Sri Lanka will host a summit of Commonwealth leaders tomorrow in the hope of eclipsing three decades of carnage, media repression and corruption with photo-opportunities and a great deal of goodwill.
World focus remains on the legacy of a 27-year civil war marked by atrocities on the part of both Tamil Tiger rebels and Sinhalese government forces which ended in 2009.
Canada and India have decided to boycott the summit while other nations have justified their attendance by claiming they will take president Mahinda Rajapaska’s regime to task for failing to prosecute alleged war criminals.
The Prince of Wales will preside at the summit.
“It’s a shame the Commonwealth has come to this,” said former Caribbean diplomat Sir Ronald Sanders, now part of a Commonwealth panel charged with recommending reforms. Choosing Sri Lanka as a venue, which gives it the Commonwealth chairmanship for two years, “suggests we are not serious about Commonwealth values … That makes it a hypocritical organisation,” he added.
Sri Lanka denies any abuses were committed by its forces. The Sinhalese leadership also accuse journalists of fabricating allegations of atrocities, and stand staunchly by a clan-like government that has alarmed many democracies in the West.
Mr Rajapaksa’s family has held power since 2005, with one of his brothers serving as the economy minister, another holding the defence portfolio and a third serving as speaker in a parliament under Mr Rajapaksa’s coalition.
For the 53-nation Commonwealth – which has espoused democracyand human rights as its core values since its founding in 1931 – the poor publicity threatens to overshadow the meeting unless it can persuade Sri Lanka to co-operate with demands for an independent war investigation. Sri Lanka, seeing the summit as a coming-out party after a long civil war with the Tamil Tigers, has tried to sidestep the controversy while building roads, expanding its harbour, polishing monuments and gutting slums.
“We are delighted to have you in our peaceful country, and also to showcase the ever-growing opportunities in our economy,” Mr Rajapaksa said as he opened a Commonwealth business forum.
Leaders such as Prime Minister David Cameron have said that engaging Sri Lanka is preferable to isolating and shaming it into submission. Foreign Secretary William Hague is expected to press Sri Lanka to account for thousands of civilians who disappeared in the final months of the war when regime forces crushed Tamil rebels fighting for an ethnic homeland. A UN report in August suggested the armed forces may have killed up to 40,000 minority Tamils, while the rebels killed civilians, used them as human shields and forcibly recruited child soldiers.
But Sri Lanka snubbed the report by UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay, who said she saw no effort to properly investigate despite repeated demands by the UN human rights council. The regime’s position “has actually gone in the opposite direction” from what the Commonwealth hoped, former Indian diplomat KC Singh said. “Sri Lanka’s government has used the external pressure to grab more authority and create paranoia within the country.”
At the weekend, Mr Cameron said Sri Lanka had “serious questions” to answer, after he watched a Channel 4 documentary showing soldiers executing naked Tamils in the final days of the war. Sri Lanka said the video was fake.