Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Relevance of British concern about accusations against UK war veterans




By Shamindra Ferdinando

HMS Defender arrived, in Colombo, on January 30, on a brief visit. The Type 45 Destroyer left on the following day. The British High Commission asserted that the naval visit, the first in four years, signified developing defence relations between the two countries, since the conclusion of the conflict, in May, 2009.

The warship is on a nine-month deployment in the Middle East, and it’s her second assignment. It would be interesting to know whether HMS Defender had been scheduled to visit Colombo when it left Portsmouth in late Oct last year.

Having failed, in April, 2009, to thwart the final phase of the Vanni offensive, the UK withdrew its military representative in Colombo.

At the Feb-March, 2012, session at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the UK called for regime change in Sri Lanka.

Jeremy Browne, MP, the UK’s Foreign Office Minister, responsible for the human rights portfolio, emphasized the responsibility, on the part of the global community, to intervene in Sri Lanka unless the government addressed accountability issues. The Liberal Democrat member, Browne, called for UN intervention to support a change in Sri Lanka.

Browne said: "We, as UN member states, must take seriously our human rights obligations and, where states fail, the institutions of the UN should act and support change. Such actions are what make the Council an effective human rights body, able to scrutinize states’ compliance with their obligations and offer technical assistance" (UK for UN intervention to ‘support change’ in Sri Lanka, with strap line, UNHRC chief pushes for new mechanism to tackle uncooperative government - The Island Feb 28, 2012).

The British response had been based on extremely serious, but yet unsubstantiated allegations, pertaining to battlefield atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan military on the Vanni front. The British, as well as the abiding Canadian interest, in the issue, should be examined against the backdrop of electoral reasons. Large electorates of British and Canadian nationals, of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, had compelled successive governments to appease them.

Having abundantly vilified the Sri Lankan military, on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations, pertaining to wartime atrocities, the UK recently expressed serious concern over trumped-up charges of human rights violations being directed at the British military.

The British played a pivotal role in having an external inquiry into accountability issues in Sri Lanka. On the basis of that inquiry, supervised by British national, Ms Sandra Beidas, Western powers, with the overwhelming approval expressed by Sri Lanka, adopted a Resolution moved in Geneva, on Oct 1, last year. Being a member of the 47-nation United Nations Human Rights Council, the UK, too, backed the Resolution 25/1. It would be pertinent to mention that the entire process, leading to the Oct.1 Resolution, had been based on claims that hadn’t been verified. The issue of confidentiality of sources/eyewitnesses remains a thorny issue. UNSG Ban ki moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) recommendation, pertaining to confidentiality of sources/eyewitnesses for a 20-year period, with effect from the date of the release of the report, remained in force. The recommendation was made in PoE’s report, released on March 31, 2011.

The UK wholly accepted these accusations. Those who had been making stupendous accusations received the blessings of the British political establishment. Recent British claims, of British troops being wrongfully targeted, should be examined, taking into account, a spate of allegations directed at the Sri Lankan military by UK politicians in mind. The UK unflinchingly subscribed to these accusations propagated by influential Tamil Diaspora groups.

British political parties bashed Sri Lanka, in Sept. 2011, during a debate in the House of Commons on the subject of human rights in the Indian sub-continent. Recently, the British media reported that UK Prime Minister David Cameron had been deeply concerned over the possibility of Iraq war veterans being prosecuted on the basis of ‘fabricated’ or ‘unjustified’ claims. The media reports had been based on a statement issued by Downing Street. The statement had been issued in the wake lawyers referring, approximately 280 complaints, pertaining to alleged atrocities, to Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT).

No 10 quoted Cameron as having said that he feared that people are being solicited and enticed by lawyers into making accusations. PM Cameron’s spokeswoman had also expressed serious concern over some servicemen having to face repeated inquiries over the same incidents. The official spokeswoman said: "We are deeply concerned about these types of situation."Every false claim that the government has to respond to, investigate and defend, is diverting spending from the front line and from the work that our armed forces do to keep us safe. It is important that the government looks at what it can do to stop these types of scenarios where the claims may be fabricated, or not justified, and to look at how we deliver a better system in the future.

"On the basis of findings made by a top level inquiry, dubbed the Al-Sweady Inquiry, the British media reported allegations that troops executed and mutilated Iraqis in custody were ‘wholly without foundation’, though some of the detention techniques used had amounted to mistreatment." The British media quoted the PM’s spokeswoman as having said: "We are concerned at reports about people being solicited by lawyers to make allegations that – as the Al-Sweady Inquiry showed – can often be fabricated."

British Defence Secretary, Michael Falon, too, castigated what he called ambulance-chasing British law firms for discouraging troops deployed overseas. Falon alleged that troops feared being hauled in front of the courts on their return.

Falon is also on record as having argued that there was "a strong case" for suspending the European human rights law when sending forces into action overseas. The official asserted that their fight against terrorism was being impaired by human rights lawyers.

Fallon attacked ‘ambulance-chasing law firms’ that have brought thousands of cases against the Ministry of Defence over the conduct of British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The British policy towards Sri Lanka can be compared with the UK law firms targeting British troops on overseas missions. Obviously, British law firms pursued such a despicable strategy for monetary gains, whereas British political parties sought to win over growing Tamil electorate. The Conservatives, Labour, as well as Liberal Democrats, had gone out of their way to appease Diaspora groups with the influential Global Tamil Forum (GTF) inaugurating its project in Feb., 2010, in the House of Commons.

Two years later, the GTF hired an expensive law firm, Birnberg Peirce and Partners, to move court in a bid to compel the UK to expel the then Sri Lankan Defence attaché in London, Maj. Gen. Prasanna Silva, over war crimes allegations. Interestingly, the GTF moved court against one of its key benefactors, the then British Foreign Secretary William Hague, for turning a blind eye to its call to declare Silva and his family personae non grata.

