Next week the northern beaches of Sri Lanka will welcome planeloads of tourists on exclusive holidays replete with swaying palm trees and white sand. At the same time, over 50 world leaders will gather in the capital, Colombo, for the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). This will signal the start of Sri Lanka’s chair of the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth Shared Values Charter was signed in March by the Queen. This enshrines the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, including democracy; human rights; tolerance, respect and understanding; freedom of expression and good governance. Sri Lanka will have a lot to live up to.
It’s not all cocktails in coconut shells in Sri Lanka. President Mahindra Rajapaksa is personally accused of war crimes. In his effort to finally crush the Tamil Tigers, the 26 year civil war ended with 40,000 dead civilians. 12,000 disappearances, more than any other country bar Iraq. This includes opponents of the government, journalists and activists. In its role as Commonwealth Chair Sri Lanka would be responsible for addressing the human rights of other member states. I could see the irony if it wasn’t so chilling and tragically sad.
Next week President Rajapaksa will shake hands with 50 world leaders; the ultimate legitimizing photo opportunity for the atrocities he has perpetrated. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Queen has bowed out of CHOGM; Prince Charles will be attending in her stead. The meeting has also been boycotted by Canada because there has been no improvement in human rights. Oh, and the fact that the President unlawfully sacked his chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake on charges of misconduct – contravening the Commonwealth charter enshrining judiciary independence. Her real crime? Not agreeing with the government. The Commonwealth Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Yet only Canada stands strong, deciding a boycott makes a bold stand against Sri Lanka’s human rights violations. Bravo.
Should David Cameron attend? According to Douglas Alexander, no.
The Shadow Foreign Secretary has called for Cameron to show real leadership and reverse his decision to go. This would show the Sri Lankan government that Britain will not support the violation of human rights. You can sign an online petition here.
If Cameron and Hague aren’t convinced by Amnesty International’s reports of Sri Lanka’s appalling record on human rights or Grim Reaper demonstrations in London this weekend, I urge them to watch Callum Macrea’s powerful film ‘No Fire Zone’. It documents the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war in a shocking exposé of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The feature film is the result of three years of in depth investigative journalism with personal stories and eyewitness accounts of the atrocities. The government insists this video evidence has been faked, and it has been banned in Malaysia and Nepal after pressure from Sri Lankan authorities. All the more reason to watch.
Nick Clegg has promised that during the Commonwealth summit the UK Government will be highlighting the abuses that have taken place, and continue to happen, in Sri Lanka. How? Polite conversation over canapés is not only not good enough, it’s downright shameful. And it could be a real missed opportunity for the UK Government to make a strong statement of leadership against war crimes and human rights abuse. What is missing from the UK government is a proper strategic action plan to protect human rights defenders and to prevent Sri Lanka chairing the Commonwealth for the next two years. Unless the UK are prepared to call for an international investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed by the Sri Lankan government, Cameron and Hague should put down the coconut cocktails and cancel their round trip tickets to Colombo.