U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron flies to Sri Lanka today and into an argument with the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, over human rights and the treatment of the Tamil minority.
Cameron will visit the north of the island, where the United Nations estimates 40,000 civilians were killed by Rajapaksa’s forces in 2009 at the end of the island’s 26-year civil war. The Sri Lankans say the British leader is acting like a colonialist lecturing them on how to behave.
“There are legitimate accusations of war crimes that need to be properly investigated,” Cameron, who recently watched a Channel 4 television film about the assault, said during a visit to Kolkata, India, on his way to Sri Lanka. “The images in that film are completely chilling. It’s an appalling set of allegations that have been backed up by the work of the UN special rapporteur who has had them verified.”
Cameron, who is headed to the Commonwealth summit, was under pressure from opposition lawmakers to boycott the event to protest Rajapaksa’s record. A UN report found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out by the Sri Lankan government in the last days of the war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, allegations the government has denied.
Sri Lankan troops repeatedly shelled the area in which 330,000 civilians were trapped and used heavy artillery to attack hospitals and UN and Red Cross posts, the UN report said. Survivors were summarily executed, raped and tortured, according to the report, commissioned by the UN secretary general.
Rajapaksa responded today that the killings by Tamil separatists before 2009 were ignored by the international community and he retaliated to stop them, the BBC reported, citing a press conference. He said he had some questions of his own for Cameron, while his information minister remonstrated.
“We are two sovereign governments, this is 2013, and we should have these sorts of frank conversations,” Cameron said. “It’s in Sri Lanka’s own interests to sort these issues out. They had this appalling, bloody, painful civil war that came to an end. They have an opportunity to build a successful, peaceful prosperous nation. Part of my message to President Rajapaksa is he should be seizing the opportunity to win the peace.”
Cameron is due to travel to Jaffna in the north tomorrow, the first world leader to do so since Sri Lanka became independent from Britain in 1948. He’ll meet people affected by the war and to talk with Tamil leaders before meeting Rajapaska.
Ed Miliband, the leader of the U.K.’s opposition Labour Party, who called on Cameron to boycott the summit, joined non-governmental organizations in saying the prime minister should attempt to block Rajapaksa becoming head of the Commonwealth for the next two years, usually the automatic reward for hosting the meeting.
Canada’s Stephen Harper and Navinchandra Ramgoolam of Mauritius will join India’s Manmohan Singh in not traveling to Sri Lanka for the meeting of the 53-nation body, a decision Cameron said he respects while saying that it would have been more effective if Sri Lanka’s critics had presented a united front.
“You can’t make the arguments unless you’re there,” Cameron said. “I totally accept it would be better if everyone took the same view but that’s not the world we live in.”