Where was the Commonwealth when the lights went out?
Much of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's time in London last week was
spent giving interviews to the British media, particularly to the BBC whose
monochromatic vision of Sri Lanka centres round human rights, as though
Britain and its media mouthpiece are exemplars of moral rectitude.
British prime minister "Phoney" Tony's recent perorations on moral courage
sounded like Kumaratunga's sermons on democracy and the rule of law. They
both draw at the same well of public and media ignorance. Both get away
with smiles that would sit better on advertisements for toothpaste.
There is this difference. Tony Blair uses the local media to prop up
his image as a thing of political purity while Chandrika Kumaratunga keeps
her pearls of wisdom for the foreign media and avoids Sri Lankan journalists
Sri Lankan journalists, unlike their British counterparts, might be
inclined to ask too many embarrassing questions.
Last week there were rumours that nightingales were heard singing in
Trafalgar Square "My Ronnie lies over the ocean/ My Ronnie lies over the
sea/ My Ronnie lies over the ocean/ Please make his loans interest free".
I can strongly say that this is totally false and that the only singing
heard in Trafalgar Square last week were by some Bin Laden supporters selling
off their excess anthrax.
But it is true that some Sri Lankan journalists, were they given an
opportunity, were keen to ask whether it is true that the acting director
of the Bribery and Corruption Commission was suddenly replaced by some
nondescript judicial officer when opposition charges had been brought before
the Commission relating to one Ronnie Peiris.
Instead, of course, President Kumaratunga calls on the Secretary General
of the Commonwealth Don McKinnon who is a great supporter of the rule of
law, though he might be terribly slow at reacting to terrorism.
It is in the nature of terrorism to take nations and peoples by surprise.
If sensation and dramatic effect are uppermost in terrorist minds, then
stealth and surprise are essential tools of their trade in achieving maximum
So it is not surprising that the Commonwealth, like everyone else, was
taken by surprise by the sudden and outrageous events of September 11.
But what surprised those of us who have followed the work of the Commonwealth
and its Secretariat for some time, was the inability of the organisation
to get into action quickly on an issue which had already engaged the attention
of the heads of government during at least two previous summit meetings-
in Edinburgh in 1997 and Durban in 1999.
As the Secretary-General Don McKinnon was to admit later in a news release
dated October 11, endorsing a suggestion by President Kumaratunga to form
a Commonwealth coalition against terrorism, Commonwealth leaders had previously
"called for increased international cooperation against terrorism and sought
progress on a UN Comprehensive Convention Against International Terrorism".
Sri Lanka was one of the member states that had urged action against
terrorism. Had those warnings from a country that had already experienced
the arbitrary and indiscriminate activities of terrorists, been taken seriously
by the Commonwealth at the time, it would have had a regime of carefully
worked out proposals and formula on which to draw at a critical time.
Admittedly, the Commonwealth is no NATO or a grand coalition of the
world's leading military machines waiting to bomb a rogue or recalcitrant
member of the world community back into the stone age.
What the Commonwealth can contribute is what might be perceived as impartial
diplomacy and expertise to tackle issues and present solutions to seemingly
intractable problems. The Commonwealth unlike the United Nations has no
permanent members of the Security Council that make some members, in the
words of George Orwell, more equal than others. The Commonwealth is, in
that sense, a more egalitarian organisation.
So where was the Commonwealth when the lights went out?
While George W. Bush and Tony Blair in a rush of righteousness led the
coalition against terrorism into war, Secretary General McKinnon took eight
days after the event to shoot from the lip.
On September 19, Don McKinnon launched his two-year report before an
audience of Commonwealth diplomats and journalists. This was the report
that set out the work of the Commonwealth since the last summit in Durban
He prefaced his remarks by references to the terrorist atrocities in
the US and said the Commonwealth had a major role to play in combating
Knowing very well that during two consecutive summits Sri Lanka had
raised the question of terrorism, it came as a surprise to me that McKinnon's
report seemed to make no mention of this issue.
I went through the report quickly and found that the word terrorism
was not even mentioned. Was I wrong, I wondered. And there was McKinnon
standing there proudly saying what a major role the Commonwealth had to
play in the war against terrorism while his report showed no such urgency.
Since then this newspaper has been thanked by diplomats and journalists
alike for leading the charge that day by questioning the Secretary-General
on this blatant omission and for following it with persistently asking
the Commonwealth Secretariat to account for itself by setting out what
concrete steps it has taken in fighting terrorism and what tangible results
have been recorded.
Had we faltered that day, McKinnon and his political advisers would
have got away with their crass indifference because even the media seemed
to show no interest in the Commonwealth unless it dealt with matters that
made an insular British media happy such as Zimbabwe and white farms.
I have discovered that dealing with the Secretariat is like waiting
for Godot. I'm still waiting for answers to several questions I posed to
its Public Affairs Division nearly two weeks ago.
Had we not persisted with our inquiries, would this lumbering antediluvian
animal called the Commonwealth Secretariat have been goaded sufficiently
to show some signs of life?
It took one month after the terrorist attacks for the Commonwealth Secretariat
to make any meaningful comment. That was when McKinnon welcomed President
Kumaratunga's initiative to combat terrorism.
Even then what did it say in its news release. "When our leaders gather
for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in March, they will have
an unprecedented opportunity to address again the issue of terrorism".
At least Don McKinnon and Chandrika Kumaratunga seem to have one thing
in common-better late than never.