The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) will meet in London on Friday in what will be the 39th session since its founding in 1995. The group was created during that year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) – a meeting which also saw the decision to suspend Nigeria from the organisation after repeated violations of the group’s core values. With the next CHOGM meeting controversially scheduled to be held in Sri Lanka this coming November, the example of Nigeria should be used as a precedent to guide the Commonwealth’s actions towards Sri Lanka.

Nigeria’s suspension followed repeated criticism from the Commonwealth after its military leader, General Ibrahim Babangida, had rejected the results of 1993’s presidential polls. The subsequent crack-down on political opposition culminated in the execution of nine activists – including the author Ken Saro-Wiwa – as the Commonwealth met in New Zealand. This proved to be the final straw and Nigeria was suspended for failing to uphold the principles of the “Harare declaration.”

Amongst the key principles laid out in this declaration is the Commonwealth’s support for the United Nations, whose Human Rights Council last month once again condemned the situation in Sri Lanka. Thier High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, drew particular attention to the continuing reports of judicial interference, extrajudicial killings, abductions, and enforced disappearances in the past year, and called for urgent action. The Commonwealth risks undermining its own charter, and indeed its very character, if it does not heed this call.

Failing to take a stand will not only hinder the country’s peace and reconciliation processes, but will infer the Commonwealth’s acceptance of the situation in Sri Lanka and invite the Government of Sri Lanka to continue its disregard for Commonwealth principles and international law. Africa can again be looked to for a precedent after the African Union in 2006 refused to allow Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir the custom of assuming chairmanship of its heads of government group following human rights abuses in Darfur. In the African Union, as in the Commonwealth, the host was automatically made chair. But the African Union showed a resolve which has so far been lacking in the Commonwealth, and changed the convention so that al-Bashir would not be able to use his position as chair to sanitise his reputation.

Former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, has stated that in order for the Commonwealth to stay relevant, credible and have an impact, it must stay true and responsive. Sri Lanka is in blatant violation of the Harare Declaration and, as it was with Nigeria in 1995, the Commonwealth must stay true to its values and show that no infringements of its principles are acceptable. It is time for the Commonwealth to respond, support current international efforts, and pressure the Government of Sri Lanka to re-establish democracy and human rights protections.

However it is unfortunately typical of the Commonwealth that Sri Lanka is treated with kid gloves whilst a harder line is reserved for African Commonwealth countries. There appears to be a double standard within the Commonwealth whereby African nations are held to account for violations of Commonwealth values, but non African nations are not. The Commonwealth launched its “charter” with great fanfare last month. The idea was that this charter would provide a new common set of values that will hold the Commonwealth together. Yet Sri Lanka is in violation of virtually every article of the new charter, and there have been no consequences.

The 1995 decision to suspend Nigeria was proven to be a wise one as, after a mixture of assistance and international pressure, the country was welcomed back into the Commonwealth fold in 1999 with the capital Abuja even going on to host CHOGM in 2003.

Nor is this an isolated example: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Coté d’Ivoire have all had recent positive experiences where the involvement of the international community has improved the political and human rights situation within the country. This sits in marked contrast to Sri Lanka’s refusal to constructively engage with any criticism, be it from inside or outside the country. It is with this in mind that the Sri Lanka Campaign calls for positive action to be taken against Sri Lanka before it hosts this year’s CHOGM, so that it might return to the values of democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression which unite all members of the Commonwealth.

A quick glance at this map of signatories to the International Criminal court shows how
far ahead Africa is of Asia when it comes to constructively working with the international
community on human rights (green = ratified, light green = currently ratifying, orange =
signed but not ratified)

We therefore call upon the Commonwealth to:

  • Publicly express its disapproval of Sri Lanka’s violation of Commonwealth principles, particularly democracy, the rule of law, and protection of human rights;
  • Place Sri Lanka on the Commonwealth’s “CMAG” agenda and consider suspension of membership;
  • Publicly present benchmarks for progress in Sri Lanka ahead of the Commonwealth summit.
  • Relocate the 2013 Commonwealth Summit, “CHOGM”, to a rights-respecting country if benchmarks are not met;
  • Award the Chair-in-Office position to a rights-respecting official; and
  • Provide practical assistance to Sri Lanka in adhering to Commonwealth principles.