The Commonwealth is an organisation which normally bumps along well under the radar. What bounces it into prominence is a row. And the Commonwealth has a history of good rows, over issues that matter, like apartheid in South Africa, judicial murder in Nigeria or dictatorship in Zimbabwe, and on which it has been able to make a difference. Such moments make everyone pay attention to a body that many rather lazily think is not that relevant any longer. Few will remember, for instance, that this Monday is Commonwealth Day.
The Commonwealth is about due for another row, and indeed it desperately needs to have one on the unwisdom, weekly becoming more obvious, of choosing Sri Lanka as host for the next heads of government meeting in November this year. Otherwise we may find ourselves in the ludicrous situation of sending the Queen or Prince Charles off to a country which has very serious unresolved human rights charges hanging over it, which has yet to justify executive interference in the judiciary, or has failed to adequately investigate the killing of journalists. When our royals arrive they could therefore be in the unhappy position of giving credit to a gathering from which important countries and close allies, like Canada, may well have chosen to absent themselves. That would be a disaster for them, for Britain, and for the Commonwealth.
Sri Lanka is of course adamant that there can be no question of changing the venue. The Commonwealth secretary general, Kamalesh Sharma, has recently visited Colombo and appears to have extractedassurances from the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa on a number of issues. They are weak in that, for example, while there is a commitment to listen to Commonwealth advice on relations between the executive and the judiciary in the future, there is no mention of reconsidering the recent impeachment and dismissal of Sri Lanka’s chief justice. They can hardly be regarded as sufficient, especially as Sri Lanka has such a bad record of promising to do things and then failing to do them.
The most vexing aspect is that the Commonwealth has a mechanism specifically created with situations like this in mind. The Ministerial Action Group has in the past been tough-minded, warning, admonishing and suspending countries from the Commonwealth. It has doctrine, from theHarare declaration of 1991 on democracy and human rights, through theLatimer House Principles of 2003 on the separation of powers, to the enhanced CMAG mandate of 2011, to guide it in its work. But the group has been slow and inattentive, and the countries, especially Britain and India, who could have spurred it into the action its title promises, have not yet done so. That needs to start now, before it is too late.
* The Guardian editorial- Thursday 7 March 2013 ; ‘The Commonwealth: time to reconsider’ – A row is due over the unwisdom of choosing Sri Lanka as host for the next heads of government meeting