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.

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

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.