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Royal Commonwealth Soc head urges stronger action on Sri Lanka

Speaking to Channel 4 News on the mass protests against Rajapaksa in the UK on Wednesday, the chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Peter Kellner, said the meeting with Rajapaksa had been an embarrassment to the Queen, however it was due to a "mistake" made at the last Commonwealth summit, when "they took no action against the mounting evidence" of human rights violations in Sri Lanka.

See here for full interview with Channel 4 News.

Transcript of interview follows:

Q. I asked whether, in his view, the President of Sri Lanka should have been here today.

A. No I don't think he should, it wasn’t a mistake that the Queen or Buckingham Palace made, Sri Lanka is a member of the Commonwealth. The mistake was made by the Commonwealth at their last summit, last year in Perth in Australia, when they took no action against the mounting evidence that you amongst others have provided, of things going wrong and human rights being violated in Sri Lanka.

Q. But if they won’t suspend him, then he’s a legitimate leader of a Commonwealth country and has every right to be here and to be heard.

A. Here’s the problem, it’s not just any old Commonwealth country, they are, Sri Lanka is hosting the next Commonwealth summit, which the Queen shall attend towards the end of next year, What worries me is that if nothing is done to improve the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, that summit is going to be a disaster.

Q. So what do you think should happen now?

A. The fact that Sri Lanka is hosting the next Commonwealth summit I think gives the Commonwealth for once, some real leverage, to say to the Sri Lanka government, “Look  the EU, the UN, Amnesty, HRW, virtually everybody around the world that looks seriously at the issue, has said there are things wrong; there’s torture going on, you’re not chasing down the perpetrators of the end of the war with the Tamils. Get your house in order and then we can hold a good Commonwealth summit.” I’d like to see the Commonwealth as an institution putting real pressure, because I think Sri Lanka would not want to lose the summit and that might be the pressure that makes the difference.

Q. But doesn’t sensible diplomacy mean that you have to keep talking to these people as well? Mr Rajapaksa is not the first person accused of things who the Queen would have met, and British officials would have met. If you look at Syria, it’s only just now that diplomatic relations has been broken off.

A. Of course, you talk to them. I never suggested you shouldn’t talk to them. The EU withdrew trade concessions over Sri Lanka’s human rights record, but the EU is still represented in Sri Lanka. The UNHRC has taken action against Sri Lanka, but Sri Lanka is still a member of the UN and goes to UN events. So yes keep on talking to them but wield a stick.

Q. Isn’t the truth that there are probably other members of the Commonwealth who do not want to see action against Sri Lanka, because they’ll be next?

A. Krish, you’re right and I think that’s probably the main reason why the Commonwealth isn’t taking action. In the Commonwealth’s glory days, in the 1970’s and 80’s, when the Commonwealth led the battle against apartheid in South Africa, it took a big stand on a big human rights issue. I think the Commonwealth should revive itself. The best way to revive itself, is to once again stand up for human rights, and with Sri Lanka as the next Commonwealth host, now is the perfect time to show that the Commonwealth really can regain its strength on human rights issues.

Q. Was the Queen put in an embarrassing position today?

A. I think she was actually. The Queen through her reign has had to shake hands and host various unsavoury people, not least the old communist dictators at the time of the Iron Curtain, but the Commonwealth is something that she feels passionate about, she is our patron at the Commonwealth Society and I think it can’t be easy or happy for her to have a Commonwealth that might start to fray the edges and eventually fall apart if it doesn’t really stand up for human rights.

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