In a Mostly Democratic Commonwealth, Sri Lanka Stands Out
It was reported last week that Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current chair-in-office of the 53-nation Commonwealth, may not attend the annual Commonwealth Day celebrations in London on March 10. A recent UN human rights report and data from Freedom House’s Freedom in the World survey suggest that he has good reason to avoid the spotlight.
In the UN report, released on February 24, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for the creation of an independent international inquiry into war crimes and other abuses associated with the 2009 conclusion and aftermath of Sri Lanka’s war against ethnic Tamil rebels. The UN Human Rights Council, which has unsuccessfully urged the Sri Lankan authorities to conduct substantive investigations of their own, is set to vote on an international inquiry later this month.
However, Freedom in the World data show that Sri Lanka’s slide away from international norms began long before the final offensives of the civil war. Rajapaksa has presided over an erosion of media freedom and judicial independence, attacks on religious minorities by Buddhist radicals, harassment of civil society groups, mounting corruption, and the concentration of political power within his own family. Since he took office in late 2005, the country has retained its Partly Free status, but its total aggregate score has fallen from 59 to 42 on a scale of 0 to 100.
To put those figures in perspective, consider that the average aggregate score among the Commonwealth’s member states is a fairly robust 70.6. Only six countries perform worse than Sri Lanka, which is also rated Partly Free in Freedom House’s internet freedom report and Not Free on media freedom.
The Commonwealth, it should be noted, is a more democratic group than the world at large. Globally, 45 percent of all countries are designated Free by Freedom in the World, 30 percent are Partly Free, and 25 percent are Not Free. In the Commonwealth, which consists mostly of countries with a history of British rule, 58 percent are Free, 34 percent are Partly Free, and only 8 percent—namely Brunei, Rwanda, Cameroon, and Swaziland—are Not Free.
Two countries that would have increased the bloc’s Not Free percentage, Zimbabwe and The Gambia, withdrew in 2003 and 2013, respectively, after receiving international criticism for political violence and other abuses. Fiji, one of the six members performing worse than Sri Lanka in Freedom in the World, is currently suspended due to a 2006 military coup.
The Commonwealth’s formal commitment to the values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law—codified in a charter that was adopted last year—makes Rajapaksa’s 2013–15 term as chair-in-office all the more incongruous.
The Sri Lankan president may skip next week’s London gathering, ostensibly to campaign for provincial elections. But whether he is present or not, other Commonwealth leaders—representing some 2.2 billion people worldwide—should use the opportunity to remind Sri Lankan authorities of their democratic obligations.
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.
Earlier this month, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa replaced Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake with a political ally following a parliamentary impeachment process that was deemed unconstitutional. While the government claimed that Bandaranayake had abused her position for personal gain, her ouster was widely regarded as a Rajapaksa vendetta and yet another blow to judicial independence in the country. In the wake of this showdown between the branches of government, the judiciary has been reduced to little more than an appendage of the ruling party. According to the latest edition of Freedom in the World, Sri Lanka experienced declines in political rights and civil liberties indicators in 2012, adding to a multiyear deterioration. If January is any indication, the coming year promises more of the same.
The president’s moves to replace the government and dissolve Parliament have been denounced as unconstitutional.