Sharing Discussing Understanding

Commonwealth Journalists' Association

A fishing boat on the beach in Sri Lanka - Photographer & Copyright Kevin Nellies / © Commonwealth Secretariat

By William Crawley

In an event  jointly organised by the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau and the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association held on 17th October 2011 Rahul Roy-Choudhury Senior Fellow for South Asia  at The International Institute for Strategic Studies and Professor James Manor of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies London University, presented a case for and against the proposition that should Sri Lanka should host the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Introducing the discussion Rita Payne Chair of the CJA said that had been no official proposal  to change the decision on Sri Lanka hosting the 2013 Summit . But strong concerns had been raised by some Commonwealth government and within other Commonwealth countries on aspects of Sri Lanka’s human rights record both before and since the end of the civil war. The CJA was not trying to be provocative. The purpose of the debate was to help clarify issues that were bound to be raised at the forthcoming CHOGM summit in Perth.

Rahul Roy-Choudhury argued not only that Sri Lanka should host the 2013 Commonwealth Summit as planned, but that it was in the interests of the Commonwealth and the international community to ensure that Sri Lanka does not withdraw from this commitment. He gave three reasons.

Firstly . he said that Sri Lanka was slowly recovering from a brutal 25-year conflict and it needed the support of the Commonwealth and the international community to help its stabilisation process. Holding the CHOGM in Sri Lanka would symbolise this engagement at the highest level. Secondly by hosting the summit the Sri Lankan government was incurring an obligation to ensure real progress on issues of accountability and reconciliation, and their implementation would be closely scrutinised.

Thirdly Dr Roy-Chaudhury argued that the Commonwealth leadership by holding Sri Lanka to its commitment to host the Summit would gain ‘leverage’ over  still unresolved issues of accountability. Sri Lanka had not been suspended from Commonwealth membership, as had several members in the past, and there had been no indication from the Commonwealth that any such move was contemplated. Having won the war, President Rajapaksa’s administration must now win the peace through reconciliation and reconstruction. It should both assume the obligation and be given the time to achieve that objective.

Professor James Manor said that in arguing  against the proposition he shared may of the assumptions of those who argued in its favour. It was common ground that both during the civil  war in its aftermath there had been evidence of gross human rights abuses, both on the part of the Sri Lanka government and armed forces and on the part of the LTTE. He was not in any way seeking to condone abuses perpetrated by the Tamil Tigers  which had shown itself over many years to be ruthless terrorist organisation. But he said that the Commonwealth had a well founded  reputation as a force for decency and human dignity  For Sri Lanka to host the 2013 summit would damage that reputation.

It will be seen as an endorsement of a government which has been criticised in successive reports by independent international bodies including the United Nations and  within Sri Lanka itself for apparent war crimes, human rights abuses, threats to the media  and open violations of democratic  political and legal procedures. The Sri Lankan government had rejected these reports and ignored its critics. After hosting the 2013 summit Sri Lanka would assume the role of Chairman of the Commonwealth for the following two years. This would alienate some of the Commonwealth’s most committed supporters, some of whom already had the impression that the Commonwealth was retreating from its commitment to the importance of human rights.

In discussion views were divided. One argument was that the repeal of emergency powers in August 2011 was too recent to make judgements about the direction of Sri Lanka’s policy on human rights. Others argued that the responsibility of hosting the summit would help restore commitment and confidence in Sri Lanka’s long record of democratic and constitutional government. Some argued that the Tamil diaspora which had provided much of the financial support to the LTTE had failed to adjust to the new situation. It had not suffered the effects of the war as the Tamil community had in Sri Lanka itself where the community had overwhelmingly welcomed the end of the conflict. Others argued that anti-terrorist legislation now in force made emergency powers unnecessary, and supported Professor Manor’s contention that the government was in no mood take note of any criticism.

It was suggested that critical western judgements on Sri Lanka were resented by the Sinhalese, and could encourage a resurgence of LTTE among Sri Lankan Tamils abroad in an attempt to start a new armed struggle.  Professor Manor argued that the LTTE had now become an irrelevance. The crucial factor now was the Sri Lankan government’s failure to make a genuine attempt at reconciliation, and the resumption of a more open political process both for the Tamil community and for the country at large. No vote was taken but a show of hands showed some support for both sides of the argument.

  • The full text of Dr Roy-Chaudhury’s argument can be read by clicking here. And the text of Profressor Manor’s argument can be read here.