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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures as he answers during a media briefing on the final day of the Commonwealth Heads of Governments meeting in Colombo on Nov. 17, 2013. (ERANGA JAYAWAREDENA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures as he answers during a media briefing on the final day of the Commonwealth Heads of Governments meeting in Colombo on Nov. 17, 2013. (ERANGA JAYAWAREDENA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Globe editorial

Cameron’s presence better than Harper’s absence Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims his absence at this year’s Commonwealth summit made a difference, that Canada’s empty seat at the table was the best way to register Ottawa’s opposition to Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record.

You know who made more of a difference? David Cameron. Shortly after the British Prime Minister arrived in Colombo, he travelled north to Jaffna, the crucible of a brutal three-decades-long civil war, which ended in 2009.

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He was the first foreign leader to visit the region since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. There, he met with Tamils whose loved ones had been killed in the conflict and spoke to others who continue to suffer under the regime of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He invited a gaggle of Western journalists along for the ride and used Twitter to project what he saw. It was more than just a publicity stunt.

When Mr. Cameron returned to Colombo that night, he spent 45 minutes in private talks with Mr. Rajapaksa and capped everything off with a press conference the next morning where he uttered this denunciation: “The Sri Lanka government needs to go further and faster on human rights and reconciliation.”

Mr. Harper, of course, agrees, but was nowhere to be seen. His decision to boycott the Commonwealth meeting has played unbelievably well with Canada’s 200,000-strong Tamil diaspora, who largely live in the Greater Toronto Area, which is believed to be key to the Conservatives in the next election.

Mr. Cameron’s decision to engage played somewhat badly in Britain, but not in Jaffna, where he received a hero’s welcome. Tamils were so happy to see Mr. Cameron that they swarmed his convoy. A local newspaper editor told Mr. Cameron that attackers repeatedly torched his presses and terrorized his staff. A group of elderly women told him about life in their shantytown. They believed Mr. Cameron had been sent to help them get their land back.

Mr. Harper and Mr. Cameron are both rightly wary of Mr. Rajapaksa, who has ignored the findings an international panel of experts and failed to properly investigate atrocities that could amount to war crimes. Mr. Cameron used his presence at the summit to shine a spotlight, something that’s difficult to do from afar.

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