As the Commonwealth summit approaches, the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, among others, has urged David Cameron to boycott the meeting next week in Colombo, while the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, has withdrawn. At issue are the war crimes alleged to have been committed under the host government in Sri Lanka, for which there is mounting evidence. Thousands of Tamil civilians were killed during the bloody civil war. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is also accused of attacks on the press and violence against government critics. With the UN too calling for an independent investigation, refused so far, it is certainly depressing that Commonwealth leaders show so little appetite for challenging his intransigence.
This collective moral apathy has led to suggestions that the Commonwealth risks irrelevance, a fear as old as the organisation itself. Critics of the Sri Lankan regime understandably accuse the Commonwealth of not being fit for purpose since democracy and human rights ostensibly constitute its “core values”. Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma’s rhetoric of “behind the scenes” engagement suggests appeasement. Others, equating economic indices and moral capability, have hinted that only Britain and other “developed” (read white-majority) countries have human rights concerns, the Asian and African Commonwealth being more interested in aid.
The unpalatable truth is that the Commonwealth wasn’t set up to address how its national leaders exercised state power or to ensure compliance to agreed values. It was based on the foundational fiction that British Empire – no model of universal human rights – was established to teach colonies self-governance and equip them to take their place in the global order. The ideal was “friendly co-operation” of member nations with each other and with British business and expertise (not least, military).
Whether or not the Commonwealth is “a neo-colonial institution”, as Gambian strongman Yahya Jammeh put it when withdrawing his tyrannised nation from the organisation this year, it certainly sought to consolidate British economic advantage and global influence. Honour among chiefs – who overwhelmingly represent the interests of the moneyed and powerful in their nations – ensures the Commonwealth’s poor track record when it comes to challenging misdeeds.
Indeed, the collective pressure exerted on apartheid South Africa fifty years ago remains the most significant exception to prove the Commonwealth rule— achieved despite British unwillingness and continual refusal to impose sanctions. ‘Human rights’ remains an opportunistic game.
But neither war crimes nor domestic repression are the specialism of an errant few, even if not all governments are formally despotic or egregious to the same degree. Rajapaksa’s elected regime must be held accountable, but questions should also be raised about the Indian army’s atrocities in Kashmir and Britain’s role in the illegal invasion of Iraq. Canada’s critical stance on Sri Lanka is welcome but the former is accused of complicity in the systematic torture of Afghan prisoners while Harper has allegedly tampered with democratic institutions and muzzled opponents. Without “blaming all ills on colonialism”, it is worth remembering that alongside managed democracy, the empire also bequeathed repressive state apparatuses, including armies, and draconian anti-insurgency laws that have come in handy for postcolonial authoritarianism.
It is important to intensify international pressure on the Sri Lankan government, which is due to chair the Commonwealth for the next two years. But it seems unlikely that effective action will emerge from an organisation which, like others of its ilk, largely works as a networking forum for ruling elites and their professional managerial classes. Whether it should be taken more seriously or disbanded is a less interesting question than this: what kind of international network would truly serve to hold governments across the world accountable to the basic rights and aspirations of ordinary citizens? Such platforms would have to undo the longstanding geopolitical supremacy of the global north but not simply replace it with the emerging powers now fighting for influence.
Can we create egalitarian global organisations that might work with the democratic energies unleashed recently in so many places, enabling the powerless to demand redress and provoke change? There is no simple answer, but one thing is certain – the Commonwealth as it now stands has no stake in even posing the question.
Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.