30 October, 2020

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Sri Lanka Concerns Put Commonwealth’s Credibility On The Line

By J. S. Tissainayagam

J.S. Tissainayagam

Sri Lanka, whose leaders are accused of committing war crimes against Tamils in the civil war that ended May 2009, and subverting democracy, is to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November.

In the past the Commonwealth, the 54-member intergovernmental grouping of mostly Britain’s former colonies, has emphasised human rights and democracy as core principles and chastised member countries that violated them. Sri Lanka however has not been censured but rewarded: named as CHOGM’s next venue, it will automatically lead the organisation for the coming two years.

The international community is clearly concerned that if it takes too strong a line with Sri Lanka, it will simply slip into China’s sphere of influence, and so lose all ability to promote Commonwealth values. However, this view fundamentally misinterprets Sri Lanka’s relationship with both China and the Commonwealth.

First, such has been the fear of Chinese influence that the Commonwealth has made virtually no attempts to promote its values, and so the fear of what might be lost is overstated. Second, whilst China’s investment in Sri Lanka is significant, it is an extractive, commercial relationship. The Sri Lankan government may think it has a partner in China, but it is by no means a partnership between equals – and this should make Sri Lanka wary. Nor will China ever fully replace the Commonwealth as a trading partner. China accounts for 10.9% of Sri Lanka’s imports and 1.1% of it exports. The Commonwealth is 45.7% and 27.3%.

The Sri Lankan government may posture, but the truth is that they need the Commonwealth more than the Commonwealth needs them. Even more so given the tremendous damage Sri Lanka is doing to the valuable Commonwealth “brand” of stability and good governance. Sri Lanka is not treating Commonwealth values with disdain because it is in a position of strength; it is doing so because the track record of the Commonwealth suggests that there will be no consequences.

Yet there remains a slim chance that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), following its meeting later today, could call for a change of venue. If not, the only alternative for Commonwealth leaders to protest Sri Lanka’s behaviour is to boycott the summit in Colombo.

In a March 2011 report, a UN Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon concluded that Sri Lanka’s military and political leadership as well as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had committed grave human rights violations in the final stages of the war. The UN Panel’s call for an independent international investigation has been rejected by Colombo.

Worse, systematic human rights violations continue to occur as the government uses militarisation to pacify the Tamil areas and destroys democratic institutions as President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family consolidate power in Colombo.

By principle and practice the Commonwealth should take Sri Lanka to task. The 60-year history of this organisation reveals almost a preoccupation with its core values. The Singapore Declaration (1971), the Harare Principles (1991) and the Charter of the Commonwealth signed in March this year point to democratically elected government, equality, human rights and rule of law as the body’s core tenets.

Violation of these principles has exacted punishment, the most extreme being suspension from the Commonwealth. Pakistan and Fiji have been thrown out twice and Nigeria once. Zimbabwe, once suspended, withdrew from the organisation.

Both occasions of Pakistan’s suspension – 1999 and 2007 – were under military strongman President Pervez Musharraf. While the 1999 suspension dwelt on his overthrow of an elected government by a coup, the second was for violations of broader core principles. Announcing the suspension, CMAG asked Musharraf who was an elected president to relinquish the post of army chief of staff he also held, repeal the emergency, restore the independence of the judiciary, fundamental rights and rule of law, and lift curbs on the media.

Fiji remains suspended because Commodore Frank Bainimarama has postponed holding elections. Nigeria, although ruled by a military leader, was thrown out because it condemned to death and executed nine dissidents including Ken Saro Wiwa. Zimbabwe was suspended because President Robert Mugabe, a civilian, was in office through an election marred by widespread malpractice.

In comparison, it is true that Rajapaksa is not a president in uniform. However his authoritarian and militaristic ways have been well documented. Coups are derided because military leaders fail to keep the military out of politics. Rajapaksa does not keep the military out of politics either. The International Crisis Group in a March 2012 report says, “The Sri Lankan military has thus become an army of occupation physically and psychologically, if not legally.”

As with Pakistan, Rajapaksa’s government has illegally impeached their chief justice. According to the International Bar Association Human Rights Initiative report, the impeachment is, “incompatible with the core values and principles of the Commonwealth of Nations, including the respect for separation of powers, rule of law, good governance and human rights.”

