By Rajan Philips –
There is no question, the November Commonwealth summit is a victory for President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government, internally and internationally. In collusion with the Commonwealth Secretariat, the government has pushed back detractors and naysayers, concerned about the human rights situation and the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and has managed to make sure that the Colombo summit goes ahead as planned. There could be distant and neighbourly PM-level boycotts by upstart Canada and hoary India, but the two Ashes rivals in cricket, Australia and England, will not let down their old port of call. And so the countdown is on for a weeklong summit extravaganza starting November 10th. Colombo is spruced up and officially ready to cheer as the Commonwealth caravan rolls into town on the brand new highway from the airport to the City.
But the caravan is coming at some price, political as well monetary, some of which the government has already been forced to pay and the rest and more will have to be paid in the future. The government may not have thought through the political-cost implications of hosting the Commonwealth summit when two years ago, in Perth, Australia, it went all out to win acceptance to host the upcoming summit. Since then the government has come under persistent international pressure and scrutiny in regard to addressing postwar humanitarian problems and political solution, and in dealing with human rights violation in general and investigating wartime atrocities in particular. When the government ill-advisedly tried to run away from the recommendations of its own Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva turned the tables on the Sri Lankan government and made the LLRC recommendations a permanent frame of reference for government performance and conformance. Bi-annual human rights report cards in Geneva and periodical monitoring visits by UNHRC officials are now part of the routine.
Summit price, paid and counting
After playing up patriotism and pseudo-legal posturing, the government is grudgingly toeing the line. The Commonwealth summit is a major the reason for the change in what has all along been a misguided strategy on the part of the government. The government also used the August visit by UNHRC Commissioner Navaneetham Pillay as diplomatic preparation for the November summit. Politically, the biggest price for the government so far has been the holding of the election to the Northern Provincial Council and allowing the formation of a new provincial government led by the Tamil National Alliance. This was a significantly positive movement on the part of the government considering the immense internal pressure mounted by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to cancel the election and to abolish the Provincial Council system altogether. Things can go either way from now on. The government can turn this ‘cost’ into positive benefit or permanent disaster.
Positively, the government can work with the new Northern Provincial government to systematically address the postwar problems in the Jaffna Penisnula, Mannar and the Vanni mainland, set an example for the East, and use the experience as a model for the PCs in other Provinces. This will be a difficult task and will require a total turnaround in the thinking and approach of the Rajapaksa family and its regime. The alternative would be to persist in militaristic thinking and political cockups, ‘that is to say’ – as our legal luminaries will expound, continue with the same old, same old. Continuing with the same old will be the easier task and the surer road to disaster.
The Commonwealth summit and Navi Pillay’s visit have extracted other prices from the government in the areas of human rights and law and order. After years of denials, foot dragging and legal pettifogging, the government has restarted the investigation into the killing of 17 aid workers in Muttur and the murder of five young boys in Trincomalee. Similarly, after stubborn cover-up attempts at the highest levels including shameful statements in the national parliament, the government has been forced to prosecute the suspects in the 2011 New Year’s eve murder in Tangalle of British tourist Khuram Shaikh, and the rape of his Russian girlfriend. It is not a coincidence that these investigations and indictments are coming on the eve of the Commonwealth summit.
Without the indictment, the British government would have come under severe pressure to boycott the summit. It is almost certain that Britain is attending the summit not only to keep up with the symbolic tradition as the primogenitor of the organization, but also for the more substantial purpose of securing justice for Khuram Shaikh. Even the Prince of Wales representing the Queen is expected to raise the matter during the summit. What this means is that the government has created a situation for the summit visitors to embarrass the host formally and informally. The positive lesson to learn from the embarrassment is to stop government and defence ministry interference in the enforcement of law and order and the administration of justice.
More importantly, the police and the courts must be allowed to carry through to the end, the Muttur and Trincomalee investigations, and the Tangalle murder indictment, without political interference even after the summit. Anything short of this will turn into a permanent black mark against the government in the outside world, and the government might as well decide to keep away from future UNHRC sessions and other international forums.
Sharma, shill for GOSL
In the middle of all the controversy over Sri Lanka being the host of CHOGM 2013, not much seems to have been said about the main items on the agenda for the November summit. Prominent on the agenda at the last summit in Perth were the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group to create “a reform framework of co-operation and partnership’ to make the Commonwealth relevant in the 21st century. The 11 member group headed by former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmud Badawi had unanimously recommended mechanisms for dealing with human rights violations and democratic deficits among member countries. The proposals were effectively stymied from serious consideration by South Africa and India, prompting Mr. Badawi to call the Perth summit a failure.
It is not clear if the old recommendations will come back for discussion, or what other substantial topic or theme will dominate the summit deliberations in Colombo. On the other hand, there are bound to be plenty of sidebars, informal chats, and housekeeping matters involving the host nation and the Commonwealth Secretariat. On the housekeeping front, the Canadian Prime Minister has threatened to cut its funding (20% of the revenue) to the organization, and the British government, the major donor, is also under pressure given its domestic emphasis on economic austerity to cut back on its funding support. The main reason appears to be dissatisfaction among senior member countries with the highhanded dealings of the Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, and Sri Lanka is in the middle of some of Sharma’s shenanigans. There have been reports that External Affiars Minister, perhaps in a rare act of usefulness for President Rajapaksa, obtained the services of Secretary Sharma to counter the diplomatic effects of UN Commissioner Navi Pillay’s critical remarks on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka following her August visit to the country.
More seriously, Mr. Sharma has come under fire for allegedly suppressing from members of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, the legal opinions provided to him by a former South African Chief Justice (who has since passed away) and a British jurist, confirming the unconstitutionality of the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. It has also been reported that that Secretary Sharma allegedly went a step further and advised the government to have the new Supreme Court overturn the earlier court rulings against the impeachment process in order to retroactively legitimize the sacking of Chief Justice Bandaranayake and the hiring of her replacement. These actions of the Secretary have angered members of the Ministerial Action Group. Canadian Senator Hugh Segal was particularly incensed by the Secretary’s actions, and called Mr. Sharma “a shill” for the government of Sri Lanka. The Secretarial shenanigans also appear to have provoked the boycott decision by the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his threat to withdraw Canada’s financial contribution to the Commonwealth.
These are worries for tomorrow, but as far as the November summit goes, there need not be any doubt that President Rajapaksa and his government will put on a great show, turning on the endless taps of Lankan charm and hospitality to overwhelm the visitors. The summit will give the government political bragging rights locally and a face saving performance internationally. The summit statements based on consensus will be drafted to avoid any public embarrassment of the host, and will not be anywhere near as damaging as the UNHRC resolutions in Geneva. And there is no United States in the Commonwealth as it has been in Geneva.
Yet, much can and will be said in the inner sanctums of the summit about the human rights situation in the country and about the need for the government to work with the new Northern Provincial Council to address the postwar human problems and lay the foundation for long term reconciliation. The British Prime Minister, under pressure at home, will no doubt use the forum to raise these matters. Australia too could speak up critically notwithstanding Colombo’s massive casino concession to James Parker and its co-operation in dealing with Sri Lankan asylum seekers down under.
But the absence of India’s Manmohan Singh, if the Indian Prime Minister decides to keep away from the summit in deference to the chorus of opposition in Tamil Nadu, will make the summit a missed opportunity for the outside world to persuade President Rajapaksa to faithfully implement the LLRC Commission recommendations in concert with the new Northern Provincial Council government. Put another way, Manmohan Singh’s absence will be a blessing in disguise for the Sinhala Buddhist extremists in the government, who want the Thirteenth Amendment repealed and the Provincial Councils abolished.