Sunday, December 20, 2009

Minister's Sri Lanka holiday outrages rights campaigners

By Jane Merrick - Ben Bradshaw, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has raised eyebrows by taking a Christmas holiday in Sri Lanka days after the British government condemned the Colombo administration for its poor human rights record.

Gordon Brown last month blocked Sri Lanka's attempt to host the next Commonwealth summit, and last week David Miliband told the Commons that there remained ongoing concerns about the island's government after a crackdown on the Tamil population earlier this year.

Despite this, Mr Bradshaw, wearing a straw hat, checked shirt and jeans, arrived at Colombo airport on Friday morning for a Christmas break in the country.

Human rights campaigners questioned why Mr Bradshaw, whose ministerial responsibilities include tourism, was supporting Sri Lanka's travel industry by holidaying there. Human Rights Watch called on him to make a public statement disapproving of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's clampdown on Tamils. A spokesman for the organisation said that, while the cabinet minister is free to travel around Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) still face restrictions on their movement – despite some relaxation in the rules this month.

Mr Bradshaw paid around £1,600 for a business-class ticket for the 10-hour flight. He left Heathrow on Thursday just before snowstorms hit – causing delays and cancellations – and arrived in Colombo on Friday, to be met by temperatures of around 31C.

The minister's choice of a far-flung destination and long-haul flight, with its sizeable carbon footprint, just as the Copenhagen climate talks were peaking, will earn him no points with environmental campaigners.

The 25-year on-off civil war between Tamil separatists and government forces ended in May, with victory for President Rajapaksa. But his hardline military crackdown led to 280,000 displaced people being held in camps in the north of the country.

At the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Trinidad last month, the Prime Minister had a showdown with Mr Rajapaksa over Sri Lanka's wish to hold the next meeting in 2011, forcing him to withdraw in favour of Australia.

The Foreign Secretary, in a written statement to the Commons last week, said that, according to the UN, after the Sri Lankan government lifted restrictions on those in camps, more than 158,000 IDPs had been released, but more than 100,000 were still detained.

Mr Miliband said there were "serious concerns" over the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and urged Colombo to agree an inclusive political settlement with the Tamils.

Referring to the blocking of Sri Lanka's summit bid, Mr Miliband added: "The most important thing for the UK was that the host for each Commonwealth summit demonstrably embodies our shared values – including respect for human rights and democracy."

James Ross, legal and policy director of Human Rights Watch, said last night: "[Mr Bradshaw] should travel around, all over the country, and then publicly express his disapproval of the fact that there are still tens of thousands of Sri Lankans who cannot do the same thing because they are being held in detention centres.

"If he is going to go to Sri Lanka he should speak out and publicly honour the British government's concerns about the situation there."

A spokesman for Mr Bradshaw declined to comment last night.

© The Independent

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