Sri Lankan troops chase local residents protesting against the alleged poisoning of drinking water in the village of Weliweriya in August, Getty Images
As Sri Lanka prepares to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on 15 November, its government is feeling rather pleased with itself. Since defeating the Tamil Tiger insurrectionary movement in 2009, it has been engaged in a sustained rebranding operation, helped by a team at the Bell Pottinger public relations agency, and the exercise is paying dividends.
Earlier this year, Lonely Planet named the island as its top travel destination for 2013, because “the war is over and Sri Lanka’s looking up”. The Commonwealth has been similarly impressed – so much so that the CHOGM is scheduled to anoint President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the association’s chairman for the next two years.
An old story that floated back into the news a few weeks ago recalls, however, that not everything is as perfect as the press releases might suggest. It concerns a Rochdale-born Red Cross worker by the name of Khuram Shaikh, who decided in late 2011 to take his girlfriend on a holiday to the coastal town of Tangalle. After several months in the Gaza Strip, where Shaikh had been helping to fit disabled people with prosthetic limbs, the palm-fringed resort must have looked like paradise – but it soon turned to hell. Approached on Christmas Day by a gang of thugs, his girlfriend was gang-raped, while Shaikh himself was shot and stabbed to death.
No country can sensibly be held responsible for every crime committed on its territory, but states that observe the rule of law need to punish wrongdoers, and Sri Lanka’s response to the case has been singularly unimpressive. Witnesses made swift identifications, but all the suspects were then released. The alleged ringleader of the attack was a ruling party politician, the head of Tangalle town council, and a friend of Rajapaksa’s family, and the case became dormant. Not until a few weeks ago did a senior prosecutor unexpectedly announce that a trial will “get off the ground within the shortest possible time”, and it would be a mistake to confuse his sudden urgency with a commitment to justice. The authorities have simply realised that, with so many foreign journalists about to arrive to cover the CHOGM, Sri Lanka ought to look like a country that takes the rape and murder of tourists seriously.
The problem is that, PR notwithstanding, the government’s respect for such legal niceties is minimal and diminishing. Over the course of Sri Lanka’s long war against the Tamil Tigers, executive power expanded while the power of the courts shrank, and Rajapaksa’s success in vanquishing the Tigers in 2009 has not reversed that process. The government has consequently managed to deflect investigations of its own alleged war crimes, and the country has become a very dangerous place for its critics. In the past seven years, 22 independent media workers have been murdered, all killed by unidentified persons who remain at large. At least 16 human rights activists have fallen victim to serious attacks in the same period, and their assailants have also gone unpunished. In 2012, Rajapaksa moved to neutralise the country’s Supreme Court after it ruled against a flagship policy of the Economic Development Ministry (which, like the Defence Ministry, is run by one of his brothers). MPs from his party ousted the Chief Justice and the President appointed as her successor a former attorney-general who failed to investigate a single disappearance or torture allegation during his entire three-year tenure.
While national security scares help explain Sri Lanka’s current crisis, they can also obscure its scale. The Tamil Tigers were a ruthless adversary and any democratic government that finished them off arguably deserves to be cut some slack. But Rajapaksa isn’t using a hard-won peace to promote reconciliation; he is exploiting his triumph to install cronies and consolidate authoritarian rule. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Commonwealth’s plan to put Sri Lanka at its helm has caused incredulity among human rights groups. Amnesty International, for example, thinks it “ludicrous” that Rajapaksa is to be entrusted with advancing the Commonwealth’s so-called core values – including “good governance, the rule of law and free speech”. His government does not care (it calls Amnesty an “apologist for terror”), but the representatives at CHOGM ought to be more concerned. A Commonwealth led by Rajapaksa, far from upholding its core values, stands for nothing but self-perpetuation – and throws into question why the association exists at all.
All that is no longer of concern to Khuram Shaikh, of course, but his fate inspires one last, personal observation. Earlier this year, an international legal organisation asked me to go to Sri Lanka as part of a fact-finding mission, only for the government to declare our visit a “direct threat” to the nation’s sovereignty. The Information Minister later explained that, as lawyers, we would “never” be allowed in, and would be welcome in future only “for tourist purposes”. In idle moments since, I’ve imagined testing his implicit holiday invitation. But with apologies to the country’s many decent citizens, and due respect to the travel connoisseurs of Lonely Planet, I can think of other places where I’d feel more relaxed on the beach – the Gaza Strip, for example.