By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Less than six months after the controversial Brexit referendum resulting in the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister, another storm is brewing in Britain on the vexed issue of investigation of British soldiers accused of human rights violations which may turn out to be war crimes, during their tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anger among the public and in some quarters in the political leadership seems to be on the rise against what is believed to be the ‘hounding’ of British soldiers, 13 years after the conflict.
Investigation mechanisms were initially set up in 2010 under Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labor government under pressure from Human Rights organizations. Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) was tasked with investigating around 1500 allegations of abuse in Iraq and Operation Northmoor of around 550 allegations of abuse in Afghanistan. Yet another mechanism, Iraq Fatality Investigations (IFI) was set up by the British government after the European Court of Human Rights decreed that previous investigations had breached procedural rules laid down by the European Convention on Human Rights. It is commonly believed these investigative mechanisms were set up not out of concern for abused Iraqi and Afghan civilians. This option was considered preferable to the prospect of British soldiers being dragged through the International Criminal Court (ICC) which Tony Blair ratified in 1998 long before Britain invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. A private law firm, Public Interest Lawyers, who represented almost all the Iraqi abuse claimants, folded operations in the summer after being stripped of legal aid by the British government due to claims of irregularities in its work. Meanwhile, serious reservations are being expressed of the risk of witnesses being unable to recall events accurately, in view of the time lapse since the alleged abuses. It is also feared some complaints may be trumped up solely for purpose of compensation.
“I do not think this process should ever have been put in place. I am very sorry that our soldiers and their families have been put through this ordeal. It is wrong to put them through the ordeal of a criminal investigation for events in a war zone as long as 13 years ago.” – Tony Blair
Some past and present British leaders have publicly voiced their opposition in no uncertain terms. Comments from former Prime Ministers Tony Blair who led Britain to both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who stated “I do not think this process should ever have been put in place” and David Cameron, current Prime Minister Theresa May, Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon and a former soldier and sitting Conservative MP, currently chairing a parliamentary inquiry into treatment of troops have been quoted to impress upon readers of the current mood in the British establishment. The father of a British soldier murdered along with five other colleagues by an Iraqi mob, while accusing the British government of “rank double standards” has stated “We hound our troops but won’t pursue my brave son’s killers”. A leading Sunday publication in a recent editorial comment stated “It is within the Government’s gift to wind down these inquiries – so why do they persist? Does the government believe this is the only way to avoid an international legal nightmare? If it allows them to continue, however, it risks abandoning Britain’s veterans to a personal nightmare of allegations that revisit the confusion and horror of war. It is a disgraceful way to treat veterans”.
“It’s clear that there is now an industry trying to profit from spurious claims lodged against our brave servicemen and women. It’s unacceptable and no way to treat the people who risk their lives to keep our country safe.” – David Cameron
The need for crimes committed by both soldiers and civilians to be investigated and those convicted to be punished, is a fundamental necessity in any civilized society. That said, the ever widening deficit in the sphere of rule of law in Sri Lanka is an undisputed fact. The 1983 pogroms against the Tamil community and the absence of a credible investigation to establish culpability and mete out justice even after thirty-three years stands to Sri Lanka’s eternal shame. Similarly, the Sri Lankan government in office from 2005 who single mindedly pushed for a military victory to the conflict as no other government before, failed miserably to address issues of misconduct by individual soldiers. The ‘zero causality’ theory was a monumental blunder and a clear sign of the government’s ineptitude and lack of sophistication in handling such matters.
“What we do need to make sure is that there isn’t an industry of vexation allegations coming forward. I think measures have been taken.” – Theresa May
The common factor in the current developments in UK and Sri Lanka lies in the fact they involve the investigation of the conduct of members of its respective armed forces. However, whereas what is under investigation in UK are alleged crimes committed by British soldiers which may amount to war crimes, post Afghan and Iraq invasions, Sri Lankan soldiers may be investigated for alleged war crimes during the final months of the conflict. Therein lies a fundamental difference. British forces were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq based on perceived terrorist threats to UK, yet to be substantiated more than a decade after the invasions. For all intent and purposes, they were invasions of two sovereign nations. Sri Lanka’s armed forces were deployed within Sri Lanka to defeat a secessionist group with the stated objective of carving out a separate state. Every soldier undertakes to uphold the territorial integrity of the nation when joining its armed forces, the world over.
