Saturday, 4 August 2018

CHOGM 2013, Naseby revelations and the Paisley affair



By Shamindra Ferdinando 

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) quite rightly suspended lawmaker Ian Paisley pending an internal investigation into the member’s conduct. The DUP, the fifth largest party in the House of Commons, as well as Tory partner, acted swiftly and decisively close on the heels of the House of Commons Committee on Standards found fault with Paisley for violating parliamentary rules over two clandestine luxury trips, received in 2013, at the Sri Lankan taxpayers’ expense.

UK based pro-LTTE lobby has claimed credit for Paisley’s downfall. The ruling UNP laughed with glee demanding a wider probe into other lawmakers bribed by the previous Rajapaksa government.

Northern Ireland-based DUP unanimously accepted the recommendation to suspend Paisley for 30 sittings, beginning Sept 4, 2018. Tories and DUP couldn’t have allowed the Paisley affair to undermine their arrangement in parliament.

In her report, the Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone, found that Paisley breached the rules on paid advocacy – lobbying in return for reward or consideration – by writing to the then Prime Minister David Cameron on March 19, 2014 to lobby against supporting a US led resolution at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on accountability issues in Sri Lanka, after receiving free holidays from Sri Lanka.

On January 1, 2018, Stone took over the Standards Committee, tasked with regulating MPs’ conduct and propriety. Interestingly, the Parliamentary Commissioner is not a lawmaker but chosen by the House of Commons to run the Office for a period of five years.

Belfast headquartered DUP said: "The Officers of the Democratic Unionist Party have considered the report of the House of Commons Committee on Standards on Ian Paisley MP. The party takes this report, and the matters contained within it, very seriously. The party officers have decided to suspend Ian Paisley MP from membership of the party pending further investigation into his conduct. The party does not intend to make any further comment on these matters during the course of the above outlined process."

The Northern Ireland’s largest party, led by Arlene Foster, accidentally, became kingmakers following the 2017 parliamentary polls. Theresa May’s minority Tory government depends on the DUP’s 10- member parliamentary group to remain in power.  The move against Paisley should be examined against the backdrop of an agreement between the Tory government and the DUP to sustain the fragile administration. Under their agreement, the DUP will help thwart possible Opposition efforts to bring down the government. The Tory-DUP agreement comes under pressure at a time the government is fighting for its survival over Brixit vote.

Had the North Antrim MP not been so greedy and was wise enough to be accompanied by only his wife, he could have defended the controversial 2013 decision, at least to some extent. Unfortunately, the politician brazenly exploited Sri Lanka’s plight to travel first class at the latter’s expense twice with his wife and children in March/April and July, 2013, in the run up to the three-day Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in November, 2013, in Colombo. Being a politician, Paisley had absolutely no hesitation in taking advantage of poor Sri Lanka’s struggling to cope up with a massive international onslaught over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. They enjoyed Sri Lanka’s hospitality for 17 days, in five-star hotels, with the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) providing free rides.

Paisley was again paid by Sri Lanka to attend the utterly useless CHOGM-23rd edition, boycotted by the leaders of India, Canada and Mauritius. Actually, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the then External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L Peiris owed an explanation as to what they expected to achieve by squandering Rs 22 mn on a British lawmaker, his wife and children. Obviously, they couldn’t have been unaware that Paisley was certainly not in a position to influence Premier David Cameron who played ball with the LTTE lobby.

Having failed to use wartime US Defence attaché Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith’s June 2011 statement to defend Sri Lanka, the government squandered money on Paisley family. Smith’s statement, made at the first defence seminar, organised by the war-winning Sri Lanka Army, over two years after the conclusion of the conflict could have been efficiently used along with Wiki Leaks revelations. The writer has dealt with Wiki Leaks revelations before on several occasions. The Rajapaksa government cannot absolve itself of the shoddy defence of Sri Lanka and wasting money on UK lawmaker and high profile US PR firms.

The US State Department tried to cover its embarrassment by declaring that Lt. Col. Smith didn’t represent the US at the Lankan military defence seminar. But never disputed what he said. The then government never referred to the US statements. Sri Lanka’s approach certainly helped its opponents. The UK gleefully engaged in Sri Lanka bashing.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee went to the extent of urging Cameron not to attend the three-day Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in November 2013, in Colombo, while Conservative lawmakers were banned from travelling on an all-expenses-paid trip to the summit amidst concern over Sri Lanka’s lobbying activities in the UK.

There were calls from many bodies not to host the summit in Sri Lanka and to boycott the event.

The House of Commons Committee on Standards found fault with Paisley for declaring only his November visit.

