When quiet diplomacy equals silence on human rights
While you’re watching the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony tonight, take a moment to look at the VIP box.
The first guest of honour in New Delhi is Britain’s Prince Edward, there representing his mother, the Queen, in her capacity of Head of the Commonwealth. Nothing unusual about that. But alongside him in the guest of honour spot will be Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka.
The Games are these days the most visible expression of the Commonwealth itself – an organisation which aims to promote democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism and world peace.
Democracy? President Rajapaksa was re-elected in January in an election in which he used state funds to campaign and ensured that the State-run news media effectively silenced opposition candidates.
Human rights? Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both condemned the Sri Lankan Government repeatedly for breaches, which continue despite the government’s complete victory over the Tamil Tigers.
The Tigers, as the originators of suicide bombing in the modern era, were bound to trigger harsh counter-measures; but the Tigers are now a completely beaten and spent force, yet the authoritarian structure mobilised against them remains.
Sri Lanka continues to be a major source of refugees seeking to come to Australia by any means they can. The minority Tamils seem certain to be cut out of any say in government indefinitely, especially now that Rajapaksa has passed a constitutional amendment allowing him to run for the Presidency as often as he likes.
It’s still eminently possible, however, that Sri Lanka will get the right to host the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
But that’s the Commonwealth way, it would seem.
This relic of the British Empire is still, in theory, a major force in international relations.
Once known as the British Commonwealth, now as the Commonwealth of Nations, it has its headquarters in historic Marlborough House, close to the London residence of HRH Prince Charles.
Despite the dropping of the ‘British’ prefix, the Prince’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II, remains the head of the Commonwealth. Australia is one of the sixteen members (out of 54) which still recognise her as head of State.
In theory, it has a lot of international clout.
But in practice, in the words of a former director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Danny Sriskandarajah “the organisation has been woefully quiet [on human rights] in recent times. The Gambian president has threatened journalists and human rights activists without any criticism from the secretariat; no statement was made on the sentencing of a gay couple in Malawi earlier this year; and it took almost three years after the coup for Fiji to be finally suspended late last year”.
In fact, according to an article in the Guardian last week, the Commonwealth Secretary-General has effectively abandoned the organisation’s original human rights commitment:
“For example, when the Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, threatened to behead homosexuals in 2008; when government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels were accused of widespread atrocities at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka last year; and when a Malawi court in May sentenced a gay couple to jail for being homosexual, the secretary general ignored calls from secretariat staff urging him to express concern at least”.
In my experience, this is not a new problem.
In 1981, I made a series of TV and radio reports from Uganda, which was then in theory recovering from the atrocities of Idi Amin’s regime.
Amin was a posturing buffoon as well as a mass murderer: The man who had succeeded him, Milton Obote, was a cosmopolitan, well-educated, articulate politician, and it was easy enough for him to convince the world that all was now well again.
It was not, and with the help of a keen young Australian aid-worker turned freelance journalist, Trent O’Keefe, I was able to prove it.
Among other evidence, we were able to film in the morgue where the regime’s victims were thrown when the torturers were finished with them. The bodies – with the death certificates, suppressed by the regime, but obtained by us, told stories of beating, electrocution and burning with cigarettes.
We tried without success to get Obote, or one of his Ministers, to talk about what was going on. In London, I took the evidence to the then Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Sir Shridath (Sonny) Ramphal.
The affable Ramphal, interviewed in his mahogany-lined office at Marlborough House, fobbed me off with bland assurances about quiet diplomacy. Obote remained in power, untroubled by any condemnation from the Commonwealth, until he himself was finally overthrown in 1985.
Also in the mid-80s, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe began what became known as the Matabeleland Massacres, or Gukurahundi. The Commonwealth, which had been instrumental in the process which put Mugabe into power, again pursued “quiet diplomacy”. The massacres continued. Zimbabwe was not suspended from the Commonwealth until 2002.
The truth is that the Commonwealth’s hands-off approach is not as new as the Guardian’s document leak indicates.
The Commonwealth secretariat responded to that story with a familiar refrain.
“The Commonwealth secretariat works on human rights under the radar screen, unlike human rights groups that use the media to try to create change. We produce results, even if we don’t claim credit for it. We build national human rights institutions, and free and trained media, and we work behind the scenes with governments for change. ... We will continue to take this approach, because it is the Commonwealth way and it has proven an effective diplomatic strategy”.
But with the Sri Lankan President being feted at the Commonwealth Games, and with a number of Commonwealth nations committing human rights abuses uncondemned, it seems to me that it is getting increasingly difficult to justify the organisation’s relevance – or even its existence – much further into the 21st century.
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