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Commonwealth Faces Challenge of Relevance

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

SINGAPORE (IDN) – On 15th of November Britain’s King-In-Waiting for the past three decades Prince Charles will open a three-day Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo, which has attracted much media attention particularly in Britain, India and Canada for all the wrong reasons.

Britain’s Channel 4 television has produced the now customary anti-Sri Lanka video clip before a major international forum involving Sri Lanka, focusing on alleged human rights violations by the Sri Lankan regime. Their salvo has been followed up as usual by the supporters of the vanquished Sri Lankan terrorist group LTTE based in Britain.

This time Sri Lankan Tamil militants based in London have picketed Prime Minister David Cameron’s official residence 10 Downing Street, calling for him to boycott of the Colombo Summit.

Cameron of course ignored the protest, but his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper gave in to the supporters of the former terror group living mainly in Toronto and announced last month (October 2013) that he will not attend the Colombo summit in protest at the Sri Lankan regime’s lack of accountability for alleged human rights violations against the Tamils.

Meanwhile, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is currently under heavy pressure by his coalition allies in Tamil Nadu to boycott the meeting over the same allegations. Interestingly, the newly elected Chief Minister of the Tamil dominated Northern Provincial Council in Sri Lanka, former Supreme Court Judge Wigneswaran is at odds with his Tamil counterparts across in India. He has invited the Indian PM to visit Jaffna when he comes to attend CHOGM.

While Sri Lanka has spent millions of dollars preparing to host the 23rd CHOGM in Colombo, the barrage of accusation it has had to face from western media sources over human rights should raise the point whether the Commonwealth has any relevance to the former British colonies, if the only role it is going to play is to be lectured by its ex-colonial master and its Anglo-Saxon cousins – the ABCs (Australia, Britian and Canada).

When the Commonwealth was first set up and the ABCs were flushed with cash to dole out as aid money – even though many ex-colonies of Britain may not have liked to be associated with any relics of colonialism – most Asian, Pacific, African and Caribbean countries joined the Commonwealth, basically in return for aid money. From time to time countries like Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Fiji, India, Malaysia and even Sri Lanka put up with irritating lectures by the ABCs about human rights and democracy.

But, today the situation is different and (not only) the ABCs have been cutting their aid budgets. On the other hand, many developing country nations are not so much dependent on aid; they would rather trade instead. They have also found new friends in Asia who are giving them aid and investing in their countries without hectoring about human rights and democracy.

Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2003 after a military regime took over power there. Fiji’s strongman Prime Minister Commdoore Voreqe Bainimarama couldn’t care less. Instead in July this year he launched the Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF) which does not include the regional Commonwealth powers Australia and New Zealand. The inaugural meeting was funded by China and a number of Arab countries. The PIDF has been hailed as a model of South-South cooperation.

New Investors

Even Sri Lanka, which is hosting the CHOGM, is no more dependent on western aid and investments. The new 26 km highway linking the Colombo international airport to the city that will whisk the CHOGM leaders arriving for the summit, which was in the drawing board for three decades, was built by a Chinese company and with a loan from a Chinese bank.

The state-of-the-art International Convention Centre, Hambantota, that was opened early November and which will host the Commonwealth Youth Forum, was built with South Korean aid.

With Asian nations in the near East fast becoming Sri Lanka’s major trade, investment and aid partners, questions are being asked whether hosting the CHOGM was a good idea and a waste of precious national resources.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka’s leadership of the Commonwealth in the coming two years (traditionally the host nation leader chairs the organization until the next summit) will provide an ideal opportunity to change the course of the organization away from the western agenda of human rights and democracy towards a South-South cooperation promotion agenda because at least 45 of its 53 members are developing countries of the so-called ‘South’.

Double Standards

Sri Lanka’s state-owned English language newspaper Daily News and the Defence Secretary and President’s brother Gotahbaya Rajapakse have fired the first salvos in exposing the Commonwealth’s double standards.

In a hard-hitting editorial the Daily News questioned Channel 4 journalist John Snow’s journalistic ethics with regards to an interview he did with the Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma (a veteran Indian diplomat). During the interview he asked him whether by holding the summit in Colombo, the Commonwealth is supporting a regime under which 12,000 people have disappeared since 2009.

“The figure was not substantiated by a jot, and not sourced,” Daily News pointed out. “This is beyond comic – that a man on an accessible free-to-air television channel calling himself a broadcast journalist, thinks that he could quote a figure of 12,000 disappeared since the end of the war, without seeing the need to name at least a reasonable sampling of these disappeared people or their kith and kin!.”

Daily News said Snow was “obviously of a criminal mindset as the charges he makes sets him up as a direct agent (of LTTE in Britain) for seeking to maliciously prosecute key persons in the higher echelon of the Sri Lankan Establishment.”

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa also had a dig at three pro-LTTE organisations – Global Tamil Forum (GTF), British Tamil Forum (BTF) and Tamils against Genocide – who met the British Prime Minister on November 7 to pressure him to boycott CHOGM.

Noting that the LTTE had re-launched a Channel 4 documentary, which alleged that a then military commander of the 58th division Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva executed surrendering LTTE cadres, during the final battles in May 2009, the Defence Secretary told The Island newspaper that the report was based on two eyewitnesses whom the television described as men attached to the 58 Division. The Defence Secretary said: “Channel 4 released the report in July 2011. If the British outfit is sure of its sources let them be produced before judicial authorities in UK or some other country in Europe. Otherwise, their identities can be revealed in Geneva or The Hague. If they are not prepared to substantiate such allegations, they should shut up.”

Detractors Pushed Back

An eminent Sri Lanka journalist Ranjan Philips noted that the government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been able to push back its detractors and ensure the CHOGM goes ahead in Colombo as planned. But, it has come at a heavy price, some of which the government has been forced to pay and some will come in the future.

The biggest price it has paid is holding of the Northern Provincial Council elections that have created a legitimate platform for possible LTTE inspired activism in the future, with victory of the LTTE proxy Tamil National Alliance. The other has been the reopening of investigations into the killings of 17 aid workers in Muttur during the civil war and the government forced to prosecute the suspects in the 2011 New Year’s Eve murder of British tourist Khuram Shaikh. The suspects are believed to be closely related to the Rajapakse regime.

Philips however notes that there need not be any doubt that President Rajapaksa and his government will put on a great show, turning on the endless taps of Lankan charm and hospitality to overwhelm the visitors. The summit will give the government political bragging rights locally and a face saving performance internationally. The summit statements based on consensus will be drafted to avoid any public embarrassment of the host.

But it is what Sri Lanka and President Rajapakse will do after the summit that could shape the Commonwealth. Will he be able to steer the organization towards forging a stronger alliance between its developing country members to promote common development, economic and trade interests in the international forums. The Commonwealth’s ABCs who have much clout in these forums such as the Word Bank and the IMF, could help to promoting them.

If the Commonwealth continues to be a forum for force-feeding double standards on human rights to its poorer members the organization will die a natural death. Sri Lanka will be better off using its precious economic and diplomatic resources to get a seat at the East Asia Summit where the emerging global order of the 21st century is being shaped. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 9, 2013]

The writer’s previous IDN articles:

Image credit: Chogm2013 in Colombo

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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