Canada’s special envoy for the Commonwealth Hugh Segal is on his way to Sri Lanka as pressure mounts to relocate the Commonwealth’s heads of government meeting being held in Colombo later this year because of concerns over deteriorating human rights.  Canada’s Prime Minister has said he has no plan to attend the meeting if it’s held in Sri Lanka. Britain says it has yet to decide, though a parliamentary foreign affairs select committee recommended the Prime Minister stay away and there are unconfirmed reports that the Queen, who heads the Commonwealth, will not attend.

Sri Lanka stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the end of the civil war in 2009, killing between 40,000 to 70,000 of its own citizens, according to the United Nations. In the four years since the fighting stopped the President and his family have concentrated power and resources in their hands, refused to offer even the most modest political solution to Tamils, outraged the international community by the way they impeached the country’s Chief Justice and presided over disappearances, torture and rape in custody as well as increasing attacks on Muslims. The international community has struggled to find signs of post-war progress – only able to point to the construction of new roads.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II , right, shakes hands with Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a Commonwealth event in London last year. Pic: AP.

Canada leads a group within the 54-nation block, which negotiated much needed reforms and believes Sri Lanka is a test case for them and the new charter championed by the Queen. “The risk is people will conclude the new formulation of values and enforcement actually don’t mean anything at all,” says Senator Segal, who will meet both Tamils in the former war zone and the President during his fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka.

Holding the Commonwealth’s main gathering in Colombo rubber stamps the Rajapaksa regime, endorsing its extreme Sinhala chauvinist agenda and whitewashing war crimes. As the host, Sri Lanka will  head the 54-nation body for two years and automatically sit on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which is tasked with taking action on thorny issues like democracy and rule of law. Observers say if Sri Lanka were not hosting the Heads of Government meeting this November it would have already been referred to the Ministerial Action group for discussion. Concern over the logistics of relocating or postponing the event – rather than core values – has obscured the issue. For Canada’s special envoy, “the notion of pretending as if nothing is going on in Sri Lanka that justifies a CMAG meeting is untenable”.

The Ministerial Action Group meets on April 26 but it’s still not clear if it will even discuss Sri Lanka, let alone ask for its temporary suspension. The Commonwealth Secretary General can raise an issue – or a consensus of members can do so. About 15 Commonwealth countries are said to support a Canadian bid to have Sri Lanka put on the meeting’s agenda; more may join once a US sponsored resolution passes at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva a week from now.  Under new procedures any Commonwealth nation can ask for Sri Lanka to be discussed – not just those sitting on the Ministerial Action Group.

But the Commonwealth likes to operate by consensus and it’s paralysed by division on the issue of Sri Lanka. Some argue the emphasis on human rights is a preoccupation of Western nations – the old white commonwealth. Others say Sri Lanka is a watershed moment for the organisation’s relevance and commitment to democratic values. The Commonwealth’s Secretary General is one of those who believes in engagement with Sri Lanka; he was seen in public at a recent official dinner in London warmly embracing the Sri Lankan Ambassador which raised some eyebrows.

For months there has been discussion about what might happen to the November meeting. Some say there are precedents for relocating commonwealth meetings but that’s rapidly getting late for such a large-scale event with a host of side meetings. There’s a suggestion that the event could be scaled down considerably and held in Delhi. Postponement is another option being discussed.

What’s at stake is the reputation of the Commonwealth – a diverse group of nations united by shared values. Soon it will be led by a country that committed war crimes on a scale that the UN says, “represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”.