OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper won’t be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka next November, The Huffington Post Canada has learned.
The decision may ostracize Harper as the only G8-level leader not attending the meeting with Britain, Australia and New Zealand all expected to send their prime ministers, but it is expected to be very popular with Tamils, a new community the Tories are going after.
The Conservative government has yet to decide whether it will send a minister, the high commissioner or any staff to the biennial meeting — a decision that will highlight how loudly the Government of Canada wants to make a point.
During Question Period this week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said “no one is standing up stronger against the regime in Colombo, Sri Lanka, than this prime minister and this government.”
“If the top guy stays away but someone more junior goes, that conveys a strong but not as complete message as would be conveyed by staying away completely,” said Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
“Our position is unless we see significant and substantial signs of human rights improvements in Sri Lanka, the meeting simply shouldn’t be happening there."
It’s highly problematic for an institution which purports to support human rights to hold a meeting in a country with deteriorating human rights, he said. The host country of the CHOGM also becomes the chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years -- which means the consequences of holding the meeting in Sri Lanka will be much deeper than photos ops and two days of meetings, Neve added.
On Thursday, Amnesty International called on the Sri Lankan government to release or charge Azad Sally, the leader of the opposition Muslim Tamil National Alliance, with an “international recognizable criminal offence” after he was taken into custody that morning by intelligence services for unknown reasons. The group also released a scathing report this week urging Commonwealth leaders to stay away from the Sri Lankan meeting.
Conservative senator Hugh Segal, who travelled to the region in March, said he had found nothing during his fact-finding trip that would make Harper change his mind.
“What I saw when I was in Sri Lanka underlined the extent to which core commonwealth values like independence of the judiciary, like democracy and human rights, like religious tolerance remain under serious attack in that country,” he said.
The abuses are rampant: Tamils are being displaced from their homes, a Tamil newspaper’s office was raided and set on fire, a mosque was burnt while local police watch over, the head of the judiciary was impeached in January.
“It’s kind of a soft ethnic cleansing,” Segal told HuffPost.
What the Prime Minister’s decision means is that Canada doesn’t have “double standards,” he said. Canada was a founding member of the Commonwealth and a country that stood steadfast, under different prime ministers, against apartheid, Segal said. “If there are values that needed to be defended in the South of Africa, there are values that need to be defended in the middle of the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka."
Australia, however, which is grappling with boatloads of Sri Lankan refugees leaving for its coast and is working with the Colombo government, said it believes a “boycott would be counterproductive.”
“The concerns we've got about human rights in Sri Lanka are best met through engagement with that country and through the Commonwealth, using the extra leverage we will enjoy in the count down to that CHOGM meeting,” Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr said on ABC last week. A boycott, he said, would “simply isolate the country and render it defiant of international opinion.”
Harper’s decision to boycott the meeting plays favourably with Canada’s large Tamil diaspora — a community of about 300,000 people overwhelmingly located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) where the Tories hope to pick up more seats during the next federal election in 2015.
David Carment, a professor of international affairs and a fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, said Harper’s decision to boycott the event is an effort to get the Tamil community — which has historically voted Liberal — on side.
“I don’t think it has much to do with a principled foreign policy that the government claims to be advancing here,” Carment said. “This is pretty much pandering to a domestic audience.”
The Harper government “basically ignored” Tamil protesters when they took to the streets in 2009 to plead with Ottawa to address open, gross and systematic abuses of human rights, Carment said. But now, the Tories have changed course.
“The only way this government can grow is by catering to new Canadians... New Canadians are the battleground for votes and this plays into that,” he told HuffPost.
In addition, Carment said Canada holds little sway in Sri Lanka. The foreign aid budget is barely over $20 million and the country has turned to China for most of its resource needs.
The Canadian Tamil Congress has been calling on Commonwealth leaders to change the venue location for November’s CHOGM.
Spokesman David Poopalapillai said all political parties, Conservative, Liberal and NDP were on side with the Congress’ position.
“The country (Sri Lanka) is being ruled with a military mentality. How do you give the government a stamp of approval from the international community? Everything you do is right so we will come and we will shake hands with you?” he asked.
Sri Lanka has been criticized enough, he added.
“That is what the Government of Canada says. They have taken a very clear position on this,” Poopalapillai said. “They didn’t come to this position overnight. They waited and waited and waited and waited. They gave enough chances!"
Since Ottawa’s reversal, Poopalapillai said Baird has become the “darling” of the Tamil community.
Baird’s spokesman Rick Roth said government had spoken out loudly and clearly on the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka, including the lack of accountability on allegations of war crimes and a lack of reconciliation with the Tamil community.
“As the Prime Minister has stated very clearly, we expect our concerns to be addressed prior to the next Commonwealth meeting. However, given the current circumstances, it would be very difficult for this government to fully participate,” Roth said.
A source said Ottawa had tried to make its case with other countries but had been met with deaf ears.
In a statement Thursday, Sri Lanka High Commissioner Chitranganee Wagiswara blamed “separatist elements within the diaspora” in Canada for relentlessly disseminating anti-Sri Lanka propaganda and lobbying political leaders. Wagiswara said it was outrageous for some Commonwealth members to try to change the venue of the CHOGM after it had been decided by world leaders in 2009 and reaffirmed at their last meeting in 2011.
"The need of the hour from the Commonwealth is to assist and support Sri Lanka, as a Member State having experienced separatist terrorism for nearly three decades, and is expectedly now facing long term post conflict challenges to ensure sustainable peace,” she said in a statement.
“Hostile criticism and unfair targeting of Sri Lanka by Canada only serves to further strengthen the evil forces working against Sri Lanka and does not contribute in any manner to the ongoing rebuilding and reconciliation process in the multi cultural society of the country,” she added.
Sumith Dassanyake, a councillor with the Sri Lankan High Commission in Ottawa, said Sri Lanka expects all the countries to attend the November meeting. “We are making the arrangements,” he said. “We wanted to host it because...we wanted to invite these world leaders and have this conference in Sri Lanka..for the first time.”
Segal said he believes Commonwealth countries face an important decision about the type of organization they want to build.
“I think the Commonwealth values that are being violated are serious and I think the The failure of the Commonwealth so far to act, in a meaningful way, is a violation of the new Commonwealth Charter, which her Majesty signed in London not three weeks ago,” he said.
“It is certainly a violation of the core Commonwealth values that have been the reason for this organization has been together for over sixty years.”