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PM returns to India for trade push

David Cameron is embarking on his second visit to India this year as he maintains a trade push with rapidly growing economic world powers.

The Prime Minister is leading a UK business delegation to the country on his way to Sri Lanka for a Commonwealth summit overshadowed by controversy over the hosts' human rights record.

He is due to meet tomorrow with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, who is joining Canadian premier Stephen Harper in staying away from the biennial meeting of the leaders of the 53-country group.

Mauritian Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam joined the protest last night, telling his parliament that - like India - it would be represented only at foreign minister level.

Mr Cameron has rejected calls from Labour and Tamil representatives to join the boycott, arguing that he can achieve more by using his attendance to "shine a spotlight" on international concerns.

He used an article published in newspapers in Commonwealth countries to say he would demand "accountability for the past and respect for human rights today", urging member states to "speak candidly to each other".

It remains unclear whether the PM will be granted a one-to-one meeting with Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose regime is accused of war crimes at the end of the civil war with Tamil separatists in 2009 and ongoing violations.

But he does plan to visit the north of the south Asian island state - the first foreign head of state to do so since Sri Lankan independence in 1948 - to hear from the minority Tamil community.

Mr Cameron says Mr Rajapaksa has "serious questions" to answer and has joined demands for an international inquiry into the deaths of up to 40,000 civilians if the regime fails to hold a properly-independent investigation.

In the wake of the boycotts, Sri Lankan external affairs minister Gamini Peiris said there was no room in the Commonwealth for "judgmental positions for some countries to sit in judgment over other countries".

But Mr Cameron wrote that it would be wrong for the group of mostly ex-British colonies to "bury our head in the sand, ignore the difficult issues and essentially give in to those who think that the Commonwealth is no longer relevant."

He urged united action to promote political freedom: "We do the Commonwealth and its history no favours unless we take a stand when we see our values under threat.

"This is our first meeting since we enshrined our belief in political freedom in the Commonwealth Charter - and we must show it now has real meaning.

"Together we must make clear that the political process in the Maldives should respect the will of the people expressed in democratic elections. Together we must encourage further progress towards free and fair elections in Fiji.

"And together we must say clearly to the government of Sri Lanka - our hosts - that there must be accountability for the past and respect for human rights today."

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group is to discuss the postponed presidential election in the Maldives today amid concerns over president Waheed Hassan announcement he would stay in office and oversee a run-off.

Defending his decision to attend, Mr Cameron went on: "By going to Colombo I believe we have an opportunity to raise our concerns clearly and directly - and to focus the eyes of the world on Sri Lanka.

"Four years on from the end of the civil war and defeat of the 'Tamil Tigers', a brutal terrorist organisation, there has been nowhere near enough improvement.

"We need to see more progress: genuine freedom of expression and a free media, an end to the intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders, action to stamp out torture, demilitarisation of the north and reconciliation between communities.

"And of course we need to see a thorough investigation into alleged war crimes, and if it does not happen rapidly, an international independent investigation will be needed.

"This won't always make for easy conversations, but diplomacy isn't about ducking difficult decisions. We will only protect the values that are precious to us if we take action when they are at stake."

By making a second visit to India this year - and his third as Prime Minister - Mr Cameron will hope to reinforce what he calls the "special partnership" with Britain.

He argues that the economic rise of countries such as India, Brazil and China - which he will visit next month - should be seen not as a threat, but as an opportunity for Britain to carve out a place alongside them in a more prosperous world.

"If we make the wrong decisions, they may well succeed at our expense. But there is a clear way forward for us to carve out a place for Britain to be a real success, alongside these new economic powers," he said in his Guildhall speech.

Mr Cameron will meet business leaders and the new generation of Indian politicians during his day-long visit on Thursday, where concerns over the impact of the UK's tougher immigration policy are likely to feature.

One potential flashpoint - over forcing visitors from "high risk" countries to pay a £3,000 bond to ensure they did not overstay visas - was removed when the Home Office proposal was abandoned.

UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay warns Sri Lanka - considered a "country of concern" by the Foreign Office - is heading in an "increasingly authoritarian direction", a verdict backed by the Commons foreign affairs committee.

"Positive steps" such as provincial elections in the north and a commission to investigate the disappearances of tens of thousands of people fall well short of what is required, Mr Cameron has said.

He faced criticism of his own newspaper regulation reforms, however, with the Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka warning the new Royal Charter would act as a blueprint to regimes around the world which want to control the media.


From Belfast Telegraph