Just how should the UK handle Sri Lanka?

9 Dec 2013

The dust has now settled on a tumultuous Commonwealth summit. Typically, meetings between the UK and its former colonies have attracted only mild media interest, with photos of smiling heads of states and talks about how the organisation will continue to benefit its 53 geographically diverse members the norm. With it being held in Sri Lanka this year though, things were never going to be quite as smooth. The island nation has seen the meeting as an opportunity to show their progress since the end of a civil war that tore the island apart for 25 years. However, it has been the way that war came to an end in 2009 and the continued unanswered questions about disappearances and murders of civilians that concerned some Commonwealth leaders in the run up to the summit. With boycotts from Canada and India, the pressure was put on the UK. Should it attend and if so, what should it say? 


Sri Lanka’s answer was blunt - turn up and shut up. The concerns expressed by David Cameron upon landing on the island were immediately attacked, with them declaring “We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka? We are not a colony. We are an independent state.”  They insisted that the UK should respect Sri Lanka and not meddle in their domestic affairs, especially given Britain’s own murky record. But while historic abuses under the British Empire are clearly wrong, the UK was never going to let them off the hook for more recent atrocities.  Nor should they. For while Sri Lanka is an independent nation, it has also freely decided to be in the Commonwealth. This gives them benefits, such as better trade terms and the prestige of inviting major world actors to their nation. But the Commonwealth has always strived to be more, and has insisted that perks of membership come with conditions, chiefly the upholding of human rights. Anyone needing proof needs only to look at the expulsion of Zimbabwe and Fiji. So while Sri Lanka is not a colonial outpost, if it wants to be in this club, it needs to play by the rules. 

It’s right then for the UK to challenge Sri Lanka, but how best to make its case? Labour’s argument was to boycott the event and support a suspension of the country’s two-year chairmanship of the Commonwealth. The strength of this? Well it would certainly have made clear that the UK intends to act tough over Sri Lanka’s refusal to allow international organisations to investigate human rights abuses. Combining the views of the UK, the nation which binds the Commonwealth together, with influential members like Canada and India could also have brought rewards. It would have given the arguments a more united feel and may have helped bring together concerns into one shared voice rather than the image of the UK drowning out others. The unity could also have had pragmatic as well as symbolic importance, for if the UK sought a suspension of Sri Lanka’s chairmanship, something Cameron is still open to, it would need the support of others- as removal is a consensual decision. Yet the government did not do this, insisting the UK could use its attendance to deliver a message similar to those opposing the conference, but more powerfully. Cameron too described Labour’s approach as “rank hypocrisy” as it was their decision when in government to agree to the meeting’s location.

Instead, the UK attended, but not in the manner Sri Lanka had hoped. As well as calling for an international enquiry whilst in the country, the Prime Minister also visited the Tamil region, the first head of state to do so since 1948. It was a brave move and there are concerns over what will happen to those who told him their stories. The government’s argument was that attendance was right if done in this way, as it gave a voice to a Tamil community whose views have often gone unnoticed. The Tamils certainly appreciated the visit, the locals showering him with a level of praise he would be hard pushed to find in the UK. They undoubtedly saw his arrival as a broadcast of their plight to a global audience, which has not finished just because the war has. Attendance in this manner meant the UK sent a clear, robust and powerful message, but while it is true that a boycott may also have done this, could it have matched this approach’s emotional intensity? 

So was there a right way for the UK to handle Sri Lanka’s conference? Well, like most foreign policy decisions, both moves had potential merits but also consequences. A boycott may have united the UK’s position with other Commonwealth members; but would it have delivered the symbolic importance of the Tamil meeting? Ultimately, proof lies in results, and what happens when the media rolls on. So far, there has been little inclination for change, with Sri Lanka defiant in their determination to leave the past where it is. Despite the arguments between the external parties, the differences in style belie the important point that ultimately their message is the same – a concern about Sri Lankan human rights abuses and an unwillingness to sweep these under the carpet. This is a good thing. For while the Commonwealth has faults like any other organisation, the conviction it has shown against members’ violations and the carrot that membership still offers gives it the strength and influence to affect Sri Lanka in a way no other international organisation could. The extent to which it can be successful in committing the nation to proper international investigations into atrocities remains to be seen, but with the Commonwealth more or less built around the UK, it needs to be in the vanguard on this. The parties may differ as how to do this, but together they can at least strive to share in the message and conviction in its deliverance.   

Backbench Foreign Secretary

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