The Sri Lanka the authorities don’t want you to see
To natter to politicians about human rights you need to head to their stalking ground…Party conferences. It is like a festival for political anoraks where we all queue up to see our favourite “acts”. However, this year among the many meetings, prawn vol-au-vents and receptions I was blown away by how human rights concerns can easily be pushed aside over a nice glass of wine (which I presumed was) paid for by the Sri Lankan government.
Before Conferences this year I watched, or rather cried through, Callum Macrea’s powerful film 'No Fire Zone', which documents the final awful months of the 26 year Sri Lankan civil war. It is a chilling exposé of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Post film I felt fired up and thought attending the Conservative friends of Sri Lanka reception would be a good chance to discuss, with others interested in Sri Lanka, what needed to be done. How wrong could I be? It was a celebratory affair, not one mention of human rights and much like how I imagined the recent UK drinks reception at the UN with the Sri Lankan Government. One MP even reflected how pleased he was that the beautiful beaches in the north of the island are now open for tourists. Surely he didn’t mean the same beaches where people were corralled into alleged "no fire zones"? Where civilians were shelled, hospitals deliberately targeted, people were stripped naked and executed and rape and other sexual violence was widespread. I was appalled and left. Rather than a handy new tourist spot to head off to during recess, this is the Sri Lanka the authorities don’t want you to see.
In less than 3 weeks the Sri Lankan government will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHGOM). Amnesty is extremely concerned about Sri Lanka’s disturbing record of repressing civil society activism. We want all Commonwealth governments, including the UK, to push Sri Lanka to end its continuing crackdown on human rights.
To build up the pressure on the UK government last night Amnesty co-hosted a Parliamentary screening of No Fire Zone in Westminster with Channel 4 and the Parliamentary Human Rights Group. The event was chaired by Jonathan Miller, who alongside Jon Snow and Channel 4 News, has been keeping the horrendous abuses in Sri Lanka on our screens and pressing for more action from the 'timid' UK government.
Panellists called on the UK to ensure that civil society is protected and that human rights are not side-lined in the interest of trade. Callum Macrae detailed how screenings of his film have been banned in Nepal and Malaysia following pressure from the Sri Lankan authorities. We also heard from Alan Keenan, from International Crisis Group about the need for proper independent, international investigation into these alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
So what was the response of the UK government..? Well nothing actually. Despite the Government having agreed to speak at the event pre-reshuffle, the new Minister unfortunately did not have the time in his busy schedule to defend their position on Sri Lanka. Nick Clegg has said the UK government “will be using the opportunity (of CHOGM) to cast a spotlight on the unacceptable abuses there”. But a hollow pyrotechnics show from the UK is the last thing we need. We need to see a meaningful strategy for how they’ll use CHOGM to press Sri Lanka to end the abuses, how the UK embassy can better support and protect human rights defenders and finally how the UK can mobilise political will to prevent Sri Lanka from becoming the next Commonwealth Chair.
So, if like me, this all makes you pretty cross here are two things you can do ahead of CHOGM. First, Watch No Fire Zone and download the app.
Second, email William Hague. Join us in our global push to ensure that Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses will not be given a Commonwealth seal of approval. Our petition asking the Indian Prime Minister not to go to CHOGM in India has already reached 35,000 signatures. So let’s let Foreign Secretary William Hague know the UK’s apparent toleration of Sri Lanka human rights abuses is not in our name. And finally if the Conservative Friends of Sri Lanka were true “friends” they should also press the Sri Lankan government to improve their appalling human rights record.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.