CHOGM was always going to be overshadowed by human rights

Brad Adams

“Does anyone specifically have a question that’s not on Sri Lanka or human rights?” pleaded a spokesman for the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Colombo’s Commonwealth summit, at a press conference in November. 

In 2009 the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa brought an end to the long and brutal civil war with the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by indiscriminately shelling and bombing several hundred thousand civilians, some of whom the LTTE were using as human shields. 

Captured LTTE fighters and supporters were executed, raped and forcibly disappeared. Yet four years on, despite promise after promise, the Sri Lankan government has refused to accept responsibility for clear violations of international law by its forces that led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths. 

And it has failed to investigate seriously the numerous credible allegations of war crimes by its own troops. 

Moreover, Sri Lanka’s problems continue today. Instead of engaging in post-conflict reforms, the Rajapaksa administration has become increasingly authoritarian, weakening the judiciary and denying space to human rights activists and independent journalists. Respect for human rights in Sri Lanka continues to decline, as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, found during her August trip to the country. 

Torture and excessive use of force by the police remain serious problems, while media outlets and human rights organisations that speak out on such issues face threats, harassment and, at times, violence. Many journalists and rights activists have felt compelled to leave the country. 

The international response to the final months of the conflict was so feeble that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established a special panel to look into the UN’s own response. He endorsed the panel’s findings, which called the UN’s response a “systemic failure” to protect human rights. 

The Commonwealth should have been ready to stand up for its values and to see the oncoming media whirlwind. After all, the Commonwealth’s members have empowered it to investigate serious or persistent violations of the 1991 Harare Declaration and to recommend measures for action. It has the authority to suspend a member country of the Commonwealth for serious infringements. 

It’s not too late for the Commonwealth to make itself relevant on Sri Lanka, particularly as Sri Lanka is now chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years. It should remember that its responsibilities extend to the people of the Commonwealth, not just its governments. It can speak out for the victims of abuses and help them obtain the justice they deserve. If it doesn’t, it risks its credibility as an international forum. 


About the author:

Brad Adams is the Asia director at Human Rights Watch


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