The Harper government is dispatching a delegation to Sri Lanka as it presses the country to launch a post-war reconciliation with its Tamil minority.
Sending the delegation to Sri Lanka, which has sometimes restricted access for foreign officials, is intended to underline Ottawa's keen interest, which includes lobbying other nations to back a United Nations resolution calling on the country to act on human rights.
It is the latest measure in the Conservatives' turnaround from reluctance to criticize the Sri Lankan government during its civil war with the Tamil Tigers, which the Tories banned as a terrorist group, to one of Colombo's most vocal critics.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is sending three representatives, MPs Rick Dykstra and Chris Alexander – a former ambassador to Afghanistan – and new senator Vern White. They will conduct a kind of fact-finding mission intended to shape the government's next steps in dealing with Colombo, a government source said.
The three are scheduled to meet government officials in Colombo and other parts of the country. The government source would not confirm the locations, but another individual familiar with the plans said the tour is expected to include Jaffna, the major city in the Tamil-dominated north, and other areas hit hard in the civil war.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government alienated many in the 300,000-strong Tamil-Canadian community by being slow to demand restraint from Colombo during the civil war that ended with the Tigers' defeat in May, 2009.
But Colombo's failure to acknowledge rights abuses in the civil war and reconcile with its Tamil minority has prompted the Conservatives to criticize Sri Lanka. Last fall, Mr. Harper threatened to boycott next year's Commonwealth summit there if the country's record does not improve.
A UN report last year concluded there is evidence that both the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government committed human rights abuses in the civil war – including the shelling by government forces of tens of thousands of civilians in no-fire zones.
Mr. Baird has met several times with Tamil-Canadians, some of whom asked him to send a delegation to signal to Sri Lanka's government that Ottawa takes the issue seriously, according to one community leader. But Sri Lanka doesn't always welcome foreigners snooping around: in 2009, after the war ended, it refused visas to Tory MPs Paul Calandra and Patrick Brown, and deported Liberal Bob Rae.
The delegation will arrive in Sri Lanka on Wednesday, just as an international diplomatic battle over Sri Lanka's human rights record heats up in Geneva.
That issue is a U.S.-drafted resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that criticizes the Sri Lankan government over human rights, calls on it to implement the recommendations from its own post-war "lessons learned" report, and mandates the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights to report on progress in the fall.
Canada is a co-sponsor of the resolution and is lobbying other nations to back it, a government source said.
But the Sri Lankan government is fighting hard, portraying the resolution as Western interference in the country's internal affairs.
Colombo has in recent years turned increasingly to China as an ally, so Western nations are hoping the vote in Geneva, expected on Thursday or Friday, does not turn on an East-West divide. They are seeking to persuade Sri Lanka's major neighbour, India, and African nations on the council, to vote for the resolution.
India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said on Monday his country is "inclined" to back the resolution – although that less-than-definitive phrase led to speculation he is seeking to water down the wording.