London Meeting a Chance to Put Values into Practice
(London) – Commonwealth foreign ministers should not award Sri Lanka the two-year chairmanship of the Commonwealth after it hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2013. The Committee of the Whole, made up of Commonwealth foreign ministers, will meet on October 17-18 in London to finalize the agenda for the meetings in Colombo on November 15-17.
“It’s bad enough that the Commonwealth has allowed a government accused of massive rights abuses and war crimes to host its summit,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But to effectively put the Commonwealth in the hands of an unrepentant government that doesn’t meet the Commonwealth’s official values on democracy or human rights would be the height of hypocrisy.”
Rewarding Sri Lanka with the chairmanship casts serious doubts on the Commonwealth’s commitment to supporting human rights and democratic reform enshrined in the Commonwealth Harare Declaration of 1991, Human Rights Watch said.
The Commonwealth and its participants risk major embarrassment by holding the meeting in Colombo, particularly given the September 25 statement by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, to the UN Human Rights Council. In her statement, she highlighted a range of human rights problems in Sri Lanka, including the government’s failure “to independently or credibly investigate the allegations” of war crimes during the country’s armed conflict.
Pillay’s report to the Human Rights Council underscored the need for an independent, international investigation into abuses in the final months of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long conflict, which ended in 2009. A panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon found that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed as a result of violations of international law by both sides. Commonwealth countries should actively support an investigation, and should press Sri Lanka to cooperate fully, Human Rights Watch said.
Canada announced this month that its head of government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, will not attend the Commonwealth meeting in November because of Sri Lanka’s rights record.
The Commonwealth is empowered to investigate serious or persistent violations of the Harare Declaration and to recommend measures for action. It has the authority to suspend a member country of the Commonwealth for serious infringements.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma has stated that the Commonwealth is active in promoting its values in Sri Lanka, such as respect for human rights and free speech. But he has repeatedly ignored the issue and even appeared to shield Sri Lanka from criticism, Human Rights Watch said.
Ahead of an April Commonwealth meeting, Sharma commissioned two independent legal reports on the impeachment of Sri Lankan Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike. Despite calls by the Canadian government and others to make those reports available to the group, Sharma has not released the reports, even to members. One of the reports, leaked on September 8, states that the impeachment of the chief justice was unconstitutional and a “direct violation” of the rule of law and contravened Commonwealth Values and Principles.
“The Commonwealth can be an agent for improved human rights protections and justice in Sri Lanka, or it can risk becoming a propaganda vehicle for an abusive government,” Adams said. “The meeting of the Committee of the Whole is a chance for the Commonwealth to show that its stated principles actually mean something.”