Claire Trevett

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

Key bides his time over UK-Sri Lanka spat

John Key arrives at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Governments meeting. Photo / AP
John Key arrives at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Governments meeting. Photo / AP

Prime Minister John Key is refusing to take sides in a stoush between British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Sri Lankan Government over Sri Lanka's human rights record.

Mr Key arrived in Sri Lanka yesterday and was to meet British Prime Minister David Cameron and Australia's Tony Abbott for a drink last night.

However, he could be put into a difficult position by his old friend, Mr Cameron, who has been strong in his criticism of Sri Lanka's denial of human rights abuses and war crimes and refusal to address the issue. That prompted Sri Lanka's Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella to retaliate by reminding Britain that Sri Lanka was no longer its colony. "We are not a colony. We are an independent state."

President Mahinda Rajapaksa also spoke out, denying Sri Lanka had anything to hide.

Mr Key said he would discuss it with Mr Cameron when they met last night but he did not wish to be drawn in.

"I haven't seen either side of the desk, so for me to start playing referee is a bit silly. When we have a drink with David Cameron we'll see exactly what he plans next and whether it aligns with what New Zealand believes is the right course of action."

He also refused to give immediate backing to Mr Cameron's ultimatum for Sri Lanka to agree on a UN call for a robust independent inquiry into alleged war crimes in the last months of the civil war in 2009 or face the international community forcing one upon it.

"I'm not sure what that would achieve. It might be a useful thing. I'll talk to him about exactly what he is proposing and we'll see where that goes."

Asked if he intended to take as strong a stance as Mr Cameron when he meets President Rajapaksa on Sunday, Mr Key said he would emphasise New Zealand's belief in upholding human rights, but believed it was also important to recognise progress had been made. That included elections held in the northern province which the Tamils had won - an area Foreign Minister Murray McCully was visiting yesterday and would report back to Mr Key on.

Mr Key's more conciliatory approach will disappoint human rights activists who had called on him to boycott the meeting altogether, as had the leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius. Critics see the steps made as a simple public relations exercise to placate the international community in the lead-up to the hosting of Chogm.

Mr Key was also due to meet Prince Charles overnight. They last met at Balmoral in October. He was also meeting the leaders of the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Ghana, and St Kitts and Nevis to lobby for support for a Security Council seat in 2015.

Today Mr Key will spend much of the day at the Commonwealth Heads of Government leaders' retreat where the leaders of the 53 Commonwealth countries hammer out the issues of the day.

View from the (nice new) road sanitised for eyes of leaders

A brand new motorway is perhaps an appropriate symbol as Sri Lanka hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was, after all, Minister of Highways before his 2005 election as President.

Now it stands as a testament to progress, built with a loan from China and recently opened.

It is closed to all traffic bar the leaders' motorcades, so after the red carpet and dancers it was Prime Minister John Key's first experience of Sri Lanka - and he possibly appreciated seeing another leader's road of national significance.

Lest the leaders' eyes be offended by the sight of slum housing, strategically placed screens at points blocked or obscured the houses beyond.

Efforts have also been made to screen other apparently unsightly views - protesters have been banned from the main areas where delegates will be.

And one building that was the headquarters for a human rights group had a heavy security presence around it.

The most interest at yesterday's official opening ceremony was over how British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Rajapaksa would greet each other.

Despite the acrimony leading up to Chogm, they managed to shake hands and smile warmly, but Mr Rajapaksa was quick to look the other way once Mr Cameron had passed. The look's meaning was clear: hit the road, Jack.

- NZ Herald

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