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Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 22 October 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their priorities for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo on 15 to 17 November.

My Lords, our priorities for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, CHOGM, include discussions on the post-2015 global development framework and enhancing Commonwealth values. CHOGM also provides an opportunity to raise further international awareness of the need to end sexual violence in conflict. UK Ministers will also engage with their Commonwealth counterparts and pursue relevant bilateral issues with Sri Lanka, including reconciliation, human rights and consular concerns.

My Lords, the Commonwealth charter, agreed by all member states in the Commonwealth last December, states quite clearly that participating in free and fair elections is an inalienable right of the populations of every country in the Commonwealth today. Despite that, the election held in the Maldives on 7 September has now twice been delayed. First, its second round was delayed and, subsequently, a rerun ballot was cancelled this weekend following police intervention. As a result of that, it is likely that the Maldives will now not even be represented in Colombo because they will not have a head of state when the CHOGM takes place this year. The Commonwealth Secretary-General has called for all involved to take speedy action to ensure an outcome for this election that represents the popular will. Will the UK and the other member states of the Commonwealth assist him in trying to make that happen?

I am always grateful for the noble Lord’s intervention in these matters; he has great expertise in relation to the Maldives. As he said, the rerun of the presidential elections has now been cancelled at short notice. The Maldivian Elections Commission announced yesterday that this will now take place on 9 November and, in the event of it going to a second round, we are still hopeful that it will be concluded by about 16 November. The Foreign Secretary released a statement outlining the importance of the democratic process and of the elections concluding in accordance with the Maldives constitution, which says that a President should be inaugurated by 11 November. We have consistently pressed for this. If that is followed, there may be a representative by 15 November, when CHOGM takes place.

Does the Minister accept that, while all human rights issues are extremely important and should be raised with great vigour by our leaders when they go down to Colombo, one of the major focuses will be on the vast expansion of Commonwealth trade and investment organised by the Commonwealth Business Council and Commonwealth Business Forum in Colombo? Is she aware that the Chinese are planning to send a very large delegation—said to be 70 strong—to this conference, as are Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, demonstrating their commitment to the possible expansion of trade with the Commonwealth? Can she tell us how many delegates the UK Trade & Investment agency will be sending there?

I am not sure what the precise nature of the final delegation will be, but I will certainly write to the noble Lord with details of what representatives of UKTI will be there. Of course, we encourage trade not just between Commonwealth countries but between Commonwealth countries and other nations, but I will write to the noble Lord with more details.

Does the Minister agree that one of the most distressing features of the Commonwealth is that in 41 out of the 53 countries, same-sex relationships are a criminal offence, and that in some countries, such as Uganda, they carry the possibility of life imprisonment or even, sometimes, a capital offence, if the present law gets through? Will there be any opportunity to raise this distressing situation at the conference?

That is, of course, a matter of concern. Indeed, it was raised in a debate only last week. The Commonwealth charter says clearly that there will be opposition to all forms of discrimination, but the human rights situation in all the Commonwealth countries still leaves a lot to be desired. That is one issue. The noble Lord will be aware also that 38 Commonwealth countries retain the death penalty.

My Lords, we all agree that the Commonwealth is a vital and positive partnership between countries. However, does the Minister agree that there is growing evidence both of a severe deterioration of human rights and a move towards authoritarian government in Sri Lanka itself? Does the Minister agree that it would send a powerful and necessary message to the Government of Sri Lanka if the British Prime Minister were to follow the lead of his fellow Conservative Prime Minister in Canada and decline to attend? If she does not agree: why not?

My Lords, the Government believe that CHOGM will, among other things, provide an opportunity to shine a light on Sri Lanka and to question it in relation to the many commitments that were given as part of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Some recommendations from the commission have been implemented, but many more remain on the table. We will deliver an incredibly tough message to the Sri Lankan Government that they need to make concrete progress on human rights, reconciliation and political settlement, and that when we attend at CHOGM we expect to have unrestricted access to NGOs and to the media. The Government believe that the best way forward is to go there, engage, have tough conversations and shed light on the challenges still presented in Sri Lanka.

When my noble friend wound up the debate on the Commonwealth last Thursday, she made the point that such a heavyweight delegation going to Sri Lanka would have a good effect on the human rights situation there. Could she say what she had in mind, and what effect we have had so far?

I have been looking at the programme of the Prime Minister and of the other Ministers who will be attending. It would be inappropriate at this stage for me to detail that programme and where they will visit; probably it would be in breach of some security provision. However, from what I have seen, I am confident that this will be an opportunity for us to deal with these issues incredibly robustly, to travel, see, engage and shine a spotlight. The Sri Lankan Government should be aware that it will not be just us; the world’s media will be there and questions will be asked.

My Lords, if the Sri Lankan Government persist in ignoring the incredibly tough messages that the Minister says the Government are going to send them about the human rights record in Sri Lanka—as they have ignored all such representations, from the United Nations and from respected human rights organisations, for the past year or more—at what point will the Government decide that constructive engagement with this regime is not the only way forward?

My Lords, all I can say is that at this moment in time the Government believe that constructive engagement is the right way forward.