The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) comes to Sri Lanka in November 2013 for the first time. The event is also historic for another reason: It is the second largest summit of world leaders to gather in Sri Lanka since the country gained independence, behind only the Non-Aligned Summit in 1976.
Yet even with preparations for this milestone underway, the challenges that Sri Lanka faces in the international arena continues.
It is beyond dispute that Sri Lanka’s three-decade conflict was externalized through the combination of factors that ranged from the presence of an active diaspora, the involvement of foreign facilitators in the peace process, and the presence of foreign peacekeeping forces in 1987. By the end of the war, Sri Lanka was very much on the international radar. This international attention has spilled over into the country’s postwar phase as well, but now has taken on new meaning.
Most of the country’s postwar bilateral and multilateral engagements are haunted by the specter of reconciliation and human rights concerns. Yet human rights and inter-communal harmony are not alien to Sri Lanka, the values of which are enshrined in its shared history, its cultures and its legal frameworks. But the country will need to capitalize and draw on these strengths to forge a robust system of governance that can function with independence and credibility. It must have the structures and norms in place to respond domestically to every allegation made. Acting on the outcomes of the two national processes – the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the National Human Rights Action Plan – would demonstrate that homegrown mechanisms can credibly provide solutions, while improving foreign relations and prospects.
It ought to be remembered that for all the flak Sri Lanka has attracted, CHOGM 2013 presents enormous opportunities, directly flowing from hosting the summit itself and deriving from the international credibility the event can restore to Sri Lanka more generally. The government must take seriously the opportunities that CHOGM brings to the country and its peoples, who have suffered brutally from the three-decade conflict that concluded in May 2009.
As is customary, Sri Lanka will take up the mantle of leadership of the Commonwealth for the two years following CHOGM 2013, until the next CHOGM in Mauritius in 2015. This opportunity, if embraced, could also reap enormous dividends for the country’s international relations and positioning.
Moreover, among the forums that will accompany CHOGM, the Commonwealth Business Forum (CBF) is a unique gathering of business leaders from developed and emerging markets that aims to promote trade and investment. CBF 2013 will focus on the theme, “Partnering for Wealth Creation and Social Development: The Commonwealth, Indian Ocean, Pacific and SAARC.” That presents a tremendous opportunity for Sri Lanka to look for new partnerships and opportunities. Typically, at every CBF the host country benefits most; for instance, $10 billion in deals were sealed for Australia at CBF 2011 in Perth. For Sri Lanka, a $2 billion opportunity is projected for CBF 2013.
The global private sector looks for certainty of policy and broad governance structures for enabling investment. Sri Lanka has demonstrated consistency in these two aspects, hence private sector investment ought to be forthcoming, notably from the country’s diaspora.
Another forum, the 9th Commonwealth Youth Forum (CYF9) will run from November 10 to 14, 2013 in Hambantota, bringing together over 200 young people from around the Commonwealth. The CYF9 forum will mark the formal beginning of the Commonwealth Youth Council as the official voice for young people in the Commonwealth and will host the first General Assembly of the Council. The forum will also be a stepping-stone for the World Conference on Youth to be held in Sri Lanka in May 2014. This is an exciting time to be a youth advocate in the Commonwealth.
In fact, Sri Lanka has a number of astute ideas on youth empowerment that could benefit other countries. One example is the model and structure of the Sri Lankan National Youth Parliament and the structure of the Federations of Youth Clubs. Currently, these are two of the best youth engagement, empowerment and leadership models in the world.
Sri Lanka also has the opportunity to use its role as Chair-in-Office of a body comprising 54 nations to actively charter a course of international engagement, building new friendships and alliances and reinforcing existing ones. More important, Sri Lanka can use its leadership to reach out to hostile countries and resolve concerns and misconceptions.
Closely related to this should be a strategy to project the giant strides that the country and its government have made in just four years since the conclusion of the debilitating armed struggle in 2009. The Sri Lankan government would be wise to see the projected presence of more than 3,000 journalists and media personnel not as a challenge, but rather as an opportunity to showcase the country’s strength and resilience.
CHOGM has provided an unprecedented opening for political forces within Sri Lanka to unite in the national interest: The main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) supports the event. This agreement should be used as a platform for further constructive engagement between ideologically disparate political groups.
In four years, the government of Sri Lanka has embarked upon a massive demining and resettlement process. This was done with the support of international agencies and foreign governments. Today, the demining process is nearing completion and almost all internally displaced persons – around 300,000 people – have been resettled. Psychosocial programs have been established and vocational training centers opened in each welfare village, to fully reintegrate former combatants, among them 595 child soldiers. Loans and employments were also provided.
These efforts have paved the way for the successful holding of council elections in the Northern province for the first time since 1987. This historic political event, which took place in September 2013, saw an impressive voter turnout of 67.52 percent, rekindling hope for empowerment of the nation’s minority communities.
The economic progress and infrastructure development in the Northern part of the country – a previously barren region that was under siege by terrorist elements – has been widely hailed. Inadequate infrastructure had been a considerable bottleneck in the country’s economic progress over the past several decades, especially in the North. The recent development of infrastructure as a means to improve connectivity and reduce the disparities between the South and the North is thus praiseworthy. Since 2009, the country has seen rapid and widespread development within both rural and urban areas.
A recalibration of the power balance and relationships between the Northern and Southern regions is beginning to emerge. Perhaps the potential dividends from hosting CHOGM and its parallel forums will consolidate domestic stability for Sri Lanka once and for all, while boosting its international position.
Salma Yusuf is Human Rights Lawyer and development practitioner in Sri Lanka. She can be reached at [email protected].