Why NZ shouldn’t support Sri Lanka hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit

Below is the text of an Opinion Piece I had published in Wellington’s daily newspaper, the Dominion Post, on 3 May 2013.



OPINION: Sri Lanka is not fit to host this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, writes Keith Locke.

The Government needs to explain why it is not supporting Canada’s campaign to have the November Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) moved from Sri Lanka.

Canada has given three main reasons for shifting the summit.

First, Sri Lanka has avoided any accountability for the thousands of Tamil non- combatants who were killed, mainly by government shelling, near the end of the civil war in May 2009. Estimates of the deaths range from 10,000 to 40,000.

In March 2011, a United Nations panel of experts found serious violations of human rights law had been committed by both “the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), some of which would amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity”. It said “the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity”. Since then the UN Human Rights Council has passed two critical resolutions, including one in March calling for a credible international inquiry into the allegations of war crimes.

The problem is the Sri Lankan Government won’t let independent investigators into the country.

Second, Canada argues that there have been no meaningful reconciliation moves by the Sri Lankan Government since the end of the war. The Sri Lankan military still holds sway in the Tamil north of the country, persecuting former supporters of the Tamil Tigers, and stopping life from getting back to normal.

All plans to devolve some powers to the northern Tamil region have been scrapped, despite a constitutional provision allowing for it.

Third, Canada has identified a growing authoritarian trend as the Rajapaksa government clamps down on dissent. The media has been a particular target, with several journalists killed, wounded or detained in recent years. In February a reporter for the Sunday Leader, Faraz Shaukatally, was shot and badly wounded. Last month, thugs believed to be backed by the military, raided the Jaffna office of the Tamil daily, Uthayan, and burnt its printing presses.

In January, judicial independence was dealt a severe blow with the impeachment of the Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake. President Mahinda Rajapaksa ratified the dismissal despite rulings from the Supreme Court and the Appeal Court that the impeachment process was illegal.

Holding CHOGM in Colombo will make a mockery of the charter just developed by the Commonwealth and signed in March by the head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth.

This charter commits Commonwealth leaders to democracy, human rights, tolerance, freedom of expression, good governance and the rule of law – none of which are respected by the Rajapaksa government.

To make matters worse, Sri Lanka’s president, as the CHOGM host, will become chair of the Commonwealth for the two years until the heads of state next meet.

So far Canada’s campaign to move CHOGM away from Sri Lanka has met with little success.

Britain’s Conservative government has been critical of Rajapaksa but won’t support changing the conference venue.

Australia has turned a blind eye to the continuing tragedy in Sri Lanka, apparently so it can justify returning Tamil boatpeople to their home country.

And what of New Zealand?

Our Government seems to be keeping as quiet as possible.

It is not as if the New Zealand Government is ignorant of the dire human rights issues in Sri Lanka. I was a member of Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee when, in 2009 and 2010, it was briefed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

We were told about difficult conditions in the internment camps for Tamils and the limitations on access by international aid organisations; the absence of a political reconciliation process; and the danger to democracy following the arrest of Rajapaksa’s opponent in the February 2010 election, General Sarath Fonseka.

Since then Rajapaksa has strengthened his grip on power, supported by his brother, Gotabhaya, who is defence secretary; another brother, Basil, who is economic development minister; and a fourth brother, Chamal, who is Speaker.

Amnesty International, in its latest report on April 30 said the “violent repression and the consolidation of political power go hand in hand” and “there is a real climate of fear in Sri Lanka, with those brave enough to speak out against the government often having to suffer badly for it”.

The reputation of both New Zealand and the Commonwealth is at stake here. New Zealand rightly challenges abuses of democracy in our region – such as in Fiji (which has been suspended from the Commonwealth). But we can be accused of a double standard if at the same time we allow the Commonwealth to be chaired for the next two years by a president who refuses any accountability for the deaths of so many innocent civilians in his country’s civil war and who is governing in an increasingly authoritarian manner.

Keith Locke is a former Green MP.