ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 11 , 2007
Vol. 41 - No 41
Columns - Thoughts from London

Those who point fingers must first clean their spots

By Neville de Silva

That was rich. That was indeed rich. Shortly after foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama, on his first visit to London in his new role as minder of our foreign policy, met Britain’s foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, a press release from the foreign and commonwealth of office landed in my computer.

It was all about what the British told Sri Lanka at the meeting. Not a word, alas, of what Sri Lanka told the British which is left to our foreign ministry to do, which it has done by saying that the UK "applauded" the Sri Lanka government's efforts to find a peaceful solution, etc, etc. The British statement however makes no reference to such applause. Not to be outdone by their transatlantic cousins, the United States in its report on Sri Lanka makes strictures about human rights and violence in this country.

It might have been more appropriate and certainly more objective, had the authors of this show of American political acumen written it in the confines of the Guantanamo detention camp, Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison or even in the torture chambers of countries to which suspected terrorists have been flown by the CIA in its so-called exercise in “rendition”. British and American accusations might have been more credible if the accusers were as free of abuse as they would wish the world to believe.

Sadly not all the perfumes of Arabia could sweeten the little hands of Britain and the US in this regard. If foreign policy and foreign relations were not such a delicate business, especially for a small country such as Sri Lanka lacking too many options, one could have told London and Washington to mind their business.

Being what we are, a vulnerable nation that is dependent in many ways on the goodwill, financial and material support of the world outside, we cannot approach economically and politically powerful nations with the distant hauteur that the Chinese are capable of when faced with overbearing gweilos. The Chinese emperors of old expected foreign emissaries and uninvited arrivals to crawl before them with due respect to the power of the Middle Kingdom.

We cannot do that because Sri Lanka does not have the political, economic or military clout to look the interfering or indulgent foreigner in the eye and ask him to return whence he came. We invite him, give him a meal and, in our fashion, we believe we have overwhelmed the visitor with this milk of human kindness.

A few days later we discover, to our amazement no less, that we have been kicked in the teeth and in the groin. Those who have learnt this eternal truth that a meal at the high table does not earn us undying gratitude and political munificence, urge those in power to tell the foreign powers with new visions of overlordship, to take a hike.

If it was as simple as that and we were not overly concerned at the repercussions of taking on the big powers, foreign minister Bogollagama could have told Margaret Beckett a thing or two. Only the other day it was revealed that Beckett had made some unguarded remarks about cabinet colleagues thinking she was speaking to chancellor Gordon Brown, only to be told a couple of years later that she actually spoke to an impressionist named Rory Bremner.

If Sri Lanka was in that frame of mind and Bogollagama had done his homework, Margaret Beckett’s school marmish castigation of Sri Lanka’s human rights record and Britain’s overly concern about violence and the suffering of the people caught up in conflict could have been thrown back at her face.

While the violation of human rights and the suffering of a civilian population are admittedly matters that should be of concern to every administration that has any moral claims to clean governance and political rectitude, Britain should be one of the last countries, if at all, to lecture us on these matters.

If its record is as lily white and untainted, there might be some justification for its assumption of such a high-minded role.
But sadly it lacks the moral stature that it likes to clothe itself with and so is in no position to play moral guardian to anybody save the most despotic and despicable of nations and their rulers.

Yet the irony is that while it tolerates – nay supports and bolsters – such nations and even goes to the extent of vying for their filthy lucre unconcerned by the daily abuse of the basic human rights of their peoples, Britain, US and similar minded nations are prepared to make statements denigrating others and then release them to the media hoping that they’ve done sufficient to gain some godly favours and make safe their place in heaven.

If the names United Kingdom and Sri Lanka in the press release were interchanged to read that Sri Lanka “remains seriously concerned” about human rights violations in Britain and that “human rights abuses do nothing but damage Britain’s image in the eyes of the world” it would surely be equally true.

As Britain marks the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery this month, it might be well to remember that this country which became rich and a world power on the backs of an abominable trade in people, has still not officially apologised to the world, especially the black people of Africa and the Caribbean for the misery they caused thousands of enslaved people and their families.

Long before Liverpool became famous for producing the musical group The Beatles, it had achieved notoriety as the greatest slave port in human history. If it is claimed that this unsavoury history is too far back in the past, we could take a look at modern Britain that still deludes itself that it has some moral right and duty to lecture its former colonies.

The European Union’s report heavily criticises Britain’s human rights record and calls on the Blair government in which Margaret Beckett is a minister, to sign key international conventions before lecturing other nations on them. And this is as recent as May 2006.

The British government is singled out for not falling in line with international commitments on efforts to curb human trafficking, on the protection of migrant workers and concerning child soldiers. The European Parliament’s annual report is particularly worried after Tony Blair dropped public hints that the Human Rights Act should be amended in view of the threats from terrorism and organised crime.

If the British Government is ready to change human rights law to fight terrorism why should it be wrong for Sri Lanka to act in the face of terrorism which is a far greater threat than that which confronts the UK?

The European Parliament castigates member states saying that “the European Union has one rule for small countries and applies a different one for large countries.” Britain ignores or mutes any comments about the human rights record of China and Russia for commercial and political reasons, but picks on small countries such as Sri Lanka because it can bully us but not the Chinese leaders or Vladimir Putin.

In one of its reports Amnesty International said it is profoundly concerned that the UK has sought to circumvent its obligations under domestic and international law, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act, in relation to allegations of abuse committed by UK officials and armed forces personnel abroad, including Iraq.

“By undermining fundamental human rights at home and abroad, the UK has effectively given the green light to other governments to abuse human rights while its own credibility in promoting human rights worldwide has been seriously weakened.”
Amnesty International is just one of many others who have expressed serious concern. They include the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe.

As for the United States the detention without trial of terror suspects, many of them for several years, stands as a monument to its blithe disregard for human rights or laws relating to them, while it advocates with great enthusiasm the respect for human rights to all but itself. Guantanamo Bay and Iraq exemplify Washington’s concern for human rights.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.