A message to Colombo

If its next meeting is not moved from Sri Lanka,the Commonwealth will have abandoned its enlightened commitments

Written by James Manor | Published on:March 7, 2013 3:30 am

India will soon be blamed — unjustly — for an international catastrophe. Since 1991,the Commonwealth has been a potent force behind the scenes for democracy,rights and human dignity. For example,it has persuaded the leaders of several one-party states to adopt open multi-party systems and it has ensured that leaders who have lost elections do not cling onto power. This admirable record is about to be squandered.

The next Commonwealth heads of government meeting in November is scheduled for Sri Lanka where an abusive government has committed multiple outrages. If that meeting is not moved elsewhere,the Commonwealth will abandon its enlightened commitments. Its irresolute secretary general,Kamalesh Sharma,has blocked a change of venue. Because he is a former Indian diplomat,New Delhi will be blamed.

This is already beginning to happen. Some commentators are saying that India urged Sharma to avoid offending Sri Lanka’s leaders because it is anxious about China’s growing influence there. It is true that China has invested massively in the island and that in 2011,President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a threatening telephone call to a newspaper editor in an unsuccessful attempt to suppress a report that the Chinese had given him $9 million to be used at his discretion. But India has not tried to restrain the secretary general.

Senior figures in the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi and in Commonwealth circles in London plainly state that India’s leaders are exasperated with Sri Lanka’s leaders and their brutish actions. India has privately urged the Commonwealth to take a tough line. The timid secretary general has rejected that advice.

New Delhi is especially unhappy about a decision last month by Rajapaksa to break an assurance to Indian leaders to transfer significant powers to elected regional councils,to give the island’s Tamil minority some autonomy. Instead,he announced that power would be radically centralised. After that snub to India,when Rajapaksa visited Bodh Gaya and Tirupati last month,no Central government minister met him.

Indian leaders are also well aware of the brutal approach to Tamil non-combatants in the final phase of the civil war in 2009. An investigation by a panel appointed by the UN secretary general described the actions of Sri Lanka’s army as “appalling”. More recently,an Indian TV channel aired telling evidence from Britain’s Channel Four that the 12-year-old son of LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran was shot dead at close range while in the custody of the Sri Lankan army.

The Commonwealth secretary general has meekly expressed hope that the behaviour of the island’s leaders will improve,but their actions since the civil war ended have continued to cause grave concern. In response,US President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state has warned them to take note of the warrants issued by the International Criminal Court against Muammar Gaddafi’s son for flouting international humanitarian law.

Recently,the chief justice of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court was impeached after rulings that were inconvenient to the executive. This violated Commonwealth commitments to judicial independence. When the International Bar Association protested and tried to send the former chief justice of India,J.S. Verma,to Colombo for discussions,he was …continued »

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