Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) mandarins play the long game, and, as a matter of policy doctrine believe credible domestic inquiries of war crimes and crimes against humanity provide more durable solutions than those externally imposed.
For this reason, and, the improbability of securing a majority in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a resolution establishing an independent international inquiry that they continue to press for the implementation of the “constructive” recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Report (LLRC).
This is despite being scathing about Sri Lanka’s wanton failure to investigate human rights violations and acknowledging it plays a game of “brinkmanship” in managing its international relations.
According to a senior official “The challenge now is to try to get the Sri Lankan Government to put as much effort into implementation of the LLRC recommendations as they did into trying to defeat the resolution”. Experienced Sri Lanka watchers may call this misplaced faith. However, in the hard-nosed pursuit of British interests they will use every tool in their inventory to achieve their objectives. And, in Sri Lanka’s case a key element to this is the implementation of the LLRC’s recommendations.
Canada’s threat to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be hosted by Sri Lanka in 2013 has been overt. The UKs position is veiled and is illustrated by the answer to a question in the House of Lords from the former leader of the Liberal Democrats Lord Steel of Aikwood, i.e.
“To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of the television programme ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ broadcast on 14 March concerning the treatment of Tamils, they will oppose Sri Lanka being host to the scheduled Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting”.
The Minister of State, FCO (Lord Howell of Guildford):
“Once again, Channel 4 has brought to international attention important and disturbing evidence to support allegations of grave abuses in Sri Lanka. The UK will urge the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a resolution which calls on Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and meet its international obligations to investigate allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
The UK believes that the host of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting should uphold the Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights. We will look to Sri Lanka to demonstrate its commitment to these values, both now, and in the run up to 2013. A key part of this will be to address longstanding issues around accountability and reconciliation after the war”.
You can draw your own conclusions on the message that lies between the lines.
The resolution that was passed in Geneva was driven by the United States. It is not obvious that this was the preferred route of the FCO. However, when the Hon. Alistair Burt, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the FCO chose to extend Her Majesty’s Government’s support to it at the Westminster Hall debate on Sri Lanka held prior to the 19th session of the UNHRC, every sinew of FCO muscle was exercised in ensuring it was carried successfully.
In the words of a senior FCO mandarin “This was a genuinely significant achievement for the US, requiring support from many quarters. Our contribution required a huge and sustained lobbying effort across the FCO network of posts to secure support for the resolution. We now need to focus on implementation”.
The resolution has a ticking clock embedded in it and Sri Lanka’s compliance will be measured against this. If its policy makers fail to satisfy its conditions by drawing “a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps that the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations made in the Commission’s report” look forward to a busy “Human Rights Council at its twenty-second session”.
Of course, all this was done at a point in the electoral cycle where the impact of political activism on policy outcomes is at its lowest ebb; that is, early in the life of a parliament. Unlike in Sri Lanka, FCO ministers do not indulge in the habit of overruling the advice they receive from their mandarins. Although, the propensity to do so increases once we cross the mid-term of one.
There now exists a view among all mainstream parties in the United Kingdom that, barring colossal political blundering, the time of securing outright majorities in the House of Commons through generic campaigns has elapsed; and, that they now need to engage with ‘vote blocs’.
British Tamils constitute the largest single issue vote bloc in southern England. While, ministers would have been cognisant of their sentiments in determining FCO policy with respect to Sri Lanka this year; they will yield to their call for an independent international inquiry next year if Sri Lanka fails to “expeditiously as possible…address alleged violations of international law”.
Of course the above analysis is silent on FCO ministers taking principled positions on matters of policy. However, the incumbent coalition government is deeply wedded to libertarian values –just ask Colonel Gaddafi.
This article penned by someone familiar with the goings on inside the British foreign and Commonwealth office to provide an insight into the “Sri Lanka File” against the backdrop of the UNHRC resolution in Geneva