On a wing and a prayer in Sri Lanka: David Cameron ventures on to a diplomatic sticky wicket over country's human rights record

PM will meet the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, before the Commonwealth summit opens in Colombo

Colombo and London

As diplomatic ice-breakers go, talking about your host country’s favourite son is a good place to start. So David Cameron’s loosener with the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, in Delhi, as Sachin Tendulkar began his final Test match, was easy.

Praise for the Little Master eased otherwise-tense talks about today’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which Mr Singh is boycotting as a result of the host country Sri Lanka’s refusal to investigate the deaths of up to 40,000 Tamils in the final stages of its civil war in 2009.

Yet when Mr Cameron meets the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, before the summit opens in Colombo, it is doubtful that a similar approach involving Muttiah Muralitharan will work, given that the spin bowler is a Tamil. Never in 40 years of Commonwealth summits has a British Prime Minister faced such a diplomatic showdown with a host leader as Mr Cameron faces.

Today he said that he would use his meeting with Mr Rajapaksa to warn him that those responsible for alleged war crimes against the Tamils must be held to account, and the failure to hold a legitimate independent inquiry risks undermining his credibility. Mr Cameron will travel to the north of Sri Lanka to meet the country’s Tamil minority – the first international leader to do so in 65 years – before his expected showdown with Mr Rajapaksa on Friday night.

The Prime Minister has been heavily criticised for even being in Sri Lanka given that his counterparts from Canada and Mauritius have joined Mr Singh in boycotting the event. In an effort to deflect the barbs, Mr Cameron has said he will carry a tough message to Colombo after his talks in Jaffna.

Speaking in Calcutta before flying to Colombo, Mr Cameron said the film No Fire Zone, which revealed evidence of war crimes allegedly committed by government forces, contained “chilling images of appalling acts [that] need to be properly investigated”.

“The war is over; that is good for Sri Lanka, but you never get true reconciliation unless you deal with human-rights abuses both now and in the past,’’ he said.

David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, was one of those for whom the Prime Minister’s words were not enough. “Cameron’s sense of outrage is too little and far too late,” he said. “But it perhaps creates an opportunity to salvage something from an otherwise thoroughly discredited meeting, that he is clearly so determined to attend.”

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, added: “There’s much to speak out on – impeached lawyers, silenced journalists, alleged war crimes. [Mr Cameron] now needs to follow through on his promise to hold Sri Lanka’s feet to the flame. We welcome the news he will be travelling to the north of the island and meeting the families of people who have been ‘disappeared’ for opposing the government. He must also ensure people who speak to him don’t face reprisals for doing so.”

But Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, repeated his opposition to Mr Cameron’s presence in the country because of its “lamentable human rights situation”. He said the Prime Minister should now set out “a clear UK action plan to support tangible improvements in human rights in Sri Lanka”.

Diplomatic hostility between London and Sri Lanka has intensified in recent days, leaving open the prospect that Mr Rajapaksa could even cancel today’s talks at the last minute. Sri Lanka’s information minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, this week accused Mr Cameron of displaying a “colonial” attitude with his demands for a war crimes investigation.

Foreign journalists, including Channel 4 reporters, have been banned from travelling to northern Sri Lanka as part of an attempt by the government to keep the focus on the summit and away from the war. Mr Rajapaksa said his country had “nothing to hide” and could defend itself against allegations. “I will be meeting [Mr Cameron] and … I will also have to ask some questions,” he said.

David Cameron tries some snacks from a stall in Calcutta before his visit to Sri Lanka` David Cameron tries some snacks from a stall in Calcutta before his visit to Sri Lanka (PA)
“We have a legal system in Sri Lanka. We have a human rights commission, now the Commonwealth is ready to strengthen it. If anyone wants to complain about a human rights violation in Sri Lanka – whether it be torture, whether it be rape – we have a system. If there are any violations, we will take actions against anybody. People were getting killed for 30 years, at least after 2009 we have stopped it. There is no killing in Sri Lanka today.”

In their talks, Mr Cameron will say that the closed, military-led 2013 Courts of Inquiry process was insufficient, and that if Sri Lanka does not stage a credible inquiry then the international community will launch its own. He tweeted: "I will be clear with the Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa: it's time the appalling and chilling events in his country are investigated."

While in Jaffna, the PM will visit the Tamil Uthayan newspaper to hear about the intimidation they face.

Mr Cameron said: “Part of my message to President Rajapaksa is he should be seizing the opportunity to win the peace. There are some very serious questions that need to be answered, questions about human rights violations today in Sri Lanka. We are two sovereign governments, this is 2013, and we should have these sorts of frank conversations.”

He added: “Is the Commonwealth a perfect organisation? No it isn’t, has it on occasion taken action against countries that have fallen short in the past, such as Zimbabwe and elsewhere? Yes it has.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor