Commonwealth leaders agreed on steps to tackle high debt and poverty as they staged a show of unity after a summit in Sri Lanka dominated by a bitter dispute over war crimes.
Following a three-day meeting in Colombo, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse announced that a communique had been agreed by the Commonwealth’s 53 member nations after a summit which he said had been characterized by “fruitful discussions.”
However, he was again forced on the defensive and warned his critics against pushing him “into a corner” by setting an ultimatum to address war crimes allegations by next March.
“I am happy with the outcome we have reached at this CHOGM [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting],” said Rajapakse, who had spent much of the summit having to fend off allegations that his government’s troops killed as many as 40,000 civilians at the end of the country’s 37-year conflict.
Outlining the agreements inked by Commonwealth leaders, he said there had been widespread agreement on a series of issues — particularly on ensuring that economic growth does not come at the expense of equality.
“Achieving growth with equity and inclusive development must be one of the priorities of the Commonwealth,” the president said.
“Issues covered in the communique include development, political values, global threats, challenges and Commonwealth cooperation,” he said.
While only 27 heads of government attended this year’s meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the summit had helped strengthen the organization of mainly English-speaking former British colonies.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who handed over the chairmanship of the Commonwealth to Sri Lanka, acknowledged “more needed to be done” to address concerns about its rights record, but said he wanted to be friends with Colombo.
“I am here as the representative of a country which wants to do the right thing by all the people of Sri Lanka,” he told reporters.
“Australia wants to be good mates with our friends and regional neighbors,” he added.
The summit was dealt several body blows before it began, with the leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius all deciding to stay away to protest at Colombo’s rights record.
British Prime Minister David Cameron then stole the limelight on the opening day with a visit to the war-torn Jaffna region, where he met survivors of a conflict that killed more than 100,000 people.
Cameron warned Rajapakse that he would lead a push for an international probe through UN bodies unless an internal Sri Lankan inquiry produces credible results by March.
“Let me be very clear, if an investigation is not completed by March, then I will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commission and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry,” Cameron said.
Rajapakse later told reporters that Cameron was welcome to his view, but added that Sri Lanka must be allowed to complete its own investigation in its own time.
“They have to trust us,” he said. “Pressure won’t do anything... It’s much better to wait rather than demand or dictate.”
The largely pro-government press in Sri Lanka acknowledged that debate about Colombo’s human rights record had soured the summit.
“There is no escaping the fact that the Tamil diaspora had an undue influence ... introducing exaggerated bilateral issues into conference discussions,” the Sunday Island said.