The Commonwealth secretariat recently confirmed that Colombo will be the venue for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting due to happen at the end of 2013. Earlier this week, the secretariat said that Sri Lanka (SL) would also not be on the agenda of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) which is due to meet next month. This is a surprising because SL has been violating the Commonwealth's Latimer House rules and usually if a nation breaches the rules, it is put under scrutiny for suspension or at the very least is referred to the CMAG. The House Rules are a set of guidelines on the good practices governing relations among the executive, parliament and the judiciary for the promotion of good governance, the rule of law and human rights.
The island nation has been flouting the rules for sometime; only recently it impeached its chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake illegally. But Kamlesh Sharma, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, failed to see that the impeachment is another step in a series of illegal actions taken by the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. Sri Lanka has been refusing to allow an international inquiry into the accusations of human rights violations in the last days of its civil war in 2009 and is even reluctant to hold an internal inquiry.
After public outrage against State repression in SL, in March 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) censured the country, albeit gently. However, a recent UN report points out that little has changed in SL since the 2012 resolution. Amid demands for more stringent action against the nation, another UNHRC resolution was passed in March 2013. Though the resolution failed to call for an international probe, it censures SL for lack of accountability, places the country under the scrutiny of the UN and intends to review the issue periodically over the next one year.
In such a scenario, the Secretary-General's stance undermines all such efforts. But the issue is being discussed at various platforms because the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting is slated to be held in Sri Lanka in November. Many Commonwealth members and civil society are demanding a change of venue. Canada, which accounts for the second-largest contribution to the Commonwealth's coffers after Britain, has said that it may not attend the meet if the venue is not changed. Britain has also voiced doubts about the level of its representation.
On its part, SL is using the race card to deflect external pressure. This posture is obscuring the true issue within the Commonwealth: does the Commonwealth have a core set of fundamental values like democracy, rule of law and human rights and who stands for them?
But SL's stance might not work. Several African and Caribbean members are questioning the value of the Commonwealth if the meet is held in Colombo. Others have offered to host the meet. India is also edgy about SL intransigence. In 2012, and again in 2013, it supported the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka. Despite increasing pressure, the Secretary-General is unmoved.
If those calling for a change in venue are defeated, the Commonwealth will have no meaning in the future. If they are not, then after the first shock to this old gentlemen's club a real organisation of the 1.6 billion people it represents will perhaps take shape.
Maja Daruwala is director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
The views expressed by the author are personal