Sri Lanka’s restrictions on the media reinforce similarities to pre-suspension Pakistan. The most recent are government regulating the internet by asking all news sites to be registered with the government and blocking content of foreign news. Earlier this month BBC suspended broadcasting to Sri Lanka citing interference with broadcasts.

As in Nigeria, Sri Lanka has its share of murdered human rights defenders. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 11 journalists have been killed from the time Rajapaksa assumed office.

Hardly different from Zimbabwe, the 2010 presidential election in Sri Lanka was fraught with malpractice about which Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma himself said, “[o]verall the 2010 presidential elections in Sri Lanka did not fully meet key benchmarks for democratic elections.”

Despite similar offences, the Rajapaksa regime is not administered a reproof. Instead the Commonwealth now faces the ignominy of having at its helm a country that has violated at least nine of its own core principles that the Queen signed into its new Charter last month. Such double standards clearly call into question the Commonwealth’s credibility.

Canada has taken a firm stand on the matter, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stating that the summit should be moved, and that he personally will not attend if it is not. The UK does not have a seat on CMAG but it is thought many people looking to the UK for some indication as to whether it shares Canada’s concerns. Yet Prime Minister David Cameron has not shown anywhere like the same leadership as his friend.

If the Commonwealth wishes to demonstrate it is worthy of calling itself an international organisation, it must act to restore its credibility. The CMAG has a chance to do this by moving the venue or postponing the meeting. If the CMAG refuses to uphold its own core principles however, all that remains for those who believe in the integrity of the Commonwealth is to refuse attending the Colombo Summit.

*J. S. Tissainayagam, a former Sri Lankan political prisoner, was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard and Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States. This article is first appeared in Asian Correspondent

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Latest comments

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    Hello Tissanayagan ” the past is not present”.
    Who will chastise Brittain ???
    If Brittain can rule the Roost why not Sri Lanka get rewarded.
    What is your problem Tissanayagam?? Looking of ways to Seek revenge?
    Do not abuse your PEN?

    Fundamentaly you misinterpret yourself. Either stick to the IC or to the CW when you write.

    Commonwealth’s powerful (08) failed and as such China walked in.
    This is what happens when the IC blows “hot & cold” with the same breath. GOSL does not care if the CW conference is taken away as the CW and/or the CMAG are a toothless Tiger did nothing to save Sri Lanka from the roothless tigers you supported. Instead permitted the dispora to raise funds in their countries to create mayhem in Sri Lanka for 03 decades.
    Where were you Tissanayagam ? In the North or taken safe refuge in the South? Anyway, you have the best of both worlds.

    Now you have turned your back of SL. If the Rajapakshes try to be funny, we’ll tackle them from within and we don’t need your two cents as what you say does not come from your “bokka”.

    You care but Bananirama of Fiji, Robert Mugabe of Zim, Mushraff ( Oh ! to be in England, why was he ever permitted) Pakistan, Nigeria, none of them ever cared.
    Why is Sri Lanka in the News and not Zimbabwe? Because Robert.M s.cking up well to South Africa??
    Were those 1991 Harare Priciples enacted under Mugabe’s regime was in power??
    BTW, 2011 BKM Panel report was for BKM’s consumption though undemocratic hand of UN is using it. Who in the UN voted for the Panel to be established?
    Who paid for the Panel report? Not the from UN funds. Was it from the KOTI funds?

    Tissa… I will tell you, Kamalesh Sharma,, Stephen Harper, David Cameron and the likes should not be visiting Sri Lanka at all for the CW Conference. If it is held in Sri Lanka, these spineless eels should remain where they are unless they want to enjpy Sri Lankan hospitality.
    Here again, I must remind you to notify them that they may have to face a volatile reception at the hands of the masses BUT unlike Brittain we GOSL have the clout to ensure their safe passage & visit.

    Thats the difference. Unlike Brittain & Canada, We can & we will.
    Tissa…Tissa think something better to write on.

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      It is a well written request from J.J Tissanayagam who himself was a victim of Rajapakse group. Sri Lanka is not belongs to Rajapakse family or a group of Sinhala buddhist extremist violent creatures who are responsible for the six decades of violence and the loss of over 200000 lives and valuable destruction to the economy.

      These racist elements continue to hold power using the racist propaganda and breech the rule of law. They never respect human values and whoever raises voice against them are to face the same fate as JJ Thissanayagam or Lasantha.

