COLOMBO, Nov 15 — Sri Lanka formally assumed the chair of the Commonwealth as heads of governments of 53 member-countries of the former British empire began their summit here on Friday.
The opening ceremony of the summit, or the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) as it is called, the most important meeting of the grouping, got under way at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre, Xinhua reported.
Earlier in his inaugural speech, Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa delivered a strong message to Commonwealth members here Friday, insisting that common problems of the 53-country bloc should outshine the island’s human rights record.
Rajapaksa inaugurated the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) with Britain’s Prince Charles representing Queen Elizabeth II as the head of the Commonwealth, Xinhua reported.
Recalling the challenges faced by Sri Lanka in the last few years, Rajapaksa insisted that an end to terrorism was an important milestone, which led to increased equitable development with poverty levels decreasing to just 7.5 percent.
However, he insisted that more was needed to be done and economic challenges should take precedence at the CHOGM because “common poverty is more important than common wealth”. Rajapaksa also advocated the separation of economic and political issues.
“CHOGM 2013 will provide the opportunity for us to assess the Commonwealth achievement (with) regard to development goals. If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant to its member countries, the association must respond sensitively to the needs of its people and not let it turn into punitive or judgmental body,” Rajapaksa said.
Sri Lanka will chair the Commonwealth till the end of 2014 when it will be handed over to Mauritius. World leaders and heads of delegations from 53 Commonwealth countries gathered at the lotus-shaped auditorium for a colorful opening ceremony.
Soon after the hour-long inaugural ceremony, heads of government and delegation heads posed for formal photograghs with Prince Charles at the venue.
The heads of government will later attend executive sessions throughout the day. A dinner reception will be hosted for them by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. The heads of government will be on a retreat on Saturday.
Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa will host a state banquet for heads of government Saturday evening before the CHOGM wraps up on Sunday.
Earlier, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada and Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam of Mauritius each decided not attend the meeting because of Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, facing domestic pressure not to attend the summit, announced November 10 that he would not attend.
British Prime Minister David Cameron will visit the country’s former war zone in the north to see the situation first hand and several leaders have pledged to have discussions with Rajapaksa on the slow pace of reconciliation in the island.
Sri Lanka’s government ended a three-decade civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 but has faced severe criticism from the international community over its failure to have credible investigations into human rights abuses that include allegations of killing thousands of civilians during the last phase of the conflict.
The CHOGM is a gathering of heads of governments of 53 member states. These are among the world’s largest, smallest, richest and poorest countries.
Commonwealth members have a combined population of 2.2 billion people, nearly a third of the world’s population. This year, the CHOGM theme is ‘Growth with Equity: Inclusive Development’.–IANS