A Pre-CHOGM Forum entitled “The Commonwealth in Colombo: Prospects for the 2013 Commonwealth Summit” was held in Senate House last week, while Tamils protested outside against Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister GL Peiris, who was earlier reported to be one of the speakers, but he was replaced by Ambassador Chris Nonis.
The proceedings started with the Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat, Ms Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, who in her introduction to the event, said that no Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting would take place without focus on the political values of the organisation and that Colombo would be no different.
The keynote speaker was the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UK, Chris Nonis, who spoke of Sri Lanka’s pride of being able to host the CHOGM as it provided others with a chance to visit the island and make an objective assessment of the situation. Nonis further said that conflict areas have seen economic growth of 22%, thousands of former combatants rehabilitated and the Prevention of Terrorism Act repealed, and called on critics to have the “generosity of heart” to give Sri Lanka enough time and space to heal its wounds.
Saying that Tamils and Singhalese have lived together “beautifully” on the island for 2,500 years, he said the conflict was not a Tamil-Singhalese conflict but one of the whole population of the island against terrorists. Nonis urged the international community to put a stop to “terrorist financing”, which funded media institutions and think tanks, adding that it was the diaspora which funded the LTTE throughout the conflict. Responding to an audience member, who pointed out that the PTA had in fact not been repealed, Nonis said that “certain aspects” of the act were revoked.
Jonathan Miller of Channel 4 interjected saying that he had not received media accreditation to attend the CHOGM, although he had applied 6 weeks ago. Nonis assured the journalist that his visa will be granted. Another speaker from Sri Lanka was Razik Zarook, the Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon, who expressed his gratitude for the UK’s historic funding in Sri Lankan infrastructure. Zarook said that the Commonwealth should revert to a place where economics defines politics, and not the other way round.
The Director of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, Carl Wright, said Chris Nonis may have been optimistic when speaking about demining efforts, as he visited Jaffna recently and, although impressed by development, was shocked at the destruction that was still visible four years after the war.
Simon Gimson, the director of the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s office, said that instead of pointing fingers, the Commonwealth has decided to engage with Sri Lanka, saying that the government was keen to engage with the body. Gimson pointed out that Commonwealth officials observed the NPC elections, saying that this proved that the body could get to places that other organisations cannot.
Lord Naseby of the Conservative Party said to the audience, which included some members of the diaspora, that he knew more about being an IDP than anyone in the room, due to his experience as a war time evacuee during World War Two. During his address Naseby justified media censorship saying that the UK also had media censorship during WW2. Talking about the crackdown on Jaffna University student protests, Naseby said if students in the UK held pictures of Hitler after WW2, the British Government would have reacted the same.
Naseby further said that the bombing of “field hospitals” in the No Fire Zone was justified as the big guns of the LTTE were moved there, saying that “either you finish the war, or you don’t”. He claimed that the army had been reduced by 40% and that the vast majority of Sri Lankans led a normal life. Naseby said he spoke to editors of the Sunday Times and Sunday Leader, and claimed that both assured him that there was no censorship.
The final address was by Sir Ronald Sanders, a former member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, who spoke about the dangers of the Commonwealth falling into irrelevancy by its failure to implement its own guidelines around democracy and human rights.
Saying that human rights is not a western concept, and that freedom movements on South Rhodesia and South Africa were not started by countries in the West, Sanders said that a divide had now opened up between northern and southern countries.
Read Sanders' full address, which he also delivered at another event, here.