Commonwealth endorsement of Sri Lanka is a sham - the country's human rights record still appals

Despite public approbation, Sri Lanka’s dreadful human rights legacy lives on

Share

Channel Four has just revealed that on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary William Hague co-hosted a somewhat covert drinks reception in New York down a "dimly lit side street" near the UN headquarters. The other member of the party was Sri Lanka - and no doubt over the clinking of glasses and nibbles the two countries looked forward to their next meeting, in Colombo.

There are 50 days to go to CHOGM. CHOGM - the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – is a biennial meeting of bigwigs from the 54 member states that make up the Commonwealth.  This year, it is being hosted by Sri Lanka.
That’s nice, you might be thinking. Glamorous Sri Lanka, in from the cold, after that war they had a few years ago. Marking their return to the bosom of the global community by hosting a big meeting in popular-honeymoon-destination-Colombo, to show how things have moved on and the past been dealt with.

Certainly, that’s the message from President Rajapaksa and his government: Sri Lanka is Open for Business. Shiny, new Sri Lanka. The country that defeated terrorism and apparently whilst observing a “zero civilian casualties” policy, to boot. Quite an accomplishment.

That’s the fiction, but this is the reality.

During the armed conflict and in particular during its final bloody months, just four years ago in 2009, as many as 40,000 civilians were killed according to UN estimates. The Tamil Tigers were certainly responsible for many deaths. Their tactics of suicide bombing and allegations of using civilians as human shields marked them out as one of the most ferocious armed separatist groups. But the vast majority of casualties died brutally and mercilessly at the hands of the Sri Lankan army. Corralled into alleged "no fire zones" on beaches in the North of the country, civilians were shelled, hospitals deliberately targeted, people were stripped naked and executed and rape and other sexual violence was widespread. It is hard to describe the horror inflicted on men, women and children during the final weeks of the war.

There has been no accountability, indeed the very people in charge then, are in charge now, and have moved to consolidate their power whilst aggressively resisting calls for an independent inquiry.

Through a variety of moves, President Rajapaksa has ensured that power is further concentrated for himself, his family and those loyal to him. He has removed presidential term limits, placed key government institutions under his direct control and continued the use of draconian security legislation to grant the security forces sweeping powers and impunity.

But this isn’t just about the lack of accountability for the massacres and war crimes which took place at the end of the conflict. It is also about on-going human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa has an iron grip on a sinister system where transgression and opposition are not tolerated. Critics are simply ‘disappeared’. There is now an actual phenomenon in the country, termed ‘white van kidnappings’ where people who challenge the government’s narrative are last seen being bundled into trademark white vans. People like journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who went missing in January 2010 on his way home from his office at Lanka-e-News, near Colombo.

Prageeth had been on the phone to a colleague when his phone cut out; that was the last contact anyone had with him. As on so many other occasions, local residents reported seeing a white van without number plates close to his house at the same time.

Prageeth disappeared during the run-up to the Sri Lankan Presidential election. He had been an outspoken government critic and had that week completed a comparative analysis of the two main presidential candidates, coming out in favour of the opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka. His wife says despite her constant pleading, the police have consistently refused to investigate properly.

It’s not just journalists. In perhaps one of the most brazen moves from the Sri Lankan government, in January of this year the Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached on charges of ‘misconduct’, prompting an outcry from lawyers around the world. Amnesty believes she was targeted for her refusal to kowtow to the President.

The Commonwealth Lawyers Association went so far as to pass a resolution calling for Sri Lanka's suspension from the Commonwealth altogether. Needless to say that call was not heeded. Indeed, instead, Sri Lanka, as the host country, is set to become the chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years.

This year the Queen, the Head of the Commonwealth, signed the Commonwealth Charter – which sets out the common values of the Commonwealth. 16 core beliefs are drawn up in it in total, and they include; democracy, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health and education, the importance of young people and fostering respect and understanding. Oh, and human rights.

It is hard to imagine a greater or bleaker irony, than passing the chair of the Commonwealth to Sri Lanka in the very year that human rights and the rule of law were officially enshrined as two of the core values of the Commonwealth.

50 days from now the various leaders of Commonwealth countries will line up to shake hands with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He will be all smiles, no doubt. After all what he has pulled off is a PR coup that Bell Pottinger would be proud of. But there are two faces to this President. Commonwealth leaders would do a disservice to the thousands of victims of the Sri Lankan civil war if they were to allow this to be the white-wash the government are hoping for. It is vital that the UK appointed delegation; David Cameron, William Hague and the Prince of Wales, remember who their host is and call loudly for accountability, turning this into an opportunity to focus attention on Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights legacy.

Sri Lanka is no longer just about the notorious Tigers it has so long been associated with, these days it’s about a wolf in sheep’s clothing and an elaborate attempt to charm the world into forgetting. So far, and with just 50 days to go until the Commonwealth offer the most high-profile endorsement, it seems Rajapaksa has got his way.

Kate Allen is Director of Amnesty UK

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jeremy Corbyn could be about to pull off a shock victory over the mainstream candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall   

Every club should be like Labour – you can’t join as a new member unless you’re already a member

Mark Steel
The biggest task facing Labour is to re-think the party's economic argument, and then engage in battle with George Osborne and his policies  

There's a mainstream alternative to George Osborne's economics

John Healey
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works