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Governance in Sri Lanka by Virtually Every Standard has Become an Unmitgated, Incontrovertible Disaster



Gibson Bateman

Not surprisingly, late last month, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) failed to deal with Sri Lanka. As a result, it looks like the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on the island nation will continue as planned this November. United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister David Cameron has recently announced that he will attend CHOGM. A spokesperson also mentioned that Mr. Cameron would be delivering a “tough message” to Mahinda Rajapaksa this November. (Some may be left wondering if it wouldn’t be more effective for Mr. Cameron to deliver his “tough message” from London while one of his subordinates attends CHOGM and does the same).

By virtually every standard – including media freedom, disappearances, the rule of law and land rights – governance in Sri Lanka has become an unmitigated, incontrovertible disaster. In addition to recent reports by Amnesty International, International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch, recent articles by other groups show that the situation in Sri Lanka just keeps getting worse.

The truth is that the Commonwealth isn’t mostly about matters related to democracy, human rights or “shared values and principles.” The Commonwealth is mostly about rhetoric and bureaucracy. Given what has recently happened at CMAG, the Commonwealth can be viewed as, at best, an anachronism and, at worst, a highly irrelevant and unhelpful entity – one that actually works to undermine democratic values through its overt support of authoritarian regimes. The fact that Sri Lanka will soon be chairing the Commonwealth for two years is absurd.

Sri Lanka doesn’t deserve to host CHOGM, although – if the event does go ahead as planned – it is imperative that likeminded governments announce that they will be downgrading their level of representation. Or – as a minimum – it would be prudent for Heads of State to refrain from confirming their attendance, as Mr. Cameron has recently done.

Mr. Cameron is right to argue that tough messages should be conveyed to the regime during the Commonwealth summit. But – again – would it not be more effective for those messages to be delivered in Colombo by people other than Heads of State? That – in and of itself – would send a very clear message. In addition to consistent advocacy leading up to and during CHOGM, a more comprehensive downgrading of diplomatic representation would be an embarrassment for an insecure regime which is obsessed with prestige. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken the lead, but others should follow.

The Commonwealth is failing, but the UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC) doesn’t have to. Having already passed two resolutions on Sri Lanka and given the fact that the Rajapaksa regime shows no interest in changing its despotic ways, the stage is set for a real resolution – one with teeth – to be passed at the HRC’s 25th session. It’s been more than four years since the conclusion of war, but the regime still shows no interest in genuine reconciliation, a political solution or democratic governance. On the contrary, as long as this regime wields power; impunity will be the law of the land.

There are pressing humanitarian needs which still have not been met. Nonetheless, in the near to medium term – domestic political change and accountability don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They are both worthwhile initiatives which could and should be pursued simultaneously. From firsthand testimonies and documentaries to United Nations reports, there’s a considerable amount of evidence which simply cannot be swept aside.

Though not necessarily commensurate with what transpired during the Central American nation’s bloodiest days, Guatemala has shown that a semblance of accountability via domestic institutions is possible. However, it’s unrealistic to expect a similar outcome in Sri Lanka – certainly not now and possibly not for decades.

The next steps are clear; all that’s missing is political will. The international community has an opportunity to take more meaningful action and confront the Rajapaksa autocracy. Only time will tell if diplomatic rhetoric can be matched with consequential diplomatic action.