Sri Lanka rights under scrutiny as Commonwealth leaders meet

COLOMBO/JAFFNA, Sri Lanka Fri Nov 15, 2013 7:53am EST

1 of 3. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (R) arrives at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) opening ceremony in Colombo November 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Manish Swarup/Pool

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COLOMBO/JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Leaders of the Commonwealth of mostly former British colonies met in Colombo on Friday for a biennial summit that has brought with it intense scrutiny of Sri Lanka's human rights record four years after the civil war ended.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa had hoped the November 15-17 meeting, which two heads of state have boycotted, would prove an advertisement for progress and economic growth in the island state of 21 million off India's southern tip.

Instead, the build-up to the summit has been overshadowed by allegations of state-sponsored rape and torture, and political pressure, including from British Prime Minister David Cameron who pressed Sri Lanka on its human rights record.

Opening the summit, Rajapaksa defended the government, after saying this week it had "nothing to hide".

"We in Sri Lanka are stepping into a new era of peace, stability and premium economic opportunities," he told heads of state and officials from 49 countries. "In ending terrorism in 2009 we asserted the greatest human right, the right to live."

Separatist Tamil rebels battled government forces for 26 years until an army offensive crushed them in 2009.

A U.N. panel has said around 40,000 mainly Tamil civilians died in the final months of the offensive. Both sides committed atrocities but army shelling killed most victims, it concluded.

The United Nations wants an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes in the final months of the conflict.

BRITISH PM VISITS NORTH

Cameron visited the Tamil-dominated northern city of Jaffna to push his case for greater rights there. Some observers warn that the repressive climate and slow progress on demands for greater autonomy risk stoking fresh violence.

At the Kannagi camp for about 500 people yet to be resettled after their land was taken by the army 23 years ago, Cameron walked though narrow, muddy rows of tin shacks.

"The war is over," he said to a government official walking alongside. "Why is it taking so long to resettle?" The official replied that the resettlement was under way.

Earlier, about 100 relatives of people taken into custody during the war and not seen since marched through Jaffna holding up placards reading "We want our children back". Some managed to break through a police cordon and surge towards Cameron's car.

He was also greeted by two pro-government protests holding up messages including "We are not a colony".

Officials in Colombo have expressed frustration at what they see as interference from abroad in the run-up to the Commonwealth meeting, and say the country is on a path to reconciliation, aided by strong economic growth.

The government has also dismissed accusations of ongoing rights violations, which it says are part of a campaign by rebel sympathizers to tarnish its image and detract from the summit.

The Commonwealth, comprising 53 countries, has little power, but wields some influence in mediating disputes between members.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last month he would skip the summit over rights abuses, including alleged disappearances and extra-judicial killings, and Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam later joined the boycott.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, whose population of 1.2 billion dwarfs the rest of the Commonwealth combined, also did not travel to Colombo, although it was partly due to domestic pressures. His foreign minister is taking part.

(Writing and additional reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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