By Martin Collacott –
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird has announced that he will not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka this November because of that country’s sub-par human rights record. No other members of the Commonwealth, including Britain, Australia and New Zealand, have followed Canada’s example.
There is no question that Sri Lanka has a poor human rights record — one that might have been expected to improve after the long civil war ended in 2009, but which did not. Judges have been threatened and impeached, and many journalists murdered or driven from the country. There is little tolerance for criticism of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government from any quarter.
Canada has the largest Sri Lankan Tamil community outside of South Asia, and many of its members seek to raise awareness of the fact that the government in Colombo is repressive and that Tamils in Sri Lanka are persecuted. This helps explain why Stephen Harper’s government feels the need to express its displeasure with Sri Lanka’s poor commitment to human rights.
Many Tamils living in Canada came here as refugees. Indeed, in one year alone (2003), Canada accepted far more Tamil refugee claimants than all the other countries in the world combined. Some of these refugees had ties to the Tamil Tigers military and terrorist group that was then fighting against Sri Lanka’s government.
The voting power of these Tamils distorted Canadian policy: Liberal governments repeatedly ignored CSIS recommendations that the Tamil Tigers be designated as a terrorist organization, even though Britain and the United States had done so. As a result, the Tigers were able to use Canada as one of their principal bases for fundraising — a situation that may well have contributed to prolonging the conflict and carnage in Sri Lanka.
Even after the Conservatives took office in 2006, and wasted no time in adding the Tamil Tigers to the official national list of terrorist groups, Tiger supporters continued to exercise considerable influence within the Liberal Party of Canada. At the Liberals’ December 2006 leadership convention, for example, a block of delegates pressing to have the Tigers removed from the terrorist list played a key role in the selection of the new leader.
The failure for many years of countries such as Canada to curtail Tamil Tiger activities is, in all likelihood, a factor in Sri Lanka’s continuing indifference to international entreaties to improve its human rights record: Having turned a blind eye to the Tamil Tigers for so many years, we no longer have credibility in lecturing Sri Lanka over its post-war policies.
As for calls for an international investigation into the massacre of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the closing stages of the civil war, this is another area where the Sri Lanka government feels it is not being treated fairly.
While there is considerable evidence that such large-scale killings took place, many occurred in large measure because the Tigers chose to use their own population as human shields. The fact that there are no longer identifiable high-level Tiger leaders around to blame for their contribution to these massacres no doubt does little to encourage the Sri Lankan government to expose itself to what it believes will be a very one-sided investigation.
No doubt Britain, Australia and New Zealand share Canada’s concern over the poor state of human rights in Sri Lanka. The fact that Canada alone chose not to send its foreign minister to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, however, may be more the result of domestic Canadian considerations — such as increasing political support among Tamil voters — than anything else.
*Martin Collacott was the Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka when the civil war there began in earnest in 1983. He now lives in Vancouver. This article is first appeared in the National Post