Central & South Asia

War crimes dominate commonwealth summit

Leaders agree on unified policy in summit overshadowed by calls for international tribunal over Sri Lankan war crimes.

Last updated: 17 Nov 2013 16:40
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President Rajapaksa has said Sri Lanka must be allowed to address its past in its own time [Getty Images]

Commonwealth leaders have agreed on steps to tackle high debt and poverty as they staged a show of unity after a summit in Sri Lanka dominated by a bitter dispute over war crimes.

Following a three-day meeting in Colombo, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced on Sunday that a communique had been agreed by the Commonwealth's 53 member nations in a summit characterised by "fruitful discussions".

"Issues covered in the communique include development, political values, global threats, challenges and Commonwealth cooperation," the Sri Lankan president said.

But it was a summit overshadowed by calls for an investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan army during the bloody finale in the country's civil war in 2009, in which the UN says as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed.

Rajapaksa spent much of the three-day summit deflecting calls for an international inquiry with London-based Amnesty International describing the rising local and international pressure on the president as "a PR disaster" for Colombo.

Steve Crawshaw, Amnesty International director said that those "responsible for past violations, including war crimes, must be held accountable irrespective of rank, and ongoing human rights violations stopped - victims and survivors must see justice done".

"The challenge for the international community is now to keep up the pressure on the Sri Lankan government," Crawshaw said.

Rajapaksa has consistently maintained that no civilians were killed in the final stages of the war. He says he deserves credit for ending a conflict which claimed more than 100,000 lives.

The Sri Lankan president has also repeatedly said that Sri Lanka should be allowed to address its past on its own and in its own time.

Upsetting hosts

Rajapaksa has also taken a hit from the decision by the leaders of India, Canada and Mauritius to boycott the summit.

Canada's foreign minister even said the decision to allow Colombo to stage such as a gathering was akin to "accommodating evil". 

On Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron's warned that the United Kingdom would lead a push for an international probe through UN bodies unless an internal inquiry produces credible results by March.

But the leaders of other countries who did come to Colombo were much more wary of upsetting their hosts.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott peppered calls for improvement in its rights record with an appeal to be "good mates" with Sri Lanka.

South African President Jacob Zuma refrained from criticising Colombo, but did offer "any assistance" in reconciliation efforts, based on his country's experience of addressing apartheid-era abuses through a truth and reconciliation commission.

But the Families of the Disappeared, a Colombo-based rights group, said Rajapaksa could not be trusted to come up with results unless international pressure is applied.

The group's head Britio Fernando said pro-government activists broke up an exhibition they organised to coincide with the summit to highlight the thousands killed by security forces.

"The government is labelling anyone who speaks on behalf of human rights as a traitor," Fernando said.


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