Callum Macrae | Nov 6, 2013, TNN

A few – depressingly few – Commonwealth leaders are currently agonizing about whether or not to attend CHOGM 2013 in Sri Lanka. The most important of those leaders is Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But whichever way he falls on that question, an even bigger one looms – a question whose answer will be of existential significance to the Commonwealth itself.

Should Sri Lanka be allowed (as precedent would suggest) to become “chair in office” of the Commonwealth for the next two years?

The Commonwealth is a strange organization. A faintly embarrassed legacy of colonialism self-consciously committed to building, encouraging and monitoring human rights, the rule of law, democratic accountability and anti-racism among its members. When it acts on those principles it can justify its existence – indeed it was those principles which motivated its stance on apartheid, which remains one of its proudest achievements.

But if this CHOGM meeting passes with nothing more than a few ritual denunciations of Sri Lankan crimes, then we face the prospect of a Commonwealth being steered, under the apparently wilful tunnel vision of its secretary general Kamalesh Sharma, into a stagnant and becalmed irrelevance – with the tarnished figure of a beaming Mahinda Rajapaksa at its head.

Can the Commonwealth really allow itself to be “led” for the next two years, at least nominally, by a regime likely to be the focus of increasingly strident calls for some kind of independent international inquiry into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity: a public process which could well start as soon as next March with a formal resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Clearly India, by virtue of its geographical location and its political and cultural history, is the most important country in this whole question, after Sri Lanka itself. In the interests of regional stability apart from anything else, India has to confront the crimes and push for truth and justice – the preconditions for peace, reconciliation and political solutions to long-standing injustices.

But there are huge questions for Britain and Australia too. There is an understandable and fairly widespread suspicion of the “ABCs” (Australia, Britain and Canada) among many of the less powerful developing nations of the Commonwealth. But it is an irony that in this case Britain and Australia are using that suspicion as a smokescreen to hide behind.

The privately claimed justification for the British and Australian position (unlike the more honourable Canadian one) is that they cannot be too forth-right about Sri Lanka’s crimes, in case the less economically powerful, non-white, Commonwealth countries perceive that they are “pulling rank”.

But that stance is profoundly dishonest. A more important factor is that Australia in particular – but also the UK – are extremely reluctant to seriously confront the real concerns over the ongoing repression in Sri Lanka, the brutal repression of the Tamils, the sectarian attacks on Muslims and the suppression of any dissent. They are reluctant to do that because if they admit how bad things are in Sri Lanka, they lose any excuse they have for sending Sri Lankan asylum seekers back.

If the Commonwealth is to foster and adhere to the principles of justice and human rights, then Britain and Australia should apply those principles to their treatment of asylum seekers.

Instead we see that the international conspiracy of silence behind which the Rajapaksa regime hid – while unleashing its war against its own innocent Tamil citizens under the cover of its war with the Tamil Tigers – still exists.

And that is the final irony in all of this. The Sri Lankan government justified its brutal final offensive – and bought the silence of the world – by using the West’s rhetoric of “global war on terror”. Then in the aftermath of war, in 2010, Rajapaksa made a speech to the United Nations in which he turned that on its head – effectively warning the West to back off.

“If history has taught us one thing, it is that imposed external solutions breed resentment and ultimately fail,” he said. “Ours, by contrast, is a home-grown process, which reflects the culture and traditions of our people.”

It was a clever speech that still resonates with many non-aligned countries outside the ABCs. But it was a piece of rank hypocrisy. This “anti-imperialist” rallying cry was written for Rajapaksa by a western public relations company, Bell Pottinger, which is very close to the UK Conservatives. Rajapaksa had hired and installed them in his office to advise him. We even have secretly shot footage of a Bell Pottinger employee boasting about it.

So while the UK and Australia hide their reluctance to confront Sri Lanka’s crimes behind a phoney commitment to the “greater good” of the Commonwealth, Rajapaksa hides his guilt behind a phoney veneer of “anti-imperialism”.

The rest of the Commonwealth, led by India, needs to confront both of these false postures. Instead they must ask, without fear or favour, whether the Commonwealth can really allow a regime accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and the continuing repression of its own people, to become chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years.

The writer, a journalist and filmmaker, directed the documentary No Fire Zone.


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