by Dr. Sue Onslow

The disastrous decision for Sri Lanka to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, taken in 2009 and reaffirmed at the 2011 Perth CHOGM, has come back to bite the Commonwealth on the backside. The Canadian and Indian heads of Government have both decided to stay away, marking the first public boycott by Heads at a CHOGM and representing an implicit snub to Prince Charles as the Queen’s representative. A media blast of hard hitting television documentary reportage in Channel 4’s No Fire Zone and Frances Harrison’s Our World: Sri Lanka’s Unfinished War, alongside fiercely critical journalistic comment, has starkly underlined the host government’s miserable human rights record – following hard on the publication of the latest Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative report which makes express reference to Colombo’s track record on political detentions, persecution of the media, and failure to appoint an independent commission to investigate atrocities committed by both sides during the civil war. An implicit North/South divide seems to have opened up within this unique association of 53 sovereign states, between the advocates of democracy and human rights, and those governments which emphasise development before constitutionalism.

CHOGM meetings have been both a catalyst for controversy and a forum for the resolution of contentious issues.”

The Commonwealth is no stranger to crisis. Controversy has surrounded numerous CHOGM meetings over the years, notably during impassioned debate in the apartheid era. The choice of Nassau in 1985 was controversial, because of the Prime Minister’s alleged connections with international drugs smuggling; Lusaka in 1979 was on the front line of a war zone between Rhodesian security forces and Zimbabwean liberation fighters; the 1989 Kuala Lumpur meeting was set against Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s previous ‘disenchantment’ with the Commonwealth; and the 1995 Auckland CHOGM was confronted with the execution of political activist, writer and poet, Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni dissidents, despite President Nelson Mandela’s plea for clemency. Yet the Commonwealth has proved a remarkable animal in its ability to re-invent itself at times of crisis, and over the years CHOGM meetings have been both a catalyst for controversy and a forum for the resolution of contentious issues.

Over the past year The Institute of Commonwealth Studies has been running a major AHRC-funded project on an oral history of the Commonwealth since 1965 (  – involving a series of 60 extended interviews with leading politicians, diplomats, civil servants and journalists – precisely to shine a light on the unseen management of such contentious issues, how tensions have been dealt with in the past, and what lessons these historical conflicts have for the Commonwealth today. The first batch of interviews will be made available this week; and as an integral part of this project, the former Secretary General Sir Sonny Ramphal will be speaking at Senate House on Thursday 14th November on these past lessons.

The interviews so far all underline the critical question of leadership: the need for leadership from the Commonwealth Secretary General and Secretariat as a proactive small international organisation, exploiting the policy space provided by the Commonwealth and its filigree of leader and professional networks – rather than simply sitting back and waiting for Heads’ instruction. A great deal of time and careful preparation was put into the 1979 Lusaka CHOGM by the Secretary General and key members of his team, to ensure that the British Government was encouraged to convene an all party conference to resolve the long-running Rhodesia/Zimbabwe crisis.

“Leadership can never be the sole responsibility of the Secretary General.”

As the interviews demonstrate, leadership can never be the sole responsibility of the Secretary General, and has to be in conjunction with leadership and active commitment by individual Commonwealth leaders: their proactive pursuit of a clear moral strategy and willingness to take risks. The interviews underline that the Commonwealth as an effective diplomatic global sub-system functioned best when key leaders actively collaborated with the Secretary General, rather than simply focussed on a bilateral Commonwealth relationship. No one in the press seems to have picked up the significance of the Indian head of state boycotting a CHOGM organised by an Indian Secretary General.

“This is also Leadership which is adept at exercising ‘Track 2 diplomacy’”

This is also Leadership which is adept at exercising ‘Track 2 diplomacy’ – talking to the unattractive and morally dubious, without endorsing repressive policies, and emphasising a communality of interest in reaching agreement. And this is where the Commonwealth appears now to have come unstuck. In the era of apartheid in South Africa, the Commonwealth had a ‘good news’ story – opposition to racial oppression and injustice. The interviews bear out that its public pressure and support for negotiation between all sides contributed to South Africa’s transition; but so too did Mrs Thatcher’s resistance to sanctions and preparedness to talk tough to the South African government.

Since the end of apartheid, the Commonwealth’s USP has become more problematic, and especially since 2008, so too has the twin track diplomacy approach. It has a declared practice and institution of ‘good offices’ – quiet mediation, of which Lord Carrington with his antipathy to ‘megaphone’ diplomacy would heartily approve. However, Carrington was also an arch exponent of toughness. And the Commonwealth does not appear to have been tough enough on Sri Lanka. Good offices are all very well, but a media savvy and committed public want and need to feel that private pressure produces results, and doesn’t simply allow offenders to wriggle off the hook.

“The Colombo meeting offers the opportunity for heads to ‘speak truth to power’”

With the CHOGM meeting as its diplomatic hub, the Commonwealth has weathered serious and divisive storms before and emerged intact. It has recently attracted the epithet of ‘a dead parrot’, and certainly the record of most Heads on the issue of Sri Lanka has been shameful. Yet the Colombo meeting offers the opportunity for heads to ‘speak truth to power’ – the Sri Lankan government, like the Zimbabwe government of the 1980s, the Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone in the 2000s, needs international and Commonwealth support as it continues the task of reconstruction and conflict resolution. The removal of the redundant Chair in Office position, which offers the travesty of Sri Lanka sitting on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and its scrutiny of human and political rights violations by governments, would mitigate the deeply flawed decision to hold CHOGM in Colombo.

And the Commonwealth must not turn a blind eye to continued extensive human rights abuses – as it did following the successful Lusaka CHOGM and Zimbabwean independence, when the state-led violence of the Gukurahundi campaign in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, erupted in 1982-86 leading to the death of over 30,000 civilians. The Eminent Persons Group Report to the Perth CHOGM was designed expressly to re-energise the Commonwealth, and to expand CMAG’s authority and remit. Fine words require consistent commitment and action. The Commonwealth must remember and learn from past mistakes, as well as past claimed triumphs.

About the author

Sue Onslow is a Senior Research Fellow and lead interviewer on the Oral History of The Commonwealth project at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. She is the former co-Head of the Africa International Affairs Programme at LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics and currently an LSE Associate. She taught and lectured at the LSE, 1994-2012, as well as at King’s College London. Between 2008 and 2010 she was the lead interviewer on the AHRC project, ‘Why Did You Fight?’ Narratives of the Rhodesian war, at the University of the West of England. She has written and published extensively on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Africa between 1960 and 1994 and is currently preparing a book on Britain and the Zimbabwean land settlement of 1980.