The special value of the Commonwealth is that it brings together nations in many different phases of development, which view current affairs through the prism of their own experience.
At best, this makes it a forum of impassioned and significant debate, in which mutual understanding can be enhanced. But when tolerance of alternative ideas gives way to indifference or cynical acceptance of what should be loudly denounced, the organisation risks sliding into irrelevance or worse.
Sri Lanka is a functioning democracy and has been at peace since the end of the Tamil Tigers’ insurgency four years ago. But the coming of peace has done nothing to moderate the autocratic behaviour of a regime which displays many of the worst features of a dictatorship. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his clan see criticism as treachery and dissent as a hostile act.
Life for conscientious journalists has long been extremely hazardous in Sri Lanka, but their ranks have now been joined by many others: student leaders, university lecturers, trade unionists, human rights activists, lawyers and judges are among those who have been subjected to vilification, intimidation and physical attack, as a new Amnesty International report published yesterday, entitled Sri Lanka’s Assault on Dissent, spells out.
Only three months ago, the Chief Justice was quite wrongly impeached and sacked. Persistent critics of the regime can vanish without trace: as The Independent’s new online campaign, Voices in Danger, reported on Monday, Prageeth Eknaligoda, a political journalist and cartoonist, disappeared in January 2010 and has not been seen since.
It is against this backdrop that Canada has threatened to boycott the November Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo, unless the regime mends its ways. Canada’s should not be a lone voice. Democracy by itself is not enough: without respect for the right to dissent and criticise, it is but a fig leaf for tyranny.