Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced that he will not be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, consistent with concerns he expressed on Sri Lanka in the fall of 2011.
As he pointed out, this was not an easy decision. Canada was one of the founding nations of the Commonwealth. All governments know and understand that there is a certain diplomatic simplicity in “going along to get along.” No confrontation, no hard feelings. But on this issue, the Commonwealth has sadly taken the path of least resistance. This is no credit to the Secretary General, the Commonwealth Secretariat or the member countries.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is far more than a few days for heads of state to gather. It is at this meeting where the host country becomes the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth of Nations, the effective leader country for two years. Until 2015, Sri Lanka will chair the foreign ministers meetings and have a seat on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, the body charged with investigating human rights, democracy, judicial, or journalistic independence violations.
In the run-up to CHOGM, the Bar Associations of Canada, Australia, England & Wales, Sri Lanka, South Africa, the Commonwealth Judges & Magistrates Association and numerous others; Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, to name but a few, have all cited deep concern with the human rights, judicial independence and freedom of the press situation in Sri Lanka. The former chief justice of South Africa, Pius Langa, stated in his legal opinion – which was commissioned, and then suppressed, by the Secretary General – that the impeachment of the chief justice of Sri Lanka was illegal, unconstitutional and “sowing the seeds of anarchy.” All of this after the celebration of The Queen signing the Charter of the Commonwealth in March of this year – a document that lists and outlines all of the principles and values for which the Commonwealth stands.
As Canada’s Special Envoy to the Commonwealth and the Canadian representative on the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group which authored The Commonwealth of Nations: Time for Urgent Reform, I went to Sri Lanka as a fact finder for our foreign minister in April of this year. I saw wonderful new highways and buildings in Colombo that would rival those in Toronto. I also saw the bullet holes above the sofa in the office of the editor of a Tamil language newspaper in Jaffna. Days after we visited the paper, its offices were trashed and employees beaten. I met with individuals in displacement camps who had been there for years with no hope of returning home because their land had been appropriated to build housing for military families. I saw soldiers walk in as we walked out to “chat” with those who spoke to us. We were followed wherever we went and had to “lose” our escorts in order to speak to people who were afraid for their lives. Christian, Muslim and Tamil leaders all spoke of persecution and intimidation. There was scant if any evidence of any reconciliation or efforts of any accountability.
I understand that bilateral relationships between countries are important for a host of reasons and that diplomacy is and should always be the first course of action. Australia needs to turn a blind eye to Sri Lanka’s excesses as it seeks to send migrants back or keep them from coming. The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary organization that is not bound by contract or treaty. No country is perfect, but the Commonwealth of Nations holds together because member countries strive to uphold the values and principles of democracy, rule of law, good governance, human rights, judicial independence and freedom of the press. For the Commonwealth of Nations to bestow the honour on Sri Lanka of hosting CHOGM and presiding over the organization as its chair for two years legitimizes a multitude of sins and is the surest way to weaken the Commonwealth and bring its credibility into serious disrepute.
Mr. Harper made the right decision. His presence in Colombo would be viewed as tacit approval of Sri Lanka’s chairmanship and make a mockery of all those values and principles signed by The Queen in March. The people of Sri Lanka have Canada’s unwavering support. The government of Sri Lanka needs to keep its promises of reconciliation, resettlement and peaceful coexistence for all Sri Lankans. The way to strengthen the Commonwealth is not to look the other way and ignore reality but to face it straight up and act accordingly.
Hugh Segal is a former member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group and is Canada’s Special Envoy to the Commonwealth.