Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group Press Conference

CHOGM Commonwealth FlagKamalesh Sharma (Secretary-General of the Commonwealth):

Thank you very much, Chair. I am going to read out a statement which has been adopted by the 43rd meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.

CMAG welcomed the significant progress made in Fiji towards holding national elections by September 2014. These include the promulgation of a new constitution, the enrolment of more than 540,000 voters, the establishment of an independent electoral commission and the commencement of a dialogue between the commission and political stakeholders.

The Group welcomed the decision by the Fiji Elections Office to open voter registration offices around the country to ensure more voters will register in anticipation of the planned elections. The Group urged that the Electoral Commission be provided with the necessary independent authority and resources to oversee the conduct of credible and inclusive elections on a level playing field. It noted the logistical challenges still facing the Fiji Elections Office. It commended the financial and technical support provided to the Elections Office, including by some Commonwealth countries, and welcomed the offer by the Commonwealth Secretariat to provide technical advice and support to the Electoral preparations.

CMAG looks forward to the early appointment of a Supervisor of elections and the issuance of an elections decree and the legal framework for elections. It stressed the importance of the fullest possible voter education. CMAG stressed the importance of continuing improvement to human rights, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, including of the media, expression, association and assembly. It also encouraged Fiji to invite international observation of the election.

The Group welcomed the relinquishment by the Interim Prime Minister of his role as Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces and noted the subsequent announcement of his intention to register his political party to contest the forthcoming elections.

CMAG reaffirmed the Commonwealth’s unwavering solidarity with Fiji. In recognition of progress, CMAG decided that Fiji’s current full suspension from the Commonwealth should be changed to suspension from the Councils of the Commonwealth, thus permitting Fiji once again to participate in a range of Commonwealth activities, including the Commonwealth Games, recognising the role of sport in bringing people together.

The Group further reaffirmed its commitment to Fiji’s full reinstatement as a member of the Commonwealth family through the restoration of constitutional civilian democracy following credible elections later this year. CMAG requested the Secretary-General to remain engaged with Fiji with a view to supporting the full restoration of adherence to the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values. Thank you, Chair.

Richard Uku:

Thank you, Secretary-General, Chair. At this point, we will invite questions from the floor. What I would like you to do, if you do not mind, is introduce yourself and your establishment and then we will take it from there.

Jonathan Miller (Channel 4 News):

I have a question for the Secretary-General, Mr Sharma. My understanding of CMAG and this meeting that took place today is that it meets to deal with serious and persistent violations of Commonwealth values. In that respect, Sri Lanka, which chairs the Commonwealth, is accused of serious and persistent violations of these very values and has recently rejected in its entirety a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which was highly critical of Sri Lanka’s human rights performance. Why was Sri Lanka not on the agenda of the CMAG meeting today?

Kamalesh Sharma:

CMAG has empowered and encouraged the Secretary-General to engage in his good offices with Sri Lanka, which is what I have been doing. We agreed on a roadmap of Commonwealth partnership with Sri Lanka when I visited Sri Lanka last year. There are about 10 different tracks and the progress is there for all to see on our website.

We are advancing at a different pace on each track. We are tackling difficult issues, such as reconciliation, torture and human rights. We are working in a Commonwealth way. We offer practical assistance and a helping hand and we strengthen national endeavour in the field of human rights and the rule of law.

This week, we have started discussion about new areas of work and my work, at the insistence of the CMAG, includes reconciliation; elections; strengthening of the Human Rights Commission; enquiry of various types encouraging the human rights body, which we are doing right now in Geneva with the full body; the separation of powers issue, public administration and freedom of expression.

It is the intent of the CMAG that in the spirit of the Commonwealth we must engage with member states in order to advance the values which the CMAG is particularly cognisant of and this is what I am doing. I had the pleasure of briefing the CMAG ministers of the work that I am doing and I was encouraged further to continue this work.

Speaker:

My question is for the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Mr Sharma, and also the External Affairs Minister of India, Mr Salman Khurshid. Sirs, for the last 25 years there have been the most grave human rights violations in Indian held Kashmir. To the family of Commonwealth countries, have you looked on that and do you know how this human rights problem will be addressed?

Kamalesh Sharma:

This has not been a Commonwealth issue, to look into national situations of this type.

Ayoub Mzee (BEN TV):

I want to concentrate on the issue that is happening within the Commonwealth. This is about the shared values of the Commonwealth.

