When David Cameron entered Jaffna, in north Sri Lanka recently, his convoy was swarmed by desperate protesters holding pictures of loved ones who they claimed were killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces or have simply “disappeared”. The PM’s visit was part of the Commonwealth Summit. As he had hoped, it drew international attention to alleged human rights abuses and war crimes in a country still healing from a brutal civil war.

Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was clearly hoping to use the summit to show off the country’s post-war economic recovery, as well as to politically glorify his family regime. His parading was eclipsed by Cameron however, who called on the president to set up an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes, or face a UN probe. Notably the prime ministers of Canada and Mauritius boycotted the summit in protest over the allegations.

Following calls for a full investigation to be completed by March, Rajapaksa responded defensively: “Whether it is Muslims who had been displaced, the Sinhalese who had been displaced, and Tamils, they are all my people, my citizens. I have to look after them. So I will do it. But you can’t say tomorrow, do it within one week or three months or four months. That’s very unfair.” His comment seems to also reveal his paternalistic attitude towards his people.

…There are clearly still many unanswered questions…

During Sri Lanka’s civil war as many as 40,000 civilians are estimated to have died in the final months of the regime’s fight with Tamil Tiger separatists. A UN report concluded that, while both sides committed atrocities, army shelling killed most victims. The UN says that abductions and torture continue in the country. There are clearly still many unanswered questions. International pressure and a full investigation are surely the right things to do in order to help the people of Sri Lanka who suffered enormously during the civil war and now live under an increasingly authoritarian regime.

There is another unavoidable question that came out of the summit: what is the Commonwealth for anyway? Apart from always trying to shake off its image as a vestige of colonialism, it is clearly suffering from an identity crisis. Some find having Rajapaksa as host to its latest summit makes a mockery of the Commonwealth’s supposed commitment to human rights. British ministers have repeatedly argued that the commonwealth is an international “soft power”- a positive influence without slipping into neo-colonialism. But in reality it appears more like a woolly, do-gooder organisation that looks away when bad things happen.

…alleged human rights abuses and war crimes…

The usefulness of the Commonwealth aside, however, the more pressing and important issue is the alleged human rights abuses and war crimes. Let’s hope there is a thorough investigation with sustained international attention, so that many Sri Lankan people will find out how their loved ones “disappeared”, and their plight will not pass quietly into history.

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