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Harper's stand on Sri Lanka is just not cricket

On Australia's western shore, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is upsetting the Commonwealth tea party.

It's not just that he declared that Sri Lanka's human-rights record, so far, would make it an unfit host for the 2013 Commonwealth summit. It's that those statements have made Sri Lanka something of an example for the broader debate on whether the Commonwealth will enforce standards on human rights and democracy.

Mr. Harper is now in Perth, Australia, for the summit of leaders from Commonwealth countries – Britain, India, South Africa, Canada and 50 others. So is the Queen, for this is the club of countries once under the British Empire. But the sun will soon set on it if it can't muster polite inquiries more than every two years about egregious abuses in its midst.

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Mr. Harper, like his colleagues from Britain, Australia, and Malta, want to see the Commonwealth deal more directly with countries engaged in repression and rights abuses. They want a human-rights and democracy commissioner, but countries such as India and South Africa are opposed.

Mr. Harper's threats that he might boycott Sri Lanka's 2013 summit have worried even some on his side, who don't want a donnybrook. Britain doesn't want this summit to be an argument over the next host. Current host Australia wants everyone to get along. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, forced to discuss it, said allegations of abuses in Sri Lanka must be addressed, but the country's role as the next host won't be revisited, and each member will decide whether they will attend.

It might seem the Commonwealth's stance on human rights isn't going to change the world, anyway. It's not a treaty organization, or alliance, or the UN. Its only sanction is kicking a country out. But countries obviously want to be part of the club. Those that were suspended, like South Africa for apartheid and Pakistan for a coup, kicked and screamed and sought to get back in. Now Sri Lanka wants to avoid the hint that it might eventually face the same fate.

Sri Lanka denies abuses, but a UN panel found credible allegations of civil-war shelling of hospitals and civilians and post-war torture of displaced people in camps. Trotting to Colombo if nothing changes would be ridiculous, said Tory Senator Hugh Segal, a member of a Commonwealth "eminent-persons" panel on reforms. "You cannot have thousands of people disappear at the end of a war without having some kind of close-focus assessment of what transpired," he said.

That issue is now mixed into the debate about the Commonwealth's future, about a more active role in addressing coups and repression, rather than waiting for a summit every two years to consider expulsion.

A committee of Commonwealth ministers wants rules so it can review a member's actions after events such as a coup. The eminent persons group has proposed a full-time commissioner to look into abuses and discuss them with the country, and report back to Commonwealth foreign ministers. In other words, the commissioner will set a watch. The point, Mr. Segal argues, is that problems hopefully won't "fester" until the Commonwealth must choose to kick the country out.

There are opponents – India, South Africa and Sri Lanka among them. But the summit has also seen many Commonwealth-lovers predicting it will die without reforms. "It would be a terrible shame if we let it fall apart because it became completely irrelevant and disconnected," Mr. Segal said.

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It's never been the world's most potent organization, but Canada usually liked it enough because it has a pretty high profile in discussions with 50 leaders. But if it can't ask about torture and oppression in its midst more than every two years, it won't meet 21st-century standards of usefulness when there's six other summits a year. And there'll be no point to tea parties in Colombo.

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

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