A group of civil society and rights organisations have recently written an open letter to Commonwealth Foreign Ministers. The letter highlights a number of concerns relating to Sri Lanka’s human rights record and the issues this creates in terms of Commonwealth involvement.

During the final stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka Maja Daruwala, executive director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative argued that:

“With the United Nations warning that there could be a potential ‘bloodbath,’ the CMAG [Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group] needs to assert itself to protect the civilians trapped in the fighting in a member country ……It should not stay silent during this mounting tragedy.”

Daruwala’s argument should still apply post-tragedy and thus should be taken into account by Commonwealth bodies and organisations.

The Government of Sri Lanka’s failure to effectively and independently investigate possible war crimes as well as its continued refusal to investigate or prosecute those accused of rights abuses should have a direct impact upon Sri Lanka’s relationship with the Commonwealth. Human Rights Watch points out that “The Commonwealth harms itself when it stays silent during a crisis in a member state” (Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch). In the Harare Commonwealth Declaration 1991, Commonwealth Heads of Government pledged to protect and promote fundamental human rights and to support “the United Nations and other international institutions in the world’s search for peace.” Sri Lanka falls short of this pledge; as consistently highlighted by the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.

Sri Lanka is currently slated to host the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting; which will in turn hand Sri Lanka the chairmanship of the Commonwealth for 2013-15. The open letter to Commonwealth Foreign Ministers quite rightly points out that:

“Awarding the next CHOGM to Sri Lanka would not only undermine the fundamental values on which the Commonwealth is based, but also has the potential to render the Commonwealth’s commitment to human rights and the promise of reforms meaningless. At this crucial juncture, when the Commonwealth is seeking to strengthen its legitimacy and relevance, there is an urgent need for the institution to take principled decisions that demonstrate its commitment to the fundamental values of democracy and human rights. The fact that the host country of the CHOGM goes on to hold the chairmanship of the Commonwealth (from 2013 to 2015) is also a serious concern. Handing over leadership of the Commonwealth to a country with a questionable record in terms of human rights and democracy should not be the outcome of an event that will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Harare Declaration.”

One of the most recognised faces of the Commonwealth is that of the high profile Commonwealth Games. Sri Lanka is to launch a bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games and has put forward the small Southern city of Hambantota as their host city. Hambantota was one of many coastal cities to be engulfed by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and has received high levels of funding. It has seen the construction of an international cricket stadium, and international air and sea ports are now being constructed, as well as a railway line. These developments, along with the possible Commonwealth Games in 2018, make the future for Hambantota very bright indeed. It is however of no surprise that the the former electoral district of the president Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current electoral district of his favoured son (Namal), his eldest brother (Chamal) and his cousin (Nirupama) should receive such preferential treatment while the rest of the East and North of Sri Lanka still struggle to recover not only from the devastating Tsunami but also from a highly destructive civil conflict. Two articles published by a leading Sri Lankan newspaper highlight the discrepancy in singling out Hambantota for such high levels of development: http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2011/09/04/why-hambantota/ & http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2011/04/15/the-white-elephant-in-hambantota/. The apparent inequality issues aside, the Commonwealth Games promote the ideals of the Commonwealth and therefore upholding the core values of the Commonwealth should be a factor in any decision on where the Games should be held.

The Games are the most high-profile expression of the Commonwealth itself – a collective that aims to promote democracy, human rights, the rule of law, good governance, individual liberty, multilateralism and world peace. Can it be right to hold them in a country whose media, as documented by the Sri Lanka Campaign (link to blog post), are under constant attack, with complete impunity for those who attack media professionals?

The situation is well summarised by Australia’s ABC news:

“Democracy? President Rajapaksa was re-elected in January in an election in which he used state funds to campaign and ensured that the state-run news media effectively silenced opposition candidates.
Human rights? Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both condemned the Sri Lankan government repeatedly for breaches, which continue despite the government’s complete victory over the Tamil Tigers.
The Tigers, as the originators of suicide bombing in the modern era, were bound to trigger harsh counter-measures; but the Tigers are now a completely beaten and spent force, yet the authoritarian structure mobilised against them remains.”

Awarding Hambantota the Commonwealth Games would mean rewarding bad governance, grave social injustices and the denial of civil rights to a large number of Sri Lankans. The Commonwealth Games Federation in conjunction with The Commonwealth should make it clear that Sri Lanka can only be considered as a possible host for the Games if it radically improves its human rights record and show that it is ready to promote the Commonwealth, via the Games, by allowing an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes.