Key ‘likely to raise concerns’ with CHOGM host Sri Lanka
Sunday 10 November,
Former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Donald McKinnon says PM Key ‘likely to raise concerns’ with CHOGM host Sri Lanka over human rights record.
“Yes, there are still outstanding issues there and there are still issues that that government has to address. And there’s always going to be a bit of debate – do you go there and say something about it, or do you boycott it and say nothing about it face to face?”
Sir Donald McKinnon says Sri Lanka’s human rights record has improved but says had the country agreed to the UN coming in several years ago it would have helped its standing internationally.
“The fact they disagreed with the UN coming in just didn’t help them, but they’re very conscious that when they do have CHOGM, there’s a huge amount of global press there. They’ve got to make sure— You can’t hide everything.
“And that’s the very thing – I think he should have taken it and said, ‘Come here, Human Rights of the UN. Come and look at us. Tell us what we need to do.’ He’d be In a much better position if he’d done that than, you know, saying, ‘No, do not come. I can handle this’,” Sir Donald says.
There have been calls for Prime Minister John Key to boycott the meeting following Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper move to do so.
Sir Donald McKinnon says it is difficult for the Commonwealth to be tougher on Sri Lanka because it is difficult to get full agreement on how to address the issues.
“There are those who will say, ‘You’ve got to hit them harder,’ those who will say, ‘You’ve got to help them out of this hole they’ve dug for themselves.’
He says Prime Minister John Key is most likely to raise concerns about how the country is progressing on human rights at the leader’s retreat.
“And, you know, as one who sat through many of those where you just have the leaders on their own, plus the Secretary-General, they are extraordinarily candid with each other because they all believe that one can pull down the others.”
When asked what New Zealand could hope to gain from this meeting, Sir Donald McKinnon said New Zealand would want to see progress occurring in Fiji “which I think probably will occur”.
“This is the chance for any one leader, John Key included, to sometimes resolve issues that become irresolvable. If the officials and the foreign minister, the diplomats can’t, sometimes a face to face with a leader can resolve it. It might be a trade issue. It might be a consci— It might be a New Zealander languishing in a jail somewhere.”
He also says New Zealand will be actively campaigning for its Security Council seat.
“Here’s 53 votes, and I have no doubt that John Key will be working very hard. After all, we don’t have a lot of contact with African leaders or, in fact, Caribbean leaders.
“Now, there’s— between those two, there’s 33 votes. That’s a fair chunk of votes. If you can secure all those for the Security Council, this is the place to get them.”
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Q + A
CORIN DANN INTERVIEWS SIR DON MCKINNON
SIR DON MCKINNON – Former Commonwealth Secretary-General
Oh, very much so, and when I was Secretary-General, the Sri Lankan president wanted to host CHOGM much earlier than this. And I made the point that, really, the Commonwealth wasn’t ready to go to Sri Lanka. Now, after I left office, clearly things had changed and the other members decided that they could go to Sri Lanka. Yes, there are still outstanding issues there and there are still issues that that government has to address. And there’s always going to be a bit of debate – do you go there and say something about it, or do you boycott it and say nothing about it face to face?
CORIN But has Sri Lanka improved enough in that human rights area for it to justifiably be able to hold it this year, in your mind?
DON It has improved over the years. I still think they should have agreed to the UN coming in a few years ago, and that would have actually helped their international persona. The fact they disagreed with the UN coming in just didn’t help them, but they’re very conscious that when they do have CHOGM, there’s a huge amount of global press there. They’ve got to make sure— You can’t hide everything.
CORIN So you obviously had a chance to meet with Prime Minister Rajapaksa. What were your impressions of him? What sort of a regime is he—? That’s probably an unkind word, but what sort of a leadership does he, in fact, ha ve?
DON President Rajapaksa – he’s a very very strong personality. He’s a rugby fanatic, believe it or not, too. But he’s determined to do good for his country. I think we’d all probably disagree on how he went about it and what he’s achieved, but the last time I was in Colombo, I’ve got to say I was impressed with the economic activity, and everything was going. Everything was moving. Everything was very vibrant there. All the previous times I went there you were going past sandbagged corners, soldiers with rifles everywhere. It has changed, but the legacy of that war is still there, and he’s really got to do more to correct that.
CORIN Yeah, on that point, I mean, the UN Human Rights Commissioner did raise concerns that there wasn’t enough being done to investigate war crimes from that civil war.
DON And that’s the very thing – I think he should have taken it and said, ‘Come here, Human Rights of the UN. Come and look at us. Tell us what we need to do.’ He’d be in a much better position if he’d done that than, you know, saying, ‘No, do not come. I can handle this.’
CORIN The Commonwealth has shown, though, that it can be quite tough on these sorts of issues with governments. We’ve seen that with Fiji. What’s the difference here? Why can’t the Commonwealth be much sterner with Sri Lanka? Because we have seen, for example, Canada’s Prime Minister boycotting, so there are some that clearly would like that.
DON Yeah. Well, probably you don’t always get full agreement on how to address these issues. The issue of Fiji and Pakistan, Nigeria that I was dealing with and Zimbabwe in my time, even those weren’t very clear-cut. It is a case of making sure you take the membership with you if you’re going to move in that direction, and clearly there was uncertainty about whether that was the right thing to do about Sri Lanka at the present time. That’s not an uncommon thing. There are those who will say, ‘You’ve got to hit them harder,’ those who will say, ‘You’ve got to help them out of this hole they’ve dug for themselves.’
