Commonwealth gathering in Sri Lanka tainted by atrocities

By Savi Hensman
November 4, 2013

Sri Lanka’s regime is preparing to host a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in mid-November. Embarrassingly, however, a disturbing documentary containing evidence of atrocities towards the end of the island’s civil war was broadcast by Channel 4.

From late 2008 to mid-2009, both government forces and the brutal Tiger rebels committed human rights violations on a major scale, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.

This Tamil nationalist group, guilty of child conscription and terrorist attacks, was heavily defeated. But those responsible for state abuses have not been brought to justice, despite serious violations of international law. The programme ‘No Fire Zone’ showed civilians being shelled, prisoners shot dead. The distress and bewilderment of those who helplessly watched family members killed before their eyes was powerfully conveyed.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers, who wield huge power in an increasingly authoritarian regime, continue to deny any wrongdoing, and still have considerable support within Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority for ending the war. However people of all ethnic communities have had their human rights eroded in a culture where those in power are allowed to get away with murder, literally.

Meanwhile there are some Tamils – especially outside Sri Lanka – who are still in denial about the misdeeds of the Tigers, including preventing civilians from escaping to safety.

If Sri Lanka’s divisions are to heal, it is important to confront the truth, however grim, and seek to improve the lot of the survivors and ensure that all are treated justly. Those internationally who wish the country well could play a valuable part in persuading their own governments not to join in the pretence that nothing much happened.

Despite calls for a boycott, many countries are planning to send high-level delegations, including the UK: Prime Minister David Cameron is due to attend, along with Prince Charles. This has led to protests.

According to the Commonwealth charter, its core values include democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It is time to reassert these principles more vigorously.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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