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More questions than answers: Minister Alistair Burt on UK arms to Sri Lanka

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Following The Independent newspaper’s report on the British government’s approval of licences for the export to Sri Lanka of over £3m worth of arms - in just one three month period last year – the UK minister responsible for Sri Lanka, Alistair Burt has written to the paper seeking to clarify the transfer of hundreds of assault rifles and large quantities of ammunition amongst other weapons.

However, Mr. Burt’s response raises as many questions as The Independent’s article.

Mr. Burt said the weapons were “for export to private maritime security companies engaged in legitimate work countering the threat of piracy, and not the Sri Lankan navy.” He added the companies in question were vetted by the UK and offered as example the companies must be signed up to the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers, that the weapons could only be used by the company in question and that there were restrictions on the numbers and storage of arms must be observed.

Firstly, it is not clear which companies are being supplied with British approval – for example, who owns them, who staffs them, where they operate (besides providing maritime security), etc. It is common knowledge that senior Sri Lankan military and government officials own and operate private military companies both in Sri Lanka and abroad, sometimes at arms length (through family members or close associates). For example, former Army commander Sarath Fonseka channelled military contracts through companies owned by his son-in-law. It is also known that former Sri Lankan military personnel have worked as military contractors in Iraq.

It is therefore not at all clear if Sri Lankan military personnel responsible for rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity (as direct perpetrators or as their commanders) are not receiving British arms under these licences.

Secondly, it is already known that the Sri Lankan military is itself engaged in all manner of corporate activities. The navy runs whale-watching trips for tourists while the air force operates commercial flights; the army is involved in a range of commercial activities including running vegetable shops, hotels and ‘battlefield tours’, as well as cafes, tailor shops, stadiums and so on.

It is therefore likely that the Sri Lankan military is similarly engaged in ‘private’ military ventures, directly or through companies that are owned and directed by individuals at arms length from military and government officials.

Therefore that British arms are exported to private companies in Sri Lanka does not necessarily mean they are not used and operated by Sri Lankan military personnel.

Thirdly, it is not clear how what criteria are used by UK to vet arms recipients, and how extensive this vetting is, despite Minister Burt’s assurances. The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers is a voluntary code and is largely self-regulated.

In any case, any problems related to these security companies’ activities would presumably a matter for the Sri Lankan courts (as that’s where the arms were exported to), rather than the UK’s. The manifest weaknesses of the Sri Lanka judicial system as any kind of restraint on the authorities’ abuses, including its demonstrable manipulation by the authorities, have been exemplified yet again recently by the government’s sacking of the Chief Justice. The activities of companies run by government associates are not going to constrained by any legal consequences.

Finally, it is clear that the Sri Lankan political and military leadership have seized on international concerns over piracy in the Indian Ocean to both legitimise themselves in the international arena and to draw on international resources being allocated to combating this security threat.

In short, British arms are being sent to a country with a long history of extensive human rights abuses, including torture, extrajudicial killings and ‘disappearances’ as well as now well documented crimes against humanity, where the divide between the state and private armed actors is decidedly blurred.

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