Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has been invited to speak at the Oxford Union on Thursday 2nd December. The Union has not been shy to invite morally dubious speakers in the past, including infamously last year the BNP’s Nick Griffin. During the uproar over Griffin’s invitation, the Union used a freedom of speech defence to support their actions. This defence echoes ironically in the case of Rajapaksa, given Sri Lanka’s terrible record of censorship and lack of free speech that extends to assassination, disappearances, exile, and general intimidation of journalists.

It is unclear from the Union’s website whether this is a public event, but sources have suggested that the guest list for the event is not open to the public and that the audience will be a closely selected one. If the event is to serve any useful purpose, the audience should be opened up in order to allow Rajapaksa to be confronted in full public view about the many areas of huge concern in his country. For example, Rajapaksa has refused to allow an independent investigation into deaths during the 2009 conflict, despite UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague stating recently that such an investigation needs to take place.

This is the second time Rajapaksa will address the Union, the first being in 2008. This invitation, coming after the horrors of the 2009 conflict and the deepening breakdown of the rule of law and respect for human rights in the aftermath of the conflict,(1) only serves as legitimation for Rajapaksa’s regime and helps his attempt to rehabilitate himself on the world stage.

The UK government and UK NGOs made some strong efforts during the conflict and post-conflict to bring attention to the wrongs committed by Rajapaksa’s government.
The Oxford Union, by issuing this invitation, places itself in opposition to all that good work and does the people of Sri Lanka a great disservice. The issue is not freedom of speech – the Union is free to host speakers who specialize in dissembling and deceit – but rather the ethical judgment involved in deciding in the first place to hand to this particular speaker a propaganda platform.

To take action, email the Oxford Union: [email protected]

(1)Social Science Research Network, report on the “Breakdown of the rule of law” in Sri Lanka