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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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