By Dinouk Colombage –
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo ended in flash, with many citizens left asking “was that it?” After spending millions on infrastructural improvements and inconveniencing the entire city in the lead up to the event we can now ask what has been the outcome of this meeting.
As is the case with all Commonwealth Heads meetings the end of proceedings was signalled by the symbolic agreement in the form of the “final communiqué” (a summary of all that was discussed). In Sri Lanka the final communiqué which accepted included agreements made on “Rule of Law”, “Freedom of Religion” and “Human Rights” to name a few. When the Sri Lankan government joined the heads of governments and representatives in signing this document, they made a pledge not only to the people of Sri Lanka but to the Commonwealth that they would uphold these values.
Having studied the final communiqué (as is available online) several points were brought to my attention.
Point number forty under the heading “Freedom of Expression”: “Heads of Government reaffirmed their commitment to peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media…” Three days prior to the signing of this communiqué a collection of human rights activists, political figures, trade unions and individuals organised a human rights festival open to the public. On the day of the festival several buses travelling from the North of the country with family members of those who have disappeared were stopped by security forces. The police claimed that they would disrupt the peace in the city and so would have to return to their homes.
Those who managed to reach the city were also targeted with pro-government demonstrations. Despite the festival being hosted on private property and causing no disruptions to the public a court order was obtained barring all forms of protest or demonstrations in Colombo. The event had taken place outside the city limits, yet the court order was delivered to the organisers and they were told the festival had to be shut down.
This peaceful gathering was an apolitical representation of the issues facing many sections of our society. Unfortunately, the government fearing it portrayed them in poor light moved to have it shut down. This order was, to all who witnessed it, a clear breach of an individual’s right to freedom of expression. In fact that evening an individual from Mulliativu who participated in the festival was arrested on suspicion of having LTTE connections. His crime was not being able to produce an Identity Card. Without any real evidence police finally released him several hours later, by which point the damage had been done.
The Sri Lankan government did allow the controversial Channel 4 news team in to the country and despite numerous obstacles they were able to report on the ground situation in Sri Lanka. However, as reported by Channel 4 News editor, Ben de Pear, their stay in Sri Lanka appears to have been cut short due what they claim to have been open intimidation by government officials.
For all those foreign dignitaries who attended the meeting there is little doubt that they would not have been aware that such actions were ongoing. Their ability to choose to turn a blind eye and sign in to affect a communiqué that discourages such actions leaves many outsiders confused.
Point 42 under the heading “Freedom of Religion or Belief”: “Heads of Government noted that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief.” Ironically once again days before this communiqué was produced members of the Bodu Bala Sena (a Sinhala nationalist group) headed by a group of “Buddhist monks” stormed the above mentioned human rights festival accusing the organisers of harbouring LTTE suspects and being funded by foreign NGOs. Similar to previous attacks carried out by the BBS no action has been taken against this group, with the government choosing to turn a blind eye.
Further to the detriment of the Commonwealth no member state chose to raise any such concerns prior to agreeing on the final communiqué.
Were the member states conscious of not insulting the host nation and future chairperson of the Commonwealth, or were they simply willing to ignore these lapses for fear of attention being turned upon their own countries? In Pakistan Christians continue to face persecution by radicalised Muslims within their society, in the UK and Australia Muslims face racism at the hands of the white Christians. All over the Commonwealth sections of the charter are being disregarded, placing governments in awkward positions such as the one they were placed in this past week.
While hypocrisy is running rampant, Sri Lanka has before it the unique opportunity of taking a lead role on issues that the President has publicly agreed to uphold. Many citizens of Sri Lanka were quick to publicly applaud the efforts of the country’s high commissioner to the UK, Dr. Chris Nonis, in defending “the honour of this sovereign state”. This final communiqué has now given the public the opportunity to demand from the government that they uphold the very values that Dr. Nonis claims they are dedicated to.
Point 39 under the heading “Human Rights”: “”…Heads remained committed to assisting countries to build capacity to work with the UPR and implement the accepted recommendations with the assistance of the Secretariat as appropriate.” On two separate occasions leading up to the conclusion of the summit members of the government publicly banished the Commonwealth from any form of involvement in Sri Lanka. Following on from Dr. Nonis’ interviews with media groups, SLFP MP A.H.M. Azwer “gate crashed” a CHOGM press conference and publicly rebuked the Commonwealth Media Spokesperson Richard Uku for Commonwealth’s criticism of the government.
As both these individuals are representatives of the government, it can only be assumed that their comments are in line with the thinking of the government. The question is then why did the government accept this communiqué which clearly encourages the involvement of other nations in upholding human rights among its fellow member states.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is, for many people, on its last legs. With the majority of the members states being guilty of breaching the agreed upon charter, there is very little in the way of a solid foundation to effect change. This communiqué was but a reminder of the comical path that the Commonwealth is going down.