Colombo Telegraph

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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