CORIN What about New Zealand, then? Should New Zealand not be following the likes of Canada and perhaps making a small protest by not sending John Key?
DON Well, that’s entirely a judgement for the New Zealand Government, obviously, and they have decided that it is better to be engaged, to encourage, to try and see changes take place.
CORIN But perhaps of more concern, though, I mean, Canada also talking about withdrawing funding potentially for the Commonwealth Heads of Government. Is that a risk? Does that show that perhaps cracks are now forming within this organisation?
DON Well, it does show divergence of opinion. Again, not uncommon. Canada has always taken a pretty rigid stance on a lot of these issues. Sometimes I’d say they did the right thing, and sometimes I’d say they might be getting ahead of themselves. Look, that is ultimately their judgement. At no stage would I ever believe that Canada would walk away from the Commonwealth.
CORIN So what do you expect, though, from New Zealand at this meeting? Do you expect John Key to at least – at the very least – raise some public concerns or make some public assessment of how he believes Sri Lanka is progressing in terms of human rights?
DON I’m sure it’ll happen, and it’s more likely to happen in the retreat. And, you know, as one who sat through many of those where you just have the leaders on their own, plus the Secretary-General, they are extraordinarily candid with each other because they all believe that one can pull down the others. And I have no doubt that these issues will be raised, not just probably by New Zealand but by others. Again, when President Rajapaksa wanted to host CHOGM some years before, it was his near neighbours who said, ‘No, no, no. It is far too early. He’s got a lot of things to sort out yet.’
CORIN Yeah, because India, for one, hasn’t made a decision yet whether it will send its leader, so there’s obviously some big regional tension there as well.
DON Well, yes, and given the make-up of India and the very strong Tamil community in the south of India, there will be a high level of sensitivity on that issue from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
CORIN There’s some reports that there may be a ban on protests or there might be some limited restrictions on protesters. If that is true, would that be a concern? Because that would send a pretty bad message, wouldn’t it, for CHOGM and what it’s trying to do.
DON Oh yes. Yeah, yeah. It would be a concern, and there’s probably not a CHOGM that some leaders haven’t wished that the protesters weren’t there. There will be protesters, I’m sure, and the important thing is that they are permitted to protest without totally destroying the conference.
CORIN The other interesting factor about this conference is Prince Charles is going to be there. Now, is he essent—? Is this about him starting to take more of a bigger role in these types of affairs, do you believe? And what do you think we may expect to see from Prince Charles at CHOGM this year?
DON I think that started a few years ago, really, and I got Prince Charles involved in the CHOGM in Uganda for that very reason. I think we’ve all got to accept Her Majesty’s now in her late 80s and travelling long distances does take its toll, and she fully understands the need that she won’t be able to do all the things she would normally wish to do. Here’s an opportunity for the heir to the throne to participate. He does stand in for her in a great number of occasions, and he has, you know, over the period of time since he came to Uganda had a chance to once again renew his own knowledge of the Commonwealth and Commonwealth governments.
CORIN Will he be as committed, though, as the Queen in terms of the future of this organisation? Should he essentially take over her role?
DON Oh, I hope he would be, and I think he would be. I think he was going through a period where he didn’t actually want to compete directly with his mother, and therefore he took a lot of interest in other places. However, on becoming the king, you know, it’s quite a different ball game.
CORIN So what do you think New Zealand will look to come away with from this meeting? What can it hope to gain? What will it be looking for, do you think?
DON Well, you certainly want to see the advancement of the very things we stand up for, that is, you know, better governance of areas where governance is still limited. We’d want to see progress occurring in Fiji, which I think probably will occur. But don’t underestimate, again, the ability of putting all these leaders together. This is the chance for any one leader, John Key included, to sometimes resolve issues that become irresolvable. If the officials and the foreign minister, the diplomats can’t, sometimes a face to face with a leader can resolve it. It might be a trade issue. It might be a consci— It might be a New Zealander languishing in a jail somewhere. Sometimes these are the things that can be resolved. Don’t forget also, you know, New Zealand is now campaigning actively to get a seat on the Security Council. Here’s 53 votes, and I have no doubt that John Key will be working very hard. After all, we don’t have a lot of contact with African leaders or, in fact, Caribbean leaders. Now, there’s— between those two, there’s 33 votes. That’s a fair chunk of votes. If you can secure all those for the Security Council, this is the place to get them.
CORIN Does that make a place where John Key will be more active in terms of raising issues about human rights, or will we be less active, given we’re after that seat?
DON I don’t think it will change the narrative at all because New Zealand has a pretty strong narrative on human rights, and you can’t just alter it according to the conference you’re at.
CORIN Just one final question on President Rajapaksa. My apologies for getting that wrong earlier. There have been criticisms that he has shown slight sort of dictatorial tendencies in his leadership. In your experience with him, do you see it that way, that he is—? I mean, reports of journalists being harassed, intimidation, harassment. Is there a concern that he’s behaving a bit more like a dictator than an elected president?
DON Well, there’s no question that the Rajapaksa family alone has something like five— four of his brothers are all heavily involved. As for being a dictator, look, he is certainly a strong leader, and the world is not without strong leaders. That country has actually had quite strong leaders over a long period of time, so within the body politic of Sri Lankan politics, you’ve got to be a pretty tough person to survive there. He does have a parliament, he does have an opposition – not a very strong one – but nevertheless, you do want to see an adherence to the normal governing values which countries should aspire to.