10 Nov 2013

Sri Lanka: UK will not join Commonwealth summit boycott

Prime Minister David Cameron will not boycott the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka despite his Indian counterpart joining Canadian premier Stephen Harper in staying away, protesting rights abuses.

Sri Lanka: UK will not join Commonwealth summit boycott

The Foreign Secretary William Hague said he understands why Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government (Chogm) summit this week but insisted Britain would have “more impact” by raising concerns at the conference.

He said that he wanted to make full use of “Sri Lanka being in the spotlight”:

“I will be visiting places to promote reconciliation in Sri Lanka, talking about our efforts there to prevent sexual violence in conflict.

“It will make more impact in Sri Lanka with the Prime Minister and me there doing that, than sitting in our offices in London.”

The Indian leader’s decision to boycott the meeting will put pressure on Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa to conduct an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes in the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war.

In an editorial yesterday Channel 4 News Editor Ben de Pear outlined his response to a 222-page book distributed to journalists attending the summit, which attacked Channel 4 reports of human rights abuses in the country.

Read more: Sri Lanka, 'Corrupted Journalism' and Channel 4 News

David Cameron will meet Mr Singh in India on Thursday ahead of his arrival in Sri Lanka but has rejcted calls from Labour, human rights activists and Tamil groups to support the boycott.

However, he has promised to put “serious questions” to Mr Rajapaksa about his regime’s human rights record and says he will visit minority Tamil areas in the north.

PM’s statement

In a statement yesterday the Prime Minister said he has watched the documentary No Fire Zone, a forensic examination of the final days of the bloody civil war, and found it "chilling".

"It brings home the brutal end to the civil war and the immense suffering of thousands of innocent civilians who kept hoping that they would reach safety, but tragically many did not. Many of the images are truly shocking.

"No right-thinking person can regret the end of the terrorist campaign waged by the Tamil Tigers nor ignore the terrible crimes they committed. But that wrong does not change the fact that this documentary raises very serious questions that the Sri Lankan government must answer about what it did to protect innocent civilians. Questions that strengthen the case for an independent investigation. Questions that need answers if Sri Lanka is to build the truly peaceful and inclusive future its people deserve.

"The Sri Lankan Government has taken some positive steps since 2009 with provincial elections in the North and a Commission to investigate disappearances during the war. But much more is needed. I will raise my concerns when I see President Rajapaksa next week in Colombo. And I will tell him that if Sri Lanka doesn't deliver an independent investigation, the world will need to ensure an international investigation is carried out instead."

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said: “David Cameron must now urgently consider reversing his decision to attend the summit in Sri Lanka this week.”

“For months Labour has urged the Government to do more to raise Britain’s concern over human rights in Sri Lanka in the run up to the summit.”

Read Jonathan Miller's blog: Tamil family's distress over footage of daughter

The UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay warned that Sri Lanka is heading in an “increasingly authoritarian direction”.

The Sri Lankan government denies allegations it has been complicit in torture, kidnappings and other abuses as concern mounts over attacks on the judiciary and press.

Politicians detained

Sri Lankan authorities detained and impounded the passports of two politicians from Australia and New Zealand who visited former war zones in the north of the country.

The pair were expected to address a news conference organised by the Tamil National Alliance, previously linked to the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels.

Sri Lankan authorities say the pair were detained because they had travelled on tourist visas and were later released.