17 Dec 2010

Defence secretary cancels planned private trip to Sri Lanka

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

As Dr Liam Fox calls off a controversial visit to Sri Lanka, Jonathan Miller looks at claims the defence secretary recently discussed “investment opportunities” in the country accused of war crimes.

Dr Liam Fox and Mahinda Rajapaksa

The British Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, has cancelled his private visit to Sri Lanka planned for this weekend in the face of mounting criticism over the mixed messages it would send to a government under the shadow of war crimes allegations.

A spokesman at the Ministry of Defence told Channel 4 News that: “Dr Fox has postponed his private visit to Sri Lanka due to an extension to his scheduled official visit to the Gulf.

“He intends to carry out an official visit to Sri Lanka next year during which he proposes to fulfil the speaking engagement that he had planned,” the statement said.

Responding to the announcement, Shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper said: “Chaotic diplomacy like this does no good for the Government’s standing on such a significant issue. It also raises serious questions about the Defence Secretary’s judgement.”

The postponement of the trip coincides with growing international clamour for an independent, impartial investigation into persistent allegations of war crimes committed by Sri Lankan forces in the final weeks of the civil war last year in which up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed.

Sri Lanka’s own tribunal set up to investigate these allegations is widely considered inadequately impartial. Sri Lanka has refused to allow an independent international inquiry.

Dr Fox, who has had close relations with successive Sri Lankan governments for more than a decade, had been due to deliver a memorial lecture at the invitation of the widow of a former foreign minister, killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam five years ago.

The Defence Secretary made five trips to Sri Lanka in the past three years, all while in opposition. Each trip was paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

On 2nd December, the Defence Secretary held a private meeting with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in London’s Dorchester Hotel, while he was on a private visit to Britain. The visit was aborted when a Tamil pressure group sought the arrest of one his entourage on war crimes charges.

The meeting was portrayed by the Sri Lankan government as a diplomatic coup on its official websites, which displayed prominent pictures of the President and Dr Fox warmly shaking hands.

Among matters reportedly discussed between the two were investment opportunities in the north of the island, where many of the alleged atrocities took place.

Every member of the British government should be pressing consistently for the independent war crimes investigation Sri Lanka needs, Yvette Cooper, Shadow Foreign Secretary

“What on earth has he been doing holding ‘private’ meetings with the Sri Lankan President while refusing to say if he has pressed for the war crimes investigation we need or supported the Foreign Secretary’s position?” Shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper told Channel 4 News.

Private visit

In a statement received before news broke that Dr Fox’s visit had been postponed, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told us: “Britain’s policy towards Sri Lanka is clear. We have consistently called for a credible, independent and transparent investigation into allegations of violations of human rights and humanitarian law.”

“These allegations,” the statement continued, “will haunt the country for many years to come and will hinder much needed reconciliation between the communities, unless there is an honest process of accountability for the past.”

The statement repeatedly stressed that it was to be a private visit, not an official one. Privately, officials denied a widely reported rift between the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Dr Fox.

“William Hague must be spitting mad,” said Shadow Foreign Secretary, Yvette Cooper. “This is a sensitive area of foreign policy. Who is in charge of policy on Sri Lanka, the Foreign Secretary or the Defence Secretary? Every member of the British government should be pressing consistently for the independent war crimes investigation Sri Lanka needs.”

She said there should be no mixed messages on what she called “an issue of such important humanitarian concern.”

“Governments across the world need to keep up consistent and determined pressure for the Sri Lankan government to agree to an internationally backed investigation,” she said. “Evidence of summary executions and civilians being used as human shields has never been properly investigated.”

UN investigation

Channel 4 News has learned that the UN Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka, set up by the Secretary General to make a recommendation on whether there should be an international investigation into alleged war crimes, has extended the deadline for submissions of evidence.

Thursday 16th December was to have been the deadline, but the Chief of Staff of the UN Expert Panel said it had been extended until 31st December.

“The Panel is able to extend the deadline in order to maximise the opportunity for people to approach it,” said Richard Bennett. He added that there had been reports that some of those wishing to submit evidence had had difficulty accessing the UN website.

Channel 4 News has sent video evidence to the Panel, including the execution video footage which appears to depict Sri Lankan soldiers executing bound and blindfolded, naked prisoners. Last week the programme broadcast a newly obtained longer version of this footage and dated the massacre to 18th or 19th May last year.

Read more in the Channel 4 News Sri Lanka special report