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The Commonwealth faces a clear choice on Sri Lanka

The forthcoming Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meeting in London can play a crucial role in shaping Sri Lanka’s future. The group must fulfil its responsibility to facilitate collective action by the Commonwealth and directly address Sri Lanka’s grave and systematic violation of values and principles that the Commonwealth has proclaimed to be its own. The CMAG has considerable power. Sri Lanka deserves to be suspended from the Commonwealth and at the very least should not be allowed to host the November Heads of Government Meeting. Failure to act, however, will effectively endorse Colombo’s on-going persecution of the Tamils whilst also critically undermining the Commonwealth’s credibility and claim to relevance in international affairs.

Colombo will no doubt raise its by now familiar cry of ‘neo-colonialism’ in an attempt to build support amongst developing countries, but member states must look beyond this rhetoric. Issues of accountability and justice do not fall along ‘racial’ lines and are matters of principle that bring together a broad range of actors and organisations across the world. The demand for accountability and justice in Sri Lanka has been made repeatedly and forthrightly by the Elders, an eminent international group that includes amongst its members Desmond Tutu, Kofi Anan and Nelson Mandela.

Commonwealth members can play a constructive role in ensuring a stable peace based on justice and accountability in Sri Lanka. However, most have simply fallen in line with Colombo’s demands. Canada is the commendable exception setting an example others have not emulated. India’s failure to take the lead on this issue shows that far from being a global or regional power, it is content to be Sri Lanka’s agent in the international. As we have previously argued, New Delhi’s hopes that placating Colombo will ensure the realisation of its commercial ambitions on the island have proven futile.

Meanwhile the UK has continued to adopt an approach of at best gentle prodding and at worst a knowing appeasement of Sinhala triumphalism. Perhaps the most egregious event was the Foreign Office Minister, Alistair Burt’s photo opportunity earlier this year on the beaches of the 2009 massacres; an act that seemingly endorsed and celebrated Sri Lanka’s annihilatory violence against the Tamils. Finally Australia’s efforts to curb asylum flows by co-operating with the Sri Lankan military are actually fuelling the asylum flight while extending the reach of Sri Lanka’s repression.

The CMAG summit comes in the midst of escalating outbursts of state led Sinhala nationalist violence in the Tamil speaking areas, including the forcible appropriation of Tamil lands and attacks on the Tamil press. Tamil civil society groups attempting to articulate legitimate Tamil demands in the midst of the Sinhala military’s ever present capacity for terror and repression desperately need and deserve the international community’s support and solidarity. But the Commonwealth’s lack of action thus far has simply emboldened the Sinhala military’s violence against Tamil dissent. The CMAG thus faces a stark choice; it can either contribute to long term long term peace and stability on the island by credibly sanctioning Sri Lanka or it can choose to appease Colombo and thereby fuel the escalating cycle of Sinhala repression and Tamil resistance that has defined the island’s past and left unchecked will define its future.

The Commonwealth is obliged to act against Sri Lanka, if it wants to retain credibility as an organisation committed to universal human rights and good governance. In granting Sri Lanka the privileges of membership and indeed the opportunity to host the CHOGM, the Commonwealth has become complicit in Sri Lanka’s crimes against the Tamils. However, Sri Lanka’s conflict will continue to intensify and will necessarily invoke international action. Accountability in Sri Lanka cannot be forfeited and when the time for justice comes, the Commonwealth runs the risk of going down in history as an institution that not only failed to act but indeed colluded with Sri Lanka’s efforts to whitewash the most terrible crimes.