It would be pertinent to examine the circumstances under which war-winning Sri Lanka secured the opportunity to hold CHOGM 2013, four years after the successful conclusion of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) whose ideologue Anton Balasingham, a British citizen of Sri Lankan origin, oversaw the high profile terrorism project. The House of Commons turned a blind eye to a terrorist leader’s presence in the UK. Balasingham oversaw Sri Lanka’s destabilization project until he died in the UK in Dec 2006.

It would be interesting to know whether the House of Commons Committee on Standards ever inquired about lawmakers’ relationship with the LTTE/LTTE rump.

A despicable Commonwealth role

 Before examining the relationship between major UK political parties and the LTTE/LTTE rump, let me remind you the Commonwealth accepted Sri Lanka as the 2011 CHOGM venue at the CHOGM 2007 held in Kampala, Uganda. At that time, the Sri Lankan military was struggling on the northern front after having brought the Eastern Province under its control in the previous year. Commonwealth powers, India, the UK, Canada and Australia never expected Sri Lanka to finish off the LTTE by the time Colombo was to hold CHOGM 2011. They, obviously couldn’t stomach Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism. At the CHOGM 2009 in Trinidad and Tobago, a decision was taken to deprive Sri Lanka of CHOGM 2011. Instead, Australia received that opportunity while Sri Lanka was asked to host 2013 CHOGM.

The Rajapaksa administration squandered a massive amount of public funds on a worthless project. A ridiculous attempt was made to deceive the public as regards substantial foreign investments that were expected because of CHOGM 2013. The country should be glad that only Paisley accepted Sri Lanka’s offer to visit the country in return for backing its efforts to thwart the Geneva Resolution. Obviously, Paisley knew that he couldn’t influence Cameron under any circumstances due to political reasons. Thanks to Wiki leaks, the status UK’s relationship with Tamil voters is in the public domain. Wiki leaks revealed no less a person than the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband playing politics with the Sri Lanka issue for political gain. Miliband, in early 2009, won French support to make a hurried intervention in Sri Lanka. Accompanied by his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner, Miliband flew in late April 2009 to force Sri Lanka to stop the offensive.

"Now is the time for the fighting to stop," the media quoted Miliband as having said in Colombo. "Protection of civilians is absolutely paramount in our minds." Miliband never bothered to urge the LTTE to give up massive civilian human shield or immediately surrender to avoid annihilation. The UK didn’t care for civilians. UK political parties were determined to convince Tamil voters that they did their best to save the LTTE. Canadian position at the closing stages of Sri Lanka war was the same. Canada, too, struggled to appease large and influential Tamil electorate that believed until the very end the LTTE could overwhelm the Sri Lankan military.

In fact, Tamil media speculated, in Dec 2008, the LTTE could turnaround the situation in the Vanni region where it was fighting the Army on multiple fronts. Within 10 days, after Tamil media reports, the LTTE fled Kilinochchi, and began retreating towards the Mullaitivu coast.

The UK and Canada led Commonwealth efforts to throw a lifeline to the sinking Tigers. Can they absolve themselves of responsibility for allowing Commonwealth member India to destroy neighbouring Sri Lanka? Commonwealth giants, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand turned a blind eye to Sri Lanka’s plight and never ever intervened on behalf of Sri Lanka. In fact, the UK allowed the LTTE to establish its International Secretariat on British soil though authorities knew the outfit engaged in terrorism. The operation was allowed even after the LTTE assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in May 1993. UK’s love with the LTTE was so much it allowed UK-based terrorist ideologue Balasingham to defend the group in talks with top Norwegian representatives in the wake of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination in August 2006.

Did the House of Commons Committee on Standards ever inquired into why British lawmakers adopted such a friendly posture towards the LTTE?

If the LTTE survived the war in 2009, perhaps Prabhakaran wouldn’t have felt the need for the formation of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) in the UK. The GTF was inaugurated in the House of Commons in February 2010, less than a year after the Sri Lankan military crushed the LTTE conventional military capability. Senior British politicians, representing major political parties, attended the event. Among them were the then Foreign Secretary David Milliband who made an abortive bid to save the LTTE the previous year, Conservative Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague and Liberal Democrats Shadow Foreign Secretary Ed Davey. The unprecedented meeting, in the Gladstone Room of the House of Commons, began at 10am and concluded at 4pm, followed by a reception between 4pm and 6pm at the Terrace Cafeteria where the invitees included a Buddhist monk.

There had been so much rapport between the GTF and some UK lawmakers. When Labour member Joan Ryan (Enfield North) lost her seat at the 2010 general election, the GTF accommodated her as its policy advisor. The LTTE, too, had a British national, of Sri Lankan origin, Anton Balasingham, as its ideologue. Ryan was on the GTF’s payroll until she regained her seat at the 2015 general election. Having entered parliament in 1997, Ryan received considerable media attention in 2006/2007 when she was identified as the MP to make the highest tax claim amounting to 173,161 Sterling pounds in 2006/2007 year. Previous year, she had been the second highest tax claimant.

