28 May, 2022


The First Litmus Test: A Commonwealth People’s Forum Will Be Held In Sri Lanka

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

The Sri Lankan government scored a major political victory over its detractors when the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group decided in April that Sri Lanka would indeed be the venue for the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November. There was opposition to this decision by some groups in the Commonwealth countries and even by the Canadian government. The argument against Sri Lanka hosting the next CHOGM was on the grounds that the government was not following Commonwealth values in its internal governance. The Commonwealth Charter, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, calls for the Rule of Law, Separation of Powers and Freedom of Expression, among others, some of which are under threat in the country.

As the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be entitled to be the Chairman of the Commonwealth for the following two years. This would grant him an unparalleled opportunity to be a leader on the world stage, as the Commonwealth counts 54 countries (with Fiji being suspended on account of a military coup). The prospect of a country that flouts Commonwealth values taking the position of leadership in the Commonwealth is unpalatable to those who oppose Sri Lanka playing host to the CHOGM. Canada’s foreign minister, said “We’re appalled that Sri Lanka seems poised to host CHOGM and to be chair-in-residence of the Commonwealth for two years,” he told the Guardian newspaper in the UK.

Opposing parties

The Commonwealth Journalists’ Association; the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative; the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association; the Commonwealth Legal Education Association; the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association; Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Council are other Commonwealth groups that have expressed their opposition to Sri Lanka hosting CHOGM.

Some of the main criticisms they have levelled against the Sri Lankan government have been due to its poor post-war performance in terms of strengthening key institutions, not least the judiciary. Sri Lanka today ranks close to the bottom of several international indices, including those for human rights, media freedom and state failure. The absence of a political solution that would address the issues that gave rise to war, counts as one of the country’s failures.

The latest area of challenge to Sri Lanka lies in observing Commonwealth values in relation to the strengthening of civil society. The Role of Civil Society is one of the 16 paragraphs of the Commonwealth Charter which has also been signed by Sri Lanka. It states, “We recognise the important role that civil society plays in our communities and countries as partners in promoting and supporting Commonwealth values and principles, including the freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and in achieving development goals.”

However, instead of there being a strengthening of civil society work in partnership with the government, there has been a weakening of it in Sri Lanka over the past few years. There has been a constriction of the space for many civil society activities in Sri Lanka due to the appearance of government mistrust of these organisations.

Underrating NGOs

NGOs are often laboratories of small scale initiatives that can be replicated at a higher level by bigger entities. Unfortunately, the government does not give NGOs a place on their planning or advisory committees. Instead they try to keep out NGOs.

There are some exceptions, most notably the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, which has an advisory expert committee which brings in many from civil society groups and NGOs. When NGOs do work at the community level, the police (both Criminal Investigation Department and Terrorist Investigation Department) routinely come and inquire as to what is going on, and sometimes even sit in on the proceedings, which intimidate the participants into maintaining silence for fear of being reported as enemies of the state.

Sri Lanka is also unique in having NGOs register under the Ministry of Defence. Those NGOs which are active in human rights, peace and reconciliation are routinely described as being anti-national and a threat to national security by government leaders and the state media. In contrast the Commonwealth looks to NGOs and civil society groups as being key agents in promoting people-to-people linkages and in being partners with the government in promoting human rights and democratic freedoms of the people.

Due to the importance that the Commonwealth places in civil society, since 1991 the practice has been for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be accompanied by a Commonwealth People’s Forum that brings civil society leaders from across the Commonwealth to share their experiences with one another.

A Commonwealth People’s Forum will be held in Sri Lanka in the run-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The agenda of the meeting and participation at it is currently being worked out with two important Sri Lankan civil society organisations, the Sarvodaya Movement and Sewalanka Foundation playing leading roles in it.

It is expected that at least 60 civil society leaders from the 54 Commonwealth countries will be attending the People’s Forum in Sri Lanka, and it is proposed that at least 240 Sri Lankan civil society leaders will also participate at the event. Sri Lankan civil society has many lessons to offer the rest of the Commonwealth in terms of having experienced a civil war and post-war reconstruction. At the same time, there is also a lot that Sri Lankans can learn from their counterparts in the Commonwealth. The key question that arises is whether all Sri Lankan civil society groups that want to participate will be given the opportunity to do so.

It is important that all civil society organisations that wish to participate in the Commonwealth People’s Forum be given an equal opportunity to take part, even if they have been critical of the government’s failures in good governance, human rights and reconciliation. If the government were to try to exclude some civil society leaders on the grounds that they are promoting views that are not in favour with the government, it would be a violation of Commonwealth values of non-discrimination and freedom of expression. This would neither be to Sri Lanka’s benefit nor to the Commonwealth’s. The treatment of Sri Lankan civil society at the Commonwealth People’s Summit will be the first litmus test of how well Sri Lanka’s leaders will steer the Commonwealth for the next two years.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    A delegation from Commonwealth Foundation had also visited the OPA on Monday 5th July 2013. According to a Senior Forum Member of the OPA who had been present on the occasion, Commonwealth Foundation had funded construction of OPA Secretariat in 1980s and the Head of the Delegation from CF had appreciated the efforts of the OPA in finding solutions to issues of national interest.

    According to the same Forum Member, the Immediate Past President had been advised to communicate with Commonwealth Secretariat to get a session on local government included in the People’s Forum.

