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Chris Ford: CHOGM - the real elephant in the room is the human rights issue

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

President Rajapaska of Sri Lanka gave John Key an elephant for attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka at the weekend.

The real elephant in the room for Key and the New Zealand delegation was the human rights issue. As I blogged last week, the Sri Lankan Government has been accused of some very serious war crimes during the nearly 30 year civil war with Tamil separatists which ended in 2009. There is no doubt either that the Tamil side committed atrocities too.

Nonetheless, the victorious Government side has continued its alleged human rights abuses, including disappearances, rape and torture against Tamil civilians and even some ordinary critics of the regime from the majority Sinhalese population.

By all accounts, Key was way softer with the Sri Lankans on the issue of human rights than his Indian and Canadian counterparts would have been had they shown at CHOGM. More surprisingly, British PM David Cameron (who has undoubtedly committed human rights abuses against the poor, sick and disabled of Britain) was nevertheless more strident than Key in calling for a UN-led investigation into historic war crimes on both sides.

In that case, Key should have sided with his friend Cameron's suggestion.

Instead, Key has been prepared to downplay Aotearoa's international reputation on human rights by only gently chiding Sri Lanka and accepting the gift of an elephant - and all in the name of acquiring this country a seat on the UN Security Council. Evidently Key is willing to do anything diplomatically to achieve that goal.

And what good would it do New Zealand if we were to win a seat on that basis? Would it make us look consistent, especially when we have rightly criticised the Assad regime and some of its opponents over  alleged war crimes in Syria? Therefore, does gently chiding the Sri Lankans and yet heavily criticising the Syrians not make us look inconsistent and desperate to win at any cost?

I say that, yes, it would be good for New Zealand to win a seat on the Security Council - but not at any cost. If I had been Key, I would have strongly and even publicly criticised the Sri Lankan Government, told them not to cast their ballot in our direction, and rejected their gift of an elephant outright - until such time, that is, as when they start complying with international human rights norms.

Otherwise, the elephant soon to reside at Auckland Zoo will be an embarrassing reminder of what we are prepared to do in the name of diplomacy. After all, would we have accepted an elephant from Zimbabwe or Fiji? The answer is no, so why would we from Sri Lanka under the current circumstances? Except that is if you're willing to make friends and influence people at any cost, even at the expense of won international reputations!

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