First, the good news: David Cameron kept his promise to “shine a light” on Sri Lanka’s human rights record when he visited the country for the Commonwealth summit. If President Mahinda Rajapaksa thought this occasion was going to be a chance to showcase his regime, then he will have been sorely disappointed. In particular, Cameron’s tumultuous visit to Jaffna did a great deal of good. The world’s media took the opportunity to bring to the fore the plight of Sri Lanka’s disappeared – with 5,676 “outstanding cases” according to the United Nations – and the unresolved question of the atrocities carried out during the final battle of the civil war in 2009.
Cameron made one specific pledge: if the investigations launched by Sri Lanka’s own government into the above issues do not report by March, then Britain will use its membership of the UN Human Rights Council to press for a full international inquiry. So far so good. The problem is that the Human Rights Council is a pretty ramshackle body, obsessed in the past with condemning Israel and shielding the likes of Sudan and North Korea.
Whether it can be persuaded to place pressure on Sri Lanka remains to be seen. In addition, Rajapaksa’s regime enjoys the diplomatic protection of China, which is building a new port on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. China would, of course, be able to veto any moves against its ally in the Security Council. With the best will in the world, Britain may be unable to deliver a proper international inquiry.
As for the Commonwealth itself, the blunt truth is that the institution cannot afford another summit of this kind. The Sri Lanka “heads of government meeting” was a shambles, boycotted by the leaders of two of the most important members – Canada and India – and overshadowed by the controversy over its location. In the end, only 25 of the Commonwealth’s 53 presidents and prime ministers bothered to come to Sri Lanka – the lowest turnout ever. Some of those who did make the journey chose to leave early.
Thankfully, Malta is the safe choice to host the next summit in 2015. But anyone who cares about this institution must hope that a fiasco of this kind never happens again. The Commonwealth may not be able to survive a repeat performance.
All of this took place on the watch of Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth’s secretary general. He cannot be allowed to evade his responsibility. Few have any confidence in Sharma, an obscure bureaucrat who has shown more interest in revamping the Commonwealth’s website than tackling the human rights abuses of some of its members. After Sri Lanka, the Commonwealth needs a relaunch. It could start by finding a new secretary general.