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Save the Commonwealth brand: Tell Sri Lanka ‘Enough!’

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sunday, January 20, 2013    

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IT is time for the Commonwealth of Nations to suspend Sri Lanka from its councils.

In doing so, the Commonwealth would restore confidence in its 2.1 billion people that it is not a hypocritical association that claims to stand for values, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law, but which fails to act to discipline governments that violate these values.

The Sri Lankan Government has now seriously and persistently violated the principles to which every Commonwealth country has declared itself to be committed, and, according to the Commonwealth’s rules, this is ground for suspension from its councils as a first step.

Well-thinking people across the Commonwealth, and those who are concerned about the credibility of the 54-nation grouping, expect the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to be convened swiftly to suspend Sri Lanka from the Council of the Commonwealth and to set an agenda and timetable for the Government to implement measures to restore respect for the rule of law. The CMAG is a rotating group of foreign ministers from nine Commonwealth countries that is charged with seeing that Commonwealth values, as set out in many declarations, are respected.

The urgency for CMAG action on Sri Lanka has been triggered by the decision of Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa to dismiss the country’s chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, after a widely condemned impeachment process. Rajapaksa ignored warnings from Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the Commonwealth Judges and Magistrates Association and Commonwealth Secretary- General Kamalesh Sharma not to proceed with impeachment that followed the chief justice’s finding that a controversial Bill tabled in the Parliament was unconstitutional. The Bill had sought to grant disproportionate powers to the minister of economic development, one of the president’s brothers.

Slapping the Commonwealth secretary general and other Commonwealth legal bodies in the face, President Rajapaksa proceeded to dismiss the chief justice and to appoint his former attorney-general to the post. Worse yet, he did so after the Supreme Court ruled that the impeachment proceedings conducted by the Rajapaksadominated Parliament were illegal. The Rajapaksa family holds other senior government positions, including head of the defence ministry and the Speaker of Parliament. One of Mr Rajapaksa’s sons also sits as a member of parliament.

This latest violation flagrantly scorns Commonwealth values as set out in the Latimer House Principles which state: “Judiciaries and parliaments should fulfil their respective but critical roles in the promotion of the rule of law in a complementary and constructive manner; interaction, if any, between the executive and the judiciary should not compromise judicial independence; and judges should be subject to suspension or removal only for reasons of incapacity or misbehaviour that clearly renders them unfit to discharge their duties.”

Sri Lanka is an even bigger problem for the Commonwealth because it is scheduled to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November. No time can now be wasted in deciding to shift the venue to another Commonwealth country.

If Commonwealth Heads of Government turn up in Sri Lanka, they would be sending an unacceptable signal to the world community that governments that violate human rights and the rule of law can do so without fear of censure. If Heads of Government go to Sri Lanka, the Commonwealth can discard its brand as a values-based association and start looking for something else to justify its existence. But, whoever remains in it, it would cease to be respected by the people of its own countries and the international community.

That would be a sad loss for the 32 small states that are a significant number of the 54- nation Commonwealth. They need a vibrant, respected Commonwealth as an advocate and interlocutor on their behalf in the international community. A straw organisation existing on the margins of global regard can do absolutely nothing for them.

In this connection, the Government of Canada should be complimented for trying for over a year to restrain the Government of Sri Lanka from its excesses and to hold it to account for human rights abuses arising from a war with the Tamil Tigers that ended in 2009. The Sri Lankan Government has refused to allow an independent inquiry into the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians during the conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tigers, as well as a worsening human rights situation.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has now indicated that his Government wants Sri Lanka to be discussed at the next meeting of CMAG. Both opposition parties in Canada have gone further, calling on Harper to declare that he would boycott the CHOGM if it is held in Sri Lanka.

A debate in both Houses of Parliament in Britain and a subsequent statement by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office also indicate “deep concern” and called on the Sri Lankan Government to “respect democratic principles”.

However, while Canada and Britain have spoken up, many developing Commonwealth countries have so far remained silent. Their voices also need to be heard, particularly as many of them place great store in democracy and the rule of law, both as a system of governance and as an imperative for attracting investment. Judicial independence is fundamental to the rule of law and essential for any democratic and accountable government.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma has announced that he will be visiting Sri Lanka in February. It is his job to try to resolve the impasse with an obdurate Sri Lankan Government that has so far ignored his advice and the warnings of others. It is also his job to tell the Sri Lankan president that he has violated Commonwealth rules and that, unless the action on the chief justice is reversed and a credible, enforceable plan is presented, Sri Lanka will be placed immediately on the agenda for CMAG with a view to suspending it from the Councils of the Commonwealth.

In any event, the Sri Lankan Government has now done enough to warrant moving the venue for November’s CHOGM to another country. The Government cannot spurn the advice of the secretarygeneral, the Commonwealth legal organisation and other international groupings and yet demand to be privileged to host CHOGM. After all, the location for hosting a Heads of Government meeting must be in the interest of the Commonwealth as a whole.

The foreign ministers of two Caribbean countries — Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago — are members of CMAG. In this connection, they have an important role to play in upholding the values that their own countries honour and respect — those are the values that differentiate the Commonwealth in the world and make it special.

Sir Ronald Sanders was a member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group 2010-2011 Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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