By Peter Griffiths
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's decision to set aside worries about Sri Lanka's human rights record and back its selection as host of a Commonwealth leaders' meeting showed a lack of principle, a panel of MPs said on Thursday.
The Sri Lankan government has faced condemnation of its rights record, in particular for its final campaign against separatist ethnic Tamil rebels, an offensive the United Nations said killed tens of thousands of civilians in 2009.
In a critical report, the British parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee said the government had opposed Sri Lankan attempts to host the meeting in 2011 on human rights grounds, only to support its 2013 bid without seeing evidence of change.
"That approach now appears timid," it said. "The U.K. could and should have taken a more principled stand ... in the light of the continuing serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka."
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he will not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Britain's David Cameron will go and has promised to raise the issue of human rights.
In a statement, the British Foreign Office rejected the label of "timid and inconsistent", saying it shared the lawmakers' wish to see substantial and sustainable improvements in human rights in Sri Lanka.
"The CHOGM meeting will be a spotlight on Sri Lanka and highlight either progress or its absence," it added.
"The British delegation to CHOGM will see the situation on the ground in Sri Lanka and deliver a clear message that Sri Lanka needs to make concrete progress on human rights."
The MPs, whose cross-party committee has influence but no binding powers, said there was scant evidence of progress on rights in Sri Lanka since the end of the war.
The British government "should have taken a more robust stand" with its former colony before the November summit in the capital Colombo, the panel said.
Debating whether Cameron should or should not have boycotted the meeting is now counter-productive, it added. Leaders of Commonwealth states - a group of 53 countries, nearly all former British colonies - meet every two years.
The panel said the British government was aware of torture in Sri Lanka and attacks on lawyers, reporters and campaigners.
It also raised concerns over the Sri Lankan government's failure to support an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes in the war's final stages.
New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch urged Commonwealth foreign ministers on Wednesday not to award Sri Lanka the two-year chairmanship of the Commonwealth as a sign of concern over human rights.
The Amnesty International rights group said in a statement diplomats from Commonwealth countries must push Sri Lanka to end its crackdown on human rights defenders, especially to monitor and condemn any civil society repression around CHOGM.
"Sri Lanka has a disturbing record of repressing civil society activism. Its officials have intimidated, threatened and even attacked human rights defenders around previous international events," said Polly Truscott, Amnesty International's deputy Asia-Pacific programme director.
"We are extremely worried about the safety of such activists around the summit in Colombo in November."
The Commonwealth ministers are to finalise the agenda for the November summit in a two-day meeting that starts later on Thursday.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said last month Sri Lanka was drifting towards authoritarian rule.
The Sri Lankan government says its rights record has improved since the war, rejects the criticism as unsubstantiated and biased, and accuses Western states of waging a vendetta.
(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez from Colombo; Editing by Andrew Roche and Robert Birsel)