The Indian Prime Minister’s last-minute decision not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo this weekend is largely due to domestic politics. With an election next year, Manmohan Singh does not want to upset India’s 72 million Tamils, many of whom are highly sensitive about the treatment of their ethnic cousins in Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war.
Mr Singh’s narrow political motivations do not detract from the issue itself, however. Indeed, he is now the second leader to boycott the summit. Canada’s Stephen Harper is so incensed at the Colombo government’s continued refusal to investigate alleged war crimes committed during the conflict that he is not only not attending himself, his government is also reviewing its financial contributions to the Commonwealth.
There are very real – and painful – questions to be answered about the civil war. According to UN estimates, as many as 40,000 civilians may have died in the final months of the conflict, in 2009, as the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa finally quashed the 26-year Tamil insurgency. A harrowing Channel 4 documentary – No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka – screened earlier this month, was just the latest evidence of alleged war crimes.
The question marks over Sri Lanka’s human rights record are not confined to the war-torn past. Disturbing reports of repression and abuse have continued to emerge ever since. Harassment, intimidation and unexplained disappearances among political opponents, journalists, activists and even members of the judiciary are alarmingly frequent. Police torture is also “rampant”, says Amnesty International, with 86 formal complaints in the first three months of this year alone, and at least five deaths in custody in 2012.
Nor are such issues hidden from world attention. No less a figure than Archbishop Desmond Tutu has spoken several times about the need for an official investigation into alleged atrocities committed during the war. And in August this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ended a seven-day visit to the island with an outspoken warning. “The war may have ended,” Navi Pillay concluded, “but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded.”
Against such a background, the choice of Colombo as the venue for the Heads of Government meeting – conferring an unearned legitimacy on Mr Rajapaksa’s government – was grossly ill-judged. That David Cameron agreed to attend is also regrettable. The claims of human rights abuses, past and present, are too serious to be waved aside; Britain should have joined Canada in taking a principled stand.
But with the summit going ahead, and our Prime Minister to be there, the best must be made of it. Following the Channel 4 footage, Mr Cameron has promised to tell the President that if Sri Lanka does not launch an independent investigation into alleged war crimes then the international community will. That is not enough. What of the worsening repression? If even half the allegations against Sri Lanka are true, it is a stain on the conscience of the Commonwealth. The Colombo meeting must be used to impress upon Mr Rajapaksa that his government’s conduct is not acceptable.