David Cameron, shown in India on his way to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth summit, has said the Labour party cannot ask him to boycott a summit they arranged while in office. Photograph: Rex Features
David Cameron has attacked Labour’s “rank hypocrisy” in calling for him to boycott the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka as he claimed his visit to the country’s war-torn north will help give a voice to the dispossessed.
While dozens of world leaders have gathered in Colombo for the Commonwealth opening ceremony, Cameron is planning to fly to Jaffna, a Tamil-dominated city in the north that suffered heavily during Sri Lanka’s 25-year conflict. He will visit a “welfare village”, which are often equated to refugee camps, and meet newspaper editors who have suffered intimidation.
After that he will return to Colombo to shake hands with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the controversial Sri Lankan president, in an effort to persuade him to investigate allegations of war crimes, torture and kidnappings.
Speaking on Friday morning Cameron said he would quote Winston Churchill to the Sri Lankan leader on the idea that there should be “in victory, magnanimity” after the war that ended in 2009.
“Rajapaksa has an opportunity, having won the war, to show real generosity and reconciliation to build a cohesive country where everyone feels they have a say. He is able to do that,” he said.
Labour has called for Cameron to shun the summit of 54 countries like the Indian and Canadian leaders and press for Rajapaksa to be suspended from his two-year chairmanship of the Commonwealth.
However the prime minister condemned this as “extraordinary behaviour”.
“I think there is rank hypocrisy really from Labour to call for non-attendance at a Commonwealth heads of government meeting that they helped fix when they were in government.
“So I think it is absolutely extraordinary behaviour – in 2009 they effectively agreed the meeting should be held in Sri Lanka and they’re just playing politics and it’s completely cynical.”
Cameron said the Commonwealth was “imperfect” but it was necessary to attend to argue for its good values.He said going to Jaffna “helps the people in the north of the island have a voice”, although he acknowledged there was a danger those he spoke to could later face problems with the authorities.Asked about whether anyone he would speak to would be in fear of reprisal, he said: “I am sure there will be difficulties. But that, in a way, will tell its own story. If that’s the case that will be a demonstration of the difficulties in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and the key freedoms that we value.”
He admitted that he may not be able to “speak to as many people as you would like”.
On Thursday in India Cameron condemned Sri Lanka’s failure to investigate allegations of “chilling and appalling” war crimes and promised a diplomatic showdown with the host country over continuing allegations of human rights abuses and the need for an independent inquiry into historic war crimes.
During a meeting with Rajapaksa he will also raise concerns about attacks on Christians and Muslims, intimidation of journalists and discrimination against Tamils.
However the encounter is likely to provoke a diplomatic battle after the Sri Lankan president insisted his country has “nothing to hide” and resisted calls for further inquiries.
Cameron used his strongest language to criticise Sri Lanka’s human rights record after watching a Channel 4 documentary about atrocities allegedly committed by state forces in the last months of the war.
After speaking to the UN the prime minister said images of war crimes had been independently verified. “The images in that film are completely chilling. It’s an appalling set of allegations and of course these allegations have been backed up by the work of the UN special rapporteur who has had them verified. There are legitimate accusations of war crimes that need to be properly investigated. That is actually what the Sri Lankan government itself found … but it hasn’t effectively answered them, they need to be answered.”
The UK Tamil community is also pressing Cameron to tackle Rajapaksa on allegations of torture, the disappearance of government opponents and intimidation of the media since the end of the war. It is understood Cameron is likely to shake Rajapaksa’s hand when they meet.
Cameron agreed there were “some very serious questions that need to be answered, questions about human rights violations today in Sri Lanka, the fact that there are so many people who have disappeared, there aren’t proper rules for a free press”.
A No 10 source said Cameron would push for specific goals including “quick wins” such as lifting a bar on singing the national anthem in the Tamil language.
Going into the meeting he will have five goals, including a political settlement with the National Tamil Alliance. He will also raise concerns about the impeachment of the chief justice, indefinite detention and the failure to bring to justice the murderer of the British national Khuram Shaika. The source said Cameron also had worries about “increasing attacks on Christians and Muslims and the signs that extremist Buddhist nationalists acting with impunity”.
However Rajapaksa has hit back at international criticism, saying his country is very open about its past and has a good legal system to deal with allegations. “We have a legal system in Sri Lanka,” Rajapaksa said in a Colombo news conference. “If anyone wants to complain about the human rights violations in Sri Lanka, whether it is torture, whether it is rape … we have a system.”
He confirmed he has agreed to meet Cameron and suggested his response will be combative. “I will be meeting him and we will see what, I will also have to ask some questions,” he said.
Sri Lanka’s media minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, warned Cameron could not make demands of the county like it was a colony. He told the BBC: “We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka. It can be a cordial request. We are not a colony. We are an independent state.”
Writing in the Tamil Guardian, Ed Miliband has urged Cameron to push for Rajapaksa to be stripped of his automatic two-year chairmanship of the Commonwealth after hosting the summit.
It is understood Cameron has not ruled out pushing for this sanction but considers the international inquiry a greater priority. Whitehall sources also pointed out the removal would have to be agreed by a consensus of Commonwealth leaders.
Ahead of the summit some Tamil media outlets have reported that campaigners have been prevented from travelling to Colombo to protest about relatives who have disappeared.
A Channel 4 crew said it was blocked from reaching a former war zone in the north for filming as pro-government protesters stood in the way of their train. Among the journalists on board was Callum Macrae, whose documentary No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka was released ahead of the summit.
The Freedom From Torture human rights group said the “burning question” Cameron must put to Rajapaksa was “why certain categories of ethnic Tamils travelling back to Sri Lanka from the UK are being tracked down and subjected to branding, rape and other forms of torture”.
The group, one of the UK’s largest torture rehabilitation centres, said it had received at least 50 referrals for individuals detained and interrogated about the activities of Tamils in the UK after returning to Sri Lanka.