The charitable arm of the Commonwealth has been involved in a row at the heads of government meeting, after staff complained of being intimidated by Sri Lankan officials angered by a British minister who raised human rights concerns on the island.
Sources at the Commonwealth Foundation, which promotes non-profit organisations in former British colonies, said the Sri Lankan government had attempted to “take over and control” events it had planned.
At the last Commonwealth meeting in Australia it was NGOs that ran the foundation’s agenda. But in Colombo, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother-in-law, Lalith Chandradasa, a prominent businessman, ensured that the programme of events was limited to discussion of the post-2015 global development agenda. There was no mention of human rights.
In 2009 the Sri Lankan regular army defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – the Tamil Tigers – who were fighting a guerrilla campaign to create an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam in north-eastern areas of the island. As many as 100,000 people are thought to have been killed in the civil war.
This news blackout on what many NGOs considered a key concern was broken when at a meeting last Wednesday Hugo Swire, the Foreign Office minister, made a speech in which he pressed Sri Lanka to investigate people’s disappearances, guarantee freedom of expression and “stamp out intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders”.
He also tweeted a picture of himself with Canada’s representative Deepak Obhrai, an ethnic Tamil – the minority group who say they have been discriminated against for decades – and fellow foreign minister, who had been blocked from speaking by the Sri Lankans, fearful he would raise the issue of reconcillation. Colombo accused Obhrai of paying tribute to the Tamil rebels when he laid a wreath to victims of the island’s civil war.
The result, said staff speaking anonymously, was a “campaign of intimidation and propaganda in local newspapers”. Headlines claimed that “Britain flayed Sri Lanka” and that the meeting had been “subverted”. “Staff were shouted at, trailed by police. We were blocked from doing our job. After losing control it was the last straw,” said a Colombo-based source.
A foundation source said some staff had left earlier than scheduled, though a foundation spokesperson said only people not required had left while the four senior and relevant staff – the director, the deputy, the chair and programme manager – remained, along with 50 civil society delegates from the Commonwealth People’s Forum to attend a foreign minister’s meeting on Saturday.
Chandradasa told the Guardian there was “no bullying or anything like it”. “[Swire] just made his speech. He walked off. He was texting and tweeting. But he had denigrated Sri Lanka and civil society,” he said. Chandradasa claimed Swire’s comments had set back progress that had been made during the summit between civic leaders and Sri Lanka’s government. “We don’t deny that the relationship between the civil society and Sri Lankan government is strained. But now it is worse.” The Foreign Office said that the Swire speech was planned and “in line with our policy on Sri Lanka”. (The Guardian)