The Commonwealth is facing another ‘moment of truth’, it seems, as world leaders fly into Colombo for the organisation’s biannual summit. With two years of bitter recriminations between member states, and growing pressure for a boycott, it has not been an auspicious build-up to Sri Lanka’s controversial role as venue for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm). As host, Sri Lanka will become the chair-in-residence of the 53-state organisation for the following two years, which also means its foreign minister will become a member of the body’s equivalent of the security council, ‘C-Mag’ (Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group).

Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, led the opposition by confirming in October that his country would completely boycott the summit in protest at Colombo’s poor human rights record. In doing so, he was following through on warnings he had made since the previous Commonwealth summit two years ago in Australia (he walked out of the Perth summit when the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was invited to speak).

Opposition to the Commonwealth summit being held in Sri Lanka has become focused on President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But opprobrium should really be shared fairly with his brothers: Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the defence secretary, and Basil Rajapaksa, the minister of economic development. Between the three of them, they control at least 45% of Sri Lanka’s budget, and oversee five government ministries. Another brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, is the speaker of parliament. In fact, Britain’s Channel 4 says that, according to the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, no less than 29 members of Rajapaksa’s extended family hold senior positions within the government, civil service, media and industry. And their home town, Hambantota, is hosting the Commonwealth Youth Forum.

The Rajapaksa government has dismissed allegations of human rights violations from abroad (often by portraying attacks on its conduct of the war and its aftermath as an infringement of its sovereignty—the right of decolonised nations to choose their own destiny) while suppressing dissent at home (Round Table, passim). Much criticism from western governments is waved away as proof of the dark influence of Tamil exiles’ propaganda on their host nation.

Canada rejected allegations that they were playing to the domestic gallery. Hugh Segal, Harper’s special envoy to the Commonwealth, denied the Conservative government had been lobbied by Canada’s 300,000-strong Tamil minority. Segal said: ‘The one party they never vote for would be us. Their vote tends to be somewhere between the NDP [New Democratic Party] and the Liberals. The notion that we’re playing for some diaspora political game is a creation of our friends of Sri Lanka.’

In April this year the Canadian foreign minister, John Baird, expressed astonishment that Sri Lanka was not being censured for so brazenly defying criticism over its human rights record. ‘Canada didn’t get involved in the Commonwealth to accommodate evil—we came to combat it. We are deeply disappointed that Sri Lanka appears poised to take on this leadership role,’ he told the Guardian.

Far from seeing meaningful progress, Baird said, the Rajapaksa government had grown more authoritarian and less accountable since Perth. ‘It’s not just Canada: the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association; the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative; the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association; the Commonwealth Legal Education Association; the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association; Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Council—all of these people have come out and unanimously have said that not only has Sri Lanka not made progress, but in many instances, is getting worse.’

Canada followed this up by warning in October that it would consider cutting funding to the Commonwealth(Ottawa’s $5m a year to the organisation makes up 20% of the total budget).

Later that month the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the International Federation for Human Rights issued a joint declaration demanding that member states protest at the choice of venue, downgrade their level of representation, prevent Sri Lanka leading the Commonwealth after Chogm, and force it commit to its human rights obligations.

Harper’s bold gesture of outright boycott was followed, five days before the summit opened, by the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who after days of hesitation, said he would not attend and would be sending his foreign minister, Salman Khurshid. The Rajapaksa government could rightly point to the domestic pressure Singh, whose ruling Congress party faces federal elections next spring, came under from allied politicians in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which retains its ancient links with Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. However, it was no easy decision for Singh. Delhi had been keen to flex its diplomatic muscle at the Commonwealth showcase as it looks nervously at the inroads made by China in the region (such as the new $500m port China built in Colombo and the $300m airport highway).

