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Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird must dial back some of his comments and smooth out his rough edges. (PATRICK DOYLE/REUTERS)
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird must dial back some of his comments and smooth out his rough edges. (PATRICK DOYLE/REUTERS)

Canada still poised to boycott Sri Lanka's Commonwealth meet over human rights Add to ...

The Harper government is setting the stage for a boycott of November’s Commonwealth leaders’ summit in Sri Lanka, delivering withering criticisms after ministers from the 54-nation organization took no action on the country’s human-rights record.

The Commonwealth’s Ministerial Action Group closed a meeting in London with no official mention of Sri Lanka – but Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s representatives emerged calling the prospect that the country will chair the Commonwealth summit “appalling,” an accommodation of “evil” – and referring to the treatment of the country’s Tamil minority as “soft ethnic cleansing.”

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At issue is what Ottawa views as a slide into authoritarian rule, and poor treatment of Tamils and other minorities after the Sinhalese government’s 2009 victory that ended a civil war. Mr. Harper’s Conservative government once alienated much of the 300,000-strong Tamil diaspora in Canada by listing the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group, but has since become a vocal critic of Colombo.

Although Mr. Harper still hasn’t made the final decision on boycotting the Colombo meeting, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Sri Lanka’s human-rights record has worsened since he first warned of a boycott in 2011.

“I haven’t seen anything that would make me change my recommendation,” Mr. Baird said in an interview, calling the issue a “test” for the Commonwealth. “Canada is appalled that Sri Lanka is poised to host the summit.”

Many of the Commonwealth’s members are not keen for a confrontation and the issue was not even on the official agenda for the London meeting. Canadian officials said Mr. Baird raised the issue when talks turned to other business, sparking a lengthy discussion, however.

Mr. Baird said the January “sacking” of Sri Lanka’s chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, impeached suddenly by allies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa after she struck down government legislation to centralize spending and taxation powers, only underlines that the country is moving backward. And he said the country has failed to make efforts to reconcile with ordinary Tamils so they can return to their homes, make a living “and live in peace and security with their Sinhalese neighbours.”

But the position has left Canada virtually isolated. Britain is also a critic of the Rajapaksa government, but has not threatened a boycott; Australia’s relations with Sri Lanka are consumed more with preventing migrant flows. It is not clear whether India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, will yield to pressure from his country’s Tamils and skip the summit.

But Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, tasked by Mr. Harper with visiting Sri Lanka in March for a fact-finding mission to deliver a recommendation on Canada’s participation in the summit, said he saw nothing to make the PM change his mind.

“What I saw was frankly pretty desperate,” he said. “I want to be careful with my terminology, but you did see a pattern of soft ethnic cleansing.”

Sri Lanka’s army, in control of the Tamil-populated north, is a professional organization, he said, but its control of the northern economy leaves “no space for Tamils to rebuild businesses, to buy land in the north, to rebuild their farms, to get back into the fisheries.” Newspapers that take stands against the government see their staffs beaten by “thugs,” and there’s a pervasive attitude among some government officials that “all Tamils are sort-of terrorists or side with terrorists,” he said.

The country’s Muslim population is “scared to death,” he said. He asserted that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the President, exhorted people at a nationalist Buddhist temple to protect the Sinhalese identity – and then thugs from the temple burned a clothing warehouse owned by a Muslim, while police did nothing.

“It reeks of Kristallnacht, quite frankly,” said Mr. Segal, referring to the 1938 attacks on Jews by Nazi brownshirts and supporters.

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