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A Sri Lanka Summit Discredits The Commonwealth

2013 Jul 11

Gideon Rachman

The world is so busy cheering on the emergence of democracy in Myanmar that it is in danger of averting its eyes from the assault on democracy in another Asian state – Sri Lanka.

In fact, the sins of the Sri Lankan government are not merely being ignored. They are about to be rewarded. This November Colombo is set to play host to the prestigious Commonwealth heads of government meeting. So far, of the 54 Commonwealth countries – more than a quarter of the members of the UN – only Canada has had the guts to say that it will not send its prime minister. But the leaders of the UK, Australia, India, South Africa and other democratic nations should feel sick about accepting the hospitality of a Sri Lankan government with a grimrecord of human rights abuses.

The manner in which the Sri Lankan government won victory in the country’s civil war in 2009 remains deeply controversial. According to the UN, up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final onslaught on the Tamil-dominated north of Sri Lanka.

It could be argued that – even though the culmination of the war was savage – the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa did Sri Lanka a service by finally ending a terrible conflict that had gone on for 29 years and cost thousands of lives.

Yet, even if this brutal logic is accepted and allegations of war crimes ignored, Sri Lanka’s record since the end of the war has been grim. Critics of the government continue to disappear. Sri Lankan security forces are credibly accused of routinely using torture. Journalists have been harassed and even killed – amid accusations of state involvement. This year Sri Lanka’s chief justice was impeached and forced out of office.

Meanwhile, Mr Rajapaksa’s family is extending its reach through business and government. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brother, is the country’s powerful defence secretary. Basil Rajapaksa, another brother, is economic development minister. The president is also exhibiting tell-tale signs of megalomania. Visitors to the summit later this year could have the pleasure of landing at the newly built Rajapaksa international airport and then attending a performance at the recently opened Rajapaksa national theatre.

Both projects have been built with considerable amounts of Chinese aid. It is striking that just as the democratisation of Myanmar has led to that country loosening its relationship with China, Sri Lanka has cosied up to Beijing.

The Sri Lankan government, of course, disputes many of the accusations levelled at it. But a succession of reports issued this year from a roll-call of respected international organisations have come to similarly damning conclusions. The International Crisis Group says: “Government attacks on the judiciary and political dissent have accelerated Sri Lanka’s authoritarian turn.” Amnesty International concluded that the “authorities have criminalised freedom of expression and equated dissent with treason”. Human Rights Watch reports that “government officials have threatened, and unknown assailants have attacked, members of the media, civil society and the political opposition”. The HRW report documents in detail cases of torture and rape carried out by the Sri Lankan security forces. This year Reporters Without Borders placed Sri Lanka 162nd out of 179 nations in a press freedom index.

After an investigative journalist was shot in his home this year, Navi Pillay, the UN human rights commissioner, expressed concern about “extrajudicial killings and abductions”. The Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association, reacting to the assault on the judiciary, has said that holding a summit in Sri Lanka would “call into grave question the value, credibility and future of the Commonwealth”.

Although the Commonwealth claims to be committed to “democracy, freedom, peace and the rule of law” – and has suspended countries for violating these principles – it seems determined to press ahead with the Sri Lanka summit. Kamalesh Sharma, the organisation’s secretary-general, has singularly failed to provide any moral leadership.

But he, ultimately, is a civil servant. It should be up to the bigger Commonwealth nations to take a stand. Yet, with the exception of Canada, they have not done so.

Britain still sees the organisation, which has its roots in the British empire, as a valuable network. British diplomats operate from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the government – although uneasy about the Sri Lanka summit – is reluctant to act, without cover from other Commonwealth nations. Australia, intent on building up its ties in Asia, seems unworried.

The racial politics that lie just beneath the surface of the Commonwealth make a “whites-only” boycott difficult. However, both India and South Africa are proud of their democracies – and India is also home to a significant Tamil population. Yet the Indian government seems unable to act.

The sad truth is that the Commonwealth heads of government will, in all likelihood, troop into Sri Lanka later this year. And the damage to the Commonwealth will not end there. Sri Lanka would then assume the chairmanship of the organisation for the next two years. That should just about finish off any claim the Commonwealth has to moral authority in world affairs.

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