“Sri Lanka should be on CMAG’s agenda”

Sir Ronald Sanders

Should the Heads of Government meeting be moved to a different country?

Head to head: The venue for the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is Sri Lanka, but some countries are signalling their unwillingness to attend following the controversial impeachment of the country’s Chief Justice. Sir Ronald Sanders and Neville de Silva look at the two sides of the argument.

Head to head: The venue for the next Commonwealth Headsof Government Meeting is Sri Lanka, but some countries aresignalling their unwillingness to attend following the controversialimpeachment of the country’s Chief Justice. Sir Ronald Sanders andNeville de Silva look at the two sides of the argument

There are many reasons why a government would want to host a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Among them is the badge of honour and respectability that would be bestowed upon the government by the governments of the other 53-member states of the Commonwealth. Another reason is that the Head of Government of the host state would become the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth for two years and would benefit politically from being the face of the Commonwealth in the international community.

A third reason is the spin-off effects of knowledge of, and investment in, the country that media attention to CHOGM could engender. However, the most important reason of all is that the interests of the Commonwealth as a whole are served by the venue in which the CHOGM is held.

If the latter reason were a consideration in the collective mind of the Sri Lankan government, President Rajapaksa should have withdrawn the offer to host the CHOGM while controversy still rages over its human rights practices and its regard for the rule of law. But he has not done so. Instead, his government has insisted that the Commonwealth Summit must be held in Sri Lanka. By this insistence, the Sri Lankan government shows no concern for the credibility of the Commonwealth.

This obdurate position by the Sri Lankan government, even as the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) has already strongly criticised its human rights record and is likely to do even more sharply before the CHOGM is held, has caused many Commonwealth governments either to call for the venue of the meeting to be changed, or to indicate that they will not attend the meeting.

Despite the arguments of the Sri Lankan government, the evidence of its violation of declared and agreed Commonwealth values has been well documented. There is sufficient cause for Sri Lanka to be considered by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) for “serious and persistent violations” of Commonwealth values.

The Sri Lankan government has said that such a development would be contrary to CMAG rules. This is not so. At Perth in 2011, Commonwealth leaders, including President Rajapaksa, agreed to an expanded mandate for CMAG, which said that the group needed to be more proactive.

Therefore, CMAG has not only the responsibility, but also the obligation, to tackle the full range of serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values, including the Latimer House Principles which state: “Judiciaries and parliaments should fulfill their respective but critical roles in the promotion of the rule of law in a complementary and constructive manner; Interaction, if any, between the executive and the judiciary should not compromise judicial independence; and Judges should be subject to suspension or removal only for reasons of incapacity or misbehaviour that clearly renders them unfit to discharge their duties.”

In this context, President Rajapaksa’s dismissal of the country’s Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, after a wholly unfair impeachment process that was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, and the appointment of his former Attorney-General to the post, is “serious” and it comes amid “persistent” evidence of human rights abuses of journalists, and other groups within Sri Lanka. The government has failed to act on an assurance to transfer significant powers to elected regional councils, to give the island’s Tamil minority some autonomy. These developments follow the government’s refusal to allow an independent inquiry into the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in 2009 towards the end of the conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tigers.

The new CMAG mandate also allows for a process by which the Commonwealth Secretary-General would use his Good Offices to engage a country of concern before that country is placed on CMAG’s agenda.

According to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, this process is not yet exhausted and there is a timeline after such exhaustion for a country to be put before CMAG. It is a flimsy contention. The Secretary-General has used his Good Offices and has issued a series of statements expressing deep disappointment over the dismissal of the Chief Justice and his concern for the present “constitutional impasse” in Sri Lanka. In clinging to a timeline provision after the Good Offices role is pronounced to be exhausted, the Sri Lankan government is clutching at a technical straw that is too thin and fragile to shroud the wider and stronger issues.

The Sri Lankan government would be regarded much more sympathetically and helpfully if it were to put the Commonwealth’s interests first by now withdrawing Sri Lanka as the CHOGM venue, and agreeing to engage constructively with CMAG in addressing the democratic problems that now plague the country.

About the author:

Sir Ronald Sanders is a former Caribbean diplomat and member of the Eminent Persons Group 2010-2011


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International