Did The Commonwealth Summit Backfire On Sri Lanka?


Although Commonwealth is an insignificant and inconsequential organization, the Sri Lankan government organized the 2013 Summit in Colombo with great expectations which involved political, economic as well as personal designs. The government expected the Summit to: (1) facilitate greater foreign capital investment in the country, and (2) help mitigate the Western isolation caused by allegations of serious human rights violations during the last phase of the war in 2009.

In terms of the first objective, the government, despite some of the shortcomings, has done a good job showcasing the resources and potentials of the country. One however has to wait and see whether the Commonwealth Summit will fetch more foreign investments. Immediately after the Summit, a news report suggested that the Chinese government has agreed to invest on new projects in Sri Lanka. The reality is that the Chinese do not need the Commonwealth to invest in Sri Lanka. Government and semi-government Chinese institutions are investing in Sri Lanka on a regular basis as Sri Lanka’s leading newspapers report about one or another Chinese project almost every week. Therefore, what we are talking about is non-Chinese, mostly Western investment. Time will tell whether the Sri Lankan Summit boosted foreign investments.

It is the second objective, i.e. beating the Western isolation and international condemnation of serious human rights violations that has become problematic. Some critics believe that the historically low attendance of heads of government in the Colombo Summit was a problem. Only 27 of the 53 countries were represented at the top level, which to a certain extent, would have disappointed the Sri Lankan government. There is however, no concrete evidence to suggest that the decision to send second tier leaders or lower level officials to Colombo by many member states of the Commonwealth was influenced by their attitude towards Sri Lankan. The insignificance of the Commonwealth itself could have been a factor.

Yet, some states, especially India and Canada decided to send lower level delegations due to human rights concerns at various levels and the British Prime Minister David Cameroon while deciding to attend the Summit, took a hardline position towards the Sri Lankan government or the situation. These decisions reignited the international interest on human rights problems in Sri Lanka, which were being relegated to the back burner of global agenda before the Summit. The Summit opened up a fresh space for the Tamil community in the North, especially the war victims to tell their stories through different means to the international media. The Sri Lankan government had no option but silently watch active exploration of the human rights situation in the North by the Western media, especially by Channel 4 and similar institutions. This is exactly why some observers are inclined to believe that the Colombo Summit backfired on the Sri Lankan government.

Two developments were significant in this regard: (1) Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision to miss the Summit, and (2) British Prime Minister Cameroon’s activities in Sri Lanka and his warning.
India constantly supported the Sri Lankan government on the issue of holding the Summit in Colombo in 2013 as international human rights lobbies and Tamil diaspora groups resisted the idea from the inception. In fact it was the Indian patronage that saved the Colombo Summit eventually. These developments made Singh’s participation crucial and significant. Tamil nationalist groups and some of the political parties in Tamil Nadu however, had other ideas. They fiercely resisted the Colombo Summit and demanded India’s boycott. They believed that India’s participation would endorse Sri Lanka’s position on human rights issues. New Delhi however favored attendance at the highest level. The tussle between Delhi and Tamil Nadu and the debate whether Singh will or rather should in fact attend or not, helped sustain the attention on human rights issues in the pre-summit period.

Some of the commentators and policy makers both in Sri Lank and New Delhi who favored Singh’s visit argued that missing the Summit will jeopardize an opportunity to engage the Sri Lankan government on crucial issues including human rights concerns. This was misleading because this argument was based on the assumption that Sri Lanka and India are two equally powerful states. Although on paper they are equal members of the internationals system the reality is that India is a very strong state and a major international player. Therefore, if India desires to engage Sri Lanka while missing the Summit it can force Sri Lanka to do so or take advantage of the prevailing Western animosity towards Sri Lanka to engage the neighboring small state.

Prime Minister Singh’s eventual decision to miss the Summit was to a certain extent a setback for the Sri Lankan government. This however did not curtail engagement. In the immediate aftermath of the Colombo Summit, which the Indian Prime Minister skipped, Sri Lanka’s Secretary of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa visited New Delhi and reports indicate that he met and had talks with several political figures and policy makers. Hence, engagement between the two countries continues. One could safely assume that India will take full advantage of the Geneva process against Sri Lanka, because, Colombo still need India’s support to meet, probably more stringent challenges from the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva in March 2014.

There are adequate reasons to expect serious debates and perhaps outcomes on Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council meeting in March 2014. One of these reasons is that David Cameroon who was in Colombo to attend the Commonwealth Summit used the opportunity to expose human rights related problems and eventually delivered a warning to the Sri Lankan government. He declared that “if an investigation is not completed by March, then I will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commission and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry.” Sri Lanka does not want an international inquiry.

Cameroon, making use of the Commonwealth Summit met with people who were affected badly by the war including relatives of the disappeared persons. He also visited refugee camps and a leading Tamil newspaper printing press, which came under attack. This helped international media to follow the Prime Minister and expose some of the humanitarian problems in the Northern Province. Channel 4, which carried on a sustained campaign against the Sri Lankan government on issues of war crime, also was actively exploring the political environment in Sri Lanka. It is highly likely that Channel 4 will use the information and images gathered in Sri Lanka during the Commonwealth Summit to produce damaging reports in the future.

These developments especially Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision to miss the Summit, British Prime Minister David Cameroon’s meetings with the war affected people in the North and his warning, and international media’s focus on humanitarian issues in the North seem to have exasperated the pressure on the Sri Lankan government. In response, the government has initiated two schemes: (1) it has promised to undertake a survey to assess the number of people who were killed and people who went missing during the war, and (2) it has accelerated the course of action to consult and seek Indian assistance to deal with the challenges of Geneva process. One of course has to wait and see whether these initiatives are adequate to mitigate the pressure recreated by the Colombo Summit.

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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