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Commonwealth to deliberate Sri Lanka's rights record

Commonwealth to deliberate Sri Lankas rights record

Colombo: The Commonwealth summit began here Friday with the 53-member group deciding to discuss Sri Lanka's human rights record despite Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressing his displeasure.

The decision came even as the convoy of British Prime David Cameron was halted by Tamil protestors Friday after he flew to Jaffna in Sri Lanka's war-ravaged Northern Province.

Sri Lanka's questionable human rights record will be deliberated on by the Commonwealth heads over the weekend and a joint statement will be released at the end of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Commonwealth spokesperson Richard Uku said in a press briefing after the first day's sessions.

"These (human rights) issues have come up. The values of the Commonwealth are held by the leaders here. These are important issues and the CHOGM has brought Sri Lanka under scrutiny and what I can say is that because these issues are important they will get discussed," Xinhua quoted Uku as saying.

"Those issues involve development, governance and rule of law. The outcome of their deliberations will be produced and shared," he added.

Sri Lanka's CHOGM spokesperson and presidential spokesperson Anuradha Herath insisted that allegations of human rights abuses would be dealt with if they are presented through the local legal system.

"Sri Lanka's government remains committed to the principles of the Commonwealth. Let these allegations be brought into the legal system," she said.

Earlier Friday, in his speech at the inauguration of the summit, President Rajapaksa delivered a strong message to Commonwealth members, insisting that common problems of the 53-country bloc should outshine the island's human rights record.

Recalling the challenges faced by Sri Lanka in the last few years, Rajapaksa insisted that an end to terrorism was an important milestone, which led to increased equitable development with poverty levels decreasing to just 7.5 percent.

However, he insisted that more was needed to be done and economic challenges should take precedence at the CHOGM because "common poverty is more important than common wealth". Rajapaksa also advocated the separation of economic and political issues.

"CHOGM 2013 will provide the opportunity for us to assess the Commonwealth achievement (with) regard to development goals. If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant to its member countries, the association must respond sensitively to the needs of its people and not let it turn into punitive or judgmental body," Rajapaksa said.

In his speech, Britain's Prince Charles, who is representing his mother Queen Elizabeth II at the summit, invoked India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru while appealing to the Commonwealth to intensify cooperation to resolve economic, social and environmental challenges.

"Sri Lanka was one of the founding countries of the modern Commonwealth. Historians of this family of nations will recall that, in the circumstances of that time, the Commonwealth showed an exceptional spirit of accommodation over how the organisation should be constituted," the Prince of Wales said.

"This led one prominent head of government, in other words Prime Minister Nehru - with whom, incidentally, I always felt proud to share a birthday - to declare that the Commonwealth seemed capable of bringing 'a touch of healing' to the management of contemporary world problems," he said.

Meanwhile, thousands of Tamil protesters surrounded British Prime Minister Cameron's convoy and tried to hand over pictures of their missing loved ones while he was on a visit to Sri Lanka's war-ravaged Northern Province, eyewitnesses said.

Cameron, who came to Colombo for the Commonwealth summit, flew to the northern city of Jaffna to meet the region's first Tamil chief minister, former judge C.V. Vigneswaran of the Tamil National Alliance, and people affected by the 25-year civil war that ended in 2009, the Guardian reported.

Shortly after arriving, his convoy was mobbed by relatives of people who had disappeared during the civil war in the country.

The deliberation of the Commonwealth heads come after the Canadian and Mauritius prime ministers pulled out of the CHOGM, citing Sri Lanka's questionable human rights record.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, facing domestic pressure not to attend the summit, announced Nov 10 that he would not attend.

Sri Lanka ended a brutal three-decade war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

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