Britain and Sri Lanka at anti-corruption summit

It was to be the mother of all international anti-corruption summits. Last week’s one-day meeting in London attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, one of 11 heads of State or government participating, was to be the high point of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s personal crusade against corruption.

But despite all of No. 10, Downing Street hoopla, the summit seemed to fall off the launch pad just as the attempts of a group of Sri Lankans to protest against President Sirisena’s treatment of the Mahinda Rajapaksa clan and perceived injustices.

They gathered outside Marlborough House, the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat. It was the wrong day and the wrong place.

The new Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Scotland was holding a pre-summit conference on a similar theme at which President Sirisena was, naturally, not present. He arrived only that evening.

The Sri Lankan protestors who realised they had jumped the gun, scattered later and were not sighted at Lancaster House which is a short distance away, when the summit really opened the next day.

If the Sri Lankans mistimed their protest, Cameron also miscued that day when he made a diplomatic gaffe in an unguarded moment, when TV cameras picked up his condemnation of two participating countries, in a conversation with the Queen.

But, instead of the spotlight turning on corruption in high places, those stashing away national assets or businesses, hiding their ill-gotten gains in tax havens, it turned inward on Cameron and his transatlantic confrere John Kerry, US Secretary of State.

In his opening address Prime Minister Cameron described corruption as a “cancer” that should be wiped out.

Not to be outdone Secretary Kerry called it a “pandemic” that was as great a threat as some extremists they were fighting.

But the summit had already got off to a bad start. Two of the countries named in the recently exposed Panama Papers, Panama and the British Virgin Islands-at the centre of the tax avoidance controversies- had not even been invited to the conference.

“It is a little like Hamlet without Denmark’s royal family,” said one journalist impishly.

The summit itself was rather poorly attended- some 40 countries and a sprinkling of leaders of States including President Sirisena who recited what Sri Lanka has done in the last 16 months to re- establish the rule of law and bring the corrupt to justice.

But both Cameron and Kerry were given the big stick, thought not always with diplomatic reverence.

While Cameron was advocating that all countries should have public registers publishing in full the lists of all companies with the names of the “beneficial owners”, some participants were critical of the prime minister’s inability to impose his will on the British Crown dependencies and overseas territories such as the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Isle of Man, Jersey and others to adopt the same “gold standard” that others are encouraged to adopt.

Moreover, foreign companies own over 100,000 properties in England and Wales, 44,000 of which are in London. Britain has been a tax haven too.

Cameron’s call for public disclosure of who owned foreign firms was rejected by the British Virgin Islands.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister of the Isle of Man, Allan Bell accused the US of hypocrisy, preaching to the world the importance of information relevant to the US, when some of its own states were secretive about foreign companies listed in those states and refusing to divulge information.

Bell said it was “all very well to pick on small jurisdictions”. It is time, he said, to acknowledge “the elephant in the room.”

One of the most important suggestions made was that all State procurement contracts and licensing be made public as some countries do

How many political leaders would readily accept and implement that?