ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 49
Columns - Thoughts from London

Mother of parliaments becomes mother of all jokes

By Neville de Silva

An Iraqi boy looks at the damage caused by a car bomb blast in Kirkuk, northern Iraq on Friday: Some who spoke about the fruitlessness of a war for peace in the House of Commons last week, supportd the invasion of Iraq not so long ago.

As students of political science we were taught that the British House of Commons was the mother of parliaments and should be respected if not revered. Having listened to the Commons debate on Sri Lanka last week I am more inclined to concur with the growing feeling here that parliament like British politics is fast losing public respect and instead earning public derision.

To large segments of the British public parliament is like an appendix- a largely useless appendage that brings pain not pleasure.
When millions of people here were demonstrating against British involvement in the Iraq war, it was this parliament that voted in favour of an invasion of a foreign country.

Many of the voices one heard in last week’s debate, especially from the Labour Party, moralising on the fruitlessness of war in the search for peace, on human rights and obligations to uphold international humanitarian law, on discrimination, on displaced persons and violence and turned Westminster’s collective voice into a modern day Sermon on the Mount, were those who actively or passively supported the military invasion of another sovereign country.

That invasion has brought, and continues to bring, untold misery, death and destruction far in excess of what the dictatorial Saddam Hussain did to his people in his heyday. Saddam might have been an imperious despot that subjugated his own people. But Britain and other western countries that preach morality to the rest of the world, cannot now conveniently absolve themselves of the historical reality that they helped create the monster that they now denounce.

We have much closer home such moral equivalents such as India that nurtured, armed and financed militant groups on its soil against a much smaller and certainly less powerful neighbouring country but continue to preach mantrams of moderation while condemning terrorism on its western borders.

So when moral voices are raised in public condemnation or in urging caution and fair play, it is best that those who do so spend some time in collective introspection. That might help cure such people and western bodies of the pretentious holier than thou attitude and the mistaken belief they could rightfully don the mantle of savants and saviours.

The Commons debate which has already been referred to in media reports and so saves me a trouble of reiteration, was to focus on the prevailing atmosphere of violence, disappearances and uncertainty in Sri Lanka. It was also used as an occasion to castigate the Sri Lanka government and its seeming lack of concern for the Tamil people.

But since those in Sri Lanka would not have had the occasion to listen to the whole of this so-called debate, there are some aspects that need highlighting at least for the purpose of bringing some perspective to what was often an uninformed and one-sided debate. Whether this was because many parliamentarians had not kept abreast of the latest developments, whether they were merely repeating what had been told to them by their constituents without any idea whether what they were told was true or false, or merely putting more spin into their contributions than Amnesty International, for the sake of Tamil listeners in the gallery, is hard to tell.

But it is interesting to note that this debate was held the day before the UK went to the polls to elect local councils in England and for the local parliaments in Scotland and Wales. Except for local councils in London, other local bodies throughout England voted. As many speakers across the political spectrum conceded they were representing the views of their Tamil constituents.

There are several Labour Party marginal parliamentary seats and with public opinion polls showing a sharp drop in support for the ruling Labour Party there is a concerted effort to retain the party’s vote base across the country. It is also known that most Tamils vote for Labour or the Lib Dems particularly because of their more acceptable policies on asylum/ refugees and generally on immigration.

The Tamil voter of whatever shade of political opinion on Sri Lankan issues, has worked for and voted for these two parties. Hence there is a dire need today especially for the Labour, to retain the goodwill of the Tamil community which is concentrated in some areas and spread out thinly in others, in the face of a resurgent Tory party.

Whether all those who spoke in the Commons that day, some with great vehemence but less conviction or understanding, really believe in what they were articulating on behalf of the Tamil people or this was part of a ploy to retain their votes by a display of political pyrotechnics that were hardly Churchillian, would best be known to those who took the floor.

