The 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – Will It Still Be 1984 in Sri Lanka

December 12, 2009 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

The government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has trouble with the truth. Alongside a track record of distortions and outright lies, its mastery of doublespeak of the sort Orwell so brilliantly narrated in his novel 1984 is both well-known and a thing to behold.

Consider the latest piece of propagandistic spin emerging from the Sri Lankan government after the just-ended Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Trinidad and Tobago. Ever since 2007, the GoSL had been lobbying Commonwealth countries for Sri Lanka to be designated as the host of the next CHOGM in 2011. Heading to Trinidad, Sri Lanka’s diplomats had the wind at their backs after, earlier this year, marshalling the votes in the UN Human Rights Council to transform a condemnatory resolution into a resolution that in effect praised GoSL.

In the result, Sri Lanka emerged as a future host, but for 2013 not 2011. To judge by GoSL’s version of events, the UK and Prime Minister Gordon Brown was Sri Lanka’s biggest ally. In a November 30 media release entitled “Britain proposes Sri Lanka to host CHOGM 2013,” the Sri Lanka Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports as follows: “Since Australia and Mauritius had also offered to be host, [UK] Prime Minister (Gordon) Brown had pointed out that all three countries are equally qualified, and it was decided by the Commonwealth Heads of Government that they host the 2011 and 2015 CHOGMs respectively. The endorsement of Sri Lanka by the entire membership of the Commonwealth singularly demonstrates the recognition of Sri Lanka’s adherence to the Commonwealth values and principles with the country being one of the most vibrant democracies.”

Has the world’s triumph-over-terror poster boy pulled off another victory akin to that at the UN Human Rights Council, in the process compromising the integrity of the British Prime Minister? Only, it turns out, if you live in 1984, and not 2009. For the truth is that Gordon Brown was far from Sri Lanka’s patron saint in Trinidad.

On the eve of the conference, the UK made clear that it opposed the 2011 CHOGM taking place in Sri Lanka. On November 27, The Times of London reported two senior UK diplomatic sources as saying, in tandem: “(T)he UK will not support a Sri Lankan bid. Their conduct of their military campaign… had a massive impact on the civilian population (and) was rightly condemned around the world… At the time, the Prime Minister urged President Rajapaksa to ensure further suffering was minimised and that the UN had full access to those affected and displaced by the conflict… (A) clear consequence of what happened earlier this year is that we are not in a position to support a bid by Sri Lanka to host CHOGM. We want the next host to reflect the full range of Commonwealth values – and particularly respect for human rights. As it stands, 150,000 internally displaced persons remain in closed camps. We are urging the Sri Lankan government to allow them freedom of movement. The Prime Minister has real concerns about Sri Lanka’s bid. We simply cannot be in a position where Sri Lanka… is seen to be rewarded for its actions.”

According to the Guardian, Mr. Brown persuaded Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to join Britain in taking a stand. The Brown-Harper strategy was clearly stick (no to 2011) followed by carrot (2013). At the end of the CHOGM on November 29, Prime Minister Harper held a news conference at which he focused on the future. He presented the awarding of the 2013 CHOGM to Sri Lanka as an incentive for Sri Lanka to do right: “[2013] should give Sri Lanka plenty of time to get on a path towards genuine political reconciliation and broad-based multi-ethnic participation in their democracy. I think we all understand Sri Lanka has had enormous challenges with security and the civil war…, but at the same time there are deeper issues of political division, of political estrangement, of estrangement from the political system, of ethnic division that the government of Sri Lanka is going to have to address, if it wants to move forward in a positive direction.”

Against this reality, GoSL has the temerity both to make it look like Gordon Brown was lauding its record and to claim the UK was in effect sponsoring Sri Lanka’s candidacy. In the weeks, months and, indeed, years ahead, Sri Lanka’s government must begin to earn the trust of both its citizens and the international community by relegating this kind of shameless truth-distorting conduct to the past, if the agenda described by Mr. Harper is to have any chance. But we can expect little to change without the blend of external pressure and watchfulness we saw in Port of Spain.

As such, the Commonwealth should follow both the moral example of Mr. Brown and the logic of Mr. Harper’s soft, but clear, ultimatum. If, by the time of the 2011 CHOGM in Australia, trendlines point to 2013 likely to be remaining 1984 in Sri Lanka, then Canada and other Commonwealth member states must decide to withdraw the government of Sri Lanka’s unearned privilege of hosting the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government.


Craig Scott is Professor of Law, Osgoode Hall Law School, and Director of the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security, York University (Toronto). He is also a member of the Council of Advisors to the Campaign for Peace and Justice in Sri Lanka.