Then, two days after this devastating blow to the credibility of the summit, Navin Chandra Ramgoolam, the prime minister of Mauritius, told the island state’s parliament that he would not attend. ‘This is a decision taken by a sovereign Mauritius in the face of the absence of progress in Sri Lanka on the respect of human rights,’ he said, adding that ‘human rights are more important than everything else’.

Colombo will no doubt point out that ethnic Tamils make up an estimated 10% of the Mauritian population but the decision not to attend is nevertheless a significant breach of diplomatic protocol for Mauritius, which is due to host the next Chogm and has never before failed to attend a summit.

Human Rights Watch also urged heads of government not to attend and Amnesty International noted the intensifying crackdown on protest and called for either non-attendance or sending a low-level delegation.

This further ratcheted up pressure on the British prime minister, David Cameron, to achieve something tangible in the way of concessions from Rajapaksa to justify his determination to attend. He was criticised by the opposition Labour party’s Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, who noted the impeachment of Sri Lanka’s chief justice, Shirani Bandaranaike, through a process held to be illegal both by Sri Lanka’s supreme court and by international experts, and said Chogm was ‘an opportunity to send a clear signal that the Commonwealth is no hiding place for countries that are unwilling to uphold the human rights of their citizens.’

Amid this groundswell of opinion in favour of a boycott, one of the world’s most respected moral voices also spoke out. The veteran South African peace campaigner and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu told journalists in Delhi: ‘If there are enough reasons to suggest that the Sri Lanka government have not been doing things with integrity, I think the world has to apply all the screws that it can … Yes, maybe they [the heads of governments] shouldn’t go,’ adding: ‘I would be guided by what the Tamils there would be saying on the issue.’

The Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is far from monolithic but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were notoriously harsh at intimidating or silencing alternative voices on their own side, and the ruthless suppression of dissent by the Rajapaksa regime has been frighteningly efficient, so it is hard to canvas opinion across all of the Tamil community.

However, the main party representing Tamils in Sri Lanka welcomed the move towards a boycott. ‘We have taken a position that Sri Lanka is in breach of fundamental values of the Commonwealth,’ said M.A. Sumanthiran, of the Tamil National Alliance, which won 30 out of 38 seats in landmark polls in the Tamil-dominated Northern province in September. ‘We appreciate the call by various people that it must be boycotted,’ he said.

But of all the arguments against holding Chogm in Sri Lanka, the most trenchant came in the form of a harrowing documentary film, shown on Britain’s Channel 4 and at the Geneva human rights film festival. No one who has seenNo Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, about the last days of the long and savage civil war, will easily forget the sight of a 12-year-old boy, still carrying puppy fat, munching on a snack and childishly unaware of what awaits him as he sits in an army bunker. A soldier appears to have given him a blanket to keep warm.

Hours later he was dead—the next pictures (the film asserts that they had been taken with the same camera) show scorch marks around the five bullet wounds on his chest, proving that he had been shot at very close range. Soldiers can be seen standing around this pitifully young war trophy. He was so near his killers that ‘he could have reached out with his hand and touched the gun that killed him,’ according to the forensic pathologist who examined the pictures for the film.

The boy was Balachandran Prabhakaran, the son of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader. Although his father’s Tamil Tigers notoriously recruited thousands of child soldiers, documented among others by Human Rights Watch in 2004, Balachandran was too young to have been a combatant. By any measure, his cold-blooded execution was a war crime.

The film catalogues further prima facie evidence of similar abuses. As the army pushed into the Tamil heartland, some 350,000 civilians fled their advance. The government declared a no-fire zone (NFZ), promising a refuge from the fighting for non-combatants. Peter McKay, who was one of the last UN workers to leave the north, had been evacuated from his base but went with the civilians to set up a UN food distribution centre in the NFZ and notified government forces of his GPS co-ordinates. Three to four hours later there was a direct mortar attack on the UN outpost.

