Why Lanka figures large in Britain’s foreign policy
With the United States, Britain has led an uncompromising campaign against the Sri Lankan Government. They have remained steadfast in the belief that the international community should act with the powers vested in the UNHRC to investigate accusations of war crimes.
Since the CHOGM meeting last November criticism has intensified to supplement the gesture of sponsoring the first US-resolution that directly challenged the Rajapaksa Government. The opinions of Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague have appeared frequently in newspaper columns.
It has come to the point where the verdict in Geneva, approaching ever nearer, is almost redundant. The UK’s hardline approach to Sri Lanka has severely damaged diplomatic relations between the two currently elected governments. It all clearly seems ‘worth it’ for UK policy makers.
Historical ties naturally link both countries together. The legacy of imperialism had a causal effect on the divisions that have wrecked havoc in Sri Lanka since independence in 1948. Either through the Sinhala perception that the colonists favoured the Tamils or through the ignorant ‘divide and rule’ attitude, the cause and effect of colonial rule in Sri Lanka was indicative of the fecklessness and immorality of British imperialism.
The past does not appear to worry the British Government about encroaching into Sri Lankan sovereignty again. Britain still has a presence in the popular imagination of Sri Lankans and the symbols of British influence still permeate aspects of society. Rather than wanting to preserve the relatively good post-colonial relationship, which should, you might think, be warmly accepted by the UK, historical linkages have worked in reverse. Britain has more to lose than most other countries by challenging the status quo, but this hasn’t been a concern. There are plenty of reasons why.
David Cameron has wanted to appear strong on Sri Lanka. To a global audience the British government want to be viewed as a leading exponent and enforcer of international legal systems that have supra-sovereign authority. Sri Lanka comes under Britain’s sphere of interest because it can ‘get ahead’ in broader strategic terms, by taking a leading role to support the UNHRC resolution.
Britain is in a state of some economic and military decline. Today it does not exhibit the same commercial trappings that other large states do and it has become a challenge to compete in emerging economies.
A military footprint pays ‘homage’ to Britain’s former calling card. This is no longer sustainable and despite domestic economic difficulty, they still want to effect change in other countries under the banner of human rights and democracy. Sri Lanka bears witness.
Britain shares an agenda with the US in Sri Lanka. This complements the popular perception that Britain still hangs on to American coattails in foreign policy. However this reading is too simplistic. Britain has been an independent and leading actor in Sri Lanka within a European context. It is a worthwhile strategy for Britain to show EU member countries such as France and Germany that it can still assert itself in South Asia.
Some argue that the Tamil diaspora in the UK have had a leading role in pressuring Britain to call for an independent investigation. No doubt some aggravated for it, but a scenario where the British government would take such measures purely on the grounds of the protestations of a diaspora community is politically unrealistic.
Britain’s domestic agenda included a wider range of actors. The UK Government would have faced serious criticism from the opposition, the press and civil society groups if it hadn’t taken the most stringent action.
Rightly or wrongly Britain has an interest in Sri Lanka and a relationship defined by a unique set of circumstances. Perhaps irreparable damage has been done. If Britain had forgone such vigorous support for the US-backed resolution, even if they tacitly supported it, could a still functioning UK-Sri Lankan relationship have been put to good use?
A serious diplomatic fallout from Geneva will be India’s probable vote against Sri Lanka. The UK could have taken a role to mitigate between Colombo and New Delhi. This would have required an independent approach to the US resolution, looking at India as the country that needs to be involved with Sri Lanka long term.
India has a political stake in Sri Lanka that China, Sri Lanka’s emerging ally in the East, does not have nor want. This makes India the most influential foreign country in Sri Lanka’s postwar epoch. The US dictated political terms that Britain echoed. This encouraged India to stand in opposition to Colombo to align with the US. Clearly India was also working to a local agenda because of the Tamil Nadu factor in an election year. But once the dust settles Sri Lanka and India will need to reconnect.
Rhetoric couched in regional co-operation might have offset the language used by the American’s. By not doing this Britain has also played in to the hands of the Government of Sri Lanka by fueling its anti-West position. This has strengthened the ruling coalition’s power base.
There is shortsightedness in the British approach if Sri Lanka does disavowal working diplomatic relations in the future. They risk not being able to unilaterally follow up on the Geneva verdict in a positive way and to co-ordinate in a regional context.
Gilberto Algar-Faria from The University of Bristol, UK, believes Britain should not place too much emphasis on simply criticising the Sri Lankan Government:
“It is not enough to simply condemn a regime and expect it to do as it is told; Britain must play a careful strategy of engagement over the next 12 months”.
A softer approach might not have been completely feasible in this context. There is a difference, however, between leading and supporting, something that ignores the potential for nuance and foresight. Britain decided to be tough, even if much of it was political posturing, and will have to live with the consequences.
The verdict in Geneva will not move the earth. Any objectives Britain has will not be satisfied on March the 28th. But it will take a lot to repair the wounds it has caused. There are still strong ties in development, education and through various Commonwealth institutions that Britain will want to preserve.
The aim of the UNHRC resolution surely can’t just be to punish a government, but to support accountability and justice for all. Britain has made it hard for itself to have a role in the process.
(The writer is a UK-based researcher on South Asian affairs, currently interning at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.)