The Blog

Commonwealth Fails Sri Lanka Test

Sri Lanka is a test case for reform of the Commonwealth, intended to produce a renewed commitment to rule of law, democracy and human rights. It looks as if the 54-nation body is already failing dismally.

Sri Lanka is a test case for reform of the Commonwealth, intended to produce a renewed commitment to rule of law, democracy and human rights. It looks as if the 54-nation body is already failing dismally.

The custodian of the Commonwealth's political values is a rotating group of Foreign Ministers gathered in what's called the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. Last year its role was strengthened by new guidelines. It was not enough to deal with military coups - the Commonwealth decided it needed to tackle situations where its political values were undermined without a government being actually overthrown. After all, the Commonwealth claims to be an organisation based on the "shared values of peace, democracy, development, justice and human rights" as the Queen, its head, tells us.

And yet we have a country about to head the Commonwealth for two years and host its major heads of government meeting in November, that stands accused (in two UN reports) of crimes against humanity and murdering possibly seventy thousand of its own citizens. This is perhaps the worst bloodshed of this century and certainly not your run of the mill human rights problem - it is something quite out of the ordinary. Perhaps that's the problem. As Samantha Power writes, "policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil".

The scale of the crimes in Sri Lanka is so shocking that it's easier for many nations to overlook them. It is hard to understand how a military could repeatedly and deliberately target hospitals but Human Rights Watch documented more than thirty such attacks in six months - hardly accidental. Even more difficult to accept that a government would announce civilian no-fire zones and then attack them again and again.

It's almost inconceivable that every man, woman and child who staggered out of the war zone was forced into detention to be security screened but thousands escaped by paying bribes to the same security forces. Eleven thousand suspected combatants were locked away for years in what was at the time the largest mass detention without trial in the world.

And why didn't we hear about it at the time people ask. Well a UN internal inquiry last year revealed how senior United Nations officials suppressed casualty and war crimes information, slanting the reporting of the war. Most telling is survivors of that war are still too scared to come forward in public and relate their ordeal four years later - fearing for extended family still in Sri Lanka.

It's much more comfortable to ignore such horrid goings on and believe the soothing lies of the Sri Lankan government that claimed nobody was deliberately killed as they rescued Tamils being held hostage by terrorists.

To its credit Canada has been lobbying for action on Sri Lanka - the first step would be putting the country on the agenda at the next meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to be held on 26 April. Bizarrely the Commonwealth Secretary General has decided not to do this. And yet the guidelines stipulate that he should consider any "undermining of the independence of the judiciary". Somehow he's overlooked the biggest constitutional crisis Sri Lanka has faced - the impeachment of Sri Lanka's Chief Justice earlier this year, which every international legal and human rights body has condemned as gravely undermining the rule of law.

The Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, himself said in mid-January this year that Sri Lanka's impeachment "could be perceived to constitute violations of core Commonwealth values and principles."

According to the Commonwealth's new guidelines (para 18, x and xi), if after two months the Secretary General has exhausted his efforts at engagement and there is no progress, then Sri Lanka should be put on the formal agenda of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. Two months have passed and yet Mr Sharma is inexplicably delaying. In fact his spokesman has confirmed Sri Lanka will not be on the agenda of the meeting.

Under the new guidelines the Secretary General of the Commonwealth is also supposed to reflect on "the systematic violation of human rights" and the "denial of political space, such as through detention of political leaders or restriction of freedom of association, assembly or expression" (para 18 vi).

He should read the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights which said survivors of the war in Sri Lanka were not even allowed to gather in churches and temples to mourn their dead. Mothers and wives of the disappeared were recently blocked from travelling to the capital for a peaceful protest to ask where their loved ones were. Journalists continue to flee or self censor. Sri Lanka is 162 of 179 countries in terms of media freedom this year, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The Human Rights Council just passed a second resolution against Sri Lanka backed by 25 countries that speaks of continuing reports of:

"enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society and journalists, threats to judicial independence and the rule of law, and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief".

Eight Commonwealth members sponsored this Resolution: the UK, Canada, St Kitts, Cameroon, Malta, New Zealand, Australia and Cyprus. Two more who sit on the Human Rights Council voted in favour: Sierra Leone and India.

So why is the Commonwealth Secretary General not following the organisation's own guidelines? The fact that its major meeting is due to take place in eight months in Sri Lanka is an organizational hurdle but surely values should come above logistics. Perhaps the Commonwealth isn't that keen on reform after all.