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Commonwealth’s Rights Journey: Final Destination Sri Lanka?

Commonwealth’s Human Rights Journey: Final Destination Sri Lanka?

Maja Daruwala, Director, CHRI
September 16, 2011

The decision to hold the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka is strongly rumoured to be a done deal. The dice, it is said is cast. The Heads of Government meeting in Perth this October end is expected to cement the decision as a mere formality. To call it to question is a waste of energy and breath – unless the Commonwealth’s fundamental principles matter. In 2009 at the Trinidad CHOGM, deep concern about the country’s suitability to play host resulted in pushing back consideration of Sri Lanka as host from 2011 to 2013. But two years on the disquiet about the problematic nature of the regime and its human rights record – past and present – persist. Another not inconsiderable concern is that with the next CHOGM 2013 rotating to Sri Lanka, its President – widely alleged as having presided over war crimes – will automatically hold the pre-eminent position of the Commonwealth’s chairperson as well. Can this indulgence be taken lightly?

Till 2009 Sri Lanka was in the midst of a devastating two-decade armed ethnic conflict. By May 2009, it was suddenly all over: after a massive push by the Sri Lankan Army into the Tamil Tiger strongholds in the forests of Vanni. But the government’s triumphal rhetoric of a quick return to normalcy after liberating the country from a merciless foe that bedevilled it for a quarter of a century, was short-lived. Continuous allegations of war crimes; bombing of civilian targets; innumerable rapes; systematic culling of young people; and unnecessary and unjustified killing, maiming, torture and arson refuse to die down – even if spoken of in hushed and fearful tones within the country.

Despite all this, no doubt Sri Lanka will argue strongly that its time has come to host the Commonwealth summit and that the international community must do all it can to assist it on its road to long-term peace and reconciliation. Its small size and developing-country status will position it well to say that it is being victimised.

Last time’s postponement was couched in the politesse that extra time would allow Sri Lanka to emerge from the devastation of the war to prepare itself for CHOGM 2013. This time, the Commonwealth with its usual softly-softly approach may lean to the view that international isolation of erring member states is an extreme measure that ends up harming populations more than their regimes and it is better to engage and help wayward governments on to paths of virtue without berating them. But denial of a meeting for a few years is hardly international isolation. Rather it is a mild enough warning shot across the bows to signal that things must improve. What really harms the population is the expenditure associated with having to host a cavalcade of 54 Heads of Governments and their entourages to host in such pressing economic times.

Moreover, it has been the Sri Lankan regime that has been quick to thumb its nose at the international community on more than one occasion. After the war, it has spurned desperately needed humanitarian assistance and during the war it severely limited access to conflict zones by UN aid agencies, the media and the resident diplomatic community. It has also frustrated the efforts of the International Group of Eminent Persons that was set up to supervise Sri Lanka’s domestic inquiry into killing of aid workers in 2006.

The regime’s antagonism towards the damning post-conflict report by the Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General that looked into allegations of human rights abuse has been vocal and unabashed. At the UN Human Rights Council and in other international venues, Sri Lanka has also artfully crafted geopolitical smokescreens to blunt allegations of past and continuing human rights violations.

Despite its own isolating rejections of international advice and intervention, Sri Lanka’s willingness to expend vast amounts on a single meeting rather than on the restoration of the country, clearly indicates the public relations value it puts on the event.

But the question of where the Commonwealth holds its most important meeting goes well beyond Sri Lanka’s democratic disrepair to the seminal question of what the association’s own real grundnorms are. Can a summit of 54 leaders really say that their choice of venue for its emblematic meeting is value neutral? It would be too simplistic to end the debate by saying that the tyranny of rotation demands that the Commonwealth hold its next meeting in a country battling to extricate itself from credible allegations of war crimes.

Unconditionally allowing the hosting of Commonwealth events like its 2018 Games, glittering international conferences, and summits like CHOGM 2013, lends an aid of legitimacy to government stances. This comes at the cost of diluting the measure of human rights values and their long-term worth to the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is urging that values matter. The Commonwealth has largely remained silent throughout the last phase of the Sri Lankan war and the aftermath. The decision on whether Sri Lanka will be the venue of CHOGM 2013 presents another opportunity for the Commonwealth to affirm its commitment to its fundamental political principles by actions that demonstrate its real values.

Any unconditional decision to give Sri Lanka a free pass will only prove that the Commonwealth lacks the resolve to push in this direction or to put the concerns of population over those of the people in power.

CHRI urges that a final decision on Sri Lanka as the next venue for CHOGM 2013 be made only after a thorough and independent assessment is done of the country’s progress toward: ensuring honest accountability for past actions; providing effective redress to affected population; and assuring the future of human rights compliance in that country.

The Heads of Governments at Perth should at minimum set benchmarks and ask the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) – the Commonwealth’s watchdog body, to report back with its recommendations in accordance with a set time line. While the recent lifting of the nearly three-decade long state of emergency in Sri Lanka is a sign that international pressure may work, the continuation of draconian anti-terror laws and sweeping powers available under it are indications that any scrutiny of progress should be wary of cosmetic changes.

The onus is on the Secretary-General to present the considerable body of evidence and concerns of the international community at the Foreign Ministers September meeting in New York and again at the CMAG meeting to be held in Perth just preceding the meeting of the Heads. The Commonwealth should decide on the venue of the CHOGM 2013 only after the fullest consideration of available body of evidence – as this decision will prove to be a litmus test of the Commonwealth’s fabric of values.


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