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Gap between UK’s rhetoric and action

Amid the furor that enveloped President Mahinda Rajapakse’s visit to Britain last week, a Foreign Office statement on Sri Lanka’s war crimes went largely unremarked, if not unnoticed. The position it sets out suggests that, while no longer legitimizing Sri Lanka’s ongoing sham commission, Britain is still not putting its weight behind a proper investigation into war crimes.

An AFP report of Dec 4 quoted a Foreign Office spokeswoman as saying: Britain believes Colombo “must develop a credible and independent process to look into reports of possible violations of international humanitarian law by both sides during the conflict in Sri Lanka.” This, she added, had been “made clear” to the Sri Lankan government “most recently in October”.

However, as has been repeatedly pointed out by Tamil actors and international human rights groups, there is no prospect of Sri Lanka investigating its own war crimes.

Why this is so is also well recognised. As the US Ambassador crisply put it in a now much written about Wikileaked cable, such regimes have never investigated their own troops or officials, and in Sri Lanka, responsibility for many of the war crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brothers and opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka.

Moreover, Sri Lanka’s track record on ‘investigations’ speaks for itself. Amnesty International summed it up in the title of its 2010 report on the matter: “Twenty years of make believe: Sri Lanka’s commissions of inquiry”.

And in three decades marked by massacres, ‘disappearances’, extra-judicial killings, torture and rape by Sri Lankan forces and their paramilitaries, not one perpetrator has been punished. Sri Lanka assures cast-iron impunity for its Sinhala-dominated military.

Against all this, Britain’s call - again - for the Sri Lankan state to “develop a credible and independent process” against itself is at best, extraordinarily generous, and at worst, disingenuous. Whilst having no impact whatsoever on Sri Lanka’s conduct, this position simultaneously undermines the efforts of those mobilising support for a proper – i.e. international-led - investigation into Sri Lanka’s war crimes.

Rights campaigners have expressed their frustration at Britain’s largely laissez-faire policy on Sri Lanka. Last week, The Times newspaper joined them, saying:

“Britain, as with much of the wider world, has a role to play [in changing Sri Lanka’s conduct]. [But] At present, this country seeks to speak from both sides of its mouth.”

As The Times also pointed out, “until a more coherent denunciation of [Sri Lanka’s] behaviour can be mustered” by the international community, there is simply no incentive for Colombo to change its behaviour.

Meanwhile, in the third of four key speeches this year on Britain’s future foreign policy, Foreign Secretary William Hague focused on human rights, insisting these were “essential to and indivisible from our foreign policy objectives.”

He contrasted his new government to its predecessor, saying that at handover of power, “Britain was not in a position to be as effective as it could and should have been in dealing with a world marred by tyranny, oppression and injustice.”

He also pointed out how “the previous government fell into a chasm of their own making between rhetoric and action in large areas of foreign policy.”

Mr. Hague is quite right, in that the Brown and Blair governments’ policies towards Sri Lanka, turning on support for, and appeasement of, the Sinhala-dominated government, contributed directly to the massacres and humanitarian catastrophe that has engulfed the Tamils.

The question, however, is whether Britain will now act clearly and decisively and join with other right-minded members of the international community to ensure Sri Lanka’s conduct is brought inline with international norms. At present, the “gap between rhetoric and action”, whilst narrower, still remains.

And, if the new UK government is serious about addressing “a world marred by tyranny, oppression and injustice,” there is no better place to start - for Britain especially - than Sri Lanka.