Australia's new PM to head to Commonwealth despite boycott call

Australia's new PM to head to Commonwealth despite boycott call

NUSA DUA - Australia's new prime minister said Monday he would attend a Commonwealth summit next month despite calls for a boycott over the human rights record of host Sri Lanka.

Conservative leader Tony Abbott indicated disagreement with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who does intend to shun the November 15-17 summit in Colombo over alleged abuses by Sri Lanka's military during a decades-long fight against Tamil separatists.

Abbott offered fulsome backing for the 54-nation bloc after the shock withdrawal of Gambia.

The recently elected Abbott was to hold a bilateral meeting with Harper later Monday on the margins of a regional summit in Indonesia, and the Australian praised his Canadian counterpart as an "outstanding" leader.

"Whether he attends CHOGM is really a matter for him, but certainly I intend to attend CHOGM and will do my best to make a constructive contribution to the deliberations there," Abbott told reporters at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Harper's government has criticised the bloc for "accommodating evil" by allowing Sri Lanka to host the two-yearly Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Human Rights Watch last month said the Sri Lankan government "should be shunned - not rewarded - for failing to hold anyone accountable for war crimes during the country's recent conflict".

But others including British Prime Minister David Cameron are expected to attend the gathering of the Commonwealth, which has its roots in the old British Empire and remains headed by Queen Elizabeth II.

The Gambian government announced last week that the former British colony was pulling out of the Commonwealth with immediate effect, saying it would "never be a member of any neo-colonial institution".

The announcement stunned the organisation, with Commonwealth secretary-general Kamalesh Sharma expressing his "dismay and disappointment".

Abbott, who supports retaining Australia's links to the British monarchy, said: "I do think the Commonwealth is an important forum. It's amongst our oldest international associations.

"There is, I suppose, familiarity amongst members of the Commonwealth which doesn't always exist in every other forum and I think it's important that those friends we have, we should keep," he said.

"You do not make new friends by rubbishing your old friends or abandoning your old friends," Abbott added, vowing that his government would "take the Commonwealth seriously".

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