Many reasons to boycott Sri Lankan Commonwealth summit

Published: October 18, 2013

Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, does not come across as a man who is much concerned whether or not he has allies for his political stands.

However, Harper may not welcome India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh coming to stand shoulder to shoulder with him in boycotting the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) summit in Sri Lanka in mid November.

If Singh does join Harper in staying away from the Colombo summit to protest the human rights record of the Sri Lankan government, it will tend to confirm the criticism of the embargo.

Both men have been accused, not of taking a principled human rights stand, but of engaging in tawdry domestic politics by attempting to appeal for electoral support from the ethnic Tamil populations in both countries.

Sri Lanka’s civil war started in 1983 as Tamils in the north of the country sought independence from the majority Sinhalese in Sri Lanka’s central and southern provinces.

Sri Lanka’s Tamil population migrated across the Palk Strait from India’s south-eastern Tamil Nadu state during the island’s period of British colonial rule. With Indian national elections looming, Singh and his Congress Party are susceptible to the calls from Tamil political leaders that he boycott the Colombo CHOGM.

Tamil refugees started making their way to Canada from the very start of the civil war. This exile community became a major source of material support for the Tamil Tigers, which were added to the list of banned terrorist groups by Harper’s Conservative government in 2006.

There are now estimated to be 200,000 ethnic Tamils in Canada, most of them living in key switch ridings in suburban Toronto. Harper’s critics say his decision to boycott the Colombo CHOGM meeting from November 15 to 17 is merely an attempt to win the support of these voters, many of whom are bitter at the outlawing of the Tamil Tigers.

There is undoubtedly an element of truth in this criticism, but there are also good reasons for questioning the decision to allow the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to host of the summit of the 53 Commonwealth member states, most of whom are former British colonies.

The human rights record of the Rajapaksa government is appalling by any standards. A multitude of international organisations has issued numerous critical reports. Among them are legal and judicial organisations in Britain, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Sri Lanka itself, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The uniquely bitter war ended in 2009 when the Sri Lankan army finally wiped out the remnants of the Tamil Tigers fighters. But, according to a UN panel of experts, in the last months of fighting soldiers on both sides killed about 40,000 civilians, though most were Tamils.

Not only has the Rajapaksa government ignored calls by the UN, other international bodies and individual governments to launch a proper investigation into and accounting for what happened in the dying days of the war, its behaviour in the six years of peace has been equally reprehensible.

Far from taking the opportunity, backed by an increasingly strong economic performance, to promote reconciliation and development, the Rajapaksa administration has embarked on a polarising campaign against the Tamils, other minorities, and the powers of the provinces and the judiciary.

Gangs of Sinhala thugs, who are supporters of the Rajapaksa government if not always acting under its instructions, have launched persistent attacks on Muslims and Christians. Years of attacks on or attempts at intimidation of journalists continue.

Promises to promote development and autonomy in Tamil regions have not materialised.

When, as part of its apparent moves to centralise power, the Rajapaksa government attempted to usurp the provinces’ control over land ownership last year is sparked a full-blown constitutional crisis.

The Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake ruled against the government and was promptly impeached and removed.

The new Chief Justice Mohan Peiris is more amenable to reinterpreting the government’s land rights moves.

This caused such uproar among Commonwealth governments, eyeing the pending CHOGM summit, that the organisation’s secretary-general Kamalesh Sharma found it necessary to commission two independent legal reports on the Bandaranayake affair.

Sharma, however, has attempted to suppress these reports, despite calls from the Canadian government and others that they be made public. This has led to widespread accusations that Sharma is trying to protect the Sri Lankan government from criticism.

Inevitably, one of the reports by South Africa’s former Chief Justice Pius Langa was leaked in September. His conclusion was that the actions of the Rajapaksa government were unconstitutional, a “direct violation” of the rule of law, and “sowing the seeds of anarchy.”

Many critics are pointing out that the real threat of this situation is not that Rajapaksa and his government will have the honour of hosting the CHOGM. It is that it makes the Sri Lankan government chair of all Commonwealth meetings for the two years until the next CHOGM.

This position gives significant influence over the agenda of meetings and comes when there has been an as yet unsuccessful push to put more teeth and muscle in the Commonwealth’s human and political rights commitments.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary organisation and it has been a slow and up-hill battle to get members to agree to codes of political, judicial and human rights conduct.

The push for a common purpose and code of conduct began with the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles in 1971, and continued with the Harare Declaration in 1991.

Just citing the places where those CHOGMs were held illustrates the problem. Singapore may be a fine city-state in many ways, but a free and open political system is not one of its strengths. And in the years since the Harare Declaration Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has conducted fraudulent elections, destroyed the rule of law and driven a third of the country’s population into exile.

There was, however, an important step forward when the CHOGM was held at Millbrook in New Zealand in 1995. The heads of government agreed to the establishment of a ministerial action group with a rotating membership of foreign ministers and the responsibility to investigate “serious or persistent violations of the principles” contained in the Harare Declaration.

It will be a wonder if this agenda advances under Sri Lanka’s chairmanship.


Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe