Stephen Harper to boycott Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka because of human rights concerns

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

Stephen Harper has decided not to attend the upcoming Commonwealth summit — scheduled for November in Sri Lanka — in protest over the island nation's human rights record.

The Prime Minister issued this statement early Monday morning:

“When Sri Lanka was selected to host the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Canada was hopeful that the Sri Lankan government would seize the opportunity to improve human rights conditions and take steps towards reconciliation and accountability. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

“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.

“Canada noted with concern the impeachment of the Sri Lankan Chief Justice earlier this year, and we remain disturbed by ongoing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances, and allegations of extra judicial killings.

“Canada believes that if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant it must stand in defence of the basic principles of freedom, democracy, and respect for human dignity, which are the very foundation upon which the Commonwealth was built.

“It is clear that the Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values, which are cherished by Canadians. As such, as the Prime Minister of Canada, I will not attend the 2013 CHOGM in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This is a decision that I do not take lightly.

“Canada will continue to monitor events in Sri Lanka and urge the government to implement fully the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, promote respect for human rights and the rule of law, and undertake an independent investigation into alleged violations of the human rights of thousands of civilians at the end of the conflict.

“Canada will continue to work with our partners and through the United Nations to draw attention to the situation in Sri Lanka. I have also asked the Minister of Foreign Affairs to review Canada’s financial contributions to Commonwealth programs and the Commonwealth Secretariat.

“The Honourable Deepak Obhrai, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and for International Human Rights, will represent Canada at the meeting in Colombo.”

Harper's boycott is not a surprise.

Earlier this year, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird launched a blistering attack against the Sri Lankan regime in an interview with the UK's Guardian.

"We're appalled that Sri Lanka seems poised to host CHOGM and to be chair-in-residence of the Commonwealth for two years," Baird said.

"Canada didn't get involved in the Commonwealth to accommodate evil; we came to combat it."

[ Related: Sri Lankan newspaper publishes scathing editorial about Baird, Harper: “Baird is a buffoon” ]

Sri Lanka's human rights record has been under international scrutiny for some time.

In a recent statement by Human Rights Watch, the independent international human rights organization claimed that the Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa "has taken no meaningful steps to address serious abuses by government forces in the final months of the armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009."

"The United Nations (UN) has estimated that up to 40,000 civilians died," noted the release calling for the Commonwealth meetings to be moved.

"Since 2009 the government has been responsible for a worsening human rights situation that includes clampdowns on basic freedoms, threats and attacks against civil society, and actions against the judiciary and other institutions, imperiling Sri Lanka’s democracy."

[ Related: NDP campaign to pressure government to boycott Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka ]

There is, however, some opposition to the high-level  boycott.

Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters that he wouldn't be following Harper's lead.

"I intend to attend CHOGM and will do my best to make a constructive contribution to the deliberations there," Abbott said according to the Daily Telegraph.

"You do not make new friends by rubbishing your old friends or abandoning your old friends," he said.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the New Democrats say that while they agree with the government's boycott, they're not pleased with the prime minister's threat of reviewing financial contributions to Commonwealth programs.

"It’s a false and disingenuous connection between the merits of an individual member state and those of the broader institution," NDP ethics critic Paul Dewar said in an email to the Globe and Mail.

“If they wanted to send a stronger message they could have moved to remove Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth until there are concrete improvements on human rights.”

The CHOGM takes places in Colombo, Sri Lanka from November 15th to 17th.

(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press)

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