Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s distaste for Sri Lanka’s current leadership is one many Canadians share. Four years after winning a brutal civil war President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s authoritarian government has been fiercely criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups for failing to fully probe war crimes, to devolve any substantial power to the Tamil minority or to demilitarize its heartland.
Canada’s large Tamil diaspora is painfully aware that friends and family remain second-class citizens under an appointed governor and military control, years after the gunfire ceased. Attacks on Tamils are common. Promises of “substantive” autonomy, stronger rights and a fair crack at jobs in government and the army have failed to materialize.
Yet while the injustice Tamils suffer is real it’s hard to see how Harper can ease it by boycotting the coming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka on Nov. 15-17. And his threat to take a wrecking-ball to the Commonwealth itself by reviewing Canada’s “engagement and our financing” of the 54-country organization is even harder to fathom.
Harper deserves full credit for making an issue of Sri Lanka’s wretched human rights record and for pushing for a better deal for Tamils, more than 140,000 of whom call Canada home. That’s in line with his successful lobbying in 2007 to have Pakistan’s military regime suspended for subverting democracy. In the past Canada also helped to get apartheid-era South Africa expelled, and Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Pakistan and Fiji suspended for assaults on democracy and human rights.
But critically, in each case Canada was part of a broad, effective consensus; we worked with others to make a difference.
While it’s understandable that Harper might see a reason not to attend, if only to signal Canada’s disgust, he won’t be doing Tamils any good. Given that other Commonwealth leaders are going this leaves Canada isolated, not Sri Lanka. He would have been wiser to make an appearance and to press for reforms. That would have rained on Rajapaksa’s parade more effectively than our boycott will.
Indeed that is the approach favoured by former Sri Lankan Supreme Court justice C.V. Wigneswaran, who ought to know. His Tamil National Alliance party won a solid victory last month in the first elections in the Tamil-majority Northern Province since the war. And he’d like to see Commonwealth leaders show up and be counted.
“I am not for this business of boycotting,” he told the Times of India. “We must have the courage of conviction to tell the Sri Lankan government that it has done this, and this,” and hold it accountable, he said. “It is better you say it at the CHOGM rather than keep away.”
This is a missed opportunity for Canada to champion the Tamil party’s moderate push for more political autonomy, provincial development funding and civil rights.
At the same time, Harper’s threat to “examine our engagement and our financing” looks more like pique than anything else, after he failed to rally a boycott. Canada’s $20 million, including $5 million to the secretariat, would be missed. But a claw back wouldn’t scupper the organization. It would just lessen our clout.
Having reduced Canada’s standing at the United Nations the Conservative government would be exceedingly unwise to do the same in the Commonwealth. That wouldn’t serve Canada’s interests, much less help those whose rights we seek to advance. (The Star)