POLITICS

Canada pans Sri Lankan war crimes report, renews Commonwealth summit boycott

01/12/2012 03:59 EST | Updated 03/13/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - Canada remains skeptical of Sri Lanka's commitment to an independent investigation of possible war crimes during its civil war and is still threatening to boycott next year's Commonwealth summit in Colombo.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday a recent report from Sri Lanka's reconciliation commission does not adequately address the widespread allegations of war crimes committed by the country's army.

Human Rights Watch wants Canada to raise the report's inadequacies at the United Nations Human Rights Council when it reconvenes in Geneva in March

Human rights organizations estimate that tens of thousands of innocent civilians were killed when the Sri Lankan military crushed the rebel Tamil Tigers in May 2009 to end 26 years of civil strife.

Harper has threatened to boycott the 2013 Commonwealth meeting unless Sri Lanka shows it is genuinely interested in accountability and takes meaningful steps toward reconciliation with its Tamil population.

Harper's spokesman Andrew MacDougall said there is "no change" in the government's position.

"There is more work to be done and Canada will be watching developments," MacDougall said in an email to The Canadian Press.

Allies such as Britain and major international rights watchdogs have also panned the Sri Lankan government's long-awaited report as nothing more than whitewash.

"It rehashes previous recommendations of other commissions (that have gone nowhere), and dismisses the most serious allegations of war crimes. So we are still calling on leadership from Canada at the March HRC to push for a full international and independent investigation," Elaine Pearson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told The Canadian Press Thursday.

Pearson said a statement Thursday from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird offered encouraging signs that Canada might push the matter forward on the international stage.

"Canada remains concerned that the report does not fully address the grave accusations of serious human rights violations that occurred toward the end of the conflict," Baird said.

The minister noted that the report didn't adequately address allegations by the UN Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, and renewed calls for an independent international investigation.

"The government of Sri Lanka must demonstrate the principles of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law."

Baird's office would not say whether Canada would again raise the issue at the UN rights panel in March.

Last fall at the council, Canada sponsored a proposal calling for "an interactive dialogue" on the Sri Lankan report, but quickly withdrew the proposal without explanation.

Sri Lanka's envoy to Canada said in interview last fall that her country vigorously lobbied members of the committee, some of whose members have dubious human rights credentials. Members include Cuba, China, Angola and Congo.

Canada's large Tamil community praised Ottawa's response to the report.

"My organization is of the opinion that until these serious violations of international law are brought to account, there can be no real justice," said Krisna Saravanamutta, spokesman for the National Council of Canadian Tamils.

"We agree with the Canadian government that there does need to be an international inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity to get to the heart of the allegations and to address international accountability on the island of Sri Lanka."

Canada is home to the largest Tamil diaspora, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Until recently, the Tories were firmly aligned with the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils, listing the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization in 2006.