CHOGM – The morning after by M.A. Sumanthiran
In the heady days leading up to Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM) 2013 a government minister stated that ‘The CHOGM will …bring more fame to our country and provide a great opportunity to showcase Sri Lanka’s post war developments….this conference…will provide a great opportunity for them (the Commonwealth Heads of State) to witness the development activities in the country….’
This statement was reflective of the attitude of the government as a whole. In keeping with these high expectations, no expense was spared in sprucing up Colombo to welcome the delegates of this conference. With everything from buildings being painted, to luxury vehicles being imported, to a spectacular opening ceremony, the cost of this particular welcome ran into several millions. With the closure of both roads and schools, the residents of Colombo were, with scant ceremony, expected to put up with no small amount of inconvenience, all in the name of the golden opportunity that was CHOGM 2013. Indeed, no stone was left unturned (quite literally in the case of pavements that were repaved as part of the preparations!)
The images of a spruced up Colombo complete with its carnival atmosphere, may however, not be those uppermost in the minds of delegates leaving the country. These were speedily erased by those of a rather more sombre note: of the armed forces preventing family members of the disappeared from travelling to Colombo; of so called ‘protestors’ preventing journalists from travelling to the North of the country; of a President too arrogant – or perhaps too afraid – to face an independent media; of a government parliamentarian attempting to disrupt a press conference and having to be reprimanded.
Despite the Sri Lankan Government’s rhetoric of a country enjoying the fruits of post war reconciliation, a free media, and ethnic and communal harmony, its actions spoke otherwise. The note was set with the government denying entry to Sri Lanka to participants of an International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) high-level delegation which included the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Gabriela Knaul and the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Param Cumaraswamy. This delegation was denied entry despite the public assurance from Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Dr. Chris Nonis on 30th April in a BBC interview, that representatives of IBAHRI ‘Are absolutely welcome to come in.’
Similarly, despite government assurances of a free media, foreign journalists were followed by military intelligence officials, denied opportunities to freely question the President and prevented from travelling by so-called ‘mobs,’ who as the journalists themselves pointed out, were miraculously aware of their travel plans although government and military officials were the only ones who had been informed of them.
Despite government assurances of Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities receiving fair and equal treatment and living in ethnic harmony Tamil families of those who have been disappeared in the North were brutally prevented by armed forces from participating in events in Colombo.
A profusion of protests against land grabs in the North and the East clearly reflected another way in which the Tamil community was being victimized.
Human rights situation
In an article published before the week of CHOGM, I suggested that the message from the international community, although expressed in different ways, was consistent. Whether through Stephen Harper’s boycott, Cameron’s assurances of ‘tough conversations’ or Manmohan Singh’s reluctance to commit to attending CHOGM, all these nations were clearly telling the Sri Lankan Government the same thing – that it was high time to clean up its act. The CHOGM week only made this clearer. In the days leading up to CHOGM the boycott by Canada – the largest country in the Commonwealth shone a spotlight on Sri Lanka’s abysmal human rights record. During CHOGM week, Britain’s attendance shone a spotlight on exactly the same issue. True to his word, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, expressed in no uncertain terms his stance on the dark and dire nature of Sri Lanka’s human rights situation, describing what he saw and heard as ‘harrowing’ and ‘chilling.’ He has now announced his support for Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay’s stance that if no credible independent process of investigation into the events that took place during the end of the war is started before March 2014, an international investigation must be conducted, and has given an assurance that he will call for such an international investigation at that time.
Even India – the most populous country in the commonwealth, Sri Lanka’s neighbour and a country with which the Sri Lankan Government claims to share a special and close relationship, decided to boycott CHOGM 2013. The dire nature of Sri Lanka’s plummeting human rights record was such that domestic concerns relating to Sri Lanka’s human rights situation could not justifiably be ignored.
Even the country that was to host the next CHOGM – Mauritius – decided that protesting against Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses was even more important than the honour of hosting CHOGM. Thus, Mauritius too, courageously standing up for the true values and principles of the Commonwealth, boycotted CHOGM.
The consistent message the international community is giving Sri Lanka is further reflected by the fact that none of the countries that voted in favour of both the UNHRC resolutions concerning Sri Lanka sent their Heads of State to CHOGM 2013.
Efforts by the Sri Lankan Government to describe those boycotting CHOGM as ‘isolated’ fall flat in light of the fact that almost half of the Commonwealth leaders did not attend the summit. Only 23 leaders out of 51 Commonwealth countries attended, one of the lowest attendance records at a CHOGM summit. Their stance on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation is also shared by countries that boycotted CHOGM were also shared by some of those who attended it – a prime example being the British Premier.
Even now, the Sri Lankan Government insists on continuing to show defiance – its standard reaction to any kind of criticism – local or international – concerning Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Government officials lashed out at the expressions of concern of visiting British delegates, accusing them of treating Sri Lanka like a colony. The President himself insinuated in his speech that the Commonwealth was being turned into a ‘punitive…judgmental body,’ and was becoming ‘prescriptive and divisive.’ In a further reflection of this attitude Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, stated that ‘Britain will not be able to have its own way in the UNHRC (the United Nations Human Rights Council) as there are other influential countries such as Russia, China and Cuba at the UNHRC.’
However, even China recently called on the Sri Lankan Government to `make efforts to protect and promote human rights,` thus echoing calls by India, Britain and other countries at the CHOGM summit. China has in recent years become, one of the closest allies of the Rajapaksa regime, cementing its ties with billions of dollars in aid to Sri Lanka. It is also responsible for a significant portion of infrastructure development in the country. Russia too has previously urged the Sri Lankan Government to take steps to improve its rights record, as has Japan, another ally of the regime and significant aid donor to Sri Lanka, which previously urged Sri Lanka to ‘allay international concerns over alleged war crimes committed last year by Sri Lankan forces in the country’ and improve its human rights situation.
Thus, the Rajapaksa regime can no longer dismiss these calls as part of a ‘Western conspiracy’ by countries with an agenda to destroy Sri Lanka’s reputation. It’s time to admit that the problem might not be the international community, but Sri Lanka’s rights record.
The message of the international community is clear. Sri Lanka’s human rights situation is deteriorating and its time is running out. Something must be done, and fast. Unfortunately, the message of the government to date is equally clear: that it will not listen. This message was illustrated not just by its words, but its actions: attempting to threaten journalists, denying entry to the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) delegation and denying Tamil families of the disappeared their right to the freedom of expression.
The Sri Lankan Government must decide if it is going to continue to vainly try to shut out the calls for accountability, growing increasingly louder, or if it is willing to begin to listen. The time to act is now.
M.A. Sumanthiran Member of Parliament – Tamil National Alliance