It’s ‘All Systems Go’ for CHOGM 2013. The Government has shooed away all those wanting to have conferences during this period, held its rehearsals and is furiously overseeing the last-minute dressing up of the city of Colombo for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week. The preparations are akin to a village wedding ceremony [...]


CHOGM agenda; who has final say?


It’s ‘All Systems Go’ for CHOGM 2013. The Government has shooed away all those wanting to have conferences during this period, held its rehearsals and is furiously overseeing the last-minute dressing up of the city of Colombo for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week.

The preparations are akin to a village wedding ceremony where the bridal party is beautifully adorned, the invitations sent out and the caterers booked, with only the bills to be paid later. This phenomenon is quite common in Sri Lanka and such tamashas are also known as the ‘clean suit, empty pocket’ syndrome.

We have said this before, and we say it again; the Commonwealth is a spent force in world affairs today. At best, it is a clapped-out residue of the collapsed British Empire. It does not take collective decisions on global issues despite representing a quarter of the nations of the world.

The Government has strained every sinew to hold this summit. It survived hiccups at CHOGM 2009 in Trinidad & Tobago soon after the defeat of the LTTE when some member-states, piqued by being snubbed by the Sri Lankan Government in their efforts to halt military operations against the LTTE tried to block this country from hosting the summit. Then, in London this year, Canada unsuccessfully tried to do the same at a Ministerial Action Group meeting, but all that is now past and President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the heir-apparent Chairman-in-office of the 53 member-state grouping.

What is on the agenda for CHOGM 2013 and what role has Sri Lanka played in the drafting of the final declaration that will be issued after the Colombo summit next Sunday? It seems a closely guarded secret. Even the agenda is not known. Neither the Public Affairs Director of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London nor the External Affairs Ministry is there to enlighten us, and through us the people of the Commonwealth

What was Sri Lanka’s input into the working of both the agenda and the declaration? Are we just the event organisers of a mega-show? Our understanding is that Britain is trying to dictate terms about even the timing of the opening and the final declaration is running into all types of difficulties. By now the routine consultations would have been done in respect of the Commonwealth Declaration 2013, but last minute meetings are in store running up to the final week indicating that the group still has no focus on what it wants to achieve.

Contrast it, for instance, with the eve of CHOGM 2001. The then Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon had visited Sri Lanka to discuss the Commonwealth Declaration that was to be passed after that year’s summit. It so happened that the SG was in Colombo when 9/11 hit the United States of America and all hell broke loose. The Commonwealth, like the U.S., was completely out of sync with the pulse of world events. While Sri Lanka was in the throes of a vicious insurgency, the international community, especially the West was pussy-footing with terrorism i.e. of course till 9/11 of 2001.

The then Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar met with the Commonwealth SG and argued that ‘international terrorism’ ought to be included in that final declaration. But the SG was not interested. This is how the Sunday Times reported what happened during those talks;

“…… Mr. McKinnon, a former Foreign Minister of New Zealand asked senior Foreign Ministry officials, including Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar whether Sri Lanka insisted on having a reference to international terrorism in the final declaration of the Commonwealth summit scheduled for Brisbane in October.

“When Foreign Minister Kadirgamar had emphatically said “yes” to Sri Lanka’s insistence, Mr. McKinnon is reported to have made a face and nodded”.

Hours later, New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked and the Commonwealth Secretary General did an about turn. Still in Colombo, he issued a statement on his own volition condemning the scourge of international terrorism and calling upon nations to unite. CHOGM in Brisbane took up the matter with great enthusiasm and the final Declaration reiterated the Commonwealth’s “absolute condemnation of all acts of terrorism in whatever form or wherever they occur or by whoever perpetrated…..”.

It goes to show how countries react to different situations only when it suits them and collective action is taken only then. Sri Lanka and its people were then in the grip of terrorism, but so-called Commonwealth leaders, least of all the Secretariat cared less – until they got socked in the face and felt the pain. Then it was nothing but terrorism, terrorism and terrorism on their lips even to the extent of sending their armies to invade foreign countries by misleading their own people. They banned terrorist organisations like the LTTE, but now, again, the wheel has turned full circle, and they come with lectures on how one must wage war and fight terrorism.

It seems to be all about the agenda of the domineering members of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Charter that came into being this year (in March) refers to the principles of consensus and common action, mutual respect… Significantly, there’s no reference to the parity of status among all member-states of the Commonwealth. One cannot say it must be taken for granted because nothing can be taken for granted in the Commonwealth and equality among member-states is a myth.

There is widening gap between the “old Commonwealth”, principally the United Kingdom, Canada and to a lesser extent Australia and New Zealand — and the “new Commonwealth”, the nations freed from the yoke of colonialism and imperialism soon after World War II and up to the 1960s. Bluntly put, it is a divide between the “white Commonwealth” and the rest.

Lord Luce while moving a resolution recently in the British House of Lords on the ‘future of the Commonwealth’ in the light of CHOGM in Sri Lanka put it succinctly: “This is possibly an indication of one of the major problems the organisation faces — a small group of wealthier developed nations require the Commonwealth to play an active role in promoting democracy and human rights. The vast majority of members would rather have a quiet body offering technical assistance where needed and convening a regular summit at which they are able to raise their concerns”.

That is precisely the point, but then how much input for the wider agenda of the Commonwealth comes from countries like Sri Lanka. How much can countries like Sri Lanka assert themselves in the final declaration and thereby the future agenda of an organisation that is anyway seen as a lame duck, if not a dead-duck grouping.

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