SPECIAL REPORT : Part 7
January 14, 2014, 12:00 pm
Having visited Jaffna on the opening day of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in November, British Premier David Cameron warned Sri Lanka to address accountability issues or face the consequences. Cameron set March, 2014 as the deadline much to the delight of Tamil Diaspora. Cameron (second from left) is pictured in Jaffna with Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan, Northern Province Chief Minister Wigneswaran and TNA National List MP M.A. Sumanthiran.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
A prominent British law firm, Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) on Friday (January 10) lodged an unprecedented formal complaint with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. It dealt extensively with atrocities committed by British forces between 2003 and 2008 in Iraq. Alleging that the UK had failed to investigate and prosecute high ranking civilian and military leaders responsible for the situation in Iraq, the two NGOs pushed for an ICC investigation.
Although the ICC declined to open a formal investigation into UK military action in 2006 new evidence is likely to compel the ICC to review its position.
The UK ratified the Rome Statute for the ICC on Oct 4, 2001, though the US refused to accept the ICC.
Among those who had been named in a 250-page report handed over to the ICC were head of the British Army, General Sir Peter Wall, former defence secretary Geoff Hoon and former defence minister, Adam Ingram.
The report couldn’t have come at worse time for the newly elected member of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
UK ultimatum to GoSL
With British Premier David Cameron threatening to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal unless President Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed accountability issues before next Geneva session in March 2014, it would be pertinent to examine the failure on the part of successive British governments to investigate crimes committed by British forces deployed in Iraq. The British ultimatum was given in Colombo on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November, 2013. Premier Cameron insisted that Sri Lanka would have to face the consequences, in spite it being at the helm of the Commonwealth, unless it addressed accountability issues.
The dossier submitted by PIL and ECCHR would have definitely embarrassed the British coalition government comprising the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as it spearheads a major diplomatic initiative targeting Sri Lanka in the run-up to the next Geneva session. The Opposition Labour party cannot remain silent on the report as it was the then Labour Premier Tony Blair who joined the invasion in spite of the European Union strongly opposing military action. As the Labour party too, advocates an international war crimes probe targeting Sri Lanka, its response will be of interest to Sri Lanka. But the reaction of the coalition partner Liberal Democrat Party will be of pivotal importance, especially in the wake of speculation that a second coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is unlikely. The UK will go for parliamentary polls next year. The war crimes report is likely to widen differences between the two halves of the British coalition.
UK rift widens
The Liberal Democrats reaction will have to be examined in the backdrop of a devastating statement made by LibDem leader Nick Clegg on July 2010 that the March 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal. The Deputy PM questioned the government’s position concerning the legality of the Iraq war when at the end of heated exchange with Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time of the invasion, Clegg said: "We may have to wait for his memoirs, but perhaps one day he will account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all: the illegal invasion of Iraq."
The Deputy PM made the controversial statement while standing at the government dispatch box in the Commons. He was responding to questions on behalf of Premier Cameron. Within 24 hours Clegg was compelled to claim that he was speaking in a personal capacity,
The British media quoted Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London, as having said: "A public statement by a government minister in parliament as to the legal situation would be a statement that an international court would be interested in, in forming a view as to whether or not the war was lawful."
Can those pushing for a war crimes probe targeting Sri Lanka on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations propagated by UK media outfits, Channel 4 News and Channel 4 ignore the report now with the ICC?
British Foreign Secretary William Hague declared that the British armed forces uphold high standards and they were the finest armed forces in the world.
Hague insisted that there was no necessity for the ICC to probe British troops abusing and killing detainees in Iraqis in their custody. The Conservative MP was responding to allegations made by PIL and ECCHR.
Iraqi prisoners expose UK
Having closely examined the cases of over 400 Iraqis, the two NGOs pointed out that they represent "thousands of allegations of mistreatment amounting to war crimes of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." They described incidents ranging from "hooding" prisoners to burning, electric shocks, threats to kill and "cultural and religious humiliation."
Other forms of alleged abuses included sexual assault, mock executions, and threats of rape, death and torture.
Hague, during his visit to Colombo last November for the CHOGM demanded that Sri Lanka should investigate all human rights abuses, including the allegations of acts of sexual violence committed during and after the conflict.
The two NGOs called for an investigation into the alleged war crimes under Article 15 of the Rome statute.
The report said: "those who bear the greatest responsibility" for alleged war crimes "include individuals at the highest levels" of the British Army and political system.
UK military commanders "knew or should have known" that forces under their control "were committing or about to commit war crimes."
It pointed out: "civilian superiors knew or consciously disregarded information at their disposal, which clearly indicated that UK services personnel were committing war crimes in Iraq."
