Truth telling and distorting the truth – a response to British High Commissioner
Posted on December 31st, 2017

by Rajeewa Jayaweera Courtesy The Island

The British High Commissioner (HC), in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Island published on December 17, referring to Sri Lanka’s war stated; “Getting distracted by arguments about the numbers during or in the immediate aftermath of the end of a near three-decade war between the Sri Lankan security forces and separatist LTTE could easily distort the truth”

The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, one-time Commissar of Munitions once said, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Quoting Stalin after amending ‘millions’ to ‘thousands,’ the HC complimented the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government for allocating a significant amount of money in the latest budget to fund the work of Office of Missing Persons (OMP).

Even though not explicitly stated, it is apparent that, recent revelations by British peer, Lord Naseby, have prompted the HC’s remarks. Given the moral high ground taken by HC, it would be appropriate to seek clarification on a few issues.

This writer personally perused the 39 pages of highly redacted dispatches by former British Defense Attaché in Colombo, Lt. Col. Anton Gash. This mid-level diplomat had developed contacts with very senior Sri Lankan military officials. In fact, one report had been filed the morning after he had ‘supper’ with such an official. Notwithstanding the redaction of the identity of the Sri Lankan officer and contents of their discussion, the unredacted parts of the dispatch indicates Gash seems to have penetrated the Sri Lankan military high command at a very senior level. Since his assignment in Colombo, he has held the posts of Defense Advisor in Ghana, Operations, Policy, and Concepts Staff Officer at the UK Representation office in the EU and Plans Officer MINUSMA (UN Military Force in Mali). Gash is currently Defense Advisor Caribbean. Despite the British government’s lack of faith in his dispatches, he does not seem to be in ‘professional cold storage.’ Even though his dispatches have been disregarded, his professional standing seems intact.

Given that the UK together with the US were the chief proponents of Resolution 30/1, could the HC clarify reasons for his government’s failure to assist members of the Panel of Experts (PoE) by turning over relevant material in its possession including confidential dispatches from its staff in Colombo for scrutiny? Did such material contradict British and western agenda for Sri Lanka?

During the conflict years, questions related to LTTE atrocities raised in the UK were met with the standard response; “No British laws were violated by them.” Australian born Adele Anne Balasingham nee Wilby, former leader of LTTE Women’s Wing responsible for recruiting and training child soldiers and spouse of one-time LTTE theoretician and political advisor Anton Balasingham, now lives in retirement in the UK. She is currently a British citizen. Would Britain’s envoy enlighten us Sri Lankans on why and for what reasons Britain has failed to prosecute Ms. Balasingham despite the fact that recruiting and training child soldiers is a violation of both British and international law? Is it the British government’s policy to demand accountability from Sri Lankan soldiers while protecting senior LTTE terrorists living in the UK?

Around 15 months ago, a furor erupted in the UK over investigations of atrocities committed by British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown set up two mechanisms, namely Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) and Iraq Fatality Investigations (IFI) to investigate 1,500 and 550 allegations in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively. The European Court of Human Rights had decreed that previous investigations had breached procedural rules laid down by the European Convention on Human Rights. These investigative mechanisms were set up not out of concern for abused Iraqi and Afghan civilians. Britain considered this option preferable to the prospect of dragging British soldiers through the International Criminal Court (ICC) which Tony Blair ratified in 1998, long before Britain invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Primary British fears were: given the time lapse since the alleged abuses, the risk of witnesses being unable to recall events accurately and trumped up complaints solely for purpose of compensation.

Such concerns did not apply to more than 2,500 witnesses who made over 4,000 submissions to the PoE. The submissions were an integral part of the Geneva Resolution.

During the height of the furor, former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron condemned the Ihat and IFI investigations stating; “it is no way to treat the people who risk their lives to keep our country safe.” Then Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon stated; “It inhibits the operational effectiveness of our troops because they start to worry about whether they will end up in a court or not.” Fallon closed Ihat investigation before the initially scheduled time frame of June 30, 2017.

One is at a loss to understand how British troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq were keeping Britain safe as claimed by the two ex-Prime Ministers. They were involved in operations taking place thousands of miles away from Britain in a campaign based on falsified intelligence reports and not in defending the territorial integrity of Britain, as was the case with Sri Lankan soldiers.

Notwithstanding denials by the British establishment, chief prosecutor at the ICC in The Hague, Fatou Bensouda, on December 04, in a 74-page report delivered in New York has declared there is a “reasonable basis” to believe that UK soldiers committed war crimes against detainees during the Iraq conflict. In her conclusion on the long-running inquiry into the role of British troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2008, Bensouda said: “The prosecutor’s office has reached the conclusion that there is a reasonable basis to believe that members of the UK armed forces committed war crimes within the jurisdiction of the court against persons in their custody.” Bensouda does, however, dismiss allegations that British troops committed any war crimes on the battlefield.

Even though British defense officials have previously claimed “We are confident that our existing efforts to investigate allegations preclude the need for an investigation by the ICC,” the latest ICC report indicates, Britain obviously lacks the capacity to conduct a credible investigation when it involves its own soldiers. As such, would Britain agree to an investigation by a PoE similar to that convened to investigate Sri Lanka?

The HC has referred to tragedies. Therefore, it would be appropriate to briefly examine the tragedy faced by the people of Diego Garcia (Chagossians), an atoll just south of the equator in the central Indian Ocean, and the largest of 60 small islands comprising the Chagos Archipelago. Diego Garcia became a colony of the UK after the Napoleonic Wars as part of the Treaty of Paris (1814), and from 1814 to 1965, it was administered by the Colony of Mauritius. In 1965, it was detached and included in the newly created British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). In the early 1960s, UK agreed to permit the US to establish a naval communication station on one of its island territories. Diego Garcia was the selected location. In December 1966, the US and the UK executed an agreement through an Exchange of Notes which permitted the US to use the BIOT for defense purposes for 50 years until December 2016, followed by a 20-year extension (to 2036) without a monetary payment. However, the UK received a USD 14 million discount from the US on the acquisition of submarine-launched ballistic missile system, Polaris missiles. Between 1968 and 1973, Plantations in Diego Garcia, the sole livelihood of the Chagossians were closed to satisfy the US requirement of an uninhabited island. The British government deported 426 families, numbering 1,151 Chagossians to Mauritius and Seychelles with no right of return. According to Wikileaks CableGate documents (reference ID “09LONDON1156”), in a calculated move planned in 2009, the UK proposed that the BIOT become a “marine reserve” with the aim of preventing the former inhabitants from returning to their lands.

Since the HC laments of tragedies and distortion of the truth, what is Britain’s take on the enforced exile of 1,151 people from their homeland? How does Britain reconcile the forcible eviction of an entire populace of an island with International Human Rights, Humanitarian or any other laws it claims to uphold?

As ‘truth-telling’ in the Sri Lankan context is a major concern for Britain, could its envoy in Colombo enlighten us Sri Lankans with the unvarnished truth without distortions, on the few issues raised?

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