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Britain distances itself from mercenaries accused of war crimes in Sri Lanka

Photograph: Yardstick Films.

The British government has distanced itself from a private security company that is currently under police investigation over war crimes in Sri Lanka, claiming that it was “not party to the agreement” that the firm held with the Sri Lankan government.

“The UK Government was not party to the agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and Keenie Meenie Services (KMS) in the 1980s,” said Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Vicky Ford.

She was responding to a question from UK Shadow Minister Sam Tarry, where he asked whether a review commissioned by the British High Commission in Colombo into the impact of UK support to the Sri Lankan police will include the training delivered to its special task force by KMS.

The mercenary firm is currently the subject of a full war crimes investigation by the Metropolitan Police over reports that it assisted the Sri Lankan military in committing crimes against Tamils during the 1980s. The firm also helped set up Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force (STF), a paramilitary police unit that is accused of committing mass atrocities over the course of the armed conflict and is increasingly involved in harassing and surveilling the civilian population across the North-East since the end of the conflict.

“The Government of Sri Lanka approached KMS without the involvement of the UK, and the UK Government had no ability to intervene in what was a commercial contract between the two parties,” claimed Ford. “This is therefore out of scope of the review.”

The British government’s comments come despite Sri Lanka’s current prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe stating in a 2020 interview that the British government was aware of the activities of KMS. He did however "state that the Sri Lankan Government entered into the agreement on its own" and denied that any human rights violations had been committed by Sri Lankan troops. Instead, he said journalist Phil Miller who wrote about KMS “has not verified” any of the claims, highlighting an interview he gave to the Tamil Guardian.

Miller’s book, ‘Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes', documents how the company formed of former Special Air Service (SAS) veterans turned mercenaries, went on to effectively set up one of Sri Lanka’s most notorious military units.

The Metropolitan Police investigation is the first time a fully-fledged investigation into British mercenaries has reportedly been launched by the Metropolitan Police’s war crimes team. The move comes despite the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) resisting the publication of files relating to its diplomatic support for British mercenaries in Sri Lanka. The British government normally keeps classified files out of the public domain for 20 years. For this file, however, they have extended it to 60 years.

The British High Commission in Colombo has commissioned a review to look at the impact of UK Government support to the Sri Lankan police from 2016 until 2021, to examine “lessons learned and make recommendations with regards to future programmes,” added Ford.

“This project contract and Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) programme cycle concluded on 31 March 2022. The British High Commission is considering its approach to any future CSSF programme and its review will be taken into account alongside a number of factors.”

The review comes amidst ongoing concern regarding human rights abuses committed by the Sri Lankan security forces. In November 2021, Police Scotland informed the UK High Commission in Sri Lanka that they will not extend their training contract with Sri Lanka’s police force in March 2022 due to ongoing human rights concerns. 

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