Dialogue and debate

Daisy Cooper

The Commonwealth Advisory Bureau sees itself as a catalyst for debate, helping to facilitate discussion and understanding on even the most diffi cult and divisive of issues – including the thorny question of Sri Lanka’s suitability as the host for CHOGM in 2013.

On 17 October 2011, just 12 days before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau (CAB), in partnership with the Commonwealth Journalists Association, held a debate entitled ‘Should Sri Lanka host the 2013 Commonwealth Summit? The case for and against’. Many considered the event to be deliberately provocative but at CAB we saw more risks in not having the debate at all. 

In the preceding weeks, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), and a number of other reputable human rights organisations, called on Commonwealth leaders to defer Sri Lanka’s hosting of the next CHOGM, as they had done two years earlier at their Trinidad and Tobago Summit, moving the date of the Colombo CHOGM from 2011 to 2013. The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, also weighed into the debate, signalling that unless there was significant progress on human rights, political reconciliation and accountability for actions taken in the final months of the civil war, he would not attend the 2013 CHOGM in Sri Lanka.

In response, the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, publicly stated his opposition to a proposal, to be tabled at the 2011 CHOGM, to establish a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights – under whose scrutiny Sri Lanka was likely to fall. Rajapaksa suggested that attempts to create the post by the ‘old Commonwealth’ countries – Australia, Britain and Canada – could divide the association along ‘North South’ lines. 

Such a divide at the meeting in Perth became a very real possibility. Moreover, it threatened to overshadow other legitimate arguments on both sides, namely that the alleged human rights abuses were both a reason why the war-torn country should and should not be allowed to host the Summit. 

CAB convened a distinguished panel to discuss the matter. Rahul Roy-Choudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, presented the case for Sri Lanka hosting the 2013 Commonwealth Summit. He argued that the country was still recovering from a brutal 25-year conflict and needed the support of the Commonwealth and the international community to help its stabilisation and reconciliation processes. He said that it was in the interest of the Commonwealth to ensure that Sri Lanka did not withdraw from its commitment to host CHOGM, suggesting that the association could use the Summit as “leverage” over the Sri Lankan government on issues of accountability and reconciliation. 

Professor James Manor, of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, disagreed. While he recognised that during the civil war, and in the aftermath, there was evidence of gross human rights abuses committed by both the Sri Lanka government and its armed forces, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, he argued that the Commonwealth would damage its reputation as a force for decency and human dignity if it allowed Sri Lanka to host the 2013 Summit. Citing the fact that 15 international organisations, including the UN, had condemned the Sri Lankan government for human rights abuses but had not been able to exert any influence over the situation, Professor Manor argued that the Commonwealth would have no leverage at all. 

The debate was wide-ranging and opinion was divided, but it remained respectful. CAB had been advised not to organise the event due to the very real sensitivities around choosing speakers and ensuring a balance between Sinhalese and Tamils in the audience, possible accusations of ‘taking sides’ or ‘causing trouble’, and the risk of the meeting being stormed by a group with strong views. But we navigated the pitfalls and were widely commended by government representatives and members of the Sri Lankan diaspora for our handling of such an emotionally charged and ‘raw’ issue.

About the author:

Daisy Cooper is Director of the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau


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