What Will It Take To Join The CHOGM Boycott?


Australian Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to follow the lead of his Canadian and Indian counterparts in boycotting next week’s Commonwealth Head of Government meeting in Sri Lanka.

Rhiannon, who was detained and questioned in Sri Lanka at the weekend while on a fact-finding trip, said CHOGM should be withdrawn from Colombo because of the country’s human rights’ abuses. The harassment of an Australian politician was further evidence of why Abbott should not go, she said. A New Zealand MP from the country's Green Party, Jan Logie, was also detained.

Last Saturday week two Australian journalists, Jacqui Park and Jane Worthington, were deported from Sri Lanka for attending a meeting of journalists at the Free Media Movement in Colombo. Rhiannon, a long-time critic of the Sri Lankan government, was detained and questioned by government authorities for several hours after meeting with pro-democracy supporters and Tamil politicians.

Rhiannon and Logie issued a statement outlining information they received during discussions with Tamil politicians and pro-democracy activists. It included details of the sexual abuse suffered by large numbers of women in the country. The statement named a senior military officer as one of the abusers.

“Elected officials and members of civil society in Sri Lanka have provided us with examples of massive illegal land confiscation by the armed forces; people have been jailed and detained with regular disregard for legal rights; violence, often involving rape, of women and children with no police investigation of these crimes and on-going intimidation of media workers,” Rhiannon and Logie wrote.

“Large numbers of women regularly suffer sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces. One lawyer described to us the evidence collected about these crimes."

Rhiannon said in a press conference this morning that she was only permitted to leave after signing a statement:

The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, announced yesterday that he will not attend CHOGM, effectively dividing the Commonwealth powers over the issue. The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed last month he would not attend because of the country’s failure to address human rights issues. His Foreign Minister, John Baird, described the decision to hold CHOGM in Colombo as “accommodating evil”.

The Queen will miss her first CHOGM in 40 years, sending Prince Charles in her place, but UK prime minister David Cameron will visit. Writing last week in the Tamil Guardian, Cameron explained that he would use the process to advocate for the human rights of Tamils:

"I will visit the north of the country – the first leader to do so since Sri Lankan independence in 1948 – precisely so that I can see the situation on the ground with my own eyes and meet people directly affected by the conflict.

"Recent progress on elections, reconstruction, demining and resettlement of those displaced by the conflict is important but it is frankly not enough. I will demand that the Sri Lankan government independently and transparently investigates alleged war crimes and allegations of continuing human rights abuses; guarantees freedom of expression; and stamps out intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders – including by bringing those responsible to justice."

He remains committed to the process, writing that "We want the Commonwealth to take action on the things that matter to the UK and we will not achieve that by sitting on the sidelines." Less than a week out from CHOGM and in the face of major boycotts, Australia and the UK look increasingly compromised by defending the meeting and the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The rape and torture of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka has been documented for many years by many reputable organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Last year at the UN Human Rights Council, the Australian government acknowledged torture, disappearances and other forms of persecution were happening in the country, demanding Sri Lanka cease such practices. 

Yet the Abbott government, and its Labor predecessor, refused to follow through on this advice. Former foreign minister Bob Carr offered Sri Lanka Australia's help to organise CHOGM, but Prime Minister Tony Abbott went further when he recently chastised the Canadians for boycotting the biennial meeting.

“You do not make new friends by rubbishing your old friends or abandoning our old friends,” Abbott said of the Canadian boycott. 

Canadian Prime Minister Harper said last month his country was “deeply concerned” about the situation in Sri Lanka, citing a lack of accountability for “serious human rights abuses and international humanitarian standards.” He added he would not only be boycotting the meeting but, because CHOGM was going ahead in Colombo, Canada would be reviewing the $20 million it gives to the Commonwealth organisation each year.

The Federal Government's position on Sri Lanka has even precluded it from standing up for the democratic rights of its own citizens; Australians expect their government to object to the deportation of Australian journalists for attending press freedom conferences, and the detention of an Australian Senator who was collecting evidence about serious human rights abuses.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.