UK Politics

Sri Lanka: I was right to go to summit says Cameron

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Media captionDavid Cameron: "I was determined I'd use the presence of the Commonwealth and my own visit to shine a global spotlight on the situation there"

David Cameron has defended his decision to attend the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, saying his duty was to "deal with, not ignore" controversial issues.

In a statement to Parliament, the prime minister said a process of "justice, closure and healing" was needed in the country after decades of civil war.

Sri Lanka must begin an inquiry into alleged war crimes by March or face international intervention, he said.

But Ed Miliband said the UK government "could not let the matter rest".

The Labour leader questioned whether Mr Cameron had been right to attend after a boycott by the Canadian and Indian leaders.

He suggested the final communique of the summit had not mentioned human rights at all and questioned whether the president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, should assume the role of the chair of the Commonwealth next year.

"The legacy of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka is in contradiction to the good traditions of the Commonwealth," he said. "Britain must do what it can to ensure the truth emerges about the crimes that were committed so there can be justice for those who have suffered so much."

'Shine a spotlight'

Mr Cameron said his attendance - in which he was the first international leader to visit the Tamil-dominated north of the country since independence - had helped him to "shape the agenda" and "shine the spotlight" on the "terrible suffering" of people during the civil war.

He said the UK would keep the pressure on the Sri Lanka authorities, through the UN, to investigate events in the final months of the civil war - a process which he said was crucial for long-term reconciliation in the country.

The last Labour government, he added, had agreed to the summit's location in 2009, accusing Mr Miliband of "opportunism and double-dealing".

"I had a choice at this summit to stay away and allow President Rajapaksa to set the agenda he wanted or to go and shape the agenda by advancing our interests with our Commonwealth partners," he said.

"I chose to go, to stand up for our values and do all I could to advance them. That was, I believe, the right decision for the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka and for Britain."

Former Liberal Democrat party leader Sir Menzies Campbell said the prime minister's presence in Sri Lanka had been vindicated by the "quality and volume" of the media coverage generated as a result.

"Of course, the test will be the extent to which there is a proper follow-through and in that respect, can you assure everything will be done to try and achieve a unanimity of purpose at the United Nations for an inquiry of the kind you have outlined?" he asked.

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.

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

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