What Cameron’s decision appears to communicate is that accountability for mass murde isn’t that important to his government.
About a year ago, the United Nations produced one of the most striking reports in its history. It was the result of an internal probe into the organisation’s conduct during the bloody climax of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, which contained the judgement that its response to the crisis “marked a grave failure” to live up to its mandate to protect civilian life.
Which was putting it lightly. If one reads the report in full, it will be seen that it contains an acknowledgement that the UN “was presented with incontrovertible evidence of the killing of civilians by shelling” but failed to speak out.
It also detailed how overt criticism of the government was restrained even though the UN’s own staff were aware that “almost all the civilians casualties recorded by the UN had reportedly been killed by government fire”.
In short, the UN knew that probable crimes against humanity were being committed and utterly failed to use its influence to halt them – instead opting, as the report also recognises, to engage Colombo with unnecessary deference.
If the UN’s failings at the time were shocking enough – reminiscent of its calamitous response to Rwanda, even– they nonetheless pale into insignificance compared to the conduct of the Sri Lankan government itself.
During the final stages of the war in 2009, it is now widely believed that hospitals, aid distribution lines and government-declared no fire zones were repeatedly and intentionally shelled by the nation’s military – according to plausible estimates, resulting in 40,000 or perhaps almost twice as many deaths.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s powerful defence secretary and brother to the President, signalled in an interview with Sky news that hospitals were legitimate targets; another sibling, also an important government figure at the time, discussed the war with a US diplomat and openly recognised that international law was breached by Colombo but argued that it was a necessary expedient.
Four years on from the end of the war, the rights situation in the country, to quote Human Rights Watch, remains ‘abysmal’. The latest red flag occurred this year with the impeachment of the country’s chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, in the wake of her ruling against the government on the constitutionality of a law it had proposed.
This particular move, which elicited global condemnation, not only displayed open contempt for the notion of judicial independence as well appearing to be a petulant act of revenge – it also, according to the nation’s supreme court, breached Sri Lanka’s own laws.
Despite such colossal and unresolved human rights issues blighting its reputation, Sri Lanka will be hosting the prestigious Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo next month.
Prince Charles and prime minister David Cameron are set to attend the summit, while Canada has courageously chosen to boycott the event.
The prime minister’s craven decision to be present at the meeting is impossible to understand from a perspective that assumes his government values human rights as much as they like to say they do.
The government has fumblingly portrayed the choice to attend as an opportunity to exert more influence over Colombo than if the UK did not, but this hardly convinces given the object lesson on the efficacy of such ‘soft’ approaches provided by the UN’s internal report.
Instead, what he is set to do is allow a man considered to be one of the world’s worst unindicted war criminals to host a conference for an organisation that, according to its own charter, is committed to ‘democracy, human rights and the rule of law’. As reviewed above, Sri Lanka’s failures in all three areas are hardly insignificant.
What Cameron’s decision appears to communicate, beyond all the attempts at justification – rather like London’s move to sell arms to Colombo earlier this year – is that accountability for mass murder just isn’t that important to his government. After all, actions speak louder than words.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.