British Prime Minister David Cameron must reverse his decision to attend the CHOGM summit in Colombo later this year. His presence will merely legitimise a regime widely accused of mass atrocities and intensifying repression, and seriously undermine international efforts to pursue human rights protection, accountability, democracy and resolution of Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis. The decision is inherent to a flawed policy towards Sri Lanka, which Britain terms ‘engagement’ but is in effect one of appeasement and support. If Sri Lanka’s inexorable slide into violent instability is to be reversed, Britain must play a more active role based on a clear, principled and forceful stance towards Colombo.
Mr. Cameron’s decision has rightly sparked outrage and dismay amongst international campaigners and the Tamil communities in Britain and elsewhere, and has been criticised in the British media. Even as he sought - half-heartedly - to defend it in Parliament this week, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg admitted the decision is ‘controversial’. This is an understatement; it is indefensible. UK officials claim the Premier’s presence in Colombo will enable him to deliver a ‘strong’ message to Colombo. This is misguided at best and disingenuous at worst. Mr. Cameron’s attendance is all that matters to the Rajapaksa government, which has long made clear it cares not a jot what London thinks of its actions. Even on the UK government’s own terms, the Shadow Foreign Secretary asked the obvious question: why didn’t Mr. Cameron set clear conditionalities on his attendance? As many others argue, however, he should simply not go; that would be the most meaningful – and effective - ‘message’.
Notably, Mr. Cameron’s announcement was immediately followed by the Palace’s that the Queen would not attend the Colombo summit. This is a major, and welcome, decision by the monarch, who has attended every CHOGM for forty years. Despite the diplomatic gloss put on the Queen’s decision by UK officials, the reason is clear: Sri Lanka is too far beyond the pale. This is how it is understood both within and outside the island. In this context of this snub, the only message Mr. Cameron’s presence will send is that, when all is said and done, his government stands with the Rajapaksa regime.
In the 4 years since the end of the war, international efforts to generate concerted pressure on Sri Lanka on accountability, human rights and the ethnic question has been persistently weakened by the contradictory policies of some states such as Britain. Whilst joining in some efforts – for example, at the UN Human Rights Council – Britain has also insisted on maintaining demonstrably warm relations with Sri Lanka. This is in stark contrast to the policies of, for example, the United States and Canada. This policy is sometimes rationalised as one of ‘quiet diplomacy’ intended to coax the murderous regime into reforming itself. At best quiet diplomacy has been an abject failure, and at worst has actively served to encourage Colombo in its intransigence and repression. In its course, the growing evidence of massacres and a litany of human rights abuses, as well as Sri Lanka’s overtly racist and violent policies are deliberately set aside and, as a consequence, tacitly encouraged. In this regard Britain and Australia have done more lately to strengthen the Rajapaksa regime than illiberal states such as China.
Mr. Cameron’s presence in Colombo will have far reaching consequences. In reassuring the Sri Lankan government that international pressure is not, in the end, that consequential, it will seriously undermine the efforts of other international actors on human rights protection, accountability and democracy. It is a deliberate slap in the face for the Tamils that belittles the horrific atrocities and abuses inflicted on them. As such, it will embolden and encourage the Sri Lankan government to continue with its persecution (unsurprisingly, Mr. Cameron’s announcement coincides with sharp escalations of oppression in the island's North-East). This will worsen sharply after CHOGM.
As Sri Lanka’s repression intensifies in the coming months and years, so will efforts by Tamil and international actors to resist Colombo’s racist and violent policies. (Indeed, the controversy over CHOGM has in recent months visibly broadened this loose coalition.) However, such efforts must encompass a more critical approach towards international actors who support the Rajapaksa regime while giving lip service to its critics. For their part, British Tamils should take a more nuanced approach to engagement with their political leaders and government officials, as British support for Sri Lanka is integral to the latter’s persecution of the Tamils.