LONDON — The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting gets underway Friday in Sri Lanka. Critics say Colombo should not host the summit because of widespread allegations of human rights abuses by Sri Lankan government forces. Those ciritcs warn the Commonwealth, which has its roots in the former British empire, risks losing relevance if it fails to confront the issue.
Human rights groups allege up to 40,000 civilians were killed in 2009 as Sri Lankan government forces waged a final assault against ethnic Tamil separatists. The battle ended the three-decade long war against the Tamil Tiger militants, but at a huge cost, says Yolanda Foster of Amnesty International.
“We are talking about deliberate shelling of civilians, targeting of hospitals; and the U.N. described these violations as a grave assault on international law," said Foster.
The war may be over, but Foster says allegations of human rights abuses continue to emerge from Sri Lanka.
“We receive reports of enforced disappearances, attacks on journalists, and there is also rampant custodial torture in the country," she said.
Sri Lanka’s government has strongly denied the claims of human rights abuses.
But the allegations prompted Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to boycott the heads of government meeting. Indian officials say Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also decided not to attend.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron says Sri Lanka has serious questions to answer - but he did not accede to demands to pull out of the summit.
The decision to hold the biennial meeting in Colombo was a long process, says Richard Uku of the Commonwealth Secretariat, the coordinating body of the organization.
“That decision is made by the Commonwealth leaders, the heads themselves. And they took that decision. They considered it three times in 2007, in 2009 they considered it favorably, and they confirmed that when they met in Perth in 2011," said Uku.
Campaigners say the Commonwealth must tackle allegations of abuses by its members head-on, or else risk sliding into irrelevancy. Again, Yolanda Foster of Amnesty International.
“The Commonwealth has a set of human rights principles enshrined in its charter in the Harare declaration, and Sri Lanka is trampling on some of these very important Commonwealth principles," she said.
Last month Gambia announced it was withdrawing from the Commonwealth, saying it was a ‘neo-colonialist institution’. The decision was criticized by human rights groups.
Richard Uku denies there is a crisis in the Commonwealth, and says 62 years after it was founded, the organization retains great relevance.
“We are a voice for small states and vulnerable states at international forums where many of these small countries do not often have an opportunity to make their concerns heard," he said.
This year Britain’s Prince Charles will represent his mother the Queen in Sri Lanka. The 87-year-old monarch is head of the Commonwealth and observers say her diplomatic skills have held the organization together during the past six decades.