“This erosion of democracy and fundamental freedoms is no longer only Sri Lanka’s crisis. The fate and future credibility of the Commonwealth is inextricably bound to the actions of its Chair in office…It is your crisis too.”
Mangala Samaraweera, in a letter to C’wealth SG Kamalesh Sharma, April 2014
President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma during their meeting this week
For 11 months in 2013, Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth Secretary General was Sri Lanka’s main man. In his hands lay the fate of the prestigious Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2013, the biennial summit that attracts over 50 heads of state presiding over former British colonies. Withstanding immense pressure, the threat of funding cuts and intense media scrutiny and humiliation, Kamalesh Sharma was instrumental in ensuring Sri Lanka retained the 2013 CHOGM and assumed the chair of the Commonwealth at the conclusion of the meeting.
Sri Lanka had been bidding for the honour since 2007, when the summit was held in Kampala, Uganda. Former Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama led Sri Lanka’s campaign and heads of state in attendance agreed that the 2011 summit would be in Colombo.
Two years later, the bloody conclusion of the war in May 2009 was already casting long shadows. Faced with increasing allegations that Sri Lankan Government troops had committed serious human rights violations during the last stages of the war, Commonwealth Heads of State who met in Trinidad and Tobago in November 2009, opted to defer Colombo’s turn to host the summit by two further years. Australia, one of the Commonwealth’s largest funders agreed to host the 2011 summit in Perth instead, until the heat died down against Colombo and its human rights record.
Unfortunately by the time 2013 rolled around, Sri Lanka was facing ever more serious pressures with regard to how it had conducted the final days of the war. A mounting body of evidence was being released internationally and the UN process to hold the country accountable was already well underway. Always its own worst enemy, the Rajapaksa Government moved to sack the country’s Chief Justice, in an ugly political battle involving a kangaroo court and a gravely unconstitutional process. It did so in January of the same year it was to host of the Commonwealth Summit, a meeting at which the organisation’s core values of respect for democracy, human rights and the independence of the judiciary are reinforced and upheld every two years.
The 73-year old Commonwealth Secretary, stood stoically with Sri Lanka, quite literally against the world in the 11 months leading to the Colombo summit last year. He has been accused of being the greatest defender of a regime accused of heinous crimes against its own citizens. Sharma has been named a ‘Lankan Government stooge’ capable of burying reports commissioned by his own office from an executive committee of Commonwealth foreign ministers with the power to censure the incoming CHOGM host.
He effectively buried his own head in the sand while the Rajapaksa Government continued to violate human rights abuses and allow the persecution of minority groups just weeks ahead of the summit, shooting unarmed protestors demonstrating for clean water in Weliweriya and a ignoring string of attacks against Muslim-owned businesses and places of worship. Through thick and thin, the Commonwealth Secretary General remained solidly on Colombo’s side, refusing to censure publicly or push too hard behind the scenes. Post CHOGM Colombo, Sharma has endured sharp cuts to funding for Secretariat, after the organisation’s second biggest funder, Canada suspended funding for the Commonwealth while Sri Lanka holds the chair of the organisation.
One would think Colombo would be grateful for services rendered. But like any other foreign official who has dealt with the ruling administration in Colombo and chosen to grant it the benefit of the doubt, Sharma has been solely disappointed. Before the world’s media, Sharma promised that Sri Lanka would fix its system of disciplining senior judges within “weeks, not months” of April 2013.
He told The Hindu newspaper shortly before CHOGM 2013 that the Sri Lankan Government had agreed to set up a national inquiry on torture, assisted by the Commonwealth Secretariat. The Rajapaksa Administration had promised the Commonwealth Secretary General the sun and the moon, and in return, he begged the world “to wait before they judge Sri Lanka.” But true to form once the pageantry of the summit was concluded, Sri Lanka discarded Sharma like a wet-rag.
For one year, as Chair in office of the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka has refused to live up to commitments made in order to retain CHOGM. As Commonwealth Chair, Colombo dictated terms to the Secretary General post-CHOGM, clearly laying out the areas in which the Secretariat could continue to engage with the Sri Lankan Government and urge improvement and which areas were completely off the table. Impeachment and human rights issues became untouchable subjects.
To exacerbate matters, Sri Lanka was toeing a strange line as it chaired key Commonwealth meetings, insisting that the organisation change course and be less stringent on questions of democracy and constitutionality, in order to make its member states feel accepted and happy. Despite the systematic erosion of democratic institutions in the island that run contrary to Commonwealth expectations of its member states, with Colombo acting as chair in office issues in Sri Lanka have been off the table during Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meetings. The ex-co of ministers are mandated to measure state compliance to Commonwealth core principles and values as set out in the renewed Commonwealth Charter adopted in in 2013.
