Exclusive: David Miliband and Sir Malcolm Rifkind call on the Commonwealth Secretariat to stop Sri Lanka from hosting its heads of government meeting because of the country’s poor human rights record.
David Miliband, Labour’s former foreign secretary, described as “grotesque” the notion of the Queen attending the meeting as head of the Commonwealth, if it is to be hosted by what he called a repressive regime, fast “moving towards pariah status”.
Speaking exclusively to Channel 4 News, former Conservative foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind likened it to Pretoria hostingthis November’s heads of government meeting (CHOGM) while South Africa was under apartheid.
Sri Lanka, some of whose leaders face allegations of war crimes and whose increasingly authoritarian government is accused of persistent and serious human rights abuse, would assume chairmanship of the Commonwealth during the CHOGM.
Channel 4 News twice requested an interview with Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, a former Indian diplomat, to respond to the growing disquiet. A spokesman said he did not want to let “the Sri Lanka issue” overshadow events in Commonwealth week, which started on Monday.
The secretary general pointedly ignored a question on Sri Lanka when approached in person by Channel 4 News at a Royal Commonwealth Society banquet on Sunday night.
“I think it’s a mistake for Sri Lanka to be invited to host the heads of government meeting,” Sir Malcolm told Channel 4 News. “The present Sri Lankan government has done very little to address the human rights issues; tens of thousands are still displaced; there has been no political reform, the rule of law has been traduced – the chief justice was recently sacked – and there’s not been any independent investigation into what was probably the mass murder of Sri Lankan Tamils.”
This “Sri Lanka issue” is known to be an area of concern to the foreign and commonwealth office, which, in a statement to Channel 4 News, said it was yet to decide whether it would boycott the CHOGM in November.
Sri Lanka has breached the most fundamental aspect of democracy, namely the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. Geoffrey Robertson QC
“The host for each Commonwealth summit should embody our shared values, including respect for human rights and democracy,” the statement read, adding that human rights in Sri Lanka were a matter of concern.
The Queen will on Monday night sign a new Commonwealth charter which commits member states to respect for democracy and the protection of human rights.
The charter lists democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, judicial independence, rule of law and good governance among the “shared values” it seeks to promote. Sri Lanka’s record in all of these areas has been questioned at the highest level.
Picture below: Sri Lankans call for investigation into over a dozen killings of journalists in recent years. (Getty)
The crescendo of international disquiet surrounding the CHOGM includes Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the former UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson. They have co-authored an article in Monday’s The Times newspaper urging the Commonwealth to reconsider appointing Sri Lanka as its chair.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillai last month re-stated her “long-standing call for an independent and credible international investigation” into alleged human rights violations and war crimes in Sri Lanka.
The tragedy for you, Mr Miller, is that you are so out of touch with the reality of contemporary Sri Lanka. Dr Chris Nonis, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to London
A 27-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka ended just under four years ago with the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. Ms Pillai added that “extra-judicial killings, abductions and enforced disappearance” have since shown no signs of abating.
The eminent human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC, has also said the Commonwealth risked becoming “a laughing stock”. He branded the organisation “leaderless and rudderless” and said “if it goes to (Sri Lankan capital) Colombo, we need never bother with it again. It will be a mockery”.
Mr Robertson last month published a damning report commissioned by the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales which investigated the impeachment in January of Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice. It accused the government there of subverting the independence of judges.
“Sri Lanka has breached the most fundamental aspect of democracy, namely the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary,” he told Channel 4 News.
He said it would be “obscene” if the Queen were to shake hands with President [Mahinda] Rajapakse as it would deliver what he called “exactly the propaganda coup that these people want.”
At issue is the commitment of governments and the leaders of civil society to the principles of human rights. Peter Kellner, Royal Commonwealth Society chairman
Peter Kellner, chairman of the cultural and educational charity, the Royal Commonwealth Society, also said that the Commonwealth risked becoming irrelevant if the meeting in Colombo goes ahead. “At issue is the commitment of governments and the leaders of civil society to the principles of human rights,” he said.
Mr Kellner also drew attention to the strong criticism of Sri Lanka’s human rights record voiced by the United Nations, the European Union, Amnesty International and Human rights watch.
Dr Chris Nonis, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to London was approached by Channel 4 News at the Royal Commonwealth Society banquet on Sunday evening. He said he thought it was entirely appropriate that Sri Lanka should host CHOGM, describing Sri Lanka as a democracy which abided by Commonwealth values.
Challenged on this, Dr Nonis said: “It is only you who disagree with us… The tragedy for you, Mr Miller, is that you are so out of touch with the reality of contemporary Sri Lanka. I invite you to come. We’d be delighted to have you.”
A meeting of the Commonwealth’s ministerial action group will meet next month to discuss a possible change of venue, with Mauritius proposed as an alternative.