ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday November 25, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 26
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The Empire strikes back

Once again, almost on cue, the Sri Lankan Government has made another faux pas on the world stage. Hot on the heels of issuing a false diplomatic passport to the breakaway renegade of the LTTE so that he can slip into the United Kingdom, comes the news from Uganda that the Foreign Minister has voted for the suspension of one of Sri Lanka's best friends - a friend in need - Pakistan, from the Commonwealth.

And the President, who is also in Uganda, has to move hell and high water to have the decision reversed. Pakistan may well be wondering, 'with friends like these… who needs enemies'.

It is not the first time that Sri Lanka has reversed an important vote; former President J.R. Jayewardene did so when Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed voted with the Non-Aligned bloc at the UN against Britain on the Malvinas (Falklands) issue. Britain was then an important aid donor for the Mahaveli project.

The issue here is not the President's volte-face, but the manner in which foreign policy is being managed, or rather mismanaged.

This is the second time in two years that this administration has made an embarrassing reversal, the earlier instance being when Sri Lanka's UN envoy slipped away during the UN General Assembly vote on a resolution condemning Israel's atrocities against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, despite the President being the long-time head of the Friendship with Palestine Association.

Our news pages and our Political Editor refer to what happened in Uganda. The gaffes the Foreign Ministry has committed in recent times are countless. There is little disagreement that Pakistan's military dictator must be taught a lesson in democracy but then again, what of the Commonwealth's own duplicity?

This is the second time it has suspended Pakistan. It was first suspended in 1999 when Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup, then brought back after the infamous 9/11 attack in the US on the grounds that he was an important partner in the battle against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the 'war on terror' with the sugary excuse that Pakistan was on the road to democracy.

Take the case of this year's CHOGM host, Uganda. The country is only a degree better than when it was under dictator Idi Amin. There are 7,500 complaints of human rights violations and with the Ugandan Human Rights Commission under the regime of President Yoweni Museveni 264 cases of torture just for last year. He is a serving General who took power 21 years ago. What's sauce for Musharraf should also be sauce for Museveni. The fact is the Commonwealth has a problem in finding a role and image in today's world. It wields virtually no power but quite a lot of influence. As a "club" of former British colonies, it does -- to the uninitiated -- smack of a neo-imperialist organisation with no teeth.

This is the "club's" own fault to a degree as little has been done to "sell" the Commonwealth to the world. People are largely unaware of the work it does in many countries. After the fall of apartheid -- in which the Commonwealth played a major role for many years -- they couldn't find a new "cause" to adopt. Now the Commonwealth seems to be trying to do all things to all people.

Summits like CHOGM (unkindly called 'Cheap Holidays on Government Money') are regarded with a jaundiced eye by many. One of its problems is that apart from suspensions, the Commonwealth doesn't really have many punitive powers at its disposal.

The Commonwealth seems not to see the questionable leaders out there whose countries are still in the Commonwealth but do not comply with the Commonwealth Principles or the Harare Declaration, Gambia being the most obvious. On the human rights side, it seems unwilling or unable to act on behalf of the dispossessed people of Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean territory. And there are some other running sores which seem to slip off the radar. In the case of Sri Lanka, the Commonwealth has not made any meaningful contribution to our problems.

But interestingly, in Africa particularly and other parts of the Commonwealth, it has a better image. This presumably is why there are constant applications to join the group, although since Mozambique there have been no successful applicants.

The new Secretary-General, India's Kamalesh Sharma, we hope will be able to lift the Commonwealth out of its apathy -- the present incumbent comparing poorly with greats such as Arnold Smith and Sonny Ramphal before him and lead to a higher calibre of appointments within the organisation itself. But, although struggling in some ways, the Commonwealth is not dead yet.

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