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Sri Lankan human rights concerns derailing Commonwealth summit

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Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has gotten off to a troubled start, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh withdrawing his participation over the host country’s human rights record. This follows a decision by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to also boycott the event due to human rights concerns.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is attending the event but has called for an independent international investigation into Sri Lanka’s human rights record if there is no meaningful progress by the Sri Lanka government. This marks an escalation of British pressure on Sri Lankan government, as it is the first time that the UK has called for an international investigation into the deaths of some 40,000 people in the closing stages of Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatist war.

While Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is attending, his own visit has been overshadowed by the detention of Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon and New Zealand Greens MP Jan Logie. The two Greens politicians were attending pro-democracy meetings when they were detained and questioned, before being deported.

The Sri Lankan government’s somewhat brittle responses to human rights concerns was only highlighted to journalists covering CHOGM. The Sri Lankan Government handed out to visiting journalists a 222-page book attacking reports by the UK’s BBC Channel 4 on human rights issues in Sri Lanka. Channel 4 has issued a rebuttal.

Singh withdrew from the CHOGM under pressure from Indian politicians, in particular from the large Tamil Nadu state in south-eastern India. While Sri Lanka’s Tamils are largely separate, the two groups have retained close cultural contacts, and the Tamil Nadu government provided support to Tamil Tiger rebels in the 1980s.

India is also concerned about the growing influence of China in Sri Lanka, given Sri Lanka’s strategic proximity to India. China helped arm the Sri Lankan army for its final push against the Tamil Tigers in 2009 and has since invested heavily in the country, including helping to build a port in the south of the country.

Since the Sri Lankan government crushed the Tamil Tigers, there have been increasing concerns about broader human rights issues. These have included forced disappearances, sexual violence against Tamil women, attacks on Sri Lanka’s media and what is said by critics to be an increasing closure of Sri Lanka’s democracy.

Abbott will attend CHOGM, in part not wishing to offend a government that has been quite willing to assist with stopping asylum seekers leaving Sri Lanka for Australia by boat. However, the conditions that compel at least some Sri Lankans to leave their homes for the risky journey to Australia will now receive closer attention by the international media.

The Sri Lankan government had hoped to showcase the country’s development since the end of the Tamil separatist war. Increasingly, however, the international media is focusing on stories a little more critical than an otherwise largely anodyne meeting in a country that has such a bloody recent history.

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