By M. A. Sumanthiran –
Much has been said concerning Sri Lanka hosting the approaching Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). A significant part of the discussion has been with regard to Canada’s decision to boycott CHOGM. In his official statement Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that:
“When Sri Lanka was selected to host the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Canada was hopeful that the Sri Lankan government would seize the opportunity to improve human rights conditions and take steps towards reconciliation and accountability. Unfortunately, this has not been the case…The absence of accountability for the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war is unacceptable. Canada noted with concern the impeachment of the Sri Lankan Chief Justice earlier this year, and we remain disturbed by ongoing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances, and allegations of extra judicial killings…It is clear that the Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values…As such, as the Prime Minister of Canada, I will not attend the 2013 CHOGM in Colombo, Sri Lanka…”
This position brought upon Canada the ire of the Sri Lankan government, with the Minister for External Affairs furiously dismissing Canada’s initiative as “an attempt to politicize the proceedings of the Commonwealth”.
Instead of merely lashing out defensively however, the Sri Lankan Government would do well to seriously consider the significance of Canada’s decision.
‘To boycott or not to boycott’
As Sri Lankans our concern must not be merely whether countries boycott CHOGM or not, but that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka is of such a nature that countries are forced to even consider the question.
Even if the Sri Lankan government is so unwise as to peremptorily dismiss Canada’s decision to boycott, it surely cannot deny the fact that Canada is not alone in its concern regarding Sri Lanka’s Human Rights situation.
Britain’s decision to attend CHOGM was not without controversy. The Queen was strongly urged to boycott CHOGM to protest against the lack of progress in an investigation into the murder of a British citizen, Khuram Shaikh, in Sri Lanka on Christmas day in 2011. A UK parliamentary committee has accused the government of a timid and inconsistent policy towards Sri Lanka, where it says there are “continuing human rights abuses”, stating that the government should have made Sri Lanka’s bid to host CHOGM conditional on improvements in human rights. “The UK could and should have taken a more principled … and robust stand in the light of the continuing serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka,” the MPs say in a report.
All this, despite pretty strong words by the British government making it clear that its participation at CHOGM was not an endorsement of its host nation.
British High Commissioner John Rankin clearly stated that Britain was “concerned about…respect for human rights, rule of law and independence of the judiciary in Sri Lanka”. Further he stated that Britain’s Prime Minister will attend “because of the importance we attach to the Commonwealth, irrespective of the location of the CHOGM” and that the spotlight on Sri Lanka during and after the summit will help pressure Sri Lanka to demonstrate that it was committed to the “Commonwealth values” of good governance. He also made it clear that Britain intends to do its part in this process, announcing that “…the British government will come with a clear message that Sri Lanka needs to make concrete progress on human rights, reconciliation and a political settlement,” and that Prime Minister David Cameron will send a strong message to Colombo to improve its rights record and demonstrate a commitment to good governance.
India too has grappled – indeed is still grappling – with the question of whether to attend CHOGM or not. Domestic pressure to protest against Sri Lanka’s abysmal Human Rights record by boycotting CHOGM is intense. The most recent reports indicate that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to skip the summit.
Notably, concerns relating to Sri Lanka’s Human Rights record are not isolated to the hosting of CHOGM.
Last month, United Nations Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay warned that Sri Lanka must show “clear progress” towards reining in rights abuses and investigating suspected war crimes by March 2014, or face an international probe. This comes following Sri Lanka’s inaction on 2 resolutions relating to its Human Rights record in the United Nations Human Rights Council, one of which primarily sought that it implement the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, appointed by President Rajapaksa.
The incongruity of a nation under such intense censure for its Human Rights record chairing the Commonwealth has not gone unnoticed. In a recent statement Human Rights Watch requested Commonwealth foreign ministers to not award Sri Lanka chairmanship of the Commonwealth following CHOGM. Brad Adams, Director of Human Rights Watch stated that:
“It’s bad enough that the Commonwealth has allowed a government accused of massive rights abuses and war crimes to host its summit…to effectively put the Commonwealth in the hands of an unrepentant government that doesn’t meet the Commonwealth’s official values on democracy or human rights would be the height of hypocrisy.”
The question for those of us in Sri Lanka is not, and never was, whether any given country will decide ‘to boycott or not to boycott’. That is a decision that must be taken by each respective country. It is the country that must decide how it will promote the values and principles the Commonwealth stands for, and this is something that must be respected. As Britain has made clear, the decision not to boycott is not necessarily endorsement of the Human Rights record of Sri Lanka. In fact, it can be just the opposite: a decision to use the summit as an opportunity to express its concern about Sri Lanka’s abysmal Human Rights situation and do all it can to pressure the Sri Lankan Government to begin improving it.
Similarly, the decision to boycott CHOGM as a means of protest against Sri Lanka’s dismal Human Rights situation is also one that must be respected and recognized for the courageous act that it is. Canada’s decision is not a political attack against Sri Lanka. It is in fact one more in a string of Human Rights initiatives Canada has been credited with. The country is recognized internationally for standing at the forefront of global efforts to promote human rights. Canada is in fact credited with creating the modern concept of UN peacekeeping.
In the 1980s, Canada took the lead in bringing economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa. In 1996, Canada, together with the European Union called for a United Nations gathering on the Burmese democratisation process, and soon after the European Council took its first Common Position on Burma, which introduced “soft sanctions”. In 2007, Canada led the struggle to keep Belarus off the United Nations Human Rights Council, in light of its atrocious Human Rights record. In June 2011 Canada took the lead in condemning the Syrian regime’s attacks on its own people at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Canada delivered this condemnation on behalf of 54 countries. Canada is also leading the charge on Iran’s dismal Human Rights record, leading, for the past 10 years, the now annual UN resolution on “the Situation of Human Rights in Iran” which typically receives significant support. Canada’s Philippe Kirsch chaired negotiations to launch the International Criminal Court (ICC). He later served as the ICC’s first president. Canada has regularly been chosen to sit on the United Nations Security Council.
Minister Pieris’ curt dismissal of the decision of a country with such a reputation hardly holds water. The Minister’s position is make even more weak in light of the fact that Canada’s concern for Sri Lanka’s Human Rights situation is one that has been expressed consistently by the global community including the United Nation, India, the UK and the US for several years.
This also has relevance for a country like South Africa, whose amazing reform is owed to the sanctions brought against it, which was led from the front by Canada. The Republic of South Africa, a member of the Commonwealth, will have to seriously consider its own stand viz-a-viz Sri Lanka, and cannot behave as though it has forgotten it own recent history.
It’s time Sri Lanka stopped playing defensive petty politics every time yet another member of the international community voices concern about its Human Rights situation. The means have ranged from UN resolutions to boycotting CHOGM, but the message has been consistent, and it is becoming louder and louder. It’s time we stopped covering our ears, and started listening.
*The author, M. A. Sumanthiran (B.Sc, LL.M) is a Member of Parliament through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a senior practicing lawyer, prominent Constitutional and Public Law expert and civil rights advocate