Commonwealth scholars have voiced concerns that an organisation that has increasingly grown in irrelevance over the past decades has been grievously wounded by its decision to allow Sri Lanka to assume the chair while the country was being censured for being a major violator of rights at the UN Human Rights Council. Malta, had to agree to host the 2015 summit at very short notice at the end of the Colombo CHOGM in November last year, after Mauritius declined to accept the chair from Sri Lanka, on account of its rights record. Looking forward to 2015, the Maltese Government appears to have decided to change the tenor of the next CHOGM, and make it as far removed from the controversial Colombo summit as possible. This is irking the Sri Lankan Government but as its tenure as Chair in Office wanes, with the 2015 CHOGM only one year away, Colombo’s influence at the organisation’s helm also appears to be on the decline.
Under the circumstances, the Rajapaksa Government could not care less about the visit of Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma this week. With the CHOGM party done and dusted and nothing left to gain from the Commonwealth or its head, Sharma’s visit to the island last Saturday has barely made headlines. The visit is said to be ‘routine’ at the conclusion of one year of Sri Lanka’s Chairmanship of the organisation. Sharma is in the island to assess progress on several initiatives in the country, planned for the two year period. Yet in a strange twist, and a remarkable shift from his ostrich approach to critical issues in Sri Lanka, Sharma also undertook a visit to the Northern Province. The Secretary General has travelled to Sri Lanka several times last year, but he has never before expressed interest in listening to the concerns of the Tamil majority North. Instead, during a visit to the island last year he chose to tour the eastern province, a place much less fraught by political and post-war tensions.
Early into his five-day visit which began on Saturday, Kamalesh Sharma and his aides travelled to Jaffna for meetings with Northern Governor G.A. Chandrasiri, a former Major General of the Sri Lanka Army. Sharma was subject to a routine tour of the mega development drive in the North, where the Government has been busy pouring asphalt and concrete over the physical scars wrought by three decades of conflict in the region. Following a meeting with the Governor on Sunday (26), Sharma also met with several civil society groups working on human rights and other issues in the formerly embattled region.
Strangely, publicity for the Secretary General’s meetings in the North were limited to photo opportunities during his discussions at the Governor’s Office. Markedly absent were impressions or insight into Sharma’s meeting with Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran. The Tamil National Alliance politician and former Supreme Court Judge secured a whopping mandate in last year’s provincial council elections in the North, but his administration has since been engaged in a major battle of wills against the Central Government as it attempts to run the provincial administration. It is no secret that visiting foreign officials tour the Northern Province, insist on meetings with Wigneswaran and the TNA, essentially to hear from the Chief Minister and civil society, a narrative that counters the Government’s own post-war story about the region. Wigneswaran’s rise in stature, especially among the diplomatic and international community, has become a major thorn in the side of the ruling regime, which has to compete for the storyline about the ‘real’ state of the north since the Council was elected to office last September with a two thirds majority.
Closed-door meeting with Wigneswaran
But when state officials threatened to interfere with the confidentiality of Sharma’s meetings with the Northern Chief Minister, a decision was made to conduct the discussions in Colombo instead of Jaffna. The measures ensured that the Government officials would have no part in organising the meeting or sitting in on the discussions.
The closed-door discussions unfolded under the radar of media personnel and officials who had expected it to take place during Sharma’s visit to Jaffna. Soon after his arrival to Colombo on Saturday, the Secretary General met with Chief Minister Wigneswaran, TNA Leader R. Sampanthan and two provincial ministers from the Northern Provincial Council. The Chief Minister summarised the problems his administration faced in its dealings with the Government and the continued militarisation of the Northern Province despite five years having lapsed since the end of the war.
Wigneswaran told the Commonwealth Secretary General that while the Government was claiming to have disbursed Rs. 6 billion to the TNA run Council in the North, the actual disbursement was only Rs. 1.87 billion. Wigneswaran informed the Commonwealth head that the rest of the funds were spent by the Central Government on projects it selected exclusively, with no consultation from the Northern Provincal Council. The Council was not privvy to how these monies were spent, the Chief Minister had explained. Sources said Sharma appeared to be impressed with the development activities carried out in the Northern Province but the Chief Minister took pains to explain that the needs of the war-battered Northern people went beyond infrastructure upgrades.
The Tamil people were in dire need of psycho-social, livelihood and poverty alleviation assistance, in addition to good roads and bridges, he explained. It is unclear whether it is the fact that the Commonwealth Secretary General routinely maintains a deadpan attitude to most issues and discussions, but he managed to create an impression during the meeting that he was fairly unsympathetic to the plight of the Tamils.
However during remarks at a concluding press conference at Cinnamon Lakeside yesterday, Kamalesh Sharma noted that while there had been ‘significant progress’ in the former conflict zone, there were still some concerns. The Secretary General indicated that he had heard what Wigneswaran was saying, when he noted that it was important to empower the people of the Northern Province and those they elect as their leaders. “These include addressing legitimate concerns about restricted and monitored movement of both the citizens of the Province in their daily lives and those visiting them for lawful purposes, and a continued reduction in the military security role in civilian life in the Province,” Sharma told his concluding press briefing.
He also encouraged all political leaders to take advantage of the peace dividend that has been established, including enabling full use of the financial resources now available for further development and growth in the Province.
Striking an almost rebellious note given his past record, Sharma emphasised the need for truth-seeking, saying durable reconciliation was not possible without knowledge of the whereabouts of missing persons and accounting for their disappearance or loss. “Healing and forgiveness are possible only with full knowledge,” the Secretary General said.
In a similarly bold move, the Secretary General called into question the independence of Sri Lanka’s Election Commission, saying Commonwealth polls observers had noted that the body was ‘not fully independent.’ He announced that the Commonwealth is expected to deploy a monitoring mission to Sri Lanka for the country’s next major national election, widely expected to be a presidential poll scheduled to be held in January 2015, while Sri Lanka remains chair of the commonwealth.
The reasons for Kamalesh Sharma’s bizarre defence of the Sri Lankan Government against a hailstorm of international pressure and ridicule, were never made clear. There were whispers at the time that Sharma maintained close links to the Indian bureaucracy, after serving in the country’s foreign service for more than 30 years. It was no secret at the time that India’s powerful South Block or Ministry of External Affairs which handles the country’s foreign policy, was fighting hard to win then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s attendance at the CHOGM in Colombo last November. While Singh finally declined to attend the summit in what was considered a major snub against Colombo, political circles were abuzz with speculation that New Delhi never wanted to derail the summit. The hypothesis raises an interesting question.
If Sharma’s pre-CHOGM conduct was at India’s behest, then could the slight shift observed during his present visit to Sri Lanka one year later also be an insight into New Delhi’s present concerns and thinking? The recently elected Modi Government has made it clear, albeit in very subtle ways, that it expects the Rajapaksa Government to deliver on devolution for the Tamils. It was no accident that Prime Minister Modi granted the TNA an audience in New Delhi, second only to his bilateral meeting with President Rajapaksa soon after his oath-taking ceremony in May this year.
New Delhi backing?
Whispers abound once more that the Secretary General’s Northern visit was strongly backed by New Delhi, which desired a meeting between the head of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Northern Provincial Administration. Sharma’s somewhat bold assertions regarding his Chair in Office’s electoral system, and his announcement that Commonwealth monitors will be on the ground during presidential elections, concerns that are top-most in many minds this season, also appear to indicate a slight shift from his earlier ‘all’s well in paradise’ positions.
Given the limited time frame between declaration of the presidential poll (expected on 20 November) and polling day, it remains highly unlikely that European Union monitors or any other international polls monitoring body will be able to deploy in time to observe the election even if invited by the Government.Commonwealth Monitors and possibly the SAARC observer mission may be the only international monitors on the ground in Sri Lanka during what will be one of the country’s most crucial polls. Neither is it expected that the Government will allow the deployment of these missions without a major fight and intense pressure from its international partners, including India. Commonwealth and SAARC monitors who observed the Northern Provincial election in September last year, issued a scathing indictment on the elections process and denounced rampant intimidation campaigns and major electoral abuses by the Government and the military in the run up to the election and on polling day. Several countries are already closely observing developments on the likely presidential elections, and some have already expressed interest in funding international monitoring missions, Daily FT learns.
Observing in the North
If India is in this mix, it will no doubt ensure that the Tamil majority Northern Province is closely observed by foreign monitors during the key election. With minority votes likely to break overwhelmingly in favour of a candidate opposing President Rajapaksa, all eyes will be on the North and the East and minority majority regions in other parts of the country, with analysts already raising fears about disenfranchisement and other violations during the polls.
The Government’s recent ban on foreigners travelling North, has also set off alarm bells, with foreign journalists and researchers unlikely to be granted permission to cover the election in droves, the way they flocked to report on the Northern poll last year.
With Colombo no longer holding many cards within the Commonwealth as it prepares to handover to Malta next year, the Government will do well to read between the lines of the Secretary General’s tour. Perhaps one takeaway from the Kamalesh Sharma visit, and his observations at its conclusion, could be that the world will find a way to watch this election. Not necessarily because it is in the interest of the Commonwealth, which does call upon its member states to maintain the highest standards of electoral democracy, but because far more powerful international players are adamant to keep a close eye on how the polls unfold.