Should Britain Be Expelled from the Commonwealth?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Sunday Island on September 24, 2011.


There has been opposition from western human rights groups to Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games in Hambantota. Canadian PM, Stephen Harper says he will not attend the Commonwealth conference if it is held in Sri Lanka. This has been taken even further by some who have called for Sri Lanka to be expelled from the Commonwealth. We might take as a specimen charge Siobhain McDonagh’s speech in the House of Commons on 24 March 2009. “As the Sri Lankan Government have not been willing to end the conflict, I would like my Government to call for their suspension from the Commonwealth.”



On 15 September 2011, she again spoke in a Commons debate to condemn Sri Lanka. It would be instructive to read the exchanges, although the amount of smugness and self-congratulation and mutual back-scratching from MPs of all parties might induce projectile vomiting.



McDonagh has referred to the democratically elected president of Sri Lanka (who according to a recent Gallup poll is supported by “more than nine out of ten Sri Lankans) as “a probable war crimes suspect”. Elsewhere she has referred to Sri Lanka as a “failing dictatorship”. She boasted: “the leadership of my right hon. Friend Mr Brown brought an end to GSP Plus…voted against the IMF’s $2.5 billion deal with Sri Lanka, and prevented it from hosting a Commonwealth summit. Britain must not lose that lead.”



Ms McDonagh is Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden in the London borough of Merton (an area in which I resided for ten years). She likes to present an image of left-wing libertarianism and sell herself as a champion of human rights. However, her voting record in the House of Commons tells a different story. Siobhain McDonagh voted very strongly for the Iraq invasion, very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war, very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, very strongly for introducing ID cards, very strongly for a stricter asylum system. So her libertarianism and concern for human rights seems very selective.



She started out as clerical officer in Balham in the Department of Health and Social Security, for whom I also used to work (although I was at a slightly more senior level and at a less disreputable and more efficient office).



She was first elected to parliament in 1997, after being selected through an all-woman short-list. This method of selection was declared illegal in January 1996, as it breached sex discrimination laws, but she did not withdraw. McDonagh attracted criticism in April 2000 for using public money to send party political information to her constituents. Tory John Redwood said, “she should have found out by now that free post is not there for self-promotion”. She spent an average of £32,000 per year on postage.



She made a speech in Parliament saying she makes “no apology for concentrating on local issues”. Unfortunately, local issues includes Sri Lanka because of the large number of Tamils in the constituency. Hers is by no means a safe Labour seat. She won it from Conservative Dame Angela Rumbold on her third attempt. It would require a 16.4% swing for her to lose it. McDonagh had a majority of 13,666 in 2010. A Tamil with Muslim support, Rathy Alagaratnam, was an independent who ran against her in 2010 and 2005. McDonagh’s parliamentary work-rate is not impressive. She is below average for the number of times she has spoken in debates, and for her written questions. She is well below average for the number of times she has voted in the Commons.



The veteran parliamentary analyst, Andrew Roth is somewhat dismissive of McDonagh’s intellectual capacity: “Low-profiled Blairite superloyalist. Persuasive, articulate, prefers Cosmopolitan to New Statesman“.



After the 2005 election, she served as PPS to Defence Secretary John Reid. From May 2006 to June 2007 she was PPS to the Home Secretary. Gordon Brown made her Assistant Whip in 2007 but she was sacked (while being interviewed on Channel 4) for plotting to overthrow Brown.



The Wimbledon Guardian, which I fondly remember as being full of rapes and perverts (how unlike the Wimbledon I knew and loved) reported that McDonagh was given a petition signed by 196 residents at Morden’s Civic Centre on October 10 2008. “Representatives from the British Tamils Forum met Siobhain McDonagh to ask for support in tackling human rights abuses. They asked her to join the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, a group of MPs campaigning to highlight the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka.”



The subtext is that McDonagh recognised that the support of pro-LTTE campaigners might be useful to her in her constituency. She has taken a great interest in the human rights of Sri Lankan Tamils. “As is the case for many MPs, barely a week goes by without me meeting constituents who have family members back home in the Tamil region of Sri Lanka.” When Tamils protested outside Parliament, the Wimbledon Guardian reported: “The demonstrators include many from Mitcham’s large Tamil community”. Subramaniyam Paramestvaran, a 28-year-old student from Mitcham, went on hunger strike. When a 19-year-old Tamil threw himself into the Thames to protest against “genocide”, McDonagh told the Wimbledon Guardian that the demonstration reflected “the frustration of young, hardworking men who see their friends dying and getting injured in their own country”. On 16 June 2011, she made representations against “the deportation by the UK Border Agency of my constituent Mr Jenach Gopinath back to Sri Lanka, whose Government are suspected of war crimes against Tamils, including the killing of 40,000 Tamil citizens. Later today, a plane chartered by the UKBA will deport 40 asylum-seeking Commonwealth citizens of Tamil ethnicity back to Sri Lanka”. During the same debate she said: “Few could not have been moved by the terrible pictures on Channel 4 of imprisoned Tamil soldiers being shot in cold blood”.



On 21 October 2005, in a debate on a Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill, she said: “Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do. I know that some people disagree. However, we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere”.



“Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made.” That seems to distance herself from any direct personal responsibility.



How about deposing that murderous tyrant Prabhakaran? What about the Sri Lankan soldiers who fought in good faith?



Wikipedia says: “She is a vocal critic of Sri Lanka. Issues pertaining to the Sri Lanka Tamil diaspora are the most visible in her public image.” In a Commons debate on Sri Lanka on 5 February at 2.41 p.m. she said “the Sri Lankan government should realise that they need to be as magnanimous as other failing dictatorships have been; and that until they are, they will not have peace on their island.” She called for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Commonwealth.



The Commonwealth started out as a replacement for the British Empire which could be marketed in a high-minded way as an ethical rather than exploitative association. Initially it consisted solely previous British colonies, but now it includes former Belgian colony Rwanda and former Portuguese colony Mozambique. Some former British colonies have been suspended or have resigned. Pakistan resigned in 1972 but rejoined in 1989 and was suspended in 2007. Nigeria was suspended from 1995-1999. Zimbabwe withdrew in 2003 but Britain aimed to tempt it back by 2011. In 1961 South Africa left when it became a republic but rejoined in 1994. Fiji was expelled in 1987 following the second coup of the year. Sierra Leone was suspended after the military coup in 1997.



On 20 October 1991, the Harare Declaration reaffirmed the principles laid out in the Singapore Declaration twenty years before. The Harare principles require all members of the Commonwealth, old and new, to abide by certain political principles, including democracy and respect for human rights. These can be enforced upon current members.



To McDonagh, it is acceptable for the UK to invade another sovereign state and depose its leader, but it is not acceptable for an elected government in Sri Lanka to take on the terrorists within its own sovereign boundaries. It is acceptable to demand an investigation into Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes but not acceptable for the UK’s war crimes to be investigated.



Sri Lanka, whatever its faults, is hardly a “failing dictatorship”. A recent Gallup poll showed that “more than nine out of ten” Sri Lankans supported the government. In the UK, the electorate gave its verdict on McDonagh’s party but the Conservative party could not get a working majority and there are severe rifts in the governing coalition. McDonagh declared: “We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs.”



In the light of the UK’s illegal invasion of another sovereign nation and in the light of Sir William Gage’s report ion war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers, is there case for Britain being expelled from the Commonwealth?