The case had been a first of its kind in an overseas court since European countries, and the US, gave sanctuary to those pursuing a separatist agenda in Sri Lanka.

The law firm hire sought a judicial review proceedings against Hague, at the London High Court, against his failure to act against Silva as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Hague had addressed the inaugural meeting of GTF in the UK parliament on February 24th, 2010, along with his predecessor, David Miliband.

The GTF, which operates in 15 countries, is widely believed to be the most influential diaspora grouping, though the self-styled Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), headed by US-based V. Rudrakumaran, too, is active.

Maj. Gen. Silva moved to London in late 2010. A former Special Forces commander, Silva was promoted to the rank of Maj. Gen. at the conclusion of the conflict. The 55 Division, under his command, played a significant role on the Vanni East front, though wasn’t directly involved in the final phase.

On the basis of information provided by the GTF, the British lawyers pressed charges against Hague over the failure on the part of the government to expel Maj. Gen. Silva for atrocities committed during the last five months of the conflict. The GTF claimed that some of those detained, and tortured by Sri Lankan troops, during January-May 2009, were in the UK.

Soon after the conclusion of the conflict, the GTF made an abortive bid to have Maj. Gen. Chagi Gallage, who was accompanying President Mahinda Rajapaksa overseas, detained on war crimes charges.

The UK and Israel too had been at loggerheads over attempts by interested parties to have visiting Israeli military and political leaders detained over unsubstantiated human rights violations.

Foreign Secretary Hague had also been targeted by human rights crusaders alleging complicity in the US drone strikes directed against targets in Pakistan.

British political parties competed with each other to appease Diaspora groups for political reasons. No less a person than the then British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, had admitted the administration playing politics with Sri Lanka for domestic political reasons. Thanks to disgraced US soldier, Bradley Manning, who had been sentenced, in 2013, to 35 years in prison for releasing hundreds of thousands of classified US documents, the British political project came to light. In spite of that various British politicians continue to preach their values.

The soldier, in his mid-twenties, was convicted, in July, 2013 of leaking more than 700,000 classified documents and video. The disclosures amounted to the biggest leak in history. Many documents dealt with the wartime situation in Sri Lanka and nothing could reflect the true British interest in the matter than the documents which contained comments attributed to Miliband (now one of the highest paid NGO operatives).

According to Sebastian Shakespeare, of the Daily Mail, Miliband now earns almost three times more than the British prime minister in his role as head of a refugee charity in New York.

Miliband receives $600,000 (£425,000) annually for working a 37-and-a-half hour week as president, and CEO, of the International Rescue Committee,

Miliband waged a high profile diplomatic campaign, targeting Sri Lanka, during 2009. The then British Foreign Secretary’s project had been largely driven by domestic political calculations, according to Tim Waite, identified as British Foreign Office team leader that dealt with wartime Sri Lanka.

A leaked May 2009 cable, from the US embassy in London, quoted the official as having explained Miliband’s intense focus on the issue in terms of UK electoral geography.

"Waite said that much of [Her Majesty’s government] and ministerial attention to Sri Lanka is due to the ‘very vocal’ Tamil diaspora in the UK, numbering over 300,000, who have been protesting in front of parliament since 6 April," Richard Mills, a political officer at the US embassy, reported.

"He (Waite) said that with UK elections on the horizon and many Tamils living in Labour constituencies with slim majorities, the government is paying particular attention to Sri Lanka, with Miliband recently remarking to him that he was spending 60% of his time at the moment on Sri Lanka."

On 4 May 2009, a few days before the US diplomatic cable was sent to Washington, the prime minister’s special envoy for Sri Lanka, Des Browne, was part of a cross-party group allowed in by the Sri Lankan government, which had blocked Browne’s entry for months.

Waite told Mills that Britain would be sustaining its "concerted drive to achieve a fully inclusive political settlement" in Sri Lanka.

British government accusations directed against UK law firms, as well as sordid operations undertaken by various Sri Lankan outfits here, can be studied. Professionals have engaged in lucrative projects The British High Commission recently accused Sri Lankan lawyers of providing false documents to those seeking political asylum. Sri Lankans had sought asylum in developed countries on the basis their lives are in danger in Sri Lanka. They had naturally provided a range of documents to prove their claims and the documents supplied by lawyers had been among them. The British have declined to reveal the names of the offending attorneys-at-law on the basis they didn’t comment on ongoing operational matters. The recent Sunday Times revelation embarrassed the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) prompting the organization to request the British High Commission to reveal the names of those of its members who had provided false documents. The Sunday Times reported how an officer of the British High Commission here wrote to the Home Office in Britain claiming that a vast majority of endorsement documents provided by Sri Lankan attorneys-at-law in support of asylum seekers were "not credible".

This conclusion was drawn after the British High Commission’s Migration Division checked 80 asylum cases referred to it by the Asylum Casework Directorate and Appeals and Litigation in Britain.

Obviously, the British authorities have problems not only with UK law firms but Sri Lankan lawyers, as well.

Since the conclusion of the war, some Sinhalese, after having reached the UK, had sought political asylum there on the basis of their lives being in danger due to their involvement with the LTTE. Can there be anything as shocking as Sinhalese claiming to have being involved with LTTE terror to secure political asylum in the UK. The Island learns that UK lawyers routinely suggest that Sinhalese clients, claiming LTTE link, is advantageous to them. The BASL should investigate accusations made by the British even if the British HC will not release names of the offending attorneys-at-law. Perhaps, the BASL should request the police to initiate an investigation. Those lawyers making false claims here, and in the UK, should be investigated and punitive action taken.