COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka opened its Commonwealth summit Friday with a dazzle of dancers and red-carpeted stairway lined with smiling children to greet leaders from Britain and its former territories, even as some were absent in protest over Sri Lanka’s human rights record.
The Commonwealth has been harshly criticized for holding the summit on this Indian Ocean island after years of refusal by its government to allow independent investigations into alleged war crimes and rights abuses during and after a 27-year civil war. Recent reports of media harassment and continued rights abuses have also raised alarms.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who with his brothers has controlled the Buddhist Sinhalese-majority nation since 2005, has defended his country’s efforts, saying its army committed no abuses and its courts and other institutions are handling complaints.
He invoked Buddha in his opening speech with a quote that appeared to gently chastise nations questioning Sri Lanka’s commitment to democracy and human rights.
“Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by oneself is done or left undone,” he said in Singhalese.
British Prime Minister David Cameron planned Friday to travel into northern areas that saw the worst of the war between soldiers and ethnic Tamils rebels fighting for a homeland.
While the leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius have boycotted the summit, the Commonwealth organization and other leaders defended the meeting as a way to engage Sri Lanka on the issues.
“In a multilateral organization, you don’t achieve anything if you’re not there,” Cameron told Sky News from Kolkata, India, before flying to Colombo.
Cameron urged Rajapaksa to hold “a proper inquiry,” as demanded by the United Nations and governments including the United States.
Meanwhile, hundreds of ethnic Tamils protested in the main northern city of Jaffna before Cameron’s arrival, demanding answers about the thousands who went missing near the war’s end in 2009. Protests have been banned in Colombo during the conference.
“The government should account for the missing, but so far they have not done that,” Tamil lawmaker E. Saravanapavan said by telephone.
Elsewhere in Jaffna, about 2,000 protesters were demanding the military return homes and lands occupied by government forces and declared as a high security zone during the war.
“We want to live in our home and land. We can’t live as refugees forever,” said Anthonipillai Pushpa, 48, who said she and her husband have lived in a camp since their home was taken 23 years ago.
After the opening ceremony presided over by Britain’s Prince Charles, the leaders went into closed-door meetings to discuss where their shared cultural norms, including English language and judicial systems, might help them unite on issues such as tackling climate change.
AP Photographer Eranga Jayawardena contributed to this report.
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