Last night, I was watching the President of Uganda saying that Uganda is in trouble and it is a member of the Commonwealth and he was saying something about imposing social behaviour, because he has signed the anti-homosexual bill. This morning, on my way here, I saw that the World Bank and the European Union have put sanctions on Uganda. What is the position of the Commonwealth on this? Do you share the views of the Ugandan government or the East African governments in general, who feel that there is social imperialism on it, in the words of the Ugandan President?

Kamalesh Sharma:

On the matter of sexual preferences and LGBTI there is no agreed Commonwealth position, but I want to make it absolutely clear that the Commonwealth opposes discrimination on any grounds and stands up for the principles of equality, non discrimination, non victimisation, non criminalisation. However, it is for each member state to look to these principles and develop this internally as it befits them the most.

The other point I have made is that there is a legal question, if you like, of harmonising your laws with your constitution and with your other international obligations. The Commonwealth is very clear on the values that are involved in this. It is also very clear that this is a matter of the member states themselves harmonising their own national policies in order to be in consonance with Commonwealth values.

Bernard Membe:

I can also add to that, as Chair. The question that you have asked that Uganda has dealt with last week is a matter that touches more on cultural values and the Commonwealth needs to go very slowly and very carefully when it deals with the cultural norms and ideologies in the continent.

I think the Commonwealth will be hearing me say that any imposed Western cultural norm on the African continent or elsewhere is more likely to lack legitimacy and acceptance. Unless this matter is taken carefully and people become so sensitive when imposing such cultural differences and norms, we may not end up well in the continent when it comes to the debate on LGBTI.

Therefore, my call, again as the Chair, is we have to move slowly, carefully when we deal with the cultural norms and values in this globe.

Abi Nathan (Tamil Guardian):

My question is to the Secretary-General and I would like to follow on from Jonathan Miller’s question. When the Commonwealth is usually so keen to work with the UN, how do you reconcile that with the complete discord it has shown with Navi Pillay’s reports and efforts with regard to human rights in Sri Lanka? Why has the Commonwealth not done more to address those?

Kamalesh Sharma:

As I said in my response to the earlier question, the observation that the Commonwealth is not doing enough is completely misplaced. As I said, we have ten tracks that we are developing. We are not trying to avoid the harder issues, but we always work in a spirit of constructive engagement with member states because all durable and lasting advance in the field of human rights and the rule of law has to be based on national accomplishment and consolidating it nationally, which is why we work so closely with the human rights institution in Sri Lanka in advancing this.

As for your reference to Geneva– that is the United Nations, that is Geneva; this is the Commonwealth; this is London. We work here in the Commonwealth in a constructive spirit of engagement, with a helping hand, in which our leaders have encouraged us.

Ram Silva (The Nation):

My question is to Mr Secretary-General. In presence of the foreign ministers of India and Mr Suldad Aziz, I take this opportunity to ask you that India and Pakistan are two prestigious [?] members of the Commonwealth, but they are involved in the blame game; is it not the duty of the Commonwealth to take the initiative and to bring these countries, which are very important from the point of view of South Asia, to the table and resolve all outstanding issues? Thank you.

Kamalesh Sharma:

The practice in the Commonwealth and its political work is to concentrate on the reduction and elimination of tension inside a country, whether it is between political forces and parties or for any other reason. That is point number one; point number two: It is at the invitation of the government to work with them in this field. The Commonwealth does not involve itself in inter-state relationships between the Commonwealth members.

Callum Macrae (Director, No Fire Zone):

Last year, you said at this press conference that you were engaging in your good offices, and that they were progressing. Now there is supposed to be a limit on the time for which good offices go on, and I understand that limit is long-passed, actually, and that at the end of that you were supposed to recommend some form of action. Now you are telling us again that you are still doing the good offices, and I am just wondering how that continuing effort stands beside what the UN has been saying, which is that things are not getting better, but getting worse.

I do just have one very supplementary question for the honourable professor: in light of the Commonwealth’s commitment to association and freedom of expression, and your responsibility to encourage and promote those core values, I wonder if you’d like to comment on the fact that last night one of the leading campaigners for the disappeared in Sri Lanka, a mother and her 14 years old daughter were arrested?