    • 0

      This will be to no avail. Sri Lanka civil society need to do far more than a people’s forum at the Commonwealth Cirusat – to oppose the emergent RAJAPAKSE DEEP STATE in Sri Lanka.
      The Rajapake brothers are creating a DEEP STATE whereby the ruling family and a group of influential anti-democratic coalitions within the political system, composed of high-level elements within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary, and mafia are laying the ground work for a military COUP D’ETAT to enable Gotabaya Rajapassa’s ascent as Lanka’s first MILITARY DICTATOR – in the name of “protecting Buddhism” from the minorities. Never mind that Sinhala Buddhism, a hitherto largely tolerant religion has been has distorted, perverted, MILITARIZED and destroyed by Gotabaya..
      The notion of deep state that Gotabaya is creating, is similar to that of a “state within the state” and evident in many military dictatorships in the Mid East and Pakistan’s ISI which Gota works with. The political agenda of the deep state involves an allegiance to nationalism, corporatism, and state interests. Violence and other means of pressure have historically been employed in a largely covert manner to manipulate political and economic elites and ensure specific interests are met within the seemingly democratic framework of the political landscape.
      The outlook and behavior of the Rajapakse family and associated predominantly military and political elites who constitute the deep state, and work to uphold national interests, are shaped by an entrenched belief that the country is always “on the brink” of being DIVIDED. This is the bogey that Rajapassa promotes in the form of Balu Sena etc. Sri Lanka liberals will need to be vigilant given the levels of militarization as the ECONOMIC CRISIS bites and people mobilize against the Rajapakse regime on the streets. Big question is will China play the role of supporter of the Gotabaya military dictatorship as the US does with the Egyptian military?

  • 0

    There he goes again! We do not need an NGO talk shop (people’s Forum) to supprot the Commonwelath of CLowns taklshop. More DRASTIC action – like protest on the Street and closing down the CHOGM by the masses is necessary.. and civil society needs to be there rather than holding a silly side show to boost the Rajapassa military Dictatorship.

    The citizens of Lanka who have to foot the bill for this White ELephant colonial ourfit call the Commonwleath come November! We will protest the Commonwealth Clowns circus and shut it down in NOVEMBER! The LANKA SPRING will be in full bloom and Jehan’s silly talk about Commonwleath NGO circus is just another attempt (like Ranil Wickramasinghe) to boost the regime and CURTAIL and domesticate and DESTROY MORE RADICAL ACTION AND PEOPLE’S PROTESTS.
    The CHOGM and Commonwealth MUST be SHUT DOWN. That a military dictator is tipped to be its next head makes this OBVIOUS: the Commonwleath is anti-people and anti-democracy. CHOGM is an irrelevent British colonial outfit that is a platform for Corrupt and Criminal Third world Military Dictators like Mahinda Rajapassa.

    There is no point is spending more funds to make Jehan and other donor Dependent NGOs feel important and DOMESTICATE PROTESTS on the Street. NGO civil society is spinless like the opposition that is supporting Rajapassa and his military dictatrorship. So just shut up Jehan or support the LANKA spring.

  • 0

    I don’t think that all 54 countries who are members of Common Wealth recognize that the Sri lanka and MARA are suitable to hold the conference. Some of the countries that are even equal to Sri Lanka government in terms of violation of HR and follow undemocratic methods will never go against their colleague.Some of the countries are passive and don’t want to have grudges with other countries.So they just attend the conference and enjoy and entertain it. Very few who are lined up with western countries little bit raise their voices but never boycott the event.This conference going to be a thasmasha.

    Regarding the so called Civil Society participation,Forign Funded,Non voluntary,project oriented NGOs cannot be considered as Civil Society organisations.They don’t have any people base so that they don’t have any rights to represent people or the civil society at any forums. The Sarvodaya and the Seva Lanka are NGOs that are having some amount of credibility to claim as civil society organisations as they use their funds to establish some people structures that function regularly. The BOSS of Sevalanka is a close friend of the Government so he was allowed to work in certain war affected areas with the blessing of MR.MARA.The Sarvodaya is a 100% passive so that they are not considered as a threat to the Government.There are some NGOs that are under serious attack by the government as they openly stand for democratic and HR in the country.NGOs like Jehans ones (NCP) are not being attacked as they always take a non confrontational approach and sit on the wall even on serious issues concerning HR and Democracy etc.As in the case of the member countries of Common Wealth who align with “Powerful Countries”,the local NGOs are also aligned with the “powerful”government in the country.I still hope that Jehan will get an invitation from the government side but not directly but through his close friend Vasudeva and his henchmen Thilakasisiri who is a close associate of MARA as he claims.But a main question remains to be answered” Who is going to benefit from the Conference.Mara will use this to show the world that he and his actions were recognized by the CW countries.He will also try to show that his actions are recognized by Tamils by winning the Northern Provincial elections which is scheduled for the same period of the conference.

  • 0

    Jehan Perera is a fraud who has taken various positions at different times. Recently I came across an article by the much respected late Ajith Samaranayake in 2005. Samaranayake was writing about Mahinda Rajapakses election victory in 2005.I quote Samarankake from his article titled” Returning a nation to its roots”20 November 2005.
    He says “Jehan Perera for example was widely quoted internationally as seeing the presidential election of 2005 in terms of binary opposites, namely nationalism versus internationalism and tradition versus modernity.
    But what the kinds of Perera do not realise is that nationalism is not always a dirty word, particularly when so called internationalism which is championed is an abject surrender to President Bush or that modernity is only a vogue word for a kind of cultural neo-colonialism which has been deleterious of indegenous values in much of the third world.
    Perera’s imaginary culture war had little relevance in a context when UNP propagandists were trying to seduce farmers into slipping into bell bottoms or going in for chewing gum”

    What is Jehan Perera’s angel now ? What a disgusting record of intellectual dishonesty !

  • 0

    The Government’s suspicion of NGO’s is reasonable. It is internationally recognized that NGOs are a means by which the USA and their partners infiltrate saboteurs into countries that they wish to destabilize. There ARE NGOs which work harmoniously with the State authorities in Sri Lanka.

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