Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth – Keith Locke’s letter to John Key

Prime Minister John Key

Parliament Buildings


Dear Mr Key,

I am writing to urge that you engage with the issue of the human rights crisis in Sri Lanka at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) on 27 to 29 November in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

I understand from the comments of Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith on Friday that both the issue of political reconciliation in Sri Lanka and the Tamil refugee issue will be discussed during the meeting. I hope they will also be covered in the communiqué which is issued at the end of the Conference.

The Green Party also agrees with Mr Smith that the Sri Lankan government needs to move on the issue of devolution of powers, particular for the Tamils in the north of the country, if there is to be true reconciliation. So far the Sri Lankan government is moving in the opposite direction.

I also ask you to request that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) investigate the persistent abuse of human rights in Sri Lanka, and determine how the situation can be improved. CMAG is, despite the unfortunate presence of Sri Lanka in its membership, the mechanism for dealing with serious violations of the Harare Declaration.

The problems in Sri Lanka are not new. According to Amnesty International, last year “the government [of Sri Lanka] failed to address impunity for past human rights violations, and continued to carry out enforced disappearances. The government arrested and detained increasing numbers of Tamils without charge. Human rights defenders and journalists across the country reported increased attacks including death threats.”[1] Six months after the end of the war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan government has been condemned by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International[2] and Human Rights Watch[3] for violating the human rights of hundreds of thousands of Tamils detained in refugee camps. Camps are overcrowded and dangerous, and lacking essential services. The media and human rights monitors have only had limited access to the camps. Also, thousands of Tamils have been arrested and detained in prison camps without, as far as we can tell, access to proper legal representation.

In addition, the human rights crisis in Sri Lanka is affecting other Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Singapore and Malaysia, where many Sri Lankans are now seeking refuge. Commonwealth governments could work together to coordinate the settlement of these asylum seekers. I note that last Thursday, 20 November, Australian Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans asked New Zealand to take some of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers. He said he thought “New Zealand understands it’s got to be part of the burden-sharing.”[4] The Green Party agrees.

CHOGM is a rare opportunity for discussion and action at the highest level. New Zealand should not miss the opportunity to bring the human rights crisis in Sri Lanka to its attention. The Commonwealth is in a position to send the Sri Lankan government a message that its treatment of the Tamil people is repugnant to Commonwealth principles.

Yours sincerely,

Keith Locke MP

Green Party Foreign Affairs spokesperson

Cc: Hon Murray McCully, Foreign Minister of New Zealand


[1] Amnesty International Report 2009: Sri Lanka

[2] For example, “Amnesty International takes action for rights of those displaced”, 16 November 2009,…

[3] “Sri Lanka: World Leaders Should Demand End to Detention Camps”, 22 September 2009,…