Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma ended his visit to Sri Lanka this week by confirming that the next biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will go ahead as planned in the country later this year. Given that the Sri Lankan government has taken no serious steps towards promised human rights and political reforms—and has in some respects further entrenched its authoritarian tendencies—this virtually guarantees that Prime Minister Harper will not attend the CHOGM. He has repeatedly made his attendance conditional on such reforms, and is unlikely to change his mind. Although this will be the first time that a Canadian Prime Minister has boycotted the gathering, and although it’s bound to cause offence and dissension within the Commonwealth, the Prime Minister is right to stay away. Indeed, Canada should be actively promoting a wider boycott of the gathering by other Commonwealth leaders—and by the Queen herself.
The issue of holding the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka arose two years ago at the previous CHOGM in Australia. Canada, along with Australia, raised concerns about the Sri Lankan government’s failure to investigate accusations of war crimes and human rights violations that occurred in the final phase of the Sri Lankan army’s successful defeat of the Tamil insurgency in 2008-09. A panel appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon found credible evidence for such abuses having been committed both by the army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Upwards of 40,000 civilians were killed. Further, despite promises made to the UN by Sri Lankan President Rajapakse when the LTTE was defeated, his government has taken no credible steps towards limited devolution and minority rights guarantees for the Tamils.
Why should Canada’s Head of State attend an international gathering that its Prime Minister is boycotting?
Despite the UN report, the Sri Lankan government resisted pressure for an independent investigation of war crimes allegations, and instead appointed its own “Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission” in 2010. Even though the composition of this group was tilted towards government supporters, its report made recommendations for investigations of specific incidents, as well as pointing to areas where reforms were needed to ensure respect for human rights. However, the government has largely ignored even this report.
It is not just that President Rajapakse is resisting inquiries into past abuses, or delaying reforms regarding devolution for Tamil majority areas. His hostility towards any checks on his increasingly centralized power is manifest in many ways. Censorship is increasing. Journalists who criticize the regime are vilified and threatened, with some having been assaulted and many forced into exile. Last month, the Chief Justice was removed arbitrarily from office in the wake of issuing decisions that went against the government; a former legal adviser to Rajapakse’s cabinet was installed in her place.
Against this backdrop, the Commonwealth Secretary General’s press release reads like a cruel joke. It notes “marked progress”—the evidence for which appears to be no more than the Sri Lankan government’s willingness to attend various seminars and receive Commonwealth “technical assistance” missions and “expert analyses” of comparative practice on the rule of law. Such assistance is pointless, since there is no shortage of Sri Lankan expertise on such matters; and the Commonwealth Secretariat’s limited resources mean it has little to offer in any case. Further, having agreed to proceed with the CHOGM in Sri Lanka, the Commonwealth has no further leverage to actually see that any advice it gives is actually implemented by Sri Lanka’s government.
It may be politically difficult to move or cancel the CHOGM; no doubt the Secretary General must find some excuse to explain why the meeting is going ahead even as Sri Lanka cripples its free press and judiciary. But Prime Minister Harper need not play along with this charade.
However, Canadian non-participation can be easily dismissed by the Sri Lankan government as reflecting pressure from Canada’s large Tamil diaspora (whom Sri Lanka portrays as irredeemably nationalist and pro-LTTE). To really send a signal, Canada must act with others, and Foreign Minister Baird should work to build a coalition of Commonwealth countries who make their participation conditional on Sri Lankan action–before the summit—on a set of minimum reforms (for example, those set out in the LLRC report).
So far, UK Prime Minister Cameron has been noncommittal about joining a boycott; so too the Australians. African and Asian Commonwealth countries might be loathe to join what Sri Lanka will label a rich world initiative, but some, including India, have voted against Sri Lanka in UN human rights forums. South Africa too has been critical of events in Sri Lanka, and a number of Caribbean countries might also be persuaded to stay away.
Will President Rajapakse listen? He is desperate for international legitimacy, and hosting the CHOGM is his plan for achieving it. Indeed, so personal is his interest in the gathering that it will be largely held in his own hometown, a coastal backwater where he has built an airport and international convention centre. The threat that several Commonwealth countries might refuse to attend provides real leverage—not least as Sri Lanka is also under pressure by the UN, with the Human Rights Council voting in March 2012 that Sri Lanka should implement the recommendations of the LLRC report.
To ensure that the threat of a boycott is taken seriously, Prime Minister Harper might also consider playing the royal card. Canada’s Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II, is also Queen of the Commonwealth and several commonwealth countries. She has attended the last eight CHOGMs, going back to 1997, and it is assumed she will attend this one. But why should Canada’s Head of State attend an international gathering that its Prime Minister is boycotting? At the very least, Stephen Harper ought to warn her that her attendance risks bestowing international respectability on a government that is underserving of it. He will be vilified by the pro-Rajapakse press, but millions of Sri Lankans, Tamil and Sinhalese, will take heart that at least some in the international community are willing to join them in defending Sri Lankan democracy.