Asia

Commonwealth summit opens in Sri Lanka amid rights row

  • 15 November 2013
  • From the section Asia

The Commonwealth summit has opened with a colourful ceremony in Colombo, amid continuing scrutiny of Sri Lanka's human rights record.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has repeatedly rejected criticism of his government's actions during the campaign which defeated Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.

Mr Rajapaksa is due to chair the Commonwealth for the next two years.

The leaders of India, Mauritius and Canada have boycotted the summit.

Prince Charles formally opened the summit, for the first time representing his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, as head of the Commonwealth.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is attending, saying engagement is a more effective tool than boycott.

Correspondents say the government had hoped the three-day event would showcase Sri Lanka's post-war revival, but instead it is turning into a PR disaster.

'Right to live'

Dancers in dazzling colour greeted heads of state and officials from the 49 countries in attendance as they arrived for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in Colombo.

In his remarks at the opening ceremony, Mr Rajapaksa again defended his government's record.

"We in Sri Lanka are stepping into a new era of peace, stability and premium economic opportunities," he said.

"In ending terrorism in 2009, we asserted the greatest human right: the right to live."

He said the Commonwealth must not be allowed to "turn into a punitive or judgemental body".

Mr Rajapaksa on Thursday angrily asserted that killings took place in Sri Lanka not only in 2009, as his government crushed the rebels, but for 30 years up until then, with the victims including children and pregnant women.

The UK has defended its presence in Sri Lanka, with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague saying it is calling for an "independent, thorough, credible investigation" into alleged abuses.

In an interview with the BBC's Today programme, he said it was "also important to be able work with people in this country of all persuasions and backgrounds", and he would meet people from all sides, including the Tamil National Alliance.

"They welcome that, even if they're critics of the government."

Mr Cameron has pledged to raise "tough questions" on human rights and allegations of war crimes.

On Friday, he is visiting northern areas of Sri Lanka which saw the worst of the fighting between soldiers and ethnic Tamils.

In May 2009 Sri Lanka's army defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers after almost 30 years of brutal and bloody civil war. But the spotlight has focused on the final phase of that war as civilians were hemmed into a thin strip of land on the north-eastern coast - both sides are accused of atrocities here.

However, one UN report estimates that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in that final phase, mostly by government shelling.

Sri Lanka faces continued allegations over the rape and torture of detainees, enforced disappearances of activists and the intimidation of journalists.

The government has vehemently denied all such accusations.

A welcoming rank of elephants greeted leaders as they arrived. Forty-nine nations are in attendance, with three boycotting over the host nation's human rights record
Mr Rajapaksa presented Prince Charles with an elephant-shaped cake for his 65th birthday
The leaders of 53 former British territories meet at the biennial summit
Protesters had drawn attention to alleged human rights abuses to coincide with the summit

'Questions raised'

But as Colombo began welcoming delegates to the city on Wednesday, a group of Tamils whose family members disappeared during or after the civil war were prevented from travelling to Colombo.

Pro-government protesters also disrupted some journalists' attempts to travel north that day.

On Thursday, a human rights festival being hosted at the main opposition headquarters in Colombo was attacked by protesters before police ordered it to be shut down.

Human rights activist Brito Fernando told the BBC the government was not letting "people practise human rights, the right to dissent, or the freedom of speech and discussion".

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper are staying away from the summit, as is Mauritian Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam.