In a surprise move, China today asked Sri Lanka to "make efforts to protect and promote human rights", backing calls by India, Britain and other countries at the CHOGM summit in Colombo to address allegations of rights abuses against the country's minority Tamils.
"Due to the differences in the economic and social development of different countries, there could be differences on human rights protection," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a media briefing here.
"So what is important is that the relevant country should make efforts to protect and promote human rights while other countries in the world should provide constructive assistance," he said.
He was replying to a question on human rights issues clouding the just-concluded CHOGM summit and British Prime Minister David Cameron's statement that his country will push for an international probe by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) if Sri Lanka does not address its human rights issues by March next year.
"This is an issue within the Commonwealth. But at the same time, I believe that on the human rights issue, dialogue and communication should be enhanced among countries," Qin said.
"We always maintained that on the human rights issues, countries around the world should enhance mutual understanding through dialogue and communication and take constructive means to promote the development of the international human rights cause," he said.
This is perhaps for the first time that China was vocal about Sri Lanka addressing the human rights issue, as Beijing which in recent years has beefed up its ties with Colombo with billions of dollars of aid, voted against the resolutions passed by UNHRC in 2011 and 2012 censuring Colombo for its alleged rights violations during the war against the LTTE.
India, in contrast, had voted for the resolution.
Qin's comments came as China was elected to the UNHRC this year and is expected to play a role if Cameron decides to implement his ultimatum to Sri Lanka to deal with its human rights issues by March 2014 failing which the UK will work with the UNHRC to push for international investigations into alleged war crimes against the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Though not a member of the Commonwealth, much of the infrastructure for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo was funded by China, including a USD 292 million highway connecting the capital's international airport to the main city, that transported thousands of delegates.