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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Listen up, Enda Kenny: why two Irish women are livetweeting their trip for an abortion

With abortion illegal in the Republic of Ireland, many women must travel to Britain to obtain the procedure. One woman, and her friend, are documenting the journey.

An Irish woman and her friend are live-tweeting their journey to Manchester to procure an abortion.

Using the handle @twowomentravel, the pair are documenting each stage of their trip online, from an early flight to the clinic waiting room. Each tweet includes the handle @endakennyTD, tagging in the Taoiseach.

The 8th amendment of the Irish constitution criminalises abortion in the Republic of Ireland, including in cases of rape. Women who wish to access the procedure must either do so illegally – using, for instance, pills acquired online or by post – or travel to a country where abortion is legal.

As the 1967 Abortion Act is not in place in Northern Ireland, Irish women often travel to the UK mainland, especially if seeking a surgical abortion. Figures show that in 2014, an average of ten women a day made the trip. The same year, 1017 abortion pills were seized by Irish customs.

Women who undertake the journey do so at a substantial cost. Aside from the cost of travel, they must pay for the procedure itself: a private abortion in England can cost over £500, and Irish women, including those born and resident in Northern Ireland, are not eligible for NHS treatment. Overnight accommodation may also need to be arranged.

The earlier an abortion is obtained, the easier the procedure. Yet many women are forced to delay while they obtain funds, or borrow money to pay for the trip. 

Women’s charity and abortion providers Marie Stopes provide specific advice for the flight back which reveals the increased health risks Irish women are exposed to. The stigma surrounding termination may also dissuade women from seeking help if complications arise once they have arrived home.

Abortion is a relatively minor procedure in medical terms. A recent survey quoted in Time magazine suggests that 95% of women who have had an abortion say they do not regret it.

It is not surprising, then, that calls to repeal the 8th amendment are increasing in volume. Campaigns like the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the 8th (to which this author is a signatory) as well as the Abortion Rights Campaign and REPEAL have mobilised to lobby for a change in the law, and in some cases help fund women forced to travel.

Women’s testimony is an important part of campaigning. Abortion is stigmatised across these isles, but the criminal aspect in Ireland makes the experience of abortion particularly difficult to discuss. Actions like @twowomentravel and groups such as the X-ile Project, which photographs women who have had the procedure, help to normalise abortion, showing a part of life often hidden from view (but which plenty of women experience).

The hope is that Irish women will soon be able to access abortions which are like those available to women in England: free, safe, and legal.

The Abortion Support Network help pay for women from the island of Ireland access abortion. Their fundraising page is here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland