October 27, 2011 / 8:36 AM / 8 years ago

Commonwealth ministers stumble over human rights

PERTH, Australia (Reuters) - Commonwealth foreign ministers meeting on Thursday were split over how tough to get on human rights abuses in member countries, an issue which one official said their leaders were unlikely to resolve at a summit later in the week.

A confidential report ahead of Friday’s summit on the west Australian city of Perth has already warned leaders of the 54-member group of mostly former British colonies that unless they deal with the issue, the Commonwealth could become irrelevant.

A senior Commonwealth official told Reuters the sticking point was whether to appoint a commissioner to tackle political and human rights abuses, a move recommended by an Eminent Persons report to the group but which some members oppose.

“The foreign ministers are deeply divided on the issue of a human rights commissioner and will pass it on to the leaders. But the leaders are unlikely to agree,” the official said.

Much of the focus has centred on Sri Lanka which has come under heavy pressure to allow an independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes during its 25-year conflict with Tamil Tigers whom it defeated in 2009.

Canada, home to a large ethnic Tamil community, is urging fellow members to boycott the next summit in 2013 in Sri Lanka unless the government there improves its human rights record.

Sri Lanka has repeatedly dismissed the criticism, saying it will wait for the results of its own investigation next month.

Speaking to businessmen in Perth ahead of the summit, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa pointed to his government’s success in boosting the economy since the end of the civil war.

“An end to terrorist violence was absolutely essential to move the country forward along the path of economic and social development. We suffered for 30 years,” he said.

Thousands of civilians died in the final months of the war with both sides accused of widespread abuses.

NERVOUS ABOUT GETTING TOO TOUGH

One analyst said some in the Commonwealth were nervous about getting too tough on Sri Lanka, an the Indian Ocean island state at the southern tip of India.

“There is a concern that too much pushing will push Sri Lanka more firmly into the Chinese camp,” said Damien Kingsbury, political analyst at Australia’s Deakin University.

“China has already got significant investments in Sri Lanka, including the development of the Hambantota seaport, which could very easily become a naval base.”

Sri Lanka launched the port last year with the help of a $400 million (249 million pound) Chinese loan, with a target of handling 2,500 ships annually, as a cornerstone of a $6 billion drive to rebuild the country’s neglected infrastructure.

Kingsbury doubted Commonwealth leaders would take action against Sri Lanka because of India’s concerns over China.

“India is very concerned not to see Sri Lanka go any further towards China, as China is obviously India’s main strategic rival,” he said.

Human rights advocate and former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, Ajit Prakash Shah, said the summit would be judged a failure if leaders did not adopt tough human rights measures.

“So far the performance of the Commonwealth has been really dismal. The regime today is not able to stop the human rights violations in several countries that are members of the Commonwealth,” he told Reuters.

Reporting by Michael Perry, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher

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