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Sri Lanka: CHOGM – Making sense beyond theatricals – Update

Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa had spent around SL Rs 14.8 billion (as stated in parliament by Opposition), imported 54 Mercedes Benz cars for guests use, lot of time and energy to make a success of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet (CHOGM) 2013 hosted in Colombo.

The 2013 Summit had all the razzmatazz that goes with such occasions. The main summit was held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall gifted by China. The leaders’ retreat was organised at Waters Edge in the Sri Jayawardanapura Kotte in Colombo. Other venues included Hambantota and Hikkaduwa. Colombo was spruced up; Commonwealth Business Forum met and an international trade fair ‘Reflections’ was organized on the occasion.

President Rajapaksa must be a happy man for having seen the end of the prestigious event that threatened to get out of hand after Channel 4 released another video showing more visuals on Sri Lanka alleged human rights violations that raised the pitch of international protests calling for boycott of the CHOGM. Sri Lanka must be unhappy with the virulence of the Tamil Nadu protests and near unanimous support for it from both national and local political parties for the boycott call. The Indian Prime Minister’s decision to meet their demand half way by deciding to stay away from the Colombo meet distracted international media attention from the prestigious event to the controversial side show.

In keeping with the Summit theme ‘Growth with equity; Inclusive development,’ the final declaration issued of the CHOGM called for ‘equitable’ growth, better education and inclusivity for women, youth and the disabled. It was agreed that achieving growth with equity and inclusivity must be one of the main policy priorities for the Commonwealth, in keeping with its Charter adopted in December 2012.

But it was the Sri Lanka human rights issue that loomed large on the Summit though it was not on the main agenda. In his welcome speech at the inaugural President Rajapaksa keeping in mind the controversy over Sri Lanka’s human rights record said, asked the members to “collectively guard against bilateral agendas being introduced into the Organisation, distorting Commonwealth traditions and consensus. The strength of the Organisation lies in keeping the member countries together, helping one another in a spirit of partnership, making the Commonwealth truly unique.” The President went on to quote Buddha’s words, “Let not one take notice of faults of others or what they have done or not done. Let one be concerned only about what one has done and left undone” to underline his unhappiness at the controversy over the Colombo meet.

Human rights and Sri Lanka rights abuses issues are not new to the CHOGM. Even in the CHOGM 2011 summit at Perth, the same issue had provoked Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to walk out when President Rajapaksa was invited to speak on the last day of the summit. The Canadian Prime Minister had threatened to boycott the 2013 CHOGM at Colombo if the allegations of Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses were not investigated. In keeping with his threat the Canadian Prime Minister chose to boycott the Colombo meet.

But the biggest weakness of the CHOGM is its inability to act upon any constructive suggestions. In fact diversity of the Commonwealth members ensures that serious suggestions never go beyond the talking stage. For instance the report of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) panel appointed at the CHOGM 2009 found that the Commonwealth’s relevance was lost due to the lack of a mechanism to censure member countries who violate human rights or democratic norms.

The EPG made 106 recommendations including the adoption of a Charter for the Commonwealth, the creation of a new commissioner on the rule of law, democracy and human rights to keep track of rights abuses and political repression by Commonwealth member states. However, when the report came up for consideration at the 2011 Summit no real progress was made. One frustrated member of the EPG Sir Malcom Rifkind, former British Foreign Secretary, called it a disgrace. He said the problem of the Commonwealth was “not a problem of hostility or antagonism, it’s more of a problem of indifference.”

Though a Commonwealth Charter based upon the EPG’s observations was finally adopted December 2012, it was a watered down version leaving the proposal for creating a commissioner to “keep track” of human rights abuses of Commonwealth members by the wayside. On human rights it merely reiterated its commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants on the subject. Though it affirmed the commitment to equality and protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights – aspects very relevant to Sri Lanka human rights abuses issue – it went no further than oracular words.

Mauritius Prime Minister Ramgoolam’s decision not to attend the Colombo summit because “there was total lack of accountability during the Sri Lanka ethnic conflict” is a significant one. He said as a result of the boycott, Mauritius would no longer host the next CHOGM. In view of this the CHOGM decided to hold the next summit in Malta. This move would ensure the issue lives on to figure in the next CHOGM as well.

The Indian Prime Minister’s reasons for staying away from the CHOGM have not been made public. However, President Rajapaksa, who received a letter from Dr Manmohan Singh informing of his decision, made light of the absence saying he was satisfied with Indian representation. Answering a specific question whether the Indian Prime Minister’s absence was in response to Tamil sentiments, the President was clear. “He did not say that to me; the letter said something different,” he said.

Despite Rajapaksa’s apparent equanimity in accepting India’s representation, he must be a disappointed man. It is sure to impact his decision making on India-related issues. However, despite his grievances against India, he needs its goodwill to give a hand in shoring up the precarious economic situation as well as to stand by Sri Lanka when it figures again in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in Geneva in March 2014. Both UK and the U.S. are now members of the UNHRC and a resolution on Sri Lanka is probably on the cards. British Prime Minister David Cameron has already given notice that unless Sri Lanka carries out a proper investigation of the allegations Britain would be seeking an inquiry by the Rights Commissioner at the UNHRC meeting.

The major stakeholders of the CHOGM have all gained both credits and debits on their performance at the summit. President Rajapaksa as the principal stakeholder has probably notched up few brownie points in his local popularity for becoming the chairperson of the CHOGM till 2014. Beyond that, the country facing serious economic crunch would probably be pondering whether the meet was really worth all the money and effort. This is more so when some of the guests like David Cameron lambasted Sri Lanka for its poor human rights record and highlighted uncomfortable issues Tamils have been complaining about for quite some time.

But the CHOGM has shown that Sri Lanka could have avoided all the unpleasantness had it truly and transparently organised an investigation to disprove the allegations. If that lesson has been learnt, it would have been worth all the effort and money that had gone into the CHOGM.

David Cameron was probably the most vocal critic of Sri Lanka and this should please his expatriate Tamil ‘vote banks’ at home. But realistically, he had done what any leader with a conscience should have done to set right human rights deficiencies. But Commonwealth has never been a vehicle for taking major remedial action directed at individual member. At best a member can be kept out of it. And that option is unlikely to come up for Sri Lanka because whether one likes Rajapaksa’s authoritarian style or not, he has been elected by the people. So logically we can expect Britain to bring up the issue at the UNHRC meet, though how far it would politically invest in the issue is to be seen.

India has unresolved internal issues on how to handle Sri Lanka at the local level than it has with Sri Lanka the international level. Manmohan Singh government will face this leadership challenge once again in March 2014 when the Congress will be in the thick of the campaigning for general elections 2014. And that could make it tricky thanks to Sri Lanka issue’s linkages to Tamil Nadu politics. The single learning from CHOGM for the Congress would be to strategise management of regional politics better and stick to value based decision making in time. But there may be neither time nor inclination to take it up at this late hour. So we can see another crisis brewing in Tamil Nadu from January 2014 onward when protests come up in increasing decibels. The government has no choice but to see through it successfully to retain its international credibility.

Lastly, for Tamils it is not enough to pillory Sri Lanka government because the Northern Provincial Council has to progress its difficult political and development agenda with the Rajapaksa government. However, we have seen during the CHOGM, the Tamil National Alliance and Chief Minister Wigneswaran did not allow the situation to overtake them. They put across their points soberly and that should allow them some political space. But Tamil Nadu politics has a knack of queering their pitch; hopefully, they would be cautious to ensure that neither Tamil Nadu nor the pro-Eelam Diaspora interfere with their political responsibilities to the people who elected them.

(The writer, Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: Blog:

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