Sri Lanka’s misguided attempt to “win the world”

By Steve Crawshaw, Director of Amnesty International’s Office of the Secretary General, who is currently in Colombo

Everybody in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, knows all about “CHOGM” – pronounced “choggum”. They speak with enthusiasm, resignation or indignation about the fact that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is taking place here. The streets are garlanded with banners welcoming CHOGM delegates, and the face of the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Inside the tranquil tropical gardens of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, journalists and delegates scurry back and forth from venue to venue. A clutch of events have been taking place all week ahead of the main summit that opens today (15 November), with Prince Charles representing the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth.

For Rajapaksa and his government, it is obviously a privilege to be hosting CHOGM – a surprising choice, by any measure, given the country’s dismal human rights track record, including alleged war crimes and disappearances, and what a UN report described as “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”.

Rajapaksa wants to ensure that the Sri Lankan government comes out of this with his reputation enhanced. As one slogan proclaims, Rajapaksa “won the country” (with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in a most bloody 2009 end to the protracted armed conflict), and now he can “win the world”.

In terms of enhancing the country’s reputation, you might say that Rajapaksa and his colleagues are not doing a great job. In the lead-up to CHOGM, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary was among those refused entry to the country.

Crackdown on dissent

Reporters from the UK broadcaster Channel 4 – which worked closely with Amnesty International on producing the powerful, game-changing Killing Fields and No Fire Zone films on Sri Lanka – were blocked from travelling to the north of the island when a “spontaneous” demonstration broke out. This week, relatives of the disappeared, who wanted to come from the largely Tamil north to Colombo for a peaceful “human rights festival” behind closed doors were turned back – because they “might cause a breach of the peace”. Partly violent counter-protests by government supporters, by contrast, were allowed to go ahead with no problems.

For Amnesty International, the summit provides a powerful opportunity to ensure that the human rights voice is heard. The good news is that journalists want to hear what Amnesty has to say. And diplomats, too, are interested in our findings – even if they do not always act on them.

Under the spreading banyan trees in the old town of Galle, after a speech by the President, I did get a chance to speak briefly to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma. I doubt I was able to convince him that the policy of quiet engagement with the Sri Lankan authorities is not delivering, which is how Amnesty International sees it.

Beyond media interviews and diplomatic lobbying, I have spent much of my time in Colombo meeting with some of Sri Lanka’s extraordinarily brave human rights defenders – Sinhala and Tamil alike – who talk calmly about the threats against them even as they insist on the necessity of continuing the work.

Amnesty’s campaign

An Amnesty International petition gained close to 200,000 signatures, demanding truth and accountability, so urgently needed for all sides. Those global demands have helped strengthen the backbone of those governments which are wavering when confronted with the familiar question: do they do the right thing, or the comfortable thing? The Prime Ministers of Mauritius, India and Canada have boycotted. The UK has promised to bring strong messages. South Africa has sent mixed messages so far (without truth, how can there be reconciliation?). And Australia: well, let’s not go there. Prime Minister Tony Abbott seems ready, because of domestic considerations on refugee policy, to use the phrase “not lecturing” as an excuse to remain completely silent on violations.

The Sri Lankans I speak to are grateful for Amnesty International’s long-term engagement on the cause of human rights in Sri Lanka.

There is little likelihood of a rosy ending to this story by the time CHOGM wraps up and the Commonwealth leaders and global media machine move on.

But the pressure will continue: the UN Human Rights Council meets again in March, with a resolution critical of Sri Lanka likely to be on the table. With enough energy from around the world, that may include achieving an international inquiry. And if that is achieved, it will be a human rights victory to be proud of.

Learn more:
Commonwealth must not turn a blind eye to civil society crackdown
The dangers of reporting on human rights in Sri Lanka