Commonwealth heads of states pose for an official group picture with Britain's Prince Charles (front row, second to the right) and host Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa (front row, second to the left) during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo on November 15, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

(New York) – Government leaders should press the Sri Lankan government to take credible steps to demonstrate respect for “Commonwealth values” of human rights and accountability during the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said today. The meeting will be held on November 15 - 17, 2013.

Commonwealth members should support the call by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights for an independent international investigation into violations of international law during Sri Lanka’s civil war. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron endorsed an international investigation if Sri Lanka fails to conduct its own impartial inquiry.

“The world will be watching to see if Commonwealth leaders speak out for the victims of abuses or stay silent on behalf of the summit’s host,” saidBrad Adams, Asia director. “The Commonwealth risks its credibility as an international forum if it doesn’t publicly press Sri Lanka on its rights record and the lack of accountability for wartime atrocities.”

The Heads of Government Meeting brings together the heads of the 53 member countries of the Commonwealth of Nations to discuss a range of issues. Respect for fundamental human rights and democratic reform are enshrined in the Commonwealth’s Harare Declaration of 1991. Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada and Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam of Mauritius each decided not attend the meeting because of Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, facing domestic pressure not to attend the summit, announced on November 10 that he would not attend.

Summit participants should publicly raise the failure of the Sri Lankan government to provide accountability for abuses during Sri Lanka’s civil war and the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.

There has been no serious government investigation into the numerous violations of international law during the nearly three-decade-long conflict that ended with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009. Abuses by both sides, including repeated shellings of hospitals, resulted in the deaths of up to 40,000 civilians in the final months of the fighting. Some 6,000 cases of enforced disappearances remained unaccounted for.

Despite pledges by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the UN secretary-general to conduct investigations, and recommendations to do so by the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, there has yet to be any significant progress. Canada, as well as the United States, has called for an international investigation should Sri Lanka fail to conduct its own impartial inquiry.

Prime Minister Cameron announced that he would publicly raise rights issues while in Colombo. On November 7, 2013, a government spokesman said that in the absence of progress by Sri Lanka, the UK government would support an independent international investigation.

“In the months before the Commonwealth summit the Sri Lankan government took a flurry of actions that have been all show and little substance,” Adams said. “Now is the time for Commonwealth leaders to cut through the government’s smoke and mirrors on human rights.”

Respect for human rights in Sri Lanka continues to decline, as the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, found during her August trip to the country. Torture and excessive use of police force remain serious problems, and media outlets and human rights organizations that speak out on such issues face threats, harassment, and at times violence. Many journalists and rights activists have felt compelled to leave the country. 

The poor human rights climate has been in evidence prior to the Commonwealth summit. Senator Lee Rhiannon of Australia and Jan Logie, a member of the New Zealand parliament, were meeting with Sri Lankan activists in Colombo on November 10 when immigration officials appeared, confiscated their passports, and detained them for over three hours. The International Bar Association Human Rights Institute had canceled its meeting this week in Colombo after the authorities denied a visa to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

The UK’s Channel 4, which has produced several documentaries on Sri Lanka’s wartime abuses, was granted visas to attend the summit, but has been the target of a concerted attack by state media. A senior Sri Lankan diplomat threatened a Channel 4 journalist over Twitter, accusing him of making money off the Tamil Tigers, a claim that could put Channel 4 staffers visiting Sri Lanka at physical risk.

On November 13, the military stopped buses filled with families of the “disappeared” who were traveling from the north to Colombo to participate in the Samagi Human Rights Festival, also known as the “alternative Commonwealth meeting.” The media reported that some of the families turned away held protests that were dispersed by the military and police.

The Commonwealth summit will be the last major global forum to discuss the human rights situation in Sri Lanka prior to the March 2014 session of the UN Human Rights Council. The council in 2012 and 2013 passed resolutions calling on Sri Lanka to implement recommendations on human rights and accountability, and for the UN human rights office to report back to the council on the state of Sri Lanka’s progress.

“The Commonwealth summit is the last, best opportunity for world leaders to promote human rights in Sri Lanka before the March 2014 session of the Human Rights Council,” Adams said. “It’s a chance to show the victims of abuses in Sri Lanka that other countries want to see justice done. And it could set the stage for adoption of an international inquiry at the upcoming council session.”