By Lal Wickrematunge –
Varying shades of opinion were expressed leading up to CHOGM being held in Sri Lanka. Many countries voiced their opinions through the media and independent media outlets raised the question of the propriety of Sri Lanka hosting this event given the accusations of human rights abuses, suppression of media freedom, torture in custody and lack of reconciliation during the last five years.
The final consensus amongst the Commonwealth partners was to hold this event in Sri Lanka but to raise concerns over the issues mentioned above. In a recent BBC ‘Impact’ interview with Mishal Husain, I agreed with this sentiment.
Remember that Australia passed the baton to Sri Lanka to host this event and defended that decision strongly. Australia had her own reasons to support Sri Lanka, beyond the above widely mentioned accusations. Their primary concern was the influx of Sri Lankan refugees numbering in the thousands into Australia, as they had laws which accepted people who were subject to victimisation under the enhanced umbrella of human rights abuses. It is pertinent to note that Australian law allows a long drawn out and costly legal process to decide on each individual entry. It did not take long for the Australians to unravel the ethnic mix of the exodus from Sri Lanka. Contrary to belief they uncovered that the majority of such ‘boat people’ were not from the north and east of Sri Lanka. Australia spent a considerable amount of her tax payer’s money to stop this trend which was gathering momentum. It is public knowledge that the government of Australia was working with the Sri Lanka government and financing the island nation to patrol her maritime borders more effectively as a solution.
Australia not objecting to Sri Lanka as hosts of this forum had nothing to do with the UN resolution or the other accusations against our island. The CHOGM summit has to be held once in two years and some nation has to pick up the bill.
The government of Mahinda Rajapaksa certainly knows how to lay out the red carpet without concern for the tax payer’s money. The infrastructure of Hambantota in recent times despite the long gestation period is one. CHOGM may be another. Remember the Commonwealth has no authority to enter into binding agreements between countries and is more of a business forum. Was the timing right for Sri Lanka or was it right for President Rajapakse and his political ambitions, is a question his people need to answer.
Prince Charles deputising for Her Majesty the Queen is not an issue. Twenty seven heads of state out of 52 arriving in Sri Lanka should also be a non issue as this is the average representation at other CHOGM meetings. The focus of the delegations that arrived in Sri Lanka was not collectively in line with the thought process of the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They accepted that this event should be held in Sri Lanka. Yet they were going to use it to raise the issues of Commonwealth values that Sri Lanka had fallen short on.
British Prime Minister David Cameron with his no nonsense attitude set the tone from the outset. He bypassed the traditional welcome ceremony and did not even touch the golden book which all Heads of State were expected to sign. More of that later.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa knows how to market to his masses. Whilst that may be good, he forgets that his marketing strategy alienates the international community. Sadly, the majority of the people of Sri Lanka do not know this. May not even comprehend or be concerned.
Four forums took place in Colombo during this summit – The Youth Forum , Business Forum, People’s Forum and Heads of Government Spouse’s Forum. The People’s Forum had an open book for delegates to sign up for ‘learning journeys’ to Jaffna, Hambantota, Galle and Badulla. This was to take place between 10 – 14th November. Forty three signed up to visit Jaffna. Zero to Hambantota, zero to Galle, zero to Badulla. Need one say more!
President Mahinda Rajapaksa being the master strategist that he is, would expect the success of CHOGM to clear and get him on safe ground before March 2014 when the UN will review Sri Lanka’s record. This would be of little concern to the rest of the Commonwealth delegates.
Sri Lanka’s ambassador to UK Dr. Chris Nonis, a career diplomat, defended a tough brief when asked about Sri Lanka’s right to hold CHOGM and the probing questions regarding Human Rights abuses etc. President Rajapaksa should even at this late stage take note that a trained diplomat will serve Sri Lanka and her people well vis-a -vis the political appointees now holding ambassadorial positions around the world. A professional foreign service is a sine qua non to any nation and President Rajapaksa would have gained much if such career diplomats were at hand to advise him in the country during CHOGM.
When the president answered a question from a British journalist on what he would say to Prince Charles when he shakes hands with him, given Sri Lanka’s recent track record, his answer should have been more circumspect. It is customary for Sri Lankans to clasp their hands in a form of greeting. But when the President said that he would greet a King, Queen, Head of State or Beggar in the same fashion, it may have been interpreted as an insult to Prince Charles, though I am certain that the President did not intend it to be so. The point here being a local master is not also necessarily an expert at international relations. Being sharp cannot be at the expense of decorum.
British Prime Minister David Cameron in an interview in India set the tone for his government when he said that Britain agreed with Canada’s stand on Sri Lanka and accepted their position in not attending CHOGM 2013.
Sri Lankans may not agree. But consider, the LLRC recommendations have not been fully implemented. Deaths during the last stages of the war, university student killings, the tardy nature in investigating the murder of Action Against Hunger (ACF) employees, similar lethargy in the prosecution against local politicians involved in the killing of a British tourist in the south, the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, murder and repeated attacks on employees of the Udayan newspaper in Jaffna and the disappearance of Pradeep Ekneligoda amongst hordes of other crimes, cannot be wished away by hosting a summit of this nature.
For a majority of Sri Lankans these may not be important. The international community expects the Sri Lankan state to honour the treaties and protocols they have entered into, irrespective of majority political concerns of the people at a given time.
There are 53 countries within the Commonwealth. If they all host CHOGM for one term they will need to do that only once in 106 years.