What was Werritty doing meeting Sri Lanka's regime?
Ever since we discovered and broadcast the photo of Liam Fox and Adam Werritty on a trip to Sri Lanka on Channel 4 News last week we, along with the rest of the media, have been fascinated by the revelations of just how often Mr Werrity seems to have appeared on official or unofficial trips with the secretary of state for defence, writes Channel 4 News Foreign Editor Ben De Pear.
Whilst we await the investigations into the propriety of his actions, the other questions surrounding the defence secretary’s relations with the regime in Sri Lanka, questions asked a long time ago but never properly answered, deepen with the multiple appearances at his side of his friend/erstwhile adviser/business partner in meetings with members of the Sri Lankan regime.
Since March 2009 Channel 4 News and Channel 4, culminating with the film Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, have reported and tried to investigate what happened in the final weeks and months of Sri Lanka’s civil war. It was a brutal 30-year conflict, in which a ruthless terror organisation, the Tamil Tigers, pioneered the use of suicide bombers and child soldiers, targeting civilians and military alike, as it sought to overthrow the government in the north and east of the country.
After years of attempted negotiations, which Liam Fox as a foreign minister from 1996-1997 did much to facilitate, in 2008 the government of Sri Lanka under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the head of a troika of brothers running the country, decided to end the war once and for all.
By March 2009 the huge and unprecedented Sri Lankan army assault on the north and east of the island had trapped 300,000 civilians, with the remnants of the Tamil Tigers, in a tiny and ever-shrinking strip of land in the north east of the country.
Over a period of weeks, the Sri Lankan government remorselessly shelled, bombed from the air, and attacked those within the area they named the “no-fire zone”. Countless NGO and UN reports into what happened there put the estimate of civilian deaths at 40,000.
In the crudest terms of war – the speed and rate of killing, the numbers of dead, and the apparent actions of Sri Lankan soldiers who seem to have filmed themselves on multiple occasions abusing and executing bound prisoners, as well as showing gross disrespect for the bodies of the dead – it has scarcely been matched in barbarity this century.
It ended the war with the total and absolute crushing defeat of the Tamil Tigers, but at what cost has been hard to exactly quantify. Certainly tens of thousands. But a triumphant government has seen little reason to review the recent past.
The countless unanswered questions over what happened, how many died, and who gave the orders, have been asked again and again by human rights campaigners, parliaments around the world, and even our own prime minister. The UN, in a 120-age report ordered by the secretary general, has repeatedly called for there to be proper and independent investigations into what happened.
The Sri Lankan government, which will not allow journalists from Channel 4 News and countless other media organisations into the country, has one of the worst records in the world on repression of its own media, and has repeatedly prevented the UN from investigating the allegations of war crimes against it.
Cables from the US ambassador to Sri Lanka back to Washington revealed his opinion that there would be no proper investigations because those who ordered the killing were the people who ran the country, the Rajapaksa brothers.
Mr Fox, as far as can be ascertained, has met the president on at least three occasions in the last three years – almost as many times as he has met President Karzai, the leader of a country where ten thousand British troops are fighting a war.
In December, when he met the president on his trip to London, we asked what the nature of these meetings were and were told they were private, and that a future planned trip would also be so. Its status later became official. For their part the Sri Lankans have used these meetings to show that relations between Britain and Sri Lanka are normal, that their president is internationally respected.
On his last trip to Sri Lanka Mr Fox finally publicly called for Sri Lanka to properly investigate and account for its actions at the end of the war. But what was Mr Werritty doing in the meetings with the regime? Was he there as Mr Fox’s friend, or his adviser? Or was he there on business? These questions remain, as do the questions of the Sri Lankan regime itself.
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Read more about Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields