In an interview with FRANCE 24's François Picard, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said domestic politics played a role in the boycott by Indian PM Manmohan Singh of this week's Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka, amid a row over Colombo's human-rights record.
Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has acknowledged that domestic politics played a role in Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision to boycott this week’s controversial Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka.
“There’s a lot happening at home right now,” said Khurshid, in an interview with FRANCE 24’s François Picard in New Delhi.
While careful to note that Singh had important economic issues on his agenda and a general election coming up next year, Khurshid added that, “There were points of view of our colleagues and other parties from Tamil Nadu. They have very strong opinions about how we should deal with this situation that’s the post-conflict situation in Sri Lanka.”
India is home to 62 million Tamils in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. They share close cultural ties with their ethnic brethren in Sri Lanka, where Tamils are a minority in the Sinhalese-dominated nation.
India’s ruling Congress party had been facing pressure from Tamil political parties to boycott this week’s Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka.
The 2013 conference, which begins Friday, has been increasingly overshadowed by Sri Lanka’s human rights record.
Human rights abuses
The UN Human Rights Council has censured the Indian Ocean island twice since 2012 for failing to carry out investigations into alleged human rights crimes during a 2009 government crackdown against the militant separatist group LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).
A UN panel of experts concluded that up to 40,000 civilians died in the final months of fighting. International human rights groups say Sri Lankan government authorities have committed torture, including rape, against suspected rebel supporters both since and during the conflict. Nearly 6,000 victims of disappearances remain unaccounted for, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The Sri Lankan government has denied killing any civilians and has refused to allow any international investigations into the allegations.
Singh is the second leader to shun the meeting after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled out of the conference last month.
On Monday, an Australian senator called on her government to boycott the summit after she was detained, along with a New Zealand lawmaker, and questioned by Sri Lankan authorities.
Senator Lee Rhiannon urged Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to join the boycott after she was prevented from holding a press conference on human rights issues in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo on Sunday by immigration officials who seized their passports and took them to their hotels for three hours of questioning.
Abbott rejected the demand by Rhiannon, an opposition Greens party senator, saying he wanted to maintain “the best possible relations'' with Sri Lanka.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has also rejected calls for a boycott, saying he would urge Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to hold an independent inquiry into allegations.
The Commonwealth is an organisation of 53 former British territories.
India warily eyes Chinese ventures in Sri Lanka
While the Indian prime minister has faced pressure from Tamil community groups and political parties to skip the summit, analysts say the Indian foreign ministry fears the boycott would encourage Sri Lanka to seek closer ties with China, India’s regional rival.
In a column in the national daily, the Indian Express, an influential columnist complained that,
“Now we are vacating our backyard for the Chinese to rebuild all of a booming post-war Sri Lanka.”
The Sri Lankan economy has been booming under Rajapaksa and his three brothers, who hold the posts of defence minister, economy minister and speaker of parliament.
But analysts and human rights activists warn that the government’s triumphalism, after a brutal 26-year war that left at least 100,000 people, dead has emboldened the nation’s hardline political right.
Four years after the end of the civil war in which the majority Buddhist Sinhalese community was pitted against the minority mainly Hindu Tamils, Buddhist monks in Colombo led an attack on Muslims in August amid fears of declining minority rights.
One of the world’s worst places to be a journalist
The Sri Lankan government’s crackdown on the press has sparked widespread condemnation in recent years, as the country has earned a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist.
According to the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders, Sri Lanka currently ranks 162nd out of 179 on an index of national press freedom, making it the lowest-ranked parliamentary democracy. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded nine journalists’ murders over the past decade. None of the crimes has resulted in prosecution.
In the lead-up to Friday’s summit, journalists covering the event have been handed a 222-page book titled “Corrupted Journalism” criticising two investigative documentaries by the British TV network, Channel 4, detailing extensive human rights abuses in northern Sri Lanka in 2009.
On Monday, pro-government activists demonstrated outside Sri Lanka’s main international airport as a British Channel 4 crew arrived to cover the Commonwealth summit.
"Channel 4 divides Sri Lanka, supports terrorism," read one poster held by a demonstrator. "Channel 4. You lie because you are paid by LTTE," said another, referring to the defeated Tamil militant group.
Sri Lanka had previously blacklisted Channel 4 staff involved with the documentary, but later allowed them access “because our prime minister and foreign secretary refused to attend without the full complement of British press”, said Channel 4 news editor Ben de Pear.
The Sri Lankan government had hoped the meeting would showcase the country’s post-civil-war revival. But the absence of both the Indian and Canadian leaders has sharpened the focus on the Sri Lankan government’s alleged human rights abuses, turning it into a PR nightmare for Rajapaksa’s administration.