India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, will not attend this week’s controversial Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka, becoming the latest national leader to boycott an event increasingly overshadowed by the country’s record on human rights abuses.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka expressed hopes that the gathering of leaders from the 53-nation body, which begins this Friday, would act as a showcase for his south Asian island following the end of its 25-year civil war in 2009.
But those hopes are being dented as Mr Singh joins Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, who shunned the meeting citing concerns over Sri Lanka’s wartime abuses.
Britain’s David Cameron will attend the conference, but he has threatened for the first time to lend his support to an independent international investigation of the island’s wartime record.
The event is set to be further marred by protests from domestic opposition and international human rights groups, who accuse Mr Rajapaksa of failing to investigate war crimes allegedly committed during the conflict’s final months.
Sri Lanka is seen as an important test case by many western powers, including America and Britain, which have attempted to cajole the nation of 20m people to investigate humanitarian abuses.
The UN Human Rights Council has censured Sri Lanka twice since 2012 for not carrying out promised investigations into alleged crimes, leading some human rights groups to call for a new international tribunal to be established.
Mr Singh’s decision reflects largely domestic political calculations before Indian elections. The country’s 72m ethnic Tamil population feel strongly about the treatment of the much smaller Tamil population in Sri Lanka’s north during the war and its aftermath.
However, India and western powers have struggled to apply the right level of pressure on Sri Lanka over human rights, given their anxiety about Mr Rajapaksa’s increasingly close links with China, which has funded and built numerous road, rail and port projects on the island in recent years.
“The government of India is trying to accommodate domestic concerns,” says N Sathiya Moorthy, a Sri Lanka analyst and director at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank, based in the southern Indian city of Chennai.
Estimates from the UN suggest that as many as 40,000 civilians died in the latter stages of the civil war, before Mr Rajapaksa’s armed forces ground out a bloody victory against the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.
Sri Lanka has also faced accusations of humanitarian abuses in the run-up to this week’s summit, with groups such as Human Rights Watch highlighting incidents of rape and torture allegedly committed by the country’s military in the island’s Tamil-dominated north in recent months.
Mr Rajapaksa’s government strongly denies such charges, while also suggesting that the high-profile event will attract foreign investment and provide a boost for the nation’s economy, which grew by around 6 per cent last year.
Mr Singh did not provide an explanation for his decision not to attend the event, but Indian media reported that he planned to write to the Sri Lankan leader to outline his reasons. India said its external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, would lead the nation’s delegation.
Mr Khurshid acknowledged that domestic politics and pressure from “strident” Indian Tamil parties had played a role in Mr Singh’s decision not to go.
Five state elections are to be held this month and next and a general election is coming next year. Given all that, and the expected recovery in the Indian economy, Mr Khurshid told the FT it was “a period in which all the top leaders need to be seen to be visibly engaged”.
He said the Commonwealth summit was “a game in which we are not playing our captain, but we still have the team . . . Our preferred messenger will not be there, but the message will be there.”