In 2009, Sri Lanka’s government herded hundreds of thousands of the minority ethnic Tamil community onto a small bit of land that they described as a ‘safe zone’, and then relentlessly bombed it.
At least 40,000 were killed.
Last November, the UN admitted that, instead of acting on its Responsibility to Protect citizens at risk from their governments, it pretended it didn’t know what was happening, and gave credibility to false claims that it was really the appalling ‘Tamil Tiger’ terrorists who were responsible.
It said senior staff knew the atrocities were taking place, but didn’t think it was their job to do anything about it. In short, they failed in their Responsibility to Protect.
Earlier this week, I raised the UN’s failings in a 90-minute parliamentary debate.
I said the international community was still failing in its duties.
Under international law, there is an obligation to try those responsible for war crimes. As the UN itself says, ‘not to hold accountable those who committed serious crimes … is a clear violation.’
But four years on from the killings, there has been no independent, international inquiry. Instead, Sri Lanka insisted on its own internal inquiry, which not surprisingly largely cleared itself of any responsibility.
Four years on, the war criminals are not just still at large. They are still in power.
Without justice or accountability, what we see is a culture of impunity. In Sri Lanka, there are still cases of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, gender-based violence and torture.
When David Miliband was foreign secretary he went to Sri Lanka and was vilified for confronting the government there for its crimes.
But under Labour, we withdrew trade agreements, and blocked Sri Lanka’s wish to host a prestigious Commonwealth summit.
Since the Tories took over, things have been rather different. Liam Fox and Adam Werrity caused a storm with their luxury trips to Sri Lanka and their meetings with President Rajapaksa, organised by the Sri Lankan Development Trust – a mysterious organisation set up by the disgraced former defence secretary that published no accounts, and was thought to be a front for people wanting to make money from reconstruction projects there.
Numerous other Tory MPs have been taken to Sri Lanka as guests of the government, on visits to which Labour MPs were not invited. Trade, rather than human rights, now appears to be their priority.
And despite renewed opposition to Sri Lanka hosting a Commonwealth summit in November 2013, the British government has refused to back a boycott led by Canada.
If a boycott was right then, why is it wrong now – especially now that reports about war crimes and oppression have been proved right.
Recently I wrote to David Cameron. The number of people killed in five months in Sri Lanka is the same as the population of the main towns in his constituency, and the killings took place within an area smaller than that.
I said: ‘If a nation had systematically killed every single person you knew in Witney, Carterton and Chipping Norton, raping and murdering in cold blood, I do not think that you would find it acceptable for that government to host an event as prestigious as a Commonwealth summit, or for our government to attend.’
Britain could take a lead. But by giving succour to war criminals in Sri Lanka our Tory-Lib Dem government is not only failing in its Responsibility to Protect. It is being weak, weak, weak.
Siobhain McDonagh is MP for Mitcham and Morden. She tweets @SiobhainMP
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