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Ottawa opposes Sri Lanka bid to host next Commonwealth summit

The Harper government is opposing Sri Lanka's bid to play host to the next summit of Commonwealth countries, a position it's announced in a particularly public manner to plaudits from Tamil Canadians.

Canada's decision is a sharp rebuke to the Asian country's handling of a brutal and bloody war with Tamil Tiger insurgents that left thousands of civilians dead and initially displaced more than 300,000 from their homes.

"Canada will not be supporting Sri Lanka as the next host of the Commonwealth summit," Prime Minister's Office spokesman Dimitri Soudas announced in a brief press statement before this year's meeting of 53 Commonwealth countries got under way in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

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The measure echoes a stand taken by Britain and has likely killed any hope Sri Lanka might have had of being chosen to play host to the next Commonwealth summit in 2011. Canada and Britain are major players in the 60-year-old organization.

The move is finding favour with Tamil Canadians, who form an important voting bloc in some Toronto ridings. The Tories need to pick up more seats in the Greater Toronto Area if they want to win a majority government.

The Harper government, however, said its decision was about human rights and the aftermath of the war against the Tamil Tigers.

"We continue to be concerned with the situation in Sri Lanka," a senior Canadian government official said.

More than 120,000 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka's civil war are still being kept in government detention camps. They have been detained in these holding facilities since the war against the Tamil Tigers ended last May.

Anzul Jhan, acting high commissioner for the Sri Lankans in Canada, said her government was confused by Ottawa's decision, which she called unfair. She said the Harper government had not yet explained itself to Sri Lanka.

She said the Sri Lankan government would have liked to release the detained civilians earlier but was concerned about threats from the Tamil Tigers - also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - among the population.

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"They were not released because we had to weed out the LTTE hard-core cadre."

Ms. Jhan said the government has already announced that the camps will be emptied shortly and that Canada knows this. "We have been feeding them even throughout the conflict and we have been looking after their welfare."

Canada, however, yesterday called on Sri Lanka to work harder to allow those displaced by the conflict with the Tamil Tigers to return to their homes.

"Canada continues to urge the government of Sri Lanka to ensure full and unhindered humanitarian access to internally displaced populations," a Canadian official said.

Tamil Canadians lauded Ottawa's move.

"We welcome the Canadian government's decision to stand with Britain on the side of human rights," said David Poopalapillai, spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress.

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"The international community has a responsibility to ensure Sri Lanka is held accountable for its crimes against humanity, large scale massacres and internment camps in this year alone."

Pollster Nik Nanos said while it may upset Sri Lanka, there's effectively little drawback domestically to rebuking the Asian country because most Canadians of Sri Lankan origin are Tamil.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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