Professor Craig Scott is a Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in Toronto, and Director of the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security. He is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Advisory Council of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. He contributed the following comment.

It was widely noted (with, at minimum, raised eyebrows) that UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox met with President Mahinder Rajapaksa during Rajapaksa’s recent ill-fated visit to the UK, in what Fox dared to classify as a private meeting. Now, two reports this week in the Guardian Online – on Wednesday and then Thursday, December 15 and 16 – bring into sharper focus the seriousness, and serious problem, of the Defence Secretary’s seeming insistence on lending legitimacy to the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka.

The headline of Wednesday’s report by The Guardian’s Owen Bowcott and Nicholas Watt on Wednesday speaks for itself: “Liam Fox’s Sri Lanka trip makes Foreign Office furious”. The focus of attention following this Guardian report tended to be on the internal governmental politics in the UK, notably whether Foreign Secretary Hague would appeal to Prime Minister Cameron and whether Cameron would forbid Fox’s trip. Indeed, the next day, another Guardian article – Nicholas Watt, Mark Tran, and Jason Burke, “Liam Fox cancels Sri Lanka trip amid claim in cables of Colombo’s war crimes complicity” (Thursday, December 16, 2010)
– reported that Defence Secretary Fox decided to postpone the trip after talks with Foreign Secretary Hague. It is not said whether or not Prime Minister Cameron weighed in.

In its Thursday report, The Guardian also notes that the decision not to travel to Sri Lanka coincided with both the release of US Embassy Wikileaks cables that deepen the already clear evidence of war crimes committed by members of the Sri Lankan government and a warning from the British Tamils Forum that Fox’s visit “would send mixed messages to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is facing strong international pressure for an investigation into allegations that Sri Lanka forces committed war crimes.” Yet, Fox seems undisposed to address the substance of the concerns about his trip let alone acknowledge those concerns as the reason for not going ahead with the trip. In what has to rank right up there in the pantheon of the most transparently disingenuous explanations given by politicians for a change of course, a spokesperson for Fox claimed the postponement was a simple scheduling problem. Said the Ministry of Defence spokesperson, “’Dr Fox has postponed his private visit to Sri Lanka due to an extension to his scheduled official visit to the Gulf.’”And, then, the very next sentence from the spokesperson makes clear that Fox does not acknowledge any reason of substance why he should not travel to give further succor to the Rajapaksa regime: “’[Defence Secretary Fox] intends to carry out an official visit to Sri Lanka next year, during which he proposes to fulfil the speaking engagement that he had planned.i”

This ‘explanation’ of the trip’s postponement shows how important it is for journalists to continue to investigate exactly how Defence Secretary Fox walks the line between his own views and those of the government of which he forms a part, including whether Fox’s personal connections are undermining UK foreign policy with respect to Sri Lanka.

In this respect, the final lines of the original Guardian report from Wednesday suggest some lines of future inquiry for journalists, and indeed the Prime Minister, to follow:

“According to the latest register of members’ interests, Fox has declared that he has been paid for two recent flights and stays to Sri Lanka.

The first was for a trip between 14 and 19 November 2009, recorded to have been worth £3,000. The donor was recorded as the Sri Lanka Development Trust, with an address in Edinburgh.

The purpose of the visit was said to be ‘to attend the Sri Lanka Freedom Party national convention and for meetings with the president of Sri Lanka and the foreign minister’.”

Probing questions directed to Defence Secretary Fox in the House of Commons Question Period about the significance of this information would also be most appropriate.