored his call, both speaking and voting in favour of the resolution.
To build opposition to moves by the international community to ensure accountability, the Sri Lankan government courted parliamentarians in key countries around the world. The Daily Telegraph reported in November 2013 that the country’s High Commission in London had privately boasted that it had “14 MPs prepared to publicly defend the regime”, and that many had “been on luxurious trips to Sri Lanka, some accompanied by their wives or girlfriends”. Following revelations by the paper, the Conservative Party stepped in to ban such all-expenses paid trips to Sri Lanka for its MPs. It seems the DUP issued no such directive to its MPs.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government has continued to block efforts to ensure accountability – including denying entry to the country to UN officials seeking to fulfil that 2014 UN Human Rights Council resolution. The international investigation never really got off the ground, and an alternative Sri Lankan government-backed inquiry has been constantly stalled and stymied.
Nine years on from the end of the war, the many who suffered in the conflict – and the loved ones of those who lost their lives – are still waiting for truth and justice.
In the Commons last week, Mr Paisley apologised to his fellow MPs, to his party and to his constituents. Perhaps in the months ahead, while in enforced absence from the Commons chamber, he can take time to contemplate issuing a further apology – to the Sri Lankan victims of war crimes.