The absence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his counterparts from Canada and Mauritius has cast a shadow over the three-day CHOGM summit that begins here Friday amid allegations of human rights violations against the Tamils in Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE.
Unfazed by repeated references to the “war crimes” and the demand for an independent investigation into them,Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has picked on the opportunity to host the summit of the 53-nation grouping to showcase the peace in the last four years after the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The President even sought to downplay the absence of Singh at a CHOGM-eve press conference saying he was satisfied with the presence of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid,who is representing India at the summit after the Prime Minister backed out in the wake of strong sentiments in Tamil Nadu.
Rajapaksa noted that the Indian Prime Minister had not attended the previous 2011 summit in Perth,Australia,an explanation that was also given by Indian officials when Singh decided not to attend the summit after the Congress Core Group’s decision against his going to Colombo.
Political parties in Tamil Nadu had stepped up pressure against Singh’s participation and the Tamil Nadu assembly even passed two resolutions demanding a total boycott by India.
But Khurshid,who is representing India at the summit,has justified his presence saying there was need for India to remain engaged with Sri Lanka in the interest of Tamils of the island and also in the enlightened national interest of India.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Mauritian counterpart Navin Chandra Ramgoolam also chose to keep away from the summit citing the “poor” human rights record of Sri Lanka while British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will attend the summit to express his country’s reservations on the issue.
Attending the summit does not mean Britain endorses all that had happened in Sri Lanka,he had said justifying his decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
India,with 60 per cent of the 2.3 billion population of the grouping,has a key say in the Commonwealth,and along with big democracies like Britain,Australia and Canada,it can influence the way it moves forward.
The first question from an international journalist to Rajapaksa was “what do you plan to tell him (Cameron) when he meets you as he has said he is going to ask some questions to you”.
Rajapaksa shot back “I will be meeting him. I have given him an appointment. When I meet him I will also ask him questions.”
The President was combative throughout his 30-minute press conference that was dominated by the war against terror and the human rights violations allegations against Tamils.
He said Sri Lanka suffered the most in the last 30 years because of terrorism and now he has eliminated it and brought peace to the nation.
“We are open for a dialogue with the diaspora Tamils (sympathising with the LTTE movement and campaigning against his government) and we want to discuss with them all issues. We are also ready to take action against (those guilty of war crimes),” Rajapaksa said.
But those talking of violations of human rights by the forces did not bother about the gross violations by the LTTE when it killed civilians and a President,the President said,reminding the critics that they should respect the country’s legal system.
The theme of this year’s summit is “Growth with equity–inclusive growth” which was chosen by the hosts Sri Lanka.
Indian officials say it will be a 100-para document which will touch on various issues held dear by the Commonwealth like democracy,human rights,independence of judiciary and media besides the topic of economic development.
The political crisis in Maldives is also expected to figure prominently during the summit. The Commonwealth yesterday expelled the Maldives from its disciplinary panel which has begun investigating the political chaos in the country after repeated court interventions to prevent elections.
At the joint press conference,CHOGM Secretary General Kamlesh Sharma said the outcome of the Summit will touch upon the issues relating to Commonwealth principles like human rights,democracy and judiciary.
He said the grouping was engaged with Sri Lanka on the issue of human rights violations and would invite complaints about torture by state forces so that progress can be achieved on reconciliation.
In a question to Rajapaksa,a Geneva-based Sri Lankan journalist,who thanked the President for “eliminating the world’s dangerous terror outfit” asked as to how he would save the Tamil diaspora from being influenced by LTTE,in a reference to Sri Lankan Tamils settled in various western capitals and campaigning against the Lankan government.
“I have already invited them to come to Sri Lanka for a dialogue with us. We can have a dialogue. We are ready to discuss with them and listen to them,” Rajapaksa said.
But,he said,there was the other side when human rights violations were perpetrated by the LTTE.
“There are 14,000 surrendees (LTTE cadre who had surrendered) who had admitted to killing of people and various other crimes. They were fighting the forces. We have taken a reasoned stand by rehabilitating them. Child soldiers were released within a month. For journalists and other it is news. For this we had to pay. For 30 years we suffered. No one made an issue then when there were deaths,” Rajapaksa said.
“Today,there has been no single death in the last four years or any terrorist act. There is peace. My policy is to win over even the terrorists. We are trying to talk to them. But we will not allow anybody to divide this country,” he said.
The Commonwealth Secretary General,who also addressed the press conference,said they respected the decision of governments about their representation in the summit.
Sharma was fully confident that that the outcome of the CHOGM would reflect the values the 53-member Commonwealth stood for in respect of human rights,independence of judiciary and other issues of governance.
The Commonwealth Secretary General said the grouping has engaged itself with the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission and was working on areas like torture by the armed forces and he was sure they would be making progress on the issue.
Rajapaksa lost his cool when he answered a question by a British journalist who wanted to know what would he be telling Prince Charles,who is deputising for his mother Queen Elizabeth II,when he shakes hands with him on the “dire” human rights record of Sri Lanka and whether Sri Lanka would constitute an independent commission to go into the alleged war crimes.
“Is it not a mockery of the Commonwealth?”,the journalist said.
The President retorted,”We will not shake hands. In Sri Lanka we say Ayo Bowan (equivalent of namaste). We do this whether it is King,Queen or a beggar. Thereafter,we will discuss with him. We have in the last 30 years suffered the most. There were a lot of human rights violations. Civilians were killed. A President was killed. We had to suffer. Today no one is killed in Sri Lanka.”
“At last people are appreciating that the war has been finished. For 30 years people were getting killed. At last now we have stopped. There is no killing in Sri Lanka. Now we have a legal system. We have appointed an LLRC. We have a human rights commission. Now the Commonwealth has a right to strengthen it. If anyone wants to complaint about torture,rape and murder,we have a system,” he said.
“You must respect the culture of the country. If there is any violation we will take action against anybody. We are ready to do it. We are very open. We have nothing to hide. We must meet and discuss. You find out. You must respect the country’s legal system,” the President said.
“Anybody who wants to know the situation in Sri Lanka should come to the country and have a dialogue with us and not only with the sympathisers of the LTTE,” Rajapaksa added.