Photo: Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa ushering in the Prince of Wales | Credit: - Photo: 2013

UK Fails To Turn CHOGM13 Into Rights Tribunal

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

SINGAPORE (IDN) – In his opening address to the Commonwealth leaders’ summit (CHOGM) in Colombo mid-November, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse concluded his speech by quoting from the Buddha. “‘Let not one take notice of faults of other’s or what they have done or not done. Let one be concerned only about what one has done and left undone,” he told assembled leaders from 53 member countries in an obvious swipe at the British PM’s pre-summit tirades on human rights violation by Sri Lanka.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron under intense pressure from supporters of the vanquished Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) residing in the UK to boycott the summit, came to Colombo to press for an independent inquiry on the final stages of Sri Lanka’s war on terror, where 40,000 people are alleged to have died in final battles in May 2009, with LTTE’s entire leadership being killed.

Cameron’s behavior in Sri Lanka, typical of the old colonial masters, triggered public anger in the country, with many local media commentators pointing out Britain’s own war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and their involvement in the NATO bombing of civilian targets in Libya leading to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

“He too can be questioned in return,” argued the Daily Mirror in a commentary. “British counter-terrorism legislation and handbooks on interrogation techniques provide ample material for counter-question. Then there is his country’s complicity in atrocities committed by the USA in that country’s ‘war on terror’ and the many crimes of the Empire.”

Pointing out that the The Independent UK newspaper has exclusively reported that the Cameron government is blocking the publication of the (Sir John) Chilcot report on how Britain went to war with Iraq, the Island newspaper stated in an editorial that, it is doing so in view of strong objections from the US to the release of key evidence. “The Independent expose could not have come at a worse time for Cameron,” noted the Island. “He has been left with egg on his face though he is trying to keep a stiff upper lip in typical British style. While urging others to address accountability issues he is sitting on the findings of a high-level inquiry into a war waged on the basis of falsified intelligence reports.”

Cameroon left the summit leaders after the opening session to visit the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna where he was greeted by wailing relatives of those killed during the war, a scene comparable to the civil war days when LTTE staged similar events for western cameras. He met local leaders, an act seen in the country as hostile to the hosts and breach of normal diplomatic protocols.

He then came back to Colombo and held a press conference to announce a deadline of March 2014 for Sri Lanka to establish a commission of inquiry, failing which he threatened to work with UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, to  push for an external inquiry. During the press conference he refused to take any questions from Sri Lankan journalists, and only answered “friendly” queries posed to him by the accompanying British media.

Sri Lanka’s retired cricket hero Muttiah Muralidharan, an ethnic Tamil, told the Sri Lankan media that during a meeting with Cameron he had pointed out to him that he has been misled and that there have been a lot of developments that have taken place in Sri Lanka since the end of the war in 2009, that have benefited Tamils.

‘Hostile’ Channel 4 Granted Visa

But, that will not deter the hostile British media, especially the Channel 4 television channel, which in spite of their hostility towards Sri Lanka, was granted visas to cover the summit. The Channel 4 crew was not allowed to proceed to Jaffna by hostile locals, who stopped the train carrying them and forced the crew to return to Colombo. Channel 4 is widely disliked in Sri Lanka for broadcasting controversial anti-Sri Lanka video clips, perceived to be provided by pro-LTTE groups in Europe, without practicing normal journalist procedures of authentication and balance.

In the typically self-righteous style of the British media, Channel 4 journalist Jonathan Miller, who as been instrumental in producing these reports just prior to events such as the UNHRC meetings in Geneva, referring to his visit to Sri Lanka to cover CHOGM wrote an open letter to Sri Lankan journalists supporting their campaign for more media freedom in the country. He sees any local journalist writing positively about developments in Sri Lanka as government propagandists, while unable to figure out why a majority of Sri Lankans still support the Rajapakse government and detest the channel’s biased reporting.

“So many people gave us secret thumbs-ups or whispered, winked or nodded their support,” he claimed in a blog post that was widely distributed via internet by opponents of the Rajapakse administration. “I’m talking about those of you who live with such harassment yourselves, day in, day out, and don’t – or can’t – complain. Those of you who confided in me that doing what you do is sometimes really hard.” He complained about not being given access to the press conference given by President Rajapkase, but, did not comment on why his own Prime Minister did not take questions from Sri Lankan journalists.