‘What I was witnessing was very serious potential war crimes,’ McKay said. Why, he asked, did the government designate the NFZ in an area that was within range of all heavy weaponry? The Sri Lankan army, he said, appeared to be ‘actively targeting’ civilians. A new, smaller NFZ was declared 42 days later, prompting more than 100,000 panic-stricken civilians to squeeze into a 12km-long area. A two-month siege ensued, with supplies of food and medicine denied. Despite assurances from Rajapaksa that there would be no ground assault on the NFZ, an army offensive ensued, splitting the zone. A secret US embassy cable to Washington quoted in the film estimated that 78% of civilian deaths occurred in the NFZ—by contrast, the Rajapaksa government claimed during the last stages of the war that all civilian ‘hostages’, as the government’s military spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, called them, had been freed with no loss of life.

However, as the film proved, before-and-after satellite images of the beach, where makeshift shelters had been set up by families fleeing the fighting, showed that it had been directly targeted. The International Committee of the Red Cross provided government forces with the GPS co-ordinates of field hospitals but after being shelled in 65 attacks, medical personnel decided to stop giving the army the information as it seemed clear to them that far from preventing attacks on the facilities, they were assisting in the massacre.

After the last of the Tamil Tiger defences were overrun, summary executions of the fighters began, with footage from soldiers’ phones showing bound, stripped and blindfolded prisoners being shot at point-blank range by their laughing captors. In other scenes, a scared young man is seen being interrogated, with one of the soldiers informing the others that the prisoner had only been fighting for three months (and highly likely to have been forcibly recruited by the LTTE): ‘Long enough,’ replies another soldier. In the next scene, the youth’s bloodied corpse is being filmed.

In some of the grimmest scenes, the bodies of executed Tamil women are seen being thrown on a truck by soldiers who from their comments have clearly raped them. One expresses regret at not raping one woman again before they killed her. By the time the rump of the LTTE forces had been defeated, UN estimates of the number of civilians killed ranged from 40,000 to 70,000.

According to McKay, the army’s victory has prompted widescale population transfers (as Sinhalese families from the south were settled in the Tamil north), the destruction of Hindu temples and their replacement by Buddhist stupas, continuing sexual abuse of Tamil women, and harsh restrictions on assemblies of Tamils in more than small groups. This has occurred against a backdrop of intense intimidation of the independent media, including foreign journalists.

A local blogger, writing on the Sri Lankan citizen journalism website Groundviews, described the typical experience of many displaced Tamils, referring to it as ‘state-facilitated colonisation’: ‘In 2012, the Menik Farm camp in Vavuniya, which at its peak, housed close to 300,000 internally displaced persons [IDPs], was officially closed down when the government of Sri Lanka relocated the last batch of IDPs. This formally marked the closure of all post-2009 IDP camps in the north of Sri Lanka. Termed “welfare villages” or “relief villages” by the government [they were] widely viewed as internment camps.

‘In September 2012 … close to 350 families from Keppapilavu [were informed they] would not be permitted to return to their lands but were to be “temporarily relocated” to Seeniyamottai, against their will. Despite possessing land deeds to their property in Keppapilavu they were coerced into settling in Seeniyamottai, in what the government claims is a “welfare village”.

Criticism of the Rajapaksa government’s alleged human rights abuses does not mean ignoring the many instances of abuses by the LTTE. They took up the weapon of suicide bombings with some enthusiasm from the late 1980s and are credited with inventing the suicide vest. Among their most notable assassinations are the May 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at a campaign rally in India and the assassination in 1993 of Sri Lanka’s President Ranasinghe Premadasa. In 2009 the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, backed by the UN’s head of humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, accused the LTTE of using civilians as human shields by ‘forcibly preventing civilians from leaving’ a conflict zone. It should also be noted that the LTTE had themselves inflicted ethnic cleansing on the local Muslims in the pursuit of a homogenous ‘Tamil Eelam’ homeland.

‘The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded,’ Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, told journalists, adding: ‘I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction … although the fighting is over, the suffering is not.’

