CHOGM: Real engagement, or a Sri Lanka PR exercise?

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will attend the Commonwealth Summit in Colombo to engage with host nation Sri Lanka. However, while loudly encouraging Commonwealth leaders to engage by attending the Summit, Sri Lanka has in the recent past brushed aside international engagement it perceives as threatening and accommodated only that which boosts its legitimacy at home and image abroad.

Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the civil war that ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the rebel LTTE. The rebels too are accused of similar crimes. Sri Lanka denies the accusation and says even if they were true, a domestic inquiry would suffice. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai, among others, believes Sri Lanka cannot be trusted with a domestic inquiry.

Using engagement as a shield against his critics who urge him to boycott this week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) Cameron told the BBC: “I will tell [Rajapakse] that if Sri Lanka doesn’t deliver on an independent investigation, the world will need to ensure an international investigation is carried out instead.”

But if British leadership can only engage by attending the Commonwealth Summit in person, there are some glaring anomalies. For starters it means that the British high commissioner (ambassador) in Sri Lanka and his staff do not know their job. A diplomatic mission is established precisely for the reason that it serves as a conduit between the governments and peoples of both countries without their leaders having to meet and speak personally. Everything that Cameron wants to say and do can be undertaken by the UK mission if backed with sufficient firmness by London.

The British prime minister is also expected to go to Jaffna, which continues to bear the brunt of militarisation. Whitehall touted his visit as the first-ever by a foreign head of government since the country’s independence in 1948.

But allowing Cameron to visit Jaffna is another example of how Sri Lanka picks out international engagements it wants or has to permit, and rejects those it wishes to prevent. Like Cameron, two other elected representatives, Senator Lee Rhiannon from Australia and Member of the New Zealand Parliament Jan Logie, both from the Green Party, were on a fact-finding tour on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. But they were detained on Sunday by Sri Lankan authorities, had their passports confiscated and were interrogated before being allowed to leave.

The proposed Cameron visit and that of the Green members have a similar objective – a personal fact-finding tour. But the differences are crucial. While Cameron’s visit will be attended with the publicity of a head of government and is therefore unlikely to have in-depth engagement, Rhiannon and Logie’s were low key working visits where both members spent time with activists without an official security apparatus watching. Second, the Sri Lanka government realises it cannot trifle with Cameron, whereas it knows neither Australian PM Tony Abbot nor his New Zealand counterpart John Key have the self respect to stand up for their elected representatives whose rights Colombo has so callously violated.

The other form of engagement is through civil society. The Sri Lankan government and its ruling establishment have displayed a marked animosity to engage with foreign activists who promote human rights and democracy. A good example is Colombo refusing visas to the International Bar Association Human Rights Initiative (IBHARI) delegation that included UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Gabriela Knaul, and the first holder of that office, Param Cumaraswamy. They were to be part of seminar examining Commonwealth values and reality on the rule of law and the independence of the legal profession.

The government cracked down hard on foreign engagement with the media too. On 30 October civil society activists with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) – Jacqui Park and Jane Worthington – were detained, had their passports confiscated and subjected to interrogation because they participated in a meeting in Sri Lanka on media freedom. They were accused of violating visa regulations.

So why does Colombo treat IBAHRI, the Greens, IFJ and host of others who want to engage so shabbily, but puts pressure on a leader like Cameron to attend CHOGM despite his threat to rap the Government on the knuckles?

It is due to a contest between priorities of image-building and institution-building. Rajapakse’s priority is using CHOGM to consolidate his legitimacy within his electorate. To stand flanked by important Commonwealth leaders such as Cameron enhances Rajapakse’s image and he hopes, also, his legitimacy. The effect will be the same if he stands next to Queen Elizabeth in 2014 when opening the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. On the other hand, IBAHRI and IFJ are set on institution-building – a free judiciary and free media. But free institutions are inimical to Rajapakse, hence they are summarily rejected.

Therefore, if Cameron and other Commonwealth leaders are serious about making Sri Lanka accountable for war crimes and on-going human rights abuses they have to go beyond using clever terms like ‘engagement’ that actually do little. Enormous evidence of violations of the laws of war and human rights has been accumulated with painstaking care by the media – especially Channel Four and Frances Harrison for the BBC. This evidence has not been denied by the UK and other Commonwealth countries.

What is left for Cameron is not to pose for photo ops with Rajapakse or warn him that “if Sri Lanka doesn’t deliver on an independent investigation, the world will need to ensure an international investigation is carried out instead.” Rather, it is to bring Sri Lanka and its leaders to justice, not only by alluding to Commonwealth values, but by hastening an independent international inquiry and enforcing international law on war crimes, torture and rape.

© Asian Correspondent

JS Tissainayagam, a senior journalist and former Sri Lankan political prisoner, is a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard. He won Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism (2009) and the CPJ Press Freedom Award (2009).