It is one thing for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to confirm, as expected, that he will boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka next month, to protest that country’s slow-moving progress on human rights. But it is another thing for Mr. Harper to announce, completely without warning, that his government is reconsidering its financial support of Commonwealth programs and the Commonwealth Secretariat. This sudden upping of the stakes is uncalled for and damaging to a valued and historic institution.
We have already said that Mr. Harper should attend the meeting. Sri Lanka has had four years of peace after 26 years of horrific civil war; its economy is growing, and it is moving in the right direction. A party backed by the Tamil minority recently won 30 of 38 seats in the election in the Northern Province – a huge step toward reconciliation. There is no doubt that human rights in Sri Lanka still need vast improvement, or that the country’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has insufficient regard for democratic ideals, but international engagement at this moment in the country’s re-emergence is far better for the advancement of human rights than a cold shoulder.
The concerns raised by Mr. Harper – the lack of accountability for gross human-rights violations during the war, the lack of protections for the Tamils and other minorities, and the recent arbitrary removal of the country’s chief justice, among others – are shared by all Commonwealth leaders. They must be wondering, though, how Canada goes from a boycott of a meeting to the implicitly threatened withdrawal from a 64-year-old organization that brings together 53 countries through the bonds of history, language and friendship.
Mr. Harper has not explained how the failings of Sri Lanka are connected to the Commonwealth; he has simply linked the two in a diplomatic non sequitur. Some will attribute it to the fact there is a large, outspoken Tamil population in the politically coveted Toronto region. While Mr. Harper stays away next month, the prime ministers of Britain, India, Australia and New Zealand will be in Colombo raising their concerns face-to-face with Mr. Rajapaksa, and wondering why Canada is considering abandoning them for good.