CHOGM: Theatre of the Dispossessed

Throughout 2013 the international judiciary spearheaded by Geoffrey Roberston QC, campaigned against the impeachment of the Sri Lankan chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, in January that year. Questioning the integrity and independence of the Sri Lankan courts under the Rajapaksa regime, Roberston and his peers encouraged parliamentarians to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) scheduled to be held in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo later that year. In an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 2013 he warns:

The prospect of the Queen travelling as head of the Commonwealth to Sri Lanka to provide a propaganda windfall for the host president after his destruction of judicial independence would make a mockery of the democratic values for which the Commonwealth is meant to stand. (Robertson, 2013)

CHOGM went ahead in Colombo meeting in November 2013, drawing much media commentary and critique. The heads of Canada (Stephen Harper) and India (Manmohan Singh) refused to attend citing human rights abuses, as did the Prime Minister of Mauritius (Navin Chandra Ramgoolam), obliging the country to withdraw from hosting the next meeting in 2015. The head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II did not attend and was represented by her son Prince Charles. Although there was much discussion over the merits of participating in or boycotting the meeting to be hosted by the Rajapaksa government, commentators concur these decisions were influenced by domestic politics in states where Tamil populations are prominent.

Following the conclusion of the opening ceremony, the British Prime Minister David Cameron made an unscheduled visit to Jaffna, the ‘Tamil capital’ in the island’s North, the first foreign leader to do so since the island’s independence from British rule in 1948, he met with residents at a resettlement camp, displaced by the war, as well as local Tamil representatives. When he returned to Colombo the Prime Minister used his address at CHOGM to set an ultimatum for an independent inquiry into war crimes, re-affirming UN reccommendations, before leaving abruptly before meeting’s official conclusion, dramatically upstaging much of the proceedings (Iggulden 2013, 16 November).

In contrast, the newly elected Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, acknowledged the Rajapaksa Government’s attempt to address human rights issues and allegations of war crimes stating, ‘we are here to praise as much as to judge’. (cited in Doherty, 2013) Mr Abbott downplayed any criticism of the Rajapaksa government stating at a press conference just prior to the meeting:

Obviously the Australian Government deplores any use of torture…But we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen. The important thing is to act as quickly as you can to bind up the nation’s wounds and to build a better future and it is absolutely undeniable that Sri Lanka today is a far better place than Sri Lanka during 26 years of unimaginably awful civil war and while I don’t necessarily approve of everything that happened in those terrible times, I am pleased that the war is over. (Abbott 2013)

As the outgoing chair of CHOGM, Australia was also obliged to be in attendance, and with his electoral mandate to ‘stop the boats’, Mr Abbott had a specific agenda to strengthen the Rajapaksa government’s ongoing co-operation. At the conclusion of the meeting the Australian Prime Minister presented Sri Lankan forces with two navy Bay class patrol boats to assist in its policing of people-smugglers and as a humanitarian gesture (ABC News 2013), telling ABC Radio’s AM:

This is about saving lives at sea. There are few more important humanitarian issues in our neighbourhood right now than stopping the flow of boats which in Australia’s case has been associated with more than 1000 deaths at sea. (cited in Iggulden 2013, 17 November)

Sri Lanka’s chief of navy, Jayanath Colombage, confirmed the vessels would be used to keep the Indian Ocean ‘free of maritime crime’ (cited in AAP 2013), only days after a senior Sri Lankan navy officer that had advised Australia on human trafficking was arrested for his crucial role in a major smuggling operation (Doherty 2013, 15 November).

Despite Mr Abbott’s insistence that the alliance was ‘not based on geography, not based on power, not based on economics, but based on values’ (Abbott 2013), Sri Lanka’s record of human rights abuses, suppression and intimidation of the press and questionable independence of its judiciary, threaten to undermine such claims and challenge the validity of the Commonwealth Charter and its core values.

In September 2013 the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, gave an oral report in Geneva in which she expressed disappointment that the Rajapaksa Government had failed to implement recommendations made by its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The highest office for human rights at the UN, found that the Rajapaksa government had not made any serious effort to independently or credibly investigate allegations of war crimes and human rights violations, as previously recommended by the UN, stressing that ‘that appointing the armed forces to investigate itself does not inspire confidence in a country where so many past investigations and commissions of inquiry have foundered’ (Pillay 2013). Whilst praising the relative speed at which the government had handled resettlement, reconstruction and rehabilitation, the High Commissioner remained concerned about the military presence in the country’s North, particularly in civilian matters, and the vulnerability of women and children to sexual abuse at the hands of the military. She also made note of ongoing ‘white van’ disappearances in the capital, a surge in violence towards religious minorities, and ‘continuing high levels of harassment and intimidation meted out to human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists’ (Pillay 2013), amongst other signs that suggest democratic institutions had been undermined and the rule of law eroded. Ms Pillay urged the Government of Sri Lanka to establish a ‘credible national process with tangible results’ (Pillay 2013), before she submitted her final report in March 2014, failing which she advised independent international inquiry.

Regardless of such ongoing criticism, Sri Lanka will head of the Commonwealth for the next two years with President Rajapaksa as the chair.

One might approve of Tony Abbott’s pragmatic approach to regional diplomacy, but the ongoing international disapproval of the Rajapaksa regime casts doubts as to the sincerity of the Prime Minister’s humanitarian concerns. Mr Abbott’s gift of navy patrol boats is in accordance with his electoral mandate to ‘stop the boats’ and is a gesture that compliments the government’s ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ — about which details are prominently undisclosed, yet statistic are theatrically revealed in weekly updates. One might consider a statement made by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison at one such press gathering a week before the Prime Minster presented his gift at CHOGM:

Our CI [Christmas Island] operations are central to our plans for managing our detention operations well into the future, beyond when the boats are stopped and beyond the clearance of the existing post 19 July detainee population currently on the island. (Morrison 2013)

In light of this statement, it is worth noting that successive Australian governments’ strategies to ‘break the people-smuggling business model’ has rather facilitated an industry of ‘human warehousing’ (Loewenstein, 2013, p. 15) in which detention and other related services are outsourced to commercial interests that profit considerably from this enterprise.

AAP. 2013. ‘Abbott defends Sri Lanka boat deal.’ SBS News, 17 November.

Abbott, Tony. 2013. Press Conference. Friday, 15 November, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

ABC News. 2013. ‘Tony Abbott confirms Bay-class patrol boats gift to Sri Lanka to combat people smuggling.’ABC News, 17 November.

Doherty, Ben. 2013. ‘A craven Tony Abbott’s refusal to discuss human rights in Sri Lanka cheapened the Commonwealth.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 November.

Doherty, Ben. 2013. ‘Tony Abbott praises Sri Lanka for addressing human rights, war crimes at CHOGM opening.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 November.

Doherty, Ben. 2013. ‘Sri Lankan navy officer accused of being key player in people-smuggling racket.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 November.

Iggulden, Tom. 2013 ‘Tony Abbott refuses to sign Aus to CHOGM climate change initiative.’ AM, ABC Radio National, 17 November.

Iggulden, Tom. 2013. ‘David Cameron hears pain of war during historic Jaffna visit on CHOGM sidelines.’ ABC News, 16 November.

Loewenstein, Antony. 2013. Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing The World. Melbourne University Press.

Morrison, Scott. 2013. ‘Operation Sovereign Borders update’ [Press Conference Sydney], 8 November.

Robertson, Geoffrey. ‘Justice loses if Sri Lanka holds court for Commonwealth.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March.

Sparrow, Jeff. 2013. ‘Refugees and human rights abuses: we can’t pretend that we do not know.’ The Guardian, 18 November.


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