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: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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