17 Oct 2013

MPs blast ‘timid’ government over Sri Lanka summit

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Britain’s decision to set aside worries about Sri Lanka’s human rights record and back its selection as host of a Commonwealth leaders’ meeting showed a lack of principle, MPs say.

Less than a month before David Cameron leads the British delegation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Sri Lanka, senior parliamentarians have accused the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of lacking the moral backbone to oppose Colombo’s bid to host the prestigious meeting, on grounds of its dismal human rights record.

“The UK could and should have taken a more principled stand… in light of the continuing serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka,” said members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, in a report, published today.

The report brands the FCO position “timid” and “inconsistent,” adding that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka called for a “more robust” response.

It said that despite the FCO’s own stated concerns over human rights in Sri Lanka, it did not obstruct the proposal that Colombo stage the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Nor, the report said, did it insist that Sri Lanka’s hosting the summit be conditional on improvements in human rights.

‘The awkward squad’

In 2009, the then Labour government did refuse to back Sri Lanka’s bid to host CHOGM in 2011 but it didn’t object to Colombo staging the event in 2013. The 2011 CHOGM was held in Australia instead and Britain’s Conservative-led coalition raised no objections to Sri Lanka hosting the next summit.

Richard Ottoway, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee told Channel 4 News: “Clearly the British government wasn’t happy about it, but clearly a decision was being made here and we either become a paid up member of the ‘awkward squad’ – in the minority of one or two – or we go along with it.

“And they went along with it,” he said.

“Frankly, we think they should have been in the awkward squad minority.”

Last week, the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, said he and his foreign affairs minister would be boycotting the meeting over Sri Lanka’s human rights record, which he branded “unacceptable.”

Canada remains the only country to have taken such a stand, although in May, Buckingham Palace announced that the Queen, who is Head of the Commonwealth, would not be attending, despite her having been present at every CHOGM for the past 40 years.

She will be represented, instead, by Prince Charles, who, like David Cameron, will find himself shaking hands with the president of the host government, some of whose members stand accused of complicity in war crimes.

At least 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final months of the 27-year-long civil war which ended in the defeat of the ethnic Tamil insurgency in May 2009.

One UN report ventures that as many as 70,000 may have died.

‘Serious human rights abuse’

Allegations of serious human rights abuse – including extra jucial killings, forced disappearances and torture – have continued unabated since the war ended.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report cites Amnesty International as telling its members that “we continue to witness a deterioration of human rights in Sri Lanka.”

The British-based charity Freedom from Torture, which assists victims of torture from all over the world, told Channel 4 News that torture victims from Sri Lanka now top its referral lists.

Freedom from Torture, the UK charity, describes this as “unprecedented” and says it is dealing with cases from as recently as this year.

In August, following a week-long visit to the island republic, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, accused the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa of “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.”

Democracy, she said, had been undermined and the rule of law eroded. She has repeatedly called for an independent international inquiry into the allegations of war crimes.

Senior civil servants from across the Commonwealth begin meeting in London today to finalise the agenda for the Colombo meeting, which will take place from 15-17 November.

After CHOGM, Sri Lanka will assume chairmanship of the 53-member association for a two-year period.

“It’s bad enough that the Commonwealth has allowed a government accused of massive rights abuses and war crimes to host its summit,” says Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“But to effectively put the Commonwealth in the hands of an unrepentant government that doesn’t meet the Commonwealth’s official values on democracy or human rights would be the height of hypocrisy.”

New Commonwealth charter

In March, the Queen signed a new Commonwealth charter, which commits member states to respect for democracy and human rights.

The FCO has rejected the Foreign Affairs Committee’s criticism, insisting that “CHOGM has an opportunity to highlight the need for effective commitment to the shared values and human rights for which the Commonwealth stands.”

The Colombo summit would put a spotlight on Sri Lanka, it said in a statement to Channel 4 News. It dismissed accusations of timidity and inconsistency, stating: “The FCO has consistently pursued progress in Sri Lanka on human rights.”

In the FCO’s own report on Human Rights and Democracy last year, it listed its concerns in Sri Lanka as including restrictions on freedom of expression, attacks on journalists, lawyers and human rights workers and a lack of progress on post-war reconciliation.

When, in May, Downing Street announced that the prime minister and foreign secretary would be attending the summit, international human rights groups were incredulous, accusing the government of relinquishing any leverage it may have had in demanding improvements in human rights.

One Tamil rights group, Tamils Against Genocide, told Channel 4 News at the time that the British government was “collaborating with evil.”

In his first television interview since losing his ministerial portfolio last week, former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt – who had responsibility for Britain’s foreign relations with Sri Lanka during the period under scrutiny – strongly defended the FCO’s position.

“I am not responsible for the decision of the Commonwealth,” he told Channel 4 News.

‘UK boycott would make no difference’

Challenged on why Britain had not objected to Colombo’s hosting the 2013 summit, he said: “There was no point. The Commonwealth was not going to change its view. We can object all we like but it wasn’t going to make any difference.”

Mr Burt, who last visited Sri Lanka as a government minister in February this year, dismissed the idea that the UK should have boycotted CHOGM in protest, as Canada has.

During his time as minister, Mr Burt did regularly raise human rights concerns with members of the Sri Lankan government.

“[A UK boycott] would have made no difference whatsoever,” he said. “What you would have seen was a split in the Commonwealth between the old colonial powers – the white colonial powers – and the rest.”

He said that once the decision was made to hold the meeting in Sri Lanka, it was important that the prime minister and foreign secretary attended so that they could highlight human rights concerns.

The increasing level of concern is itself highlighted in the latest report by a human rights organisation into abuse at the hands of the Sri Lankan military, in the occupied north and east, home to the bulk of the Tamil and Muslim populations.

In a report published today, the London-based Minority Rights Group says that four years after the end of the conflict, Tamil and Muslim women “face chronic insecurity” and “human rights abuses and violations ranging from sexual violence to land-grabbing.”

The head of Conflict Prevention at MRG, Chris Chapman, said: “It is clear that Sri Lanka continues to fail in its duty to protect the human rights of its Tamil and Muslim minorities.

“At the very least, heads of state should show their commitment to the basic values of the Commonwealth by not attending the meeting.”

Sri Lanka’s foreign minister GL Peiris however said his government has no case to answer over the reported deaths of thousands of civilians at the end of the country’s civil war.