Two years is a long time and much could happen in that period to change the attractiveness of a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) venue, a Commonwealth Expert said recently, referring to the 53 member organisation’s decision to controversially declare Sri Lanka with its failing human rights record host of the 2013 summit.
“The process gives hostages to fortune. While countries could indicate their desire to host a summit, it would be both practical and desirable for the decision on the venue to be taken only within a year before the meeting by a process of the Secretary General taking soundings from governments about the countries that have offered themselves,” said Sir Ronald Sanders, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London.
Saunders was delivering a lecture entitled ‘The Commonwealth in troubling times’ to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Charter of the Bristol Commonwealth Society at the Mansion House, Bristol on 12 October 2013.
Saunders added that he had recommended to the last Summit in 2011 as a member of the Eminent Persons Group of the Commonwealth, that the position of the two year chair in office should be abolished. “This recommendation was rejected. But, had it been accepted, the Commonwealth would not now be subjected to the criticism of the President of Sri Lanka being Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth while he and his government defend themselves in the United Nations Human Rights Council,” Saunders noted.
He said it was understandable that Canada was leading the call for a boycott of the Sri Lanka based Summit, since it was Ottawa that had led the Commonwealth membership in its first resistance against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. “This stand by the Canadian government is entirely consistent with its record on upholding Commonwealth values. In 1961, it was Canada that first declared the racist policies of the government of South Africa to be incompatible with Commonwealth values and prompted it to withdraw from the Commonwealth,” he said.
Saunders said it was also Canada in the 1980s that stood alone of all the OECD countries in imposing sanctions on South Africa to help force the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. “Canada also took a lead role alongside African, Asian and Caribbean States in the 1980s and 1990s to bring an end to the minority Ian Smith regime in Southern Rhodesia and later in the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa,” he notes in his lecture.
The following is the full portion pertaining to Sri Lanka in the text of Sir Saunders’ lecture:
The controversy surrounding Sri Lanka
Because of its topicality, I will digress from the main thrust of this presentation to make a few observations about the controversy that surrounds the Commonwealth summit being held in Sri Lanka.
As is well known Sri Lanka has been the focus of attention of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights for several years.
At the end of August 2013, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, expressed her “deep concern” that the government of Sri Lanka “is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”. This statement came in the wake of an allegation by an Expert Panel set up by the UN Secretary-General that war crimes had been committed in Sri Lanka, and recommendations that there should be an independent international investigation.
The Sri Lankan government resisted such an investigation.
In the ensuing period several organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative have accused the Sri Lanka government of “restrictions on civil liberties, intolerance for dissent, intimidation of the media, and inaction in the face of extremist attacks against minorities”. They have all called on Commonwealth governments to change the venue of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The impeachment of the country’s Chief Justice, by a process held to be illegal both by Sri Lanka’s own Supreme Court and international experts, strengthened calls for the change Those who called for the change in venue argued that “allowing Sri Lanka to host CHOGM (the Heads of Government Meeting) might be seen as condoning the violations of its (the Commonwealth’s) values”.
For his part, the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, rejects any notion of serious and persistent human rights violations by his government. Instead, he and other members of his government have characterised efforts to criticize his government’s record as unjustified and interfering.
In a statement to the UN General Assembly on 24th September 2013 said three things: First: “It is disturbing to observe the growing trend in the international arena of interference by some in the internal matters of developing countries in the guise of security and guardians of human rights”. Second, “This turmoil results from attempts to impose a type of democracy upon countries with significantly different cultures, values and history. The world needs no policing by a few states”. And, third: “I am proud that Sri Lanka has eradicated separatist terrorism spanning three decades and is in the process of addressing the issues of development and reconciliation”.
While concerns have been expressed about the situation in Sri Lanka by some Commonwealth governments notably the governments of the United Kingdom and India, it is the government of Canada that has most robustly expressed its disquiet. For almost two years the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Foreign Minister John Baird have stated that: “The absence of accountability for the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war is unacceptable”.
This stand by the Canadian government is entirely consistent with its record on upholding Commonwealth values. In 1961, it was Canada that first declared the racist policies of the government of South Africa to be incompatible with Commonwealth values and prompted it to withdraw from the Commonwealth; it was also Canada in the 1980s that stood alone of all the OECD countries in imposing sanctions on South Africa to help force the release of Nelson Mandela from prison; Canada also took a lead role alongside African, Asian and Caribbean States in the 1980s and 1990s to bring an end to the minority Ian Smith regime in Southern Rhodesia and later in the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa.
On 7th October 2013, Prime Minister Harper announced that neither he nor any Minister of the Canadian government would be attending the Summit in Sri Lanka. Instead, Canada’s representative would be Parliamentary Secretary in the Foreign Ministry, Deepak Obhrai, whose presence, according to Mr Baird, would be “to enable Canada to partake in some events surrounding the summit which will allow us to shed light on the true tragedy in Sri Lanka”
Mr Harper gave as his reason for non-ministerial representation at the meeting in Sri Lanka that: “Canada believes that if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant it must stand in defence of the basic principles of freedom, democracy, and respect for human dignity, which are the very foundation upon which the Commonwealth was built. It is clear that the Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values, which are cherished by Canadians”.
And therein lies the rub.
Upholding values or a sinister purpose President Rajapaksa’s statement at the UN General Assembly and the reasons given by Prime Minister Harper for Canada’s non-ministerial representation at the Summit in Sri Lanka go to the core of serious dissension within the Commonwealth. It is a dissension which is also reflected in the decision by President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia to withdraw his country from the Commonwealth effective 3 October 2013.
There is now a resiling by some governments from the values that all Commonwealth governments have declared they support, and an accusation that those governments that seek to uphold those values – and the credibility of the Commonwealth – have a sinister purpose.
This is an issue that requires urgent attention by all Commonwealth governments if the association is to remain cohesive and effective. The problem will not go away, nor can it be papered over by mere expressions of concern. It requires vigorous and serious attention by governments at the highest levels.
Before I leave the Sri Lanka matter, I would make two observations about the venue for Summit meetings and the Chairmanship of the Commonwealth.
First, deciding two years in advance (or even longer) on the venue for the Heads of Government Meeting should be discouraged. It is a practice that did not occur before 1993. Two years is too long a time, and much could happen to change the attractiveness of a venue. The process gives hostages to fortune. While countries could indicate their desire to host a Summit, it would be both practical and desirable for the decision on the venue to be taken only within a year before the meeting by a process of the Secretary-General taking soundings from governments about the countries that have offered themselves.
Second, with regard to the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office – a position that was established in 1999 – the Eminent Persons Group (the EPG) of which I was a member had recommended to the last Summit in 2011 that both the position of the two-year Chair-in-Office and the Troika of past, present and future Chairs of Commonwealth meetings be abolished. We made the point 6 that “the Commonwealth has not benefitted from the current arrangements”.
This recommendation was rejected. But, had it been accepted, the Commonwealth would not now be subjected to the criticism of the President of Sri Lanka being Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth while he and his government defend themselves in the United Nations Human Rights Commission.