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Commonwealth must shun Sri Lankan meeting

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The Commonwealth Security Council's wilful avoidance of a punishing censure of Sri Lanka is an international disgrace. And at the very least, the planned Colombo gathering in November of the 54-nation Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) should be relocated to another member nation.

It's a comfort Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper won't attend in Colombo because of the egregious breaches of fundamental human rights of the conscience-shy regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Harper was the first, but has been slow drawing other Commonwealth political support. Also, it is little comfort that Commonwealth governance is too woozy to censure and act.

Prominent international human rights organizations have, as one voice, expressed their horror of Colombo's human rights breaches and asked for telling punishment and relocation of the November CHOMG.

The Asia director of Human Rights Watch put it well this week: "The Commonwealth will rightly face international ridicule if it goes ahead with its summit in Sri Lanka," said Brad Adams. "The CMAG (Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group) meeting should send a message to the Sri Lankan government that the scale and severity of its abuses violate the Commonwealth's core values and will not be rewarded."

The CMAG, the Commonwealth Action Group, had an opportunity to exercise its censuring power at a meeting today. Alas, as early as a month ago secretary-general Karmalesh Sharma made it clear that relocating the Sri Lanka conference would not be on its agenda.

The nations in the list to deliberate this at this meeting are Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Jamaica, Maldives, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago and Vanuatu. (Incidentally the CMAG was a brainchild of Winnipeg's Lloyd Axworthy in 1995, in the days when Nigeria was expelled from the Commonwealth.)

We know Canada's position. We also know a former Australian prime minister has noisily urged change. Voices in India, though not the PM, have urged Colombo's censure. Britain's PM is wavering. Others sharing such views among the 54 members will have to vote with their feet and steer clear of Sri Lanka in November.

If the remainder can live with a nation that flouts the fundamentals of the Commonwealth, that signals more problems to come.

Human rights bodies' preconditions for Sri Lanka hosting include: full restoration of the rule of law; fundamental freedoms for all within its borders; the shedding of the virulent racism toward minority Tamils; restoration of the constitutional independence of the three branches of government; unrestricted free expression and protection of journalists and human rights defenders; access for international probes of abuses; and release from jail of those imprisoned without trial. And so on.

This is all very clinical, and colleagues of mine who live in Colombo and Kandy have more fundamental fears for body and family. For example: No more stalking or beatings in the walk to and from work.

No more gang-driven midnight home raids. No more burning or destruction of businesses, particularly the publishing businesses of those suspected of non-conformance with the official view.

I was party to creating two branches of the Commonwealth Journalists Association in Colombo, one in 2003, the other in 2009.

Between 2004 and 2009, 43 journalists were killed, evidence it was a no-nonsense game. But enthusiastic young writers still embraced all the principles of good journalism and understood a good story when they found it.

For a while they "swallowed" self-editing for self-preservation. Then I got an email from one: "Don't use the Internet to correspond with me please and be sensitive with your subject matter." I haven't heard from him for a year.

The other was a vivacious, go-get-'em, gutsy young woman you would hire in a flash. She married, we were told, into the right party, disappeared into silence and her branch activities faded.

Despite the passions decrying a Commonwealth gathering in Colombo in November, I suspect minimal actions will likely prevail.

The price, therefore, will be an irrecoverable decline in prestige, and after that a status of irrelevance for the body that once stood proudly as representative of a third of the world's population.


Murray Burt is honorary treasurer of the Commonwealth Journalists Association International and has spent 60 years in journalism. He is also president of the Royal Commonwealth Society of Manitoba and a director of several community boards.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2013 A11

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