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Sri Lanka: Commonwealth Should Relocate November Meeting

Accountability Failures, Ongoing Abuses Make for an Unworthy Host

(New York) – A senior Commonwealth advisory group should  recommend the organization shift the venue of its November 2013 Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) from Sri Lanka unless the government makes prompt, measurable, and meaningful progress on human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), a grouping of Commonwealth leaders that addresses “serious or persistent violations” of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values, including human rights, will meet in London on April 26, 2013.

The Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken no meaningful steps to address serious abuses by government forces in the final months of the armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, during which the United Nations (UN) has estimated that up to 40,000 civilians died. Since 2009 the government has been responsible for a worsening human rights situation that includes clampdowns on basic freedoms, threats and attacks against civil society, and actions against the judiciary and other institutions, imperiling Sri Lanka’s democracy. In February, a Sri Lankan Court of Inquiry dismissed UN allegations of mass killings of civilians in 2009 and concluded without basis that the military’s conduct had followed an official “Zero Civilian Casualties” policy.

“The Commonwealth will rightly face international ridicule if it goes ahead with its summit in Sri Lanka,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The CMAG meeting should send a message to the Sri Lankan government that the scale and severity of its abuses violate the Commonwealth’s core values and will not be rewarded.”

On March 14, the Canadian government confirmed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will not attend CHOGM in November unless the Sri Lankan government makes progress on human rights and judicial independence. On April 2, India’s Shipping Minister, G.K. Vasa, citing concerns about the rights of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority population, urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to demand that CHOGM be relocated from Sri Lanka to an alternate location. The Commonwealth Lawyers' Association, Commonwealth Legal Education Association, and Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association issued a resolution on April 15 which stated that allowing the Sri Lankan government to host CHOGM would “call into grave question the value, credibility and future of the Commonwealth.”

However, a spokesman for Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma told reporters on March 26 that CMAG members, which include Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Jamaica, Maldives, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, and Vanuatu, would not discuss relocating CHOGM from Sri Lanka. The spokesman defended the decision by stating that CMAG “is not the first option of action” in dealing with human rights abuses of member states.

In a February 6, 2013 letter to the Commonwealth Heads of Government, Human Rights Watch expressed its longstanding concerns about Sri Lanka’s human rights record and the country’s suitability to host the 2013 CHOGM. The letter outlined recommendations first issued in 2011 by Human Rights Watch and other domestic and international human rights organizations urging the following benchmarks as a precondition for allowing Sri Lanka to be the host of the 2013 summit. These benchmarks remain relevant today and include:

  • Ensuring meaningful domestic implementation of the international human rights treaties to which the government of Sri Lanka is party and bringing all legislation into line with international human rights standards;
  • Providing guarantees that all Sri Lankan people will be treated with dignity and respect as equal citizens and live in an environment in which they can enjoy all fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Sri Lanka;
  • Restoring constitutional provisions that guarantee separation of powers and reinstating the independence of the three branches of government;
  • Restoring the independence of key government institutions, such as the National Human Rights Commission;
  • Instituting effective mechanisms to protect journalists, civil society groups, and human rights defenders who work for the promotion and protection of human rights;
  • Supporting and cooperating with independent and credible domestic and international investigations into all allegations concerning violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the country, especially related to the conduct of the conflict which ended in 2009; and
  • Making a commitment to collaborate with the Office of the UN Secretary-General to initiate the implementation of the recommendations set out in the report of the secretary-general’s Panel of Experts.

In addition to hosting the 2013 Commonwealth summit, Sri Lanka will hold the chairmanship of the Commonwealth from 2013 to 2015, undermining the credibility of the Commonwealth on human rights matters, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Commonwealth needs to have the courage of its convictions and its values and inform the Sri Lankan government that its rights record makes it ineligible to host the 2013 CHOGM,” Adams said. “To allow Sri Lanka to host the summit without rapid improvements would be to reward an abusive government with an undeserved badge of international acceptance.”

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