OP-ED: The Commonwealth Charter, Human Rights and Sri Lanka

By Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders

 The most important reason for the selection of a country as the host-venue for a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is that it serves the interests of the Commonwealth as a whole.

 

If this reason were a consideration, President Mahinda Rajapaksa would already have withdrawn Sri Lanka from hosting the CHOGM in November.  The President has not done so.  Instead, he has insisted that the Commonwealth Summit must be held in Sri Lanka even as his government is mired in intense controversy over violations of human rights and disregard for the rule of law.

 

 

By this insistence, the Sri Lanka President demonstrates only an ambition to claim honour and respectability through hosting the meeting and representing the Commonwealth for the next two years as its Chair. This self-serving position of the Sri Lanka government is injuring the Commonwealth.

 

 

Every member state of the Commonwealth –- particularly its small and weak ones -- needs the Organisation to be strong and credible.  A discredited Commonwealth, that cannot stand-up for its own declared values, would have no moral authority or convincing status to advocate effectively for the welfare of its member countries in the international community. 

 

 

President Rajapaksa’s dismissal of the country’s Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, after an unfair impeachment process that was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, and the appointment of his former Attorney-General to the post, is “serious” and it comes amid evidence of “persistent” human rights abuses of journalists, and other groups within Sri Lanka.

 

 

These developments follow the government’s refusal to allow an independent inquiry, as requested by the United Nations, into the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in 2009 towards the end of a conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tigers.

 

 

The unsuitability of Sri Lanka at this time to host the CHOGM is drawn into stark clarity by the Charter of the Commonwealth that was signed on March 11 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth after the complete concurrence of 53 of the Commonwealth’s 54 Heads of Government.  The fifty-fourth member state, Fiji whose military government seized power in 2006, is currently suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth.

 

 

The Charter was one of the important recommendations for reform of the Commonwealth made by an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) of which I was privileged to be a member.  The recommendation was accepted by all Commonwealth Heads of Government at their meeting in Australia in October 2011.

 

 

An important clause in the Charter reads: “We are committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights including the right to development, for all without discrimination on any grounds as the foundations of peaceful, just and stable societies”.  Unless the Sri Lanka government demonstrates that it upholds that commitment through actions that have been urged upon it by the UN, many Commonwealth Governments, and a myriad number of international legal and judicial organisations, it is not qualified to host the CHOGM.  Attendance by other Heads of Government would sully the Commonwealth by validating the Rajapaksa government.  

 

 

This is not the first time that the Commonwealth has had to deal with violations of its values and principles by a member state.  It did so in 1977 in relation to Idi Amin whose brutal regime in Uganda engaged in massive violation of human rights and sustained disregard for the sanctity of life.

 

 

At that time, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Shridath Ramphal, said to Commonwealth leaders: “There has been in the Commonwealth, of course, as in the international community, a long and necessary tradition of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. No commonwealth country (indeed, who anywhere in the world?) is above reproach in some respect or other. If these traditions were not to be respected there would be no end to recrimination and censoriousness. How to strike a balance of political judgement between the two extremes of declamation and silence is sometimes difficult – but it would be entirely illusory to believe that such a judgment could, or indeed should, be avoided altogether. There will be times in the affairs of the Commonwealth   when one member’s conduct will provoke the wrath of others beyond the limits of silence.... although the line may be indefinable, all the world will know when it has been crossed.”

 

 

It had been crossed in Uganda; and at their meeting in 1977, Commonwealth leaders stated that it was their “overwhelming view” that the excesses of Amin’s regime “were so gross as to warrant the world’s concern and to evoke condemnation by Heads of Government in strong and unequivocal terms”.

 

 

In those days, there was no Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) as there is now, tasked with dealing with States where the Commonwealth’s declared values have been violated.  Nonetheless, Heads of Government themselves made it clear that the excesses of Idi Amin were unacceptable, as they did later with the white minority government of Ian Smith in Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

 

 

As CMAG has since suspended other member states – Fiji, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Pakistan – after addressing their violations of Commonwealth values, it should do so now with Sri Lanka, or the freshly minted Commonwealth Charter will simply become another set of words, not worth the paper on which they are inscribed in the name of the people of the Commonwealth.

 

 

There is also precedent for moving a Commonwealth meeting if the host government has breached Commonwealth agreed principles and values. In 1981, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, ignored the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement that banned sporting contact with Apartheid South Africa.  Muldoon strongly supported the South Africa Springbok Rugby team's tour to New Zealand. Commonwealth governments, feeling that Muldoon had violated agreed Commonwealth principles and values, moved a Finance Ministers meeting from New Zealand to the Bahamas as a mark of their displeasure.

 

 

The Sri Lanka government should withdraw from hosting the CHOGM in November, or the other Commonwealth countries should withdraw themselves from attending. Either action would strengthen the Commonwealth and enhance its authority. But, on no account should the CHOGM be held in Sri Lanka.



Sanders is a Consultant, former Caribbean diplomat and Vistiing Fellow, London University. Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com 

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