The failure of Cameron to get any backing within the Commonwealth – even from strong allies such as Australia and New Zealand – to censure Sri Lanka on human rights at the summit, is indicative of the strong feelings within Asia and Africa in particular of the West’s double standards on human rights.

When he was asked by a radio talkshow host in Sydney why he has not heeded to calls by pro-LTTE Sri Lankan Tamil groups in Australia to boycott the summit, Australian PM Tony Abbot said that to “live without the fear of war is also a human right” and the Sri Lanka government has achieved that.

At the end of the summit, Singapore PM Lee Hosien Loong told Channel News Asia that outside countries should not try to force reconciliation on Sri Lanka, nor is it their business to intervene in another country’s internal affairs. “If we had a problem in Singapore of some sort, either religious problem or racial problem, and somebody else outside says ‘let me come and help you, one group or the other’, I think we will have a problem. Because we will consider this our domestic, internal, national affair, and not something that outsiders should get involved with, however good the intention,” he said.

“Whatever the views on Sri Lanka, it’s clear that the end of the civil war four years ago has changed the country. There are new highways, new buildings – a lot of the new infrastructure here is donated by countries like India and China, two of the largest development aid giver to Sri Lanka,” he noted.

Meanwhile, India, which helped to garner support for an anti-Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC in March 2013, has criticized Cameron’s behavior in Sri Lanka. Times of India reported quoting a senior government source, who has said that Cameron’s style of addressing human rights issues in Sri Lanka would be counter productive.

The Benefit of Doubt

India’s Hindu newspaper’s strategic affairs editor Praween Swamy pointing out British war crimes in the modern era beginning with the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War (1939-1945), questioned the reliability of allegations made against Sri Lanka. “Making sense of the killing that unfolded in Sri Lanka in the last days of the Eelam War isn’t easy: we don’t know how many lives it claimed or, indeed, whether a genocide took place at all,” he noted. He also criticized the statistics quoted in the UN Panel of Experts led by former Indonesian Attorney-General Marsuki Darusman pointing out that most of it was estimates based on unreliable figures from a local headman and analysis of satellite images.

Sri Lankan government has refused to accept the credibility of the Darusman report, because the UN has told them that the sources of its information will remain classified for 20 years from the date of the report’s release on March 30, 2011.

“There is very little doubt that the Sri Lankan forces did commit crimes. They worked with savage paramilitaries who were out to settle scores with the LTTE. It doesn’t follow from this, though, that Sri Lanka’s campaign against the LTTE was genocide,” argued Swamy. “The real question is a simple one: when, and how much, is it ethical to kill in war? Through the history of modern warfare, commanders have confronted the same dilemmas that Sri Lanka faced in 2009, or Winston Churchill confronted in 1945.”

Rajapakse said as much when in response to Cameron’s threat to haul Sri Lanka in front of an international inquiry he told a media briefing that “people in glass houses should not throw stones.” And he also asked, “Is it a crime to have saved lives …? People were dying. We stopped it.”

Ideally, if the Commonwealth is to discuss human rights and accountability, they should have discussed not only Sri Lanka, but how Tony Blair could be made accountable for taking Britain to war against Iraq on false intelligence reports, and how Britain (along with Canada) should account for high civilian casualties in NATO bombings in Libya – that could go well beyond 100,000 according to many estimates. In addition, Commonwealth must also make fellow citizen former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans accountable for promoting the Right to Protect (R2P) formula that has brought anarchy to Libya.

There have been calls from African and Sri Lankan commentators for the Commonwealth to take up the issues such as the bias against Africa in particular at the ICC (International Criminal Court) and the R2P concept promoted by the Geneva-based International Crisis Group headed by Evans. Both these organizations tend to be blind when it comes to western violation of human rights, which are often described by western media as “collateral damage”.

Such issues will never get through the Commonwealth consensus process as Britain along with its western allies will block it. India by boycotting the CHOGM for the second successive time has shown that G20, East Asia Summit and APEC are more important forums for them. Only 23 of the 53 Heads of States attended the Colombo summit. Such a low participation rate of heads of state has been a trend at CHOGMs in recent years. Thus, if the Commonwealth is not able to reflect the views of its majority membership from the developing world, this relic of the British Empire will die a natural death. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 24, 2013]

The writer’s previous IDN articles:

Photo: Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa ushering in the Prince of Wales | Credit:

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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