Commonwealth becoming irrelevant?

Speaking in the debate on the Commnonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka later  this month Mike Gapes strongly criticised the decision to hold the meeting in Sri Lanka and questioned the role of the leadership of the organisation and Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma. He concluded "If the Commonwealth does not change, it will become irrelevant."

Here are the two interventions by Mike Gapes and his speech 

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my constituency neighbour and friend for giving way. I suspect that he is aware that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has called on the Sri Lankan Government to assure the Prime Minister that anyone he meets, and their families, will not subsequently be harassed or intimidated. We know that that happens regularly in Sri Lanka. If the Prime Minister meets figures who are critical of the Government, there is a risk that the situation may be serious for them after he and other Ministers have left.

Mike Gapes: My hon. Friend is probably aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee report “The FCO’s human rights work in 2012” stated:

“The FCO objected to a proposal that Sri Lanka might host the 2011 CHOGM on human rights grounds but did not obstruct a proposal that it might do so in 2013… That approach now appears timid. The UK could and should have taken a more principled stand in 2009, and should have taken a more robust stand after the 2011 CHOGM in the light of the continuing serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.”

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned the Freedom from Torture freedom of information request and the UK Border Agency’s reply in February. In its 2011 “Human Rights and Democracy” report, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office referred to allegations of torture of people who had been sent back to Sri Lanka and were subsequently given asylum in this country, but stated that there was no substantiated evidence that people returned there had been tortured. Interestingly, neither the allegation nor such a statement appeared in the FCO’s 2012 “Human Rights and Democracy” report. The Foreign Affairs Committee has questioned that, but we got no answers from Baroness Warsi when she gave evidence to us. Our report recommended that the FCO

“state whether it still holds the view that there is no substantiated evidence of torture or maltreatment of people who have been returned by UK immigration authorities to Sri Lanka.”

Will the Minister short-circuit the process and give us an answer today? Do the British Government still hold the view that people returned to Sri Lanka are not tortured, and that there is no substantiated evidence, or is their view—given the increasing concerns, and the compelling evidence of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and others—that there is evidence that calls into question the UK Border Agency’s policy of returning to Sri Lanka people who we know have been mistreated since 2009?

In those circumstances, when the Prime Minister meets President Rajapaksa and his several brothers, who run the Government in Sri Lanka, will it not be time to make it clear that the British Government and British parliamentarians expect answers to our questions about people sent back from this country to Sri Lanka and then mistreated, and to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and others about the mistreatment of British citizens in Sri Lanka?

Barry Gardiner: Is my hon. Friend aware that Judge Lobo has referred to the assistance offered by country guidance cases? In an appeal in the first-tier tribunal, he has said that the people at risk are those who have outstanding charges against them—journalists associated with publications critical of the Sri Lankan Government, and those who are aligned to pro-Tamil separatist movements and are working towards the destabilisation of the unitary state. That relates specifically to risks to people who are returned to Sri Lanka.

Mike Gapes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I will not respond to his intervention.

Finally, it is all very well to say that the Government should be there—that the Commonwealth is so important that the British Prime Minister, the heir to the throne or the Foreign Secretary should attend the meeting—but let us look at the history of the Commonwealth and where it is now. Many years ago, the Commonwealth agreed the Harare declaration, which set out human rights values and how institutions should work. In the past, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and other countries have been suspended from or have walked out of the Commonwealth because human rights issues were raised.I must say that I am extremely disappointed with the Commonwealth secretary-general—I know him personally, because he was previously the Indian high commissioner in this country—and the way in which he has run the organisation. There has been a downplaying of human rights issues under the current Commonwealth secretariat. I am not giving away any secrets when I say that the British Government tried to raise these issues in 2009 and subsequently. In a vote in the Commonwealth, 50 votes were in favour of going to Colombo and four were against. That is the problem that we have to confront in the organisation. If the Commonwealth does not change, it will become irrelevant.

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