Fractious summit

Print edition : December 13, 2013

Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo on November 16. Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/REUTERS

British Prime Minister David Cameron at the Sabapathy Pillai Welfare Centre in Jaffna on November 15. He is the first foreign head of state to visit Jaffna. Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

The Commonwealth summit in Colombo is overshadowed by the issue of the Sri Lankan government’s alleged violation of human rights towards the end of the country’s civil war in 2009.

DESPITE the diplomatic spadework the Sri Lankan government did, human rights issues dominated the media headlines during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo from November 15 to 17. The Prime Ministers of India, Canada and Mauritius were conspicuous by their absence. Prime Minister Roger Harper of Canada and Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam of Mauritius officially boycotted the summit citing the Sri Lankan government’s violation of human rights during the last phase of the civil war in 2009. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, according to reports, was personally inclined to attend the conference but had to bow to domestic political pressure. In his letter to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he said that he was unable to attend for “various reasons”, which were not spelt out. The Indian government has invested heavily in reconstruction programmes in the northern part of Sri Lanka, which bore the brunt of the three-decade-long civil war.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris came to New Delhi in the third week of September to personally invite the Prime Minister for the CHOGM. India’s External Affairs Ministry was also keen that India should be represented at the highest level despite the opposition from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a United Progressive Alliance partner; some Congress leaders from Tamil Nadu; and regional Tamil parties (story on page 112). Peiris had expressed optimism at the time about the participation of the Indian Prime Minister. He told the media in New Delhi that “excessive pressure on Sri Lanka” on the human rights issue was unwarranted and that the country should be allowed to “move forward”.

A United Nations-mandated report in 2011 found the allegations of abuse against civilians during the last phase of the war credible. The U.N. and other international agencies put the figure of civilians killed in the last phase at around 40,000. After the gruesome details of the massacres that occurred were revealed, there were growing demands from prominent personalities and international institutions for an international probe. The stonewalling by the Sri Lankan government led to the matter being taken up by the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. It censured Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013 for serious human rights violations.

India abstained when the matter was first put to vote in the UNHRC, and it was mainly Western nations that voted against Sri Lanka. The second time around, in 2012, the Indian government, under pressure from the DMK and other regional parties in Tamil Nadu to take a tough line, sided with the West in censuring Sri Lanka, visibly angering the government in Colombo. Justifying the move, officials of the External Affairs Ministry cited the failure of the Sri Lankan government to adhere to its promise of devolving power to the Tamil-dominated areas in the north under the “13th Amendment Plus” proposals. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has accused the Sri Lankan government of being unresponsive to the demands of the international community for an impartial probe into the atrocities that occurred.

But Sri Lanka is not without friends in international fora. Russia, China and many countries in the region subscribe to the theory that the West is using the human rights bogey to interfere in the internal affairs of the country. Besides, the West and countries such as India were fully supportive of the Sri Lankan government’s war efforts against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Many observers, in fact, are of the opinion that India’s support was a crucial factor in the military defeat of the LTTE.

Although Manmohan Singh somewhat reluctantly called off his visit to Colombo at the eleventh hour, the government did dispatch External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to represent the country. Khurshid said that India had to be present at the CHOGM for the sake of “enlightened national interests”. Officials of the External Affairs Ministry feared that regional rivals such as China and Pakistan would gain at India’s expense. China is building big infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, including ports and airports.

Khurshid visited Sri Lanka in October in a bid to wrangle political concessions on the power-sharing issue from the government in Colombo. In the talks with President Rajapaksa and the Foreign Minister, Khurshid had demanded full implementation of Sri Lankan Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which is meant to devolve power to the provinces. If the Sri Lankan President had agreed to the proposal, it could have eased the way for the Indian Prime Minister to attend the Commonwealth summit.

Cameron in the limelight

Rajapaksa acknowledged that Manmohan Singh’s absence left a void but said that he was aware of the political compulsions that had led to the decision. He said that if the Indian Prime Minister had been present, he would have held centre stage in Colombo. That limelight was, however, grabbed by British Prime Minister David Cameron. He made a highly publicised visit to Jaffna, where he was mobbed by around 250 Tamil protesters who claimed that their relatives had died at the hands of the Sri Lankan security forces. Jaffna had also been on Manmohan Singh’s tour itinerary but the cancellation of his trip, according to Indian officials, allowed the British Premier to take centre stage. Khurshid lamented to the media in Colombo that he “was disappointed” at not getting the opportunity to “take my Prime Minister there as the first Prime Minister in the world to visit Jaffna”. Khurshid said that he was saddened by the fact that he could not show Manmohan Singh the 50,000 houses and the roads that the Indian government was constructing.

