Almost a year after the controversial Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) in the country,Kamalesh Sharma, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, returned to Sri Lanka for an official visit to brief President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current Chair-in-Office of the organisation through hosting the summit, on the progress towards objectives agreed at Chogm. Although it was a routine visit, Sharma might have preferred not to return so soon to the country that exposed him and the Commonwealth to some fierce criticism on the world stage—an episode described by Ronald Sanders as ‘the lowest point in the history of the association so far’.
The Eminent Persons Group recommended abolishing the post of Chair-in-Office. As Sanders noted: ‘In the four years between 2009 and 2013, the Commonwealth has had five Chairs-in-Office—three of them had never attended a Chogm when they became chair … the Commonwealth has not benefitted from the current arrangements.’
It is doubtful whether the Sri Lankans expected a robust exchange of views—nor did they get one, it seems. Sharma said in a statement: ‘I briefed President Rajapaksa on progress with these [Commonwealth issues], many of which have benefited from his personal leadership and the guidance of the Sri Lankan government.’ Reuters said he urged Rajapaksa to reduce the military’s role in civil administration in the former conflict zone of the north, ‘addressing legitimate concerns about restricted and monitored movement of both the citizens of the province in their daily lives and those visiting them for lawful purposes.’ Sharma said: ‘Our deepened engagement is aimed at enhancing the functional independence, authority and effectiveness of the [Human Rights] Commission.’
In what could be a nudge towards more democratic standards (or an unintended irony), Sri Lanka is to host a parliamentary congress ‘to build understanding and capacity of parliamentarians in their roles and responsibilities regarding the protection and promotion of fundamental human rights.’ Rajapaksa was also informed of the Commonwealth’s liking for free, fair and peaceful elections and its dislike of ‘the misuse of state resources for electioneering’. A small victory: election observers will be able to monitor the vote-counting process in future. But it remains to be seen whether the observers will be any more independent than the Election Commission, which was criticised in the next sentence of the secretary-general’s communiqué.
In an oblique reference to the dismissal of the chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, last year after her widely criticised impeachment by parliament, Sharma said the Rajapaksa government regarded advice given by the Commonwealth last year on the ‘appointment, tenure and removal of senior judicial individuals’ as ‘an input of great value’. However, this ‘compendium of practice across the Commonwealth’ might be looked at by a parliamentary committee next year—some 18 months after it was ‘shared’ with Sri Lanka.
The UN Human Rights Committee also listed the head of the judiciary’s dismissal among a series of criticisms of the Rajapaksa government in its latest report on how well Sri Lanka is complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is perhaps a sign of how much weight is given to the UN’s panel of experts, compared with the Commonwealth, that Sri Lanka’s information minister was immediately dismissing the UNHRC as biased, theNew York Times reported. Sharma, by contrast, got a polite official communiqué.
After seeing its chief justice removed, and with snap elections called for January, it was little surprise that a chastened supreme court said Rajapaksa was eligible to seek a third term in office (four years after he abolished the constitutional limit of two terms). His opponents cried foul, seeing a power grab, according to Bloomberg, while Al Jazeera reported that the influential Buddhist party, the National Heritage Party (JHU), was quitting the government over Rajapaksa’s refusal to meet demands for democratic reforms.
It will be interesting to see whether Sharma’s softly-softly approach will succeed in restraining Rajapaksa.