By Peter Heap –
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, urges the prime minister and foreign secretary not to attend next month’s Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka (David Cameron should boycott the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, 21 October). His premises and his conclusion bear challenge.
He refers to “two decades of civil war that have seen 40,000 civilians lose their lives”. There is no accurate figure, but this is at the top end of credible estimates. During most of the conflict most casualties came from the reign of terror of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), who destroyed trains, buses and buildings. Assassination victims included President Premadasa, India’s Rajiv Gandhi, and three Tamil mayors. At the war’s end civilian casualties were high principally because the LTTE callously used them as a human shield between themselves and advancing government forces. Sri Lanka’s critics seem to have scant understanding of what the country has gone through.
Alexander suggests Sri Lanka’s “bleak human rights record” is reason to boycott the Commonwealth summit, and even hints that Sri Lanka might be expelled: where the Commonwealth’s “basic values” (“of democracy and human rights”) “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”.
This view is surely unjustified. Sri Lanka has been a fully functioning democracy since independence. On human rights it is not an unblemished picture but a Royal Commonwealth Society report,Commonwealth Compared 2013, which measured 168 countries on human rights criteria such as press freedom, democracy and inequality, ranked Sri Lanka 68th in the world and 14th in the Commonwealth – comfortably in the top half of each. Would we hear similar calls to boycott a summit in the countries listed below Sri Lanka?
Alexander suggests “the remaining weeks before the summit should rightly focus our attention on the Sri Lankan government’s conduct”. Might that focus then include the considerable progress that has been made since the end of hostilities: clearing around a million landmines laid by the LTTE; massive rebuilding of infrastructure, housing and schools in wartorn areas; the acceptance of Tamil as an equal official language; the holding of elections in the north and east, giving people there their first chance to vote in 30 years; and the substantial reduction in the military presence in the north. Sri Lanka surely deserves some recognition of this progress.
Britain needs a proper presence at the coming CHOGM. The meeting is not about Sri Lanka. It uniquely brings together around 50 heads of governments. For Britain to stay away would do huge damage to the Commonwealth and to the prospects for future summits. When on the horizon lies the possibility of Britain leaving the EU, is this the time to snub the Commonwealth? Such an extreme step is surely not justified.
*Peter Heap is a former British ambassador to Brazil, whose diplomatic postings included three years in Sri Lanka. This article appeared in the Guardian on October 27.