Sri Lanka has seemingly spared little expense as it hosts the Commonwealth heads of government meeting.
Colombo has been scrubbed clean. A new motorway connecting the airport and the capital for the first time has been opened and the city is dressed in banners touting the country as ‘The World Within’.
But the image of a nation enjoying a post-conflict revival has been overshadowed by allegations of human rights violations and increasing authoritarianism by the government.
In his opening address for the summit on Friday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said the Commonwealth must not be a “judgmental body”, adding that other leaders should not try to impose their own “bilateral agendas”.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh are among the leaders boycotting the biannual meeting. However, Britain’s Prince Charles and Prime Minister David Cameron are attending. Shortly after the opening ceremonies, Cameron travelled to Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna peninsula, the main battlefield of the civil war, and met with political leaders.
The brutal 26-year conflict ended in 2009 after a major military offensive ordered by Rajapaksa who was president at the time.
‘On the right path’
According to a United Nation’s panel, an estimated 40,000 people were killed in the final days of fighting, mostly ethnic minority Tamils. It concluded both sides had committed atrocities, but that army shelling had killed most of the victims.
Rajapaksa strongly denies allegations of human rights abuses by his government and insists that Sri Lanka as new chair of the Commonwealth is proof it’s on the path of reconciliation.
“It is a matter of pride and deep satisfaction to me that this opportunity presents itself here in Colombo as my country turns a new page in its history, and embarks on an existing journey towards prosperity for all our people,” Rajapaksa said.
But campaigners say there has been no credible inquiry into the deaths so far. They say demands for an independent investigation have consistently been rejected by the government.
And while Colombo’s failure to address concerns about its human rights record has overshadowed the three-day summit, political analyst Dayan Jayatilleka says, in the long run, the government has already accomplished what it wanted: “It’s an achievement isn’t it? To be conferred the leader of any kind of international organisation especially one as longstanding as the Commonwealth. So hosting it has already been something of a victory for the Sri Lankan state.”
A victory that’s not being celebrated by those who still want answers.