7 Nov 2013

Sri Lanka boycott ‘would damage Commonwealth’ – Hague

Foreign Secretary William Hague defends the government’s decision to go to a Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, but says the UK backs the UN’s calls for an inquiry.

The Commonwealth summit is to be held in Sri Lanka next week, despite international condemnation of the Sri Lankan government for alleged human rights abuses.

But Mr Hague told Channel 4 News that to have boycotted the meeting would have been counterproductive:

“Our judgement is that if we had stayed away it would have damaged the Commonwealth without changing things in Sri Lanka.”

Mr Hague reiterated the government’s backing of UN calls for an independent, thorough and credible investigation into alleged war crimes, conceding that past investigations by the Sri Lankan government had not met those criteria:

“If they don’t set one up then we, and the rest of the world… will want to support an international investigation.”

Read more- I didn't believe Sri Lanka torture stories: I do now - Tamil victim

Mr Cameron is due to visit the north of Sri Lanka where some of the worst fighting against the Tamil Tiger rebels occurred – becoming the first head of government to visit that region since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948.

Asked whether the safety of Sri Lankans who meet the prime minister can be guaranteed, the foreign secretary conceded that it could not:

“of course we can’t do that in another country. What it can do is shine a spotlight on these things. The whole world will want to know if someone speaks to our prime minister in the north of the country and then they disappear afterwards, that will shine a very terrible light on what has happened in Sri Lanka.”

Positive engagement

Mr Hague said that he had discussed this policy with UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay on Wednesday and said she also felt that she was trying to highlight the Sri Lankan situation by visiting the country and debating such issues with the government there.

Pressed as to whether the UK policy of engagement with the Sri Lankan government was likely to bear fruit, Mr Hague cited the example of Burma, where “we have led the way among European countries in visiting the regime in Burma, accepting their sincerity in wanting to change and encouraging them to do so.”

He said: “have terrible human rights been committed there? Yes they have. But it hasn’t stopped us engaging to some good effect. I think we have to try that with Sri Lanka and acknowledge that some good things have been done as well.”

He also confirmed his intention to raise the issue of sexual violence with the Sri Lankan foreign minister:

“I will argue to the whole of the Commonwealth that it has to support our efforts in preventing sexual violence in conflict and I wouldn’t be able to do that if I wasn’t at the meeting, and that is why we have to be at the meeting, not sitting in London isolating ourselves from the argument.”