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Poor old Des Browne

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown laughs as he talks to children at a day care center during a visit to the Bromley by Bow community center on Monday Feb. 9, 2009 in London.

Gordon Brown is clearly a genius.  While Mahinda Rajapaksa has been providing ammunition to his critics by appointing just about everybody in his ruling coalition to ministerial positions to stop them causing trouble, which costs an awful lot in office expenses and generates equal amounts of confusion as to the demarcation of responsibilities, not to mention all those nincompoops in positions of authority, Gordon Brown has it sorted.  When he needs to keep a parliamentary colleague sweet, he simply despatches them as an envoy, preferably to somewhere remote.  They get an impressive title to add to their visiting cards, several trips to five star resorts, and a lot of papers to shuffle and useless meetings to attend to ensure that they don’t have too much time on their hands, so Gordon Brown can relax for a while.  Mahinda Rajapaksa really ought to pay attention.

Last week’s appointment of Des Browne as the British envoy to Sri Lanka was a particular masterstroke.  The rumpus over whether or not this was done in consultation has been amusing enough, with British Foreign Minister David Miliband looking really quite silly explaining that he believed that Mahinda Rajapaksa had agreed, as if they had been playing a game of Chinese whispers.  But the real fun would have started if Sri Lanka had accepted him.

The suggestion was that the British envoy would help to bring an end to the conflict with the LTTE, thus solving the urgent humanitarian problems in the Vanni.  A political solution is needed, we were helpfully told by David Miliband, as if this were a revelatory idea.  Gordon Brown had said that there should be a ceasefire.

Leaving aside the rather obvious problems with this strategy, it’s great to see that Britain hasn’t got disheartened by its complete failure to bring peace to the Middle East, despite having given up its most famous citizen as an envoy a year or two ago.  Tony Blair must have been too caught up advising JPMorgan Chase on how to lose piles of money as quickly as possible to remember to prevent Israel from devastating the Gaza strip last month, never mind the deal on Palestinian statehood that hasn’t been looking any closer to being done since he began work.  A new generation of Sri Lankans will have grown old by the time Britain manages to sort things out with the LTTE if this experience is indicative, but that this doesn’t put Gordon Brown off is really very comforting in this age of limited attention spans.

Des Browne isn’t likely to be a great help with a political solution.  We know that Britain is always saying that devolution is the answer to everything, and far be it for us to deny it, but its appointee doesn’t seem to be very keen.  A few months ago, when Gordon Brown proposed taking the long awaited next step in British devolution, the amalgamation of the posts of Ministers for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in a new one of Minister for the Nations, Des Browne refused the job, preferring to return to the insignificance of the backbenches. This after a rather inglorious period spent trying to quash the idea of devolution eventually leading to independence as Minister for Scotland.

It might be worth noting here that this move had been delayed because powers over justice and policing in Northern Ireland had been retained by Westminster until it was agreed last year that the IRA army council had ceased to exist.  That is an impressive three years after it was confirmed by international monitors that IRA decommissioning had been completed, and more than ten years since the Good Friday Agreement that set out the political solution for Northern Ireland had been signed.  Change doesn’t happen overnight, it seems. Envoys have a tendency to forget the experiences of their own countries once they set foot on a plane, so let’s just consider this some kind of aide memoire for Des Browne in case he ever makes it to Sri Lanka.

This refusal followed his sacking from the position of Defence Minister, which he had occupied for a rather short but all too miserable period of two years.  He was first called on to resign after an incident in which he demonstrated even less aptitude for diplomacy than David Miliband did last week, if such a thing were possible.  When Iran arrested a handful of British naval officers, claiming that they had violated Iranian sovereignty by operating in their waters, Des Browne opted for the uncompromising approach.  Negotiations weren’t top of the agenda, even though Iran was only asking the British to admit their mistake and apologise.  Unspecified other measures would be taken if necessary, they were told.  Threatening the Iranian government is a hobby of Western diplomats, and this must have seemed like an excellent opportunity.  All this when a year later the Foreign Affairs Committee ruled that the British naval officers had been in disputed waters and he had contributed to a Ministry of Defence effort to mislead the public into thinking otherwise.

