Sri Lanka’s candidature has approval of all CW members: Secretary-General

The role and relevance of the Commonwealth goes much beyond the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka, said Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma.

Mr. Sharma was speaking to The Hindu in London before his departure to Colombo to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Vital aid for smaller nations

He said that it was crucial for leaders of the small states (sovereign countries with a population of 1.5 million or less), which constitute 31 out of the 53 member states of the Commonwealth, to participate in the CHOGM.

The Commonwealth provides assistance to these nations on many vital challenges — for instance, on the issue of debt reduction through engagement and advocacy with the Bretton Woods institutions; providing funding and expertise to mitigate the effects of climate change, which is vital for smaller island nations facing the impact of rising sea-levels.

Asked to respond to the criticism issuing from some member states, in the light of the controversy over the country’s human rights record, over the CHOGM being held in Sri Lanka, Mr. Sharma said: “Sri Lanka’s candidature was discussed in 2007, 2009 and 2011 and was approved collectively by all Commonwealth heads of government. It was a decision that was not taken lightly by the member states,” Mr. Sharma said.

In July this year, the Secretariat’s plan to set up the inquiry on torture under the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and to initiate a reconciliation process was agreed upon by Sri Lanka.

According to Advocate Karen McKenzie, Acting Head, Human Rights in the Commonwealth Secretariat, a round-table meeting on reconciliation processes was held in September this year, in the island nation’s Vavuniya, with participation from civil society groups in the north and east representing Sinhala and Tamil groups, as well as faith leaders.

The process of reconciliation in countries where communities have gone through long and bitter civil war are complex and time-consuming. The Commonwealth Secretariat held a meeting here, in May this year, with experts who led discussions on the roles of truth commissions, memorialisation, national human rights institutions, criminal prosecutions and restorative justice as mechanisms for reconciliation, Ms. McKenzie said.

To a specific question on the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, stinging in its indictment of Sri Lanka’s human rights record — first by its army during the last stages of the civil war, and later, in respect of ongoing human rights violations in Sri Lanka, through arrests and disappearances of the current regime’s critics — Ms. McKenzie said that the UN process was on a different track from the Commonwealth initiatives.

The latter, she said, were specifically focused on torture and reconciliation, areas in which there is considerable international expertise and experience.