Sri Lanka concerns put Commonwealth’s credibility on the line
Share this on

Sri Lanka concerns put Commonwealth’s credibility on the line

By J. S. Tissainayagam

Sri Lanka, whose leaders are accused of committing war crimes against Tamils in the civil war that ended May 2009, and subverting democracy, is to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November.

In the past the Commonwealth, the 54-member intergovernmental grouping of mostly Britain’s former colonies, has emphasised human rights and democracy as core principles and chastised member countries that violated them. Sri Lanka however has not been censured but rewarded: named as CHOGM’s next venue, it will automatically lead the organisation for the coming two years.

(UPDATE: Commonwealth dodges Sri Lanka problem)

The international community is clearly concerned that if it takes too strong a line with Sri Lanka, it will simply slip into China’s sphere of influence, and so lose all ability to promote Commonwealth values. However, this view fundamentally misinterprets Sri Lanka’s relationship with both China and the Commonwealth.

First, such has been the fear of Chinese influence that the Commonwealth has made virtually no attempts to promote its values, and so the fear of what might be lost is overstated. Second, whilst China’s investment in Sri Lanka is significant, it is an extractive, commercial relationship. The Sri Lankan government may think it has a partner in China, but it is by no means a partnership between equals – and this should make Sri Lanka wary. Nor will China ever fully replace the Commonwealth as a trading partner. China accounts for 10.9% of Sri Lanka’s imports and 1.1% of it exports. The Commonwealth is 45.7% and 27.3%.

The Sri Lankan government may posture, but the truth is that they need the Commonwealth more than the Commonwealth needs them. Even more so given the tremendous damage Sri Lanka is doing to the valuable Commonwealth “brand” of stability and good governance. Sri Lanka is not treating Commonwealth values with disdain because it is in a position of strength; it is doing so because the track record of the Commonwealth suggests that there will be no consequences.

Yet there remains a slim chance that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), following its meeting later today, could call for a change of venue. If not, the only alternative for Commonwealth leaders to protest Sri Lanka’s behaviour is to boycott the summit in Colombo.

(READ MORE: Commonwealth struggles for unity amid Sri Lanka HR concerns)

In a March 2011 report, a UN Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon concluded that Sri Lanka’s military and political leadership as well as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had committed grave human rights violations in the final stages of the war. The UN Panel’s call for an independent international investigation has been rejected by Colombo.

Worse, systematic human rights violations continue to occur as the government uses militarisation to pacify the Tamil areas and destroys democratic institutions as President Mahinda Rajapakse and his family consolidate power in Colombo.

By principle and practice the Commonwealth should take Sri Lanka to task. The 60-year history of this organisation reveals almost a preoccupation with its core values. The Singapore Declaration (1971), the Harare Principles (1991) and the Charter of the Commonwealth signed in March this year point to democratically elected government, equality, human rights and rule of law as the body’s core tenets.

Violation of these principles has exacted punishment, the most extreme being suspension from the Commonwealth. Pakistan and Fiji have been thrown out twice and Nigeria once. Zimbabwe, once suspended, withdrew from the organisation.

Both occasions of Pakistan’s suspension – 1999 and 2007 – were under military strongman President Pervez Musharraf. While the 1999 suspension dwelt on his overthrow of an elected government by a coup, the second was for violations of broader core principles. Announcing the suspension, CMAG asked Musharraf who was an elected president to relinquish the post of army chief of staff he also held, repeal the emergency, restore the independence of the judiciary, fundamental rights and rule of law, and lift curbs on the media.

(READ MORE: Commonwealth lawyers, judges want Sri Lanka suspended)

Fiji remains suspended because Commodore Frank Bainimarama has postponed holding elections. Nigeria, although ruled by a military leader, was thrown out because it condemned to death and executed nine dissidents including Ken Saro Wiwa. Zimbabwe was suspended because President Robert Mugabe, a civilian, was in office through an election marred by widespread malpractice.

In comparison, it is true that Rajapakse is not a president in uniform. However his authoritarian and militaristic ways have been well documented. Coups are derided because military leaders fail to keep the military out of politics. Rajapakse does not keep the military out of politics either. The International Crisis Group in a March 2012 report says, “The Sri Lankan military has thus become an army of occupation physically and psychologically, if not legally.”

As with Pakistan, Rajapakse’s government has illegally impeached their chief justice. According to the International Bar Association Human Rights Initiative report, the impeachment is, “incompatible with the core values and principles of the Commonwealth of Nations, including the respect for separation of powers, rule of law, good governance and human rights.”

Sri Lanka’s restrictions on the media reinforce similarities to pre-suspension Pakistan. The most recent are government regulating the internet by asking all news sites to be registered with the government and blocking content of foreign news. Earlier this month BBC suspended broadcasting to Sri Lanka citing interference with broadcasts.

(READ MORE: Sri Lanka blocks BBC reports as UN condemns anti-Tamil violence)

As in Nigeria, Sri Lanka has its share of murdered human rights defenders. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 11 journalists have been killed from the time Rajapakse assumed office.

Hardly different from Zimbabwe, the 2010 presidential election in Sri Lanka was fraught with malpractice about which Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma himself said, “[o]verall the 2010 presidential elections in Sri Lanka did not fully meet key benchmarks for democratic elections.”

Despite similar offences, the Rajapakse regime is not administered a reproof. Instead the Commonwealth now faces the ignominy of having at its helm a country that has violated at least nine of its own core principles that the Queen signed into its new Charter last month. Such double standards clearly call into question the Commonwealth’s credibility.

Canada has taken a firm stand on the matter, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stating that the summit should be moved, and that he personally will not attend if it is not. The UK does not have a seat on CMAG but it is thought many people looking to the UK for some indication as to whether it shares Canada’s concerns. Yet Prime Minister David Cameron has not shown anywhere like the same leadership as his friend.

If the Commonwealth wishes to demonstrate it is worthy of calling itself an international organisation, it must act to restore its credibility. The CMAG has a chance to do this by moving the venue or postponing the meeting. If the CMAG refuses to uphold its own core principles however, all that remains for those who believe in the integrity of the Commonwealth is to refuse attending the Colombo Summit.

J. S. Tissainayagam, a former Sri Lankan political prisoner, was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard and Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States.