Commonwealth summit opens as Sri Lanka faces scrutiny, with UK leader to visit war-torn north

Sri Lanka opened its Commonwealth summit Friday with a dazzle of dancers, words from Buddha and red-carpeted stairway lined with smiling children to greet leaders from Britain and its former territories, even as some were absent in protest over Sri Lanka's human rights record.

The Commonwealth has been harshly criticized for holding the summit on this Indian Ocean island after years of refusal by its government to allow independent investigations into alleged war crimes and rights abuses during and after a 27-year civil war that ended in 2009. Recent reports of media harassment and continued rights abuses have also raised alarms.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who with his brothers has controlled the Buddhist Sinhalese-majority nation since 2005, has defended his country's efforts, saying its army committed no abuses and its courts and other institutions are handling complaints.

He invoked Buddha in his opening speech with a quote that appeared to gently chastise nations questioning Sri Lanka's commitment to democracy and human rights.

"Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by oneself is done or left undone," he said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron planned Friday to travel into northern areas that saw the worst of the war between soldiers and ethnic Tamils rebels fighting for a homeland.

While the leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius have boycotted the summit, the Commonwealth organization and other leaders defended the meeting as a way to engage Sri Lanka on the issues.

"In a multilateral organization, you don't achieve anything if you're not there," Cameron told Sky News from Kolkata, India, before flying to Colombo. "If a prime minister were to stay away from a Commonwealth heads of government meeting, what would that say about the Commonwealth?"

Cameron again urged Rajapaksa to hold "a proper inquiry," which has been demanded by the United Nations and Western governments including the United States.

"He should be seizing the opportunity to win the peace now that the war is over," Cameron said.

National flags flapped in the wind as the leaders arrived Friday at an enormous lotus-shaped theater building for an opening ceremony presided over by Britain's Prince Charles. Children dressed in fine yellow silk sang the Sri Lankan national anthem.

At the main conference venue across town, 56 adult and baby elephants, their chains jangling like bells, munched on palm leaves before a planned presentation later Friday.

The leaders will meet behind closed doors to discuss where their shared cultural norms, including the English language and judicial systems based on the British example, might help them unite on global issues such as tackling climate change.


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