| by Upul Joseph Fernando

( April 23, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) International political commentators have come up with a highly probable reason for Canada's withdrawal of Commonwealth funds rather abruptly. They contend that it was a palpable snub to both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Kamalesh Sharma who are current Chairperson and Secretary General respectively of the Commonwealth Heads of States Association. Rather more precisely, Canada has shown quite openly its displeasure with Sharma where his obvious favourable treatment of Sri Lanka and its President Rajapaksa are concerned at different times during the past few years.

Sharma, a senior Indian diplomat became Secretary General of Commonwealth in 2007 in the first instance. On an earlier occasion, the Indian Government had made an unsuccessful attempt at getting an Indian diplomat appointed as UN Secretary General. As the necessary numbers to support the move could not be mustered it fell through. Thereafter, India diligently followed an intensive programme of action to fit in an Indian diplomat into Commonwealth Secretary General slot. It was in this instance that Sri Lanka won India's unstinted goodwill as it whole-heartedly supported India's bid to win the Commonwealth post, despite Sri Lanka itself coveting the same post previously. This wish to win the post for ourselves first surfaced during President Premadasa's tenure; in fact he wanted his Secretary K.H.J. Wijedasa appointed as Secretary General of Commonwealth. However, by the time the post was up for selection Premadasa was not among the living and Chandrika who was in power refused to endorse his candidacy. When she wanted to nominate Lakshman Kadiragamar to the post, he became a tragic victim of a LTTE gunman and lost his life. When the Secretary General post had become vacant next and India wanted its man to be chosen, Mahinda's help was sought and obtained for clinching it to India. President Rajapaksa won kudos from India and an abiding and strong friendship from Sharma on a more personal level.

Spirit of gratitude

It was in this spirit of gratitude that India and Sharma decided to invite Mahinda as a guest of honour to the Closing Ceremony on the last day of the Commonwealth Games held in India in 2011. This invitation turned out to be controversial in that several international Human Rights Organizations heavily criticized Sharma for inviting Mahinda who was under a cloud of alleged Human Rights violations at that time. The Guardian in London reported the event thus.

"His presence next to Prince Edward, who will close the games on behalf of the Queen, will spark anger from campaigners who have accused Rajapaksa of failing to protect many thousands of civilians who died in battles which ended the long civil war against Tamil separatists last year, and of flouting international human rights law.

"In January, the 64-year-old politician won a second six-year term in a landslide victory and recently pushed through a constitutional amendment that will allow him to stand an unlimited number of times.

Choice of guests

"Aslam Khan, Head of Protocol for the games, confirmed that the choice of guests for the closing ceremony in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi was a 'joint venture between the Indian Government and the Organizing Committee.' Rajapaksa is not expected to speak at the event, Khan said.

"The presence of Rajapaksa among the senior dignitaries in front of 65,000 spectators and hundreds of millions of television viewers will renew criticism of the Commonwealth for avoiding tackling tough issues.

"Last week, the Guardian revealed that the current Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, had told his staff that it was not the organization's role to 'speak out' against abuses by the 54-member States. David Cameron and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, have both said they will put new emphasis on the Commonwealth in Britain' foreign policy.

"India's invitation is part of a charm offensive aimed at countering diplomatic inroads made by China in Sri Lanka in recent years. The two Asian powers are both investing much effort in wooing Rajapaksa, who remains popular with the Sinhalese majority in the island State, with economic aid packages, technical help with infrastructure projects and other initiatives."

Invitation to Mahinda to take part in the closing ceremonies of the games was more or less an initiation ceremony for Mahinda to prepare for hosting the CHOGM. This decision was taken at the Kampala Commonwealth Conference in 2007 the same year when Sharma was appointed as its Secretary General. But due to charges of war crimes alleged to have taken place during the recently concluded war a cacophony of protests were raised against holding the meeting here in 2011. Instead it was held in Australia in that year and at that meeting it was decided to hold 2013 meeting in Sri Lanka with India strongly rooting for it. At the final Commonwealth Ministerial action group meeting where the selection of the venue for 2013 CHOGM was decided, India heavily pulled for Sri Lanka to be the host, with Sharma doing the necessary ground work, efficiently. Ironically Canada raised its strong objection to the proposal at the very same meeting where the proposal was moved by India.

An opinion paper

Sharma went out on a limb when his actions in regard to an opinion paper submitted by a South African and British panel of eminent lawyers was alleged to have been purposely pigeonholed by him so as to prevent other stake holders in the Ministerial Action Group discussing the issue of Sri Lankan Chief Justice's unlawful removal from her post. This incident had been highlighted in a letter addressed by British High Commissioner Gordon Campbell to Sharma at that time.

"As these legal opinions would be germane to the deliberations of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group with respect to Sri Lanka, I request that these documents be provided to High Commissioners whose ministers sit on CMAG so that they may consider their findings. I would appreciate receiving the opinions today," Cambell said in his letter in May.

The Canadian envoy said that the Secretary General 'rightly sought' independent legal opinions from eminent Commonwealth Jurists, Pius Nkonzo Langa of South Africa and Sir Jeffery Jowell QC of the UK, as to the constitutionality of the dismissal of the Sri Lankan Chief Justice. In his letter Campbell notes a statement by Sharma on 13 January, two days after Bandaranayake's impeachment in which he claimed: "The dismissal of the Chief Justice will be widely seen, against the background of the divergence between the Judiciary and the Legislature, as running counter to the Independence of the Judiciary, which is a core Commonwealth value"

When the removal of the country's Chief Justice was effected through an improper method of impeachment, the most vociferous critic of the government action was Canada, who everybody thought appeared for only separatist causes due to the influences of the Tamil Diaspora. But, Canada showed unmistakably that whether in the country's North or South they appear with equal commitment for the preservation of the Rule of Law, and Independence of the Judiciary. From the time of initiation of the impeachment process against the Chief Justice, Canada did its best to direct verbal broadsides at Mahinda to dissuade him or snub him for the wrongful deed. Canada's unequivocal message to Mahinda is that the world community is not ready to tolerate strongman leaders of any country taking liberties with the country's Judiciary and that they are liable for punishment one way or the other.

International Human Rights groups however subscribed to the view that Sharma was only carrying out the bidding of India. They point to a cogent factor which would help confirm their contention; that is India with Sri Lanka in tow voted against a motion tabled at 2011 CHOGM in Australia by an eminent persons group calling for the appointment of a Commissioner of Democracy. In the light of Canada's continuing engagement with Human Rights issues, it is no wonder that for all intents and purposes Canada has delivered a simmering snub to both Mahinda and Sharma.