Commonwealth faces test of its principles


canada-1Until Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird’s outburst against Sri Lanka’s “appalling” record on human rights and democratic accountability last week, it’s a fair bet that most New Zealanders had no idea that this island off the bottom of India would be hosting the biennial Commonwealth heads of government meeting in November.

The Canadians certainly do, and have been campaigning to have the venue shifted. At last week’s meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in London, Canada’s plea was turned down yet again. In fact, it was not even on the official agenda. This despite a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution the previous month censuring Sri Lanka for its slow progress in investigating alleged war crimes and other human rights abuses during the final stages of the bloody 26-year civil war in May 2009.

Mr Baird told the Guardian he was “appalled that Sri Lanka seems poised to host Chogm and to be chair-in-residence of the Commonwealth for two years”.

He said: “Canada didn’t get involved in the Commonwealth to accommodate evil, we came to combat it.

We are deeply disappointed that Sri Lanka appears poised to take on this leadership role.”

Mr Baird was referring not just to the alleged mass murder of Tamil civilians by government forces but more recent events such as the impeaching and sacking of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.

Fpor the Commonwealth, a relic of empire which has been trying for years to justify its continuing existence, this eruption couldn’t have come at a more embarrassing time. Only six weeks ago, the Queen had marked Commonwealth Day by signing the new Commonwealth Charter, a document which for the first time in the group’s 64-year history sets out Commonwealth principles.

It pledges support for democracy, human rights, tolerance, religious freedom, freedom of expression and the rule of law, including a judiciary free from political interference. All the usual.

At the press conference after last Friday’s action group meeting, Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma told a sceptical media that “I am fully persuaded that they [the Sri Lankan Government] are sincere in subscribing and following these values”.

With boatloads of Sri Lankan refugees – mainly of Tamil descent – risking perilous seas to seek a new life in unfriendly Australia and New Zealand, his confidence seems, at best, over-optimistic.

In the final stages of the war, thousands of civilians were trapped in a narrow strip of land. Estimates of the civilian deaths in the final weeks range from 9000 (the government estimate) to 75,000 (human rights groups’ claim).

Both sides in the conflict are accused of human rights abuses and war crimes.

A Sri Lankan Government commission cleared its military of these allegations. Apart from the Canadians, the rest of the Commonwealth seems to be keeping its head down.

At last week’s press conference, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said “we cannot go on fighting this civil war”. He saw the build-up to Chogm as a chance to “encourage and help the Government of Sri Lanka to reach its own benchmarks”.

So much for the charter. For the past four years, Commonwealth politicians and bureaucrats have tried to find a reason for the organisation’s continuing existence.

A report to the heads of government at their 2009 meeting said: “If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant … it must work harder to address the concerns of ordinary citizens” and embrace “a new commitment to championing democracy and to the protection of human rights. Otherwise, however uncomfortable this might be for some leaders, there is no real justification for the Commonwealth.”

At the 2011 Chogm in Perth, the leaders agreed to the proposed charter. This followed a report from an eminent persons group noting “a growing perception that the Commonwealth has become indifferent because it fails to stand up for the values that it has declared as fundamental to its existence”.

Yet with the Queen’s signature hardly dry on the charter, it’s as though all the fine words are just that. Just words. Senator Carr argued that a boycott would be counter-productive, as though cuddling up to the Sri Lankan regime is more likely than shaming it to convert it to the higher principles of the charter. This despite four years of cuddling having already failed.

There was a time when the Commonwealth leaders weren’t so mealy-mouthed, or cuddly. That was in the 1960s and 1970s, when the old “white” settlers club got overwhelmed by a flood of new African and Asian nations. After bitter debates that almost split the Commonwealth, Rhodesia was expelled in 1965. In protest at the new activism, New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake refused to have New Zealand represented at the 1966 Chogm in Nigeria.

A decade later, New Zealand’s rugby relations with apartheid South Africa were confronted by Commonwealth leaders in the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement against racism and apartheid in sport.

To our disgrace, New Zealand Prime Minister Rob Muldoon helped draft and signed the agreement, then stood aside and allowed the 1981 Springbok tour to proceed.

But at least the Commonwealth club had asserted its new relevance by taking a stand for basic human rights, defiantly shaming one of the white “foundation” members in the process. Where’s all that old feistiness when the Commonwealth, and the citizens of Sri Lanka, need it.