Today (Friday, 27 September, 2013) marks a decisive opportunity for the Commonwealth to show real leadership on human rights in Sri Lanka, but one it looks like the organisation will not seize. In New York, a Commonwealth group of foreign ministers, with human rights at the heart of their brief, will meet – but this body has in the past failed to take meaningful action Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record, and there is no indication that they will do so today.
Today’s meeting takes place less than two months away from a Commonwealth summit to be held in Sri Lanka. The Commonwealth’s silence on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, past and present, is nothing short of shameful.
If this summit still goes ahead in Colombo in November, leaders of Commonwealth countries will be lining up to shake hands with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa – the man who oversaw the army’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in 2009, in an operation that left tens of thousands of civilians dead and involved such extensive abuses that Sri Lanka has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since then President Rajapaksa has steered his country in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described as “an increasingly authoritarian direction”.
President Rajapaksa will use each photo opportunity with his global counterparts to show that his country has now been accepted back into the international fold, and that past crimes are no longer a concern.
Whoever chairs the Commonwealth Summit usually then chairs the Commonwealth itself for the next two years.
It is extraordinary that the Commonwealth would give such a seal of approval to Sri Lanka. The country’s leaders stand accused of war crimes committed during the last stages of the armed conflict, described in a UN report as “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”. Today, the government is shoring up its power and slowly but surely dismantling institutions that should protect human rights.
As Chair of the Commonwealth, President Rajapaksa would be expected to help the Secretary-General address any violations of human rights and other Commonwealth values – it’s difficult to think of a bigger irony. Sri Lanka has shown complete disregard for the Commonwealth’s principles. The 2009 Trinidad Affirmation, which enshrines the organization’s values including human rights, reads like a checklist of what the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to do.
The Commonwealth leadership, meanwhile, has so far remained silent – despite repeated condemnation of the persistent human rights problems in Sri Lanka by the UN Human Rights Council, by Sri Lankan civil society, Amnesty International and many others.
During the armed conflict, and in particular during its final bloody months, according to UN estimates 40,000 civilians or more may have been killed. While many died at the hands of the Tamil Tigers, government forces were responsible for the vast majority of casualties. Shelling of areas with a heavy concentration of civilians, including hospitals, extrajudicial executions of prisoners and widespread sexual violence against women and men only begins to describe the horrors the Tamil population in Sri Lanka’s north were put through by the army.
The Sri Lankan government continues to proclaim, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that its troops followed a “zero civilian casualties” policy. Its own domestic bodies examining the conflict have been little more than window dressing for the international community. To this day, the alleged perpetrators of one of the most large-scale massacres of civilians in the past decade continue to walk free, with Sri Lanka rejecting continued calls for an independent and credible international investigation into alleged war crimes .
Since 2009, Rajapaksa has sought to concentrate power further for himself, his family and those loyal to him. He has removed presidential term limits, placed key government institutions under his direct control, and continued the use of draconian security legislation that grant the security forces sweeping powers.
The independence of the judiciary is a fundamental Commonwealth value. In January of this year, the government impeached Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake on charges of misconduct; her real “offence” appears to have been her failure to side with the Presidency.
The administration has cracked down harshly on anyone standing in its way and treats dissent as treason. Harassment, threats, beatings, so-called “white van” kidnappings. Government critics like journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda and activists Lalith Kumar Weeraju and Kugan Murugan have disappeared. The authorities and those acting on their behalf have targeted human rights defenders, opposition politicians, journalists, trade unionists and others, in particular those in still heavily militarized mostly Tamil north.
It would be a travesty to reward Sri Lanka with the Commonwealth Summit and role of Chair for two years, thus giving a member state a free pass for the past and continuing violations and damaging the organization’s credibility, perhaps irreparably.
Friday’s meeting, and the summit in November, still provide a chance to rescue the organization’s reputation. We hope that Secretary-General Kamlesh Sharma and Commonwealth countries seize that opportunity – on behalf of human rights in Sri Lanka and around the world.