Kamalesh Sharma Brings Shame to the Commonwealth
The Failure to Implement “Commonwealth Values”
The Commonwealth Secretariat has largely refused to discuss the human rights situation at the meeting venue. Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma has stated that the Commonwealth is active in promoting Commonwealth values in Sri Lanka, such as respect for human rights and free speech, and also in helping implement the LLRC recommendations.
Ahead of a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), Secretary-General Sharma commissioned two independent legal reports on the impeachment of Sri Lanka’s previous chief justice, Shirani Bandarnaike. In spite of calls by the Canadian government and others to make those reports available to CMAG during its April meeting Sharma chose not to release the reports even to CMAG members. At least one of those two opinions, leaked on September 8, states that the impeachment of the chief justice was unconstitutional and was a “direct violation” of the rule of law and contravened Commonwealth Values and Principles.
Human Rights Watch believes that holding the summit in Sri Lanka cast serious doubts on the Commonwealth’s commitment to supporting human rights, democratic reform, and fundamental human rights enshrined in the Commonwealth Harare Declaration of 1991. It is likely to prove to be a major embarrassment to the Commonwealth and its participants, particularly given Pillay’s findings that little progress has been made on key issues since 2009. Even now, intimidation and harassment of those who met with her was reportedly ongoing.To allow Sri Lanka to host the 2013 summit in the aftermath of the scathing report by the UN’s rights chief would be to reward an abusive government and a public disavowal of Pillay’s findings.
An Abysmal Human Rights Record
During her visit to Sri Lanka in August, Pillay held extensive meetings with residents in the former conflict areas of the north and east of the country, as well as with government officials, politicians, and activists. In her statement, Pillay acknowledged that there had been considerable progress in reconstruction, resettlement, and rehabilitation work in the war-afflicted areas. However, she made it very clear that there continued to be persistent human rights violations, and that many of the recommendations from the LLRC adopted at the Human Rights Council’s March session had not been implemented. Chief among the concerns she expressed were:
- The need for credible investigations into allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other violations throughout the conflict, and not just the end phase, including the murders of 5 youths in Trincomalee and of 17 aid workers in Muttur in 2006;
- The failure to investigate or resolve thousands of outstanding enforced disappearance cases, leaving families without answers about what happened to their loved ones; lack of transparency about the army courts of inquiry set up to look into allegations of laws-of-war violations, and the need for credible independent investigations;
- Harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, including persons who met with Pillay during her visit;
- The need to restore the independence of bodies such as the Elections Commission, the National Human Rights Commission, and the Police Commission;
- The need for a clear separation of the police from the Ministry of Defence, as the new Law and Order Ministry set up to supervise the police is headed by the president, who is also the minister of defence.
- Interference with the independence of the judiciary, highlighted by the impeachment of the previous chief justice, Shirani Bandarnaike;
- Extensive militarization in the north and east, with the military encroaching on civilian matters such as education, agriculture, and tourism;
- Military acquisition of private land to build permanent army camps, creating an environment that gives rise to abuses and is seen by the local population as oppressive and intrusive;
- Intense vulnerability of women and girls, particularly in female headed households, to sexual harassment and abuse.
When concerns have been raised about Sri Lanka as an inappropriate venue for CHOGM, many Commonwealth countries have chosen to ignore the question, with only Canada announcing that Prime Minister Harper would not be attending. Australia has confirmed that its prime minister will attend, as has the United Kingdom, although the United Kingdom does admit to concerns about Sri Lanka’s rights record, including after Pillay’s visit. Despite previous expressions of concern, the Indian government has remained largely silent on the matter, with no clear commitment as to either attendance or the level of attendance for the summit. Few other Commonwealth countries have indicated whether they will attend.
Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch.