Press Release: Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
Background: In early 2009 Sri Lanka’s long running armed conflict came to an end. Following this several serious allegations of human rights violations have been made on the warring parties including the government. A recent report by a Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General found many of these allegations to be credible
Towards the end of 2009 the Trinidad and Tobago Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting(CHOGM) faced the task of deciding on Sri Lanka’s proposal to host CHOGM 2011. In the difficult negotiations that ensured Australia and Mauritius put themselves forth as an alternative venue to Sri Lanka. CHOGM 2009 then decided that it would defer Sri Lanka’s proposal from 2011 to 2013. In a rare break with the tradition of deciding just the succeeding venue, the 2009 CHOGM decided the venue of the following three CHOGMs – 2011 in Australia, 2013 in Sri Lanka and 2015 in Mauritius.
In the following years there has been no significant change in Sri Lanka and questions are being raised at several quarters about its suitability to host CHOGM 2013.
1. Q: Why shouldn’t Sri Lanka host CHOGM 2013?
A: The Sri Lankan government has been implicated in egregious humanitarian law violations by international experts including a UN Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General. Several reputed human rights groups have raised similar concerns and hold that the human rights situation remains dire in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly resisted calls for independent international investigations into allegations of humanitarian law violations. Providing Sri Lanka a free pass to host 2013 CHOGM will amount to condoning violations in the country and is against the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values of human rights and democracy.
2. Q: Sri Lanka has already formed a domestic inquiry into allegations; why not wait for the outcomes of that process before acting on Sri Lanka?
A: Sri Lanka’s domestic mechanism, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has been found by international and UN experts (such as the Panel of Experts) as well as civil society groups to lack both an adequate mandate and the impartiality necessary for credible investigations. The mechanism will submit its report in November 2011. CHOGM venues are usually decided at the preceding CHOGM and CHOGM 2011 in October is the last chance to decide against Sri Lanka hosting the event. By November when the LLRC report comes out, it will be too late to prevent Sri Lanka from hosting CHOGM. Pinning hopes on an internationally discredited mechanism at the risk of losing the Commonwealth’s legitimacy is dangerous.
3. Q: Why target Sri Lanka when all countries within the Commonwealth are not perfect. Why block a developing island state’s first chance to host CHOGM when a large and developed Western player like Australia has held CHOGM thrice?
A: Sri Lanka’s human rights situation is one of the most acute cases within the Commonwealth. The nature of entrenched impunity and a long history of unaccounted for human rights violations coupled with allegations of egregious human rights violation at the end of Sri Lanka’s long running civil war makes it a special concern. The next CHOGM could be granted to another small developing country such as Mauritius which offered in 2009 to host CHOGM in 2011 as an alternative to Sri Lanka and is to host CHOGM in 2015.
4. Q: CHOGM 2009 decided that Sri Lanka will host the 2013 CHOGM. Wouldn’t it be a major set back if Heads of Government are to re-open a decision?
A: The 2009 CHOGM actually deferred Sri Lanka’s proposal to host the 2011 CHOGM to 2013. In the intervening years between the two CHOGMs there has been little progress in the ground situation in Sri Lanka. Heads of Governments can use their earlier precedent of deferral to set aside their earlier decision to confirm Sri Lanka as the host of the 2013 CHOGM. Procedural set backs such as re-opening a decision should not be weighed against the disastrous consequences of failing to uphold fundamental values by allowing Sri Lanka to host the 2013 CHOGM.
5. Q: Why ask for CHOGM 2013 to altogether not be held in Sri Lanka when there are two years left during which the situation in the country may change? Why not ask for conditions of improvement in the run up to CHOGM 2013?
A: Preparations for CHOGM requires a lot of time, it will be difficult to change the CHOGM venue at a later stage if Sri Lanka is found transgressing conditions. Despite civil society calls, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has till date not been able to set any benchmarks for Sri Lanka to host CHOGM. Sri Lanka also has shown little willingness to accept international conditions on its domestic situation. In this context, after CHOGM 2011 there will be too little time for Commonwealth bodies such as CMAG to set benchmarks and effectively asses the country.
6. Q: Why not use the opportunity of a CHOGM to engage with the Sri Lankan government and allow international exposure to the situation in the country when hundreds of delegates visit the country for CHOGM 2013?
A: The Sri Lankan government has not been willing to engage with international bodies that intend to bring about accountability for allegations of violations within the country. If CHOGM 2013 happens in Sri Lanka it is feared that delegates will only be able to see a stage-managed potion of the country specially whitewashed for CHOGM – as is the current scenario where hundreds of tourists continue to travel to the country but have little access to sensitive regions and issues in the country.
7. Q: What will happen if CHOGM 2013 is held in Sri Lanka?
A: Endorsement of Sri Lanka as the host of 2013 CHOGM and the visit of 54 Heads of governments to the country will potentially amount to political apathy towards the human rights allegations Sri Lanka faces and may result in the condoning of such violations. The political clout Sri Lanka derives from hosting the meeting may be used to fend off all other international calls for accountability at forums such as the UN Human Rights Council. Hosting CHOGM 2013 will also allow Sri Lanka to preside over the Commonwealth as its Chair till 2015. The risks and potential consequences of having a country that has been implicated in gross human rights violations Chair the organisation outweighs bleak possibilities of positive engagement.
7. Q: Would attempts not grant CHOGM 2013 to Sri Lanka make the country work against any consensus on progressive Commonwealth reform proposals that are scheduled to be considered at CHOGM 2011? Would it be better to bargain with the country so that reforms are saved?
A: Bargaining with Sri Lanka on reform proposals is unrealistic. Some of the reform proposals under consideration ask for adequate scrutiny of members and Sri Lanka will resist such scrutiny as it has in other forums such as the UN. This stance was very recently made clear by the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister after the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers Meeting in New York. Referring to proposals for adequate scrutiny of member states in fulfilment of past Commonwealth promises, the Minister stated that the inclusion of such “punitive” measures could cause a split in the Commonwealth. [http://www.mea.gov.lk/index.php/en/news-from-other-media/3038-commonwealth-could-splitsl- ] This is a clear indication that bargaining with Sri Lanka on reforms can only lead to either watered down reforms or no reforms both of which are unrealistic.
8. Q: Can Sri Lanka Host any CHOGM at all?
A: Sri Lanka should be confirmed as a host for a future CHOGM only after the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group reviews the countries performance and is satisfied after assessing it against the following minimum benchmarks that require the government to:
1. Ensure meaningful domestic implementation of the international human rights treaties to which the Government of Sri Lanka is party and bring all legislation in line with international human rights standards;
2. Treat all people within Sri Lanka with dignity and respect as equals while allowing them to live in an environment in which they can enjoy all fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Sri Lanka and international human rights law;
3. Restore Constitutional provisions that guarantee separation of powers and re-instate the independence of the three wings of government;
4. Restore the independence of key government institutions, such as the National Human Rights and Police Commissions;
5. Institute effective mechanisms to protect journalists, civil society groups and human rights defenders who work for the promotion and protection of human rights;
6. Support and cooperate with independent and credible domestic and international investigations into all allegations concerning violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the country, especially relating to the conduct of the armed conflict which ended in 2009; and
7. Commit to collaborate with the Office of the UN Secretary General and initiate the implementation of all recommendations set out in the report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts.