By Jehan Perera –
The Sri Lankan government can take satisfaction at the close of CHOGM. It ended without any major mishap, although there were several controversial incidents, such as the laying of flowers at the killing fields of Elephant Pass by the Canadian government’s representative, and the speech targeting Sri Lanka given at the People’s Forum by a British Minister. By and large, however, the organization of events went like clockwork. Those who attended the various CHOGM events would have been impressed by the attention showered on them by the organizers of the various events. There was the best of hotel accommodation and food for them, apart from brand new cars and buses to transport them around. There were always a plethora of personnel around to attend to their needs. It appears that no expense was spared, the hallmark of the gracious host.
There was also the human interest dimension of CHOGM for the larger Sri Lankan population. Most of them would have been proud and happy to see the children at CHOGM events, dressed up prettily for the occasion, and dancing gracefully and singing beautifully. The media images of CHOGM were positive ones with few exceptions. The sight of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla visiting orphanages, hospitals, women’s centres and the tea plantations, was heartwarming again on account of their visible kindness and graciousness. Prime Minister David Cameron playing cricket with Sri Lankan cricket legend Muttiah Muralitharan and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot jogging on Galle Face along with the President’s son was a show of engagement with the interests of the general population. The hosting of the wives of the dignitaries by First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa brought out the family spirit that must underlie the spirit of the Commonwealth.
The hosting of the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka was indeed a great triumph for the Sri Lankan government in the context of the strong opposition to it on the grounds of the government’s failure to live up to Commonwealth Values. The fact that the heads of government of very important countries visited Sri Lanka and spent several days no less, would count for a great deal. British Prime Minister David Cameron, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and South African President Jacob Zuma are all heavyweights on the world scene, who might never have visited Sri Lanka at all in the ordinary course of events. But they did on account of CHOGM. The challenge now is for the Sri Lankan government to build on these links and to utilize them in the best interests of the Sri Lankan people, and to resolve outstanding problems. This will require a fundamental change of approach to issues of governance.
One of the earliest challenges to arise from Sri Lanka’s hosting of CHOGM has been British Prime Minister David Cameron’s declaration that the Sri Lankan government must investigate the issue of human rights violations in the last phase of the war before the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014. The British Prime Minister was under immense pressure not to come to Sri Lanka by sections of the international community including human rights groups and the Tamil Diaspora. He said that if an investigation was not completed by March, he would use the UK’s “position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commission and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry”. Having made his announcement and set a deadline, he will now be under further pressure to ensure that he carries out his promise that he would push for an international probe if the Sri Lankan government did not do so on its own.
However, the Commonwealth leaders who attended the Summit described it as a success and emphasised the importance of keeping the group of Britain and its former territories together in order to lobby in other international forums as one unit. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the 27 leaders who attended out of 53 Commonwealth nations expressed a “sense of wanting to stay together” and also said “We should not be divided.” There will be strong sympathy for the host country, and its efforts to sustain its post-war development. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa has reportedly offered his country’s experience in tackling the difficult issues of post-conflict accountability to assist Sri Lanka. The South African model of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the power to grant amnesty would be an option that the Sri Lankan government might wish to consider and propose to the international communty as an alternative to the investigation sought by the British Prime Minister.
Apart from dealing with the difficult issue of post-war accountability, it will be necessary for the government to move forward on the issues agreed at the final session and listed in the final communiqué. If the Sri Lankan government is to provide a degree of leadership to the Commonwealth, it will need to demonstrate in practice that it is committed to the values of the Commonwealth Charter to which it, and the other 52 member countries, are signatories. As the Chairman of the Commonwealth for the next two years, a crucial responsibility is vested in President Mahinda Rajapaksa to uphold democratic values such as fundamental freedoms and human rights not only in Sri Lanka but to draw the attention of other Commonwealth States to if and when they falter in upholding these values. But this can only be done by leading by example and leading Sri Lanka in a new manner which accords with its international obligations.
It is regrettable that while the government was able to host the Commonwealth, it failed to bring in the opposition parties, which boycotted the event, showing the divisions within. In the run-up to CHOGM, and even thereafter, the government engaged in repressive actions that eventually led the main opposition party deciding to boycott CHOGM in protest although it had initially agreed to participate. One of the more serious incidents was the mob attack and surrounding of the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s vehicle outside the UNP party headquarters, just prior to the CHOGM summit,when he was going inside to address a gathering of missing persons protesting against the government’s delay in finding their loved ones. In addition, there was the turning back by police of over a hundred members of families of missing persons who were coming for this demonstration from the North of the country.
This kind of approach to control is in contradiction to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurance that his government will uphold the values of the Commonwealth, which include respect for the freedom of association and right of free expression. The dominant trend in the post-war years has been over-control on the part of the governmental authorities reinforcing divisions between the government, opposition and civil society. It vitiates the democratic spirit that is essential for any country that hopes to play a positive role in the Commonwealth. The unleashing of repressive elements against peaceful demonstrations and gatherings in the future can only lead to a negative impression in the eyes of the international community and can reduce their support to the government. The government needs to keep in mind that there are those who would campaign to strip the Sri Lankan President of his Chairmanship of the Commonwealth if the government continues to act in a repressive manner.
All things cannot be controlled in a free and liberal society, nor hidden away from the international community, especially when the Sri Lankan President is Chairman of the Commonwealth for the next two years. The plight of the war-affected people is being commented upon by journalists who flooded into the country on account of CHOGM and delved for the story behind the big new buildings that have appeared alongside the newly carpeted highways of the North and East. The newly elected Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council is lamenting that he has not got the powers to run the provincial administration. The way forward is to resolve these problems in a genuine manner by addressing them at their root. Sri Lanka and its President will be judged not by the words they speak but by their actions of which there will be closer scrutiny by virtue of the President’s chairmanship of the Commonwealth.