Kamalesh Sharma:

In engaging good faith with member states, there is no cut of point as far as our engagement in member states is concerned in respect of my good offices. If you look at the history of good offices of the Secretary-General, it is because the Secretary-General is engaged in a difficult terrain that you have to draw a very deep breath when you do good offices.

Of course, my expectation is always that quick progress will be made, which is why I said in my opening statement that progress is uneven. We always try and see through persuasion and through collaboration that this progress is achieved. But I would not say that the progress is not being achieved. You will find that in the nature of the work, the pace at which you can progress that work will vary all the time; it will be different.

You cannot have an artificial cut-off point for your good offices. Very often you find that it is taking a long time to pursue the ends through good offices that you want, but we never give up, we stay the course and we do get the result that we want. Looking back, the lesson that we have learnt is to do it in good faith, do it sincerely and do it with some stamina, shown by the Secretary-General and the Secretariat. Because in the end, if the way is to create national capacity and to have them overcome the difficulties that are very often very difficult and intractable, you need the time to play that out.

So we never say at any one point of time that we have seen enough of time. We always work towards the end that serves our values, and we are prepared to draw a very deep breath. But of course, I must emphasise again that this is not the same as saying we are sanguine about it. Not at all. We always try and introduce some velocity and some momentum in the work that we are doing.

G. L. Peiris:

The second question was addressed to me. It is a great pity that all of the progress accomplished in our country during the last four years, at the end of a devastating conflict that spanned three decades, all of that is ignored. Very difficult challenges, and everything that has happened on the ground with regard to internally displaced people being resettled; ex-combatants reintegrated into society; look at the economy of the North, how it is developing; the holding of elections in the northern province after quarter of a century. All of this is ignored, and it is a great pity that your assessment is totally lacking in fairness and a sense of balance. Of course law and order issues are a different matter; we have to look at the evidence, the reasons why action has been taken in a particular case, but the trajectory forward, all the progress, is by any reasonable standard pretty substantial. Regarding the people arrested yesterday, we have to examine the evidence, the grounds on which it is done; that will happen in due course, against judicial scrutiny. I think it is very wrong to come to a conclusion before the facts are looked at objectively and in depth.

Jonathan Miller:

If I could prevail on the question of Sri Lanka with the Honourable Professor, External Affairs Minister Mr Peiris, I do note that there has been progress and I recognise that some efforts have been made in this regard, and you pointed one of these up, sir, in your recent statement at the UN Human Rights Council. If I could just ask you about that very briefly: you said that for the past year investigation has been in train into potential witnesses involved in footage that my programme, Channel 4 News, broadcast in 2009, which purported to show the summary execution of bound, naked, blindfolded prisoners by Sri Lankan security forces. This has been validated as authentic by the United Nations experts. You are now saying that you are investigating this, but for the past four or five years your government has insisted that this footage is a fake. Could you just explain why you have gone to the effort to identify potential witnesses if indeed this footage is, as you say, a fake?

G. L. Peiris:

We are prepared to look at anything fairly and objectively. But just as you say that your material is authentic, there were very compelling grounds for us to come to the conclusion that this was a fake; that it had been done entirely for political reasons.

I must also mention that this kind of material has a habit of surfacing at a politically critical moment; on the eve of something that is happening that is significant for Sri Lanka. In our own minds we have no doubt that this is an orchestrated political campaign, but if there is new material that you wish to submit, we will always be willing, with an open mind, to look at it.

Jonathan Miller:

But you are investigating it sir.

Speaker (Press Trust of India):

Minister, I just wondered from the Indian point of view was there any particular issue you brought to the table at the CMAG meeting?

Salman Khurshid:

No not really. I think that there was just one item on the agenda. This is the first meeting that I have attended and I am very pleased to see that right across the board, there is very reasonable consensus amongst all our colleagues. We did not have any issue to bring; we came here to participate in the discussions on the agenda before us, and we were grateful to the Secretary-General that he gave us a very comprehensive and extensive report on his good offices; that they have been used in various Commonwealth countries in the evolving circumstances and situations which support the core values of the Commonwealth. We did not have any issues about the agenda.

Richard Uku:

Thank you, Minister. I think one thing that the ministers will be pleased about is that their statement is very comprehensive and all encompassing, since it did not really attract many questions on Fiji. The ministers have a tight schedule, so with the kind permission of the Chair, I would like to bring this press conference to a close, and thank you all very much for joining us here today. (The Commonwealth)

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