Commonwealth summit opens in Sri Lanka amid rights row

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa defended the country's record on human rights in a speech

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.

Analysis

In the midst of the human rights controversies, the Sri Lankan government has done its best to keep the focus of attention on the Commonwealth and the summit's agenda of debt sustainability, business ties and technological development.

But when rights are raised, the response has been a bullish defence of the government's position. On two successive days President Rajapaksa has sought to turn what Mr Cameron calls the "spotlight" on to the Tamil Tigers' atrocities, asserting that "we asserted the greatest human right - the right to life".

His outspoken brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, has said the UK is acting as if Sri Lanka is still a British colony by trying to raise war crimes allegations, adding that his country cannot act on accusations of atrocities if the accusers do not publicly identify themselves.

Pro-government nationalists also assail Britain's own conduct. Rajpal Abenayake, editor of government paper the Daily News, told the BBC World Service the UK was guilty of "odious double standards", accusing it of committing massacres in Sri Lanka during colonial rule and suggesting former PM Tony Blair was guilty of war crimes in Iraq.

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".

Sri Lankan media

"Following the adage that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, Mr Cameron does have the right to raise questions," says an editorial in the Daily Mirror.

"By the same token he too can be questioned in return. British counter-terrorism legislation and handbooks on interrogation techniques provide ample material for counter-question."

By calling for a war-crimes investigation, Mr Cameron is "obviously singing for votes back at home," says The Island.

"Shouldn't he, before taking up allegations of war crimes against this country, put his own house in order by holding former British PM Tony Blair accountable for killing nearly one million Iraqis in an illegal war?"

"The heads of states have arrived, and Chogm is ready for bigger things than the petty bickering over imagined issues that deal with the host country," opines the Daily News.

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.

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Colombo's airport expressway is just one of the grand infrastructural projects literally changing the landscape - so why isn't the government winning universal praise? ”

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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.

The BBC's James Robbins says Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister David Cameron shook hands "coldly and stiffly"

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.

Ceremonial elephants in Colombo on Friday 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
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales (centre) is presented with a birthday cake topped with three Elephants, by the President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa Mr Rajapaksa presented Prince Charles with an elephant-shaped cake for his 65th birthday
Sri Lankan traffic policemen on horseback patrol a street in Colombo on November 14, 2013, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting. The leaders of 53 former British territories meet at the biennial summit
People belonging to the Sri Lankan minority Tamil ethnic group hold up photos of their relatives who disappeared during the Sri Lankan civil war Protesters had drawn attention to alleged human rights abuses to coincide with the summit
'Questions raised'

The Commonwealth

  • The Commonwealth is a loose association of some 53 nations - former British colonies, plus some others
  • Founded in 1931, the head of the Commonwealth is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
  • Membership brings some practical benefits through the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC)
  • Unlike the UN, Commonwealth states have no contractual obligations. Members commit themselves to the values of the Charter
  • In 1995 a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) was set up to deal with governments that persistently violate its values
  • Four countries - Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Fiji and Pakistan - have been suspended from the Commonwealth in the past

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.

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