Community policing or counter-terrorism: What was Britain doing in Sri Lanka?

Why were the British delivering a 'community policing' program during and after Sri Lanka's 2009 civil war? And why are 'national security and counter-terrorism' the reasons for refusing disclosure about it?

Phil Miller
1 April 2014

Community policing. It sounds harmless enough. I picture a bobby on the beat in a hi-vis vest, listening to local people's concerns about crime.

The Foreign Office claims this is why it sent two top Belfast policemen to Sri Lanka in February 2009. Duncan McCausland and Gary White, both senior officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), went out there to advise on a community policing strategy, and to act as “critical friends” of the Sri Lankan police.

It was a time when ethnic Tamil civilians were being systematically shelled, rounded up and disappearing at the hands of the Sri Lankan security forces, whose ranks are drawn almost exclusively from the island's Sinhalese ethnic majority.

And after the bombing finally stopped, some four months and 40,000 civilian deaths later, the Foreign Office decided inexplicably that this community policing project should carry on as normal.

On 18th June 2009, at 2pm, a Foreign Office civil servant named Catherine Weiss sat down with Sanjaya Colonne, a senior Sri Lankan security official, in Belfast. They were in the office of Barry Gilligan, who was then the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. The meeting was scheduled to last an hour and a half. We do not know what was discussed. Only that the Foreign Office had instructed Catherine Weiss to agree further British assistance for Sri Lanka's police at this meeting.

At that time, Sri Lanka's police chief was part of a Presidential task-force overseeing internment camps housing some 300,000 displaced Tamils. Allegations of rape and abductions in these camps were widespread.

Was a 'community policing project' really appropriate?

Last week, Britain voted for a UN investigation into alleged war crimes from precisely this period. Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the resolution, saying, “This is a victory for the people of Sri Lanka who need to know the truth about what happened during those terrible years of the civil war so that they can move forward.”

However, the British government seems less willing to discuss their incongruous Belfast meeting. Last summer, I did a Freedom of Information request for any documents from that meeting. Perhaps a copy of the minutes would explain why the community policing project was not suspended in the aftermath of mass atrocities.

The Foreign Office has stalled at every step, claiming that to even 'confirm or deny' if they have any papers relating to this meeting could jeopardise “national security”. All they disclosed was the following:

“Digest – Security Sector Development Advisory Team Executive Summary 31 May 2009. British High Commission [Colombo] to approve Catherine Weiss’ meeting with Police Service Northern Ireland in Belfast to agree their future assistance to Professional Development Programme.”

This snippet of information was far from reassuring, so I submitted a complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office asking for full disclosure. It took over six months to get a decision, and a fortnight ago I learnt just how sensitive this issue was. (Download the ICO decision notice here).

The Commissioner told me that: “knowledge as to whether or not the FCO [Foreign Office] holds more information than it has disclosed may be of significant interest to other parties, particularly those interested in harming the UK or its interests overseas, who might try to extrapolate from its response the extent of any UK involvement in Sri Lankan security, both in 2009 and currently.”

But who would harm the UK, just for a community policing project? The next sentence reads: “The Commissioner recognises that the security situation in Sri Lanka remains complex. While the request relates to the last months of the civil war in 2009, the Commissioner notes that in the last 12 months credible reports have emerged that Sri Lanka is facing a renewed threat to peace and stability.5”

That reference number '5' was the Commissioner linking to a recent Al Jazeera news article. The headline is: 'Sri Lanka says it faces 'terrorism threat', Defence secretary and president's brother says groups linked to defeated Tamil Tigers seeking to resume conflict.'

So the Commissioner appears to think that Tamil Tiger sleeper-cells could attack Britain if they knew more about this community policing project.

The Foreign Office told the Commissioner that the information I requested, “...could refer to reasons as to why such a secondment of PSNI officers to the FCO in Sri Lanka is required which could...involve reference to either national security or [counter terrorism] related activity”. (Their ellipsis.)

It sounds far-fetched. But that is not all. There was another reason given for “neither confirming nor denying” if the Foreign Office has more documents from their Belfast meeting. The Commissioner found that “on the balance of probabilities”, the information we were asking for could relate to the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

Why would MI6 be involved with a community policing project in Sri Lanka?

The Commissioner said: “It is important to protect the space within which government and its agencies discuss issues that might concern national security. The purpose of doing this is to enable the widest possible range of information and intelligence gathering and analysis. To reveal the extent of any interest the UK had in Sri Lanka in 2009 would be prejudicial to that process and would be likely to undermine intelligence gathering that might have occurred, or remain ongoing.”

It is surprising that Britain could be using a community policing project abroad as a front for intelligence gathering or counter-terrorism. More disturbing is that the Information Commissioner is prepared to defend that practice, rather than reigning it in.

Unfortunately, it is plausible that the two PSNI officers who went to Sri Lanka in 2009 were capable of advising on more than just community policing. Although one of the men, Chief Superintendent Gary White, wrote the PSNI's Policing with the Community policy, he also had “experience of commanding police during some of Belfast's most serious riots in recent years”. The other, Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland, had spent the last five years with Gold Command lead responsibility for counter terrorism operations across Belfast.

On retirement, the pair both took up directorships at Ineqe, a Belfast-based private security company. This business offered, notably, five different riot control courses. The syllabus promised to cover the use of water-cannons and projectiles.

Ineqe's CEO, Jim Gamble, is a former head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch, which was the intelligence and counter-terrorism wing of Northern Ireland's old police force.

Now that Britain has backed a UN investigation into Sri Lanka's war crimes, it seems in the public interest to know why these senior Belfast policemen were sent to the crime scene in 2009, not to investigate criminality, but to act as “critical friends” of the perpetrators.

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