Inside Story

Double standards in the Commonwealth?

As Indian and Canadian leaders stay away from a summit in Sri Lanka, we ask if this will damage the bloc's credibility.

Last updated: 11 Nov 2013 09:42
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A controversial Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka has been dealt a double blow.

Officials in India - which is the biggest member of the 53 nation bloc - said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would not be attending the meeting this week, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also confirmed that he would stay away.

Sri Lanka has been accused of failing to address accusations of human rights abuses in the civil war against Tamil separatists, and of committing more violations since then.

I think [Manmohan Singh's move] is the right decision taken for the wrong reasons. It has been taken for domestic reasons because both of the major parties in the southern state of Tamil Nadu made it known that they would take offence if the prime minister visited there, and [because of] the national elections due anytime early next year ... But it is the right decision because it is a question of deciding what [the] Commonwealth group of countries is really all about.

KC Singh, former Indian diplomat 

"Canada was disturbed by ongoing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances and allegations of extrajudicial killings," Harper said last month.

Sri Lanka's civil war was waged in the north and east of the country for more than 26 years. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, wanted to create an independent state but they were finally defeated in May 2009. It was the events of the final few months of the conflict that have raised specific concerns.

The United Nations says both sides committed atrocities against civilians, and called for an investigation into possible war crimes. The Sri Lankan government is accused of attacking civilian areas - something the government denies.
The UN believes 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the closing stages of the war, with 70,000 people unaccounted for. 

The Commonwealth of Nations is a loose association of former British colonies, including a few other countries. It was founded in 1931 and spans six of the seven continents, with an estimated population in excess of two billion.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is the bloc's official head.

Over the years, several countries have been suspended from the Commonwealth for what were considered serious or persistent violations.

Nigeria was excluded from 1995 until 1999 for executing activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The military coup by Pervez Musharraf saw Pakistan suspended from 1999 until 2004.
Zimbabwe pulled out in 2003 after being suspended because of Robert Mugabe's electoral and land reforms. Fiji's membership has variously lapsed or been suspended since declaring itself a Republic in 1987, and following a series of coups.
And just last month, The Gambia withdrew in the face of human rights criticism, branding the Commonwealth a neo-colonial institution.

So, given these precedents, should Sri Lanka have been suspended? And are Commonwealth nations guilty of hypocrisy?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: KC Singh, a former Indian diplomat and strategic affairs expert; Alan Keenan, the Sri Lanka project director for the International Crisis Group; and Kalinga Seneviratne, a Sri Lankan journalist, broadcaster and researcher.

"If you look at the Indian government's position on Sri Lanka over the last three or four years, it has slowly been getting tougher. They voted twice at the UN Human Rights Council in support of US-sponsored resolutions that were highly critical of the Sri Lankan government - for both refusing to investigate the allegations about possible war crimes at the end of the war, but also at the deterioration of democratic governance and human rights protections as we speak. They clearly have been sending very strong messages privately to the government so this [move] I think is consistent with what is an increasingly firm line from India on a range of issues in Sri Lanka."

Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka's project director for the International Crisis Group


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