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#CHOGM2013: Hague defends “ENGAGEMENT” with Sri Lanka as Indian PM announces boycott

Foreign Secretary William Hague has defended the Prime Minister’s decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka this week, saying boycotting the meeting would “damage the Commonwealth”.

Mr Hague told the BBC that participating in the summit would give the UK the opportunity to “raise concerns” about the Sri Lankan government’s alleged rights abuses.

David Cameron said this week that there were “serious questions” about war crimes allegedly committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war and he would urge Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse to hold an inquiry into the final months of the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Critics say any engagement with the Sri Lankan government at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) amounts to “collaboration”.

The UN estimates that 40,000 civilians were killed in the last five months of the 26-year conflict, which ended in 2009, but the Sri Lankan authorities deny responsibility saying civilian deaths were a result of the separatist LTTE using men, women and children as “human shields”.

Mr Hague, who will accompany Mr Cameron to Sri Lanka, said they would do all they could to address the issue of human rights when they visited the country and “we can only do that if we are there”.

“We are going to say ‘Sri Lanka is in the spotlight so let’s make full use of it being in the spotlight’,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme.

“The prime minister is going to visit the north. He is the first head of government from any country since Sri Lankan independence in 1948 to visit the north. I shall be visiting places to promote reconciliation.

“It will make more impact in Sri Lanka with the prime minister and me doing that than sitting in our offices in London.”

Mr Hague’s comments came as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh bowed to pressure from his government’s coalition allies in Tamil Nadu and announced he would not travel to Sri Lanka for the summit.

Indian media said Mr Singh had written to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to say he will be represented by his foreign minister Salman Khurshid instead.

Mr Singh is the second government head, after Canada’s Stephen Harper, to boycott the summit.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister GL Pieris told the BBC on Sunday that Mr Singh’s decision was “not a defeat for us”.

“Had he come we would have been really happy. This decision is taken because of [India’s] internal political reasons, but it will not affect the success of this programme, we don’t think it is a problem.”

Critics of Mr Singh’s decision said it would open the door for giant Asian rival China to extend its influence in the region.

China already helps to fund Sri Lankan military and infrastructure projects.

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