(New York) – The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) should make the human rights situation in Sri Lanka a priority. CMAG, a rotating group of foreign ministers from eight Commonwealth countries, will meet in New York on September 27, 2013.
Two days earlier, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, reported to the UN Human Rights Council about ongoing human rights concerns in Sri Lanka and the government’s failure “to independently or credibly investigate the allegations” of war crimes during the country’s armed conflict. However, CMAG and the Commonwealth Secretariat have largely refused to discuss Sri Lanka’s human rights situation.
“The UN rights chief decried a worsening situation in Sri Lanka and listed past and present problems that contradict official ‘Commonwealth values,’” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Commonwealth should not bury its head in the sand and ignore Sri Lanka’s serious human rights problems.”
Sri Lanka is scheduled to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November, despite a worsening human rights situation in the country. Only Canada has thus far indicated that its head of government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, will not attend CHOGM due to Sri Lanka’s rights record.
CMAG members should ask the Commonwealth secretary-general to put Sri Lanka on its agenda for the September 27 meeting and invite Pillay to debrief its members on her August trip to the country, as human rights organizations requested earlier in September.
Human Rights Watch reiterated its concerns that holding the summit in Sri Lanka casts serious doubts on the Commonwealth’s commitment to supporting human rights, democratic reform, and fundamental human rights enshrined in the Commonwealth Harare Declaration of 1991. The Commonwealth and its participants risk major embarrassment by holding the meeting in Colombo, particularly given Pillay’s September 25 statement to the Human Rights Council, which highlighted a range of human rights problems, Human Rights Watch said.
CMAG is empowered to investigate serious or persistent violations of the Harare Declaration and to recommend measures for action. The group also has the authority to suspend a member country of the Commonwealth for serious infringements.
“Commonwealth ministers should at least be willing to hear an independent account of the situation in Sri Lanka,” Adams said. “Why haven’t they invited Pillay to their September 27 meeting?”
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 CMAG 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 the 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.
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 conflict. 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 such an investigation, and should press Sri Lanka to cooperate fully, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Commonwealth does itself a disservice by ignoring wartime atrocities and growing authoritarian rule in Sri Lanka, which challenge the Commonwealth’s purpose and identity,” Adams said. “The CMAG meeting is an important opportunity to finally address rights issues in Sri Lanka and agree to a course of action. In this way the Commonwealth can make a genuine contribution to promoting the welfare of its citizens.”