NEW DELHI – The palm-flecked island nation of Sri Lanka plays host this week to leaders from dozens of Commonwealth nations at a summit it hopes will generate enough good will and photo opportunities to eclipse three decades of grim history – massive civilian deaths, persistent media harassment and gangster-style politics.
Instead, as Friday’s opening approaches, global focus remains trained on the country’s 27-year civil war and alleged atrocities committed by both rebels and soldiers who, despite a sustained international outcry, have been spared from investigations and prosecutions since the war ended in 2009.
The leaders of Canada and India are boycotting the summit. Others have had to justify their plans to attend by promising to bring Sri Lanka’s government to task. Queen Elizabeth II, who is 87, is not going, but her son, Prince Charles, is presiding over the meeting.
“It’s a shame the Commonwealth has come to this,” said former Caribbean diplomat Sir Ronald Sanders, now part of a Commonwealth panel charged with recommending reforms in the organization. Choosing Sri Lanka as a summit venue, which gives it the Commonwealth chairmanship for two years, “suggests we are not serious about Commonwealth values. … That makes it a hypocritical organization.”
Sri Lanka denies any rights abuses were committed by its forces. It balks at demands for an independent investigation, and in response to a question on Tuesday the foreign minister scolded the boycotting nations. “There is no room for judgmental positions, for some countries to sit in judgment over other countries,” G.L. Peiris said.
The country’s leaders also accuse journalists of fabricating allegations of atrocities, and stands staunchly by a clan-like government that has alarmed many democracies in the West. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s family has held a vice-like grip on power since 2005, with one Rajapaksa brother serving as the economy minister, another holding the defence secretary title and a third serving as speaker in a parliament firmly controlled by Rajapaksa’s coalition.
For the 53-nation Commonwealth – which has espoused democracy and human rights as its core values since its founding in 1931 – the poor publicity threatens to greatly overshadow the meeting unless it can persuade Sri Lanka to co-operate with international demands for an independent war investigation. Despite representing about a third of the planet’s population, the group of Britain and its former territories has battled accusations of irrelevancy for years.
Sri Lanka, seeing the summit as a coming-out party after a long and costly civil war with the Tamil Tiger rebels, has tried to sidestep the controversy while busily building roads, expanding its harbour, polishing monuments and gutting slums.
“We are delighted to have you in our peaceful country, and also to showcase the ever-growing opportunities in our economy,” President Rajapaksa said Tuesday in opening a Commonwealth business forum.
Sri Lanka was expected to keep tight control over anti-government protests in the seaside capital of Colombo. Small pro-government protests were staged Monday as Commonwealth delegations began arriving. Foreign ministers were meeting Wednesday and Thursday, while national leaders begin their three-day summit Friday.
Leaders such as British Prime Minister David Cameron have said that engaging Sri Lanka at the summit is preferable to isolating and shaming the country into submission. That engagement includes pressing Sri Lanka to account for thousands of civilians who disappeared in the final months of the war when government forces crushed resistance by Tamil rebels fighting for an ethnic homeland.
A U.N. report in August suggested Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated armed forces may have killed up to 40,000 minority Tamils, while the rebels killed civilians, used them as human shields and forcibly recruited child soldiers.
But Sri Lanka has remained defiant, snubbing the report by the U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay, who said she saw no effort by the country to properly investigate despite repeated demands by the U.N. human rights council.
The government’s position “has actually gone in the opposite direction” from what the Commonwealth hoped, former Indian diplomat K.C. Singh said. “Sri Lanka’s government has used the external pressure to grab more authority and create paranoia within the country.”
Troops remain heavily deployed throughout the northern Tamil heartland on the teardrop-shaped island off southwest India. Provincial elections held in September were seen as a step toward granting Tamils more autonomy, but also drew criticism for falling far below what is needed for postwar reconciliation.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will stay away from the meeting, saying his country was disturbed by ongoing reports of intimidation and incarceration of politicians and journalists, reported disappearances and alleged extrajudicial killings.
Australia’s Premier Tony Abbott says he’ll attend, though Australian Sen. Lee Rhiannon accused Colombo of trying to “shut down” scrutiny of war crimes after she and a New Zealand lawmaker were detained and questioned for three hours Sunday after preparing a news conference on human rights in Colombo.
Cameron over the weekend said Sri Lanka had “serious questions” to answer, after he watched a Channel 4 documentary that shows soldiers executing naked Tamils and other gruesome footage from the war’s 138-day final offensive. Sri Lanka dismissed the video as fake footage and false journalism.
On Wednesday, protesters lying on railroad tracks blocked a train carrying the British journalist who made the documentary to the former northern war zone. Channel 4’s Callum Macrae, in Sri Lanka to cover the Commonwealth meeting, was blocked in the north-central city of Anuradhapura, and the train to the northern town of Vavuniya was unable to move for more than three hours.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was opaque on why his foreign minister would be leading the Indian delegation, but observers concluded he was bowing to Tamil politicians so incensed over the summit they passed assembly resolutions in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state demanding the boycott.
The Commonwealth has seen members fail to meet its standards before. Pakistan, which has long struggled with democracy, was suspended in 1999 and again in 2007, while Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship over Zimbabwe led the country to withdraw altogether after its 2002 suspension.
But the Sri Lanka situation is unique, experts said, in that the country was chosen to host the summit even while the international outcry was mounting for a war crimes investigation.
“The summit’s success now depends on what Sri Lanka does next,” said South Asia expert Gareth Price of the London-based independent think-tank Chatham House. “That is one of the justifications used by leaders who are going, that the media is going to shine a spotlight on these issues.”
Associated Press writer Gregory Katz in London contributed to this report.