For those who expect the UK to take punitive action against Sri Lanka over accountability issues, the report on UK military abuses in UK must have come as quite a shock. Much to their dismay, PIL and ECCHR made their move before the release of the much delayed Chilcot report on the Iraq war. The UK’s ultimatum to Sri Lanka should be examined in the background of that country launching the Iraq probe in July 2009, six years after the invasion. Sir John Chilcot is yet to reach an understanding with Cameron’s government’s regarding material it could reveal, particularly pertaining to discussions between the UK and the US leading to the invasion. Therefore, the release of the Chilcot report is likely to be further delayed, at least until the conclusion of the forthcoming Geneva session.
Geneva counter attack
Sri Lanka shouldn’t hesitate to raise British human rights violations at the next Geneva session. In fact, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay cannot turn a blind eye to allegations made against a member of the UNHRC comprising 47 countries divided into five zones. It would be interesting to know the reactions of UNHRC members such as India and the United States as both countries backed the last US resolution against Sri Lanka. India voted for the resolution as a member of the UNHRC, whereas the UK co-sponsored the resolution.
The reactions of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch as well as the International Crisis Group to UK war crimes will be relevant as they had been pushing for an external investigation into accountability issues in Sri Lanka. All three groups declined to appear before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) claiming it lacked credibility. The Sri Lankan government should closely study the Iraq case. It should be a priority. The Iraq case presents an excellent opportunity to highlight the double standards adopted by those threatening to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal on the basis that the local process lacked credibility. Addressing the media in Colombo on the sidelines of CHOGM 2013, British Premier Cameron praised the Channel 4 News and Channel 4 for exposing war crimes in Sri Lanka. UK based Suren Surendiran on behalf of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) heaped praise on the British media outfits for taking on the Sri Lankan government. The UK documentaries had been shown to a variety of audiences in accordance with the GTF plan to justify its call for an international war crimes tribunal.
At Lanka’s expense
Like the previous administration, Premier Cemeron continued to play politics with the Sri Lankan issue for political advantage. Cameron invited a delegation comprising GTF, British Tamil Forum (BTF) and Tamils against Genocide (TAG) for a meeting at No 10 Downing Street before he left for CHOGM 2013 via New Delhi. PM Cameron, Foreign Secretary Hague and the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Hugo Swire used the Colombo gathering to lambast Sri Lanka over accountability issues. Interestingly, Swire met senior representatives of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch last Thursday in London where he reiterated the UK’s commitment to ensure Sri Lanka addressed accountability issues. The meeting took place 24 hours before PIL and ECCHR handed over their findings on British atrocities in Iraq. It was minister Swire who lambasted Sri Lanka at the final session of the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) held at Chaaya Tranz, Hikkaduwa last November. Addressing the gathering on the invitation of the Commonwealth after Sri Lanka opposed a move to bring in Canadian MP Deepak Obhrai, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Human Rights, Swire reiterated allegations of human rights violations and abuses during the war as well as during the post-war period, while blaming the government for its failure to implement the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
The UK based Diaspora had cleverly manipulated the Conservatives, Labour as well as Liberal Democrats to their advantage. Fearing Tamil voters could deprive them of several crucial electorates, some UK politicians had gone out of their way to appease the Tamil community. In fact, former Labour minister Joan Ryan had ended up as a GTF policy advisor. With the British general election next year, the Geneva sessions in 2014 are expected to become platforms for British attacks on Sri Lanka. Although Canada is not a member of the UNHRC, all major Canadian political parties are expected to send senior representatives for ‘side events’ in Geneva coming March. It would be important to realise that the British had been far more hostile towards Sri Lanka than the US, though the latter moved a resolution targeting Sri Lanka at the last Geneva sessions. Although a reluctant India too, had to throw its weight behind the US-led resolution, the British fired the first salvo targeting Sri Lanka at the Geneva session. The British statement went to the extent of calling for a regime change in Sri Lanka. On behalf of the Conservatives-led UK coalition, the Foreign Office Minister responsible for the human rights portfolio, Jeremy Browne, called for UN intervention in Sri Lanka to ‘SUPPORT CHANGE’ in Sri Lanka. Browne said: "We, as UN member states, must take our human rights obligations seriously, and where states fail, the institutions of the UN should act and support change. Such actions are what makes the council an effective human rights body, able to scrutinise states’ compliance with their obligations and offer technical assistance," ( UK for IN intervention to ‘support change" in SL with strap line UNHRC chief pushes for new mechanism to tackle uncooperative governments-The Island of Feb 28, 2012).