If the furore over the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that starts in Sri Lanka today has caused problems for David Cameron, it shines an even less flattering light on the post-colonial club itself.
For the Prime Minister, the decision to attend a summit hosted by a country where the government stands accused both of historical war crimes and continuing human rights violations has –rightly – caused a flood of criticism. The last-minute attempt to defend the move with claims that more pressure might be applied by attending than by not, with concomitant promises of frank and forthright discussions with President Rajapaksa, was never convincing. Attendance at the event confers a credibility that Colombo has not earned. Now, with the Sri Lankan government warning Mr Cameron off the topic – on the grounds that, having not been invited on that basis, he has no right to bring it up – his position becomes more ridiculous.
But it is not only the British Prime Minister who is shamed by the location of the meeting. For the Commonwealth, the questions raised by the Sri Lankan government’s questionable record go to the heart of critics’ assertions that it is as obsolete as it is hypocritical.
It was conceived – as the British empire disintegrated after the Second World War – as an intergovernmental alliance centred around a shared commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Sixty years on, it is nothing of the sort. Sri Lanka is far from the only offender. As The Independent reported earlier this week, homosexuality is a criminal offence in 41 of the Commonwealth’s 53 member states. There are also allegations of everything from extrajudicial killings to torture to political suppression in countries from Nigeria to Pakistan. There are occasional suspensions, but most are subsequently reversed; and rumbling allegations of human rights abuses, such as those in Sri Lanka, are commonly swept under the carpet by a quorum of members facing similar charges. So much for the so-called “core values”.
The Commonwealth is not the only international club with such problems. Although the African Union officially excludes any government that has come to power through “unconstitutional means”, it still has any number of crooks and despots on its register. The UN has similar issues: several of the countries recently elected to its Human Rights Council are violators themselves. And even the EU has faced questions over its rush to admit new members that may not be entirely up to snuff.
There is no simple answer. But this is no call for the Commonwealth to be scrapped. Notwithstanding its imperial beginnings and arbitrary membership list, it is still an opportunity to foster global discussion and, as such, is to be cherished. The crisis of legitimacy cannot go unaddressed, however. Historical sensitivities are such that Britain, even with the support of other rich-world members, cannot be the arbiter of the rules. It can only be hoped that, when Mr Cameron was in India en route to Sri Lanka this week, he took the opportunity to press Manmohan Singh – who is boycotting the Colombo summit – to spearhead reforms. The Commonwealth must heal itself from within. But the time it has to do so is running out.