“We don’t need these ambulance-chasing British law firms. It is not only extremely expensive but it inhibits the operational effective ness of our troops because they start to worry about whether they will end up in a court or not.” – Sir Michael Fallon
No special narrative is required of the attitude of successive British governments and its leaders towards Sri Lanka on the subject of the twenty-six years old ethnic conflict. Motivated by electoral benefits to be derived from a Tamil diaspora voter base rather than professed concerns for Human Rights of the Tamil community, British politicians adopted an anti Sri Lankan stance. Former Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to haul Sri Lanka before the UNHRC on Human Rights abuse issues before USA finally took the lead, ably supported by UK and EU nations. The likes of former Minister of State at the F&CO Hugo Swire has paid numerous visits to Sri Lanka since January 2015 praising President Sirisena for his “government’s commitment in tackling the legacy of Sri Lanka’s conflict” Special mention is necessary of the infamous visit by former Prime Minister David Cameron who visited Sri Lanka to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2013 and conducted himself in a manner unbefitting of a Head of Government. He visited Jaffna, was compared to ‘God’ by its naïve inhabitants and had photos sessions with IDPs which were widely publicized around the world. Upon his return to UK, he informed British MPs his “visit had succeeded in raising awareness of human rights issues.” “I chose to go, to stand up for our values and do all I could to advance them. That was, I believe, the right decision for the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka and for Britain.” This messiah who visited Afghanistan and Iraq on numerous occasions after Britain ‘liberated’ both countries would not step outside military compounds. Within military compounds, he moved around wearing a bullet proof vest and a ring of soldiers around him. Not a single photo is available of David Cameron with IDPs in Iraq and Afghanistan whom his country ‘liberated’ together with USA. The enlightened IDPs in Afghanistan and Iraq did not equate him to ‘God’ as was the case in Jaffna.
“We cannot ask our fighting troops to adhere to European human rights law, which was designed in good faith for civilian life in Europe. Prime Minister Theresa May needs to grasp that our attitude towards looking after this Afghanistan/Iraq generation of servicemen and women will define this nation’s relationship with its military for the next 50 years.” – Johnny Mercer
The relevance of current developments in UK to Sri Lanka is the attitude of British leaders. Some past and present leaders are beginning to speak out openly against the investigations. Some others are yet to show their hand but have not publicly supported the investigations either. It is a far cry from views expressed by our current leadership. There is no shortage in their kowtowing, may it be at the UNHRC in Geneva, in foreign capitals or to foreign leaders now regularly visiting Sri Lanka to supervise progress on accountability issues amongst other things. These visiting foreign leaders all profess to be champions of Human Rights. However, it is said, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it.’ The supreme test is the manner these foreign interventionists respond, when faced with such issues as accountability, Human Rights etc. in their own countries. The report on ‘Bloody Sunday’ which took place in Londonderry in 1972 took 40 years to be published and did not result in the prosecution of a single British soldier. Tony Blair states “investigations should never have been put in place”. David Cameron opines “investigations are unacceptable and no way to treat the people who risk their lives to keep our country safe” (‘values’ spoken of after his CHOGM visit appears to have been dumped). Defense Secretary Fallon feels investigations “inhibits the operational effectiveness of our troops because they start to worry about whether they will end up in a court or not”. Words of former soldier and current MP Johnny Mercer “our attitude towards looking after this Afghanistan/Iraq generation of servicemen and women will define this nation’s relationship with its military for the next 50 years” has much merit. These views are all diametrically opposed to those communicated by the British government as well as the US, EU governments, the UNHRC Prince in Geneva and outgoing Secretary General in New York to Sri Lanka and its leaders, on war crimes issues.
Sri Lanka would have disintegrated during the two JVP insurrections in 1971 and 1987/9 as well as during LTTE terrorism from 1983 till 2009, if not for its valiant armed and Police forces.
Terrorist bombs went off in New York days before President Sirisena delivered his ten minute or so speech at the recently concluded UN General Assembly. Regrettably, he overlooked to devote one sentence to state, Sri Lanka unlike New York, was now devoid of terrorist bombs due to our valiant soldiers and Policemen.
It is hoped our leaders, not forgetting Sri Lanka’s liberal apologists and NGO dependents will take note, views expressed by Blair, Cameron, Fellon, Mercer and many others are as much applicable to Sri Lankan soldiers in as much to British soldiers. It cannot and should not be otherwise.