Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka will be a relief to host President Mahinda Rajapaksa and will be strongly supported by the Tamil community in Canada as well as both federal opposition parties.
Mr. Rajapaksa will not have to endure the humiliation of open public criticism of his regime's poor human rights record by a Prime Minister who has made human rights a central theme of his foreign policy. In his stead, Mr. Harper will send a parliamentary secretary, which is not just a snub to Sri Lanka but to all the other heads of government who will be attending. It is also a snub to the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth and Prince Charles, the heir to our throne, who will be opening the CHOGM in Colombo.
A recent Globe editorial poignantly asked "what would Mr. Harper's skipping the meeting actually accomplish for the hundreds of thousands of voters in Sri Lanka who braved intimidation and violence in order to cast a ballot?" It further recommended that "Canada, along with the rest of the Commonwealth, should use its seat at the table to press for reform."
If the government of Canada were really concerned about improving the human rights in Sri Lanka it would use every opportunity to put forward its position. But this is a government that stands on "principle" and if it doesn't like the game being played it takes it marbles and stays home. It is ironic that the Prime Minister's statement announcing the decision says Canada will continue to "work with our partners and through the United Nations to draw attention to the situation in Sri Lanka." Many of the 52 member states of the Commonwealth are potential partners in supporting Mr. Harper on this matter, but he is snubbing these partners. If you chose to boycott meetings you can't expect to have any impact on them.
Mr. Harper has also asked Foreign Minister John Baird "to review Canada's financial contributions to Commonwealth programs and the Commonwealth Secretariat," which strongly suggests that his absence from the CHOGM is not just linked to concerns for human rights in Sri Lanka but to the very utility for the organization for Canada. Senator Hugh Segal, Mr. Harper's senior advisor on Commonwealth affairs, said that the Commonwealth Secretary General, Kalamesh Sharma, is a "shill" for Sri Lanka. If that is the case Mr. Harper should be developing the necessary contacts with his fellow Commonwealth leaders to ensure is not re-elected. But to do that you have to develop personal relationships. As the second largest contributor to the Commonwealth, threatening financial sanctions may appeal to some. But it harps back to several U.S. threats against the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNESCO in the 1970's and 80s which resulted in American withdrawal and subsequent re-joining both organizations. Even the Americans with their much bigger clout found you can't influence an organization in which you don't actively participate. And financial threats don't work.
Canada has always had a strong and influential role in the Commonwealth with the active participation of every Prime Minister since St Laurent except for Paul Martin (who skipped the only CHOGM in his time as PM) and now PM Harper. For PM Harper to suggest Canada might leave the Commonwealth must have been seen with some alarm in Buckingham Palace and totally at odds with his general policy of heightening our royal ties.
The Commonwealth and La Francophonie are the only two international organizations in which the major superpowers are absent. This gives Canada a far greater margin for maneuver than it has at the UN. We could not possibly abandon La Francophonie leaving Quebec as a participating member likely to cause all kinds of mischief. So why are we even thinking about it for the Commonwealth, which gives the Canadian Prime Minister a biannual opportunity to put forward his vision of the world to a wide spectrum of countries? You can only exercise influence when you are present.
Overall the decision demonstrates yet again the inability of the Harper government to use the considerable diplomatic tools at its disposal to achieve its foreign policy objectives like promoting human rights in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
John Noble is a retired Canadian ambassador and Immediate Past President, National Capital Branch, Canadian International Council