CHOGM host Sri Lanka faces rights queries

Sri Lanka is in the global spotlight ahead of it hosting Tony Abbott, John Key and other Commonwealth leaders for CHOGM 2013.

Sri Lanka wants the world to know it's moving ahead after years of civil conflict and thousands of deaths.

Hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) - to be opened in Colombo by Prince Charles on November 15 - is a major step in its campaign to convince the world that this is not just rhetoric but reality.

However, while Prime Minister Tony Abbott, his New Zealand counterpart John Key and most other Commonwealth nation leaders are happy to go along with this, Canada has heeded warnings of human rights groups such as Amnesty International and its leader is boycotting the event.

The British House of Commons foreign affairs committee called on British PM David Cameron not to go, citing human rights concerns, but he has confirmed his attendance.

Indian PM Manmohan Singh is also facing internal political pressure from parties in the state of Tamil Nadu to boycott CHOGM.

Rights advocates want an independent investigation into allegations Sri Lankan government forces committed war crimes towards the end of a 26-year civil war with ethnic-Tamil opponents that ended in 2009.

The UN says 40,000 civilians were killed in the last five months of the conflict.

As well, United Nations commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay raised concerns in August about the authoritarian direction Sri Lanka is headed under president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The rule of law and democratic institutions were being undermined, Pillay said, and the country was taking a worrying "authoritarian turn".

Amnesty International says surveillance and harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and other citizens is getting worse.

The human rights watchdog's deputy Asia-Pacific director, Polly Truscott, says countries such as Australia should agree on new measures to address the human rights crisis.

"Given the persistence of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, it would be ludicrous to reward the country with the commonwealth's chair," Truscott says.

Amnesty says there is a disturbing term used in the country - "white van kidnappings" - which describes people being bundled into vans and taken away for interrogation.

Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, a former navy chief who is high commissioner to Australia and New Zealand, told AAP his country had come a long way through a process of reconciliation and rehabilitation.

"We have taken a lot of steps to improve human rights," he says.

"We eradicated terrorism and human rights were restored - that is the best thing."

He says food, poverty, housing, infrastructure and health problems are all being addressed.

"We need the rest of the world to come and see it," he says.

As for human rights abuses, the high commissioner says the UN is biased and those countries electing not to attend CHOGM will make their own decisions.

"We need support, not unfair criticism," he said.

"There are some complaints that individuals have killed people, but they are punished and we continue to investigate. We are not shying away from any investigation."

At least one independent report seems to back up claims of progress.

A Royal Commonwealth Society report which measured 168 countries on human rights criteria such as press freedom, democracy and inequality, ranked Sri Lanka 68th in the world, but 14th in the Commonwealth. New Zealand was fifth and Australia sixth in the Commonwealth.

Canadian PM Stephen Harper has said that if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant it must stand in defence of the basic principles of freedom, democracy, and respect for human dignity.

"It is clear that the Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth's core values, which are cherished by Canadians."

Mr Abbott takes a different approach.

"I intend to attend CHOGM and will do my best to make a constructive contribution to the deliberations there," he said in early October.

"You do not make new friends by rubbishing your old friends or abandoning your old friends."

Mr Key's office says while the prime minister agrees there is work to do on Sri Lanka's human rights record, he is still attending.

Former diplomat Bruce Haigh says it does not reflect well on Abbott that he's "pretending" no human rights abuses are being perpetrated against the defeated Tamil minority by the Rajapaksa regime.

He says this is because Abbott needs Sri Lanka on his side to stop the flow of refugees.

"It is unlikely that the Australian and Canadian high commissions in Colombo are sending back different information on the situation in Sri Lanka," he wrote in a recent article for the Canberra Times.

"It might therefore be assumed that the Australian government is formulating foreign policy with respect to Sri Lanka solely on the basis of domestic political considerations."

Admiral Samarasinghe says Tamils are leaving Sri Lanka not because of persecution but the "pull factor from Australia", which he believes is an issue only Australia can address.

Sri Lanka is willing to co-operate on getting rid of the criminals behind people-smuggling operations, he says.

Having hosted the 2011 CHOGM in Perth, Australian officials have been helping their Sri Lankan counterparts plan the 2013 event which has the theme "Growth with Equity - Inclusive Development".

With the eyes of the world on it, Sri Lanka has a chance to prove it is including its minorities in economic and social development.

Source AAP

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