In November a British delegation including the Queen is set to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka, hosted and chaired by the accused government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. If Britain wants to live up to its self-proclaimed commitment to human rights, then it should move quickly to cancel its delegation to Colombo.
Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist based in New Zealand
Four years ago some of the worst war crimes in recent history allegedly occurred in the Vanni region of Sri Lanka as the island nation’s decades-long civil war entered its final stages.
Investigations by authoritative sources point to a series of wartime abuses from that period which cumulatively amounted to, in the assessment of a UN panel of experts, “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”.
A compelling body of evidence indicates that hospitals were repeatedly and systematically shelled by the Sri Lankan army, according to one account, 35 times; that extra-judicial killings, rapes, horrific mutilations and torture occurred.
The most disturbing and well-established allegation is that the Sri Lankan army ferociously shelled Government-declared “no fire zones” where non-combatants were told to take refuge, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.
To this day, however, the accused Rajapaksa administration and its representatives have angrily denied all allegations of wrongdoing, often making unsubstantiated claims of an international conspiracy against their country.
Despite the seriousness of the charges outlined above, in November a British delegation including the Queen is set to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka, hosted and chaired by the accused government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
In recent days the Queen has made the news as she signed the new charter of the Commonwealth, which affirmed the intergovernmental organisation’s commitment to human rights and democracy in a ceremony that was attended by the Sri Lankan High Commissioner.
Granting Sri Lanka the legitimacy of playing host to the CHOGM later this year- especially given the provisions of the charter- is a move that has been described by Amnesty International as “absurd”, and by David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary at the time of the violence, as “grotesque”.
These are certainly fair assessments.
No member of the Sri Lankan political or military elite has been made accountable for their role in the alleged crimes of 2009. The only high-ranking figure to be prosecuted for war-related offences under Sri Lankan law has been former general Sarath Fonseka, whose “crime” was to tell a newspaper that he had been informed that the defence secretary had ordered atrocities.
Mr Fonseka was sentenced to three years in jail in 2011 for “spreading rumours and causing public disorder”.
Meanwhile, Colombo continues to resist calls for an independent international investigation and appears as utterly reluctant as ever to deal meaningfully with the extremely serious charges it faces.
If Britain wants to live up to its self-proclaimed commitment to human rights, then it should move quickly to cancel its delegation to Colombo and alter several aspects of its policies toward Sri Lanka.
Arms sales to the Rajapaksa government, recently revealed to be permitted once again after a brief hiatus, should be immediately halted and the UK’s policy toward asylum seekers, many of whom appear to have been returned to Sri Lanka to face torture and rape, should be immediately reviewed.
Ultimately, the UK and the international community as a whole should pressure Colombo to accept an international investigation into the events of 2009.
If this does not occur, the prospects for accountability, reconciliation or peace between the ethnic communities divided by the civil war looks set to remain ominously grim.
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