Welcomed by a number of MPs and peers at the House of Commons the previous day, the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers gathered together to attend the 43rd Meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) at Marlborough House, London on Friday, 14 March 2014. This meeting involved the nine foreign ministers from the Commonwealth countries gathering to discuss serious or persistent violations of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values.
The CMAG meeting was chaired by Hon. Bernard K. Membe, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Republic of Tanzania. It was also attended by Hon. Ioannis Kasoulides, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus; Hon. Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Guyana; Hon. Salman Khurshid, Minister of External Affairs of India; Hon. Murray McCully, Minister of Foreign Affairs of New Zealand (Vice Chair of CMAG); Hon. Sartaj Aziz, Adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on National Security and Foreign Affairs; Hon. Dr. Samura Kamara, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Sierra Leone; Hon. Clay Forau Soalaoi, Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade of Solomon Islands; and Hon. Prof. G.L. Peiris, Minister of External Affairs of Sri Lanka.
During the meeting, CMAG welcomed the significant progress made in Fiji towards holding national elections by September 2014. Yet the press conference that followed erupted into a series of questions directed at the Sri Lankan, Pakistan and Indian Foreign Ministers, all heads of countries known to have serious violations of human rights.
When asked why Sri Lanka, which chairs the Commonwealth and is accused of serious and persistent violations of CMAG’s values and has recently rejected in its entirety a report by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, highly critical of Sri Lanka’s human rights performance, was not included on the agenda of the CMAG meeting, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Mr Kamalesh Sharma said, “We agreed on a roadmap of Commonwealth partnership with Sri Lanka when I visited Sri Lanka last year. There are about 10 different tracks and the progress is there for all to see on our website. We are advancing at a different pace on each track. We are tackling difficult issues, such as reconciliation, torture and human rights. We are working in a Commonwealth way. We offer practical assistance and a helping hand and we strengthen national endeavours in the field of human rights and the rule of law.”
This question was quickly followed by Mr Sharma being asked how the Commonwealth is addressing the issue of human rights violations in Kashmir, to which he simply responded, “This has not been a Commonwealth issue, to look into national situations of this type.”
Professor G. L. Peiris was directly asked to comment on the fact that in the same breath, the Commonwealth emphasises its commitment to association and freedom of expression, and their responsibility to encourage and promote those core values, yet the recent revelation that one of the leading campaigners for the disappeared in Sri Lanka, a mother and her 14 years old daughter, was arrested, defeats their rhetoric.
Mr Peiris passionately responded to this, saying, “It is a great pity that all of the progress accomplished in our country during the last four years, at the end of a devastating conflict that spanned three decades, all of that is ignored…Look at the economy of the North, how it is developing; the holding of elections in the northern province after quarter of a century. All of this is ignored.”
“Of course law and order issues are a different matter; we have to look at the evidence, the reasons why action has been taken in a particular case, but the trajectory forward, all the progress, is by any reasonable standard pretty substantial. Regarding the people arrested yesterday, we have to examine the evidence, the grounds on which it is done; that will happen in due course, against judicial scrutiny. I think it is very wrong to come to a conclusion before the facts are looked at objectively and in depth.”
Addressing Mr Sharma again, a question was posed on whether it is the duty of the Commonwealth to undertake initiatives to bring India and Pakistan, which are very important from the point of view of South Asia, together to resolve all the outstanding issues.
Mr Sharma said: “The practice in the Commonwealth and its political work is to concentrate on the reduction and elimination of tension inside a country, whether it is between political forces and parties or for any other reason. That is point number one; point number two: It is at the invitation of the government to work with them in this field. The Commonwealth does not involve itself in inter-state relationships between the Commonwealth members.”
The closing question was directed to Mr Salman Khurshid, asking him from an Indian point of view whether there was any particular issue he had brought to the table at the CMAG meeting. Mr Kurshid, replied saying, “No not really. This is the first meeting that I have attended and I am very pleased to see that right across the board, there is very reasonable consensus amongst all our colleagues. We did not have any issue to bring; we came here to participate in the discussions on the agenda before us, and we were grateful to the Secretary-General that he gave us a very comprehensive and extensive report on his good offices.”
Tanveer Mann for Asian Voice