Has the Commonwealth lost its legitimacy?

By Shaun Dias

Foreign Affairs ICommonwealth Leaders are beginning to gather in Sri Lanka ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Many nations are criticising the decision to allow Sri Lanka to host CHOGM amidst the countries continued human and civil rights violations springing from the countries twenty-six year civil war.

The principles of the Commonwealth, set out in the Harare Declaration is:

  • We believe that international peace and order, global economic development and the rule of international law are essential to the security and prosperity of mankind;
  • We believe in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief, and in the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives;
  • We recognise racial prejudice and intolerance as a dangerous sickness and a threat to healthy development, and racial discrimination as an unmitigated evil;
  • We oppose all forms of racial oppression, and we are committed to the principles of human dignity and equality;
  • We recognise the importance and urgency of economic and social development to satisfy the basic needs and aspirations of the vast majority of the peoples of the world, and seek the progressive removal of the wide disparities in living standards amongst our members.

Sadly the country that has been granted the honour of hosting this international summit contravenes every fundamental principle set out in the declaration.

Kamalesh Sharma the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth defended the decision to hold the Summit in Sri Lanka when he said in an interview debate on Channel 4 “In the time to come, I trust that people will see… that indeed very significant advances have been made in the interests of the people of Sri Lanka.” Yet four years after the climax of the bloody civil war the international community has seen evidence of the strongest kind that the interests of many of the people of Sri Lanka seen the opposite of advancement.

Evidence continues to mount of military backed rape and continued disappearances of Sri Lankan citizens. I find it astonishing that a country, against this backdrop, has been chosen to host an organization that is supposed to uphold, promote and restore the values of the Commonwealth.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Navi Pillai in her press conference in Colombo said that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) was a murderous organization. She went on to express her serious concerns about the Sri Lankan administrations militarisation of civil zones in the name of post-war development. She stated that she was also worried about the increased vulnerability of women and girls, especially female headed households, to sexual harassment and abuse and the forced white-van disappearance of many civilians, not only in the North-East provinces, but also abductions in peaceful districts like the capital, Colombo.

The Tamil Nadu State Assembly passed a resolution demanding the Indian state to completely boycott the CHOGM. This is unsurprising, given that India is home to around 70 million Tamils.

India has never been critical of Sri Lanka. This may be because it does not have a spectacular human rights record of its own so. Another reason why India may want to stay close to Sri Lanka for a number of reasons is the recent drive to build up trade with China. Countries like Australia also want to do trade with Asian states, particularly Sri Lanka, and will happily overlook human rights violations for the sake of commercial interest. The emphasis on business/politics deviates from the principles of the Charter of the Commonwealth. These values have been one of the reasons many in the Tamil community have been able to relocate to other commonwealth countries which makes it all the more disturbing that a country which shows such disregard for these values is being allowed to fly the flag for them.

So far the only Commonwealth country, Canada, has chosen to boycott the CHOGM. The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, stated:

In the past two years we have not only seen no improvement in these areas, in almost all of these areas we’ve seen a considerable rolling back, a considerable worsening of the situation.

Despite the abuses I think it is imperative that David Cameron, the Foreign Secretary and HRH Prince Charles should attend CHOGM. Boycotts, however important symbolically, have often proven an ineffective tool in international diplomacy, and are not an appropriate tool for a nation, which is a world leader. However, while the British delegation is there they must apply pressure to the Sri Lankan administration, firstly to answer questions on their increasingly worrying record and secondly to seek public assurances that the administration will improve on whatever failings have come before. Many states across the world that have only been independent for a few short decades take inspiration from the values of the Commonwealth. If action is not taken to end this travesty those values, not to mention the institution built on them, risk losing their fundamental legitimacy.


Image from globaltamilnews.net

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