16 Dec 2010

Defence Secretary Liam Fox calls off Sri Lanka trip

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

President Rajapakshe meeting with Defence Secretary Liam Fox.

Dr Fox has cancelled his planned visit to Sri Lanka at the last minute but in a statement to Channel 4 News the defence secretary said it is not because of criticism of the country’s human rights record.

The statement reads: “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.”

Both the government and the Tamil Tigers are accused of war crimes and a UN panel has been gathering evidence on what happened, to assess whether a full international investigation should be held.

Earlier, sources told The Guardian newspaper that the planned trip had made the Foreign Office furious, and it had considered appealing to the prime minister to get it stopped.

Did Fox discuss 'investment opportunities' where alleged atrocities took place? Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Miller writes:
The defence secretary made five trips to Sri Lanka in the past three years - all while in oppostion. 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 private 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 - were many of the alleged atrocities took place.

More from Jonathan Miller's blog

Meeting the President

Dr Fox has links with Sri Lanka from his time as a Foreign Office minister in the 1990s, and met with President Mahinda Rajapakse on his visit to Britain earlier this month.

He was going to Sri Lanka to deliver the Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial lecture, after being invited by the widow of Mr Kadirgamar, the former foreign minister.

Pressure on him over the controversial trip increased this week, when Shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper asked in the House of Commons: “[Hague] will know [Fox] will be meeting the Sri Lankan government … next week. Will he then take the message as a member of the UK government … about the importance of a credible investigation into alleged war crimes, and will he also press for an international element to the investigation?”

Read more in the Channel 4 News Sri Lanka special report
Sri Lanka 'war crimes' video

War crimes

Dr Fox’s visit would have been just days after the final phase of evidence gathering for a UN panel looking into whether an international investigation could be launched over war crimes in Sri Lanka.

They were in the evidence gathering stage until 15 December, when they began compiling their report. The Sri Lankan Government has already established its own inquiry, but it has been much criticised and many believe the only option is an international probe.

The UN panel is now thought to have gathered a great deal of evidence especially photographs and videos. The evidence, such as there is out on the internet, contains many photos and videos seeming to depict or describe sexual violence and killings.

Channel 4 News has sent the latest evidence it has obtained – including a longer version of the original Sri Lanka execution video, broadcast last week, to the panel.

Leading war crimes lawyer Julian Knowles told Channel 4 News the video, and details gathered around it on the potential identity of one of the victims as well as the date and location, was “astonishing evidence”.

Watch the 'war crimes' video obtained by Channel 4 News