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