Commonwealth people’s forum can enhance government’s credibility
The significance of international pressure in directing the government along the path of good governance can be seen in several recent developments. As a member country of the international community, Sri Lanka has many obligations to fulfill, even as it seeks the benefits of being a member of the international community. But for the country, and its political leadership, to reap these benefits that accrue from being an integral part of the international community, it has also to subscribe to international rules and norms.
It now appears to be starting to do so. The government’s decision to conduct the long delayed election to the Northern Provincial Council is also, without doubt, primarily due to international pressure.
Obtaining foreign investments and hosting international conferences, such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November this year are amongst the benefits of membership in the international community for the government. It will provide the government with an opportunity to showcase Sri Lanka to a large part of the world. 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).
However, there was, and remains, strong opposition to the decision to permit Sri Lanka to host the CHOGM by some groups in the Commonwealth countries and even by the Canadian government. Some of the main criticisms they have leveled 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 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. 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. 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.
The latest area of challenge to Sri Lanka lies in observing Commonwealth values in relation to the strengthening of civil society. International pressure can be useful in expanding the shrinking space for civil society in Sri Lanka. Recently the government has been talking of new legislation with new registration requirements to get a tighter control over NGOs. 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 organizations. 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 although there are some exceptions. The Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration has an advisory expert committee which brings in many from civil society groups and NGOs.
But when NGOs do work at the community level, the police (both Criminal Investigation Department and Terrorist Investigation Department) routinely come and ask 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. 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. Sri Lanka is also unique in having NGOs register under the Ministry of Defense.
In contrast the Commonwealth Charter and values look on NGOs and civil society groups as 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 organizations, the Sarvodaya Movement and Sewalanka Foundation playing leading roles in it. Coming up with a programme that addresses civil society concerns will be a very challenging task given the negative climate for civil society in Sri Lanka at the present time. So far the main themes that have been identified include those of reconciliation, development and dialogue between civil society and government which are of crucial importance to civil societies worldwide. Civic groups such as the Friday Forum in Sri Lanka have written to the Commonwealth Secretary General asking that a special one day session on Good Governance be included in the programme.
Those Sri Lankan civil society leaders who have undertaken the task of preparing the structure and content for the Commonwealth Peoples Forum will be challenged to do so in a manner that meets the needs and expectations of civil society leaders attending the event both from Sri Lanka and the international community. Hopefully they will produce an outcome that enhances the credibility of Sri Lanka as the host country and ensures serious and genuine civil society deliberations. They also have to contend with pressure from the Sri Lankan government itself which sees building roads and other infrastructure and improving the economy as the path to reconciliation.
One of the positive features of the planning process for the Commonwealth People’s Forum was the invitation extended to civil society organizations in Sri Lanka to attend an introductory meeting in Colombo. All those who accepted the invitation to attend the meeting were accepted by the organizer of the introductory meeting. Those who attended of their own volition were committed civil society activists, who gave an accurate and ground-level depiction of the adverse economic and social conditions in the country and what they were doing to improve them. There will be two additional introductory meetings for civil society groups to attend in Jaffna and Galle, which will do much to attract the participation of civil society groups from the different parts of the country. As a part of the People’s Forum there are also plans to have Learning Journeys, whereby the international participants will be hosted by local civic organizations in the Northern, Southern and Uva provinces to see at first hand the different facets of civil society engagement for the betterment of the people.
It is expected that about 60 civil society leaders from the 54 Commonwealth countries will be attending the People’s Forum in Sri Lanka. It is also proposed that at least 240 Sri Lankan civil society leaders will also participate at the event. It is important the civil society leaders in Sri Lanka who wish to attend be provided with the resources to attend. 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 temptation to divert the bulk of available resources to getting international civil society personalities at the expense of local expertise will need to be resisted.
In order for the Commonwealth People’s Forum to have credibility as a civil society event, it will need to be managed by persons from civil society, and not by the government, even though it coincides with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which is a government event. In view of the hostile climate towards NGOs at the present time, the Sarvodaya Movement and Sewalanka Foundation, which have been entrusted with key roles in the steering of the event, will need to be judicious in resisting possibly inevitable governmental encroachment into the decision making process. In particular, it is important that all civil society organizations 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 puts pressure to exclude some civil society leaders as either speakers at the People’s Forum or as participants 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. Non-interference in the planning of the event, and the freedom of expression enjoyed by Sri Lankan civil society at the Commonwealth People’s Summit, will give an indication of how well Sri Lanka’s leaders will take on the rest of the challenges of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting n November and the chairmanship of the Commonwealth for the next two years.