Countries normally compete with one another to host international conferences to polish their image and standing. Olympics is one example. Publicity for such events brings in tourists, investments and trade.
The Commonwealth Conference of Heads of Governments (CHOGM) also serves the same purpose. The CHOGM held in Colombo last November was preceded by the Commonwealth People’s Forum, the Commonwealth Youth Forum, and the Commonwealth Business Forum. Several hundred delegates attended the Business Forum that attracted global media coverage. A high profile Business Forum was led by British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Sri Lanka by hosting this biennial conference in Colombo must have calculated that it will provide an opportunity to improve the tarnished image of the country, especially accusations regarding wide spread human rights violations, war crimes, crimes against humanity, lack of media freedom, subversion of the judiciary, undermining of rule of law etc.
Government spent millions of dollars on extensive beautification of the city. More than 50 brand new bullet-proof S400 Mercedes Benz cars were imported for the summit. A large fleet of brand new Nissan Teanas, Toyota Corollas, 100 forty-one-seater luxury buses and 60 Land Rover Defender jeeps were also imported. A few days to the summit, a shiny new 26 kilometre expressway costing 1.8 billion rupees or 14 million US dollars per kilometre, amongst the most expensive in the world, was declared opened by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Where all the finance did came from? Like the other mega projects, it was mostly financed by a loan from China whose terms are unknown. No wonder Sri Lanka’s public debt has risen alarmingly to Rs. 3 trillion or nearly 80 per cent of GDP.
Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, the hosting of the CHOGM spending several billions resulted in a near total public relations disaster, its human rights record coming under intense scrutiny by the international media. The meticulously crafted efforts to ensure the right image is conveyed have backfired. Normally these biannual meetings are not controversial and ends unnoticed and unsung.
To begin with Prime Minister Stephen Harper kept his word by boycotting the CHOGM and sending only a low profile delegation headed by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for External Affairs Deepak Obhrai. After much agonizing Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh too skipped the conference at the last minute. He succumbed to the intense pressure from Thamil Nadu government and political parties of all hues to boycott the CHOGM. The boycott by India took the shine away from the CHOGM and it was a total disappointment and a bitter pill for Sri Lanka to swallow. Added to Sri Lanka’s woes, Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam announced that he will be boycott the conference.
In this back ground, only 27 out of 53 Heads of Government attended the meeting. Of the 19 countries in the African continent, only 7 attended. More than the host country the Commonwealth’s showpiece event was a disaster for the parent organisation.
Sri Lanka’s war crimes dominated the commonwealth summit. There were calls for international investigations over Sri Lanka’s war crimes.
While the CHOGM took place in Colombo all eyes were on Jaffna. Delegations from many countries visited the North and met the newly elected Chief Minister of the Northern Province and a cross section of the common people. There was heavy presence of western media, including the Channel 4 crew headed by Callum Macrae, Director of the documentary film Killing Fields of Sri Lanka featuring devastating video evidence of horrific war crimes. A panicked government to stem the flow halted all air flights to Jaffna though denied subsequently.
When the Channel 4 crew went by train to Jaffna, there was a government inspired demonstration at the Anuradhapura railway station. The train they travelled was stopped and they were forced to return to Colombo. The Police trotted the lame excuse that they cannot provide security to the Channel 4 crew. This incident only helped to confirm the lack of media freedom and the poor law and order situation in Sri Lanka. Why the government treated the Channel 4 crew so shabbily after promising that anyone can visit any place they like remains a mystery. Due to further harassment by the Immigration Department officials the Channel 4 crew cuts short their visit and took flight home. Macrae vowed that he will not be intimated from carrying out his duties as a director by Sri Lankan authorities. Callum Macrae has become a household name among Diaspora Thamils.
Not surprisingly the Sri Lankan law enforcement forces continued a campaign of harassment not only of the media but also human rights activists while the CHOGM was in sessions.
The youthful British Prime Minister David Cameron easily stole the limelight at the CHOGM. He had a hectic schedule, but still managed to fly to Jaffna after the opening ceremony to get a first hand knowledge of what was going on behind the cadjan fence. His visit is the first by a world leader to the Thamil-dominated north since independence in 1948. He met Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran along with TNA leader R.Sampanthan and M.A.Sumanthiran, MP. He visited Uthayan newspaper office and later the Sabapathy Pillai refugee camp in the outskirts of Jaffna, described by the government as a “welfare village”. There were around 150 families living in a tangle of bamboo and corrugated-iron huts since they were displaced in 1990 army offensive. David Cameron was mobbed by the people and was seen getting in and out of dilapidated huts holding hands with the dishevelled refugees. It was a moving scene reminiscent of refugees in Haiti or Somalia.
At Uthayan newspaper office David Cameron saw the bullet ridden walls and the burnt out printing press during an attack by the intelligence wing of the army. At 4.00 pm on April 13, this year, masked men on motorbikes smashed their way into a room where that day’s newspaper was still rolling off the presses. Bullets were fired, but the seven staff present escaped unharmed. The printing press was set alight, and today remains out of action. There were 6 attacks this year alone and Uthayan newspaper has lost six staff members to masked paramilitary gangs sent by the government since 2005. One is still missing. The paper’s editor has lived in his office for seven years after attempts on his life by armed goons.
About his historical visit to the North, David Cameron tweeted “I’m the first leader to go to the north of Sri Lanka since 1948. I want to shine a light on chilling events there first hand and Political leaders in the north of Sri Lanka tell me they are glad I’ve come to help highlight what is happening here.”
The government claims there are no missing persons and all those LTTE cadres who surrendered have been released after rehabilitation. And all IDPs have been resettled in their homes. But David Cameron was confronted by up to 200 mainly female Thamil demonstrators brandishing photographs of their missing relatives opposite the Jaffna library. The wailing men and women broke the police cordon to get closer to him. The pathetic pleas of the demonstrators exposed the lies trotted out by the government. A frustrated government accused David Cameron of breaching protocol on his visit to the country.
Mahinda Rajapakse has been infuriated by David Cameron’s warning that he will push for an international probe in the form of resolution through the UN bodies. “Let me be very clear, if an investigation is not completed by March, then I will use our position on the UN HRC to work with the UN Human Rights Commission and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry,” Mr Cameron stated in Colombo.
Backing the call already made by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, David Cameron said that, if no credible domestic investigations are carried out by March next year, there should be an international inquiry. Navi Pillay during her visit to Sri Lanka in August this year issued a hard-hitting statement where she expressed deep concern “that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.”
The British Foreign Secretary William Hague met rights activists in Colombo in a sign of his government’s determination to keep the issue alive. “We cannot and will not turn a blind eye to the abuses which occur whether they are about freedom of expression, impunity for disappearances or sexual violence, freedom from torture and the lack of accountability” Hague said after his meetings in Colombo.
Canada’s Parliamentary Secretary to the Foreign Minister Deepak Obhrai said the decision to allow Colombo to stage such a gathering was akin to “accommodating evil”.
After the summit David Cameron continued his pressure on the Sri Lankan government that he will press for an international inquiry into war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army. He said that the Sri Lankan government is now under more pressure than a week ago or months ago regarding the alleged human rights violations.
“I do not think that anyone can be in any doubt that they are under more pressure today than they were a week ago, or a month ago, because of the international attention that has been shone on these issues—they know that the world will be watching. One only has to watch President Rajapaksa’s press conference, which was dominated by questions about human rights and inquiries into what happened at the end of the war, to see that there is pressure today that there was not a week ago,” Cameron told British Parliament on 18th December.
However, sources suggest that Cameron made little headway with Rajapaksa during an hour-long meeting with him in Colombo on 15th November, 2013. They described the exchange as robust and animated, with Rajapaksa acknowledging problems in his country but arguing that they needed time to sort out.
During the encounter, Cameron brought up attacks on Christians and Muslims, the murder of British national Khuram Shaikh, the killing of journalists and seizure of land. He also mentioned a Channel 4 documentary about atrocities allegedly committed by state forces in the last months of the war, containing images verified by the UN.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa fends off the allegations and suggested that Cameron was using the visit to win favour with the Thamil community in the UK.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative has reminded the Commonwealth that Sri Lanka has a poor rights record when it comes to real accountability, and said the international community must continue to monitor Sri Lanka on its message to mark Human Rights Day which falls on December 10th. “Previous commissions and investigations have been plagued by government interference and failed to achieve meaningful results and are mostly seen as a government ploy to delay effective criminal investigations. Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) failed to fix responsibility for war crimes and its recommendations remain largely unimplemented,” the CHRI said in its statement.
The Amnesty International was more blunt. In a report issued on November 17 by Steve Crawshaw, Director of the Office of the Secretary General at AI lambasted the Sri Lankan government for breaking promises. He said “The international community must keep up pressure on the Sri Lankan government to address its human rights crisis in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka may well regret having hosted the Commonwealth summit which has proved a PR disaster for the government. Most of the focus has rightly been on the country’s appalling human rights record.
“The challenge for the international community is now to keep up the pressure on the Sri Lankan government. Those responsible for past violations, including war crimes, must be held accountable and ongoing human rights violations stopped irrespective of rank – victims and survivors must see justice done. The past week has provided clear examples of the government’s repressive tactics.”
The European Union Parliament has passed a resolution stating that the United Nations should initiate an international investigation into allegations of violations of international humanitarian law, if Sri Lanka fails to start one itself, before March 2014. The resolution further called for ” an independent and credible investigation into alleged violations by March 2014, and considers that otherwise the UN should initiate an international investigation”.
The resolution also “notes with concern”, the presence of Sri Lankan armed forces in the island’s former conflict areas, adding that it was “leading to human rights violations including land grabbing… and worrying numbers of reported sexual assaults”. It also referred to the killings of 5 youth in Trincomalee in 2006 and the massacre of 17 Tamil aid workers for the French Charity ACF, who recently blamed the killings on government forces.
However, Sri Lanka’s Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters that the government alone will decide which recommendations will be implemented and by when. Sri Lankan government has already rejected UNHCR Commissioner’s report issued after her visit to Sri Lanka in August saying it is not bound by the report.
A more encouraging news comes from US diplomatic sources. In the face of political dilly dallying and official contempt for UN resolutions by Sri Lanka, US propose to impose economic sanctions against Sri Lanka. A resolution to that effect is to be tabled before the US Congress after the Geneva human rights conference in March, 2014.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime remains stubborn, defiant, immovable and far removed from forging genuine post-conflict healing and reconciliation. While taking credit for holding the NPC elections, the government is placing road blocks against smooth functioning of the council. The NPC has passed a resolution for the removal of the military governor and replacement with a civilian.
The demolition of partially damaged houses in the area acquired by the army, including Hindu temples has created rift and friction between the government and the NPC. This is at a time more than 2000 petitioners are claiming legal ownership of the land in Valikamam North. The land grab makes a mockery of the call for post-war reconciliation by the international community.
CHOGM leaders issued a communiqué agreeing to cooperate on a number of issues, including poverty reduction, trade and youth affairs. The communiqué welcomed the adoption of the historic Commonwealth Charter in December 2012 and its signature by the Head of the Commonwealth on Commonwealth Day in March 2013. They reiterated their commitment to respect, protect and promote the core values set out in the Charter.
In that context, they noted that the people of the Commonwealth, through the Charter, had emphasised the importance of democracy; human rights; international peace and security; tolerance, respect and understanding; freedom of expression; separation of powers; rule of law; good governance; sustainable development; protecting the environment; access to health, education, food and shelter; gender equality; young people; the needs of small and vulnerable states; and the role of civil society. Heads emphasised that these values were interlinked and mutually reinforcing.
These are laudable and welcome principles, but how the CHOGM hopes to follow them under the chairmanship of Mahinda Rajapaksa who is facing accusations a violator of human rights and rule of law and above all a war criminal.
The CHOGM in Colombo will be remembered more for the acrimonious debate over Sri Lanka’s abysmal human rights record during and after the war. The year 2014 will be make or break year for the Sri Lankan government. It has only two choices, comply fully with UN sponsored resolution calling for war crimes investigation, an independent judiciary, respect for rule of law and genuine reconciliation between people or face an international investigation. .
The international community must stand united in its efforts to keep up the pressure on Sri Lanka to fully comply with UNHCR resolution and to live up to the core principles and values of the Commonwealth. Until now, the international community has proved unwilling to use political and economic leverages to promote real peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. There is too much at stake, for too many, and the international community should not fail to hold Sri Lanka accountable on human rights issues and other fundamental freedoms.