By Douglas Alexander –
Next month Commonwealth leaders gather in Sri Lanka amid a bleak human rights situation as the country emerges from two decades of civil war that saw 40,000 civilians lose their lives.
Last week Britain’s cross-party foreign affairs select committee criticised the “scant evidence of progress in political and human rights in Sri Lanka” and Amnesty International has condemned the ongoing “deterioration” of human rights there. Even the government’s own reports warn of “a number of negative developments” there, echoing the statement of the UN high commissioner for human rights that Sri Lanka was “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”.
This followed the worrying decision to impeach the country’s chief justice, through a process held to be illegal both by Sri Lanka’s supreme court and by international experts. Tragically, rather than making progress since 2009, these developments paint a worrying picture of further decline.
Against this backdrop, the hosting of the Commonwealth summit in the capital Colombo and the attendance of the British prime minister will undoubtedly be presented as a major coup by Sri Lanka’s government.
Labour believed that Britain could and should have used the issue of David Cameron’s attendance as crucial leverage to encourage Sri Lanka to address human rights concerns in the months running up to the summit. Instead, the prime minister simply chose to hand away all his cards more than six months ahead of the summit by confirming that he and the foreign secretary, William Hague, would attend.
His mystifying decision represented a misjudgment and a missed opportunity. But it is not too late for the PM to take a different, better approach. First, he should reverse his decision to attend the summit. In doing so he would make clear to the Sri Lankan authorities the extent of Britain’s concern about human rights. If he does this then, as the opposition, Labour will support him.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already chosen not to attend the summit, and India is reported to be considering non-attendance.
Second, the prime minister should set out a clear action plan to support tangible improvements in human rights in Sri Lanka. It’s time he recognised the conclusions of his own government’s human rights audit, which designates Sri Lanka as a “country of concern”.
Third, he should add his voice to the growing calls for a full and independent UN-led investigation into Sri Lanka’s alleged human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch called the record of Rajapaska’s government on this “abysmal”, and says an investigation is long overdue.
Fourth, the summit itself could become a flashpoint for protest, and in turn prompt violent crackdowns, and Amnesty International have rightly criticised the banning of public protest by the authorities as a “blatant attempt” to ignore human rights concerns. So Cameron must seek urgent assurances from Sri Lanka that it will respect the principles of theCommonwealth human rights charter during the summit.
The remaining weeks before the summit should rightly focus our attention on the Sri Lankan government’s conduct, but also on the responsibilities of other Commonwealth countries.
The Commonwealth is a vital and positive partnership between countries striving to develop trade relations and promote democracy and human rights, united by shared values. So when those basic values are challenged from within, it is right that members be prepared to act, as was demonstrated when the Mugabe government was suspended from the Commonwealth’s ranks.
The situation in Sri Lanka risks further deterioration unless the international community – and the Commonwealth in particular – begins to place greater pressure on President Rajapaska’s government.
Even at this late stage, the British government is in a position to exert considerable influence. David Cameron should use the upcoming summit as an opportunity to send a clear signal that the Commonwealth is no hiding place for countries that are unwilling to uphold the human rights of their citizens.
*Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary – Labour party UK. This article first appeared in the Guardian