Liam Fox cancels Sri Lanka trip amid claim in cables of Colombo's war crimes complicity
Liam Fox, the defence secretary, was tonight forced to abandon a private visit to Sri Lanka this weekend after a row with William Hague, who feared that he would upset Britain's carefully balanced approach to Colombo.
Fox announced his change of heart as US embassy cables leaked tonight provided fresh allegations of the Sri Lankan government's complicity with paramilitary groups in last year's offensive against the Tamil Tigers.
Labour accused the government of adopting a "chaotic" approach to diplomacy when Fox announced that he would instead make an official visit to the country in the new year.
Fox's decision came after talks with Hague, the foreign secretary, and a warning by the British Tamils Forum that his trip would send mixed messages to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is facing strong international pressure for an investigation into allegations that Sri Lanka forces committed war crimes.
The Ministry of Defence blamed the delay on the need for Fox to extend a visit to the Gulf. A spokesman for the defence secretary said: "Dr Fox has postponed his private visit to Sri Lanka due to an extension to his scheduled official visit to the Gulf. He intends to carry out an official visit to Sri Lanka next year, during which he proposes to fulfil the speaking engagement that he had planned."
The move by Fox came as the latest batch of US embassy cables to be published by WikiLeaks show that:
• US officials expressed concerns that the Sri Lankan government was complicit with paramilitary groups. One cable, sent in May 2007 by the then US ambassador, Robert Blake, details abductions, extortion, forced prostitution and conscription of child soldiers.
• Five Sri Lankan doctors were coerced by the Sri Lankan government to recant on casualty figures they gave to journalists in the last months of the civil war.
• The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) were guilty of human rights abuses and demanded a cut of international NGOs' spending in the areas they controlled.
• The US ambassador to Colombo, Patricia Butenis, said on 15 January that one of the reasons there was such little progress towards a genuine Sri Lankan inquiry into the killings was that President Rajapaksa, and the former army commander, Sarath Fonseka, were largely responsible. "There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power," Butenis noted.
It is understood that Fox, who held a private meeting with the president in London two weeks ago, abandoned his private visit after intense pressure from Hague. Foreign Office sources said that Fox's private visit could have jeopardised Britain's nuanced approach to Sri Lanka, in which ministers put pressure on Colombo to agree to an investigation into last year's offensive against the Tamil Tigers while acknowledging the Tigers were responsible for terrorism.
One Whitehall source said: "William has said to Liam: 'This is the Foreign Office line, Liam.' In brackets William will have said: 'You have needed my support in the past.'"
Fox still plans to deliver the Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial lecture after being invited by the widow of the late foreign minister who was murdered by a Tamil Tiger sniper in 2005. But he will do this as part of his official visit next year.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow foreign secretary, said: "Chaotic diplomacy like this does no good for the government's standing on such a significant issue. It also raises serious questions about the defence secretary's judgment.
"What on earth has he been doing holding 'private' meetings with the Sri Lankan president while refusing to say if he has pressed for the war crimes investigation we need or supported the foreign secretary's position? William Hague must be spitting mad."
President Rajapaksa, who won a second term in January following the military victory over the separatists last year, has repeatedly denied any involvement in or knowledge of human rights abuses.
But the latest cables published by WikiLeaks highlight human rights abuses committed by the LTTE, against whom the paramilitaries and the government forces were engaged. Sources told representatives of the US embassy to Sri Lanka that the LTTE regularly demanded a cut of international NGOs' spending in the areas they controlled. Other sources described a harsh regime of compulsory conscription into fighting forces. "If they fail to report, they are taken forcibly, often at night," one said. Cables from early this year referred to "progress" by the Government of Sri Lanka on a range of human rights issues in recent months.
"There has been a dramatic improvement in the treatment of IDPs and their living conditions … [and] numbers of disappearances have experienced a steady and significant decline across the island since the end of the war," one dispatch said.
Another affirmed that "child soldiers affiliated with the [paramilitaries] have been significantly reduced over the past year, with just five reportedly remaining at the end of 2009."
One senior journalist had been released from detention, the cable added, and diplomats were "not aware of any additional physical attacks on journalists since June ".
There was even some tentative steps" on "accountability" for human rights abuses during the civil war, Washington was told.
"Accountability for alleged crimes committed by [government of Sri lanka] troops and officials during the war is the most difficult issue on our bilateral agenda, and the one we believe has the lowest prospect for forward movement," a cable sent in late January said. "In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country's senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate [and former military commander] General Fonseka."