To CHOGM or not to CHOGM

By Easwaran Rutnam

Canada remains the sole country threatening to boycott or send a low level delegation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka in November after Britain and Australia confirmed they would be represented at the highest level.

But that has not stopped Canada from continuing its war of words on Sri Lanka over human rights allegations with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird even accusing the Commonwealth of being a failure on the Sri Lankan issue.

Sri Lanka has not remained silent either. Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Canada Chitranganee Wagiswara, in a statement recently, had said that hostile criticism and unfair targeting of Sri Lanka by Canada only serves to further strengthen the evil forces working against Sri Lanka and does not contribute in any manner to the ongoing rebuilding and reconciliation process in the multi cultural society of the country.

Former Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, who was instrumental in securing CHOGM to be held in Sri Lanka, however feels the best way to deal with Canada is through candid and open discussions and not through a war of words.

In 2007 Bogollagama proposed in Uganda that CHOGM be held in Sri Lanka but in 2009 when CHOGM was held in the Caribbean there was opposition to the summit being held in Colombo in 2011. It was then suggested that CHOGM be held in Australia in 2011 and Sri Lanka in 2013. “We vehemently opposed to any move to shift CHOGM out of Sri Lanka. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in the Caribbean and was part of the decision making,” Bogollagama told The Sunday Leader.

Bogollagama feels Canada’s position now is possibly based on a change of heart and not change of facts. Canada is home to a huge Sri Lankan Diaspora and pressure from some anti-government groups is adding to the pressure on Canada to boycott the summit.

The Global Tamil Forum (GTF), a leading Tamil Diaspora group which has members in Canada, said it will continue to push for a boycott of CHOGM in Sri Lanka by the West.

GTF spokesperson Suren Surendiran told The Sunday Leader that unless the Commonwealth leaders and the Secretary General of the Commonwealth believe, respect and practice the core values as they signed up to and they expose countries and leaders who disrespect the same, the Commonwealth as an international institution will become irrelevant fast.

“The core values and principles of the Commonwealth, are as stated in the recently signed charter: inter alia to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, separation of powers, freedom of expression, good governance, tolerance, respect and understanding and the role of civil society. As the custodian of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values, the Group pledged to continue to promote these commonly agreed goals,” he said adding that the Sri Lankan government has failed in most counts.

With six months to go before the Colombo summit Surendiran alleged that GTF will use that time to expose the lack of democracy in general by militarization of public institutions, the dictatorial trend, the government sponsored attacks on media institutions, government sponsored premeditated attacks on the Muslim faith, the lack of independence of the judiciary, the undemocratic features of the 18th amendment to the country’s constitution, corruption, economic mismanagement, government sponsored colonization, forced evictions and land grabbing in Sri Lanka.

“We as a Diaspora institution which have country organizations as members or as associate members active in most important countries like, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia and South Africa and others, we will continue to campaign hard to demand that the leaders of these countries boycott the CHOGM in Colombo in November 2013,” he said.

He also said that the Tamil Diaspora in Britain is not happy with the announcement that British Prime Minister David Cameron will be attending the summit.

“Prince Charles and the Prime Minister seem to be on course to wipe out all the pressure that has been built through the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) process in the last two years by the US lead both resolutions which demand action on accountability, deteriorating human rights conditions for all people of Sri Lanka, the lack of democracy, interference in the independence of the judiciary and the lack of progress on seeking a political solution to the Tamil National question. Since the last resolution, conditions in Sri Lanka have deteriorated even further,” he said.

“FCO Minister Alistair Burt seems to suggest that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have taken the decision to go to Sri Lanka because Buckingham Palace has taken the decision to go as the head of the Commonwealth, the member countries have requested HM or her representative to be present. The British Tamils of whom the Monarch and the PM represent wonder whether if the members requested that the Queen or her representative to visit Syria or Zimbabwe to shake hands with President Assad or Mugabe, whether Buckingham Palace would decide the same and whether the PM would accompany Her Majesty or her representative,” Surendiran said.

The government however is not shaken and feels it enjoys strong support amongst the Commonwealth countries, represented by the Board of Governors of the Commonwealth Secretariat, comprising the 54 London-based Commonwealth High Commissioners.

Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the UK Dr. Chris Nonis said in a statement that the “unwavering support” of all except one country, at recent meetings, necessitates a depth and breadth of understanding that Commonwealth countries are at different stages of development, with a commonality of values and aspirations, as well as challenges and constraints.

The High Commissioner said that although there had been intensive lobbying in the past year by anti-Sri Lanka activist groups with collateral agendas, in particular in London, which is home to the Commonwealth Secretariat, they had not succeeded in their attempts to pressurize Commonwealth Nations to shift the venue, nor to pressurise the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to place Sri Lanka on its formal agenda.

Bogollagama meanwhile says Sri Lanka should continue its engagement with Canada despite the comments being made by its Foreign Minister on Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan diplomats must try not to be like politicians and criticize any country even if those countries work against Sri Lanka. The Commonwealth biennial meeting in November this year, will be preceded by the Commonwealth People’s Forum, the Commonwealth Youth Forum, and the Commonwealth Business Forum, and usually attracts several thousand delegates, and global media coverage. It will provide the opportunity for the 54 Heads to meet to discuss matters of global and Commonwealth concern, and agree collective policies and initiatives.

(Courtesy The Sunday Leader)