Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Key says Chogm unease won't prevent visit to Sri Lanka

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Prime Minister John Key says calls to block Sri Lanka taking over as the chair of the Commonwealth because of human rights concerns are likely to be fruitless because it is an automatic position for the host of the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

Mr Key said the recent decision to boycott the Chogm meeting by India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had not affected his own decision to attend. Despite increasing calls for steps to prevent Sri Lanka taking over as the chair, Mr Key said it was an automatic role that came with hosting the biennial meeting of the Commonwealth leaders and he did not believe a mechanism to prevent it existed.

India and Canada will now send only low-level delegations, citing concerns over human rights in Sri Lanka and its Government's refusal to agree to a United Nations' call for an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes at the end of the civil war in 2009, during which authorities were accused of killing thousands of civilians in the northern territories where the Tamils were based.

Green MP Jan Logie returned to New Zealand last night after her visit to Sri Lanka with Australian Green MP Lee Rhiannon, during which the pair were detained and questioned about their visas, and had their passports removed for several hours.

Mr Key said Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials had assisted when told of Ms Logie's situation, and he did not know whether the reason for her treatment was because she was on the wrong type of visa, as Sri Lankan officials claimed. "I'll accept at this stage it was a visa issue and not a freedom of speech issue."

But her treatment prompted fresh calls from Amnesty International, Labour and the Greens for Mr Key to oppose President Mahinda Rajapaksa taking over as chair.

Labour MP David Shearer said it could affect the credibility of the Commonwealth as a grouping that had human rights and democracy as core values. Ms Logie said her treatment and the reported revocation of visas for human rights officials were concerning for Chogm. "It shows they're still pretty blase about freedom of speech and their ability to crack down on any dissent."

Mr Key said he would still attend with most other Commonwealth leaders, and the international media following them would also act to increase pressure on Sri Lanka.

He had requested a meeting with the President and expected to discuss the end of civil war in 2009, current engagements between the Government and the Tamils, and the recent dismissal of a Supreme Court judge.

- NZ Herald

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