Human rights or PR whitewash: Inside the campaign to halt Police Scotland’s training contracts with the Sri Lankan Police

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Feature image: Sri Lankan Police force. Credit: Dhammika Heenpella, Flickr

“I did not believe I would survive after I was abducted off the street and taken blindfolded to a torture centre where I was beaten and abused day after day.”

“Your police may believe they are doing something to improve the way we are being treated in Sri Lanka, but our police and security forces are using them. They are not interested in human rights.”

These are the words of a survivor of alleged torture at the hands of Sri Lankan police, speaking to the Sunday Post last year. The very real fear of retaliation against his family by the Sri Lankan keeps him from disclosing his identity publicly.

His story is one of many accounts of the brutality faced by civilians at the hands of the Sri Lankan police. For some in Scotland, it may come as a surprise to hear of a link between atrocities faced by civilians at the hands of the Sri Lankan police, and the actions of our police force closer to home. 

So what was this involvement exactly? From 2010 up until last year, Police Scotland had active training contracts with the Sri Lankan police force through the former’s ‘International Development and Innovation Unit’ (IDIU). 

Police Scotland van. Image credit authour’s own.

On their website for the IDIU, Police Scotland states that the unit “identifies and develops mutually beneficial partnerships with law enforcement agencies”, both in “the United Kingdom and overseas”. It continues to state that this “supports the development of policing services in other countries”. 

However, for a wide-ranging group of actors from civil society: civilians, NGO’s, solicitors, human rights campaigners, and politicians, the partnership between the IDIU and the Sri Lankan police force was in impact less a means of strengthening human rights approaches and more one of bolstering impunity for human rights abuses committed by the Sri Lankan police.

Late last November and after years of mounting pressure at home and overseas, Police Scotland announced that they will not seek to renew the training contracts in Sri Lanka after they expire this March. 

This was down to the cumulative effort of many peoples’ work over the years, Frances Harrison – Program Coordinator with the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) and former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka – tells me.

“For us at the ITJP, this became an issue in 2016 when we went to the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva. The Sri Lankan government delegation there raised the issue that Sri Lankan police had been trained by British police.”

“[The UN Committee] specifically [mentioned] the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) unit – notorious in Sri Lanka for various violations of human rights – and the way that the Sri Lankan government use the training contracts to whitewash and endorse TID and CID (criminal investigation department). This was shocking to us.”

Indeed, the United Nations and associated organisations have repeatedly flagged human rights concerns around Police Scotland’s involvement with the Sri Lankan police force. Prior to the announcement of the discontinuation of the training contracts, former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and secretary-general of the Global Campus of Human Rights, Professor Manfred Nowark, stated to the Sunday Post:

“The Scottish Parliament should hold an inquiry and Police Scotland must investigate these allegations of torture and participate with the police in Sri Lanka to prosecute the perpetrators. If there is evidence which shows these practises are being used by the police in Sri Lanka, then Police Scotland need to step away from any future training programmes.”

Frances tells me of the work that ITJP have been involved in, to draw attention to this issue at multiple levels. “Both ourselves and Freedom from Torture raised it with the British government and the Foreign Office and said: ‘What is this training agenda if it is used to train units involved in torture?’ We got the pushback: ‘isn’t training good – doesn’t it improve the situation?’ That’s always been the tension.”

Indeed, this was a commonly levelled argument that was brought up. However, according to Freedom from Torture, it is a moot point. On their website, they state:

“There is a stark disconnect between Police Scotland’s training efforts and police practices in Sri Lanka. Over the 15 years in which the Scottish police training has taken place, there have been no significant improvements to human rights in the country.

Instead, the Sri Lankan government has used the training as a public relations exercise to deflect scrutiny of its human rights record. For example, the training provided by Police Scotland was referred to by Sri Lankan officials during a session of the United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2016, to support its denial of human rights violations in the country.

Providing this training also risks enhancing the effectiveness of a police force that targets and abuses minority groups and perceived critics of the government.”

Roslyn Rennie, who led on this work at Freedom from Torture, tells me, “We have more Sri Lankan clients than any other nationality, so [the training contracts] were a big concern to us. The idea that Police Scotland were training a police force – elements of which are known to torture – was a concern for us and our clients. So it made sense for us to work on this.”

So, after years of campaigning: what was the tipping point? How did the mounting pressure at home and overseas translate to impact? According to Frances, change happened through the actions of multiple groups and actors working toward a common cause.

“The journalist Phil Miller started this in a way, looking at the actions of the Sri Lankan police historically and the British training of the Scottish Police Force – and then obviously looking at the ongoing training projects. I think Marion Scott’s reporting was pivotal too because, you know, she got front page stories and in Scottish media.

I think the fact that the victims of the Sri Lankan police were ending up in Scotland claiming aslyum, tortured and raped swung some cases. This put the Scottish public off and was quite an affront to their value system. And it really connected it to Scotland – so it became quite a kind of Scottish reputational issue.

The Tamil community in the UK has also been very active in writing to their MPs, and having constituent constituency member meetings with various different political parties to raise this issue about the training.”

Luck, too, played a role according to Frances: “There is also an element of luck and timing, some of which you can’t predict. I mean, we were surprised when Police Scotland announced that the way they did – delighted, but surprised. I mean, it’s push, push, push, and then one day the door opens, but you don’t know why that is. It just does at that moment.”

Although Police Scotland’s contracts have been announced to be discontinued, the battle may not be over yet. Just this week, the UK foreign office said:

Police Scotland’s decision does not mean that there will be no future programme of UK-funded support to the Sri Lankan police.”

“The British High Commission is considering its approach to any future programme and the ongoing review will be taken into account alongside a number of other factors. We continue to engage with the Government of Sri Lanka on these important issues.”

“The decision to terminate the contract would be an extremely bitter pill if the training were transferred to another police force”, Roslyn tells me.

“And I really hope that doesn’t happen. Anyone involved in making those decisions should be aware of the level of concern raised over this training, and the human rights responsibilities the UK has in its relationships overseas.”

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