Abuse Accusations Overshadow Commonwealth Meeting in Sri Lanka

by Malavika Vyawahare, 'The New York Times,' November 15, 2013

NEW DELHI — Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, tried to pre-empt criticism of his government’s human rights record on Friday as he welcomed leaders of Commonwealth countries to asummit meeting in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, that was overshadowed by persistent allegations of state-sponsored abuse during a long civil war by the Sinhalese-dominated government against ethnic Tamils.
The prime ministers of Canada, India and Mauritius stayed away from the meeting to protest Sri Lanka’s lack of accountability for abductions, killings and other abuses by government forces that reportedly took place in the waning days of the war. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, made a point of traveling to the northern district of Jaffna, where the country’s Tamil population is concentrated. He was surrounded by protesters who tried to hand over photographs of their missing relatives, local media reported.

Mr. Rajapaksa made an oblique reference to the controversy by quoting Buddha in his opening remarks at the three-day meeting, which was televised. “Let no one take notice of the faults of others or what they have done or not done,” he said. “Let one be concerned only about what one has done and left undone.”

Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, second from right, and Prince Charles of Britain, center, with other leaders of Commonwealth countries in Colombo on Friday. Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Leaders of most of the Commonwealth’s 53 countries gathered in Colombo for an event the authorities had hoped would draw attention to the country’s postwar revival.

Mr. Rajapaksa told the gathering that his government had ushered in “peace, stability and renewed economic opportunities that have been long denied to my people due to the menace of terrorism that existed for nearly three decades,” and was met with resounding applause.

The 26-year civil war between the Sinhalese-majority government and Tamil rebels turned a corner with a major government offensive begun in 2001, and the Sri Lankan Army finally crushed the rebellion in 2009. But human rights organizations have continued to document rapes, abductions and extrajudicial killings carried out by Sri Lankan security services against suspected rebel sympathizers during the war and afterward.

A team of journalists from Britain’s Channel 4 tried to take a train to the former conflict zone on Wednesday, but were stopped by a crowd of pro-government demonstrators, who prevented the train from continuing.

Mr. Cameron, who faced repeated calls to boycott the summit meeting, headed to the north hours after the session opened and toured a camp for people whose land was seized by the army more than two decades ago.

“The war is over — why is it taking so long to resettle?” he remarked to a government official who accompanied him, The Associated Press reported. The official responded that resettlement was proceeding.

Sri Lanka has faced persistent international pressure on its human rights record, and the United Nations Human Rights Council has passed resolutions calling for an independent investigation into the claims. The prime minister of Canada, which has a large ethnic Tamil population, announced last month that he would not attend the summit.

“Canada is deeply concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka,” he said in a statement. “The absence of accountability for the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war is unacceptable.”

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was less direct, informing the government in Colombo that he was not able to attend.

“There was also a very strong sentiment expressed by our colleagues in Parliament from Tamil Nadu,” Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India’s External Affairs Ministry, told reporters, referring to an Indian state that is home to the Tamil people. “I think everything must have been factored in, and after that a decision was taken.”

N. Manoharan, a political analyst based in New Delhi, said Mr. Rajapaska would have preferred all of the Commonwealth countries to attend the summit meeting, but has nonetheless scored a “diplomatic victory” with Sri Lanka’s successful bid to host it. He added that the Sri Lankan leader had sent a clear signal that he considered human rights a domestic affair and would not tolerate international interference.

Comments are disabled on this page.