By Peter Kellner –
The next CHOGM – the bi‐ennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting – is due to take place in Colombo later this year. In accordance with past practice, Sri Lanka’s President will then be chair‐in‐office of the Commonwealth until the following CHOGM in 2015. I wish to discuss the consequences of this. My starting point is the Harare Declaration agreed by CHOGM in 1991. This reasserted the commitment of the Commonwealth to “fundamental human rights” and “the liberty of the individual under the law”. At the heart of my case is the simple proposition that these rights are not only fundamental; they are indivisible. In practice, of course, every country falls short from time to time. The issue is the commitment of governments and the leaders of civil society to the principles of human rights.
This is why it is so disturbing that so many outside governments, intergovernmental and non‐governmental bodies have voiced strong criticism in recent times of Sri Lanka’s human rights record – including the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. At this very moment, the United Nations Human Rights Council is meeting in Geneva to discuss the issue.
These criticisms cannot be ignored – least of all as we approach the coming CHOGM meeting. I see three options.
1. Sri Lanka’s Government satisfies reasonable people elsewhere in the world that it is committed to human rights. It seems to me that this requires, as a minimum,
a) Meeting the specific proposals of the UNs’ Human Rights Commissioner for new laws and practices to strengthen human rights and defend the independence of the judiciary and other national institutions; and
b) Working with the UN or some other international organisation to establish a truly independent mechanism to investigate allegations of serious violations of human rights
2. Sri Lanka’s government declines to do these things and, as a result, this year’s CHOGM is either cancelled or moved to another Commonwealth country.
3. Sri Lanka’s government declines to do these things but CHOGM still goes ahead in Colombo amid widespread criticism that the Commonwealth is ignoring its own principles.
To my mind, the only one of these outcomes that can strengthen the Commonwealth is Option 1. I believe that Option 2 would be unfortunate, and Option 3 a disaster. That is why I have been arguing for some months, and say to you today, that we should work as hard as we can for option 1. Do not work for the immediate overthrow of the Government or the condemnation of the President or the division of the country. Show the world that you truly wish to live in harmony in a democracy that respects human rights and the diversity of your beautiful country.
There is still time left, although not much, to press Sri Lanka’s government to change its ways.
However, if – and only if – that effort, sincerely made, ends in failure, the case for pursuing option 2 rather than option 3 would be compelling. Far better for the Commonwealth to abandon plans to meet in Colombo than to abandon the principles enshrined in the Harare Declaration.
But that is only part of my message to you. I return to my proposition that human rights are fundamental and indivisible. A number of critics of Sri Lanka’s human rights record have also pointed out that the war has left much unfinished business.
As the United Nations Secretary‐General’s Panel of Experts pointed out in April 2011, “there are credible allegations which, if proven, indicate that a wide range of violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE” [the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam].
If there is to be an independent investigation of human rights abuses, it must embrace ALL such credible allegations. Both sides must be willing to co‐operate both in establishing the truth and in yielding up those who should face trial. It may be that, by negotiation, charges are levelled against only those accused of the worst atrocities, and that others should benefit from an amnesty as part of an agreed process of truth and reconciliation. But this should be done through negotiation and apply equally to both sides.
Let me say one more thing. As you know, Sri Lanka’s Government says the Global Tamil Forum and the British Tamil Forum, and I use the Government’s own words, “work hand‐in‐hand to pursue the terrorist objectives of LTTE, by misleading the public while hiding their true identities.”
You need to combat that charge. And words are not enough. Just as Sri Lanka’s Government must demonstrate by its deeds its commitment to human rights, so must you. Forty years ago, the Commonwealth inspired me by the lead it took in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. To me, that struggle was not about black versus white, or even the majority against a minority. It was a battle for justice and human rights for all. Likewise, to me, the issue facing the Commonwealth is not of the Tamil people versus the Sinhalese people, or the Global Tamil Forum against the Government. It, too, is about justice and human rights for all.
My hope is that the next few weeks will see decisive action to win that battle, and to allow CHOGM to go ahead in Colombo in a way that demonstrates the very best of Commonwealth values. Much of that action must be taken by Sri Lanka’s government – but you in the Global Tamil Forum also have your responsibility to demonstrate your commitment to those values.
*Speech by Peter Kellner, Chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society, to the Global Tamil Forum, London, February 27, 2013