Commonwealth and commonsense

The decision in Trinidad and Tobago, at the CoDecemberonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), to punish Sri Lanka by withdrawing its earlier acceptance to hold the next summit in Colombo primarily due to the 'treatment of the Tamil minority' is the first major international snub for President Mahinda Rajapaksa's Government since the announcement of presidential elections.

This cannot be easily dismissed as an inconsequential indictment by the IC (International Community), and in this case, not just the West but by nations from all the continents.

It was not long ago that the Government gloated over the victory at Geneva when it succeeded in warding off a largely EU-led move to condemn Sri Lanka in the wake of the final military offensive that eventually saw the liquidation of the LTTE's fighting capabilities.

It was obvious that that move was patently biased and arose more out of the ham-handed manner in which Sri Lanka quite rightly asked the EU Foreign Ministers to stop interfering with that final military assault and thereby trying to save the skin of the tra10ed LTTE leader. It was a case of doing the right thing the wrong way.

There were hosannas to the effectiveness of Sri Lanka's foreign policy and how India, the non-aligned countries, Africa, Latin America, Asia outwitted the EU and saved Sri Lanka from being branded as a human rights violator.

Then what could have gone wrong barely four months later?

What was the cause for the reversal at the highest levels of the 54-member nation Commonwealth which includes India, many non-aligned countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean?

No official reason has been given for the Commonwealth snub to Sri Lanka, but it was clear that the 'white Commonwealth' ganged up, this time with the concurrence of the others. The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry tried to wipe the egg from its face by giving the story the usual spin now associated with it. It said in a statement - "the endorsement of Sri Lanka by the entire membership of the Commonwealth singularly demonstrates the recognition of Sri Lanka's adherence to the Commonwealth values and principals as a country being one of the most vibrant democracies."

However, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a different interpretation of what happened. In his website he said: "We simply cannot be in a position where Sri Lanka -- whose actions earlier this year had a huge impact on civilians, leading to thousands of displaced people without proper humanitarian access -- is seen to be rewarded for its actions".

Britain, fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, ought to know better than pontificate to others about how to combat terrorism while engaging in human rights violations itself. Meanwhile, the de-mining exercise drags on and the interrogation process to weed out the residual LTTE cadres who had slipped into the refugee camps took a while longer than maybe it should have.

But when we compare the treatment of the IDPs with the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib, Guatanomo Bay and elsewhere where Britain also has played a significant if questionable role vis-a-vis human rights violations, what is happening in Sri Lanka may pale into insignificance.

If human rights violations are a criterion to go by so as not to hold an event in a particular country, then the next Olympic Games in London should be up for scrutiny; and if the treatment of minorities is the criterion, then the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in New Delhi should be shifted to another venue (if there can be one by the Commonwealth's yardstick) on the basis of India's treatment of its tribal people and the poor - a policy that has given rise to the Naxalite Movement in that country.

The Commonwealth remains, after 60 years of existence, a grouping of Britain's ex-colonies still orchestrated to serve largely as an extension of British foreign policy. If Britain does not like Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe or the coup in Fiji, the issue is sure to find a place on its agenda. Pakistan was expelled for testing a nuclear bomb, then brought back to the fold because it was needed to fight the Al- Qaeda and the Taiban that wage war against Britain and the West.
And all this, while Britain itself slowly but surely loses interest in the Commonwealth, shifting its own focus and resources, to Europe.

The Commonwealth seems, for all purposes, to exist mostly as a clapped-out residue of the collapse of the British Empire; something that would give Britain nostalgia, an ego trip if you like; but whose future after its titular head, the Queen of England's reign is over, is also uncertain.There is nothing to say that Prince Charles, the next in line to the British Throne will be the automatic choice to head the Commonwealth and without such a titular head, its years may soon be numbered.
Why on earth Sri Lanka went ahead and offered to host such a summit is anybody's guess. Hosting CHOGM with the Queen present is not exactly the same as hosting the SAARC summit. You can't keep bad-mouthing the West and the same time invite the Queen for tea, really.

The Government has been ill-advised and misdirected in this exercise. Despite serving on the Commonwealth Action Group (CAG) and all the media statements about meeting this Minister and that Prime Minister, the slap on Sri Lanka's face and the blushes at Trinidad e could have been something the Government could well have avoided.

The people have been told of 'foreign conspiracies' against the Government of Sri Lanka. That is all well and good for the Government to try and hoodwink the people. Nevertheless, the Foreign Minister owes it to the nation to tell the truth and explain why Sri Lanka was so badly condemned at the Commonwealth Summit and why his delegation was unable to convince the Commonwealth Heads of Government otherise. How did victory in Geneva turn into defeat in Trinidad. What happened in the interim period?

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