by Jack Healey, ‘The Huffington Post,’ October 31, 2013
Founder, Human Rights Actions Center
The Commonwealth of Nations was established in 1949 during the decolonization process of the British Empire. Meeting biennially in various of the fifty four member states, the Commonwealth is a voluntary and equal association of nations that is theoretically bound by a shared respect for sixteen core values. The CHOGM (Commonweath Heads of Government Meeting) this year is scheduled to occur from 10-17 November in Colombo, Sri Lanka and will make an overt mockery of several of those core values. At this point, it seems that the Commonwealth member with the largest size (Canada) will be boycotting and the country with the largest population (India), a large Tamil minority (Malaysia), and the nearest “western” country (Australia) are under pressure to either boycott or to address concerns directly. There are even calls for a boycott by the United Kingdom itself.
What is the basis for this concern over holding an international meeting in a former colony rebuilding after recently emerging from decades of civil war? Shouldn’t the Sri Lankan government be permitted to showcase their achievements in settling violent conflict on an island that once gave the world a term for “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise,” though there is little serendipity for those who fail to stay on the side of the government there. It seems that Sri Lanka might be better known as a contemporary antonym of serendipity these days until and unless their behaviors change for their own peoples.
Indeed, the Sri Lankan government has been roundly criticized for human rights abuses during the civil war and for those abuses becoming more regular and more extreme.Buddhism in the country seems to have been hijacked along the same lines we see happening in Burma. Hindus and other Tamils, Muslims, and Christians all having faced violence against persons and property that involved being targeted for religious and ethnic difference. As bluntly as possible, the fact that Prince Charles will be attending as a representative of the Queen of England and without the presence of other sensible nations who recognize the affront such a thing would be for human rights is nothing short of appalling even if it isn’t shocking for an English continuation of arrogance and disregard. As an Irish-American disgusted by English colonialism in Ireland, it is simply another step on a road of that very royal disregard for the human rights of citizens of other nations.
The island was plagued by considerable violence and horror during the civil war, but instead of learning the inevitability of a political solution to such violence the government ramped up force to unprecedented levels in a push to extinguish the opposition. While such violence is always regrettable, the special viciousness with which the government seems intent on pursuing Tamils, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus are a cause of deep concern. Buddhist extremists have been an issue in Sri Lanka since before the end of the war, but now are allowed to behave without checks or restraints. It is a travesty to have religion employed in the name of violence, and a special one when others’ religion or ethnicity is targeted.
Sri Lanka is a multicultural island. Though the Sinhalese are the largest ethnic group on the island, there are others present as well, most notably and largely, the Tamils. Existing in significant numbers in India, Malaysia, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere, it was in increasing sense of marginalization and discrimination of Tamils by Sinhalese that set off events leading to the Sri Lankan Civil War. With both sides avoiding a political solution for some time, the war was ended in 2009 with a brutally heavy campaign by the military against the LTTE that crushed the once-powerful rebel group and eliminated them militarily. Unfortunately, there haven’t been significant efforts to address the underlying concerns that first led to the war.
We should be worried when the Sri Lankan government spews out claims of “special circumstances” or “extraordinary measures” in fighting back the LTTE. Make no mistake, the LTTE were widely feared for their ability to disregard the rights of any who dared speak up under their rule, helped to create female suicide bombers, and allowed no dissent. Having said that, the “tigers” are quite tame and have become more lambs than lions, setting up a fairly progressively democratic transnational body. This is now, post-conflict, and we still see violent outbursts by those allied with the Sinhalese majority who would prefer to oppress differences and to hold differences as evidence of a toxin that the social body needs to attack and expel. The lack of real or vital inquiry into the allegations made should bring us all back to the words of Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, who has stated in no uncertain terms that the government of Sri Lanka continues to violate the human rights of its citizens and has failed to carry out a thorough investigation fo the claims made against its behaviors.
We call on all citizens to urge their governments to not attend the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka and we urge them to request coverage from their media. We further urge the Sri Lankan government to affirm the rights and principles in the Commonwealth’s own charter: democracy, human rights, international peace and security, tolerance respect and understanding, freedom of expression, separation of powers, rule of law, good governance, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health education food and shelter, gender equality, importance of young people in the commonwealth, recognition of the needs of small states, recognition of the needs of vulnerable states, and the role of civil society. We call on the world to continue to step forward in the struggle for human rights for all and to speak out against the abuse of people who seek to exercise their rights, even if they’re next in line for a throne. There’s shouldn’t be anything uncommon about human rights. Apparently, the world still has those, including those attending the Commonwealth in Sri Lanka that prefer their human rights to be rather rare. Unseemly behavior for a man who would be king, and unseemly for all of us.