The Commonwealth Games, principles and protest

The 2014 Commonwealth Games brought moments of sporting glory, and a grand finale with Lulu, Kylie Minogue and Deacon Blue, to Glasgow. It also brought protests exposing the gap between Commonwealth ideals and reality in many member countries.

The very existence of the Commonwealth, originating from the British empire, raises questions. Nevertheless it offers opportunities for international cooperation and exchange.

The Commonwealth Charter commits members to high ideals including democracy, human rights, peace, sustainable development and environmental protection. Yet many – the UK included – fall short, with little real challenge.

The Sri Lankan government was criticised by the United Nations for its ruthless treatment of civilians towards the end of a civil war, thousands of whom were killed. Human rights abuses are still rife. Yet in November 2013, president Mahinda Rajapakse became chairperson-in-office of the Commonwealth.

He prudently decided not to appear at the 2014 Games, held from 23 July to 3 August in Glasgow. Nevertheless Tamil protesters with placards gathered outside Celtic Park before the opening ceremony, though the protest was marred by the high profile of apologists for the defeated Tiger rebels, themselves guilty of mass abuses.

More imaginatively, dancers colourfully clad in what appeared to be spandex, and with masks depicting Rajapakse, David Cameron and the Queen, danced in George Square to MIA’s song Paper Planes to highlight the Commonwealth’s refusal to hold the Sri Lankan government to account.

To highlight the disgraceful fact that 42 of the Commonwealth’s 53 countries still criminalise gay people, Glasgow-born actor John Barrowman sang “Welcome to Scotland” during the opening ceremony, then kissed a male 'bride' at a mock Gretna Green.

After the Games, Martin?Scicluna, writing in the Times of Malta, reported on a speech made by the Maltese prime minister in which he likened the Commonwealth to a sick patient and made various suggestions for a cure.

According to the article, “noble aspirations are mocked by the presence in the Commonwealth of countries which pay lip service (if that) to such core values as democracy, gender equality, human rights and free expression... unless the Commonwealth finds a way to encourage true compliance with those values and common objectives, there is a danger that it could become irrelevant.”

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector

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