By going ahead with his planned visit to Sri Lanka next week, Defence Secretary Liam Fox is irresponsibly undermining Britain's calls for an independent inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka and international protection of human rights. It matters little that Britain is not paying his way.
The clamour for an independent international inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka grows by the day: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group, a large group of US senators, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka (courtesy of Wikileaks), Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others international figures - the list is endless.
Britain, though not the most forthcoming or vocal of critics, has nonetheless consistently maintained that a proper investigation and subsequent accountability for atrocities must form the cornerstone of any future making of peace in Sri Lanka. Moreover, several British MPs, from both sides of the House, have repeatedly expressed their concerns over Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses, and just last month the Prime Minister, David Cameron, clearly stated: "We do need to see an independent investigation of what happened. Everyone has read the papers and seen the T.V. footage, but we need an independent investigation."
Indeed this subtle, but now firm, stance was clearly manifest during Sri Lankan President's recent UK visit. No overt criticism, but an unmistakable cold shoulder nevertheless. Dr. Fox, however, is indifferent to all this. No sooner had Britain shut the front door on an alleged war criminal, and rightly so, the defence secretary was sneaking out the back to meet him. Dr. Fox’s rendezvous with the Sri Lankan President at the latter’s luxury hotel, and his planned visit to Sri Lanka next week - ostensibly a ‘personal’ one to deliver a speech – also underline an irresponsible disregard for Britain’s new emphasis in its foreign policy of human rights.
Reports that British foreign secretary William Hague is displeased by Dr. Fox’s planned visit are to be welcomed, but that the senior minister will go ahead regardless brings into serious question Britain's credibility on the world stage when it comes to protecting human rights and ensuring accountability for war crimes.
Moreover, an elected British representative today bears responsibilities beyond Westminster. There can be no place for 'personal' or individual interest when a UK defence secretary meets a head of state, especially one alleged by credible international voices to have command responsibility for war crimes.
Dr. Fox’s trip may not draw much attention at home, but in Sri Lanka the newspapers – and the increasingly shunned regime - have been excitedly anticipating the British official since it was announced. And lest it be forgotten, this is precisely because he is Britain’s defence secretary, not some sun-seeking tourist.