By Dr Sue Onslow, Senior Research Fellow, ICwS

A crescendo of criticism and moral outrage is building on the choice of Sri Lanka as the next venue for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, scheduled for Columbo in November 2013. From the vantage point of Johannesburg, where I have spent the past week doing interviews for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ major oral history of the Commonwealth project, there is a degree of perplexity about this.

Comments from former leading diplomats and politicians, drawing on their own experience of the extraordinary transition to black majority rule from apartheid, have all pointed towards engagement and dialogue with a criticised regime as being a vital adjunct to international isolation and opprobrium. At its most basic, a classic ‘good cop bad cop’. The take away message is uniformly: ‘Do not isolate.’ And ‘Sanctions prove counter-productive.’ There is of course a very lively academic literature on whether or not sanctions work, and public expectation of governments to ‘Do Something’ prompt their usage. Yet, sanctions regimes have a habit of developing a dynamic of their own, operating under the law of Unintended Consequences: the Rhodesian case study springs to mind, since international sanctions effectively provided an ISI (Import Substitution) regime for the Rhodesia Front government, protecting domestic industrial production and entrepreneurship, while a resourceful middle class backed by government, clandestinely sourced other inputs from the international market. More recently, the track record of targeted financial and personal sanctions against Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe’s criticism of MDC in the government of National Unity on the grounds of their ‘failure’ to secure the removal of sanctions, thereby licensed ZANU-PF’s refusal to comply fully with the Global Political Agreement. The myth of sanctions was also exploited as the explanation for Zimbabwe’s economic crisis. A total nonsense, of course, but a highly effective political weapon.

No one is yet proposing sanctions against Sri Lanka. But how effective is public criticism and shunning? National governments never welcome external criticism, as I have been frequently reminded on this trip. The South African apartheid government of PW Botha bristled with outrage at external comments from governments which had themselves highly variable human rights records. The temperament of an irascible leader, combined with an embattled sense of community identity and past disillusionment with the Commonwealth (which appeared not to be rewarding and encouraging the vague green shoots of reform in the 1980s), produced an increasing siege mentality in top government circles. Former South African politicians confirm that international lifelines to get the National Party government out of the corner into which it had painted itself, were invaluable. It didn’t mean that this qualified international engagement was the only variable. South Africa’s negotiated transition to a government of national unity was truly extraordinary, and there were multiple factors which contributed to this unlikely outcome. The veteran journalist Allister Sparks has argued, South Africa’s achievement of negotiated transition was a sophisticated, home grown affair (there was no UNO, no Lancaster House, no Owen-Vance proposal). Yet leading South African former politicians accept readily in hindsight, they could not have done it totally alone. (President Zuma appears to have conveniently forgotten this.) The Commonwealth – whether through individual leadership, patient negotiation by Commonwealth Secretariat officials, key offers of assistance and support in election organisation, police training, economic planning for the post-apartheid era, legal advice, trade union organisational support – helped to provide the cement to that painstaking negotiation process between the South African antagonists. This on-going support was not in the public eye, although no less valuable for that.

Conflict resolution is a process, which the Commonwealth well understood between 1990-1994;  legacies of violence take years to work out and work through, and it will inevitably be a bumpy, ‘stop-start’ ride. The Sri Lankan civil war was brutal and protracted, with appalling human rights violations and war crimes committed by both sides. Yet the Commonwealth family now would do well to reflect on the positive ways, its leadership, expertise, institutional and organisational support, can contribute to the on-going process of Sri Lankan nation-state reconstruction and reconciliation. Taking a realist, rather than purely idealistic approach, as South Africa proved, the Sri Lankan state needs incentives and encouragement to continue the progress it has achieved since 2008, not just brickbats.