India will soon be blamed — unjustly — for an international catastrophe. Since 1991, the Commonwealth has been a potent force behind the scenes for democracy, rights and human dignity. For example, it has persuaded the leaders of several one-party states to adopt open multi-party systems and it has ensured that leaders who have lost elections do not cling onto power. This admirable record is about to be squandered.
The next Commonwealth heads of government meeting in November is scheduled for Sri Lanka where an abusive government has committed multiple outrages. If that meeting is not moved elsewhere, the Commonwealth will abandon its enlightened commitments. Its irresolute secretary general, Kamalesh Sharma, has blocked a change of venue. Because he is a former Indian diplomat, New Delhi will be blamed.
This is already beginning to happen. Some commentators are saying that India urged Sharma to avoid offending Sri Lanka’s leaders because it is anxious about China’s growing influence there. It is true that China has invested massively in the island and that in 2011, President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a threatening telephone call to a newspaper editor in an unsuccessful attempt to suppress a report that the Chinese had given him $9 million to be used at his discretion. But India has not tried to restrain the secretary general.
Senior figures in the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi and in Commonwealth circles in London plainly state that India’s leaders are exasperated with Sri Lanka’s leaders and their brutish actions. India has privately urged the Commonwealth to take a tough line. The timid secretary general has rejected that advice.
New Delhi is especially unhappy about a decision last month by Rajapaksa to break an assurance to Indian leaders to transfer significant powers to elected regional councils, to give the island’s Tamil minority some autonomy. Instead, he announced that power would be radically centralised. After that snub to India, when Rajapaksa visited Bodh Gaya and Tirupati last month, no Central government minister met him.
Indian leaders are also well aware of the brutal approach to Tamil non-combatants in the final phase of the civil war in 2009. An investigation by a panel appointed by the UN secretary general described the actions of Sri Lanka’s army as “appalling”. More recently, an Indian TV channel aired telling evidence from Britain’s Channel Four that the 12-year-old son of LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran was shot dead at close range while in the custody of the Sri Lankan army.
The Commonwealth secretary general has meekly expressed hope that the behaviour of the island’s leaders will improve, but their actions since the civil war ended have continued to cause grave concern. In response, US President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state has warned them to take note of the warrants issued by the International Criminal Court against Muammar Gaddafi’s son for flouting international humanitarian law.
Recently, the chief justice of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court was impeached after rulings that were inconvenient to the executive. This violated Commonwealth commitments to judicial independence. When the International Bar Association protested and tried to send the former chief justice of India, J.S. Verma, to Colombo for discussions, he was denied a visa.
Shadowy groups of armed men continue to abduct, wound and murder opponents of the government. Journalists have frequently been targets. The Sri Lankan ruling party’s chief whip told parliament in 2009 that “nine journalists have been killed since 2006, some 27 attacked while five were reported abducted”. In 2010, a government minister who had once physically attacked a BBC correspondent said at a public function that “journalists should not write in ways which would ultimately force them to be hanged”. Two weeks ago, gunmen burst into the home of a Colombo journalist who had criticised the government and shot him several times, leaving him for dead.
The president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association has stated that “any government that subjects its independent news media to such violent and arbitrary actions has no right to call itself democratic. Sri Lanka doesn’t even come close to adhering to the basic principles of the Commonwealth”. But it is not only scribes who have suffered. The secretary of the island’s Judicial Services Commission was stabbed after alleging that the government was seeking to destroy judicial independence.
Concerns expressed by many international agencies have been dismissed by Sri Lanka’s leaders as a concerted effort to spread falsehoods. But this is difficult to believe when we see how many respected institutions are supposedly involved: the Red Cross, the UN, the European Union, the US state department, the US Senate, the Australian and British parliaments, the Commonwealth Journalists Association, BBC World Service, the International Bar Association, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and several other human rights organisations.
To understand the mentality of the island’s leaders, consider the statements made by Sri Lanka’s defence minister, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (the president’s brother) in July 2012 on the telephone to a journalist from the Sunday Leader, an independent newspaper. When the journalist asked if the minister had threatened her, he replied “Yes I threatened you. Your type of journalists are pigs who eat sh*t… You are a sh*t sh*t journalist. A f***ing sh*t… I will put you in jail… People will kill you…” There was much more of this. Foul words were used 22 times in two telephone conversations.
One further, hair-raising prospect should be noted. If the Commonwealth holds its heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka, the island’s leaders will coordinate the work of Commonwealth agencies for the next two years — including those that concern themselves with human rights and democracy.
The venue must be changed if the Commonwealth is to retain its well-earned reputation as a force for human decency. If it is not changed, the responsibility will lie with the secretary general and not India’s government, even though he is an Indian.
The writer is professor emeritus of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, UK