CHOGM winds up in Colombo

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While criticisms of Sri Lanka's human rights record dominated the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared Australia could be "good mates" with the island nation.  

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

While criticisms of Sri Lanka's human rights record dominated the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared Australia could be "good mates" with the island nation.

Mr Abbott also used the visit to emphasise co-operation on people smuggling by donating two retired Australian patrol boats to the Sri Lankan Navy.

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CHOGM 2013 has been largely overshadowed by accusations of human rights abuses in the host country.

So much so, that by the end of the meeting officials tried to stop journalists questioning the Sri Lankan President on his nation's human rights record.

"I think Mr President has addressed that question exhaustively over the last few days. It's been asked again and again in different ways and Mr President has given generously of his time to answer that question."

Despite the distractions, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse characterised the meeting as "fruitful" with issues covered in the communique including political values, global threats, climate change, and Commonwealth cooperation.

The Commonwealth leaders agreed to ensure economic growth does not come at the expense of equality, signing whats called the Colombo Declaration on Sustainable, Inclusive and Equitable Development.

Some of the recommendations, including a call for greater access to international financial support for small countries, are set to be referred to the G20 summit in Brisbane next year.

CHOGM 2013 also saw Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron become the first international leader to visit the Tamil-dominated north of the country since Sri Lankan independence in 1948.

On his visit to the city of Jaffna, he met survivors of the nation's decades-long Tamil separatist war estimated to have killed more than 100,000 people.

Afterwards, Mr Cameron delivered Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa an ultimatum: address allegations of war crimes by March or else Britain will push for a United Nations investigation.

"As things stand, the Sri Lankan government don't accept the need for a full independent inquiry. They haven't established it, they have of course set up their own reconciliation commission and that has done some good work, but I think this particular piece of work needs to be done, and the message I have is this issue is not going to go away, this is an issue now of international concern. And it is going to be an issue, as I say that won't go away, and we should pursue it very vigorously."

The UN estimates as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final stages of the war in 2009 when Tamil Tiger rebels were crushed by government troops.

Accusations of war crimes have been made against both government troops, and the Tamil Tigers.

President Rajapakse hit back at Mr Cameron saying Sri Lanka can be trusted to deal with the aftermath of the civil war.

"Pressure won't do anything. Any pressure, you know, might crash. So, it's much better to request than trying to demand or dictate. They have to trust us. If I can do all this why can't you trust my word? We have eminent people in Sri Lanka who are very independent."

Prime Minister Tony Abbott took a softer approach, telling reporters while his government deplores the use of torture it accepts that, in his words, sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen.

Mr Abbott's comments have been blasted at home by the Greens and Labor legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus who says the use of torture is never justifiable.

But Mr Abbott says he did discuss human rights with the Sri Lankan leader in his own way.

Mr Abbott says in a bilateral meeting, Mr Rajapaksa told him Sri Lanka was addressing human rights and reconciliation concerns.

"Sri Lanka has come through many troubles but today there is more freedom and more prosperity. Obviously there is more to be done but much progress has been made and the fact that Sri Lanka is prepared to showcase itself in this way to the wider Commonwealth - a Commonwealth of values, a Commonwealth of ideas, a Commonwealth of aspirations for justice and a better life for all shows the good will and the good intentions of the Sri Lankan government."

Mr Abbott took the opportunity to gift two refurbished customs patrol boats to the Sri Lankan navy.

The Prime Minister says the boats can be used in operations against people smuggling.

"To enhance their capacity to crack down on this evil trade. I mean let's be absolutely crystal clear. This is about saving life at sea. There are few more important humanitarian issues in our neighbourhood right now than stopping the flow of boats which in Australia's case has been associated with more than a thousand deaths at sea."

The $2 million bid to stop people smuggling operations in Sri Lanka comes after the recent arrest of a senior Sri Lankan navy officer on people smuggling charges.

The Australian Greens leader Christine Milne has condemned Mr Abbotts' comments in Sri Lanka.

"How can we as Australians feel anything but shame about a Prime Minister who will not condemn torture? And what's more will not collaborate with a regime to allow that torture to continue just because he wants to run a domestic line about stopping the boats."

 

Source World News Australia

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