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Sri Lanka and human rights: Australia’s CHOGM dilemma

Julia Gillard meets with Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2011 CHOGM meeting: should Australia boycott the 2013 meeting in Sri Lanka over human rights concerns? AAP/Daniel Munoz

Given its long association with the Commonwealth, it is no surprise that Sri Lanka is hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) in November this year.

These biannual meetings are normally not controversial. But in principle they do provide a forum to discuss the political problems of their members, especially those which appear to challenge understood democratic principles. In the past these discussions have been influential in the dismantling of the apartheid system in South Africa.

Sri Lanka’s record on human rights is currently the subject of international consternation after a recent Amnesty International report detailed widespread government-sanctioned repression against journalists, political opponents and human rights activists.

Australia’s position on a possible boycott of CHOGM is the conventional one of denying the validity of public criticisms of Commonwealth members. Australia has a strong interest in collaborating with the Sri Lankan government in the exchange of information about asylum seekers and controlling the departure of their boats from Negombo and other Sri Lankan ports.

Sri Lankan soldiers in 2009, patrolling Mullaitivu in the final days of the war against the Tamil Tigers. EPA/STR

Sri Lanka has just completed a long running civil war with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, a militarised body favouring secession and based on the Tamil minority which has shared Sri Lanka with the Sinhalese majority for over a thousand years.

Such wars cannot be conducted without suspending many democratic principles and practices, or without the deaths of many citizens at the hands of government forces. This war ended in a massacre of uncounted numbers of Tamils at the final battle on the east coast. Warfare on this scale had not previously broken out in Sri Lanka. Independence was gained without an armed struggle, although there were serious youth revolts more recently.

Despite the brutal nature of civil war, most Commonwealth governments would accept that the state must be protected and maintained when attacked by insurrectionists. That is the position of the Sri Lanka government of Mahinda Rajapakse, which was returned with a large majority at the last election.

CHOGM might normally have accepted the position that the Tamil Tigers were terrorists who had to be defeated. This appears to be the position of the Australian government. Tamils, seeking refuge in Australia following the end of the war, have often been returned to Sri Lanka for their part in the revolt or have failed to get an ASIO security clearance for the same reason.

CHOGM members are reluctant to intervene in or speak out on the domestic affairs of other members. However, with Sri Lanka this time around this has not been the case. Canada has led the criticism, with its conservative government advocating a boycott in the face of a serious rebuke of the Rajapakse government. Canada hosts the largest number of Tamil refugees outside India and they are a significant force in Canadian politics.

However, Canada is not alone in criticising the Sri Lankan government. India too is less than happy. Continuing evidence of suppression of criticism and civil rights come daily from Sri Lanka, and many Tamils are still interned in camps, while military forces are stationed in Tamil areas in large and aggressive numbers. Deaths of journalistic critics have become commonplace. Both the United Nations and a range of NGOs have consistently criticised the lack of a post war reconciliation and the restoration of liberal institutions.

The expatriate communities in Australia are divided between Sinhalese who mostly support the Sri Lankan government and Tamils who are unhappy about it. Supporters of the Rajapakse government point to an economic revival and growing economy. However growth is also marked in the armed forces, now numbering over 400,000 and located largely in Tamil areas.

Apart from the post-war repression - which is understandable to some extent - a more ominous development has been the growth of Sinhala Buddhist racism, often led by Buddhist monks. This has directed violence against the small Muslim community and some Christian churches. From once being a multicultural and multireligious society living in relative harmony, Sri Lanka is in danger of becoming culturally oppressive.

Sri Lanka’s long association with the Commonwealth began as a Crown Colony of the British Empire from 1802 until its independence in 1948. During that time it developed political institutions based on British principles including universal suffrage from 1931 and regular parliamentary elections. Its adherence to principles such as the rule of law and of the equality of all citizens before the law was central to its political values.

Thus Sri Lanka was, and is, an unquestioned member of the Commonwealth. Unlike states such as Ireland, Burma, Pakistan, Fiji or South Africa, Sri Lanka has never left this association nor been suspended from it.

These dramatic abuses of human rights need airing, however. Whether CHOGM is the right place to do so could mean Australian representatives are faced with a serious dilemma.

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