05/22/2011 08:08 EDT | Updated 07/20/2011 05:12 EDT

Harper Mulls Syria Sanctions

OTTAWA - The Canadian government is examining sanctions against Syria in response to the Arab nation's brutal crackdown on its own citizens.

Stephen Harper has asked foreign affairs officials for options, said Dimitri Soudas, the prime minister's spokesman.

"The minister of foreign affairs is currently working on those options," Soudas told a briefing on Friday.

"We take the situation there very seriously. The actions of the government are simply unacceptable."

Human-rights groups say more than 850 people have been killed in the clashes and clampdowns since an uprising against President Bashar Assad began two months ago.

Both the United States and European Union have already imposed sanctions and the U.S. has taken the broader step of extending those to target Assad and members of his inner circle directly.

U.S. President Barack Obama said earlier this week that Assad should either lead a transition to democracy or "get out of the way."

Political unrest throughout the Arab world is expected to be the key focus of next week's G8 meeting in Deauville, France.

Leaders from Canada, the U.S., France, Russia, Germany, Italy and Japan will be reviewing the state of the world economy in the context of uprisings in the Middle East and the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.

The first event will be a lunch where Harper has asked to be one of the first speakers on how the world's major economies can keep moving forward on getting their finances back on track in the aftermath of the global recession.

G8 leaders will also be looking at how they can play a supporting role in the stabilization of the Middle East and North Africa. Leaders from Egpyt and Tunisia will be present for those conversations.

France took over the presidency of the G8 and G20 from Canada after the meetings in Hunstville, Ont., and Toronto last June.

"Canada refocused the G8 as an accountable forum that can make a real difference in the world by responding to development and security challenges," said Soudas.

The key agreement coming out of last year's summits was a promise for a collaborative effort on maternal and child health.

Canada pledged $1.1 billion in new money over five years and projects worth about $530 million total have already been announced, officials said on Friday.

Making G8 nations accountable for their aid promises has become a priority for the summit and, last year, an accountability report was introduced.

The report heading into this year's summit says since 2005, G8 nations have delivered almost $49 billion of the $50 billion they were expected to give by 2010.

But some groups have challenged that conclusion.

Oxfam said that according to the OECD, which is responsible for measuring the official aid figures, the G8 have delivered just $31 billion. The advocacy group said the G8 report uses 2010 prices instead of using aid figures adjusted for inflation.

Oxfam said Italy, Germany and France are the worst performers.

"Canada has very nearly met its commitment and the United States has met its, but only because they both put so little money on the table in the first place," the group said in a statement.

"Given Prime Minister Stephen Harper's commitment to accountability, it's particularly disappointing that Canada would endorse this report."

Next week's meeting will also mark Harper's first international sortie since winning his majority government on May 2.

While he may have a more robust caucus behind him, Soudas said the government's foreign policy priorities won't change.

"A foreign policy that's robust, that always falls on the side of human rights, rule of law, justice," Soudas said.

"Our foreign policy has been crystal clear during a minority government and I anticipate that it will be equally clear that we now have a majority government."

Newly-minted Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is expected to join Harper in France.

After the G8, Harper will travel to Greece for bilateral meetings.

He's expected to be accompanied by Treasury Minister Tony Clement, who is of Greek-Cypriot heritage, as well as newly-elected Tory and Greek-Canadian MP Costas Menegakis.

Harper will also visit a town that was the site of a massacre of Greek men and boys by the Nazis during the Second World War.

The Canadian Press

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