Holding a Commonwealth summit in a country that only recently emerged from a civil war was never going to be easy, and so it proved in the case of Sri Lanka, whose army crushed a Tamil revolt amid much bloodshed in 2009. To attend or not to attend was a dilemma for each of the Commonwealth heads of government receiving invitations from Colombo.
Some will see the fact that the final communiqué from the meeting made no mention of David Cameron’s call for an inquiry into human rights abuses that the Sri Lankan military allegedly committed during the closing stages of the war as evidence that he made a mistake in going. Once again, the argument runs, Britain has unnecessarily exposed its declining influence in the world while at the same it has been made to appear complicit, to a degree, in the Sri Lankan leader’s grandstanding before the world.
The truth is that some diplomatic quandaries defy easy resolution. Mr Cameron was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of Britain boycotting a CHOGM for the first time, and no doubt felt that to simply not go to a difficult summit was to take a coward’s way out.
The Sri Lankan President has, of course, batted aside Britain’s calls for a new, more credible, probe into human rights abuses. He believes he can afford to ignore Britain’s cavils as he nurtures closer ties with China, which wants to draw the strategic island into its own orbit, and professes no interest in Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Predictably, the President has also fired a few salvos in Mr Cameron’s direction, describing Britain as an interfering ex-colonial power with plenty of blood on its own hands in Iraq and elsewhere.
But Mr Cameron made good on his promise to place a spotlight on the question of Tamil rights, visiting war-torn Jaffna to meet Tamil protesters first hand. He may get nowhere with his call for a wider investigation, but arguably he has made it less likely that the government in Colombo will resort to the use of violence against the Tamils in future. Having decided to attend, it is hard to see what more he could have done.