      It is well documented fact that over 40,000 innocent Tamils were massacred during the last phase of the war and Tamils and Muslims are victimised continuously. The International Community and Commonwealth group has a duty to act according to the conscience.

      Compared to Irag, Syria, Libya, and Iran Sri Lanka is nothing in terms of economic or political power. These countries had political , economical and military influence from China but China kept silence when the IC acted against these countries. It is the Will that is needed from the IC and CM to take stern action against SL.The violations of international norms in SriLanka is much deeper and dangerous than any other country. If IC fails to act now no one can save Sri Lanka becoming a land of monstors.

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      You are right Sri Lanka has Pakistan (Raja Pakistan) Iran Mugabe Late Pol Pot Lat Idi Amin. Sri lanka can and it will be a failed state.

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      J mutha you are in another planet with the Horapakses, Mervin Silva, Duminda Silva and the likes. What you say is good for the rogues, murderers, drug peddlers, liars and corrupt madmen running this unfortunate country.

      Remember that there is a word called Justice and it will catch up on you and all in the not too soon future.

      Beware

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    Tissa

    You keep repeating about the “core values” of the Commonwealth. But you don’t talk about the core practice in these countries including the big guys Britain, Canada, Australia and India. Canada’s Harper is making the loudest noise, yet it is in Canada you see the most gross human rights violations vis a vis the aboriginal people. And as I have mentioned elsewhere, Canada cannot avoid its subservient position in its relation to its powerful neighbour. Trudeau put it aptly when he said “living next to the US is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant.” So Harper likes to flex his muscles and boost his international profile by bullying small players like Sri Lanka whenever he gets a chance. And of course the ethnic vote thing.

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      J Muththa:
      Correct me if I am wrong but you DO think you are writing in English, right?

      Tissainayagam was a prime example of somebody who was blatantly framed for dissenting from the government that looks after the likes of you. He was fortunate that he wasn’t “disappeared” like so many others. PEN or no PEN, the truth will out and all the posturing of “experts” like you who can’t even spell the names of those about whom they claim expert knowledge, can’t stop it from happening.

      That Julia and her opposition leader in Australia are playing the race card before an election and the likes of you are, obviously, backing them speaks volumes about both them and you. No matter how spineless the Aussies, the Brits, Kamalesh Sharma etc. are, this whole business has developed a life of its own and the truth will continue to come out even if you “brand” people with hot irons!

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      OutRider:
      Seems like your work assisting white vans gives you enough time to babble b.s.on this website. As in most places where European imperialists controlled life, Canada’s aboriginals were given more than their share of grief about which you, obviously, haven’t the foggiest notion when you refer to “most gross human rights violations vis a vis the aboriginal people.” Perhaps you’ll be able to make up some stories about “Red Indians” to fill in these gaps or is Chief Dan George the only Canadian aboriginal you’ve even seen on the silver screen?

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        Aney Apochchi

        You trying to tell me something? You trying to tell me you used to be a Canuck living in the Big Onion in your previous incarnation? I’m pretty sure it must have been colder than a well-digger’s ass in Deadmenton.

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          Outrider:
          Such wit! I am impressed! I’ve heard of the Big Apple, but the “Big Onion?” Has that got anything to do with your top story and what it contains?
          Instead of trying to impress us with your (non-existent) intelligence why don’t you try to simply answer a few questions, particularly about your very obvious links to the most corrupt regime that this country has ever experienced (and how well it pays)?

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            Aney Apochchi

            Didn’t you hear the slang names for Edmonton – the “Big Onion” and “Deadmenton” when you used to live in Alberta?

            I’m given a house in Rajagiriya, a BMW, a “big” monthly allowance and two mistresses by the regime to do my CCRCA work. One is always idling. Care to come by?

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    Sri Lanka needs to enact a Patriot Act, similar to that of the US. The Sri Lankan passport which is in great demand today by those who made various evil claims when seeking asylum in countries like Canada, Australia and UK, should be barred from ever having one. It is a sad fact of life that Tamil speakers were not the only culprits as various Sinhala speakers used the same ruse to obtain asylum and residence to better their economic condition.

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      Ram2009:
      What kind of horse manure are you spouting? Are you serious when you say, “The Sri Lankan passport which is in great demand today…?” By whom? Zombies from Mars?

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    “To refuse attending the Colombo Summit” Yes, Tiisan, It is good to finish up this CHOGM humbug that way or leave it as the old white man’s club it was.