Siobhain Ann McDonagh also of the British Labour Party politician who has been the people’s representative for Mitcham and Morden since the 1997 general election, in September 2011 declared in parliament that the Sri Lankan military killed 100,000 (40,000 civilians and 60,000 LTTE cadres in 2009 alone). Perhaps the House of Commons Committee on Standards should inquire into whether the MP received any benefit for propagating such lies. McDonagh was proved wrong in 2017 when the UK released a section of British wartime dispatches from Sri Lanka in accordance with Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Turning back on Naseby

 In the wake of the Paisley affair, the UNP called for a wider inquiry into the conduct of British lawmakers. Colombo district UNP MP Mujibur Rahuman alleged in parliament that there were at least five other British MPs who similarly were bribed by the Rajapaksa regime to make statements supportive of it. The MP did not name the five.

Rahuman said Sri Lanka’s then High Commissioner to London, Chris Nonis should be questioned about granting free holidays to Paisley and the then foreign minister G. L. Peiris should also be questioned.

"We wonder if a string of African leaders, who visited the country during the Rajapaksa presidency, were also paid like this."

Sri Lanka parliament devoted substantial time to Paisley’s case which received both print and electronic media coverage. The UNP went on the offensive whereas its partner in parliament, the SLFP, largely remained aloof.

The UNP and the SLFP refrained from taking up sensational revelations pertaining to Sri Lanka’s defence at the UNHRC made by Lord Naseby in the House of Lords in Oct 2017. The former Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot on the basis of wartime dispatches from the British High Commission in Colombo to FCO strongly countered the Geneva Resolution co-sponsored by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in Oct 2015. The UNP steadfastly refused to bring Lord Naseby’s revelations to the notice of the Geneva council comprising 47 countries divided into five groupings.

Instead, treacherous yahapalana leaders pledged to implement the 2015 Resolution. Geneva granted Sri Lanka two more years since March 2017 to fulfill its pledges. The government is yet to take up British wartime dispatches from the Office of Lt. Colonel Anthony Gash, who contradicted bogus accusations as regards the killing of over 40,000 civilians in the final phase of the offensive in May 2009.

Naseby took up the matter with Geneva in the wake of both the UK and Sri Lanka refusing to bring British military dispatches to the attention of the UN body.

When the writer raised the failure on the part of the government to use UK dispatches for Sri Lanka’s defence in Geneva, the then cabinet spokesman Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera reacted angrily. In response to the writer’s query, an irate Jayasekera told the post-cabinet media briefing that there were far more important issues than Geneva. Jayasekera accused the writer of causing unnecessary problems while admitting the cabinet never discussed Naseby revelations.

Jayasekera, who held the sports portfolio at that time, said that Naseby revelations would be used by the government appropriately at the right time, though the cabinet was yet to discuss it. Jayasekera was addressing the media in mid Nov 2017. The government never took it up with Geneva or the UK in spite of the latter continuing to hold vital dispatches which could be used to disprove unsubstantiated Geneva Resolution.

Jayasekera said that they wouldn’t take up issues pursued by The Island the way the newspaper wanted. It had not been taken up by the Cabinet as it was considered not a grave a matter, the minister said. The minister initially asserted that Lord Naseby’s statement wasn’t directly relevant to the Geneva issue.

Paisley’s affair should be examined against the backdrop of Western powers, including the UK withholding vital information which could be useful to establish the circumstances leading to the collapse of the LTTE on the Vanni east front. Thanks to Lord Naseby, the despicable British bid to deprive Geneva of documents that could help ascertain the truth has been revealed. Lord Naseby exposed how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) tried desperately to withhold documents on the pretext of protecting diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka whereas the public exposure would have certainly bring the Geneva Resolution under intense scrutiny.

On the basis of British High Commission dispatches, Naseby estimated that the number of dead at between 7000 and 8000, of which one forth were members of the LTTE. The veteran politician declared that the Sri Lankan leadership never deliberately targeted the Vanni population.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government should explain, without further delay, its reluctance to defend Sri Lanka at Geneva. The UNP should prove that the party is concerned about the failure on the part of House of Commons to inquire into British military dispatches the way it probed Paisley. Of course, the DUP member certainly deserved what he got for exploiting a poor country. Paisley proved that politicians, the world over, are same though there can be exceptions. Sri Lanka proved that there can be governments that supported international action against its own armed forces and did absolutely nothing after the original lies leading to UN action was disputed unintentionally by the accusing countries.