Reconciliation and relevance

Sir Alan Haselhurst MP

This year’s annual Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference was the perfect platform for Sri Lanka, the host country, to showcase its own parliamentary achievements and the positive steps it has made towards peace and reconciliation in a nation still divided after 25 years of civil war.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Asso­ciation (CPA) held its 58th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference (CPC) in Colom­bo, Sri Lanka, from 8-15 September. This year’s theme for discussion was ‘Ensuring a Relevant Commonwealth for the Future’.

Every CPC is, in fact, four conferences in one: there is also the Small Branches Con­ference for parliamentarians from jurisdic­tions with populations below 500,000 (now in its 32nd year); meetings held by the Com­monwealth Women Parliamentarians; the Commonwealth’s Society of Clerks-at-the- Table seminar; and the main annual confer­ence, which is the key event in the CPA cal­endar. This year, some 600 parliamentarians, clerks and accompanying officials from over 170 parliaments, legislatures and assemblies from across the Commonwealth attended. Considering the huge range of national, de­velopmental and economic backgrounds of delegates, the CPC is an ideal forum for par­liamentary diplomacy, networking and the exchange of ideas, which is at the very core of the CPA’s purpose.

The CPC is hosted by the speaker of the host parliament, who also acts as president of the CPA for the preceding year. This year, the Hon Chamal Rajapaksa, Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament, held this position, suc­ceeding the Rt Hon John Bercow, MP, and Rt Hon Baroness Hayman, speakers of the UK Houses of Commons and Lords respectively.

My overall impression was that CPC 2012 was an extremely well-run event, with a staff of over 200 drawn from the Sri Lankan Parliament and government de­partments. The thematic workshops were a highlight, with eight separate sessions run during a single day that covered a range of challenges facing the contemporary Commonwealth. One of the most absorb­ing sessions considered whether or not the Commonwealth should establish a Com­missioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights, as recommended by the Eminent Persons Group at the 2011 Com­monwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia. The recom­mendation had not been approved in Perth and remains highly controversial with CPA members. The session gave an opportu­nity for exciting and well-informed debate across a spectrum of views.

The CPC delegates welcomed the oppor­tunity to learn of the progress made by Sri Lanka in the reconstruction of the war-rav­aged Northern Province and elsewhere since the coming of peace in May 2009. While everyone recognises that bringing commu­nities together in peace and reconciliation is a long-term and essential process and re­mains a work in progress, the reconstruction work in Sri Lanka over the past three years, including infrastructure development and mine-clearing, is remarkable.

Our Sri Lankan hosts emphasised the achievements made and the positive steps taken as a result of the report by the Les­sons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set up in May 2010 to look into the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Many Commonwealth countries, including Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa – and even the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland – have faced similar peace and reconciliation challenges in their recent history and are in a position to understand and sympathise with the processes Sri Lanka is currently undergoing.

While in Colombo, but outside the CPC programme, I was invited by the widow of the Sri Lankan politician and humanitarian, Lakshman Kadirgamar, to give the keynote address at his Memorial Lecture. Here, I drew parallels with the European Union’s current quandary: although the leadership of Europe feels a desire for unity and coopera­tion, that desire is not always shared by the citizens of all their countries. The message I sought to convey was that the hearts and minds of the people of Sri Lanka, whether Singhalese and Tamil, whether living in Co­lombo, Kandy, Jaffna or outside Sri Lanka, must be persuaded to live and work together in peace and harmony. I suggested that par­liament was the most potent institution to drive the reconciliation process.

I have always believed that actions speak louder than words. When I was last in the Northern Province, I met with members of the Jaffna Chamber of Commerce. One of the major concerns they had was the frequency of power cuts, which impacted businesses and discouraged inward investment. I was pleased to hear from my CPC colleagues who travelled north that while leaving Killinoch­chi, they passed a new electricity substation in Ananthapuram that was being switched on the next day and would connect Jaffna and Killinochchi to the rest of the national grid. If this is indicative of the redevelopment that is going on throughout the north, I believe the outlook for the future is positive.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country. Its eco­nomic growth is impressive, as is the expan­sion of new industry sectors, and while more inward investment is needed, I am optimistic that by using the expertise and experience of Commonwealth parliamentary colleagues, the Sri Lankan Parliament and the CPA can work together to create a legacy of lasting peace, development and prosperity.

About the author:

Sir Alan Haselhurst, MP is Chairperson of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Executive Committee


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