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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage