A somewhat beleaguered President Maithripala Sirisena leaves for Britain over the weekend to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Often Sri Lanka’s Heads of Government seek solace overseas either when their astrologers advise them it is time to do so, or when things get too hot at home. Escapism is a way around [...]


Whither the Commonwealth


A somewhat beleaguered President Maithripala Sirisena leaves for Britain over the weekend to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Often Sri Lanka’s Heads of Government seek solace overseas either when their astrologers advise them it is time to do so, or when things get too hot at home. Escapism is a way around pressure.

Britain hosts this year’s CHOGM. The last time it did so in 1997 in Scotland, the star attraction was Nelson Mandela, the iconic South African leader who had just been released from prison to lead his rainbow nation. Much water has flowed since. In the intervening years, Britain – the primus inter pares of the group dumped the Commonwealth and looked to Europe for salvation. It was a thorough let-down – a betrayal of the former colonies of Great Britain. Two years ago, it chose to dump Europe.

Such then, is Britain’s interest in regaining its position within the group, Queen Elizabeth II, the titular head of the Commonwealth has offered Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, her estates in London for CHOGM’s meetings and social engagements. There is little doubt that the Queen personally has a great attachment to the Commonwealth. It was Her Majesty’s politicians who opted for a tryst with new allies in Europe, at the expense of old friends. Funding of affiliated agencies was slashed as all eyes were on Brussels. The Commonwealth Press Union, for instance, was a casualty, forced to close down a day short of a century — a direct result of being cash-strapped.

In more recent times, the group led by Britain began taking questionable positions on what it called “Commonwealth values”. Genuine they might have been on paper, but in implementation they turned out to be serving only the interests of a group of the group. They quite rightly opposed military coups that toppled democratically elected governments. Pakistan was booted out for that, but re-inducted because there was a greater need to fight the Taliban that was at war with the West.

Britain, in particular, targeted Sri Lanka, adopting a hard line when this country was fighting a bloody separatist insurgency. In 2009, Britain’s Foreign Minister was despatched to Colombo, accompanying his French colleague, to ask the government to stop the fighting against an organisation already declared a terrorist group in their countries. They were unceremoniously albeit undiplomatically, shown the departure gate of the Colombo airport and Sri Lanka ended the scourge of terrorism.

We have referred to an incident many times before, about the then Secretary General of the Commonwealth Secretariat coming to Colombo to discuss the agenda for 2001 CHOGM in Brisbane, Australia. Sri Lanka’s then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had asked that “terrorism” be on the agenda. When the Secretary General, a former Foreign Minister of New Zealand, had asked if the Lankan Minister was insisting on it, and was told he was, the Sunday Times at the time reported how the Secretary General had made a face indicating he was not happy. That very night, 9/11 happened in New York. The Commonwealth fast tracked the inclusion of ‘terrorism’ on the agenda. When they eventually met.

When it was Sri Lanka’s turn to host CHOGM in 2013, some member-states led by Canada meeting at the 2009 CHOGM in Trinidad and Tobago called for a change of venue or a boycott. The then Sri Lankan Government had made an utter mess of its foreign policy in those years, and was adamant about hosting the summit.

Eventually, some countries, including India did not attend at Head of Government level, and only 27 turned up even though 37 Mercedes Benz cars were imported for the VVIPs. The Queen found Sri Lanka too far to travel to, and her eldest son deputised, but the Prime Minister of Britain tried in earnest to embarrass and humiliate the host nation.

He visited the North in a side-show spectacle from CHOGM because what was important for him at the time was not the future of the Commonwealth but the votes he can garner at the next election back home. Driven by a vociferous Sri Lankan Diaspora, Britain and Canada – and coalition politics in India (then) –, these countries and their governments gave priority to domestic political compulsions over any esprit de corps among the 53 nation group.

When the then Sri Lankan President attended the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, the British Prime Minister did not wish to see him. When the European Union took a decision to cut off the GSP plus duty concessions to Sri Lankan exports, Britain as one of the three Commonwealth countries did not speak up for Sri Lanka (the others being Malta and Cyprus). This trend continues to-date. At the UNHRC, Britain is adopting an uncompromising stance demanding an international war crimes tribunal against Sri Lankan Security Forces; yet its PM has rejected outright any such thing against the conduct of British Forces currently in West Asia.

Take the incident on February 4 this year, Sri Lanka’s Independence Day in London opposite its High Commission. A group supporting the banned terrorist group waving its flag and trampling the national flag of a fellow Commonwealth country was allowed to get away without a whimper. But all hell broke loose at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office warranting a formal protest against the Sri Lankan military attaché for an inappropriate gesture blown completely out of proportion.

‘Terrorism’ now continues on the agenda of CHOGM 2018. It will, no doubt centre on ‘terrorism’ in Europe and places such as Syria and Yemen where Britain and the West are facing the brunt of the scourge. The fact is that the agenda of the Commonwealth has been for too long dictated by the ‘old Commonwealth’ known nowadays as the ‘white Commonwealth’ and it needs to be re-calibrated so that the label of ‘double standards’ does not stick to the Commonwealth as it does these days to the United Nations.

It is unlikely that Sri Lanka will have any input into the agenda – or the final draft Declaration that will be issued after CHOGM 2018. To cap it all, Sri Lanka’s High Commission in London which deals with the Commonwealth Secretariat on behalf of the government is headless.

A large contingent of businessmen is journeying for meetings on the sidelines of CHOGM 2018, hoping to gather some joint ventures as trade is now an increasing priority in world affairs. With Britain’s exit from the EU, it is looking for markets in the Commonwealth once again. Unfortunately, the chronic political instability in Sri Lanka with a government going in different directions, or probably going nowhere, is not going to be of help to these entrepreneurs in search of business opportunities and partnerships.

It is not with any great anticipation that one waits for the outcome of CHOGM 2018. If it is to be of any relevance in world affairs it must speak with one voice, and not be used selectively for domestic parochial political advantages. The Commonwealth comprises more than a quarter of the UN’s membership and can be a more powerful influence if they do that. For that to be a reality, it should be a platform for the small member-nations, as well as the big.

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