Cameron’s visit to Jaffna grabbed international attention. He was shown listening intently to the tales of the missing and the tortured that he was told by the residents. He pledged to make the Sri Lankan government institute an independent inquiry commission to look into the allegations.

The Sri Lankan government had conducted an inquiry of sorts, through the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Many Sri Lankans, including the Sri Lankan Tamil parties, are of the opinion that the commission’s findings and recommendations glossed over significant facts and details. The U.N.’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has said that there are 5,676 cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances in Sri Lanka. Only in Iraq have more people been made to disappear. The disappearances, according to human rights activists in Sri Lanka, are continuing though the civil war ended four years ago.

At a press conference, Cameron demanded “a credible mechanism to investigate (the war crime) allegations”. He went to the extent of setting a deadline for the Sri Lankan government, demanding that an independent inquiry commission be set up by March 2014. Otherwise, he warned, Britain would use its position as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to call on the UNHRC to launch an “international investigation”. He told the media that he had conveyed to Rajapaksa that the Sri Lankan government would not be able to run away from ordering an independent inquiry. “I don’t think that this particular issue will go away. It is now in the international domain,” Cameron said.

In contrast, Tony Abbot, the newly elected Prime Minister of Australia, adopted an accommodating stance. He praised the Rajapaksa government for its decision to hold the Commonwealth summit, saying that it showed the government’s “commitment to democratic pluralism and freedom based on law”. Commenting on the reported use of torture by the Sri Lankan security forces, Abbot said that while the Australian government “deplores the use of torture, we accept that in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”. The Sri Lankan government has been cooperating with Australia to stop Sri Lankan asylum seekers, mostly Tamils, from seeking political asylum in that country.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully of New Zealand, who attended the CHOGM, was also supportive of the Sri Lankan government on the issue of human rights. He said that his government would not support an independent international inquiry into war crimes allegations against the Rajapaksa government. The Indian External Affairs Minister expressed similar views, stating that it was for the Sri Lankan government to address the concerns expressed by the international community. “Our job may well be to help them, persuade them. But ultimately it has to be addressed by the Sri Lankans themselves,” Khurshid said.

Rajapaksa defiant

Rajapaksa remained defiant and told the media that the British Prime Minister’s words did not really matter to him. “People staying in glass houses should not be throwing stones at others,” Rajapaksa retorted, obviously pointing a finger at Britain’s human rights records in the various wars it has fought, the more recent ones being in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rajapaksa reminded the international community that killings were a daily occurrence in his country much before the events of 2009 that signalled the end of the bloody civil war in which more than a 100,000 people were estimated to have died. Both the government and rebel forces have been accused of war crimes.

The Sri Lankan President did not explicitly reject the demand to set up a new inquiry commission and said that he was not averse to setting up a fact-finding commission that would be based on the country’s Constitution. But he also asserted that he would not be arm-twisted by nations who had insisted on a time frame for the setting up of an inquiry commission. “The process has already been started. So it will take time. This is not a thing that you can start today and finish by tomorrow. The war was going on for 30 years,” he said at the CHOGM’s closing news conference.

The communiqué issued at the end of the summit made no mention of the human rights situation in the host country. It instead emphasised the “core values” of the Commonwealth, which include the nurturing of democracy and human rights. The leaders at the summit agreed that “eradicating poverty” was the biggest challenge facing the world. The official slogan of the summit was “Growth with Equity”. The leaders noted that “rising inequality at both national and international levels has implications for poverty reduction”.

Meanwhile, questions are increasingly being raised about the relevance of the Commonwealth, which is mainly financed by the three rich countries of the organisation: the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The British monarch is its titular head and even she did not attend the summit this time but sent Prince Charles to take her place. Only 27 heads of state bothered to show up in Colombo though the Commonwealth has 53 members, including populous countries such as India and tiny island states such as Nauru and Vanuatu.

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