4th November 2001

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Thoughts from London

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 in London.

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 impact.

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 in 1999.

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 terrorism.

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.

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