Hosting of CHOGM by Sri Lanka is an affront to Commonwealth’s commitment to human rights and democratic values
The Commonwealth of Nations is an intergovernmental organisation of 53 member states that were once mostly colonies of the former British Empire. The Commonwealth operates by intergovernmental consensus of the member states, organised through the Commonwealth Secretariat, and non-governmental organisations, organised through the Commonwealth Foundation.
It was formally constituted by the London Declaration in 1949, which established the member states as “free and equal” and Queen Elizabeth II is the symbolic Head of the Commonwealth. The Queen is also the monarch of 16 members of the Commonwealth, 32 members are republics and five members are monarchies.
The Commonwealth covers more than 29,958,050 km2 (11,566,870 sq mi), almost a quarter of the world land area, and spans all the continents. With an estimated population of 2.245 billion, almost a third of the world population, the Commonwealth in 2012 produced a nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of $9.767 trillion, representing 15% of the world GDP when measured in purchasing power parity (PPP). This represents the second largest nominal GDP and GDP PPP in the world.
Despite these impressive statistics, CHOGM is a glorified Old Boys Club which meets once in two years. Its meetings go unnoticed and internationally wield very little political and economic influence.
Member states have no legal obligation one to another. Instead, they are united by language, history, culture, and their shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. These values are enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter and promoted by the quadrennial Commonwealth Games. Gambia became the most recent nation to withdraw from the Commonwealth.
The Harare Commonwealth Declaration reaffirmed these core principles and values, detailing the Commonwealth’s membership criteria, and redefining and reinforcing its purpose. The Declaration was issued in Harare, Zimbabwe, on October 20th. 1991, during the 12th CHOGM. It reaffirmed the political principles laid out in the Singapore Declaration of twenty years before, and (along with the Singapore Declaration) is considered one of the two most important documents to the Commonwealth’s un-codified constitution.
The Singapore Declaration had committed the Commonwealth to several principles in 1971: world peace and support for the United Nations; individual liberty and egalitarianism; opposition to racism; opposition to colonialism; the eradication of poverty, ignorance, disease, and economic inequality; free trade; institutional co-operation; multilateralism; and the rejection of international coercion. The Harare Declaration reaffirmed all these except the last. It also emphasised in particular a few of the principles and values mentioned in Singapore as integral to the Commonwealth project:
* We believe that international peace and order, global economic development and the rule of international law are essential to the security and prosperity of mankind;
* We believe in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief, and in the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives;
* We recognise racial prejudice and intolerance as a dangerous sickness and a threat to healthy development, and racial discrimination as an unmitigated evil;
* We oppose all forms of racial oppression, and we are committed to the principles of human dignity and equality;
* We recognise the importance and urgency of economic and social development to satisfy the basic needs and aspirations of the vast majority of the peoples of the world, and seek the progressive removal of the wide disparities in living standards amongst our members.
Sri Lanka is clearly in violation of Commonwealth’s own core principles and values that includes world peace and support for the United Nations; individual liberty and egalitarianism; opposition to racism; opposition to colonialism; the eradication of poverty, ignorance, disease, and economic inequality; free trade; institutional co-operation and multilateralism.
The choice of Sri Lanka as a venue for CHOGM 2013 has provoked intense controversy and agonising debate among member states. Sri Lanka has attracted severe criticism over its record on human rights, rule of law and good governance. The UN Experts Panel appointed by the Secretary General of UNO Ban Ki moon revealed “a very different version of the final stages of the war than that maintained to this day by the Government of Sri Lanka”. The panel found credible allegations which, if proven, indicated that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by the Sri Lankan military and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers). The panel concluded that “the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace”.
Human Rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group and many other human rights and civil societies have appealed to member states of the Commonwealth to boycott the CHOGM. They accuse President Mahinda Rajapaksa of squelching dissent and suppressing the judiciary.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Navaneetham Pillai after her week long visit to Sri Lanka in August, 2013 slammed Sri Lankan government’s dismal record on human rights and media freedom at a press conference she held in Colombo. She said that democracy is being undermined and the rule of law eroded, with the country increasingly becoming an authoritarian state.
In a report subsequently issued in Geneva, Ms Pillai said she has seen no new or comprehensive Sri Lankan effort to properly and independently investigate the allegations of war crimes and other abuses during the civil conflict.
The UN’s 47-nation Human Rights Council has repeatedly demanded such an investigation, and Ms. Pillai said she would recommend that the council establish its own probe if Sri Lanka does not show more “credible” progress by March, 2014.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already said he would boycott the biennial CHOGM because of the alleged crimes and rights abuses during and after Sri Lanka’s civil war.
Prime Minister Harper said last month he was disturbed by on-going reports of impeachment of a chief justice, intimidation and jailing of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances and allegations of extra judicial killings.
To demonstrate the seriousness of the issue, Prime Minister Harper has threatened to cut the $20 million funding to the Commonwealth operations due to ongoing human rights abuses by the host Sri Lankan government.
Prime Minister David Cameron will attend, despite opposition from Thamils in Britain, but he would raise human rights issues with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He has wants Colombo to make concrete progress on human rights, reconciliation, political settlement and to probe war crimes, He also plans to visit the North and meet the Chief Minister, members of the civil societies, war victims and relatives of missing persons. If David Cameron makes it, he will be the first Prime Minister of any country to visit the North.
Likewise, Australia and New Zealand have opted for engagement with Sri Lanka rather than staying away. The United Nations has warned it could launch a probe into suspected war crimes during the island’s civil conflict unless Sri Lanka conducts its own, proper investigation.
Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India is in the horns of a dilemma whether to attend the CHOGM or skip it. There is tremendous pressure from Thamil Nadu government which adopted a unanimous resolution asking the centre to boycott the meeting. Even Congress Party Ministers from Thamil Nadu are against Prime Minister attending the CHOGM. With a general election just a few months away it will be suicidal for the ruling party to ignore the sentiments of 80 million Thamil people. The Congress Party is already unpopular in Thamil Nadu for giving material aid to Sri Lanka to defeat LTTE. At the for the state assembly held in 2011, the Congress Party won only 5 seats out of 234 and that too in alliance with the DMK.
Clearly India, by virtue of its regional super power status and its political and cultural history, is the most important and populous country in the Commonwealth. In the interests of regional stability apart from anything else, India has to confront the crimes and push for truth and justice – the preconditions for peace, reconciliation and political solutions to long-standing injustices.
A final decision by the Prime Minister has been rendered more agonizing after the execution style killing of Isai Priya on May 18, 2009. A damning video evidence shows the capture of Isai Priya alive by Sri Lankan soldiers and subsequently her dead body lying on the ground. Isai Priya was the television anchor of LTTE TV during war time.
Britain’s Channel 4 on Friday telecast a 48-second-long clipping (http://tmwtmw.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/blog-post_6395.html) showing Shoba alias Isai Priya lying in a pool of muddy waters half naked and soldiers were seen placing a piece of white cloth over her body. She was then seen whisked away by army men, hands fastened behind her back. The soldiers mistook her for Duwaraga the daughter of LTTE leader Prabhakaran and Isai Priya is heard denying she is not.
The footage was shot by an unknown Lankan soldier and bought by the UK-based journalist-filmmaker Callum Macrae. He is the producer of an earlier award-winning documentary, ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ in June 2011.
When photographs of Isai Priya’ s naked body surfaced 4 years ago, the army claimed that her body was found during “mopping up” operations after the war ended on May 19, 2009. And she was killed in combat with the 53rd division of the Lankan army, commanded by Major General Kamal Gunaratne, on May 18, 2009.
Isai Priya though she was working in the propaganda wing of the LTTE was a civilian and not a fighter. She never carried a gun and her physical condition did not permit her to bear arms.
Not surprisingly, the army as usual has described the visuals as a ‘drama’ dismissing same out right.
The latest visuals confirm the suspicion that she was captured alive and killed later. Priya’s foul execution style murder after capture has cast a dark and long shadow over the summit.
The release of the visuals have raised a storm of protest in Thamil Nadu and all political parties including the ruling Congress party (TN) have mounted pressure on the Central government to boycott CHOGM. As I write now, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is yet to decide whether to attend the CHOGM or not. A final decision by an apparently divided Cabinet will be taken tomorrow (Friday). It is likely that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decides to attend the CHOGM as well as visit the North accepting Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran’s invitation soon after the inaugural meeting of the Northern Provincial Council.
Added to the woes of the government is the decision by the TNA the main political party representing Thamils to stage protests in the North, East and in Diaspora to coincide with the presence of some of the leaders of CHOGM in Jaffna. One of the major issues for the protest relates to the land grab of 6,382 acres of prime land in Valikamam North belonging to 7,060 families. These families got uprooted when the Sri Lankan army advanced into LTTE held territory in 1990. Now the army is demolishing the houses or what remains despite protest by the people.
A total of 25,328 IDPs belonging to 27 Village Headmen divisions have been living in welfare centres for the last 23 years. This issue has become a do or die battle for the people concerned.
The TNA has welcomed Canada’s decision not to attend the CHOGM. “We have taken a position that Sri Lanka is in breach of fundamental values of the Commonwealth,” said M.A. Sumanthiran, a member of the TNA which won 30 out of 38 seats in landmark polls in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province in September. “We appreciate the call by various people that it must be boycotted,” he told Reuters.
To blunt criticism, President Mahinda Rajapaksa In his address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2013 condemned the “growing trend” of interference in the internal matters of developing countries on the pretext of security and human rights. This was a feeble attempt to deflect criticism.
Perhaps he conveniently forgets the existence of the concept of R2P (Responsibility to Protect), based on the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001 (The Evans Commission), and articulated in a diluted form at the World Summit in 2005 by the then Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in his report on UN Reform priorities. says:
In the wake of these conflicts, a new understanding of the concept of security is evolving. Once synonymous with the defence of territory from external attack, the requirements of security today have come to embrace the protection of communities and individuals from internal violence. (Para 194)
New approaches in this area could include establishing a mechanism to monitor compliance by all parties with existing provisions of international humanitarian law (Para 212)
Mahinda Rajapaksa calculated that hosting the CHOGM will help to polish up the tarnished image of Sri Lanka, but what we see is the opposite effect. It has only helped to focus on the dismal record of the government in the sphere of upholding the values of Commonwealth, notably those values laid down at the Harare convention held in 2009.
It is a pity the Commonwealth allowed Sri Lanka to host the CHOGM when that country faces serious allegations of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations.
The Commonwealth countries are failing in their duty to uphold their own core principles and values. The hosting of CHOGM and taking over the Chairmanship of the Commonwealth by Sri Lanka is an affront to Commonwealth’s commitment to support human rights and democratic values.