The Commonwealth has failed its first major test since it strengthened its Ministerial Action Group in 2011 to renew its commitment to human rights and democratic values. Meeting in London today, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which is charged with dealing with violations of Commonwealth values, failed to discuss Sri Lanka on its formal agenda. Sri Lanka is due to head the 54-nation body and host its major summit in Colombo in November, but it stands accused by two UN reports of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is also the only Commonwealth country technically to have two Chief Justices after the top court in the land ruled the impeachment of the first unlawful.
Canada has been a lone voice raising the issue of Sri Lanka and it appears it had few supporters among other nations represented on the Action Group. There are reports one nation present said it wouldn’t be held hostage to human rights zealots. The deliberations on Sri Lanka fell into the “Other Matters of Interest to Ministers”, which are not made public.
At a news conference after the meeting the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group said it was not up to them but up to the heads of Commonwealth governments to decide the venue for the summit in November and they’d already chosen Sri Lanka. Instead, the Secretary General Kamlesh Sharmam repeatedly stressed his commitment to positive engagement with the Sri Lankan government. He refused to put a time limit on that engagement because he said he was so optimistic about its success. Mr Sharma cited the Commonwealth’s involvement in assisting Sri Lanka with media policy, two Press Institutes, the Election Commission, human rights, the issue of the independence of judiciary and a workshop next week in London for the Sri Lankan government to meet reconciliation experts from other post-conflict countries. “We are working with them in a way which we expect will bring progress rather than disappointment,” he said.
Asked if he wasn’t worried about the credibility of the Commonwealth being at stake over its engagement with Sri Lanka, the Secretary General said on he contrary its credibility was increasing right now. He said some people just made statements while other were actually doing real work on the ground making a difference. Mr Sharma did concede there were what he called “many lacunae” in the appointment and dismissal of judges in Sri Lanka but added that the Commonwealth was working with Sri Lanka to share best practices from other member nations and recommend remedial measures.
Outside the venue of the meeting in London a small but colourful protest took place by Tamils, calling on the Commonwealth to suspend Sri Lanka and move November’s summit meeting. As he left, the Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird made a point of walking along the barricade and shaking hands with many of the protestors before getting into this car.
Canada’s Foreign Minister says he is appalled that Sri Lanka seems poised to have the honour and responsibility of hosting the Commonwealth summit meeting in November. Mr Baird said Canada had wanted to see meaningful progress on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka but the situation had got worse, not better. He added that the impeachment of the Chief Justice in Sri Lanka was deeply disturbing.
Asked about what the Commonwealth Secretary General Kamlesh Sharma says is positive engagement with Sri Lanka, Mr Baird replied that he would rather accept the judgement and conclusions of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, The Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges, Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Council. All of these have pointed to a deterioration of civil liberties and human rights in Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war.
Mr Baird said Canada cared passionately about the issue of Sri Lanka and it wasn’t just going to “go alone to get along”. He added it wasn’t about accommodating evil, but about combating it.