She called Sri Lanka ‘a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced’ and said it was ‘particularly extraordinary’ that, during a visit by a UN high commissioner for human rights, police and army officers had harassed activists, journalists and ordinary Sri Lankans who wanted to meet her.

Other foreign observers have also expressed astonishment at the harassment of those on fact-finding tours of Sri Lanka. The International Federation of Journalists’ Asia-Pacific director, Jacqui Park, and her deputy, Jane Worthington, said they had been ‘extensively’ interrogated after they were taken into custody by Sri Lanka police while taking part in a meeting in Colombo on press freedom. ‘It was clear it was kind of a witchhunt against the local media, local journalists and media freedom activists who are really trying to create some free space for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka,’ Park said on returning to Australia after her release, adding: ‘This is not an isolated incident but really a pattern of behaviour of intimidation and threats against journalists in Sri Lanka.’

Although foreign journalists are not ‘disappeared’ like their Sri Lankan counterparts, No Fire Zone’s director Callum McRae reported that he was subjected to death threats from anonymous Sinhalese nationalists and outright intimidation from Sri Lankan diplomats, such as Bandula Jayasakara (formerly Rajapaksa’s chief media adviser), who accused him of being ‘hired by [Tiger] terrorists as a full-time propagandist’.

Sri Lanka also revoked visas for delegates of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, who were due to attend a seminar coinciding with Chogm entitled ‘Making Commonwealth Values a Reality: the Rule of Law and the Independence of the Legal Profession.’ As if to underline the government’s apparent contempt for such principles, the IBA experts had their visas withdrawn days before the summit.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka called the decision to block the guest speakers a ‘clear assault’ on freedom of speech and association, the Malay Mail reported. ‘The argument from the government is that we did not get permission from the foreign ministry to hold the seminar,’ Upul Jayasuriya, head of BASL, said. ‘We don’t need their permission, there is no legal requirement for that.’

And even as the world’s eyes turned to Sri Lanka in the run-up to the summit, the Sri Lankan secret police were doing their utmost to corral the foreign press in Colombo. As the Round Table was going to press, two days before Chogm opened, Channel 4’s foreign editor, Jonathan Miller, blogged: “The team had been tailed by Sri Lankan state intelligence agents on to the train. Five hours north of Colombo, in the city of Anuradhapura, a large mob of pro-government demonstrators met the train and then blocked the tracks, preventing the train—which had hundreds of passengers on board—from continuing. Sri Lankan police say that demonstrators have now also blockaded all the stations between Anuradhapura and Kilinochchi.’ The reporters were taken off the train and forced to return to the capital.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan army, unassailable after its victory and with top brass who pose a threat to the Rajapaksa brothers neutralised—such as the former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who was imprisoned after alleging that defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered surrendered Tamil rebels to be killed—is reaping the fruits of peace with an all-out incursion into tourism. Slate reported: ‘The Sri Lankan military’s hospitality portfolio now spans from hotels and restaurants to whale-watching tours and airlines.’

Writing in Groundviews, Vidya Venkat, a Delhi-based officer of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said Sri Lanka had consistently failed to honour its commitment towards the Commonwealth’s avowed principles of promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law, as enshrined in the Harare Declaration. ‘For Sri Lanka,’ Venkat wrote, ‘Chogm 2013 presents a major opportunity to build its international brand and attract investments.

‘Chogm must ideally be used to pressurise Sri Lanka to accept precise time-bound commitments to uphold its international human rights obligations. Unless such measures are initiated, Chogm 2013 runs the risk of deepening the already existing crisis within the organisation.’

As McRae warned in the Times of India: ‘If this Chogm meeting passes with nothing more than a few ritual denunciations of Sri Lankan crimes, then we face the prospect of a Commonwealth being steered, under the apparently wilful tunnel vision of its secretary-general Kamalesh Sharma, into a stagnant and becalmed irrelevance.’