The United Kingdom as a Symbol of Constitutionalism

by Helin Maria Laufer


The article focuses on the doctrines underlying the constitution in the United Kingdom and their significance internationally.


The United Kingdom is considered as a constitutional monarchy. Although the nature of the United Kingdom’s constitution is to some extent unclear as it is not codified, there is no doubt that the United Kingdom has deep constitutional roots and values. This article will make two arguments. Firstly, in light of the recent Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting, it will be shown that, through David Cameron’s actions and interventions, the United Kingdom has displayed its constitutionality uncontestably. Secondly, the article will criticise the development of the Sri Lankan civil war itself and the war crimes that were committed and never punished. The aim of this paper is, in other words, to illustrate how the British Constitutional principles go beyond boundaries and have an international impact.

There are legal theorists who regard the United Kingdom’s Constitution as unwritten and, thus, potentially non-existent. This assumption is an incorrect one. To say that the United Kingdom has an unwritten constitution is technically wrong – the British constitution is written, but simply not codified. This means that the Constitution is found in several sources: Acts of Parliament, Common Law, treaties and conventions and European Union Law. It is thus not held in a single instrument, which is why it is factually an uncodified constitution. This, however, is not a reason to question its existence. Historically, the bedrock of the United Kingdom’s Constitution has been Parliamentary Sovereignty. Undoubtedly, this principle is embedded deeply into the legal and political system in the modern day, but there are newly emerged principles that are increasingly gaining importance within the constitutional framework, such as an absolute respect for human rights. In the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the United Kingdom has defended the important status of human rights not only domestically, but internationally as well. Consequently, it has once more affirmed and displayed its constitutional values.

The CHOGM is held every two years, when representatives from all 53 Member States meet to discuss matters of mutual interest. The CHOGM was held this year between 10 – 17 November in Colombo, Sri Lanka and the issues that were on the agenda were debt restructuring and climate change. However, Prime Minister David Cameron, who represented the United Kingdom, managed to shift the focus of the summit onto the human rights violations and war crimes committed in Sri Lanka in 2009. When the CHOGM was held in Australia in 2011, the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper left the summit when the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse was invited to speak. Canada justified this symbolic gesture by claiming that it would not ignore the war crimes committed during the Sri Lankan civil war and that action must be taken internationally to investigate the alleged war crimes and punish the offenders accordingly. Moreover, the Canadian Prime Minister promised to boycott the following summit, which was to be held in Sri Lanka, unless the abuses against the Tamil society would be investigated. In 2013, Canada has kept its promise and refused to send a representative to the CHOGM Likewise,  India refused to have any diplomatic relations with the Sri Lankan Head of State in light of the unpunished human rights violations committed in Sri Lanka in 2009.

Several states considered boycotting the CHOGM in the same way as Canada and India, the United Kingdom included, but David Cameron chose a different approach. Instead of not attending the summit, he participated in it with the intention of changing its focus onto the Sri Lankan war crimes. Very shortly after the CHOGM opening ceremony, Mr. Cameron travelled to Jaffna, a Tamil community which shows the horrific scene of a three decades-long civil war. There, he spoke to the locals and assured them of the United Kingdom’s understanding and support of the Tamil situation. The Tamilians are a minority in the north-east of Sri Lanka, who fought for its independence for nearly 30 years. The conflict escalated to a military one between the Sri Lankan troops and the rebel group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The conflict was extinguished brutally in 2009, when the Sri Lankan military defeated the LTTE. The news of the end of the war was received positively by the Sinhalese and internationally.

However, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay said, “The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded.” This is because the Sri Lankan military did not attack only the LTTE, but Tamil civilians as well. They were first displaced to a No Fire Zone (NFZ), where the army would not interfere and where they were supposed to be protected from the atrocities of the war. The government military started shelling the NFZ, which in a matter of weeks was reduced dramatically. Tens of thousands of civilians were located in what became a 10 km2 area. The official reports of the Government estimated the number of civilians in the area as much lower than it was in reality. Further, in order to justify the attack upon the area, the Sri Lankan President announced that the NFZ was not populated anymore and that all civilians had escaped the conflict zone. For their safety, the UN staff deployed to the NFZ was ordered to leave. All the hospitals in the NFZ were shelled one by one. After the hospital buildings were attacked, the Tamilians had to improvise medical stations and provisionary hospitals. Despite their clear marking with the Red Cross, which is in international law an indicator of a medical settlement and is, under no circumstances, violable, they were shelled as well. Eventually, the Tamilians were left with absolutely no means of taking care of the wounded. Moreover, despite the President’s public statements that the civilians were shipped food in the NFZ, they never received any humanitarian aid from the Government. When the war ended officially, the surviving Tamil civilians were forced to live in special camps and settlements supervised by the Sri Lankan military in order to ensure that no further riots would take place. The Tamilians are, nonetheless, still oppressed and abused. Human rights abuses continue up to this day, as Tamil people disappear and are not accounted for or found dead.

President Rajapakse vehemently denies any kind of violation of fundamental rights and justifies the brutality of the civil war as follows: “We asserted the greatest human right – the right to life.” He claims that his rule succeeded in ending the war and stopped further life loss. There is, however, incontestable evidence that many innocent people were killed. Reports of the UN officials present in the war zone and NFZ, media footage showing Sinhalese soldiers in the course of their abuses and statements of Tamilians prove that human rights breaches have really occurred. These violations are of such a gross nature that it is impossible for the Government to not have had knowledge of them; its inaccurate reports were clearly only a way of occulting the military’s true actions. As the President claimed he was the only one capable of securing the peace in Sri Lanka and help the country recover after the civil war, he amended the Sri Lankan Constitution in 2010 – there is now no limit for the re-election of the President. In other words, President Rajapakse ensured that he would remain in power unlimitedly. Such a change in Sri Lanka’s core legislation is completely undemocratic and potentially dangerous because the effective control of the State lies in the hands of one individual for an unlimited time period. This amendment combined with the fact that no measures have been taken by the Sri Lankan Government to investigate the alleged war crimes led to a worldwide wave of protests from different governments, especially the United Kingdom. David Cameron expressed his disappointment during the CHOGM directly and the civil war crimes discussion overshadowed the planned agenda for the summit. Mr. Cameron demanded an explanation from President Rajapakse in relation to Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses and urged the President to start a thorough investigation. He also committed himself to taking action internationally against Sri Lanka if these human rights breaches would not be punished. The United Kingdom’s position led the rest of the CHOGM participant States to take a stance against President Rajapaske too and to urge the investigation of the civil war and aftermath crimes.

The CHOGM has a particular importance for the United Kingdom both nationally and internationally. The criticism as to the change in the Sri Lankan Constitution shows that the United Kingdom considers a democratic constitution essential in the present times. David Cameron, acting as an agent of the United Kingdom, emphasized the importance of considering human rights. He claimed that a democratic society cannot exist without respecting fundamental rights and suggested that human rights are integrated in the United Kingdom’s Constitution as core values.  The fact that the Prime Minister himself made such powerful statements at CHOGM, in an international environment, clearly shows that the United Kingdom has not only embraced human rights as a core constitutional principle, but has also affirmed its constitutionalism internationally. It is thus incontestable that, on the occasion of CHOGM, the United Kingdom proved itself to be a true symbol of constitutionalism.



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