CHOGM is now over, and as the dust begins to settle, we take a look at who were the summit’s winners and losers.
In spite of the pressures back home the British Prime Minister went through with the trip and was the most high profile guest in attendance and he largely delivered on his promise to shine a light on human rights abuses. It’s difficult to see how the international press would have accessed Jaffna if not for Mr Cameron’s visit.
Cameron still faces pressure in the UK, and had to justify his decision to attend CHOGM again in parliament yesterday. But the visit has done his image a lot of good, both at home and abroad after he stole the press limelight on Friday and Saturday. Although possibly not in Sri Lanka.
The little-known High Commissioner to Britain, medical doctor Chris Nonis, was the other undoubted star of CHOGM, after he handled possibly his toughest assignment yet with some style. After a spirited performance in a CNN interview, Dr.Nonis was elavated to instant internet stardom, with people even comparing him to Kadiragamar, which even the diplomat would agree, is a pedestal too high.
Channel 4 and the International Press
Channel 4 also managed to become part of the news, and seemed to quite enjoy the attention it was getting. Whilst the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the UK Chris Nonis ridiculed them as “peripheral”, the news network remains well respected in the UK and has only increased their international reputation through their reporting on the summit. Despite the difficulties they faced within the country, you sense that overall they will think it was a job well done.
PM Tony Abbott has faced some criticism over his stance on human rights, whilst his gift of two boats to Sri Lanka has caused controversy. But overall he, and Australia, will feel that they got what they came for. Abbott’s primary concern – in the build up to the recent election, and now, in the early days of his leadership – is illegal migration, and Sri Lanka is one of the biggest sources of illegal migrants to the country. His visit has furthered strengthened an already good relationship with the Sri Lankan government, and the boats will, after all, help in the fight against migration. Job done.
Business in Sri Lanka
At the moment it is too early to get a complete quantitative view of the impact of CHOGM on Sri Lanka’s international business relations, but the signs so far look good. The Commonwealth Business Forum was a success, and many deals were also made on the sidelines. Many of the more cynical observers commented in the build-up to the summit that this area was where the real value was for Sri Lanka in hosting CHOGM, and as things stand, they may well have been right.
Despite not being a member of the Commonwealth, China made its presence felt at the summit, both through its existing funding that helped build the infrastructure for the summit, and the reported $1.5bn worth of deals signed by Chinese companies at the Commonwealth Business Forum. This represents a further strengthening of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, with billions of dollars worth of loans already given, and Chinese involvement in seemingly every major infrastructure project in the country.
Manmohan Singh and India
The Prime Minister’s no-show has been a strategic flop. India has reduced its leverage and looks weak, and the domestic political considerations that prompted the move have not been addressed, with Tamil Nadu remaining angry that there was not a complete boycott of the event. Even the way it was handled was cringe-worthy, with weeks of flip-flopping and semi-announcements meaning that Singh did not look like he was taking a statesmanlike position (a la Cameron, Stephen Harper, or the Mauritius PM) but instead appeared to not know what he should do.
GL Peiris’s Look Africa Strategy
External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris’s “Look Africa” strategy was a flop, after he had visited the continent several times recently in an attempt to harness the support of African nations at the summit, and get them to show solidarity over human rights. However, not only were not many Africans looking towards Sri Lanka during the summit, only four of them – South Africa, Tanzania, Lesotho and Rwanda – actually sent their heads of government. The Ugandan president was a visible absentee, as was Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who last month vigourously denied reports that his country were lobbying African nations to boycott CHOGM.
Overall, the Commonwealth’s showpiece event was a disaster for the parent organisation. The focus in the build-up and during the summit itself was on Sri Lanka’s legitimacy to host the summit, and Kamalesh Sharma, the secretary general, was weak in his defence of the decision. The scrutiny has made many more people across the world question what the Commonwealth is actually for, and even whether there is really an adequate justification for its existence.
There was a telling moment at the final press conference, when the convenor asked for any questions not about Sri Lanka, and there weren’t any.
Ranil Wickramesinghe and the opposition
The UNP have not come out of CHOGM well at all, appearing increasingly irrelevant as they presented a characteristically incoherent message. Their boycott of the opening ceremony was pointless – who was going to notice? – and the hosting of an alternative human rights event at their headquarters has drawn protests and not much sympathy from Sri Lankans in general. There was a strong sense that this was about their own political standings and not any real commitment to the cause, and whether that is true or not, the Sirikotha brouhaha has come to look like a blunder.
MP A.H.M. Azwer played Sri Lanka’s crazy uncle role at a press conference last Friday. No international gathering is complete, it seems, without a Sri Lankan MP embarrassing himself and perhaps more so, the country.
A bit of both
President Mahinda Rajapaksa
President Rajapaksa had a mixed bag of a summit, losing out internationally, but maintaining his local stock easily. His measured response to David Cameron’s March deadline looked good, and overall the pomp and cirumstance of the whole affair, and the siege mentality created by a defensive domestic media meant that the President came out of the whole thing well at home. And, in the long run, particularly if there is some concrete progress on human rights, history may well be kind to the event and its host.
Mauritius’ principled stand on Sri Lanka played well to the international gallery, and the decision not to host the next CHOGM in 2015 showed that they were willing to put their money where their mouth is. However, for a small nation to sacrifice its chance to host what remains a presitigious (or at least widely covered) event could be a case of biting off their nose to spite their face.
Only time will tell how this decision looks. Because, after all, how much impact does a boycott from Mauritius have, and will they have damaged anyone but themselves?
The Colombo Facelift
The amount of money that the government spent on renovating Colombo has come in for some flak, especially with Rs.15,000 windmills that don’t spin, a convention centre in Hambantota that may or not be another white elephant, and a mini-zoo in Battaramulla that is reportedly unsafe for children and mistreats its animals.
However, it cannot be denied that Colombo looks better for all the work, even down to just the improvement in pavements across swathes of the city. It may have taken an international summit to get the improvements to happen, and they may have cost more than they should, but ultimately what people (including visitors) will remember is a city with a bit more shine to it. (The Republic Square)