Two years on and the legacy of David Cameron’s visit to the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting remains a topic of debate. His historic visit to the North of Sri Lanka, though regarded by some as a powerful gesture of solidarity with members of the Tamil community, is remembered by many others as a hollow sop to activists disappointed that he had made the misguided decision to attend the summit at all.
Yet amidst such disagreements over the lasting legacy of the visit, perhaps one of the clearest and most serious impacts has remained unreported until now: the reprisals, including the use of torture and sexual violence, against individuals involved in the demonstrations surrounding his visit. A report last week by the International Truth and Justice Project, as well as revealing further testimony about the threats and harassment experienced by such individuals, identifies five cases of torture directly linked to their participation in those protests (see pp. 94-102).
In all five of cases, the men – now based in the UK – were bundled into white vans, handcuffed and transported to torture sites. In their testimony, all five men reported sexual abuse. Several were subjected to repeated anal rape.
One survivor said: “They held my head from behind and put a bag full of petrol on my head and held it tight. This lasted about 10 seconds. It was burning and suffocating. The fumes were burning my eyes and skin … for the first week it was always the same three men who tortured me. After that it was sometimes different people.”
These deeply disturbing reports are a reminder of the deeply ingrained culture of impunity that exists in Sri Lanka to this day. But they are also significant because of the apparent failure of the British government to live up to its pledge, made in 2013, to monitor reprisals against the individuals Cameron would meet – and to fulfil their duty of care with regards to their protection.
The response of the British Foreign Office (FCO) was woefully inadequate. An initial Freedom of Information made by the authors of the ITJP report was turned down on cost grounds, and the FCO’s initial response to complaints referenced Syria instead of Sri Lanka. Concerns raised by the Parliamentary Affairs Select Committee met with only a cursory response. Finally, in response to a separate FOI request, the FCO issued the following statement:
“The British High Commission in Colombo remains in contact with many of those who met the Prime Minister in Sri Lanka in 2013. High Commission staff have also returned to visit places including Uthayan Press and the Sapapathypillai Welfare Centre, to follow up on the PM’s visit. We have no knowledge that any of those met by the delegation have experienced reprisals as a result of the PM’s visit, neither have we received allegations of reprisals, credible or otherwise…”
Cameron’s visit to North was controversial for many reasons. Yet whilst its lasting impact – as evidenced by the ongoing debate about its legacy – may be disputed, the effects on the lives of many of those who engaged with it and faced the consequences are painfully clear. The mental and physical wounds endured by those individuals may never heal. But a basic acknowledgement of their suffering by those who pledged, and failed, to protect them would be a good start.