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      I thought Sri Lankan are white men. Dont they tell white lies. I thing they should become yellow the BBS color.

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    At least EU gives permission to the inhabitants of their member states to live and work any where in the Union.

    What does the this Comwealth give?.

    Not even a visitor Visa.Unless one feeds the sharks plus pay application fees and even reappraisal fees,

    Even then you aren’t sure of getting one.

    And this US citizen wants us to use them as Bench Marks.

    Oops,

    Perhaps Rajapaksa copied one from them to make most CHOGM members and non members pay at least 30 bucks to get a Visa.

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      They did until around 1985. Unfortunately, the privilege was exploited by the asylum seekers to such an extent that Sri Lanka forfeited it.

      Dr.RN

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    Tissanayagam was himself a victim of this regime and has every right to speak, a right that he was denied in Sri Lanka. The regime wants to have the cake and eat the cake. Ride rough shod over Commonwealth values and head CHOG for the next two years.

    Main aim is to boost the ego of the megalomaniac at the top, although it will be an economic disaster for the country. Who will pay the electricity and fuel bills for all this fun and frolics but the poor people of this country. Already Rolls Royce and Ducatis being imported for this event. Roads will be closed homes and shops demolished just like the last Saarc conferences.

  • 0
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    Well written Tissa. The pen is mightier than the sword. Continue to write until this regime is brought to its knees and kicked out.

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    Ajith : 40,000 innocent Tamils killed. heres the truth. But those accuse the TNA supported Sarath Fonseka a killer at the Presidential elections.

    Rohith : There is no Justice in this world BUT I know there is a thing called RETRIBUTION. When it strikes we shall know.

    Aney apochchi : That Julia did not play the race card. She spoke candidly what she witnessed. Is that wrong of her that she strayed from your thinking? You can hold your vote back for her. It does not matter.

    Ram2009 : Once one has taken an oath elsewhere & given up its gone.

    KA Sum : Better watch out the CHOGM is coming to town. Rajapakshes will hv the last laugh. Anti CHOGM rhetoric dumped in the dustbin.

    Safa : Tissa was kotiya or at least used his pen to promote Kotiya doctrine. being a journalist has its advantages in that you taste the best from both worlds, family included.

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    We who also lived Sri Lanka and left because of this brutal regime will never forget how you were falsely accused, sent to prison and then given a 20 year sentence… where you did not deserve even a 20 second sentence for no wrong… and then you are pardoned due to international pressure. Gotabaya Rajapakse is the the ruthless mastermind behind your incarceration. We in Sri Lanka still remember how you were almost going blind because you were deprived of your medicines in prison and how they haressed you. Now you are a free man and hurrah! you cant write and write the truth that you always did. Write about this mad unqualified defence secretary who was a colonel in the army who ran away to the USA and returns to Sri Lanka and has not a iota of brains to do any work other than bark like a madman to journalists, kill and create mayhem in the country He has made this country a barbaric state. White vans, religious strife, mass murders. May Gotabaya rot in hell.

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    Same article with few more links to interesting articles available at https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/sri-lanka-concerns-put-commonwealths-credibility-on-the-line/

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    Damian : Yes. He did no wrong but his PEN did. Should have imprisoned the PEN instead.

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    It never ceases to amaze me how journalists use words so carelessly and thoughtlessly. JST is no exception. Consider his statement that “the international community is clearly concerned that if it takes too strong a line with Sri Lanka, it will simply slip into China’s sphere of influence, and so lose all ability to promote Commonwealth values.”

    Now, what is the international community? Does it comprise just some countries in the West and a few others? One imagines it must include China and Russia – without them no group can truly be called international. Are we to believe then that China and Russia are concerned about “losing all ability to promote Commonwealth values”? I don’t believe “commonwealth values” would concern them in the least. Nor do I believe would it bother many countries in South America or South East Asia for whom also “commonwealth values” mean nothing. So, JST’s statement makes little sense.

    If JST wants to be regarded as a serious journalist – rather than just another hack – he must consider seriously the words that he employs.

    And it would help if he would also use separate sentences to deal with separate issues. Some of his sentences in this article are quite messy.

    Take paragraph 8, for instance. This reads as follows.

    “Worse, systematic human rights violations continue to occur as the government uses militarisation to pacify the Tamil areas and destroys democratic institutions as President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family consolidate power in Colombo”.

    He could do better.

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