by Owen Bowcott and Nicholas Watt
Liam Fox, the defence secretary, is planning to defy the Foreign Office by making a personal visit to Sri Lanka this weekend to deliver a speech in honour of a former foreign minister.
The Foreign Office is debating whether to appeal to Downing Street to prevent Fox from visiting Sri Lanka, whose government is facing allegations of war crimes during its final assault on the Tamil Tigers last year.
The row erupted after Fox, who has personal links to Sri Lanka from his time as a Foreign Office minister in the 1990s and who has visited the country twice in the last 13 months, accepted an invitation to deliver the Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial lecture. The invitation was issued by the widow of the late foreign minister, who was murdered by a Tamil Tiger sniper in 2005.
Whitehall sources said that William Hague, the foreign secretary, is annoyed by Fox's decision. One Whitehall source said: "It is dreadful. William is appalled. It will take No 10 to haul him in." Britain wants to maintain pressure on Colombo in light of questions about its assault on the Tamil Tigers.
A spokesman for Fox said last night that none of the cost of the trip to Colombo would be paid for by the Sri Lankan government. "He will be paying for the hotel himself and he will be paying for the flight. The speech is about international security. It's nothing to do with anything that's going on in Sri Lanka."
Fox is understood to have discussed the trip with the Foreign Office. Hague is aware of the visit.
Two weeks ago, Fox held a private meeting with the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, during an abortive visit to Britain. Rajapaksa flew out promptly after the Oxford Union cancelled his speech because of a threat of mass protests while Tamil campaigners attempted to obtain a war crimes arrest warrant against members of his entourage.
Human rights groups claim that 40,000 civilians were killed in the final stage of the war that eradicated the forces of the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009. The Sri Lankan government has refused to allow any independent, international investigation of the alleged massacres and has instead established its own "lessons learnt and reconciliation commission".
Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, and Amnesty International have all declined to testify before it because the commission cannot assign accountability for war crimes.
On the day that Tamil campaigners applied for an arrest warrant, pro-government demonstrators besieged the UK embassy in Colombo in protest at the cancellation of Rajapaksa's speech.
According to Sri Lankan papers, Fox is scheduled to deliver the lecture on 18 December. The Ministry of Defence confirmed that he is due to fly out to Colombo.
The Labour MP Jim Murphy, who tabled five questions about Fox's trip in parliament last night, said: "Sri Lanka is a nation with a troubled recent history. Britain can have an important role there but Liam Fox has to be clear exactly what he is trying to achieve with this visit."
Pressure on Fox increased this week when the shadow foreign secretary, Yvette Cooper, said in the Commons: "[Hague] will know [Fox] will be meeting the Sri Lankan government … next week. Will he then take the message as a member of the UK government … about the importance of a credible investigation into alleged war crimes, and will he also press for an international element to the investigation?"
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". ~ courtesy: Guardian.UK ~