In the days of the American Wild West (not that it is not wild any longer), the Native Americans, chased out of their lands and robbed of their possessions, were even cheated of promises made in official treaties. So much so that one Native American Chief famously said “White man speak with forked tongue.” Long [...]


UK at its usual two-tongued game


In the days of the American Wild West (not that it is not wild any longer), the Native Americans, chased out of their lands and robbed of their possessions, were even cheated of promises made in official treaties. So much so that one Native American Chief famously said “White man speak with forked tongue.”

Long before this 19th century recorded characterization by Chief Joseph of his white trading partners and Washington officials, Native Americans were deceived and herded into reservations with broken promises.

But centuries before that, British imperialism was running roughshod over countries London had conquered or acquired as trophies of war. I was reminded of colonial history and British governance at home today where the great democracy we have been taught about at school, is shaking somewhat at the foundations.

It is not uncommon for British parliamentarians pitching for one cause or the other to turn to the Mother of Parliaments to air their views using as ballast unproven statements based on unspecified estimates as happened at last Thursday’s debate to castigate Sri Lanka.

Not that there is nothing to be said about the diplomatic mess that Sri Lanka is making on its journey to wherever. But what is galling is that it should come from countries such as the UK which has made a hash of its own politics under Prime Minister Boris Johnson parading his self-delusionary cleverness that is more suited to a comic opera.

The gathering British storm to overwhelm Sri Lanka in Geneva this week when the resolution drafted by the Core Group led by the UK is put to the test, reminded me somehow of the UK’s reaction when Colombo by some misconstrued camaraderie co-sponsored the 2015 US-and-UK-led resolution at the Geneva sessions.

Besides showering praise for adopting this “historic resolution”, the British Minister of State for Asia Hugo Swire said that for Sri Lanka to “fulfill its enormous potential it must address the legacy of its past.”

The pontifical Swire’s reference to past legacies might have been more meaningful and less hypocritical had the country he represented done so over its inglorious history of empire.

At the time I had just been reading a book by Kwasi Kwarteng, called “Ghosts of Empire” and subtitled “Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World”. Mr Kwarteng, whose parents were from Ghana, has a PhD in History from Cambridge University and had then been recently elected an MP.

In his well-researched and enlightening book, he identifies Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong as somewhere new difficulties have arisen as a result of British imperialism and continue to baffle both politicians and diplomats.

While the present-day champions of civil liberties and human rights were spewing forth their honeyed words marinated for days in a mix of hypocrisy and bovine waste, our resplendent isle was all agog over the Geneva genuflection that it missed a revealing news story then.

That news report proves, if proof was at all necessary after decades of sanctimonious humbug emanating from London and Washington, how committed these purveyors of piffle in the two capitals really are to civil liberties in their own territory.

The story is important because it involves the two principal players — Washington and London — that were instrumental in pushing Sri Lanka to the dock in Geneva after continuous castigation for alleged war crimes and human rights abuses as though they were whiter than the whitest lilies and smelled like attar of roses.

Among the many news reports that appeared in the British media, one headlined the story “’Tortured’ Briton leaves Guantanamo after 13 years.” Though that headline seems somewhat premature — the release had still to be cleared by Congress — it captures the essence of a story that tells how the US treats the detained with the complicity of their transatlantic cousins.

There are many other reports of British conduct in various theatres of recent warfare that violate human rights and international humanitarian law but space restrictions do not permit telling them here.

Now to fast forward six years one comes to the Johnsonian era of Conservative politics where Tory populism has come to the fore. Just last week what is called the Police Bill for convenience, passed its second reading in the Commons.

Those particularly concerned about human rights including minority rights, right to dissent and freedom of speech might have shown more ardour in taking up cudgels against the authorities who are strengthening the hands of senior police officers and the Home Secretary to restrict protests in unprecedented ways.

Ironically at the time the bill was before parliament, Police were manhandling women protestors at a vigil to mark the murder of a young woman, Sarah Everard, causing an uproar over police actions.

“The murder of Sarah Everard has placed the UK’s public institutions under intense scrutiny, raised questions as to why prosecutions against sexual abusers remain at an all-time low, and highlighted the threats faced by women and girls from ethnic minority backgrounds, according to experts.

Everard went missing on March 3 – she was last seen walking home from a friend’s house near Clapham Common, in London. Her remains were found in woodlands a week later in Kent, a nearby county, and identified on March 12,” reported Anu Shukla for Al Jazeera.

Interestingly the Police Bill, which has more horrific features that trample on human rights that the UK seemingly seeks to protect, proposes 10 years jail for damaging a statue or memorial whereas the jail term is less for the offence of rape.

Such is the authoritarian populism that now forms part of the Boris Johnson Conservative agenda that the police bill was pushed through parliament with MPs and public given hardly a week to scrutinise the 300-page bill. Such is the determination to hustle legislation through parliament that the democratic credentials Johnson parades under are more a charade than a genuine show of democratic intent.

With the United Kingdom, less united now than before and struggling under the Brexit mess that Johnson and his cronies have brought upon the country, Johnson and Co are trying to divert attention elsewhere from the domestic screw up with foreign policy ventures.

It must surely remind
Sri Lankans of affairs closer home.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard. Later he was Deputy Chief of Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London).


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