SRI JAYAWARDENAPURA KOTTE, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka has found itself the focus of international attention recently amid accusations of human rights violations committed during a 26-year civil war with the ‘Tamil Tigers,’ a separatist terrorist group. The controversy has caused quite a stir as Sri Lanka is currently serving as the host country for the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM.) As its name implies, this meeting is a gathering of the heads of government from all 53 member states of the Commonwealth of Nations (most of which were territories of the former British Empire.)
Though the war against the Tamil Tigers was long and bloody, most of the accusations of rights violations stem from the final phase of fighting. From September 2008 to May 2009, the Sri Lankan army hemmed the separatists into a small expanse of land along the northeastern coast. While both sides are accused of having committed atrocities during this time, a United Nations report released in 2011 said that the government used “large-scale and widespread shelling” that lead to a large number of civilian deaths. The exact number of fatalities is unknown, as the figures in Sri Lankan reports differ greatly from those in reports by the U.N. and NGOs. Critics of the government also allege that there was widespread sexual violence against women and torturing of prisoners during this fighting. Since then, other allegations of governmental misconduct have arisen, such as the “disappearance” of political opponents and the intimidation and murder of journalists.
Despite the international scrutiny, the summit opened on November 15 with the usual cheerful ceremony. However, three heads of state were missing. The prime ministers of Canada, India and Mauritius all chose to boycott, instead sending delegates in their place. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper registered his country’s displeasure with how the situation has been handled by the Sri Lankan government, stating “The absence of accountability for the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war is unacceptable.”
The Sri Lankan government, however, is denying the criticism made of their human rights record. Dr. Chris Nonis, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Britain, calls the accusations a “proxy propaganda war” being conducted by those who funded the “terrorist conflict.” Reacting to calls for Sri Lanka to be stripped of its chairmanship of the Commonwealth, he added, “We cherish the principles of democracy and development…We are a very decent, very human group of people. We’ve had a terrible conflict with the terrorists–finally the people of Sri Lanka are free.”
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, elected to attend the summit, but has called for Sri Lanka to take accountability for their actions and to conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations. If that does not happen, he says, then an independent, international investigation will be needed. The government in turn has accused him of colonialism, saying he is trying to dictate to a sovereign nation.
The summit, set to last until November 17, will likely involve a discussion of human rights concerns. Though not on the formal agenda per se, the prime ministers are set to debate over what should replace the United Nations Millennium Development Goals when they expire. This will likely provide the opportunity for the assembled political leaders to raise their questions and concerns about human rights, both generally and in the context of Sri Lanka’s actions during their civil war.
– Rebecca Beyer