“Does anyone specifically have a question that’s not on Sri Lanka or human rights?”
This was how an exasperated Commonwealth spokesperson unwittingly summed up the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at a press conference in Sri Lanka last weekend.
The meeting, which ran from 15-17 November in Colombo, was the subject of heated media debate, fuelled largely by Amnesty’s campaign which exposed Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record and called on Commonwealth government leaders to strip it of the organization’s chairmanship. The campaign mobilized nearly 250,000 Amnesty supporters – around 50,000 signed our petition to Sri Lanka’s president and just under 195,000 signed our petition to the Commonwealth Chair.
A public relations disaster
The Sri Lankan government meant the meeting to be a triumph, but it quickly turned into a public relations disaster as the country’s dreadful human rights record became the only story in town.
Not that you’d know it from reading the Sri Lankan press. With a few heroic exceptions, independent media died there along with so many journalists allegedly killed for criticizing the government. UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to a newspaper office in the north said it all – six of its journalists had been killed over the years.
The Commonwealth is an institution that has struggled to define its purpose in recent years. Eventually it came out with a set of principles – its charter – which was signed by the Queen in March 2013. It included three core principles: human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law.
Which made the earlier controversial decision to host CHOGM in Sri Lanka – a country so heavily criticized on all three fronts – an even bigger embarrassment for the Commonwealth. More so since the host nation becomes Chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years at the meeting’s close.
By the time the meeting started it already had leader boycotts by Canada, India, and the next CHOGM host Mauritius. Canada and Mauritius cited human rights violations as their reason for their leaders’ non-attendance. Others, especially the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, had made it clear they would go but take a strong stand on human rights in Sri Lanka.
In the end, only 25 out of 53 heads of government attended – a historic low for CHOGM meetings. Ahead of the meeting, Amnesty collected nearly 195,000 signatures from people from Commonwealth member states asking Sri Lanka not to be the chair. Ultimately, this didn’t happen, but thanks to Amnesty members around the world, Sri Lanka’s next steps as Commonwealth chair will be watched not just by the body it leads, but by witnesses around the world.