Our government should back UN calls for justice by urging the Commonwealth to move its summit elsewhere
The Queen shakes hands with Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting last year. Photograph: Wpa Pool/Getty Images
In early 2009, as foreign secretary, I travelled to Sri Lanka with Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, so that we could see for ourselves the situation at the end of the brutal 26-year civil war. We met the president and his ministers in Colombo, and then travelled to refugee camps further north. I will never forget what I saw, and in particular the pleading of Tamil women carrying slips of paper with the names of their husbands and sons who had been taken away for “screening”.
The last phase of the government offensive involved squeezing anything up to 330,000 people into the Vanni region, south of the Jaffna peninsula. Areport in March 2011 by a special UN panel laid bare the scale of human suffering. Tens of thousands had been killed by government shelling, which had targeted no-fire zones, UN food distribution lines and hospitals. The report also detailed appalling behaviour by the LTTE, the “Tamil Tigers”, alleging that civilians were prevented from escaping and used as hostages. The UN report found credible allegations of serious violations of international law by the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
An internal UN review reported last November that the government obstructed the provision of aid and assistance to civilians, did not protect humanitarian workers, and was largely to blame for the shelling of heavily populated areas and the deaths of civilians. And a further report last month, by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, criticises the progress made on accountability and reconciliation and, significantly, the commissioner, Navi Pillay, reaffirmed her “long-standing call for an independent and credible international investigation” into alleged human rights violations “which could also monitor any domestic accountability process”.
A film, No Fire Zone, using personal testimony from civilians caught up in the latter stages of the conflict, is putting the Sri Lankan government on the spot. And this month Sri Lanka is being called to account in the UN human rights council by the United States.
The Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) is due to take place in Sri Lanka in the autumn. Canada, which is Conservative-led, has robustly called for the meeting – which the Queen would normally open – to be moved from the country. The Labour government took this course when we were planning for the 2011 meeting. It is time for the British government, which has trumpeted its priority of making the Commonwealth a model of good governance and democratic values, to make its voice heard.
The insistence on justice and accountability is not legalistic nitpicking. It’s about the message that is sent to those who violate human rights. Just think about the insouciance of President Assad and his supporters.
Nor are concerns about the actions of the Sri Lanka government merely historic. The leading opposition candidate in the 2010 presidential election was jailed soon afterwards. The chief justice of Sri Lanka has been impeached and dismissed, neutering the independence of the judiciary. The president has reneged on his pledge to expand local autonomy – a key element in post-war reconciliation.
Faraz Shaukelty, a Sri Lankan/British journalist who writes for the outspoken Sunday Leader newspaper, was shot in the neck by three gunmen last month. Human Rights Watch says that several thousand people are locked up without charge, and that state-sponsored abuse of Tamil activists is widespread. Other UN investigations record over 5,000 outstanding cases of enforced and involuntary disappearances; and nearly 100,000 internally displaced people remain without proper protection. This is not the path of reconciliation promised by the Government after the civil war.
In 2005 the whole of the UN endorsed the idea of a “responsibility to protect” – the notion that governments and the international system should take active measures to protect civilian life. That doctrine is breached by authoritarian governments, but it is no excuse for the rest of us to stay silent.
This is a moment to show that calls for justice and democracy have teeth. Britain needs to back the call for Chogm to be moved. For it to go ahead in Sri Lanka would be a mockery of Commonwealth values and UN authority, and a further invitation for its government to ignore international pleas for decency and accountability. And it would be a nail in the coffin of the vision of a pluralistic Sri Lanka, respectful of the place of all its peoples.
Sri Lanka is not being victimised or picked on. UN conventions are the civilising product of the wars – and unstopped slaughters – of the 20th century. They are a universal badge of humanity. Our government should be standing up for them.
David Wright Miliband is a British Labour Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for South Shields since 2001, and was the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2007 to 2010.
Guardian editorial, March 7, 2013
The Commonwealth is an organisation which normally bumps along well under the radar. What bounces it into prominence is a row. And the Commonwealth has a history of good rows, over issues that matter, like apartheid in South Africa, judicial murder in Nigeria or dictatorship in Zimbabwe, and on which it has been able to make a difference. Such moments make everyone pay attention to a body that many rather lazily think is not that relevant any longer. Few will remember, for instance, that this Monday is Commonwealth Day.
The Commonwealth is about due for another row, and indeed it desperately needs to have one on the unwisdom, weekly becoming more obvious, of choosing Sri Lanka as host for the next heads of government meeting in November this year. Otherwise we may find ourselves in the ludicrous situation of sending the Queen or Prince Charles off to a country which has very serious unresolved human rights charges hanging over it, which has yet to justify executive interference in the judiciary, or has failed to adequately investigate the killing of journalists. When our royals arrive they could therefore be in the unhappy position of giving credit to a gathering from which important countries and close allies, like Canada, may well have chosen to absent themselves. That would be a disaster for them, for Britain, and for the Commonwealth.
Sri Lanka is of course adamant that there can be no question of changing the venue. The Commonwealth secretary general, Kamalesh Sharma, has recently visited Colombo and appears to have extractedassurances from the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa on a number of issues. They are weak in that, for example, while there is a commitment to listen to Commonwealth advice on relations between the executive and the judiciary in the future, there is no mention of reconsidering the recent impeachment and dismissal of Sri Lanka’s chief justice. They can hardly be regarded as sufficient, especially as Sri Lanka has such a bad record of promising to do things and then failing to do them.
The most vexing aspect is that the Commonwealth has a mechanism specifically created with situations like this in mind. The Ministerial Action Group has in the past been tough-minded, warning, admonishing and suspending countries from the Commonwealth. It has doctrine, from theHarare declaration of 1991 on democracy and human rights, through theLatimer House Principles of 2003 on the separation of powers, to the enhanced CMAG mandate of 2011, to guide it in its work. But the group has been slow and inattentive, and the countries, especially Britain and India, who could have spurred it into the action its title promises, have not yet done so. That needs to start now, before it is too late.