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Canada pulls funding for Commonwealth in flap over Sri Lanka

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says money which would have gone to the Commonwealth Secretariat will be allocated to other programs.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada is suspending voluntary funding for the Commonwealth Secretariat over alleged human rights abuses by Sri Lanka, the organization's current chair.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird accused Sri Lanka on Monday of failing to take meaningful action on human rights and political reconciliation. The decision to halt funding for the Commonwealth Secretariat comes five months after Prime Minister Stephen Harper skipped the 2013 Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Colombo because of concerns about Sri Lanka's human-rights record.

Canada will hold back $10-million in annual voluntary funding for the Commonwealth Secretariat during the remainder of Sri Lanka's term as chair, Mr. Baird said.

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The Secretariat is responsible for implementing the decisions and plans of Commonwealth leaders, who represent countries that were once part of the British Empire.

Mr. Baird did not comment on the status of other funding Canada provides to other organizations of the Commonwealth, such as the Commonwealth of Learning.

"This decision was not taken lightly," Mr. Baird said in a statement on Monday.

"We can no longer justify providing additional funding to an organization that turns a blind eye to human rights abuses, anti-democratic behaviour and religious intolerance in its member states."

Mr. Baird said the money, which totals $20-million over two years, would instead go to efforts to combat early and forced marriage and human-rights promotion in Commonwealth countries.

He did not specify which organizations would receive the funding.

The Sri Lankan government defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009, but continues to face allegations that it has done little to address war crimes committed during the 26-year armed conflict.

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A recent report by the United Nations Human Rights Council found the government had failed to credibly investigate past human-rights violations and recommended an independent international inquiry.

"Canada remains deeply concerned about the absence of accountability for alleged serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards in Sri Lanka," Mr. Baird said Monday.

Canada attempted in 2011 to persuade the Commonwealth to adopt a values charter along with tools to deal with members who violated it, but felt that the current secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, was not helpful in moving the proposal forward. A watered-down version of the values charter was passed in late 2012.

Roland Paris, who teaches international security and governance at the University of Ottawa, said Canada's decision to cut funding from the Commonwealth hurts the organization – and not Sri Lanka.

And he said Canada has used its seat in the Commonwealth effectively in the past, citing former prime minister Brian Mulroney's campaign against apartheid in South Africa.

"We can have greater influence working within the organization," Prof. Paris said.

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Canada is not the first country to pull voluntary funding from the Commonwealth: In October, 2013, Britain announced a reduction in funding to the Commonwealth Secretariat over a two-year period.

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Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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