The Commonwealth and Sri Lanka’s disintegrating democracy

While the nation is all set to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) later this year, Sri Lankan democracy is disintegrating, with systematic torture and arbitrary detention increasingly becoming a ‘way of life’.

Colombo's Municipal Council, as Sri Lanka fumigates to contain Dengue Fever. Demotix/Tharaka Ruwansiri. All rights reserved.Colombo's Municipal Council, as Sri Lanka fumigates to contain Dengue Fever. Demotix/Tharaka Ruwansiri. All rights reserved.

In November this year, Sri Lanka will host the 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada has announced that he will not attend the meeting, citing the country’s dismal human rights record, and Nick Clegg, the British Deputy Prime Minister, has warned of “consequences” if the Sri Lankan authorities did not change their conduct.

As the nation is thrust into the global spotlight once again, hope that the conduct will change remains faint among its people.

For decades, Sri Lanka was embroiled in a civil war, which claimed thousands of lives, destroyed many others and scarred the consciousness of entire generations. The fighting stopped in 2009, with the Sri Lankan military’s victory over the LTTE, albeit controversially, with thousands of civilians losing their lives as a result of the military offensive.

Recently, the United Nations adopted a resolution based on a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemning the “war crimes” which were committed by the LTTE and, more worryingly, by the government forces.

Yet, it sparked realistic hopes that the future would be a little brighter, with focus shifting to reconciliation and compromise to strengthen the fragile peace between the island’s two main ethnic groups.

President Mahinda Rajapakshe, however, dismissed demands for an international investigation and set up an Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) instead. Eighteen months later, it cleared the army of systematic crimes, calling for the investigation of only a few “individual incidents”.

After his re-election in the Presidential election of 2010, the credibility of which has been questioned, Rajapakshe initiated a series of reforms, which consolidated and augmented his powers, notably removing the two term limit for the Presidency. Members of his family occupy the most important portfolios in the cabinet, with younger brother Gotabhaya Rajapakshe being particularly influential.

The opposition candidate, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the former Chief of Staff of the Sri Lankan army and the architect of the offensive that defeated the LTTE, was arrested for endorsing “corrupt military deals’. The accusations and the subsequent trial were dismissed by many observers as being part of a wider political agenda, with Fonseka’s stature and influence worrying the government.

Years after the end of the fighting, the country’s democratic structure is disintegrating and reports of torture and brutality by the police and security forces continue to surface. Arbitrary arrests, detentions and deaths in custody are becoming more prevalent across the country, with arcane security laws being used as political tools.

A report published in 2013 by Human Rights Watch states that “overly broad detention powers remained in place under various laws and regulations” and that “several thousand people continued to be detained without charge or trial”.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act in particular, according to another report by Amnesty International is being used by the government to “silence its critics”. Under it, people can be held without a proper charge or trial for up to eighteen months.

Equally worrying are the increasing cases of violence against those journalists who strive to uncover and bring attention to these issues. In 2009, prominent journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge was shot dead by masked men on motorbikes. Earlier this year, Faraz Shauketaly, another journalist at the Sunday Leader, the newspaper that Wickrematunge edited, was shot in the neck.

In an article that was published posthumously, Wickrematunge hauntingly proclaimed “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me”.

A new code of ethics for the media proposed by the government worryingly aims to prohibit “any content that contains material against the executive, judiciary and the legislative”. Sri Lanka is already ranked 162 out of 179 countries in the 2013 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders.

In the beginning of 2013, Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached by the Parliament for “professional misconduct”.  The fact that Bandaranayake had made a series of rulings against the government before her removal in a highly controversial manner is not seen as a coincidence by independent observers.

The International Commission of Jurists described the impeachment as an “evisceration” of judicial independence, adding that it had created a “constitutional crisis of unprecedented dimensions”.

The Commonwealth Lawyer’s Association, Commonwealth Legal Education Association and the Commonwealth Judge’s and Magistrate’s Association issued a joint resolution in April recommending the relocation of the CHOGM from the country, stating that “allowing the Sri Lankan government to host the meeting would call into grave question the value, credibility and future of the Commonwealth”

As the CHOGM approaches and reports of torture and abuse continue to surface, this is a sentiment that is being widely echoed.

Brad Adams, the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, even stated that the Commonwealth would face “international ridicule”, if the summit was to be held in Sri Lanka, adding that “to allow the nation to host the summit without rapid improvements would be to reward an abusive government with an underserved badge of international peace”.

Further, Adams believes that Sri Lanka’s chairmanship of the Commonwealth from 2013 to 2015 would “undermine the credibility of the Commonwealth on human rights matters”.

Amnesty International has released a “six point human rights agenda” for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Titled “Tell the Truth”, the agenda calls on the Sri Lankan government to “tell the truth on arbitrary detention and torture”.

It further urges the government to release “all individuals who have been arrested under emergency or anti terrorism laws, unless they are charged with recognizable criminal offences” and to “establish a registree of all detainees, with details of when and where they were arrested”.

In response to the intense criticism of the decision to stage the meeting in the country, Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma issued a letter to the Financial Times, asking foreign media outlets and the wider international community to “wait before judging Sri Lanka”.

In his letter, Sharma states that the question for the international community was “whether to criticise the lack of progress from afar or to offer and to make a practical difference”, adding that the Commonwealth had chosen the latter option and would work with the Sri Lankan government to advance the “Commonwealth values, including human rights and building mutual respect and understanding in communities”.

Sharma argues that “success should invariably be measured positively in the longer term in the form of real progress”, even if “Commonwealth soft power and behind the scenes contributions can often be at risk of negative judgement in the short term”.

Carl Wright, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum stated in another letter to the FT that Sri Lanka needed the Commonwealth’s “active engagement” in the road to peace.

He cited a meeting with newly elected mayors from the country, including the mayor of the conflict-hit Northern province of Jaffna, who stressed the need for “ better democratic structures and essential services”, in what is still “very much a post-conflict situation”.

He adds that the Commonwealth Local Government Forum would initiate a grassroots programme “drawing on the experiences of Commonwealth countries that have undergone the same painful and often difficult transition to peace”. 

Secretary General Sharma concludes his letter by stating that “to walk away and not to stay the course would be to the Commonwealth’s lasting discredit”. Only time will tell if this approach was right. Nevertheless, it is certain that the present debate will have a lasting impact in defining the agenda, role and relevance of these meetings and the Commonwealth itself in the near future.

About the author

Kiran Mohandas Menon is an independent researcher from India. His articles have been featured in various international publications.