ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 9, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 41
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Flip side of Britain’s human rights coin

By Neville de Silva

While Britain’s foreign minister overseeing Asia, Lord Malloch-Brown was giving the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva a lesson in human rights in Sri Lanka, not too far away in Strasbourg, the British had already been taught an even more profound a lesson.

Whether Malloch-Brown, sometimes derisively called Bullock-Brown for conduct akin to a bovine in a ceramic shop, and the government he represents will be chastened by the lesson or will continue to charge with the gay abandon of an enraged bull against the very regimen of human rights that it so sanctimoniously preaches to others, only time will tell.

But to judge by past performance, Britain’s collective conscience will not be stirred by the courts of law or wiser counsel. Instead it will continue to preach to others what it refuses to practise. It was Queen Elizabeth the First’s foreign secretary Lord Palmerston who was credited in his day, of being a liberal abroad and a conservative at home. It would appear that the Palmerstonian tradition lives on in modern Britain.

The country’s dour prime minister Gordon Brown, already showing the signs of wear and tear and dropping in the opinion polls against a more charismatic Conservative leader, would cling to any straw (even Jack Straw I suppose) to stay in power. After all, Brown-that is Gordon- would not want to be seen as the one who virtually pushed Tony Blair out of office and then lost Labour the general election. He and his government must be seen to be tough on terror and continue the so-called “war on terror” that they launched shortly after 9/11 taking the country into battle against Afghanistan and Iraq. In that fight against terror, the British government under Blair and now under Brown, has and is ready to abandon long held legal traditions and trample on the human rights of people, both local and foreign, while extolling the virtues of human rights adherence to others. The Palmerstonian tradition is live and well in the UK.

Politicians of whatever pigmentation and wherever they are located, should learn to keep their mouths tightly shut when they have little useful to contribute and not expose their own doublespeak. Was it simple ignorance or a crude attempt at diverting attention that saw Malloch-Brown pick on Sri Lanka last week in Geneva to deliver his homily on the need to respect human rights and the rule of law? Malloch-Brown is being gleefully cheered on by groups such as the British Tamils Forum which issued a press release celebrating his words. He was quoted by the BTF as telling the Geneva-based Human Rights Council that “the international community condemned terrorism but countering terrorism required respect for human rights.”

We don’t want to get into the debate whether this is indeed possible or not, if it is possible to what extent is it possible to do both effectively and whether individual rights might sometimes have to be temporarily sacrificed for the greater good of society as some claim. These philosophical issues have been discussed and debated ad nauseam and could still go on till the cows come home.

I am on a different issue here. No one likes to see human rights violated. It is abhorrent and it cannot and should not be condoned. I dare that there are human rights violations in Sri Lanka. It would indeed take a brave person or one who is purblind to claim that this country has not been guilty of human rights violations. Such abuses could well be going on right now.

That however does not give the licence to other violators of human rights to point their finger at Sri Lanka without taking cognizance of their own guilt. If we must be condemned, and surely we must be if we are guilty of violating the international obligations we have signed up to, then let it be done by those who have a right to do so because of their pure record in this respect. Let those who have not sinned cast the first stone. Unhappily those who not only wish to cast the first stone but a pile of them are among those who should be having rocks rather than stones hurled at them for their own ignominious record on human rights.

This column has previously spotlighted the utterly disgraceful and illegal act of the British and US governments of forcibly removing the Chagossian people from their homes in Diego Garcia and letting them virtually rot in Mauritius without a means of livelihood. Last year Britain’s highest court held against the British government and ordered that these people who were uprooted from their homes be allowed to return home. Does the British government listen to the voice of its highest court? Of course not! The British, to satisfy their transatlantic ally, will do anything to subvert the decision of the court because it has colluded with the US to set up a huge military base on Diego Garcia.

These are the same people who lecture, nay hector, us on human rights. Take the latest case where the European Court on Human Rights in Strasbourg delivered a terrible indictment to the British for its continuing attempts to dilute the total prohibition on the use of torture by flying terror suspects to other countries which routinely abuse prisoners.

The judges sitting in Strasbourg late February described as “misconceived” the argument adduced by the UK that there is a case to be made for balancing the risk of torture against the threat posed to a nation’s security. In short, one could justify sending suspects to countries where torture might be practised in order to obtain information that could prove useful in fighting terrorism.

Actually, it was an Italian case where the Italian authorities were trying to deport a Tunisian to Tunisia under the “Pisanu Law” which was originally adopted about three years ago as “an urgent measure to combat terrorism.” The British government intervened in the case hoping to get a favourable judgement that would justify the British policy of deporting terror suspects to Algeria and other states which are known to use torture against suspects sent there by Britain. In its judgement the ECHR said: “the concepts of risk and dangerousness do not lend themselves to balancing…..the prospect that he may pose a serious threat to the community…..does not reduce in any way the degree of risk of ill treatment that the person may be subject to on return.”

European investigations had earlier found that Britain along with some other European nations such as Germany had been complicit in the CIA’s policy of flying terror suspects to countries where torture has been practised so that they could be dealt with outside US jurisdiction. These rendition flights have passed through British airports and their comings and goings have been documented.It might also be recalled that when the British ambassador to Uzbekistan exposed the terrible human rights violations by the Uzbek authorities Craig Murray was drummed out of the foreign service. Uzbekistan is an important ally. Had Sri Lanka been in the same strategic position as Uzbekistan would we have had a word said against us? That needs pondering indeed.

In December 2005 the Law Lords embarrassed the British government’s anti-terrorist strategy for the second time in one year by declaring that evidence obtained by torture should never be used in British courts. Lord Bingham, the former Lord Chief Justice, who headed the panel said he was “startled, even a little dismayed” that this “deeply rooted tradition and an international obligation solemnly and explicitly undertaken could be overridden by the Special Appeals Commission which oversees the detention of terror suspects.” The European Convention to which Britain is a signatory forbids torture and therefore any such evidence obtained through brutal treatment of prisoners cannot be admissible in British courts.

The British therefore tried to send terror suspects elsewhere where they could be tortured and evidence so acquired could be used against suspects. If there is one human right that is absolute and is free from restrictions it is freedom from torture. That, Britain and other western nations say can be violated, as long as they are the violators.

Top to the page  |  E-mail  |  views[1]

Reproduction of articles permitted when used without any alterations to contents and a link to the source page.
© Copyright 2008 | Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka. All Rights Reserved.