Boycott or friendship? A Commonwealth dispute on Sri Lanka

Ahead of a Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka, member nations are weighing how best to get the country to make amends for human rights violations during its civil war.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP
British Foreign Minister William Hague speaks to an aide during the Commonwealth foreign ministers meeting on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013.

A small country at the end of a brutal civil war set up a “no fire zone” where thousands of civilians fled for safety. The army then allegedly shelled the zone and forced the citizens into abusive rehabilitation camps. All told 40,000 civilians may have perished.

That describes what many believe happened in Sri Lanka at the end of its 26-year civil war in 2009. Since, the Sri Lankan government has tried to shed the cloud over its head left by the mass of civilian dead. Sri Lanka has been hoping this weekend's Commonwealth Conference, a meeting every two years of the heads of state of former British Empire countries, will do the trick and help it attract foreign investment and better integrate into the international community.

But instead, Sri Lanka’s hosting has set off a debate among Commonwealth nations about whether it’s better to engage with or to isolate nations suspected of human rights abuses. Three heads of government have announced they will boycott this year’s meeting. Pressure is mounting on the United Kingdom’s David Cameron and Australia’s Tony Abbott to follow suit, but they have pledged to attend.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh – whose nations host sizable Tamil populations - have both said they will not attend the 53-nation Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo starting on Friday.

Critics say the UK prime minister’s presence legitimizes the host government and fails to address accusations of murder and torture against minority Tamils after the end of the civil war, which is believed to have claimed a total of 100,000 lives.

“David Cameron must now urgently consider reversing his decision to attend the summit in Sri Lanka this week,” said Douglas Alexander, an opposition lawmaker who serves as shadow foreign secretary. “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.” 

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long campaigned for an international inquiry into alleged murder and torture by the Sri Lankan military during and after the civil war between Tamils and the predominantly Sinhalese government.

A United Nations report in 2011 estimated that 40,000 civilians died in the closing stages of the war and UN senior human rights official Navi Pillay has criticized the government of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa for its failure to properly investigate killings and torture.

The abuses fall on both sides. During the war the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, fought for an independent state in the north east of the country using suicide bombers and child soldiers.

The case for engagement

Mr. Cameron and his allies argue that despite the human rights grievances, it’s better to engage with the Rajapaksa’s government. Without the prime ministers’ attendance, the media would pay far less attention to human rights complaints, they say.

"I want to take the press, the cameras with me,” Cameron said Saturday in a broadcast on a UK-based Tamil channel. “I want to shine a light on what has happened in Sri Lanka and put the government under pressure to do the right thing for everyone in Sri Lanka in the future."

Mr. Abbott told reporters in Australia Tuesday that "I don't propose to lecture the Sri Lankans on human rights," and that “it has ended and things are ... much, much better for all Sri Lankans, Tamil and Sinhala.”

Steve Crawshaw at Amnesty International says 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.” [Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled the name of Steve Crawshaw.]

Neville de Silva, a spokesman for the Sri Lankan High Commission in London, declined to talk about the Canadian boycott but said the Indian decision was rooted in domestic politics:

“There is an election in India soon and their decision not to go is linked to domestic voters Besides, since India joined the Commonwealth after independence, no Indian prime minister has attended a [Commonwealth Heads of Goverment Meeting] more than twice.”

Mr. de Silva also questioned a recent investigative report on Britain's Channel 4 News purporting to show Sri Lankan soldier executing unarmed men, saying that there was no way to verify that the men were legitimate soldiers or Tamil Tigers in military uniform.

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