Admittedly the Tamil people in Sri Lanka need to feel that they are part of Sri Lanka’s social and political fabric. Serious and genuine attempts should be made to erase or eliminate real or perceived grievances. Already it is too late to make amends. But when the articulation of such views here is left to this newly formed All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Tamils, some might feel vindicated that their efforts to bring Tamil views to the fore have succeeded.

Yet one wonders whether they should not have been more circumspect in the choice of those who have been selected to lead the charge. The chairman of the APPG is Keith Vaz, a one-time minister who resigned shortly after the last general election on grounds of ill-health. That resignation came a day or two after the Commissioner of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee announced that she was widening her inquiry into Keith Vaz in connection with some alleged involvement with the Hinduja brothers, a very rich Asian family who had made donations to the Labour Party.

Earlier the same Commissioner had upheld some complaints against Mr Vaz while dismissing others. The committee report said: “We found he committed serious breaches of the Code of Conduct and a contempt of the House. We recommend that Mr Vaz be suspended from the service of the House for one month.”

Keith Vaz faded into the sunset after that and was rarely in the public eye, sitting as a backbencher. It seems now he wants to bounce back into the limelight (hardly the sublime light) and publicity, now that parliamentary elections are not too far away and a new prime minister is waiting in the wings.

The APPG is hoping to hold a “summit” in London between the Sri Lanka Government, the LTTE and the Norwegians. It seems strange that the APPG should propose this when it is clear, or should be to those who propose this, that the LTTE both under the EU and Britain’s own law that has proscribed the group, cannot travel here and participate as accredited members of the LTTE. Such a “summit” is not possible unless both the EU and the UK lift the ban.

It is such obvious questions surrounding this so-called summit proposal that makes one wonder whether Keith Vaz and the others associated with it are trying to mislead the Tamil community and give the Tamils hopes that cannot be fulfilled. It is true that Vaz and others urged the lifting of the ban on the LTTE during the debate saying that it is an obstacle to negotiations.

Whatever their motives, Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells nipped that in the bud when he said the ban would remain until the LTTE renounced violence. Howells said “In the absence of a full renunciation of terrorism in deed and word, there can be no question of reconsidering its proscribed status.”

In reply to an intervention Howells also added “I am very much averse to recognising the legitimacy, if I could put it like that, of suicide bombers, murderers, and rapists.” So any idea of a summit, assuming that the Sri Lanka Government would agree to attend which I seriously doubt, is surely dead in the water except as a political gimmick.

Moreover, it is strange that members of APPG and others who present the Northern Ireland peace deal as an exemplar of successful negotiations, forget that the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement as it is popularly called, was reached through negotiations with all parties and groups involved in the Northern Ireland conflict.

But the APPG proposal involves only the government and the LTTE and the Norwegians as facilitators. It is repeating the shortcomings of the Oslo mediated ceasefire of 2002. If Northern Ireland is to be the example, then any Sri Lankan peace process should involve other Tamils voices-and surely there are several- and the Muslim community which had been marginalised previously.

After all the Muslims were the victims of ethnic cleansing by the LTTE seven or eight years ago. But strangely the British parliamentary advocates of the Tamils deliberately or otherwise leave the Muslims out of the process. Is this because of the current feelings here about Muslims generally?

Also conveniently forgotten is the fact that the British government never negotiated with the IRA but with the Sinn Fein and other recognised political groups. All that time the IRA remained a banned organisation. So when British MPs call for the proscription of the LTTE to be lifted as it is an impediment to peace negotiations and cite Northern Ireland as a path to follow, they seem to ignore their own recent history.

One other point. The Good Friday Agreement called for the IRA to disarm- or decommission their weapons to use the appropriate word- before the final settlement is reached. Prime Minister Blair said this several times in the course of debates in the same House of Commons.

The weapons had to be given up during the negotiations and that any party that resorts to violence during the talks cannot participate in the talks. The IRA did surrender their weapons under verification and renounced violence. Would these vociferous British parliamentarians recommend this same approach to Sri Lanka too?

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.