x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Pressure Sri Lanka on political reforms

Canada is right to challenge Sri Lanka over its lack of progress in human rights and its inability to meaningfully reconcile with its Tamil community.

Sri Lanka is gearing up to play host to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November. The privilege represents an important opportunity for the country to boost its prestige and international recognition. But the question in some capitals is this: does Sri Lanka deserve the honour?

Last week Canadian foreign minister John Baird, whose nation is one of the 54 members of the Commonwealth, said it was "appalling that Sri Lanka would be taking on a leadership role in the Commonwealth". Mr Baird cited as reason Sri Lanka's lack of progress on human rights and judicial independence, and its inability to "meaningfully reconcile" with its Tamil community.

While Mr Baird might be guilty of being undiplomatic, his concerns are certainly worth considering.

Even though Sri Lanka emerged from the 26-year civil war in 2009 - a war that killed tens of thousands of people - it has neither much to show for progress, nor has it made any effort to accept accountability for how that war was fought and finished. Sri Lanka has an obligation to do both.

Raising these concerns more discreetly than Canada's foreign minister was his counterpart in Bangladesh, Dr Dipu Moni, who told the BBC he was urging his friend "to take all necessary steps to fulfil accountability" in the post-civil war era. This, we assume, includes investigating war crimes to beginning a process of national reconciliation. Failure to do so would mean that the underlying grievances that led to a quarter-century of war would remain unresolved.

Unfortunately, leaders in Colombo appear uninterested in action. Human Rights Watch recently alleged that the situation was worsening with the government accelerating its authoritarian turn and cracking down on basic freedoms. Corruption also remains rampant. Last year, Sri Lanka ranked 79th out of 176 countries in Transparency International's Global Corruption Perception Index. Taken together, these trends threaten to derail any hope of lasting peace and stability that the end of war once promised.

Commonwealth countries are committed to promoting human rights and democratic values in member nations. Canada is right to challenge Colombo on these issues. Other members, especially regional power India, may also want to apply similar pressure.