Unwittingly or not, Kamalesh Sharma is a name that hit the headlines of the Sri Lankan media this week. The visiting Secretary General of the Commonwealth, an Indian national, was caught in the eye of a storm over the venue for the next Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting.
Colombo is scheduled to host the summit in November this year. However some countries, most notably Canada and to some extent Britain, are pushing for a change of venue on the basis that Sri Lanka’s human rights record is not up to scratch.
This campaign would have fizzled out if not for the recent impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. The manner in which the Chief Justice was ‘tried’ and dismissed drew the ire of many countries and organisations and the Commonwealth was among them.
This also led to renewed calls for the venue for the CHOGM summit to be shifted. There is a move, again spearheaded by Canada to have the issue discussed at the next Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meeting in April in London.
Panic buttons were pressed in Colombo. As a result External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris hurriedly flew to London to meet Sharma and object to the issue being included in the agenda for the CMAG-despite the fact that Peiris would have met Sharma in Colombo only a few days later. Sharma will be called upon to draw on all his experience as a trouble-shooter to handle this delicate situation. However, he is probably the best man for the job, hailing from the subcontinent but having the benefit of spending most of his professional life dealing with diplomats of the West.
The 71-year-old envoy hails from the Indian capital New Delhi where he completed his secondary education. He soon left India’s shores to read for a degree in Literature at Cambridge University in Britain.
He returned to India after completing his degree to join the Indian Foreign Service as a career officer at the age of 24. He was to spend the next 36 years there, serving in many important postings.
Sri Lankans of an earlier era may remember him as the person responsible for organising the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) summit in New Delhi in 1995. Sharma also served as India’s permanent representative to the United Nations both in New York and in Geneva.
Among his notable achievements as a diplomat is helping to formulate the Millennium Development Goals. He retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2001 to serve as the United Nations Secretary General’s special envoy to Timor Leste, when that nation was granted independence.
Despite his ‘retirement’ from the Indian Foreign Service, he was to return to serve his native country once more, serving as New Delhi’s envoy in London from 2004, an appointment that was to be a stepping stone to his current position as Secretary General of the CHOGM.
A tall genial man who prefers to keep a low profile, Sharma is not known for making controversial statements or seeking sensational headlines. A man who has also authored a book on poetry and is a keen follower of cricket, he is known more for his gentle diplomacy behind closed doors.
Those skills are likely to be tested to the hilt in his current assignment as Colombo is extremely keen to play host to the CHOGM in November, having already lost its multi-billion rupee bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2018 to the Australian city of Gold Coast.
A media statement issued soon after Sharma’s arrival in Sri Lanka quoted local officials as saying that Sharma had confirmed Colombo as the venue of the summit. Sharma found himself in the unenviable position of being hosted by a country which he then had to contradict to put the record straight.
That correction came not from Sharma but from the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.“Contrary to some media reports, Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma has not made any statements…with regard to Sri Lanka as host venue of the CHOGM in November 2013” it said.
The sting though, was in the tail. “Mr Sharma is expected to discuss, among other issues, options for advancing Commonwealth values and principles, including the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers”, the statement added.
The reference to the ‘independence of the judiciary’suggested that Sharma will be raising concerns about the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake with the highest levels of the Sri Lankan government. However, it is likely that he will be told that this is an ‘internal matter’.
Colombo is worried that if this issue in featured at the CMAG in April, there could be drastic repercussions including possible suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth. Hence the rush to dispatch External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris to London to meet Sharma.
If suspended from the Commonwealth-which is what countries such as Canada would demand- becomes a reality, then the question of hosting the CHOGM in November doesn’t arise. However, the chances are that even if Colombo succeeds in hosting the summit, it may be a very low-key affair.
The reality of the CHOGM is viewed even by its own member nations as little more than a talk shop. It has little to show for its efforts because the diverse array of countries which constitute the United Kingdom’s former colonies have little in common now and can hardly arrive at any consensus.
For President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan authorities however it means much. It is an opportunity to showcase to the world the fact that the three decade long war is finally over and that peace has really returned to the country-despite the complaints lodged by human rights activists.
So, Sri Lanka will take a resolute stand and insist on hosting the CHOGM while its critics will dispute its right to do so. Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma may have had an illustrious career and all but retired, but his negotiations on this issue are likely to be his trickiest diplomatic assignment yet.