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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One of the best things about football? It allows you to hate people

Every team has its hard man. Is there anything more satisfying than booing them?

Football as therapy. Football is therapy. It is hard to sit for two hours in a packed stadium with 50,000 people roaring and shouting and not forget all the boring, niggling things pelting your brain in your everyday life, such as: have I done the washing?

You see these otherwise staid and buttoned-up gents – QCs and consultants and editors – standing up, punching the air for joy, when a goal goes in. Or holding their head in misery and muttering, “F*****’ hell!” if it doesn’t. Would they do that in their office, in their chambers, in their normal, buttoned-up life?

Football is escape. Football is comradeship. You have a tribal loyalty, usually inherited, in which you are part of a greater whole, regardless of your age or background, and you can commune with all ages and classes. Following a football team means you belong.

One other aspect of being a football fan that is rarely acknowledged is hatred. Football allows you to hate someone, express it openly, stand up and boo. There’s a role for baddies in football.

I used to enjoy it at Spurs when they were playing Arsenal. The boos of derision started the moment Tony Adams appeared. And when he put his hand up to let the ref know that there was an offside, which he did all the time – even in the tunnel, probably, or on the coach – the Spurs fans went mad with fury and delight.

The abuse was fairly harmless: perhaps a few donkey noises. I’m sure that Adams was amused but otherwise unaffected by the jeers.

In the Sixties and Seventies, crowds across the First Division greatly enjoyed booing Tommy Smith of Liverpool. He looked like such a pantomime villain, with his dodgy, droopy moustache and pockmarked face. He was the ultimate destroyer, clattering everybody, priding himself on showing no pain, immediately getting up when he’d been thumped. “Tommy Smith was not born,” Bill Shankly used to say. “He was quarried.” We booed him but we all wished that we had him in our team. Did he not eat razor blades for breakfast?

There were so many of them at the time, almost all defenders, who got booed by rival fans the minute their names were read out. Chopper Harris of Chelsea was so named because he chopped them down. Vinnie Jones was sometimes called “Psycho”, but the nickname really belonged to Stuart Pearce.

Nobby Stiles was a weedy little scrap – how could he do any damage? But he did, kicking everyone. Jack Charlton was big and ugly, clumsy and lumpen. He looked like a hard man. That was his job.

You could also hate and boo players who you thought were fancy Dans, too clever by half, such as Cristiano Ronaldo in his Man United days, or players promoted above their talents, such as Gary Neville. Away crowds enjoyed chanting, “If Neville plays for England, so can I!” It wasn’t just that we thought he wasn’t much good, but that he was bossy and self-righteous, the foreman figure, considering himself to be a cut above the rest.

Graeme Souness was definitely a hard man. Though we booed, we could appreciate how clever and cunning he was. The same goes for Roy Keane. Every team used to have a hard man who got stuck in, made agricultural tackles, left his calling card, and other euphemisms for how his job was to scare the hell out of the other team. But where have they all gone? Players don’t kick other players up in the air like they once did. Even our centre-halves are ballplayers now, expected to play nice – John Stones, for example.

They don’t build them like Vinnie Jones any more. They breed them thin and weedy. Lionel Messi, the best player of our age, was known in his younger days as “the Flea”.

However, there is one present-day baddie roaming the Premiership, and he is a centre-forward. He looks like a hard man from an earlier age, with his stage moustache, unshaven jaws, lined face and deep-set eyes, always furious, always about to lash out, always protesting. Let’s hear it for Chelsea’s Spanish striker – Diego Costa. BOOO! BOOO! There, that feels better. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood