A few days from now David Cameron will arrive in Colombo to shake hands with a man who presided over the killing of at least 40,000 Tamil civilians and whose government continues to perpetrate shocking cases of rape, torture and mutilation – when the doors open on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka. As he sits down to watch the opening ceremony, the Prime Minister will not be able ignore the absence of two of his most prominent counterparts – the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Both are boycotting the event.
Facing widespread and mounting criticism for not taking a similar stand, David Cameron met members of the Tamil community, including us, last Thursday to discuss our calls for a boycott. Despite our scepticism at the government’s sudden interest in listening to our views, we took this opportunity to put our case directly to the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, it was clear from the start that he had already firmly made up his mind; throughout the meeting he sought only to persuade us that his attendance would be in the Tamil people’s best interests.
Let us be clear why we – along with many, many others – call for this boycott.
This boycott is not just about fairness – although we are stung by the Commonwealth’s decision to reward a state that has, with complete impunity, killed tens of thousands of Tamils and tortured, raped and disappeared countless more.
This boycott is not just about standing up for human rights and democracy – although as firm believers in these ideals we cannot help but despair that the Commonwealth, an organisation set up to embody democracy and human rights, is hiring itself out to a regime that embodies their antithesis.
And this boycott certainly is not about “ducking the difficult discussions”, as David Cameron put it [in an op-ed published in the Tamil Guardian on Thursday], although the irony is not lost on us that the Prime Minister has, both in the past and on the current issue of CHOGM, ducked many difficult discussions in order to smooth the UK’s diplomatic and economic relations with Sri Lanka.
This boycott is for one crucial reason: to stop Sri Lanka exploiting the Commonwealth of Nations to shield itself from mounting international pressure against its persecution of the Tamil people.
There is no doubt that this is precisely what Sri Lanka has already been doing in the run-up to CHOGM. For some months now, the Commonwealth Secretariat has been a lone voice of praise in a sea of international criticism over Sri Lanka’s human rights record. In recent days, Sri Lanka has been busy distributing propaganda to international journalists covering CHOGM to discredit Channel 4 News – an organisation that has worked meticulously to collect and broadcast evidence of Sri Lanka’s war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Tamils. Sri Lanka extensively uses the kitemark of its CHOGM-host status to market its tourism industry abroad.
As CHOGM opens this week and Mahinda Rajapaksa assumes his two-year chairmanship of the Commonwealth of Nations, does our Prime Minister honestly believe that Sri Lanka will not squeeze every drop of propaganda it can from its newly exalted position on the international stage, to deflect attention away from its past and present abuses?
David Cameron has a unique opportunity to stop Sri Lanka and save the Commonwealth. The UK’s absence – on top of India’s and Canada’s boycott – would fatally undermine Sri Lanka’s attempt to hijack this venerable institution. The Prime Minister could ensure that this year’s CHOGM goes down in history as an unfortunate aberration, giving the Commonwealth a chance to redeem its reputation. David Cameron can, precisely through his absence, thwart Sri Lanka’s plot to undermine international efforts to hold it to account for its abuses and crimes. On the other hand, David Cameron’s attendance would be an unmitigated victory for Sri Lanka’s violent and authoritarian government, which would undoubtedly prolong the suffering and pain of the oppressed Tamil people.
At the meeting, the Prime Minister spoke of “shining a spotlight” on Sri Lanka’s past and present human rights abuses, and promised to have “frank” discussions with the Sri Lankan government. These sentiments are simply too little too late. Many before him have tried to engage with Sri Lanka and others have done a wonderful job shining a spotlight on Sri Lanka’s abuses. Yet, these efforts on their own have brought little respite to the Tamil people. If he genuinely wants to help the Tamil people – David Cameron must now take far more robust action. Ensure that an international, independent inquiry takes place; prevent Sri Lanka procuring arms and aid to further oppress the Tamil people; and boycott an event Sri Lanka will use to cleanse its tarnished international image.
We applaud Canada and India for making a stand for Commonwealth values and the long-suffering Tamil people; it is still not too late for our Prime Minister to do the same.