No discussion on Sri Lanka at Commonwealth ministerial meeting: Harper government still poised to boycott Commonwealth summit

chogm 2     The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), did not discuss Sri Lanka on its formal agenda. Sri Lanka is due to head the 54-nation body and host its major summit in Colombo in November, but it stands accused by two UN reports of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Harper government is still poised boycott Sri Lanka’s hosting of the next Commonwealth leaders’ summit, after a London meeting of the organization’s key foreign ministers in London produced no action.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper threatened in 2011 to boycott the leaders’ meeting in Colombo this year, and Foreign Minister John Baird said Friday that Sri Lanka’s record on human rights and treatment of the Tamil minority was worsened since – and there’s nothing to suggest a change in course.

I haven’t seen anything that would make me change my recommendation,” Mr. Baird said in an interview after the London meeting. “Canada is appalled that Sri Lanka is poised to host the summit.”

Officially, Sri Lanka wasn’t even on the agenda in London for Friday’s meeting of a sort of steering committee of Commonwealth foreign ministers. Many of the 54-member Commonwealth are uncomfortable with using the organization to press members on human rights issues, and some others dislike the potential for confrontation inside the body.

But Senator Hugh Segal, the prime minister’s representative to a Commonwealth committee, said Mr. Baird raised his objections at the meeting when the so-called “other business” was discussed. Mr. Baird, meanwhile, said protocol prevented him from revealing those discussions, but settled for a hint, noting that the Commonwealth communiqué dealt only with Fiji: “It was a long meeting, and Fiji was not a contentious issue,” he said.

Members of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, known as CMAG, showed no sign they want to change the venue of the meeting – bringing Mr. Harper into a show of protest against an organization in which Canada has always been a Charter member.

Mr. Baird said that when Mr. Harper voiced his warning of a boycott at the 2011 Commonwealth leaders’ meeting in Perth, Australia, Ottawa genuinely hoped that Sri Lanka would take action to improve its record on human rights and freedoms for the country’s Tamils.

Instead, he said, it has “failed” on all indicators, and the sacking of the country’s chief justice in January shows it’s moving further down the road of authoritarian rule. “Eighteen months later, we have not seen any significant progress,” Mr. Baird said.

Mr. Harper has yet to make a final decision on boycotting the summit, though officials indicate it’s still heading that way – what’s not clear is whether Canada might send a lower-level delegation, headed by Mr. Baird or someone with of lower rank, like an MP or diplomat.

Mr. Harper’s Conservatives once seemed to side with the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government, and listed the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels as a terrorist group. But since the civil war ended, it has pressed government to reconcile.

“Reconciliation – not with terrorist organizations, but with the Tamil people, for ordinary Tamil families,” he said, so they can return to their homes, make a living “and live in peace and security with their Sinhalese neighbours.” “We were tough on the Tigers, and now that the civil war is over, we’re being tough on the government,” he said

Canada’s Foreign Minister says he is appalled that Sri Lanka seems poised to have the honour and responsibility of hosting the Commonwealth summit meeting in November. Mr Baird said Canada had wanted to see meaningful progress on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka but the situation had got worse, not better. He added that the impeachment of the Chief Justice in Sri Lanka was deeply disturbing.

Asked about what the Commonwealth Secretary General Kamlesh Sharma says is positive engagement with Sri Lanka, Mr Baird replied that he would rather accept the judgement and conclusions of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, The Commonwealth Lawyers Association, the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges, Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Council. All of these have pointed to a deterioration of civil liberties and human rights in Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war.

At a news conference after the meeting the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group said it was not up to them but up to the heads of Commonwealth governments to decide the venue for the summit in November and they’d already chosen Sri Lanka. Instead, the Secretary General Kamlesh Sharma repeatedly stressed his commitment to positive engagement with the Sri Lankan government. He refused to put a time limit on that engagement because he said he was so optimistic about its success.

Mr Sharma cited the Commonwealth’s involvement in assisting Sri Lanka with media policy, two Press Institutes, the Election Commission, human rights, the issue of the independence of judiciary and a workshop next week in London for the Sri Lankan government to meet reconciliation experts from other post-conflict countries. “We are working with them in a way which we expect will bring progress rather than disappointment,” he said.

Asked if he wasn’t worried about the credibility of the Commonwealth being at stake over its engagement with Sri Lanka, the Secretary General said on the contrary its credibility was increasing right now. He said some people just made statements while other were actually doing real work on the ground making a difference. Mr Sharma did concede there were what he called “many lacunae” in the appointment and dismissal of judges in Sri Lanka but added that the Commonwealth was working with Sri Lanka to share best practices from other member nations and recommend remedial measures.

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