Cameron in Sri Lanka: words not deeds

The recent statements by Britain’s prime minister have raised the hopes of sections of the Tamil community around the world. And it is true that, under immense pressure from a series of protests, culminating in Friday’s protest outside Downing Street organised by Tamil Solidarity, David Cameron has been forced into a number of verbal u-turns on the issue of Tamil rights.

This shows how important it is to keep the pressure up. It shows how collective action by the community, linked to their natural allies in the trade unions and alongside other campaigners can bring results.
It also shows that we need to continue to build the campaign into a mass movement to force through change.

Clearly, any shift by the government, any statement of support for the Tamils is to be welcomed. We have to be cautious, however. It would be a big mistake to believe that the victory has been won.
Before Cameron and his crew went to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm), he was not talking about war crimes allegations in Sri Lanka. Only the mounting pressure of the protests, as well as the broadcasting of Callum Macrae’s Channel 4 documentary, No Fire Zone, compelled Cameron to speak of ‘shining a light on human rights abuses’.

Even then, he countered that by saying that Sri Lanka was taking steps towards reconciliation, even citing as evidence the elections in the north, even though these were held in a climate of harsh repression and intimidation.

Tamil Solidarity rightly criticised the prime minister for fine words backed by no action. We criticised the fact that, although he called for an ‘independent inquiry’, he did not say what he would do if the Rajapaksa regime did not conduct one.

When pressed, Cameron eventually agreed that an international inquiry should be held but, again, did not say how the regime would be made to implement it, or what the timescale should be.

At the end of Chogm, as the pressure from the protests mounted ever higher, Cameron set a four-month deadline for Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war crimes. If that did not happen, he said he would ask the United Nations for an international investigation. That was a significant shift, a significant climb-down on Cameron’s part.

Nonetheless, Tamil Solidarity has consistently warned against believing the words of establishment politicians as they shift from one position to another in order to serve their own short-term interests. We are repeating that warning today.

It is clear that the Rajapaksa regime will not organise an ‘independent’ investigation into war crimes allegations. Mahinda said so himself, and so have a number of his regime cronies.
That raises the question: what will Cameron do in March? And, if he goes to the UN for an ‘independent international’ investigation by the Human Rights Council (UNHRC), how far will that get?
In reality, Cameron is playing to the gallery. It is a show put on to try and maintain a Tory Party base in the Tamil community ahead of important local elections next year.

Cameron knows full well that the UNHRC will not back a genuinely independent inquiry. If people think that is being too critical, we only have to consider the fact that the council’s members include repressive regimes such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
That is why Tamil Solidarity calls for a genuinely independent inquiry. That means it would have to include elected representatives of the Tamil communities in the north and east of Sri Lanka, alongside representatives from the workers’ organisations, which are not based on narrow sectarian, ethnic/religious lines.
If international assistance were required, the emphasis again should be on representatives free of vested interests. We all know, for instance, that any delegations representing the governments of India or China would be bound to reflect their state’s regional interests. The same goes for the US, Britain or any other power for that matter.
Delegations from the trade unions in Britain and other countries, on the other hand, would not have such narrow interests and could assist in a genuinely independent way as representatives of working people. The human rights organisations which have members in Sri Lanka could also provide very valuable assistance to any such inquiry.

In spite of this, it might be that some people still believe that Tamil Solidarity is being too hard on Cameron’s Con-Dem coalition government. If that is so, we will point out that, in the days before Chogm, the Commonwealth Business Forum was held in Sri Lanka.
The Huffington Post reported (14 November) that the British delegation was the largest at the forum. RBS, HSBC and Standard Chartered banks were represented, alongside Anglo-American (mining), and BT (telecoms).

They were joined by big donors to the Tory Party. These included JCB (construction), which has donated over £1.4 million to the Tories since the 2010 general election – and whose boss, Sir Anthony Bamford, was made a Tory peer in August. Lycamobile (telecoms) was also there. It has donated £426,292 to the Tories since 2011.
Prime minister David Cameron was represented at the forum by his trade envoy, Lord Marland.

Clearly, it is complete hypocrisy to criticise a regime in front of the cameras, while doing business with it behind the scenes. This is especially true given that the Rajapaksa family gang control so much of the Sri Lankan economy. Just one example being that the chairman of Sri Lankan Airlines is Nishantha Wickramsinghe, the president’s brother-in-law.

By the way, the day after Chogm, Cameron he flew to the Gulf Air Show in the United Arab Emirates, and a dinner at the crown prince of Abu Dhabi’s palace. The main talking point? Selling Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets to the repressive regime of the UAE. The jets are made by a consortium including Britain’s BAE Systems.

So, before we cheer too loudly, we need to bear these things in mind. Let’s not forget the huge amounts of weaponry and military equipment Britain supplies to Saudi Arabia. Or the recent high-level trade mission to China (which has huge port and infrastructure developments in Sri Lanka).

How much pressure is Cameron really prepared to put on these members of the UNHRC to push through a war crimes investigation?

Manny Thain
Tamil Solidarity joint national secretary