It was only as recently as December 2012 that the Commonwealth framed a Charter to bring together and reaffirm all that it stands for in a changing world. It contains an unequivocal recommitment to human rights, democracy, good governance, rule of law and freedom of expression among others as ‘the core values and principles’ of this group of nations. It is thus not extraordinary that CHOGM 2013 in Sri Lanka should have been upstaged almost entirely by allegations of grave human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan military against Tamil civilians in 2009 during the last battles against the LTTE. That the Colombo Declaration focussed on fostering sustainable, inclusive and equitable development in Commonwealth nations and kept away from all mention of human rights — the final communiqué too contained no adverse mention of Sri Lanka — can only be small consolation to the host. The Rajapaksa government had hoped that the summit would help in restoring its international credibility. Exactly the opposite has happened. There is a harsher spotlight on the country’s rights record, new allegations have been levelled even while old ones refuse to go away. Colombo’s troubles can only be partly blamed on the domestic politics in countries where this edition of CHOGM was vociferously opposed, prompting some heads of government to stay away, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. There would have been little space for such opposition if only Sri Lanka had moved quickly to implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
This year’s CHOGM cruelly showed up New Delhi’s inadequacies in dealing with an important neighbour, hostage as Sri Lanka policy has become to the short-sighted vision of Tamil Nadu’s political parties. Manmohan Singh’s decision not to attend the summit has brought no political or diplomatic advantage. By comparison, British Prime Minister David Cameron showed far more nous. He silenced political opposition to his participation by using the occasion to publicly criticise Sri Lanka’s rights record, issuing an ultimatum to President Rajapaksa to institute by March a credible inquiry into allegations of rights violations. How useful such ultimatums are as a diplomatic strategy is questionable going by the Sri Lankan leader’s defiant stance, but the British Prime Minister achieved his stated aim of “focus[ing] the eyes of the world on Sri Lanka”. He also did what the Indian Prime Minister should have done — visited Jaffna, connecting with the Tamil people and their problems first-hand. New Delhi will face its next Sri Lanka test in March 2014 at the U.N. Human Rights Council, but its timing right before the elections means it may blunder through again.