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Just Desserts

The resignation of British Defence Secretary Liam Fox following revelations about his unauthorised and dubious foreign policy-related activities will be welcomed by all those committed to a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka. However the serious questions raised – once again – by last week’s media reports about Dr. Fox’s activities must also be answered.

Dr. Fox resigned because, in his own words, “I mistakenly allowed the distinction between my personal interest and my government activities to become blurred.” Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Sri Lanka.

Whilst several governments – including those of the UK and US – have sought, along with international human rights groups, to pursue a credible process of accountability for the horrific war crimes and crimes against humanity that marked the end of Sri Lanka’s war, Dr. Fox strove instead to defend the Colombo regime, rationalise its murderous actions, and assist it in weathering international criticism.

He did so despite the manifest outrage of Britain’s Tamil community, the disquiet of international rights groups, and the undisguised frustration of Britain’s foreign policy establishment. Whatever Dr. Fox’s achievements with regards to his defence portfolio, his actions relating to Sri Lanka are despicable. He has done more than any other international figure to assist and encourage the Colombo regime’s defiance of  international opinion, and its hardline and chauvinistic policies towards the Tamils.

Unsurprisingly, amongst the revelations about Dr. Fox’s unofficial activities that dominated British headlines last week were several pertaining to Sri Lanka. His close friend and self-styled advisor, Mr. Adam Werritty, turns out, amongst other things, to have been Dr. Fox’s deputised envoy to Sri Lanka, liaising with government leaders and assisting their interests. In July, British broadsheets report, Mr. Werritty even agreed to assist Sri Lanka purchase weapons. Meanwhile, Conservative party donors say Dr. Fox sought contributions for Sri Lanka, before and after taking government office.

Dr. Fox’s recent interventions in support of Colombo began even as the slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians was underway in early 2009. Whilst then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French and American counterparts were criticising the brutality of Sri Lanka’s onslaught and seeking to protect civilian lives amid the fighting, Dr. Fox – then Britain’s shadow defence secretary – was open in his support for Colombo.

And since the end of the island’s war, whilst western governments have increasingly shunned President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, Dr. Fox has sought to embrace it more closely. Since May 2009, he has visited Sri Lanka several times to meet with government leaders, taken it upon himself to set up a private-sector vehicle to raise ‘development’ funding, and sought to otherwise legitimise the regime abroad. He continued to do so after taking a cabinet post.

Even before the recent media storm that swept him from office erupted, Dr. Fox’s abnormal support for Sri Lanka was well known. Last December when President Rajapaksa visited London, Dr. Fox defied UK policy and met publicly with the hardline Sinhala nationalist. Whilst Dr. Fox later airily described their meeting as a ‘private’ matter, the Colombo regime milked the publicity for all it was worth. Although compelled by the ensuing furore to call off his public lecture in Colombo that month, Dr. Fox rescheduled and delivered it in July this year - reportedly with the Foreign Office’s begrudging consent.

The mysterious ‘Sri Lanka Development Trust’ that Dr. Fox set up drew, sometimes at his personal behest, contributions from donors to the Conservative Party. However, according to the Financial Times, the Trust has achieved nothing more than paying for some of his trips to Sri Lanka. This is in the context of the regime leaders’ well known proclivity for appropriating developmental assistance intended for the Tamils, and the international aid community in Sri Lanka having never come across any activity there by the Trust.

In short, the British Defence Secretary and senior Conservative has abused his office(s) on behalf of a regime responsible for the deliberate and systematic slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. This is why his resignation is celebrated by British Tamils of all political persuasions, from neoliberal Thatcherites to left-wing socialists.

Whilst Dr. Fox may have resigned, serious questions remain as to the content and consequences of his links with the Rajapaksa regime. Foreign Secretary William Hague on the weekend played down the impact of Dr. Fox’s ‘maverick foreign policy’ as one civil servent termed it. However, the government must ensure a full accounting of his ongoing connections to Sri Lanka. The forthcoming report by Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell is eagerly awaited, but were its scope not to extend that far, a further inquiry must take this up.