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Cameron's coup

Sri Lanka had intended its hosting of the Commonwealth leaders’ summit last week to burnish its international standing and, in particular, decisively crush the growing worldwide campaign for accountability for its wartime atrocities and ongoing human rights abuses. In actuality, the summit turned into an unmitigated public relations disaster, with these very issues eclipsing the conference and drawing wall-to-wall international media coverage. This unexpected and welcome outcome can be directly traced to the boycotts of the summit by leaders of Canada, Mauritius and, reluctantly, India, and, especially, the robust actions of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Rather than whitewashing the murderous regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa as many had quite rightly feared, events at CHOGM have added impetus to the international campaign for accountability and justice. The most significant of these is Mr. Cameron’s pledge that Britain would press at the UN for an international investigation into Sri Lanka’s war crimes, if Colombo does not complete by March 2014, an ‘independent, thorough and credible’ one of its own. 

In the lead up to the summit, Mr Cameron had rejected widespread calls to boycott, arguing that the ‘right thing to do’ was to engage with Colombo. Yet despite his attendance, in the end his carefully scripted and pointed actions in Sri Lanka amounted, in fact, to a de facto boycott. His visit, far from Britain's customary ‘engagement’, was a string of deliberate snubs. Mr. Cameron left the summit immediately after its launch on Friday to fly to Jaffna, where he met amid the muddy lanes and fragile shelters of a refugee camp with displaced Tamils whose homes remain occupied by the military, and staff of the repeatedly attacked Uthayan newspaper in their bullet-pocked and arson scorched offices. The scenes of distraught relatives of Tamils ‘disappeared’ by Sri Lankan forces hurling themselves against Mr. Cameron’s cavalcade with photographs of their loves ones were particularly poignant. In a final blow, Mr Cameron left early on Saturday, missing the remaining half of the three-day summit, but not before setting President Rajapaksa a March deadline and ultimatum. Indeed, it was not Mr. Cameron’s attendance of the summit, but his visible absences from its proceedings, as well as his historic visit to Jaffna, that upstaged the event and ignited the emerging focus on Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses into the defining issue of CHOGM.

The Rajapaksa regime however, remains defiant and unbowed. As we have long argued – and as no doubt became clear to Mr. Cameron himself during his reportedly heated meeting with President Rajapaksa on Friday - no amount of cajoling by the international community will persuade this regime to abandon its violent and repressive policies. This is precisely why Mr. Cameron’s forceful actions in the past few days, marking a welcome change from Britain’s approach of largely unconditional engagement with Sri Lanka, have both provided a fillip to the campaign for accountability and human rights protection, and been enthusiastically welcomed by Tamils the world over. At the same time, they have propelled Britain from being a follower, especially next to the United States, to a lead actor on the question of accountability, justice and stability in Sri Lanka.  

However, the corollary is that Mr. Cameron has sharply raised expectations of Britain, and himself. The Rajapaksa regime remains unwaveringly committed to the strategic and violent project of Sinhala nationalist reordering of the island. As repeatedly demonstrated, any ‘concessions’ or steps it takes at such moments are cosmetic and only intended to blunt, delay and ultimately escape international pressure. Mr Cameron's deadline is an important step in limiting Colombo's ability to obfuscate and delay. However, to be clear, nothing short of an international investigation will suffice: the crimes are simply too grave, Sri Lanka’s top political and military’s leaders are themselves implicated, and the country’s majoritarian order and institutions will not take seriously, let alone credibly address, Tamils’ grievances. As such, Mr. Cameron must stay the course that Britain has now charted. The UN Human Rights Commission session in March is the next checkpoint, but it cannot be the sole focus, it must be part of a broader and determined effort by Britain and rest of the international community - one that must begin now.

Illustration by Keera Ratnam