How the Foreign Office makes decisions

06/02/2014 Britain's Foreign Office has had a puzzling policy towards Sri Lanka in recent years. At times it has een downright terri le!selling arms to Sri Lanka and denying the clear e"idence of torture y Sri Lankan security forces. At other times it has een a deal etter# most nota ly in the recent welcome announcement from $a"id %ameron that they would pursue an &ndependent &nternational &n"estigation in Sri Lanka. O"erall the impression has een of a lack of coherence# with different sections of the ci"il ser"ice pursuing different policies and the politicians# for the most part# only taking an interest when the pu lic demand that they do. 'owhere was this am i"alence more o "ious than in their attitude to the %ommonwealth Summit. On the one hand the decision to attend was clearly a mistake# and one thrown into e"en sharper contrast y the principled stand of (auritius. On the other hand# ha"ing attended# the British did do a good )o of drawing attention to the ongoing pro lems in the north# and spoke strongly a out the need for action. &t would e easy therefore to let the matter rest# and concentrate on ensuring that $a"id %ameron keep his promise of pushing for an in"estigation in (arch. But we feel it is important to look at what happened in 'o"em er# in order to etter understand * in a longer term manner * what kinds of attitudes and understandings are dri"ing British policy towards Sri Lanka. +herefore we ha"e put together this piece# which analyses some of the arguments that were used efore the summit and uses it to tease out some of the ,o"ernment's

thought processes * and see if we can etter understand why the Foreign Office eha"e the way they do. -Sri Lanka needs our engagement on the road to peace” – Carl Wright +he "iew that practical engagement .in contrast to /isolation01 is the key to ad"ancing human rights in Sri Lanka has a long heritage within diplomatic circles. +hose that su scri e to it fre2uently refer to the power of / ehind the scenes0 diplomacy * a concept whose efficacy it is con"eniently difficult to pro"e or dispro"e. But what e"idence is there to suggest that this sort of engagement has worked in the past in Sri Lanka3 &n Octo er 4567# the %ommonwealth Secretary*,eneral0s aide Simon ,imson claimed that -what 8the %ommonwealth has9 achie"ed in the last nine months# is more than any other international organisation in the last thirty*nine months: ; yet in this period we witnessed the shooting of si< unarmed protesters demanding clean water in =eliweriya# armed attacks on the homes of +amil politicians and critical )ournalists# and the illegal seizure of >4 illion worth of land in the 'orth of the country y the military. &f these incidents represented a success for constructi"e engagement as ,imson claimed# this surely poses the 2uestion! what would failure look like3 As recent attempts at /champagne diplomacy0 y the British in 'ew ?ork illustrated# this soft approach fre2uently leads to the hard issues eing skirted rather than confronted# whilst offering the go"ernment ample opportunities to pose as a willing partner committed to progress. (egalomaniacal as the @a)apaskas are# the ,o"ernment of Sri Lanka is an institution# not an indi"idualA the promise of B ehind the scenes diplomacyB is rooted in the idea that Sri Lanka's pro lems could e sol"ed y a 2uiet chat etween Cresident and Crime (inister# ut the world does not work that way. -Attending is the best way to draw the world’s attention to the situation in Sri Lanka” - Da id Cameron +his is one of the arguments that was most fre2uently put forward y the Crime (inister0s office. +he logic appeared to rest on the dual assumption that attendance at %HO,( would help to draw critical attention from the international community a out Sri Lanka0s human rights record# and that more critical attention would e garnered through attendance than non*attendance. ,i"en the circumstances# the British go"ernment and media did do their est to ensure that this would take place# ut this has to e measured against the mi<ed messages that attendance sent. &n contrast to the une2ui"ocal signals sent y (auritius and %anada drew far more critical attention. +his speaks to the Foreign Office's conser"atism# which is a common characteristic of all diplomatic corps ut seems particularly pronounced in the DE. +here is a reluctance to try anything new# and a tendency towards usiness as usual. +he pro lem in Sri

