The events of the past weeks have brought uncomfortable focus onto the last days of the conflict in Sri Lanka. Allegations made in the media have recalled memories of a distressing time in Sri Lanka’s history. Let there be no doubt that for the UK the end of the military conflict, and the removal of terrorism as a daily threat to the lives of the Sri Lankan people is without question a good thing.
The UK and the world watched in agony as Sri Lanka suffered over 25 years of civil war. The barbaric tactics of the LTTE, who pioneered modern day suicide bombing and forcibly recruited child soldiers, were brought to an end.
The plight of many thousands of displaced people after the war reminds us of the human cost of such conflicts. It is because of the strength of relations between our two countries that we care so deeply about events in Sri Lanka. This relationship has been forged over many years and spans not just history, but also areas such as trade, education, family and sporting links. Only this month our cricket teams are competing against each other in a spirit of friendly sporting rivalry.
I visited Sri Lanka in February and saw for myself the undeniable progress that has been made since the end of the war, including the construction of new roads and bridges to help open up the North. In Jaffna I saw the efforts being made to resettle those displaced, including the practical challenges which they are overcoming, such as the need for infrastructure and livelihood support. Whilst there is still much to do in a number of areas, there is no doubt that the future of Sri Lanka is hopeful, if the present opportunity is fully grasped.
But our experience and the experience of many countries across the world is that a peaceful and secure future cannot come without addressing the pain of the past. The foundation for reconciliation has to come from honesty about the violence of 2009. History has shown this in Northern Ireland and the UK is well aware of the difficult decisions governments have to make – including in recognising that however abhorrent the tactics of terrorists, the conduct of their own side may not have been above criticism. In the case of Sri Lanka, this means looking again at the last weeks of the conflict in May 2009.
We have seen allegations of war crimes in the detailed accounts in the UN Panel of Experts report, and in documentary footage authenticated by independent experts.
The former indicates that civilians lost their lives through widespread shelling by the army of hospitals and humanitarian objects and that the LTTE used civilians as a human buffer and killed those who attempted to flee. The UK government is deeply concerned about these allegations.
The evidence which has so far come to light is enough to lend credibility to the claims that war crimes were perpetrated by both sides in the conflict in those difficult days. It is not for me to judge where this evidence should lead: that is for the full and independent inquiry that I and Sri Lanka’s other friends have been calling for. Our concern is based on a desire to see reconciliation genuinely effected for the good of all Sri Lankans. This will only come from an independent, comprehensive and credible inquiry, which confronts the allegations and comes to an honest conclusion about them. An inclusive political solution, which addresses the underlying causes of the conflict, would further advance peace.
The Sri Lankan government has said the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) will report in November. We note the timetable it has set itself and have been clear that we also believe that progress on accountability must be made by the end o the year. It is important that the LLRC’s work and report reflects international standards, established through similar post-conflict reconciliation bodies, in order to give the findings maximum credibility and lay this painful time in history to rest. I have made this point in public statements this month because the UK wants an open and honest relationship with Sri Lanka.
An honest friend would not stand aside and remove the need for difficulties to be confronted.
The future holds much for Sri Lanka. Its economy is growing, tourism is flourishing and visitors are struck by the warmth and friendliness of its people. We want Sri Lanka to use its natural advantages to be a model of stability in the region and show its international friends that it can successfully put the past behind it. We are looking forward to supporting Sri Lanka to find lasting peace and security, built on foundations of true reconciliation.
The writer is Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Minister for South Asia.
He wrote this article specially to the Sunday Times