Commonwealth Nations Vow to Help Postwar Sri Lanka

By Katy Daigle 18 November 2013

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Leaders including South Africa’s president said Sunday that they are ready to help Sri Lanka achieve postwar healing, as the island nation closed a Commonwealth summit held amid international outcry over its human rights record.

The summit was dogged by constant attention to Sri Lanka’s refusal to allow international inquiries into alleged atrocities committed during and after its 27-year civil war, which ended in 2009.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said his troops committed no abuses during or since the country’s brutal civil war against ethnic Tamils fighting for a homeland in the island’s north. Rajapaksa has also said his country’s institutions are actively processing mounting abuse complaints that include reports of missing people, attacks against journalists and harassment of government critics.

“It will take time,” he said during a news conference closing the summit. “We have to change the minds and thinking of the people, not only in the north, but in the south, too.”

Rajapaksa’s government has staunchly refused international calls for an independent inquiry, seeing it as an invasion into domestic matters.

“You must respect our views also, without trying to put us in the corner,” he said.

On Saturday, British Prime Minister David Cameron gave Sri Lanka a March deadline for showing progress on postwar reconciliation, after which he said he would press the issue with the United Nations.

“You can’t say do it in one week or four months. That’s very unfair,” Rajapaksa said.

The leaders of Canada and Mauritius boycotted the summit over Sri Lanka’s human rights record. India’s prime minister sent his foreign minister in his place, with Indian Tamil voters demanding a boycott.

But Cameron and other leaders who defied calls to boycott the summit argued that engaging Sri Lanka was a better plan.

South African President Jacob Zuma, whose country is still working on reconciling its minority white and majority black populations after abolishing apartheid in 1990, said he shared lessons on reconciliation with the Sri Lankan government.

“We have some experience to offer,” Zuma said, adding that his country was ready to help further “if there’s a need for South Africa to play a role.”

Rights groups questioned Sri Lanka’s resolve in addressing the rights issues, noting a deterioration in the rule of law in recent years and ongoing media harassment. Since Rajapaksa became president in 2005, more than 80 journalists have fled—26 of them in the last five years.

Leaders who attended described the summit as a success and emphasized the importance of keeping the group of Britain and its former territories together in order to lobby in other international forums as one unit that shares linguistic and judicial colonial residues, while representing a third of the world’s population and a fifth of its economy.

“We should not be divided,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said, adding that the 27 leaders who attended out of 53 Commonwealth nations expressed a “sense of wanting to stay together.”

“We can benefit from sitting down and learning from each other,” he said.

The Commonwealth leaders produced a final document committing once more to the group’s core values, including democracy and human rights, as well as outlining plans to push for changes to international lending that would help small nations access loans and financing for projects to help cope with the effects of climate change.

The next Commonwealth summit will be in Malta in 2015.