Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will not be attending a meeting of the heads of the Commonwealth nations this week, according to Indian media reports. The meet comes amid a heated debate over Sri Lanka’s human-rights record, particularly the final phase of its decades-long civil war. Tamil politicians in India have been pressuring Singh for weeks to boycott the summit.
Singh reportedly wrote a letter to Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Nov. 10 to say that he would not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and that India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid would lead the Indian delegation instead. The only other leader to boycott the meeting so far is Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who said on Oct. 7 that he would not be attending because “the Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron, along with the Prince of Wales representing the Queen, will be attending. Cameron has said he will use the visit to press Rajapaksa’s government to launch an independent investigation into alleged human-rights violations and war crimes committed by the army and fighters of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during the war’s bloody end.
In 2011, a U.N.-appointed panel found as many as 40,000 civilians may have died in the government’s final offensive against the Tigers. The U.N. Human Rights Council subsequently adopted back-to-back resolutions in 2012 and ’13 urging Colombo to launch an independent investigation. The government has yet to do so and has strongly denied engaging in any war crimes.
Many are concerned that by allowing Sri Lanka to host CHOGM, the Commonwealth has compromised its values of promoting democracy and rule of law and tacitly sanctioned Sri Lanka’s creeping authoritarianism. Critics of the government have been threatened and kidnapped in recent years, and thousands of cases of disappearances during the long war remain unresolved. “It conveys the wrong message about what the Commonwealth stands for,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, head of South Asia for Human Rights Watch. “This should not just turn into a photo opp.”
Singh has come under tremendous pressure in recent weeks from both members of his own Congress Party and powerful political parties in the southern state of Tamil Nadu to skip the meeting in protest over Sri Lanka’s human-rights record. Tamil politicians welcomed early news of Singh’s reported decision. But others in India argue that alienating Sri Lanka will only push the regime further toward China, which has a strategic interest in the island nation and is already a major investor there.
“Now we are vacating our backyard for the Chinese to rebuild all of a booming postwar Sri Lanka,” writes Shekhar Gupta, editor of the Indian Express newspaper, in a column. “A cancellation now will be convenient, but cowardly.”