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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

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