Colombo Telegraph

Is The Sri Lankan Graveyard Best Venue For A Commonwealth Meeting?

By S. V. Kirubaharan

S. V. Kirubaharan

The London Declaration of 26 April 1949 has two important provisions. It renamed the “British Commonwealth” (Imperial British Empire) as the “Commonwealth of Nations” and it allows member countries with no colonial links to Britain to join, including monarchies and republics.

The sixty-three-years-old voluntary association of the Commonwealth is headed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. The membership, grown from 8 countries in 1949 to presently to 54, covers all six regions – Africa (19), South Pacific (11), the Caribbean (10), Asia (8), the Americas (3) and Europe (3).

Mozambique became the first member country without any colonial links to Britain. There is also long-term Francophone Cameroon. Both became members in 1995.

In 1965, the Commonwealth Secretariat was established in London-UK, headed by a Secretary-General and appointed by heads of state. The first Secretary-General of the Commonwealth was Arnold Smith of Canada who held this position untill 1975.

At the 1993 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Cyprus, it was decided that the Secretary-General would serve a maximum of two 4-year terms. Presently Mr. Kamalesh Sharma of India is the Secretary-General.

Every two years, CHOGM meets in one of the member countries. There is no voting in the Commonwealth, all decisions are reached by consensus.

It was announced that the next CHOGM will be held in Sri Lanka in November 2013. This is a disappointment to certain countries, inter-governmental bodies and to members of civil society who are the eyes and ears of the monitoring bodies for good governance, democracy, rule of law and human rights.

Commonwealth Declarations

CHOGM has a good track record regarding its policies and working methods. Several declarations are very well maintained not only on paper, but also in action.

For example, the Harare Commonwealth Declaration of 20 October 1991 and the Declaration of Commonwealth Principles – Singapore on 22 January 1971.

The Harare Commonwealth Declaration, paragraph 4 reads as follows:

Its members also share a commitment to certain fundamental principles. These were set out in a Declaration of Commonwealth Principles agreed by our predecessors at their Meeting in Singapore in 1971. Those principles have stood the test of time, and we reaffirm our full and continuing commitment to them today. In particular, no less today than 20 years ago:

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. (Excerpt)

The Declaration of Commonwealth Principles 1971 states;

6. We believe in the liberty of the individual, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief, and in their inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which they live. We therefore strive to promote in each of our countries those representative institutions and guarantees for personal freedom under the law that are our common heritage.

7. We recognise racial prejudice as a dangerous sickness threatening the healthy development of the human race and racial discrimination as an unmitigated evil of society. Each of us will vigorously combat this evil within our own nation. No country will afford to regimes which practice racial discrimination assistance which in its own judgment directly contributes to the pursuit or consolidation of this evil policy.

8. We oppose all forms of colonial domination and racial oppression and are committed to the principles of human dignity and equality. We will therefore use all our efforts to foster human equality and dignity everywhere, and to further the principles of self-determination and non-racialism. (Excerpt)

Considering these Commonwealth declarations and CHOGM’s strong action in the past on Fiji, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zimbabwe; we can presume that CHOGM will have second thoughts about holding its prestigious meeting in Sri Lanka next November.

Here I do not have to go into details about the track record of Sri Lanka on human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and good governance.

Track record of Sri Lanka

More than two decades of UN reports on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation; the report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka; UN Secretary General’s Internal Review Panel report – action in  Sri Lanka; the resolution in the UN Human rights council on Sri Lanka last March; the Universal Periodic Review – UPR sessions on Sri Lanka that took place last month and the press release of the Commonwealth on 15 November 2012; all pose serious questions to CHOGM as to whether Sri Lanka is qualified to host their meeting next year.

It is well known to the global community that the President and the government of Sri Lanka violates the liberty of individuals, denies equal rights for all citizens, practices vicious racial discrimination, rejects genuine and honest political negotiations and practices nepotism.

Already, certain head of governments, campaigners, International organisations and Nobel Laureates have raised their concerns to the Commonwealth.

I presume that more detailed briefing and lobbying is needed to bring this matter to the attention of all the members of the Commonwealth, especially by members of civil society and victims of Sri Lanka.  Also the head of the Commonwealth, Her Majestic Queen Elizabeth should be alerted.

The Presidential Candidate in the last election, former Army Commander and former Member of Parliament Sarath Fonseka claims in his interview on 24 November 2012, that he won the last Presidential election, but the government manipulated the ballots and Rajapaksa claimed victory.

  “…..Around 11.00 o’clock, we got the reports from all over and as per to our people who were monitoring it, we were leading by 400,000 thousands……… they altered the results……. one sided results that is not valid……. election result overall is not valid.”(Excerpt – 22:30 to 25:00 minute)

Soon after the Presidential election the Presidential Candidate Sarath Fonseka was arrested and sentenced to jail.

Meantime, the politically motivated impeachment motion against Sri Lanka’s first female Chief Justice is underway. The most humiliating affair is that eleven Members of Parliament from Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) have been appointed to prove the charges against the Chief justice. In fact some of them are uneducated and unqualified politicians.

Many cabinet Ministers and deputy ministers are either corrupt or involved in criminal activities. Also there are cabinet members who are accused of recruiting child soldiers and carrying out abductions and assassinations but are never brought to justice.

Nearly 15,000 political have detainees spent decades in the prisons without any hope of justice; thousands have been disappeared and arbitrary killed; women tortured raped and hacked to death. There have been no independent hearings nor have the culprits been brought to justice. Impunity has prevailed for decades in Sri Lanka. It cuts deeper and deeper wounds.

Presently almost all the newspapers are either owned by the government or out of fear never raise their voice against the authorities. Many electronic Medias which are critical of the government have been blocked for years.

Since the present President and the government came into power, 4 Parliamentarians and 16 journalists have been killed or disappeared. There have been no independent inquiries into these killings due to the obvious reason that the government was the accused. Some Journalists have escaped and sought asylum in foreign countries.

In such a situation, the Commonwealth has an important duty to compare Sri Lanka’s present situation to the countries which were suspended in the past.

Were those countries’ situations equal or worse to what has happened and is happening in Sri Lanka?

Obvious partiality

Sri Lanka’s allies China, Russia, Cuba and a few other human rights violators are not part of CHOGM. Even though Pakistan is a member of CHOGM, as it was suspended several times in the past, its voice is valued less in the CHOGM. Therefore, there is no excuse for any country which is for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and good governance not to look genuinely at the track record of Sri Lanka.

When Sri Lanka violates international human rights and humanitarian law including Commonwealth declarations and refuses to take meaningful action, will CHOGM turn a blind eye to Sri Lanka and hold their meeting there? If so, it will be equal to having a Royal wedding in a graveyard. Would CHOGM want to earn this insult for obvious partiality?

This is food for thought for all the Heads of Government of CHOGM.

I hope the Commonwealth Secretary General will not be accused, like the UN Secretary General has been of failing in his action to discipline Sri Lanka, for failing to apply the internationally accepted principles and standards of human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and good governance.

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