Thoughts from the Labour fringe: Sri Lanka.

I spent the first part of this week on the fringe of the Labour Party conference in Liverpool.  Here are some thoughts as they relate to my project. 

A meeting that couldn’t fail to have made an impression on anyone that attended was the Human Rights Watch and Freedom from Torture panel chaired by Jonathan Miller, Foreign Affairs Correspondent at Channel 4 news.  The subject was “Values and human rights in UK foreign policy – where now after Sri Lanka’s killing fields?” and footage was shown from Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.  Anyone who saw this film knows that the images were shocking and disturbing.  They are available on the 4onDemand website. The film presents, as acknowledged by experts in international criminal law, prima facie evidence of war crimes.

There was an immediate purpose to the panel. The meeting took place on Sunday evening and as Keith Best, Chief Executive of Freedom from Torture, told us the UK government was preparing to deport Sri Lankans back to Colombo despite the threat of torture and other human rights abuses on their return.  When I watched Jonathan’s report on Channel 4 news last night there was hope that this would not happen.  The Courts had stepped in to delay the flight.  However, having checked this morning it appears as though the flight was not delayed for very long and the plane with the failed asylum seekers has now landed in Colombo.

The more general purpose was to reflect on UK foreign policy in this area.  There was acknowledgment that R2P had clearly failed and that the focus was now on accountability, especially in the context of the evidence available.  The MP on the panel, Emma Reynolds, who is a Shadow Foreign Office Minister, listed a number of institutions that the UK could work with but did not mention the ICC.  It seems to me that this is an obvious place for the UK to go to.  The situation has not been referred to the Court, those that have are listed here. I haven’t been following the diplomacy well enough to know exactly why this is the case.  Sri Lanka of course is not a state party so any referral would need a Security Council resolution and the possibility of a veto exists.

But the question to ask is should the UK try to get the case referred regardless of the threat of the veto? There is prima facie evidence of war crimes as experts acknowledge and when this kind of evidence had global exposure (think of Darfur, Libya) the P5 could not bring themselves to veto the situation. Each situation is different and the specifics will be important.  But I do think states, even non-democratic states, can be shamed in to acting.  As Kant told us, publicity is a gradual force for progressive change, but it does require political will to get it in to the international forums that can bring justice.  We have to be aware of our government, and opposition parties, hiding behind the threat of the Russian or Chinese veto.  It’s not an excuse for inaction particularly as there is no guarantee that they would yield the veto in this situation.

About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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