Commonwealth summit: Sri Lanka faces calls for civil war inquiry

As Commonwealth leaders meet in Colombo, new evidence shows that government forces killed civilians in the 2009 offensive

Jane Merrick
Sunday 10 November 2013 01:00 GMT
President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka
President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka

David Cameron will confront Sri Lanka's president at this week's Commonwealth summit over new evidence that his government forces carried out atrocities against Tamil civilians, the Prime Minister said yesterday.

Mr Cameron came under renewed pressure to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit (Chogm) in Colombo when it was reported that India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, will not attend the summit because of opposition by ethnic Tamils in his country.

The boycott by the Indian premier is all the more diplomatically awkward for Mr Cameron because the two leaders are expected to hold bilateral talks in New Delhi this week on the eve of the controversial summit. But in a broadcast yesterday for Deepam TV, a UK-based Tamil station, Mr Cameron insisted he had to attend Chogm to keep up pressure on the Sri Lankan government, as well as raise the profile of the issue among British media.

Britain's Tamil community and Labour have called on Mr Cameron to boycott Chogm, or downgrade the delegation by sending Foreign Secretary William Hague. Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is not attending in protest at President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government.

In his broadcast to Deepam TV, the Prime Minister revealed he had watched a new film, No Fire Zone, which reveals shocking footage of civilians, including children, killed by what witnesses said were government forces while they were inside a protected area supposedly free of government shelling. In a further statement issued by Downing Street yesterday, Mr Cameron described the film as "one of the most chilling documentaries I've watched".

Channel 4's film, first broadcast a week ago, was by the makers of Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, the 2011 film which won international acclaim for exposing evidence of war crimes by President Rajapaksa's government during the final offensive in the country's civil war in 2009. No Fire Zone centres on the same period but with new claims that the civilian safe zones were specifically targeted. The Colombo government has always denied targeting civilians, but a UN panel of experts estimates between 40,000 and 70,000 were killed in the 2009 offensive.

In a statement, Mr Cameron said yesterday: "No Fire Zone is one of the most chilling documentaries I've watched. It brings home the brutal end to the civil war and the immense suffering of thousands of innocent civilians who kept hoping that they would reach safety, but tragically many did not. Many of the images are truly shocking.

"No right-thinking person can regret the end of the terrorist campaign waged by the Tamil Tigers nor ignore the terrible crimes they committed. But that wrong does not change the fact that this documentary raises very serious questions that the Sri Lankan government must answer about what it did to protect innocent civilians. Questions that strengthen the case for an independent investigation. Questions that need answers if Sri Lanka is to build the truly peaceful and inclusive future its people deserve.

"The Sri Lankan government has taken some positive steps since 2009 with provincial elections in the north and a commission to investigate disappearances during the war. But much more is needed. I will raise my concerns when I see President Rajapaksa next week in Colombo. And I will tell him that if Sri Lanka doesn't deliver an independent investigation, the world will need to ensure an international investigation is carried out instead." A No 10 source added that "engagement is in the Prime Minister's DNA".

But critics say any engagement with the regime, which has failed to meet international demands for an independent inquiry into the 2009 events, amounts to "collaboration".

Steve Crawshaw, adviser to the secretary general of Amnesty International, said: "David Cameron's upping of the pressure by calling for an international inquiry if things don't radically change in the next few months is welcome. But that pressure will need follow-up; it can't be left hanging in the air."

Mr Cameron's broadcast follows a meeting with representatives of UK-based Tamils last Thursday, at which he stressed that he wanted to "shine a spotlight" on their concerns. But Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said it was "inexplicable that the Government chose to hand away its influence six months ahead of the summit even taking place" by confirming the senior pair's attendance.

Critics say any engagement with the regime – which has failed to meet international demands for an independent inquiry into events at the end of a bloody civil war in 2009 – amounts to "collaboration". The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned in August that Sri Lanka was heading in an "increasingly authoritarian direction".

Salman Khurshid, India's external affairs minister, is expected to attend the summit in Mr Singh's place. The summit is the first Chogm to be hosted by Prince Charles, with the Queen missing it for only the second time since it started in 1971.

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