Lanka's case is that conducting usiness as usual normalises and legitimises the appalling situation that we currently ha"e. -Sri Lanka deser es some recognition !"or its# progress” – $eter %eap &n an article in the ,uardian newspaper from Octo er 4567# challenging $ouglas Ale<ander0s prior calls for a oycott of the summit# it was claimed y former diplomat Ceter Heap that progress in Sri Lanka on de"elopment# democracy and de* militarization should warrant recognition# and that rights "iolations were not as ad as suggested. &f you are reading this log you will pro a ly understand that this is nonsense# or will e a le to disco"er so# 2uickly. And fortunately it appears neither $a"id %ameron# nor any of his senior staff was fooled. But the "oice of apologist for the Sri Lankan regime within the ,o"ernment should not e underestimated. Liam Fo< may e out of fa"our ut there are a num er of young %onser"ati"e (Cs# led y Aiden Burley and Fames =harton# who are happy to accept free holidays in Sri Lanka and parrot go"ernmental propaganda. +he %onser"ati"e Carty also appear to e in some way in"ol"ed with BGngage Sri LankaB# an anonymous group dedicated to undermining the credi ility of %hannel H 'ews and any other "ocal critic of the Sri Lankan ,o"ernment. Gngage Sri Lanka's we site was registered y a %am ridgeshire %onser"ati"e %ouncillor! Ste"e +ierney and was su se2uently registered to %am ridgeshire %onser"ati"e (ayor Fonathan Farmer. Cerhaps more worryingly# some in the %onser"ati"e Carty e"en seek to downplay the moral gra"ity of human rights a uses. +his was e<emplified at a %ommonwealth conference in Septem er 4567 y Lord 'ase y who# noting disappearances conducted against enemy sympathisers in London during =orld =ar +wo# appeared to legitimise war*time disappearances in Sri Lanka y implying that they are simply a fact of life in conflict. (isrepresenting war*time casualty figures in order to )ustify attendance to the %ommonwealth summit is intellectually dishonest# ut defending practises that amounted to war crimes in order to do so is truly reprehensi le. (eanwhile the Li eral $emocrats are mem ers of Li eral &nternational! an organisation whose Sri Lankan mem er is a part of the @a)apaska regime# and whose leader * @a)i"a =i)esinha * is among the most shrill and strident opponents of in"estigations into human rights "iolations. $ou tless all political parties ha"e those within them who ha"e inappropriate links to nefarious regimes. But as the %onser"ati"es and Li eral $emocrats are parties of ,o"ernment# it is right to e concerned a out the nature of their links to Sri Lanka. -&ot attending would harm the Commonwealth” – William %ague =illiam Hague0s assertion that a oycott of the summit in %olom o would ha"e harmed the interests of the %ommonwealth appears increasingly peculiar gi"en the

disintegration that occurred as a direct result of the meeting. +he %ommonwealth0s credi ility as a community of shared "alues .as set out in the Harare $eclaration1 is likely e o"ershadowed for years to come as a result of its preparedness to award the summit ; and su se2uently the chair of the organisation * to a go"ernment accused of war crimes and mass human rights a uses. But it also spoke to the fact that human rights in Sri Lanka are not the British go"ernment's highest priority# and will often come second ehind issues they hold more dearly# e it the status of the %ommonwealth# relations with &ndia# or international trade. 'e"ertheless# the Foreign Office's a ility to make decisions which are not in the interests of human rights in Sri Lanka is limited when it elie"es the world is paying attention. +hus while it largely got away with selling the Sri Lankan ,o"ernment weapons .thanks to the disgraceful lack of scrutiny of the British arms trade1# it found that enough people were paying attention to the %ommonwealth Summit that it had to at least present a human rights rationale for attending. +his argument also flushed out a significant amount of the Foreign Office's strategic thinking. For e<ample# it was increasingly suggested that a oycott of %HO,( would ha"e amounted to a ceding of influence to %hina. ?et the DE's current policy is allowing Cresident @a)apaska to eat his cake and ha"e it! to play off %hina and the =est in such a way as to en)oy the perks of close association with oth without any of the responsi ilities which would usually accompany a close association with either. Glsewhere it was warned that a oycott would risk re*opening colonial di"ides. But this argument appeared to rely on the deeply patronising .and indeed colonial1 assumption that rights are for the =est# and not /the rest0. 'e"lections on the (oreign )""ice*s $osition +he di"ersity and seeming desperation of some of the argumentati"e strands that made up the pro*%HO,( attendance position in Britain spoke in many ways to its collecti"e incoherence. =hilst at the far end of the scale some resorted to more du ious means of making the case# e"en its more moderate proponents seemed totally o stinate in the face of o"erwhelming e"idence of human rights a uses in Sri Lanka and a out what would e achie"ed through attendance. How can this e e<plained3 Beyond the cosy personal relationships that no dou t helped to account for some of these "iews . oth Ceter Heap and Lord 'ase y are part of the deeply pro*regime /%onser"ati"e Friends of Sri Lanka0 group# for instance1# and notwithstanding the institutional failings of the %ommonwealth# this pattern largely reflected the ongoing lack of understanding of Sri Lankan issues within diplomatic circles# the entrenchment of "ested interests# and the corresponding lack of leadership that this im ued. By way of contrast# the %anadian $epartment of Foreign Affairs and +rade

demonstrated what could e achie"ed when the difficult issues are confronted head on ; taking a principled stand# whilst thinking creati"ely a out how to ring a out positi"e change in Sri Lanka. 'onetheless# while the British go"ernment snu ed calls for a oycott# the fact that they did then go out of their way to make sure human rights "iolations were flagged in their "isit# and the fact that they made the welcome commitment to demanding an &nternational &n"estigation on Sri Lanka# shows that if enough scrutiny and pressure is applied then the Foreign Office can e rapid# decisi"e# and a force for good. +he key thing is to let them know that we are watching. Posted by Thavam