Did Liam Fox plan deportations to hide Tamil genocide?
Phil Miller, Stop Deportation Blog, 5th July 2012
In June 2011 the UK Border Agency (UKBA) resumed chartering aircraft to deport Tamil refugees en masse to Sri Lanka. This policy had been suspended in April 2009 at the height of the civilian massacres by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.
Human rights groups have repeatedly condemned UKBA’s decision as evidence mounted that Tamil deportees were being tortured on return.
The controversy culminated in June 2012 when the front-page of the Guardian exposed how a man was tortured for 17 days by Sri Lankan security forces after being deported with 24 others on the first in this series of five charter flights.
This shameful charter flight program has made a mockery of the UKBA’s claim that they only return people to Sri Lanka who have “no international protection needs”.
But accusing the UKBA of negligence misses the reason why these flights resumed.
The real story is that Britain’s disgraced ex-defence secretary Liam Fox set up these deportations in collusion with the Sri Lankan regime, bolstering its international credibility and silencing dissent in the Tamil diaspora to hide their ongoing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Why else did someone from Liam Fox’s ‘office’ secretly meet with senior figures in the Rajapaksa regime to discuss Sri Lankan refugees living in the UK one week prior to the resumption of deportations by chartered flight?
Lanka News Web leaked the above information in mid-June 2011 but few people noticed. Fox’s ‘secretary’ met with ex-Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogallagama and senior oppostion MP Wijedasa Rajapaksa in the Spice Restaurant of the Hilton Hotel in Colombo on 9th June 2011 [Article covered in English and Tamil media sources]. The first charter flight left on 16th June 2011. Meetings were held with other officials, such as Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who infamously justified bombing hospitals during a wartime interview with Sky News.
Lanka News Web also claimed Fox’s ‘secretary’ met the then Attorney General Mohan Peiris. They discussed how to face “adverse publicity” at the UN resulting from the imminent deportations. Mohan Peiris would later lead frantic cover-up efforts at the UN Committee Against Torture (UN CAT) in November 2011. London-based NGO Freedom from Torture had submitted medical evidence to the Committee showing how returnees were being tortured by the regime. It came out recently in a Sri Lankan Magistrate’s Court that Mohan Peiris lied during his testimony to the UN CAT (Colombo Telegraph, 10th June 2012).
A meeting at the Spice Restaurant around this time between Bogollagama and Fox’s controversial associate Adam Werritty has since been corroborated months later by Wijedasa Rajapaksa (The Guardian, 13th October 2011).
This secret meeting is consistent with a long pattern of exceptionally close and controversial support from the Fox/Werritty duo to the Sri Lankan regime.
For example, on 13th March 2009 Fox and Werritty travelled to Sri Lanka and met with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Rohitha Bogollagama who was Foreign Minister at that time, along with other senior figures in the Sri Lankan regime. Their meeting took place at a peak of the genocide, when even hospitals (e.g. Puthukkudiyiruppu PTK Hospital) were being bombed and UN demarcated ‘safety zones’ were being turned in to killing fields by the Sri Lankan regime.
Liam Fox later attributed this visit to the creation of the controversial Sri Lankan Development Trust, which was only partly scrutinised before his forced resignation closed the affair.
Fox made numerous other visits to Sri Lanka in this time. President Rajapaksa, having re-hired the lobbyist Bell Pottinger, then travelled to Britain in December 2010 for the first time since the allegations of genocide were levelled against him. His visit was arranged at very short notice and centred around a speech to the Oxford Union. However, the event was cancelled because Tamil diaspora activists mounted protests and sought to arrest members of the President’s besieged entourage for war crimes. Despite this controversy, Fox and Werritty saved the President from humiliation by meeting him in London’s Dorchester Hotel along with Foreign Minister GL Peries, President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunghe and Kshenuka Seneviratne.
Foreign Secretary William Hague was said to be “appalled” by the meeting and pressured Fox to postpone his planned private visit to Sri Lanka later that month to deliver the Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial lecture (The Guardian, 15th December 2010).
Fox rescheduled his visit for July 2011, when he travelled from an official visit to India to speak at the Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial lecture. Fox met with Werritty who was already operational in Sri Lanka on arrival in Colombo. Wijedasa Rajapaksa was spotted in the front row of the audience at the lecture.
Fox & Werritty’s unwavering support for the Rajapaksa regime despite the allegations of genocide demonstrates their shared disregard for the massacres of Tamil civilians. Therefore, the involvement of Fox’s ‘secretary’ in planning the deportation charter flight program is part of a concerted effort to boost the regime’s international credibility and deter witnesses from disclosing crucial evidence about the ongoing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
How have the charter flights intimidated witnesses to war crimes?
This wave of mass deportations has undoubtedly spread fear among the Tamil diaspora in Britain. Nimalan Seevaratnam, an MP of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), argues that the charter flights have deterred many refugees with insecure immigration status from speaking out against the Rajapaksa regime. For example, Sri Lankans who fled the Vanni in 2009 and sought asylum in Britain are eye-witnesses to the civilian massacres. Survivor testimonies are crucial because the regime conducted a “war without witnesses” by banning journalists and humanitarian organisations from accessing these conflict areas. Therefore, the UK government has a duty to protect these witnesses and not hound them with the threat of deportation.
The flights have also involved major breaches of confidentiality which have increased the risk to deportees. Before the first charter flight, Barrister Shivani Jegarajah documented numerous instances of deportees’ asylum files being shared between UKBA and the Sri Lankan regime, disclosing details about previous anti-government activity or family connections with the LTTE. This proves how the Sri Lankan government is paying close attention to who is being deported.
How do charter flights help the regime’s international image?
These deportations flights have an additional benefit for the regime: they symbolise to the international community that the British Government regards Sri Lanka as a safe country.
Sri Lankan media reports reveal how pivotal these deportations have been in the ongoing contest between the regime and human rights groups over allegations of genocide. For example, The Island newspaper described the charter flights as a “valuable ‘show and tell’ propaganda tool” for the Rajapaksa regime: “The fact that the UK government was willing to deport failed Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka was a plus point for the Sri Lankan government which could claim this as a sign that both the British government and the British judiciary considered Sri Lanka perfectly safe for Tamil deportees” (The Island, 2nd June 2012).
How to stop the deportations
We can now understand how these deportations are connected to a wider agenda. Is it still acceptable to let conservative elements in the Tamil community prevent a concerted challenge to the charter flights?
The UK government’s previous charter flights program, which ran from January-April 2009, was scrapped once the Tamil community had broken through the fear barrier and mobilised on a massive scale against the genocidal war.
There are simple things we can do to protect our community cohesion from being threatened by deportations. This process should build confidence to speak out on related issues.
Many immigrants in Britain are at risk of UKBA’s racist immigration checks on the street and workplace raids. These often lead to deportations. Tamil activists could join forces with organisers in London’s Latin American community who have distributed legal advice and organised theatre performances to educate people about how to deal with this harassment by Immigration Officers.
There will probably be another charter flight to Sri Lanka around August/September this year. The current protests against land grabs and military occupation are being brutally repressed. Solidarity events in the UK should be used to get more organised in anticipation of further deportations.