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PM vows 'frank' speaking at summit

David Cameron has defended his decision to attend a Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka despite allegations of human rights abuses by the south Asian country's government.

Flying to capital Colombo on the eve of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm), Mr Cameron insisted he would use the visit to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa over the "chilling" claims, telling reporters: "You can't make the arguments unless you are there."

Mr Cameron aims to travel to the conflict-scarred north of Sri Lanka to meet journalists and campaigners from the Tamil community who have complained of abuses by security forces during and after the bloody repression of a 26-year civil war in 2009. The United Nations estimates that at least 40,000 were killed during the suppression of the Tamil Tiger separatists.

The biennial Chogm meeting is being boycotted by the prime ministers of Canada, India and Mauritius over human rights concerns.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, who previously called on Mr Cameron to stay away, said that the Prime Minister should join other Commonwealth members to block Mr Rajapaksa from taking up the two-year chairmanship of the 53-nation group, normally held by the most recent Chogm host.

But the president fended off criticism, telling reporters in Colombo: "We are open. We have nothing to hide. If anyone who wants to complain about human rights violations in Sri Lanka, whether it's torture, whether it is rape, we have a system. If there is any violations, we will take actions against anybody, anybody. I am ready to do that."

In a round of broadcast interviews in India, Mr Cameron promised "a frank exchange of views" with Mr Rajapaksa.

"There are some important points to put to the Sri Lankans," said the Prime Minister. "There is the problem of human rights as we speak today: the people who have disappeared; the lack of free rights for journalists and a free press.

"But I think perhaps most important of all is the need for proper investigations to look into what happened at the end of this very long, appalling civil war."

He said it was better to "get involved" than stay away, telling reporters: "Giving up and staying at home would be bad for the Commonwealth and bad for Sri Lanka."

Mr Cameron said: "You can't make the arguments about the future of the Commonwealth unless you are there. You can't make the arguments about what is happening in Zimbabwe, about the importance of free trade, about how we tackle poverty in our world. Nor can you really shine a spotlight on what is going on in Sri Lanka."

The Prime Minister, who spoke to UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay before travelling to Sri Lanka, has requested a face-to-face meeting with Mr Rajapaksa to discuss his concerns, though it is not yet clear whether this will be granted. Britain is urging Colombo to conduct a credible and independent inquiry into the abuse allegations, and warned it will back an international probe if the president fails to act.

Asked whether he was confident of being allowed to become the first foreign leader to visit the Tamil heartland since Sri Lankan independence in 1948, he said: "Going to the north of the country is absolutely essential. That is an absolute condition of my visit and that is one of the reasons I am going."

The run-up to the Chogm summit has seen UK journalists obstructed from reporting on the human rights situation in northern Sri Lanka. A Channel 4 News team, including the maker of the No Fire Zone documentary viewed by the PM prior to his visit, was forced off a train to the north by a mob of protesters who blocked the tracks, accusing them of being in the pay of the Tamil Tigers.

Mr Cameron described the images of abuse in the documentary as "completely chilling" and said there were "legitimate accusations of war crimes that need to be properly investigated".

"It's an appalling set of allegations and of course these allegations have been backed up by the work of the UN Special Rapporteur, who has had them verified," said Mr Cameron.

Responding to the charge that British criticisms reflect a "colonialist" attitude, Mr Cameron said: "We are two sovereign governments. This is 2013, and we should have these sorts of frank conversations. It's in Sri Lanka's own interests to sort these issues out. They had this appalling, bloody, painful civil war that came to an end. They have an opportunity to build a successful, peaceful prosperous nation.

"Part of my message to President Rajapaksa is he should be seizing the opportunity to win the peace.

''Britain needs to have a consistent and clear record of standing up for the right values. Standing up for human rights, standing up for democracy. We don't get that record by staying away from important international multinational gatherings."

Writing in the Tamil Guardian, Mr Miliband said that he had "serious reservations" about Mr Rajapaksa's suitability for the role of chairman-in-office of the Commonwealth, which would act as representative on the world stage for the organisation, which is headed by the Queen.

The Labour leader said: "At this summit this week, unless we see real and meaningful change on human rights in Sri Lanka, David Cameron should work with other Commonwealth leaders on securing an alternative candidate for chairperson-in-office.

"For Labour, the Commonwealth remains a vital network. It is a unique partnership representing over a quarter of the world's population united by history, but rich in its diversity. Because we all believe the Commonwealth must remain relevant, the Prime Minister must make sure he defends the place of freedom, democracy and human rights at its core."

Sri Lanka was among topics of an hour-long discussion between the PM and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi.

But they were dominated, Number 10 said, by next year's pullout of international forces from Afghanistan - and relations with shared neighbour Pakistan.

Mr Cameron finished his pre-Chogm visit to India in Kolkata, where he stopped to walk near the landmark Howrah Bridge before being interviewed on All India Radio, which boasts more than one billion listeners.

He concluded his visit to the city by taking questions from students at the Institute for Management, meeting colourful chief minister of the West Bengal province Mamata Banerjee and eating street food at a market.

In a light-hearted moment during the session with the students, he joked that being Prime Minister was "like sometimes being in a sort of asteroid shower, things flying at you every day.

"You know, 'Should you go to Sri Lanka?', 'What are you going to do about the famine in the Philippines?', 'Why has this minister done that?'

"All these things are coming at you."


From Belfast Telegraph