Few Western countries were louder than Britain in condemning the Sri Lankan army’s shocking violations of human rights as it moved to suppress a bloody rebellion by ethnic Tamils demanding a separate state.
Clearly, those words of reproach were either not intended to be taken that seriously, or we just move on fast from such squabbles because, as this newspaper reveals, the UK sold several million pounds worth of arms last year to a regime we castigated only a few years ago.
Lest anyone imagine that “arms” in this instance refers only to equipment of a purely defensive character, it should be pointed out that the sales included pistols, assault rifles, shotguns and ammunition.
The government will no doubt respond that we have to engage with governments we don’t necessarily like, that defence forms a vital part of our export trade and that if we hadn’t sold arms to Sri Lanka, another less conscience-stricken country would have done so.
The government can also count on the lack of an outcry over the sales. The Tamil cause in Sri Lanka never engaged the British public that much, not least because the so-called Tamil Tigers committed grisly crimes of their own. Nor are we alone in moderating our former criticism of the Sri Lanka authorities. As Beijing draws Colombo into its own economic and military orbit, nervousness in the West is growing about the implications of losing influence in Sri Lanka. These are real considerations, but they beg the question of why we then claim to exercise stringent controls over arms sales and that there is an ethical dimension to them. France, another developed democracy, makes no such claims. Britain, on the other hand, simply courts ridicule and bolsters a reputation for hypocrisy by denouncing a government for egregious violations of human rights while at the same time selling it guns.