Sri Lanka escapes Commonwealth censure after fractious summit

COLOMBO Sun Nov 17, 2013 11:55pm IST

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo November 17, 2013. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo November 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's human rights record was glaringly absent from a communique issued by Commonwealth leaders on Sunday at the end of a fractious summit dominated by allegations of war crimes during the bloody climax of the island's 26-year civil war.

The normally sedate two-yearly meeting of mostly former British colonies ran into controversy this year before it had even begun after some members objected to it being hosted by a government accused of shelling civilians just four years ago.

Sparks flew at the summit when British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to push for an international inquiry into the allegations of large-scale civilian deaths during the army's final victory over the Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009.

Some 300,000 civilians were trapped on a narrow beach during the onslaught and a British panel has estimated that 40,000 non-combatants died. It concluded that, while both sides committed atrocities, army shelling killed most victims.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government has also been criticised for not stopping attacks on journalists and critics of the government, as well as political pressure on magistrates, since the war ended.

Cameron said he would raise the issues at the United Nations if Sri Lanka did not conduct its own independent inquiry by March.

The ultimatum was dubbed "hostile diplomacy" by Sri Lankan state media. Some detected colonial overtones in the finger-wagging and accused Britain of acting like a "big brother that punishes rather than guides".

"I will do it. But you can't say, 'Tomorrow, do it, within one week, or three months, or four months'. That's very unfair," Rajapaksa told the final news conference on Sunday.

VISIT TO JAFFNA

Cameron left Colombo on Saturday, and the final communique mentioned human rights in only a general way. The official focus of the summit was on "Growth with Equity".

Ethnic Tamils were overjoyed that a visit by Cameron to the northern town of Jaffna drew attention to a continued military presence in the former war zone and continuing attacks on journalists.

Sri Lanka issued visas to hundreds of foreign journalists before the summit, and invited them to visit any part of the country to witness progress on post-war reconstruction. However, pro-government protesters stopped reporters from Britain's Channel 4, which has run a series of documentaries alleging atrocities and war crimes, travelling to the north.

Other reporters, including some from Reuters, were able to travel but were held up at numerous military checkpoints and were closely tracked by military intelligence.

The rights dispute dominated the chaotic final news conference, where Commonwealth spokesman Richard Uko repeatedly tried to put the focus on the summit's development agenda.

"I can see I am being consistently ignored," he said, after yet another question about rights abuses was addressed to Rajapaksa.

A senior journalist from Sri Lankan state media yelled at Uko and accused him of a "sinister conspiracy" to take questions only from foreign critics of the government.

The prime ministers of Canada and Mauritius boycotted the summit, and India also stayed away. The next meeting will be held in Malta in 2015. (Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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