David Cameron must act to hold the Sri Lankan government to account for its human rights abuses

The PM has consistently failed to pressure the Rajapaksa government over its human right abuses. There is too much at stake, for too many, for him to fail to do so yet again.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which will be held in Colombo from 15 to 17 November, takes place in the aftermath of a divisive civil war in Sri Lanka and deeply troubling questions about its human rights record. The end of the civil war in 2009 marked a turning point in the country’s history. Since then, the Sri Lankan government has not made the progress we had all hoped it would. And now, just days away from Sri Lanka hosting the summit, there is mounting evidence that the country risks going backwards.

Following her visit in August the UN’s human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, concluded that the country is “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction” and criticised the reported intimidation by the security forces of those human rights campaigners who tried to meet her.

Father Yogeswaran, a 70-year-old Jesuit priest who runs a human rights NGO, told of how he received a late-night visit from plain-clothed police officers who questioned him for hours about his meeting with Pillay. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others warn that the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa is using the Commonwealth summit to paper over the lack of progress on human rights in Sri Lanka.

Undoubtedly, hosting this year’s CHOGM could have been an opportunity to promote change and progress in Sri Lanka. That has not happened.

Labour was for many months calling on the British government to use the question of whether the Prime Minister would attend as leverage to encourage President Rajapaksa to address human rights concerns. Instead, David Cameron chose to hand away his influence six months before the summit was even to take place by confirming that both he and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, would attend. The Prime Minister should now reverse that decision.

Vocal condemnation of the Rajapaksa government by Canada, and the decision by Prime Minister Stephen Harper not to attend the summit, have helped to focus the Commonwealth’s attention on what is going wrong in Sri Lanka.

Yet, in spite of his own Foreign Office report, which lists Sri Lanka as a “country of concern” on human rights, David Cameron has consistently failed to pressure the Rajapaksa government. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg – answering a question on Sri Lanka in the House of Commons in May – said that “if the Sri Lankan government continue to ignore their international commitments in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, of course there will be consequences”.

But six months later, and a week before the Prime Minister is due to fly to Colombo, it is unclear what those consequences could be.

Since Clegg’s comments in May, it seems that the Foreign Office has backtracked and dropped talk of the need for progress being made before the summit. Instead, it chooses to suggest that the event itself might “shine a light on what is going on in the country”.

The British government’s handling of this issue has been characterised by misjudgements and missed opportunities. It has regrettably missed an opportunity to exercise leverage over the past six months, which is why a change of approach in the next few days is so crucial.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, claimed that “there has been no widespread support for a change in location of CHOGM, and there is concern that the Commonwealth itself . . . should not be damaged, weakened or undermined by divisions over the location of the Heads of Government Meeting”.

However, the government is choosing to ignore that the Commonwealth stepped in to deny Sri Lanka the privilege of hosting the summit once before because of concerns about ill-treatment of its own people. That decision was taken by the Commonwealth in 2009, when Labour was in government, and when the UK strongly lobbied other Commonwealth countries to block Sri Lanka’s offer and plans to hold the 2011 summit in Colombo.

Sri Lanka was forced to wait until 2013 to host CHOGM and was given the opportunity by the Commonwealth in those two years to demonstrate to the world its commitment to improving human rights for all its citizens. Sadly it has failed to do so.

Now this month’s summit risks being overshadowed by questions about the host country instead of concentrating on the Commonwealth’s own agenda.

Inevitably, following the summit, attention will turn to the automatic appointment of President Rajapaksa as the Commonwealth chairperson-in-office for the next two years. There are many who have grave reservations about him representing the Commonwealth on an international stage. But if he does take up the chairmanship, he must be made to recognise that he has to do more to improve the human rights situation in his country.

The international community must stand united in its efforts to promote justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Until now, David Cameron has proven unwilling to use the leverage he has to promote change in Sri Lanka. Yet there is too much at stake, for too many, for him to fail to do so yet again.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary

A Sri Lankan Army officer patrols ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meetings on November 10, 2013 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Getty Images.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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With the Greek summer at an end, the refugee crisis is just beginning

Refugee camps are battling floods – and even arson. With each passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase.

The Greek summer came to an abrupt end at the start of September. Nowhere was spared the storms or the floods. At the Katsikas refugee camp, near the north-western city of Ioannina, the effects were dramatic. The site, formerly a military airport, flooded. The gravel turned to mud, swamping the floors of tents that were completely unsuitable for this terrain or weather.

