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Commonwealth Meeting 2013: Sri Lanka’s PR Miscalculation

The Official Photo of CHOGM 2013
CHOGM 2013 Official Photo

They had prepared the stage with impressive skill. Streets had been refurbished, a new motorway from the airport to the city had just been finished a few weeks before the first dignitaries arrived, and the Sri Lankan tourism authority had branded everything in a delightful range of colors, even the bottled water.

In preparation of the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo last week, the Sri Lankan government had spared no effort to present the island country in the most shining light possible. It had also worked hard to invite Commonwealth member states to send their heads of government to the meeting. Sri Lanka was to stand out for its rapid economic development, investment opportunities and organizational skills.

Instead, allegations of war crimes by the Sri Lankan armed forces during the last phase of the war, the lack of press freedom and other human rights violations took center stage in international and social media. A press conference held by President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the summit was completely dominated by these issues – in fact, not a single question was asked on issues that were actually on the CHOGM agenda. Only 28 out of 53 heads of government actually attended the summit (a record low), with Canada and Mauritius officially boycotting (the latter subsequently declining to host the next summit) and India’s Prime Minister giving in to domestic pressure to stay away as well.

When it came to the crunch, the Sri Lankan government demonstrated its lack of commitment to Commonwealth values such as press freedom with astonishing clarity. Promisingly, it had allowed the British TV station Channel Four into the country, despite their highly critical documentaries on war crimes allegations. But instead of giving the Channel Four journalists free reign, the government had them followed by intelligence officers at all time, organized demonstrations blocking their way to the Tamil-dominated North of the country and sent police to constrain their reporting.

The British journalists were finally able to travel to the North as part of British Prime  Minister David Cameron’s press convoy. Demonstrating the utility of attending the summit, Cameron was the first world leader to visit Sri Lanka’s North since the country’s independence. After he had spoken to the newly elected Tamil chief minister as well as visited a Tamil newspaper office and a camp of internally displaced persons, Cameron called on the authorities to lead a full, independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes. As a newly elected member of the UN Human Rights Council, the UK would press for an international inquiry at the UN Human Rights Council if a credible national inquiry was not forthcoming by March next year.

While the Rajapaksa family at the helm of the Sri Lankan government is used to criticism from Western countries, including the UK, its close international friends started to pick on it as well. After the Commonwealth meeting had ended, a Chinese spokesperson said Sri Lanka should “make efforts to protect and promote human rights,” and “dialogue and communication should be enhanced among countries” on the issue of human rights. China is the biggest bilateral donor (mainly by soft loans) to Sri Lanka and helped to finance, among other infrastructure projects, the convention center where most meetings of the CHOGM took place.

All this amounted to a huge diplomatic blunder for President Rajapaksa and his government. With the increased global attention, Sri Lanka’s attempt to clean its international image faces an uphill battle.