In the world of diplomacy and power politics, the suggestion of a boycott of the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) over the host State’s continuing human rights abuses might seem slightly over the top. No State is perfect; international politics doesn’t halt with the first mention of internal difficulties. Yet, there have been intensifying calls for a boycott of November’s meeting in Sri Lanka. Is it legitimate for human rights to have such power to interfere in the realm of global political leadership? Is a boycott even likely to enact real change in Sri Lanka’s human rights situation?

Image courtesy of Gnangarra, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Gnangarra, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Citing the lack of accountability for alleged human rights abuses during and after the Sri Lankan civil war, there have been various calls, in international media and in international politics, for Commonwealth members to show leadership and send an unequivocal message that human rights violations call for a suspension of ‘business as normal’. Allegations that the Government of Sri Lanka’s involvement in the massacre of 40,000 Tamil civilians in the latter stages of the civil war, which ended in a bloody showdown in 2009 between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have been left unanswered. This is compounded by continuing concerns over extra judicial killings, disappearances, and the marginal position of minorities within Sri Lanka. The human rights situation has become so desperate that United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed his deep concern after a week long visit to Sri Lanka over the increasingly authoritarian situation and failure of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee to bring any meaningful accountability to the legacy of the civil war.

Canada has been the CHOGM’s first victim of outcries over Sri Lanka’s human rights record, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper refusing to attend the summit and threatening to review the $20 million worth of annual funding Canada contributes to the Commonwealth. In justifying his decision not to attend, Harper stated “Canada believes that if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant it must stand in defence of the basic principles of freedom, democracy, and respect for human dignity, which are the very foundation upon which the Commonwealth was built”. Evidently not everyone agrees with this assessment of the priorities of the Commonwealth, as Sri Lanka’s foreign minister G. L. Peiris proceeded to slam Harper’s assessment, declaring that the Commonwealth is “not a forum to pass judgement on each other’s problems”. However, a lower-level representative from Canada will be present, somewhat weakening the boycott.

It remains to be seen whether this ‘boycott’ will be anything more than symbolic. So far only Canada has taken the hard line on this issue. Despite the UK’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee strongly recommending the UK’s absence from the meeting, giving a damning review of Sri Lanka’s human-rights record, David Cameron will attend the summit. You can hardly blame Cameron for this decision. Given that the Commonwealth is based on the legacy of the British Empire, it would seem grossly irresponsible for Britain to expect former colonies to muddle through their issues by themselves. Of course, not everything can be blamed on colonialism, but Britain arguably still has a responsibility to help Commonwealth members in their political and socio-economic development. The question is whether this is best achieved through forums such as the CHOGM, or through other, less elite-based means that would ensure that human rights concerns are upheld.

It is not only Sri Lanka’s reputation that is at stake, but also the Commonwealth’s itself. In the past month The Gambia has withdrawn completely from the Commonwealth, its parting message that the Commonwealth is a “neo-colonial institution”. Would a move from focusing on the Common political interests of member states to a greater involvement is sensitive issues like human rights exacerbate this image of the Commonwealth being just another vehicle for Western human rights imperialism and superiority? Increasing interference in domestic issues, like those of Sri Lanka, may lead to more members abandoning the group.

The allegations brought against the Government of Sri Lanka, however, are certainly not to be taken lightly. Such gross abuses of human rights demand attention. Is it not the duty of global leaders to stand up for those who are powerless and oppressed? Human rights are an inescapable feature of the international political landscape, and it falls on those in power to live up to their supposed commitment to human rights. The CHOGM has potential to be used as a platform to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government over its human rights record, yet there is the danger that discussions slide into the least controversial aspects of the common interests of the Commonwealth. Given that the main objective of the CHOGM is to coordinate and decide on Commonwealth policies, a boycott would send a strong message to policy makers in Sri Lanka. Membership of the international community is seen as increasingly dependent on the upholding of human rights standards. It’s time that international institutions showed some leadership over human rights and practiced what they preach.