PERTH, Australia, Thursday (Reuters) -Commonwealth foreign ministers meeting today was split over how tough to get on human rights abuses in member countries, an issue which one official said their leaders were unlikely to resolve at the summit later in the week.
A confidential report ahead of tomorrow’s summit on the west Australian city of Perth has already warned leaders of the 54-member group of mostly former British colonies that unless they deal with the issue, the Commonwealth could become irrelevant.
A senior Commonwealth official told Reuters the sticking point was whether to appoint a commissioner to tackle political and human rights abuses, a move recommended by an Eminent Persons report to the group but which some members opposed.
“The foreign ministers are deeply divided on the issue of a human rights commissioner and will pass it on to the leaders.
But the leaders are unlikely to agree,” the official said.
Much of the focus has centred on Sri Lanka which has come under heavy pressure to allow an independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes during its 25-year conflict with Tamil Tigers whom it defeated in 2009.
Canada, home to a large ethnic Tamil community, is urging fellow members to boycott the next summit in 2013 in Sri Lanka unless the government there improves its human rights record.
Sri Lanka has repeatedly dismissed the criticism, saying it will wait for the results of its own investigation next month.
Speaking to businessmen in Perth ahead of the summit, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa pointed to his government's success in boosting the economy since the end of the civil war.
“An end to terrorist violence was absolutely essential to move the country forward along the path of economic and social development. We suffered for 30 years,” he said.
Thousands of civilians died in the final months of the war with both sides accused of widespread abuses.
One analyst said some in the Commonwealth were nervous about getting too tough on Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean Island State at the southern tip of India.
“There is a concern that too much pushing will push Sri Lanka more firmly into the Chinese camp,” Australia's Deakin University political analyst Damien Kingsbury said.
“China has already got significant investments in Sri Lanka, including the development of the Hambantota seaport, which could very easily become a naval base.”
Sri Lanka launched the port project last year with the help of a US$400 million Chinese loan, with a target of handling 2,500 ships annually as a cornerstone of a US$6 billion drive to rebuild the country's neglected infrastructure.
Kingsbury doubted Commonwealth leaders would take action against Sri Lanka because of India's concerns over China.
“India is very concerned not to see Sri Lanka go any further towards China, as China is obviously India's main strategic rival,” he said.