Des Browne subsequently thought it would be a good idea to allow the British naval officers to sell their stories to the media for a couple of hundred thousand pounds or so.  Humiliation swiftly followed.  Perhaps he could bring a similar level of innovation to his handling of relations with Sri Lanka.  A few tabloid exposures of a sobbing David Miliband expressing his anguish at the million and one telephone calls he has been compelled to make to apologise for mistaking what Mahinda Rajapaksa said in that game of Chinese whispers might be in order.

Another note seems relevant here.  The British naval officers weren’t mistreated by the Iranians, with no more than what sounded like pretty regular questioning techniques being employed.  That one of them admitted to having cried when his IPod was taken away from him indicates what was likely involved.  Yet around the same time, Des Browne had to admit to substantial breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights by British troops in Iraq.  A case brought by the family of an Iraqi civilian who had died in British custody revealed that prisoners had been beaten with bars, repeatedly kicked, forced to maintain painful stress positions for hours, deprived of sleep and compelled to drink their own urine.

This is not to say that one side is good and the other bad.  But let’s hope that Des Browne doesn’t forget these lessons if he ends up getting on that plane to Sri Lanka. Things can occasionally go wrong in a conflict situation, whatever the intentions of those in charge, and nobody should assume a government to be either squeaky clean or guilty of appalling things without proper evidence.  This is aide memoire number two.

Des Browne wasn’t interested in negotiating with the Iranians, but he famously expressed his eagerness to chat with terrorists during his tenure as Defence Minister.  In a wide ranging interview with a British newspaper, he claimed to be all for approaching the Taliban and possibly also Al Qaeda.  He argued that people who believed that their political objectives could be achieved through violence had to be persuaded that they could get what they wanted by means of politics.  Persuasion didn’t imply anything more forceful than a stern talking to in a schoolmasterly voice either.  It was really quite endearing.  Gordon Brown must have thought it better not to indulge such fantasies, because Osama bin Laden hasn’t yet been invited to Downing Street for tea and cucumber sandwiches.

Britain is obviously confused about the question of negotiations, and this returns us neatly to the strategy behind its appointment of an envoy to Sri Lanka.  Gordon Brown wanted there to be a ceasefire, stressing the need for a political solution.  Yet the British High Commissioner explicitly stated the other day that his government was not calling on Mahinda Rajapaksa to negotiate with the LTTE.  This is just gobbledygook.  Of course most people agree that there needs to be a political solution to ensure a durable peace in Sri Lanka, but there is no way that this can have any impact on the current humanitarian problems in the Vanni.  The LTTE is responsible, and fortunately we all agree that there is very little chance of their opting for anything other than self-serving measures that prolong their ability to destabilise Sri Lanka. It is terribly sad, but crying about it doesn’t make the situation any better.

A final aide memoire concerns the other controversy that nearly did for Des Browne in his time as Defence Minister.  His resignation was urged for the second time after a court ruled against efforts by his officials to suggest that British forces serving abroad were not protected under the Human Rights Act.  This was raised during a case filed by relatives of a soldier who had died in Iraq, as the British government had refused to accept liability for having sent him out without the proper equipment.  Des Browne also tried to gag coroners investigating such deaths in combat by preventing them from criticising the British forces in their reports.

It is beginning to look as though Mahinda Rajapaksa ought to be appointing an envoy to Britain.  After all, the two countries have been friends for centuries.  Sri Lanka was privileged enough to have been invaded and occupied by Britain, and knows a lot about the repressive policies of that era, so it may have something useful to say on these questions of human rights in modern Britain.  And there are plenty of suitable candidates.  Mangala Samaraweera would have been the ideal choice at one time, which would have saved a lot of hot air being released into the Sri Lankan political atmosphere, but Mahinda Rajapaksa could still think of somebody of the calibre of Mervyn Silva. Let Britain see how they like that!

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