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A common wealth of values that Sri Lanka does not share

On Monday - Commonwealth Day - the Queen as the head of the Commonwealth, signed a new Charter outlining 16 core beliefs purported to underpin the organisation. The vision set out is a welcome one. Yet the next key Commonwealth event, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2013 (CHOGM), is due to be held in a country that evidently does not share this vision, nor care to. Four years on, Sri Lanka is no closer to accounting for the crimes of 2009 nor achieving a political solution to prevent renewed violence. Instead, it has exploited its military victory to execute unchecked Sinhalisation and militarisation of the Tamil areas, and consolidated the government’s already overwhelming powers. All the while reports of intimidation, disappearances, torture, and rape by its security forces continue. The stench of Sri Lanka shows no signs of relenting. Whilst a change of venue will not in itself bring accountability or reconciliation to the island, to hold the CHOGM 2013 in Sri Lanka would make a mockery of the Commonwealth and be the endorsement of a state that wilfully falls far short of the Commonwealth’s vision.

How the Commonwealth deals with Sri Lanka will be a litmus test of its future. A report on the organisation in 2011 by the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group was damning, concluding that the failure to censure unruly member states had rendered it largely irrelevant on the global stage. To Tamils its failure to suspend Sri Lanka in the aftermath of 2009 exemplifies this irrelevancy. If the Commonwealth is to be more than a post-colonial private club, then it must act when member states defy the very values that define it. The Charter of the Commonwealth, as with the previous declarations, makes an admirable read but it is meaningless without tangible implementation. Fear of being labelled as casting the first stone cannot be an excuse for inaction. The Charter is but ideals that no state, within the Commonwealth or beyond, has fully achieved. The benchmark for censure should rather consider the gravity of the state’s crimes and its attitude on accounting for them. It is this consideration that has no doubt guided the Commonwealth during past deliberations, and is what places Sri Lanka beyond the pale. Not only do the Sri Lankan government and its military stand accused of the most serious of crimes, but Sri Lanka has shown only increasing contempt towards accounting for it.

Over the past four years Sri Lanka has revealed its utter disregard for prominent global institutions and individuals such as the UN and The Elders. It has flatly rejected critical UN reports by the Panel of Experts and the High Commissioner’s Office and displayed a shameless lack of seriousness regarding its human rights record by rejecting an unprecedented number of UPR recommendations made by fellow states at its UPR session last year.  When the UK’s Sri Lanka ambassador was asked by Channel 4 News about widespread criticism of Sri Lanka, he retorted: “it’s only you who disagree with us”. It summarily disregards damning photographic and video evidence of crimes as fabrications, and habitually accuses critics of being terrorists. Incredibly, even as the UNHRC discusses another resolution on Sri Lanka, the country's Permanant Representative to the UN in Geneva has declared that Sri Lanka does not recognise the Council’s previous one. Indeed the impeachment of the Chief Justice in the run up to the Council’s 22nd session, when the government knew another resolution would be likely, further illustrates the country’s sheer audacity.

Four years of quiet diplomacy have only resulted in increasing Sri Lankan defiance, as despite its lack of tangible progress and escalating brazenness, Sri Lanka continues to enjoy normal relations with many countries. It considers events such as the CHOGM jewels in its crown. This cannot continue. If Sri Lanka hosts the CHOGM 2013, with Mahinda Rajapaksa as head honcho welcoming 54 heads of state and the Queen to the island, the Commonwealth would be slipping from irrelevancy to complicity in Sri Lanka’s on-going crimes and impunity. It would be endorsing Sri Lanka’s scornful disregard of the Commonwealth’s shared values. Whilst Canada’s stance is commendable, and Britain’s and Australia’s woefully inadequate, responsibility for the Commonwealth’s vision must lie with all member states. African and Asian states must rise above Sri Lanka’s wolf cries of ‘western imperialism’ and take on this responsibility if the organisation is to be a league of equals and a meaningful global institution of the future.