Sri Lanka: Canada's Decision to Boycott the Commonwealth

11 Oct, 2013    ·   4138

Charles Aruliah analyses the potential fall-out of Canadian PM Stephen Harper's decision

After two years of speculation, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has officially announced that he would not be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for November 2013 in Sri Lanka. The government of Sri Lanka has been under intense pressure from the international community ever since allegations surfaced that it had knowingly shelled civilians in the final stages of the country’s bitter civil war. The ethnic conflict, which pitted minority Tamils seeking an independent homeland in Sri Lanka’s North and East against the country’s majority Sinhala population, lasted 30 years and saw an estimated 100,000 civilians killed, 40,000 of whom died in the last few months alone. Canada is home to the largest number of Sri Lankan Tamils outside of Sri Lanka, with estimates running between 200,000 to 300,000 strong; accountability for serious war crimes remains on top of the minds of many Tamils in Canada and elsewhere.

Despite a very vocal diaspora, Canada remains alone in its ‘boycott’ as other Commonwealth countries - the UK included - have opted to attend the Commonwealth meeting. They have argued that constructive engagement with the Sri Lankan government would be more fruitful towards post-war reconciliation. But just last month, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, slammed the Sri Lankan government for its violations of human rights and lack of progress towards post-war reconciliation after returning from a tour of Sri Lanka’s war affected areas. It is likely that Harper’s final decision to not attend the Heads of Government Meeting was spurred by Pillay’s report.

 Has Harper Made the Right Decision?
In his official statement, the Prime Minister noted that ‘‘the absence of accountability for the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war is unacceptable.” Indeed, Colombo continues to deny both wartime and post-war human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances, despite documented evidence to the contrary. Allegations of physical threats and government intimidation even emerged amid heavy international monitoring during last month’s Northern Provincial Council elections, the first such elections to be held in Sri Lanka’s North. With national opposition parties in disarray, a steady flow of Chinese development assistance available and remnants of post-war triumphalism still in the air, the government has had little reason to pursue reconciliation with the country’s North and East and is unlikely to do so in the near future, despite ‘engagement’ with Commonwealth countries.

Nevertheless, Harper should still attend the Commonwealth meeting.

Despite government interference, the country’s main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, picked up a majority 30 out of 36 seats during the Northern elections. While the victory is largely symbolic, it nonetheless signals a sense of renewed Tamil defiance. The government has even proceeded to destroy the deceased Tamil Tiger Leader’s war bunker following the election, fearing that what was once a war trophy may now become a shrine for revived Tamil nationalism in the aftermath of the elections.

Much of the fear among Canada’s Tamil population in the past few years has been over concerns that Sri Lanka’s Tamils have become politically marginalised following the government’s victory. As a result, diaspora populations worldwide have proceeded to take up the cause on their behalf, seeking justice for those who they thought were voiceless. But this has resulted in a schism between the Tamil diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka. While the diaspora continues to push for accountability and in some cases, remains committed to the Tamils’ separatist cause, the main concern among Tamils in Sri Lanka has been with regard to the reconstruction of their livelihoods. An International Crisis Group report in 2010 warned that a conflict had emerged between the diaspora and Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, citing that some diaspora leaders were beginning to dismiss local Sri Lankan aspirations and had even suggested that “Tamil politicians were “traitors ...working for the government or [were] too weak or scared to stand up for their people’s rights.”

Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial council elections have clearly demonstrated that Sri Lankan Tamils, despite difficult circumstances, have not lost their voice. Normally this might have signaled a political rapprochement between the diaspora and Sri Lanka’s Tamils. But Harper’s decision not to attend the Commonwealth meeting further stokes disapora radicalisation at the expense of reconciliation with Sri Lanka’s Tamils. If this relational gap is allowed to continue to fester, the result may not only deprive Sri Lankan Tamils of much needed support but also lead to a more permanent political - and eventually social - severance between the diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Post-war accountability remains a serious concern in Sri Lanka and Harper is right to posit that the Commonwealth’s reputation may be at stake on this issue.

Reconciliation between the government and the North and East remains elusive, but the antagonistic relationship between the government and the country’s Tamil population is not irregular; indeed it has been the norm for over 30 years. But the reconciliation process that Canada may actually have some influence in moving forward - the one between the Tamil diaspora and Sri Lankan Tamils - is the one that Canada may have just squandered away.