David Cameron was surrounded by Tamil protesters as he visited the north of Sri Lanka to meet victims of the country’s civil war. Around 200 protesters, mainly women, surrounded the Prime Minister’s car and held up pictures of dead or disappeared relatives.
Mr Cameron, who defied calls to boycott the Commonwealth summit, is the first world leader to travel to the north since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. He is calling for an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes by state forces led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s president.
he Prime Minister then visited the Uthayan daily newspaper where he was shown bullet holes in the walls and a fire-damaged printing press. Six Journalists have been killed at the newspaper and one is still missing. Many have suffered beatings by mobs of masked men wielding iron bars surrounded by barbed wire. Journalists at the paper believe that President Rajapaksa’s government is responsible for the violent attacks.
Mr Cameron also met the new chief minister of the northern province – former judge CV Vigneswaran of the Tamil National Alliance – at the library in the northern city of Jaffna.
The building is of huge symbolic importance to Tamils as it was rebuilt several times after being burned down in 1981 and repeatedly targeted.
Canadian, Indian and Mauritian leaders have stayed away from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in protest over human rights but the Prime Minister has rebuffed calls for him to join them – arguing he will better highlight the issues by being there.
As many as 40,000 civilians are estimated to have died in the final months of the regime’s 26-year fight with Tamil Tiger separatists, according to the UN, which wants an international investigation if no new inquiry is held.
Mr Rajapaksa rejects claims that his forces indiscriminately shelled Tamils fleeing the intense fighting as the Tigers – themselves a brutal guerrilla movement – were defeated, and allegations of battlefield executions and rapes.
Abuses are reported to continue, with claims of torture, abductions and intimidation of the media and judiciary leading the UN human rights chief to warn the country was becoming increasingly authoritarian.
Reconciliation efforts have included regional elections in the north and a commission to investigate historic “disappearances” but Mr Cameron has said they do not go anywhere near far enough.
He met and shook hands with Mr Rajapaksa today at the fomal opening of CHOGM, which is also being attended by the Prince of Wales on behalf of the Queen, who heads the group of mostly former British colonies.
Defying the Sri Lankan leader, he then took a small aircraft to Jaffna, the regional capital of the Tamil-dominated north, on a visit which he says he made a condition of his attendance at the event.
A bilateral meeting with the Sri Lankan president is scheduled for his return.
Mr Cameron conceded that some people would not speak to him for fear of reprisals, “but that in the way will tell its own story”.
“If that’s the case, that will be a demonstration of the difficulties in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement – the key freedoms that we value.”
He has promised a “frank exchange of views” with Mr Rajapaksa over the “chilling” claims of war crimes and violations of human rights.
“There is the problem of human rights as we speak today: the people who have disappeared, the lack of free rights for journalists and a free press.
“But I think perhaps most important of all is the need for proper investigations to look into what happened at the end of this very long, appalling civil war.”
He has rejected Sri Lankan claims that he was showing a “colonialist” attitude. “We are two sovereign governments. This is 2013, and we should have these sorts of frank conversations.”
The president has fended off criticism, telling reporters in Colombo: “We are open. We have nothing to hide. “If anyone who wants to complain about human rights violations in Sri Lanka, whether it’s torture, whether it is rape, we have a system. “If there is any violations, we will take actions against anybody, anybody. I am ready to do that.”
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader,who previously called on Mr Cameron to stay away, said the Prime Minister should join other Commonwealth members to block Mr Rajapaksa from taking up the two-year chairmanship of the 53-nation group, normally held by the most recent Chogm host. (The Telegraph)