Charu Lata Hogg
Associate Fellow, Asia Programme

Those choosing to skip the Commonwealth summit have delivered a tough message. Those heading to Colombo must ensure they do as well.

As Sri Lanka gears up to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) tomorrow, some glaring anomalies are lapping on the shore of this island nation. The gathering of heads of state from 53 nations seeks to promote 'common values' which include equitable growth, democracy, accountability, rule of law and human rights. The principles of human rights are enshrined in the architecture of the Commonwealth's Harare Declaration of 1991. But Sri Lanka's abysmal record of human rights, not least during the culmination of its three-decade conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, runs contrary to these principles.

These contradictions haven’t escaped the invitees to the summit. The latest snub to Sri Lanka came as the prime minister of Mauritius, Navin Chandra Ramgoolam, joined the prime ministers of India and Canada in choosing not to attend. David Cameron is pressing for a bilateral meeting with President Mahinda Rajapakse, to deliver firm messages on the need for an international inquiry into abuses conducted during the civil war should the Sri Lankan government fail to conduct an ‘independent inquiry’. Sri Lanka has so far agreed to allow the British prime minister a visit to Jaffna, the capital of the largely-Tamil Northern Province, but have warned him not to raise the issue of war crimes.

Concerns about Sri Lanka's violations of human rights will not be formally raised during the event, which has brought into question the issue of the Commonwealth’s redundancy. In the past, the multilateral network mustered the political will required to uphold its core value of human rights: it excluded apartheid South Africa and suspended Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe in a move to punish members who refused to recognize its democratic ideals. However, since its last decisive statement on Zimbabwe in 2002, its secretariat has failed to collectively champion human rights.

For two consecutive years, the UN Human Rights Council has passed resolutions calling on Sri Lanka to take concrete steps towards investigating war crimes allegations.  The Sri Lankan government keeps announcing that these resolutions are being implemented, but it has dragged its feet, setting up sham commissions and bodies.

When the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited Sri Lanka in August, she reported that she ‘detected no new or comprehensive effort to independently or credibly investigate the allegations which have been of concern’.  Meanwhile, the government has continued its repressive stranglehold over the media, judiciary and human rights activists. The military also continues to monitor civilian activities in the north, while allegations of severe torture and sexual violence against those linked to the LTTE have been gathering momentum.

Colombo has been selective about responding to international rebukes. The decision to allow elections in the northern provincial council in July, which swept the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) into a decisive victory, was a result of sustained international pressure, led by the Indian government. However, the president remains resolutely opposed to political devolution and the judiciary remains firmly under the control of the executive following the January 2013 impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. As Rajapakse welcomes his international guests to the summit, he has refused visas to the International Bar Association Human Rights Initiative delegation, who were scheduled to visit to examine the situation regarding rule of law and the independence of the legal profession.

It is clear that Rajapakse wants to use the summit to legitimize his position, both to his domestic and international audience. Those who have chosen not to attend have delivered a tough message that they refuse to be part of this public relations exercise. Those who are attending, including the British prime minister, carry a serious responsibility to ensure that this does not become a mere photo opportunity for the Sri Lankan president to enhance his credibility with his electorate. Instead it should be a forum to champion and protect democracy and human rights, the very principles the Commonwealth stands for.

Further resources

'Assault on democracy' in Sri Lanka
Charu Lata Hogg is interviewed on CNN's Connect the World, 15 November 2013