Columns - From the sidelines

Libya unravels — and the Brits suddenly discover an evil dictator

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

It has been a busy month for Britons, with Foreign Secretary William Hague’s whirlwind three-day tour of Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, UAE and Bahrain (Feb. 8 to 10, with Mubarak not gone yet) and Prime Minister David Cameron’s just-concluded tour of Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. The ramifications of thinking behind these self-conscious diplomatic exercises in a region vital to their interests seem strange indeed, to the uninitiated.

Cameron on his tour delivered a message of support for his ‘friends’ in the Middle East, exhorting the virtues of human rights and greater ‘political openness,’ while his entourage included some 20 businessmen proclaiming the mantra of trade. They reportedly included eight of Britain’s leading arms manufacturers.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron talks about a world response to stop the Libyan oppression.

Cameron’s speech in Kuwait’s parliament was quite a feat, combining elements that mix about as smoothly as oil and water. Hailing the historic events in Egypt and Tunisia, he said “political and economic reform in the Arab world is essential,” not just to advance shared vital interests “but as a long term guarantor of the stability needed for our relationship to strengthen and for both our societies to flourish.”

Even as he spoke, his Minister of International Security Strategy was attending an arms fair in Abu Dhabi where apparently a hundred British firms were displaying their wares. The question as to how the verbal gymnastics of Cameron’s speech in Kuwait will translate into ground realities is one that puzzles many an observer.

How does he hope to advance ‘stability’ in the region while at the same time selling British-made military equipment to assorted Arab despots? How does Cameron’s professed concern for ‘political openness’ and ‘increased freedoms’ in the region square with the aggressive pitch that is obviously being made for oil and gas and weapons contracts, on this so called ‘democracy tour’?

In Qatar, the main item on Cameron’s agenda was a £2 billion gas deal between Qatar and British Gas parent company Centrica, whose chief executive was part of his entourage. On his last stop in Oman Cameron hailed the ‘extraordinary achievements’ of British technology there. But the more potent message to the Omanis would seem to lie in the venue chosen for his speech – the headquarters of British Petroleum (BP) in Muscat.

It was the same BP that secured exclusive oil drilling rights when former British Prime Minister Tony Blair cut that infamous ‘deal in the desert’ in 2007 with (the same) dictator Gaddafi, whose vicious attacks on unarmed protesters today are being dutifully deplored in Britain as “appalling.” Two years after the Blair-Gaddafi meeting the Libyan intelligence agent convicted in connection with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board (the ‘Lockerbie bomber’) was released from a Scotland prison. According to a Vanity Fair expose last month, “at the heart of the matter” lay “the cozy and “profitable relationships” between the Blair government and Qaddafi’s Libya.” President Obama was reported to be “surprised, disappointed and angry” about the release, while a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report in December last year “was highly critical of the decision to release Megrahi and of the process by which it was made.”

It was only last year that Cameron’s coalition government sold tear gas and military hardware to Libya and Bahrain. Whether that same merchandise was used by the governments of those states in the recent violence inflicted on their people is anybody’s guess. And in the wave of popular uprisings that is sweeping the region, one may well ask if it could be only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia and Algeria use the British-made weaponry sold to them, against their own.

Putting self interest before ethics is nothing unusual – every government does it, one may argue. What is mind-boggling is the manner in which Britain has peddled these moves to the world in holier-than-thou tones, packaged as a concern for ‘democracy and human rights.’ This is hypocrisy that beggars description.

Sri Lanka too has been at the receiving end of the blatant double standards behind British foreign policy, and has learnt many a bitter lesson in the process. It seems abundantly clear that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Sri Lanka policy is dictated not by imperatives arising from the situation here, but by the Eelam-oriented fantasies of the British Tamil diaspora that lives and votes in Britain.

It seems to matter not a bit to the British government that this chorus is led by front organizations for the LTTE. Thanks to WikiLeaks we now have confirmation of what was long suspected – that former Foreign Secretary David Milliband’s pious pronouncements on the ‘plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka’ were driven by nothing but narrow, self-interested electoral considerations.

The latest move on the cards is a petition by 41 British MPs urging Prime Minister Cameron to press for an international war crimes investigation on Sri Lanka. It should come as no surprise if he heeds this call. It can be expected that Britain will lead the pack in gunning for Sri Lanka at the upcoming sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The European states that are now scrambling to get their Middle East act together after having themselves laid the groundwork for unrest there by propping up corrupt dictatorships for decades, will have no qualms about ganging up on Sri Lanka, a small and relatively powerless state that was compelled to fight a murderous terror outfit to protect its people and its sovereignty.

It is no coincidence that a call similar to that of these British MPs came from a group of US congressmen not so long ago. Such pressures on western governments invariably originate in places where there is a concentration of Sri Lankan Tamil constituents. They reflect the outcome of professional lobbying funded by pro-Tiger elements abroad. The Tiger war chest is still largely intact, and nowadays these not inconsiderable funds appear to be deployed on the propaganda front as never before.

The writer is a senior freelance journalist

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