While you’re watching the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony tonight, take a moment to look at the VIP box.

Amnesty Who? Sorry, you're breaking up…President Rajapaksa on the blower. Photo: Getty Images

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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31 comments

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    • acotrel says:

      06:06am | 14/10/10

      I suggest we have selective vision! When will we have the situation of Australia being criticised for haranging poorer nations over their human rights abuses, while ignoring those of our major resources customers?

    • T.Chong says:

      06:17am | 14/10/10

      Mark, it would be nice to believe that in theory and practice, that the commonwealth meant something. As you have hilighted, it doesnt.
      Who is Australias major trading partners? China, US , Japan - not too many C’wealth nations there.
      Who do we have military alliances with ? Except for our immediate geographical neighbour, New Zealand, we now, as since WW2 fight American wars.
      The days of the world map colored pink are fast receeding. Very telling, also, that we are in the minority of countries that are obsessed with having a foreigner as our head of state.

    • annie f says:

      06:51am | 14/10/10

      and you get your right to criticise, and all the benefits of our health care and our legal system and our democratic system of government and our welfare sytem our finanacial system all from the commonwealth you decry Mr Chong.

    • Lady Fong says:

      08:31am | 14/10/10

      Annie F: are you making presumptuous statements regarding a person based on….? Your comment has nothing to do w/ trading partners, military alliances and human rights, the topic of the post. Are you depriving people of their freedom of speech just because they get health benefits? Are you saying that later settlers in this country must suspend their powers of reasoning, judgement and analysis? Have no opinions, must deprive themselves of the right to speak out on anything? Should we come everyday to your front door and say thank you. Do you say thank you to the original people of this country?

    • Carbon Dogg says:

      07:07am | 14/10/10

      The only reason why people are annoyed at Sri Lanka is they had the guts to take on a terrorist insurgency and beat it once and for all—instead of allowing the situation to end up in a never-ending morass mediated by the UN and other feckless international organisations who make their living brokering peaces that are anything but.

    • TheRealDave says:

      08:49am | 14/10/10

      Here here CD.

      And why would the Sri’s step back and take it easy? That will only encourage them, the Tamils, to regroup, start plotting and then get back into the suicide bombing business.

      You don’t win insurgencies by giving the enemy time and breathing space, which is what we are doing in Afghanistan by pussyfooting aroudn there.

    • Mr Subramanian says:

      10:36am | 14/10/10

      If you check Mark’s piece, his criticism is directed not so much as to the response of the Sri Lankan government to the Tamil’s tactics, but the fact that they have retained those powers after beating those aforementioned “terrorists” “once and for all”. It’s a salutary lesson for all of us who were happy to give our governments all sorts of powers in the aftermath of September 11 ~ how have our governments gone with giving those up?

    • acotrel says:

      07:38pm | 14/10/10

      ‘The only reason why people are annoyed at Sri Lanka is they had the guts to take on a terrorist insurgency and beat it once and for all—instead of allowing the situation to end up in a never-ending morass mediated by the UN ‘

      Well, That’s ONE way of looking at it!

    • morps says:

      07:09am | 14/10/10

      yes T Chong we even let people in from commonwealth countries who moan and whinge all the time, what an excellent organisation.

    • Ken Maynard says:

      07:14am | 14/10/10

      A debate on Afghanistan concluded the western military could install democracy & human rights in other societies only in limited measure.  The world is too big a target & operates on too many fronts for us to engage everyone at once.

      I suspect our political engagement with human rights issues are similarly selective & piecemeal because it is too big a front & we cannot engage everywhere.  This means there will always be inconsistencies in our upholding of human rights.

      Personally, I believe we need to pay more attention to rights & free speech at home.

      The recent fuss over Paul Henry in NZ is a case in point.

      Henry was not my personal style, I rarely watched his program.  I held him ~crass but harmless~ in a world where harmless is a scarcity.

      Some comments in NZ papers attest… ~you don’t hear Indian media people insulting New Zealand~

      India has 400 million people living in absolute poverty.  People who purpose breed for an intentionally minimalist existence & aspire to no other life.  They are a massive dead weight on society merely by reason of their existence. India is a multi-faceted society where rich & poor live cheek by jowl & just accept each others conditions as a given.  Not ~I am my brothers keeper~ but ~you to your karma, me to mine~

      Paul Henry was crass but harmless.

      Mass poverty is greatly harmful, polite acceptance off it not merely crass, but the moral bankruptcy of the whole society.

      Excuse me… whom amongst needs to learn how to properly behave.  Since when did Asia determine the values, rights & social-religious aspirations of the west?

      If we cannot even protect fundamental rights & values at home, the Commonwealth can exercise even less clout at an international level.  I believe our engagement with human rights will continue to be selective & inconsistent, as we simply cannot engage on all fronts at once.

    • Tom K says:

      07:33am | 14/10/10

      Mark, You are spot on. The Commonwealth has never cared about human rights, and the Sri Lankan elections were a farce. Rajapaksa arrested his main rival, General Fonseka, who’s still in military detention, and has threatened to execute him if he continues to suggest top officials may have committed war crimes in the final hours of the Tamil war. Fonseka was the military commander who ended the war. Just one example of how the Commonwealth ignores human rights issues. If it was fair dinkum, it would invite Fonseka to sit beside Rajapaksa at the closing ceremony. I’d like to see that. Well done, Mark. Cheers.

    • iansand says:

      07:58am | 14/10/10

      It is pure practicality.  If all the countries who did not follow the ideals of the Commonwealth had been thrown out over the years there would be about 5 members left.

    • A Dose of Reality says:

      09:47am | 14/10/10

      But at least it would then have some kind of relevance.  This is the point of the article.  You have just agreed with it.

    • iansand says:

      12:44pm | 14/10/10

      Gosh.  Bugger me.  Did I?  How did that happen?

      Wanders off to find MarK, who has almost certainly written something utterly fatuous by now.

    • Takethat says:

      08:05am | 14/10/10

      I applaud the president of Sri Lanka for taking the steps necessary to rid Sri Lanka of a terrorist blight on their country..
      May he continue to crush whatever resistance is left until the people of Sri Lanka can live in peace.
      Tamils arriving on our shores should not be allowed to stay and become part of the diaspora. They should be returned to face the music or assimilate.

    • A Dose of Reality says:

      09:48am | 14/10/10

      ignorance is not a virtue.

    • Ryan says:

      10:23am | 14/10/10

      @Takethat: lest we face the same problems right here on our shores!

    • Ryan says:

      05:19pm | 14/10/10

      @A Dose of Reality: so what is your excuse?

    • watty says:

      08:56am | 14/10/10

      Ther Commonwealth just uses the United Nations as a guiding light thus it’s success in protecting human rights.

    • Gregg says:

      08:57am | 14/10/10

      Is it the non use of the big stick approach that you bemoan the Commonwealth Mark?
      Certainly the Commonwealth has moved a long way from the British Empire days when the Brits used massive force in the subcontinent and Africa, the old days not devoid of more than the odd massacre.
      African despots are no better and interventional tragedies of the past half century or so when they do occur seem to have been more the province of the UN, or led by US alliances, or by singular nations closer to home and not that any have covered themselves in glory.
      I do not think we would look back on past Empire massacres as being too glorifying either and to this day the London Museum and no doubt a few more hold spoils of invasion and pillaging.

      Perhaps there is a story there somewhere for a journalist for if it is OK for the UK to have gone plundering in its day, so the countries so plundered have the right to attack the UK to retrieve what rightly belongs not in the UK!

      A Sri Lankan President setting up his countries constitution to suit himself is somewhat questionable and can be held akin to what already exists in some other nations and it should rightly be addressed by the Commonwealth just as the situation in Fiji has been addressed.

      Unfortunately, these matters at the level that needs to decide do take time and it will always be the member nations who ultimately decide just as occurs with the UN and with both, there is untold diplomacy that us mere mortals will never be privvy to and quite possibly unless driven by major nations will do little other than to have more than a few diplomats engaged at taxpayers expense.

      We can no more change the workings of the Commonwealth than we can the UN and despite the shortcomings of both there are no doubt many people who may be thankful for their existence.
      The Commonwealth will obviously do less than the UN ever will because the major countries of the Commonwealth are also members of the UN and hence the money, forces and resources with the UN.

      As to what is actually achieved under the radar, major massacres aside
      ” “For example, when the Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, threatened to behead homosexuals in 2008”
      Did beheadings take place?
      As for what the Secretary General ignores from his Secretariat, that’s their beef and perhaps it is some acknowledgement that a more public condemnation is better placed with the UN.

      There would not seem to be any great mileage in having the Commonwealth compete directly with the UN in all ways and it is no doubt easy to raise a case re ”  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. “

      But then will we ever know how many crys for help do go unheard if it ceases to exist.

    • marley says:

      09:23am | 14/10/10

      Simplistic analysis.  The Commonwealth isn’t perfect, that’s for sure, and it hasn’t exactly been leading the world on human rights issues.  But what would you have us do?  Withdraw from or abolish all institutions which do not meet our expectations or which do not condemn vigorously enough the Obotes and Mugabes of this world?  If that were to be the case, the first organization out the door would have to be the UN, not the Commonwealth.

      Whatever its myriad failings, the Commonwealth still provides a platform for influence, negotiation and just plain talking. In my book, that makes it preferable to the alternative - self-righteous but meaningless posturing or, even worse, threats of gunboat diplomacy.

    • Mark Sharma says:

      09:26am | 14/10/10

      Mr. Mark Colvin, its easy to criticise India for making Rajapaksa guest of honour but do you understand the reasons behind it. China is India’s biggest threat and it is pumping arms , money and goods into India’s stronghold of South Asia. Whether it’s Sri Lanka , Pakistan or Nepal, China is doing everything to create a regional mess for India. In such a situation India has no other option but to accept the populous view point of South Asian countries. If India starts questioning its neighbours on human rights then it won’t be long before Chinese missiles would take positions all around Indian neighbourhood.

    • Jane Wallace says:

      12:11pm | 14/10/10

      human wrongs greatly outnumber human rights

    • Ash Miller says:

      12:12pm | 14/10/10

      Well, Mark, the views of the participating nations shape the Commonwealth outlook. Even if you don’t admire some leaders in Sri Lanka, many other nations’ governments certainly consider the current regime in Sri Lanka does deserve respect for their example of ending decades of savage internal violence.

    • St. Michael says:

      03:50pm | 14/10/10

      That’s rather like saying Hitler deserves some respect for his example in bringing Germany out of the Great Depression.

    • James1 says:

      04:29pm | 14/10/10

      Just so you know St Michael, before the war a lot of respectable people did say similar things.  Robert Menzies went so far as to call Hitler a good fellow.  And if Ash Miller is the modern day equivalent of Menzies, according to your analogy at least, then he is okay with me…

    • acotrel says:

      01:16am | 15/10/10

      ’ Robert Menzies went so far as to call Hitler a good fellow. ‘

      Well Hitler’s ideology wasn’t so much different from Menzies’s - both rabid right wingers? Hitler knew how to deal with communists.

    • Marilyn Shepherd says:

      05:18pm | 14/10/10

      Oh dear, ain’t it grand.  We have helped England and the US invade and occupy two countries for no good reason while we have jailed the few thousand poor buggers who managed to escape and driven them insane.

      We send people home and they are slaughtered, we kill them in their beds and then claim it was there fault and become enraged if some soldiers are charged with killing 5 little kids.

      We have set up cameras in Sri lankan airports so people cannot escape with their passports, then we train the SL navy in piracy to stop them leaving by sea, we turn them away and force them to spend months at sea getting to Canada and we have at least one newsltd. journo. embedded with the sinhala ambassador to Australia telling lies and talking crap.

      WE have our own government jailing Tamils for months based on the lie that Tamil refugee claims fell when they rose by 40% by April this year, with the Afghans we claim it fell to 30% but on 11 June this year it was 84% with 95% winning on appeal.

      We have not one leg to hop on concerning human rights.

      We will not even make protection of human rights legal.

      So while Mark is being very selective about the human rights abusers he forgot the people from the two biggest human rights violators in the commonwealth - Britain and Australia, and Canada close behind as their child soldier languishes in Gitmo after their own high court ruled his imprisonment a breach of Canadian law.

      Here of course we love imprisonment without charge.

      WE do it to every person who comes and asks for help and can’t get a passport because there is no embassy to apply for one.

      And we blindly support Israel in whomever she is bombing to bits this week.

    • marley says:

      11:47am | 15/10/10

      So what you’re saying, Marilyn, is that Australia, which detains Tamil asylum seekers temporarily while it processes their claim for refugee status, is a worse human rights offender than Sri Lanka, which commits the persecution from which they are claiming refuge. 

      The logic of your position escapes me.

    • fifi says:

      07:07am | 31/05/12

      Not bad at all fellas and gaalls. Thanks.

    • LougsBenoReog says:

      10:52am | 14/12/12

      An fascinating discussion is worth comment. I feel that you ought to write alot more on this topic, it could not be a taboo subject but frequently persons are not enough to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

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