Canada will boycott the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), scheduled in Sri Lanka in 2013, if Colombo does not improve its human rights record. Stephen Harper issued this ultimatum during the last CHOGM meeting held last year in Perth, Australia.
Harper has demanded better human rights accountability and a stringent reconciliation programme with the island-nation’s Tamil population.
“We are looking for a number of things from Sri Lanka. We’re looking for action on the events around the conflict in that country. We’re looking for action on refugees and displaced persons. And we’re looking for action on political reconciliation,” Harper said in an interview.
Harper emphasized that Canada was “trying to push globally an agenda of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” The Commonwealth represents a “range of countries” on all continents and not all of them have the same approach to human rights as does Canada. “Canada was here to encourage the Commonwealth to refocus on core values of democracy and human rights and to support key reforms,” said the prime minister. Despite everything, Harper thought the Commonwealth still remains the best international forum to promote democratic principles and human rights protections.
A U.N. report commissioned by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has found “credible allegations” that Sri Lankan government forces and the rebel Tamil Tigers committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the final months of the country’s civil conflict in May 2009.The U.N. said that “most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling.”
It also alleged hospitals and Red Cross ships were shelled, prisoners shot in the head and women raped. It found the Tamil Tigers used civilians as human shields and killed those who tried to flee areas under their control. The Sri Lankan government has consistently denied the allegations, accusing the UN of bias and refusing to allow and independent investigation into the matter.
Although the decision to hold the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka was made a few years ago, members should review the situation bearing in mind the present crisis. Canada is the second largest contributor to the Commonwealth and has contributed $35 million since the civil war ended.
For all its troubles, Commonwealth leaders in Perth rewarded Canada by appointing it on “action group” composed of nine foreign ministers (including Canada’s John Baird) with new powers to get involved when they see a Commonwealth nation violate human rights principles.
The Commonwealth meetings have had an uneasy and turbulent past and venues of many of the Commonwealth meetings have provided most dramatic events. They have triggered a number of events that have shaken participating countries domestically. When President Milton Obote of Uganda attended the meting in 1971, it presented Idi Amin an ideal opportunity to overthrow him while President James Mancham’s attendance at the 1977 meeting gave Prime Minister France-Albert Rene the opportunity to seize power in Seychelles.
During the 60s, South Africa was a thorn on the side of the Commonwealth because of its apartheid policy. The Afro-Asian countries were especially critical of apartheid, with Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru leading the fight against Hendrik Verwoerd’s regime. Canada also criticized South Africa openly, and the call was for South Africa to abandon her racial policy. Verwoerd refused and felt that nobody should have the right to dictate to South Africa what actions should be followed. It had also become clear by this time that some other countries would leave the Commonwealth in protest if an unrepentant South Africa were allowed to remain. Verwoerd finally decided it would be best to leave the Commonwealth before South Africa was expelled or faced even more criticism in May 1961.
More recent dramatic events in the Commonwealth family took place in 1995 when Nigeria executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, an environmental activist and eight others. Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta has been targeted for crude oil extraction since the 1950s and which has suffered extreme environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping. In 2007, the Commonwealth suspended Pakistan’s membership and urged the restoration of “democracy and the rule of law”. It condemned Gen. Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule and suspended Pakistan with immediate effect. The world’s second largest Muslim country was readmitted to the 54-nation club in 2008 after being out for seven months.
The Commonwealth is like any other family, which discusses internal problems among themselves and comes out with their own solutions. This family of nations sits around the table to discuss issues and offer solutions. The Commonwealth doesn’t have too many legal benefits except that many Commonwealth countries offer visa-free entry for short visits made by Commonwealth citizens. It’s mainly a friendship organization and member states benefit through mutual co-operation at different levels and consultation among themselves.
There is no doubt that the Commonwealth has been playing an important role among member nations globally and domestically. Its members, who are former British colonies, have found it to be a useful and beneficial institution to resolve issues affecting them, disciplining some members when necessary and uniting them under its banner.