Cameron loses both SL and the Tamil Diaspora

November 24, 2013 Island

Cameron stumped by Labour

Immediately after the British Prime Minister David Cameron returned home from the Colombo summit, on 18 November, he made a statement about it to the British Parliament. There was no doubt that Cameron had stolen the march over Labour  in brown nosing the Tamil diaspora living in Britain by calling for an independent international war crimes inquiry against Sri Lanka. The Labour Party which had called for a boycott of CHOGM 2013 was mortified that Cameron had managed to get the best of both worlds by attending the summit and also titillating the Tamil voters in Britain by calling for a war crimes investigation and visiting Jaffna. But to their credit, it must be said that they managed to recover their wits quite quickly and the day after Cameron made that statement on Sri Lanka, whatever benefit he may have tried to glean from it in terms of British domestic politics had been expertly vitiated by the Labour Party.

In his statement to the House of Commons, Cameron claimed that the Tamil National Alliance now had a chief minister in the north only because the international spotlight was focused on Sri Lanka due to CHOGM 2013. He also claimed credit for taking British journalists to Jaffna to meet the displaced people in the north and also the relatives of the disappeared. Cameron gave things a populist twist by even claiming that he had visited the ‘locations’ of some of the most ‘chilling scenes’ from the Channel 4 No Fire Zone documentary.  Cameron said, “I had a choice at this summit: to stay away and allow President Rajapaksa to set the agenda he wanted, or to go and shape the agenda by advancing our interests with our Commonwealth partners and shining a spotlight on the international concerns about Sri Lanka…. I believe that that was the right decision for Sri Lanka, for the Commonwealth and for Britain.” Tamils live in considerable numbers in several marginal labour seats and even a slight shift in the Tamil vote could have serious consequences for the Labour Party, so they could not afford to allow Cameron to steal the march over them in the eyes of the Tamil diaspora.

Labour Party leader Edward Miliband said in reply to Cameron that what happened towards the end of the conflict in 2009 when ‘tens of thousands of innocent civilians were murdered’ was not in keeping with the values of the Commonwealth and that the then Labour government had blocked the plan to hold CHOGM 2011 in Sri Lanka and that putting off the Colombo summit till 2013 was to give time to Sri Lanka to show progress on human rights and that Cameron could have in 2011 blocked the holding of the 2013 CHOGM in Sri Lanka which he did not do. Miliband heaped contempt on the Conservative PM by saying that back in May this year, he (Cameron) had said that there will be ‘consequences’ if Sri Lanka continues to ignore its ‘international commitments’ and he asked what those consequences were? Miliband pointed out that though Cameron had called for a war crimes investigation, President Rajapaksa had already rejected it.  The Labour leader’s point was that Cameron had not gained anything for the Tamils and that Cameron too should have boycotted the summit like the Prime Ministers of Canada and India.

Cameron fought off the Labour leader by saying that it was the Labour Party that agreed in 2009 to this conference taking place in Sri Lanka in 2013 and that criticizing his attendance ‘breaks new records for opportunism’ and that the Commonwealth  is a consensus organization which means that once something has been agreed, it is very difficult to change it. And further that  “If he (Miliband) is as concerned about the rights of Tamils, as I am, the right thing to do is to go and shine a spotlight on their plight. You cannot do that sitting at home.”

Sir Menzies Campbell, a Liberal Democrat MP came to Cameron’s rescue saying that the Prime Minister had a constitutional obligation to be present to provide support and advice to the Prince of Wales and besides that the rightness of the Prime Minister’s decision is demonstrated eloquently by the quality and volume of the coverage he was able to achieve. Cameron, eagerly welcoming a supporting voice said that because of his visit, British media organizations like BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 were able to go directly to the areas affected in Jaffna, and shine a spotlight on the things that have happened.

The Conservatives seriously shot themselves in the foot by going too far to play to the Tamil gallery. Lee Scott, the Conservative MP for Ilford North said that “the real issue at stake is the approximately 40,000women, children and men—innocent people—who were slaughtered at the end of the conflict, and that the robust approach he showed on the visit to Sri Lanka and CHOGM should be carried through, as their memories deserve justice…”  Cameron self-righteously added to this by saying among other things, “I challenge anyone in the House to watch even part of the Channel 4 documentary about the events at the end of the war—when there were appalling levels of casualties among civilians and not to believe that there should be a proper independent inquiry.”

By saying so, Cameron played directly into the hands of Labour. Labour MP Keith Vaz who is well known for speaking on behalf of the Tamil diaspora, first praised Cameron for making the trip to Colombo and then went for the jugular. Vaz said  that in Jaffna, Cameron saw for himself the devastation and grief inflicted on the Tamil people by President Rajapaksa but that the British government continues to deport Tamil people to Sri Lanka where they are tortured. He requested the PM to speak to the Home Secretary and change the deportation instructions so that Britain can protect the Tamil people who are genuinely seeking asylum in our country. It has long been the policy of the Labour Party to support asylum claims from Sri Lankan Tamils, but the Conservatives were elected on a platform of limiting migration into Britain from hundreds of thousands per year, to ‘tens of thousands’ before the next election. In pursuance of this objective the Conservative government had been deporting Tamil asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka by the planeload.  There were high profile dramas in Britain involving Tamil asylum seekers with some Tamil asylum applicants getting last minute reprieves from the British courts just as they were to be deported – some even being taken off the buses en route to the airport.

The Labour Party protested against these deportations saying that these Tamils were being sent back to Sri Lanka to be tortured and imprisoned. The Conservative government responded by saying that the British High Commission in Colombo had investigated these claims that deportees were being arrested and tortured by the Sri Lankan authorities and that they were unfounded, and continued to deport Tamils to Sri Lanka. Hence Keith Vaz had the prime minister by the vitals with that question. If the Conservatives softened their tough stance on immigration, they stood to lose many times  more votes than they would ever get by sucking up to the Tamil diaspora. Understandably, Cameron’s reply to Vaz was full of evasiveness and dissimulation, he said: “The asylum system should work on the basis of the best and latest information about whether someone genuinely faces a risk of torture and persecution if they return. Of course, I shone a light on some of the human rights abuses that are taking place, but it is also right to point out that in Sri Lanka today warfare, civil war, terrorism and violence of that kind are not taking place, so we should be clear and welcome that.”

Later on in the debate, Heidi Alexander the Labour MP for Lewisham East was to return to this question of Tamil asylum seekers. She pointedly asked “Does the Prime Minister accept that over the past few years the British Government have forcibly returned Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, only for them to be bundled into white vans at Colombo airport and subjected to horrific torture? Is he proud of his asylum policies?” Once again Cameron replied evasively saying “Our asylum polices should be based on the latest information and on proper judgments about whether people are likely to be tortured or persecuted on their return…” Labour was not going to let him off with that. Later,  another Labour MP Chris Bryant questioned him again on the asylum issue saying, “The war may be over, as the Prime Minister says, but there are still many Sri Lankans here in this country, particularly Tamils, who are seeking asylum and are being given first decisions that are so dubious that they have been overturned at appeal. Will the Prime Minister, with the new information that he has personally gained, look again at the way we treat people who are seeking asylum from Sri Lanka in this country?”

To this Cameron replied, “As I have said, our work should be based on the latest evidence. It is not the case that every single Tamil who comes here or to another country would be persecuted on their return. We would be making a great mistake if we took a blanket view like that; it should be done on the evidence.” Cameron was in effect admitting that despite his posturing in Colombo, ‘the latest information’ that he was talking about indicated that no Tamil returnees were arrested or tortured and that the deportation of Tamils will continue. That’s not going to win Cameron any Tamil votes. To the Tamils in Britain, what is of immediate importance to them is their continued stay in Britain and not the war crimes inquiry in Sri Lanka. If Cameron is not going to yield on the asylum issue, the war crimes posturing on Sri Lanka will not necessarily gain him any Tamil votes. From a Tamil point of view, the Labour position is more holistic – they not only want a war crimes inquiry, they are also against the deportation of Tamil asylum seekers – so why would the Tamils vote for Cameron in preference to Labour who offers them everything that Cameron promises and more?

One Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn of Islington North asked Cameron how exactly he proposes to follow up on his demand for a war crimes inquiry in Sri Lanka.  To this Cameron answered;  “The key thing is that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has made the point that there should be an independent inquiry and has set the deadline for when it should at least begin. If it is not begun, there needs to be as she has said, an international independent inquiry. We are saying that we support that view and will put behind it Britain’s international diplomatic standing…”

Another Labour MP Mike Gapes (Ilford South)  pressed Cameron further by saying “The Prime Minister says that the Government will press the issue in March next year at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In the light of that council’s woeful record how confident can he be, given the authoritarian states and friends of Rajapaksa who are on the council, that we will get anywhere on this in the UN?” To this Cameron answered “I think this is going to be very hard pounding for a very long period of time, but what the Sri Lankan Government need to understand, and I think understand more today than perhaps they did a week ago, is that the issue is not going to go away, and if they do not hold an independent inquiry, the pressure for an international inquiry will grow and grow.”

At this point, a Conservative MP Sir Tony Baldry came to Cameron’s rescue saying that “If the United Nations Security Council has the will, it is perfectly possible to devise mechanisms for independent judicial inquiries into crimes against humanity by UN member states.” (That was a barely disguised attempt to palm off the responsibility for something initiated by Britain, on the UN Security Council.)

Two Labour MPs Nick Smith and Andrew Love drew attention to the fact that President Rajapaksa remained defiant after the summit and that Cameron had ‘failed to drag any concessions out of President Rajapaksa’ or even to convince his Commonwealth colleagues to sign a communiqué criticizing human rights in Sri Lanka. In the light of this, they wanted to know what confidence the Prime Minister had that in any inquiry would be instituted within the next five months? In response to this, Cameron was only able to say that the Rajapaksa regime is under more pressure today than they were a week ago, or a month ago, because of the international attention that has been shone on these issues. Cameron sought to prove this claim by saying that “One only has to watch President Rajapaksa’s press conference, which was dominated by questions about human rights and inquiries into what happened at the end of the war, to see that there is pressure today that there was not a week ago.”

So after his performance in Sri Lanka, what Cameron had to offer both Sri Lanka and the Tamil diaspora living in Britain was pressure. He put pressure on the Sri Lankan government by calling for a war crimes inquiry and at the same time, he put pressure on the Tamil diaspora by in effect saying that his government will continue to deport them back to Sri Lanka despite all that he himself had to say about Sri Lanka. This shows a failure on the part of the Conservatives to get their priorities right. They can’t paint a bleak picture of the human rights situation in countries from which migrants arrive and then continue to deport asylum seekers back to those same countries without appearing unbelievably callous.

Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh who has often taken up the issue of the Sri Lankan Tamils, said that though Cameron claims to have made ‘a tough and brave decision’ to go to CHOGM, that in actual fact, the tough and brave decision was that of those family members of the disappeared who were willing to approach him and that they are now at serious risk of ‘losing their lives’. She wanted to know what the Government and the British High Commission in Colombo is going to do, to ensure the safety of those families? Given the trajectory of what he had been saying throughout the debate, Cameron could only agree that the people who met him were now in danger and lamely state that “We should do everything we can, including through the High Commission, to make sure that nobody who spoke out or met me suffers in any way at all.” (He however did not say that those people who spoke to him in Sri Lanka would be welcome to apply for political asylum in Britain if they felt their lives were endangered.)

The unkindest cut of all came from  Paul Flynn Labour MP for Newport West who stated “The Prime Minister’s call for an inquiry into the terrible events in Sri Lanka would carry a great deal more weight if he had not obstructed the report on the Iraq war…” To this, Cameron could only say defensively that he was not responsible for holding up the Iraq inquiry.  Yet, about a week before the Commonwealth summit commenced in Colombo, Cameron had written to Sir John Chilcot, the head of the Iraq Inquiry saying that ‘the disclosure requests’ for sensitive categories of information must be handled ‘carefully and sensitively’ – which is another way of saying that some matters should not be disclosed. Now, after his ill advised posturing in Colombo, Cameron is under more pressure than he was a month or even a week ago, to reveal all about Iraq!

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