Commonwealth members must promote democracy
Posted Tuesday, November 5 2013 at 02:00
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) is a gathering of leaders from 53 nations largely made up of former territories of the British Empire. They meet to promote common values including equitable growth, democracy, accountability, rule of law, and human rights. Sri Lanka will host the next meeting on November 15-17.
Sri Lanka, like some countries in East Africa, has a tumultuous and tragic history. For three decades, Sri Lanka was wracked by violent rebellions. Tens of thousands lost their lives, families were torn apart, and many people suffered arbitrary arrest and torture.
The uprising in the southern part of the country was ruthlessly crushed in the 1980s, but the skeletons, literally, still emerge from mass graves where the bodies of the disappeared were dumped after executions.
The conflict in the predominant ly minority Tamil populated north, which ended in May 2009, took a heavier toll. A secessionist battle by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, included suicide bombings in civilian areas, political assassinations, extortion, and forced recruitment of children into combat. The war ended with the military’s decisive defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the killing of its top leadership.
After the fighting ended, the government of Sri Lanka had the opportunity to promote long-term peace and reconciliation. Instead, as Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and other countries prepare to attend the summit, there should be no illusions about the venue: war crimes committed during the armed conflict for which there has been no accountability, and in fact, absolute denial, and the ongoing human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government. Uganda should join others in calling for investigations into these abuses.
Human Rights Watch and others have reported on extensive violations of the laws of war by the Sri Lankan armed forces, particularly during the final months of fighting in 2009. While the Tamil Tigers held several hundred thousand civilians effectively as hostages, the military repeatedly shelled the areas where the civilians sought safety.
Summary executions and evidence of rape were captured on video. Neither side allowed adequate access to humanitarian agencies and as many as 40,000 civilians died from hunger, disease and untreated wounds, according to a United Nations panel of experts.
In 2012 and 2013, the UN Human Rights Council passed resolutions calling on Sri Lanka to take concrete steps towards investigating these allegations and to hold those found responsible to account. Although the government keeps announcing that these resolutions are being implemented, there is scant evidence of any progress.
Two months ago, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay visited Sri Lanka and reported that she “detected no new or comprehensive effort to independently or credibly investigate the allegations which have been of concern.”
The government’s aggressive denial of wartime atrocities has been matched by a deterioration in the current human rights situation. Sri Lanka has a proud history of democratic institutions, but the present government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken it in a disturbing authoritarian direction.
Top ranks of the government are held by his brothers. The chief justice was impeached after ruling against the government. Independent commissions, including on human rights, have been rendered toothless. The media and human rights groups have less and less freedom to speak out – and many journalists and activists have fled the country.
The principles of human rights are enshrined in the Commonwealth’s Harare Declaration of 1991. Members, including East African countries in attendance, should not allow Sri Lanka’s hosting of the 2013 summit and its subsequent two-year chairmanship provide the government a platform to whitewash past laws-of-war violations and current human rights abuses.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced he will not attend the November meeting, saying Sri Lanka has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s “core values.” There is considerable domestic pressure on the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, not to participate because of the host government’s failure to investigate abuses during the war.
The Commonwealth Summit comes at a crucial moment. Attending governments can either choose to look the other way, implicitly endorsing Sri Lankan abuses, or they can use this opportunity to support efforts for accountability and democracy in Sri Lanka and more broadly within the Commonwealth.
If the principles on which the Commonwealth is founded are to have any meaning, states should publicly endorse Navi Pillay’s call for an independent, international investigation into wartime violations.
Every effort should be made to prevent the meeting from being a public relations bonanza for an undeserving Sri Lankan government and a deserved embarrassment for the Commonwealth.
Ms Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch