Canada and the Commonwealth

By David T. Jones on November 3, 2013

Washington, DC - The decision by Prime Minister Harper to avoid the leaders meeting of the Commonwealth in Sri Lanka has unleashed the pack of media attack dogs.  The reaction is predictable but also pathetic.  While there is an implicit obligation of Opposition to oppose, the criticism has been over the top.

There has been a remarkably intense and palatably cynical critique that Harper is acting either hypocritically and/or for prospective political gain.

Harper has taken a reasoned decision, telegraphed far in advance.  To wit, he noted upwards of two years ago that unless Sri Lanka leadership improved its human rights performance in relation to the Tamil minority, he would not attend the conference.  They haven’t; he won’t.

That said, it is not as if there will be no Canadian presence at the conference.  To be sure, the parliamentary secretary to the foreign minister is not the prime minister, but he isn’t chopped liver either.  There will be quite sufficient opportunity for Canada to make whatever political points Ottawa wishes to make to individual Commonwealth members.  And, one will recall, that Harper also made a comparable human rights point by declining to attend the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic summer games in Beijing.   

That said, one can understand, if not condone the actions of the Sri Lankan Sinhalese government.  The civil war was vicious and unrelenting; the Tamil Tigers were implacable opponents whose human rights violations and terrorist, suicide bombings were hallmarks of their insurrection.  They resisted virtually to the last resistor.  As a result, the implicit outcome was unconditional surrender/defeat.  There were no choir boys on either side.

And the subsequent years of repression are equally predictable.  These are not “Christian” societies in which one might call on forgiveness as a political as well as a philosophical virtue.  The Sinhalese suffering tends to be discounted by international observers, but they are still in “get even” mode regarding the Tamils.  Unsurprisingly, they believe the Tamils will rise again in bloody rebellion.

In comparison, we might consider the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War.  Long after Confederate defeat and surrender, Union military forces occupied the South; placed Northern politicians in control of the defeated states; orchestrated elections that resulted in puppet members of state legislatures and the federal congress; and bought up southern properties de facto dominating the regional economy.  Confederate irreconcilables drifted west, to Mexico, or elsewhere rather than take an oath of allegiance to the USG.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis was jailed for two years and precluded from federal office.  General Robert E Lee could have been hanged for treason.  Indeed, it was probably not until the last war veteran died in the 1950s that one could say the war was over--and it persists in the minds of more than a few Southerners who continue to believe that their rebellion was justified.

One doubts that USG action during the post-bellum period would pass 21st century examination by Human Rights Watch and/or Amnesty International.  And, had they existed in the 19th century, I’m confident that Union victors would have dismissively ignored them.

But Sri Lanka is not living in the 19th century, and consequently, its continued repression of the Tamil minority generates critical comment.  See for example the 2012 U.S. Department of State human rights report  It notes inter alia “lack of accountability for thousands who disappeared in previous years; and widespread impunity for a broad range of human rights abuses, particularly involving police torture…Other serious human rights problems included unlawful killings by security forces and government-allied paramilitary groups, often in predominantly Tamil areas…”

Clearly, boycotting a meeting led by Sri Lankan leadership and not de facto ratifying Sri Lankan Chairmanship of the Commonwealth for the next two years is hardly beyond the pale.  Indeed, for human rights advocates, PM Harper deserves commendation.  It is irrelevant whether Tory tacticians may also be looking over their shoulders at the possibility of subsequent Tamil-Canadian support in key ridings for future elections.  One can both do good globally and do right well personally.

Separately, the intimation that Ottawa is reconsidering its contribution to Commonwealth funding reflects an honest bottom line appreciation regarding the value of participation for Canada.  Providing 20 percent of the funding may be disproportionate, especially when London has announced funding cuts.  Perhaps now is the time for Ottawa to insist that others, e.g., Australia and New Zealand step up?  Or maybe scaling back a ritualistic talk shop would be even more appropriate?


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