Hundreds of people were relocated to hotels in the city. Officials from the municipality and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees scrambled to find families suitable shelter. A former orphanage on the outskirts of the city was supposed to have been renovated to house the refugees, but bureaucracy has held up the work.

Autumn falls heavily in the western region of Epirus. The danger of refugees being caught outside is real.

“We all know that when the morning fog from the lake [of Ioannina] comes in, the tents will rot away,” Filipos Filios, a former mayor of the town and now the co-ordinator between the state and the charities in the region, tells me. “They [Europe] need to relocate 20,000 people from Greece. That would have solved pretty much all of our problems. Instead, they’ve taken 3,000.”

Around Epirus, the facilities available to refugees are in good shape. Empty civil-service buildings have been repurposed to host families or single people separately. Special measures are in place for Yazidi refugees, who are in danger from others in the camps. As at the other centres across Greece, however, the problems here are not organisational.

“We have 500 people living in tents with bathrooms available, grills and cleaners, with a fully stocked food storage space and doctors always present. There’s even a centre for creative activities for the children,” Filios says. “It’s the very existence of the camp, and the need for more like it, that is the difficulty.”

On 19 September, tents at the overcrowded Moria detention centre on the island of Lesbos were set on fire. False rumours had been circulating that large numbers of Afghans were about to be sent to Turkey. Four thousand people were evacuated and a night of anguish followed. Refugees slept on the streets and local people, who oppose the presence of the camp, seized the opportunity to attack refugees and activists.

The Greek far right, led by followers of the Golden Dawn party, is stirring up anti-refugee sentiment. Attacks on journalists on Lesbos and the nearby island of Chios have become more frequent. There is talk of vigilante-style citizen patrols around the camps, staffed by residents worried about their livelihoods.

During an anti-refugee demonstration in Chios on 14 September, Ioannis Stevis, the editor of the Astraparis news website, was attacked.

“No trouble had started when the representative of Golden Dawn attacked me,” he told me. “The invitation [to march] wasn’t from the far right, but the direction of the demo once there was very specific; they had the upper hand. Some who had gone in good faith left when they heard chants like ‘Greece of Christian Greeks’.”

The march in Chios took a nasty turn when extreme elements headed to the Vial refugee camp. There, they were confronted by riot police. The refugees also fought back, throwing stones at the marchers from inside the camp.

“There was no plan to attack the camp and not everybody followed that march,” Stevis says. “We have 3,700 people here in inadequate conditions, and there is some small-scale delinquency – we can’t hide that. But there are people who try to magnify that. There definitely is a desire for citizen patrols, and not just from the far right. Especially in the village near the camp, people want to organise without being [associated with the] far right.”

With every passing day, the chances of a fatal incident increase. It has become clear that the relocation programme, designed to distribute refugees proportionally across European Union member countries according to population, is not working. These refugees are now stuck in Greece. Mere dozens leave every month for other EU countries, and fewer still depart for Turkey.

The rumours that they will be sent back to the places they have fled are no longer just rumours. On 5 October the EU and Afghanistan announced an agreement to repatriate Afghans who have been turned down for asylum. EU data shows that in 2015, 213,000 Afghans arrived in Europe, and 176,900 of those claimed asylum. More than 50 per cent of these applications were rejected. Later, a leaked memo from the negotiations showed that Afghanistan was threatened with a reduction in aid if the country did not commit to accepting at least 80,000 returning refugees.

What does all of this mean in the camps? It is the most vulnerable refugees to whom we must look to understand.

At the Moria detention centre on Lesbos, four teenagers have been arrested for allegedly gang-raping an unaccompanied 16-year-old Pakistani boy. The actions of these children, who are perhaps the ones receiving the most direct support, expose how stretched and inadequate the system is.

Even for unaccompanied children, the focus of much international attention, conditions are terrible. Officials have been saying for months that the Moria camp, which has no private rooms or locks on its doors, is unsuitable for children. An activist there, who didn’t want to be named in order to protect their work, told me that they had witnessed a teenage girl being confined in the same space as 80 boys for weeks on end.

Back at the Katsikas camp, autumn is settling in. Rain, humidity and cold have replaced the warm summer days. There is word that this camp and the others like it might soon be evacuated permanently, though there is no hint where the people might go. If they are deported to the war-torn countries they have escaped, as the EU wishes, there is little to prevent them making the journey back here. They are desperate, and many are barely surviving. Yet the message from the EU governments is clear: we’re hoping they won’t make it. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge