Sri Lanka is a test case for reform of the Commonwealth, intended to produce a renewed commitment to rule of law, democracy and human rights. It looks as if the 54-nation body is already failing dismally.
The custodian of the Commonwealth’s political values is a rotating group of Foreign Ministers gathered in what’s called the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. Last year its role was strengthened by new guidelines. It was not enough to deal with military coups – the Commonwealth decided it needed to tackle situations where its political values were undermined without a government being actually overthrown. After all, the Commonwealth claims to be an organisation based on the “shared values of peace, democracy, development, justice and human rights” as the Queen, its head, tells us.
And yet we have a country about to head the Commonwealth for two years and host its major heads of government meeting in November, that stands accused (in two UN reports) of crimes against humanity and murdering possibly seventy thousand of its own citizens. This is perhaps the worst bloodshed of this century and certainly not your run of the mill human rights problem – it is something quite out of the ordinary. Perhaps that’s the problem. As Samantha Power writes, “policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil”.
The scale of the crimes in Sri Lanka is so shocking that it’s easier for many nations to overlook them. It is hard to understand how a military could repeatedly and deliberately target hospitals but Human Rights Watch documented more than thirty such attacks in six months – hardly accidental. Even more difficult to accept that a government would announce civilian no-fire zones and then attack them again and again