Cameron must speak up over Sri Lanka's human rights abuses

Ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the PM must show leadership and prevent the regime from presenting an airbrushed image to the world.

Next month, Sri Lanka is due to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in its capital Colombo. Hosting the summit is an honour that was rightly denied to the country two years ago because of the its fragile state after the civil war. But just how much progress has Sri Lanka made on human rights since 2011? Many, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, and Amnesty International have warned that Sri Lanka has not yet done enough.

There is little evidence that the Sri Lankan regime is truly committed to addressing human rights concerns. It has failed to fully implement the post-war Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and its people are still waiting for a credible, independent investigation into the alleged atrocities committed during the war when tens of thousands lost their lives. It is still, quite rightly, designated by the Foreign Office as a 'country of concern'.

Sadly, it is not only historic wrongs that need to be redressed. In March this year, the UN Human Rights Council expressed its concern at the "continuing reports" of "enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society and journalists, threats to judicial independence and the rule of law, and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief."

In August – the same month we heard reports that protestors demonstrating over access to drinking water were killed by the Sri Lankan army - the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited Sri Lanka. She concluded that the state "is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction". Amongst other concerns, she noted the expanding military presence; the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual harassment and abuse, including from the military; a surge in the incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities; and the intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders she met during her visit.

A new documentary just released in association with Channel 4, No Fire Zone: The killing fields of Sri Lanka, provides further harrowing evidence from the war, underlining the need for an international inquiry and for the international community to stand up for the people of Sri Lanka. It should be compulsory viewing for anyone considering going to Colombo next month.

Given this continued concern about the human rights record of the regime, it is only right that questions are asked about the propriety of Sri Lanka hosting the Commonwealth meeting. But given the time scale and the fact that the Commonwealth collectively agreed on Colombo as the 2013 venue, it is now not a question of whether CHOGM will go ahead in Sri Lanka, but a question of who will attend. And will those who do attend use the platform to speak out against continued human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, or will they allow the regime to use the occasion to present an airbrushed image to the world?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has used CHOGM to send a clear signal to the Sri Lankan regime, announcing two years ago that he would boycott the summit unless there was progress on human rights and democracy. He confirmed this week that he will boycott CHOGM because Sri Lanka has failed to uphold Commonwealth values. His government is now reviewing Canada’s financial contributions to the Commonwealth.

The Indian government has so far refused to say whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will attend. Sadly, David Cameron has declined to show any such leadership. He inexplicably forfeited an opportunity to exert pressure upon the Sri Lankan regime by prematurely confirming in May that both he and the Foreign Secretary would be going to CHOGM in November, regardless of the human rights situation.

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, managed to muddle the picture earlier this year by assuring MPs there would be "consequences" if human rights violations continue in the run-up to CHOGM. We tried asking the Foreign Office what these "consequences" would be, or under what circumstances they would be considered, but to no avail.

We tried again after the disturbing report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights but Foreign Office Ministers left little doubt that the UK will still be represented by the Prime Minister.

It is not yet too late for David Cameron to speak up on Sri Lanka’s human rights failings, or to call for unimpeded access for media and NGOs visiting Sri Lanka for CHOGM, or to press for the implementation of the LLRC recommendations going forward.

Human rights are too important to be brushed under the carpet. We need leadership from our Prime Minister, and the few weeks we have left in the run up to CHOGM is the time and place to show this.

Sri Lankan paramilitary Special Task Force commandos on patrol in Colombo on August 12, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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