Human rights groups react with disgust to David Cameron’s decision to attend the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka this November, Channel 4 Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller reports.
The Prime Minister’s decision comes amid growing alarm over Sri Lanka’s dismal and worsening human rights record and fears that permitting Colombo to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will enable the regime to whitewash allegations of war crimes.
The United Nations says at least 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed by Sri Lankan government forces in the final stages of the civil war which ended four years ago amid evidence of war crimes. Continued and persistent human rights abuse has been widely documented since then by the increasingly authoritarian regime.
The Sri Lankan government has consistently denied its involvement in war crimes and has dismissed as “fiction” allegations of continued human rights abuse.
The announcement of the British government’s decision to attend CHOGM coincides with the detention without charge of a prominent Muslim activist.
The Director of the leading Tamil advocacy group said it demonstrated a willingness to “collaborate with evil”, echoing comments last week from the Canadian Foreign Minister who said that allowing Colombo to host CHOGM would be “accommodating evil”. Canada’s Prime Minister has announced that he will be boycotting the summit.
But a Downing Street spokesman told Channel 4 News that Mr Cameron would be deliverying “a very tough message to the Sri Lankan government that it needs to make concrete progress on human rights, reconciliation and political settlement”. He said that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary had jointly decided that this could be better achieved by Mr Cameron’s attending the summit than by boycotting it.
Jan Jananayagam, who heads Tamils Against Genocide, told Channel 4 News: “I am disappointed as a British citizen and I am embarrassed for Britain that David Cameron is unable to muster a fraction of Canada’s leadership on this. I think we will will look back to regret this as an historic error. It is a sort of death knell for the Commonwealth.”
Suren Surendiran of the Global Tamil Forum said: “British Tamils are disgusted that our Prime Minister would even contemplate being in the company of the Rajapaksa family, members of which are being accused of being war criminals.”
The Director of the London-based Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, Fred Carver, said: “David Cameron has shown that he is not interested in the Commonwealth being a community of shared values; what possible meaning can being in the Commonwealth have if it is headed by [Sri Lankan President] Mahinda Rajapaska?”
In the six weeks since the Queen signed the new Commonwealth Charter promoting the 54-member organisation’s “shared values” – which include democracy, human rights, good governance and freedom of expression – there have been calls to move the venue of the summit from Sri Lanka.
In March, two former foreign secretaries – one Labour, one Conservative – told Channel 4 News they thought it would be “grotesque” for the Queen to be required to attend the meeting in a country many of whose leaders remain tainted by uninvestigated war crimes allegations and which is accused of persistent human rights abuse, including the disappearance, torture and murder of government critics.
Last month, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association passed a unanimous resolution calling for Sri Lanka’s suspension from the Commonwealth altogether, following the unconstitutional impeachment of the Chief Justice in January. The CLA President, Mark Stephens, told Channel 4 News that permitting Sri Lanka to host the summit “rewarded miscreant behaviour”.
Last week, however, a Commonwealth ministerial steering committee confirmed that the CHOGM would be going ahead in Colombo. The Commonwealth Secretary Geneneral Kamalesh Sharma said in a news conference he was fully persuaded that Sri Lanka was sincere in subscribing to and following Commonwealth values.
This means that Sri Lanka will not only host the summit but will assume the chairmanship of the Commonwealth for the following two years.
The Canadian Foreign Minister, who attended the steering committee, responded by saying that he was “appalled”. Canada’s Commonwealth envoy, Senator Hugh Segal, who had just returned from a fact-finding tour of Sri Lanka, said that in his view the human rights situation was “getting worse and not better”.
Canada is alone among Commonwealth member states to say that its head of government will not be attending. Canada’s decision was backed by Yasmin Sooka, who was asked by the UN Secretary General to investigate allegations of war crimes. She told Australia’s Channel 9 last week: “Sri Lanka is quite frankly descending into a state where the rule of law no longer holds sway.”
The Downing Street spokesman told Channel 4 News: “We are a strong supporter of the Commonwealth and we believe it can continue to be a force for good in the world, promoting values such as freedom, democracy and human rights.
“Our position is that we can use the visit to see the situation in Sri lanka. When world leaders go, the world’s media goes too and it shines a light on the country and what is happening there.”