Commonwealth Summit: Can it 'shine light' on abuses at end of Sri Lanka civil war?

Despite encouragement to boycott the summit, UK Prime Minister Cameron toured a former Tamil Tiger stronghold, trying to draw attention to 'chilling events' at the end of Sri Lanka's civil war.

By , Staff writer

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    British Prime Minister David Cameron talks to villagers of Internally displaced peoples camp at Chunnakam village, in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, Friday, Nov. 15, 2013. Cameron Friday traveled into northern areas in a detour designed to increase scrutiny of the Sri Lankan government's human rights record.
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British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to be making good on his promise to "shine a light" on the "chilling events" at the end of Sri Lanka's civil war, as he visited the country's Tamil north in a detour designed to increase scrutiny of the Sri Lankan government's human rights record.

Mr. Cameron is in Sri Lanka for the three-day, 53-nation Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo. Ahead of his visit, he came under pressure to boycott the summit over accusations that the Sri Lankan government murdered and tortured minority Tamils after the end of the civil war, which is believed to have claimed a total of 100,000 lives.

But the prime minister argued that his attendance at the summit would do more than a boycott would, and looked to prove that with a visit to former Tamil territory that he said on Twitter would "shine a light on chilling events there first hand."

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CNN reports that there was "full-scale chaos" in Jaffna, a city once controlled by the rebel Tamil Tigers before their defeat, as "hundreds of screaming" protesters and police mobbed Cameron. Nick Robinson of the BBC describes in more detail:

On one side of the road, there was a group of clearly pro-regime demonstrators who, amusingly, carried almost identical printed signs written in English.

When I approached this group I could not find a single one of them who spoke English.

They were calling for an inquiry - not into the crimes of the civil war, or the alleged war crimes of their own president, but into colonial abuses, Britain's behaviour here many decades ago.

Their rival group, composed largely of women, was equally well-organised. As the prime minister arrived they rushed forward to try to see him and were held back by a group of soldiers.

They were carrying in their hands identically laminated pictures of their loved ones, the so-called disappeared - sons, daughters, mothers and fathers who went missing during the civil war.

Just hours before Cameron's visit, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said in his opening speech as host that the Commonwealth should not be a "judgmental body" and warned against other nations' attempts to impose "bilateral agendas," reports the Times of India.

"If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant to its member countries, the association must respond to the needs of its people and not turn into a punitive or judgemental body," he said in a speech ahead of the formal opening of the summit by Britain's Prince Charles.

But Sri Lanka's long, bloody civil war has left many unresolved questions, The Christian Science Monitor reports. Human rights groups have repeatedly called for an independent inquiry into alleged murder and torture by the Sri Lankan military during and after the civil war. And the UN, which says some 40,000 people were killed in the war's closing stages, has singled out Mr. Rajapakse's government for its failure to investigate the abuses.

Steve Crawshaw at Amnesty International told the Monitor that it's important Cameron speaks out in favor of an international inquiry into alleged war crimes.

“The worst thing that can happen is to go there and not say anything,” Mr. Crawshaw says. “There needs to be international pressure from many governments, not just Britain, and the conference is a good opportunity to put pressure on Sri Lanka and change their attitude.”

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