10/24/2013 05:27 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Canada's Sri Lanka Case and The Trouble With "Whitelists"

Sri Lanka is a difficult place for citizens to live with their human rights intact, and it has been for a long time. Canada's aversion is less consistent.

The Prime Minister announced last week he would not attend the November leaders' summit because of the host's cruel treatment of its citizens. During the 26-year civil war between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers), both sides were accused of atrocities like forced disappearances, extortion and torture. The conflict ended in 2009 but the brutality continued.

Tamils fled after the war in fear of punishment from the government and security forces, which are dominated by ethnic Sinhalese. Fighting history is effectively irrelevant in the decision to flee. During the conflict, Tamil civilians were suspected of collaboration and tortured for information they didn't have, about acts they didn't commit. And when the war ended, the indiscriminate reprisals continued. In a report on the post-conflict situation in 2012, Human Rights Watch found "state security forces committed arbitrary arrests and torture against ethnic minority Tamils."

One group of escaped Sri Lankan Tamils arrived in Canadian waters in August 2010, on a vessel called the MV Sun Sea. There were 492 people on board and they claimed asylum in Canada after three months on the water.

The Canadian Government responded, "Canada is deeply concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka. The absence of accountability for the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war is unacceptable."

Just kidding.

That was three years later in a statement released Oct. 7, 2013, and how Prime Minister Harper explained his decision not to attend the Commonwealth summit.

Here's how the Government actually responded in 2010: "What I am concerned about is that the generosity of Canada's immigration and refugee laws are not taken advantage of," said then-Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews, speaking days after the boat arrived. "There seems to be a deliberate attempt to thwart Canadian laws."

Government lawyers have since tried to disprove the asylum claims of the nearly 500 Tamils. The cases are ongoing, and CTV reports there were 117 rejected MV Sun Sea cases at the end of September.

At least two of the failed claimants who were subsequently deported have been detained. One, known as B005, was detained upon arrival in September 2012 and is now disappeared. Another, Sathyapavan "Sathi" Aseervatham, returned in July 2011. His one year in jail featured beating and forced starvation until his family bribed the army for his release. He died in a car accident in September 2013 and his family thinks it was a murder. The Canadian Government now faces allegations that it withheld the fate of the returned Tamils from other MV Sun Sea cases before the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). Immigration lawyers say the government knew what was happening but disclosed nothing to the IRB.

So Canada has not been an advocate for protecting Sri Lankans. And yet, the Prime Minister's decision to boycott the Commonwealth is a public critique of state complicity in the abusive treatment of citizens.

What changed? Some have argued there's a large Tamil community in key Toronto ridings wanted by the Conservative Party. The community is not happy with the Sri Lankan Government and many have family facing discrimination back home. A Commonwealth snub may have appeal.

The trouble with white lists

The conflicting Canadian message is more than a confusing case of doublespeak that leaves the good-bad Sri Lankan Government one Commonwealth guest short. It's a flashing question mark on the legitimacy of a safe country list.

Sri Lanka, in fact, was not added to the controversial new list of places not likely to produce refugees, called designated countries of origin or DCOs. These are places where the Canadian Government deems its foreign counterparts able and willing to protect their citizens. Czechs, Hungarians, Israelis and others, then, are probably "bogus" claimants if they make it to Canada and ask for asylum -- in the phraseology of Canadian ministers like Vic Toews and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney. The DCO label is misleading because possession of democratic institutions does not mean a government treats all its citizens, notably its minorities, the same. Over the past decade, Canada has accepted refugees from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Israel. Canada has also accepted Sri Lankans during this time, and though Sri Lanka is not a DCO, the same rhetoric is used to describe its nationals who seek asylum. They're all "abusing the system."

A misleading white list harms at least three groups. The judges who decide refugee cases, who are human and note the DCOs; the Canadian public that appears less compassionate alongside flawed messaging about where and why people fear for their lives; and in the most profound way, refugees, who have a harder time getting here and face worse conditions if they do.

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers calls the DCO list "arbitrary, unfair and unconstitutional." And more, it is basely political.

The Sri Lanka case shows that the declared safety of a foreign country depends on Canadian politics instead of evidence like returned Sri Lankans experiencing torture and possibly worse. Politicians are not an authority on persecution. When they act like one, friends are called safe. Then domestic demands shift and suddenly they balk, tugging along lives with whims.

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