Sri Lanka faced international scrutiny over its human rights record on Friday as it opened the Commonwealth summit with a dazzling display of dancers, giant spinning pinwheels and 56 elephants. But the spectacle couldn't distract from boycotts by the leaders of Canada and India while Britain's prime minister made a fact-finding mission to the country's war-torn north.
The Commonwealth has been harshly criticized for holding the three-day summit in this Indian Ocean country after its government repeatedly refused 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 rights abuses have also raised alarms.
Canadian Prime MInister Stephen Harper has boycotted the summit. He said last month he would skip the event because of concern about human rights abuses, including alleged disappearances and extra-judicial killings, and Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam later joined the boycott.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, whose population of 1.2 billion dwarfs the rest of the Commonwealth combined, also did not travel to Colombo, although it was partly because of domestic pressures. His foreign minister is taking part.
Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who together with his brothers has controlled the Buddhist Sinhalese-majority nation since 2005, insists his army has committed no abuses and the courts and other institutions are handling any complaints.
He invoked Buddha in his opening speech with a quote that appeared to gently chastize 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, speaking briefly in Sinhala. He also warned against the Commonwealth turning into a "punitive or judgmental body."
Cameron visits deplacement camp
The Commonwealth organization and other leaders have defended the meeting as a way to engage Sri Lanka on the issues, particularly the call for an independent war crimes investigation. A UN report in August suggested Sri Lanka's Sinhalese-dominated armed forces may have killed up to 40,000 minority Tamils, and that Tamil rebels killed civilians, used them as human shields and forcibly recruited child soldiers.
British Prime Minister David Cameron travelled Friday into northern areas that saw the worst of the fighting, in which the rebels sought an independent Tamil homeland. He met with the region's leader in the main city of Jaffna, as well as editors of a newspaper still targeted in attacks.
He also met with displaced civilians still living in a camp four years after the end of the war. Many of their homes and lands are still occupied by the military or designated as high security zones.
"There is the problem of human rights as we speak today: the people who have disappeared, the lack of free rights for journalists and a free press," Cameron told reporters.
"Most important of all is the need for proper investigations to look into what happened at the end of this very long, appalling civil war," he said.
Dozens of ethnic Tamils, including many carrying letters for the British leader, held a protest with photographs of relatives who were among thousands who went missing near the end of the war in 2009. They were prevented from speaking with Cameron, but a reporter travelling with him gathered the letters and offered them to British officials.
Dilipkumar Sutha said she believes her husband, taken by the army in 2006, is still alive. "I have complained to all places, participated in many protests, but have gotten no result," she said. "I am here in the belief that at least he (Cameron) can help me get his release."