The 54-nation Commonwealth is an organization that professes to be committed to common values, such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as expressed in the Singapore Declaration of 1971.
The Harare Declaration of 1991 reaffirmed the principles laid out in Singapore and they were most recently reinforced in the Commonwealth Charter adopted earlier this year.
South Africa was prevented from continuing as a member after it became a republic in 1961, due to its policy of apartheid; it was readmitted in 1994. Nigeria, Pakistan, Fiji and Zimbabwe have in the past at times been suspended, following military coups or fraudulent elections. Zimbabwe quit the organization altogether.
Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma says the organization imparts its values of good governance and democracy around the world. Yet the Commonwealth is holding its annual Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka next month — a country in which some 80,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed during a 25-year civil war and one whose government continues to engage in human rights violations, including murder and rape. Human Rights Watch has noted that the Commonwealth Secretariat has refused to discuss the human rights situation.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has, correctly, announced he will not attend, due to ongoing human rights abuses by the host Sri Lankan government. The prime minister cited everything from the impeachment of a chief justice to allegations of extra-judicial killings and disappearances, and the jailing of political opponents and journalists.
Harper said it was unacceptable that Sri Lanka had yet to investigate allegations of atrocities during and after the civil war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in May 2009. In April 2011, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon published a report by a UN-appointed panel of experts, which concluded that as many as 40,000 people were killed in the final weeks of the military campaign.
This past March the UN Human Rights Council voted urged the Sri Lankan government to investigate “alleged violations of human rights.” More recently, Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner on human rights, criticized the Sri Lankan government’s failure to investigate allegations of war crimes against military officers and government officials. Sri Lanka has denied allegations its troops committed major crimes.
Sri Lanka’s Tamils, who make up about 15 per cent of the population of 21 million and are mainly Hindu, have long been subjected to by the majority Buddhist Sinhalese.
They seek, if not a fully sovereign state in the country’s north, where they form a majority, some form of federalism enabling them to have some semblance of self-government in the region and power-sharing at the national level.
Pillay was “particularly alarmed at the recent surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities, including attacks on churches and mosques, and the lack of swift action against the perpetrators.”
Four years after the end of the Tamil insurgency, great sections of the north remain a scene of devastation. The Sri Lankan army continues to occupy thousands of homes, farms, factories and resorts for which the government has paid little or no compensation.
However, the president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the war against the Tigers, declared that interference in the internal affairs of the country in the guise of protecting human rights was “disturbing.” He has complained that Sri Lanka was being persecuted by the international community, and has used that as a pretext to obstruct even more thoroughly the work of journalists, lawyers and activists.
Sri Lanka also maintains that Canada’s critiques are motivated by domestic concerns, given that some 300,000 Tamils live in the country, mainly in the Toronto region — the largest Tamil population outside South Asia. Tamil Canadian candidates have participated in the political process representing various parties at the municipal, provincial and federal levels.
Rajapaksa’s government has also become increasingly authoritarian. Following the 2010 presidential election, Rajapaksa even ordered his main opponent, Sarath Fonseka, a former commander of the army, arrested. Fonseka was found guilty of corrupt military supply deals and sentenced to three years in prison.
Given the undeniable evidence of human rights violations by the Colombo government, Prime Minister Harper has made the right call in deciding to stay home.
By Henry Srebrnik
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.