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Why Canada boycotted Sri Lanka: It’s what the Commonwealth is for

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's announcement Sunday night that Canada will boycott the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka should come as no surprise. It is more shocking that none of the 52 other member nations seem prepared to follow suit.

Canada has made it clear from the beginning that it will not allow the island nation to win a publicity coup by holding the summit, as its government descends into repressive ethnic sectarianism and the rule of law weakens under the increasingly military-driven government of president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

"I have indicated that unless changes occur in Sri Lanka I will not be attending the Commmonwealth summit there," Mr. Harper said in February. In the eight months since, things have demonstrably not improved.

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This is one occasion where Canada is clearly in the right. When Sri Lanka ended its civil war in 2009 with a decisive military victory by Mr. Rajapaksa's Sinhalese-speaking Buddhists against the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, it was a moment when the island could have become united, for the first time in decades, in a multi-ethnic moment of unification. Instead, what I witnessed in the weeks after the conflict was a Buddhist-supremacist power grab by Mr. Rajapaksa, followed by brutal punishment and isolation of Tamils. Over the intervening four years, Sri Lanka's minorities have increasingly become second-class citizens.

In August, the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, reported that Sri Lanka has become a dangerous place for its religious and linguistic minorities – Tamil-speakers, Muslims, Hindus and Christians – who are subject to attacks, disappearances, burnings of their houses of worship and summary executions. The Tamil-speaking north remains under military control, and basic freedoms there are severely limited.

Human Rights Watch concluded, in a 2013 investigation, that Sri Lanka has "continued its assault on democratic space and failed to take any meaningful steps toward providing accountability for war crimes committed by either side." The organization's Asia director concluded that a summit there would contradict the Commonwealth's basic values.

"Holding the summit in Sri Lanka casts serious doubts on the Commonwealth's stated commitment to supporting human rights and democratic reform," Brad Adams wrote in a letter to the Commonwealth heads of government. "Instead of participating in a propaganda coup for the Sri Lankan government, Commonwealth heads of government should stay home and publicly press Sri Lanka on its repressive policies and lack of accountability."

So far, only Canada has done so. One could interpret this cynically: There are well over 100,000 Sri Lankan-born Canadians, and even more of their descendants, in Canada, and most of them live in Toronto-area ridings coveted by the Conservatives. The great majority are Tamils, so aggressive denunciation of Mr. Rajapaksa's abuses has its political benefits within Canada.

But whatever its motive, Canada has done what other Commonwealth members no longer seem willing to do.

This is unfortunate, because the only value in the Commonwealth – a loose-knit gathering of former British colonies that has no commercial, trade or political function – is in its ability to exclude and punish members.

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The Commonwealth's brightest moments include the expulsion of South Africa between 1961 and 1994 in protest against apartheid – a move that had a real impact and is still remembered in South Africa – and its suspension of Zimbabwe's membership, in protest against Robert Mugabe's abuses of power, which began in 2002. Other bold acts include Nigeria's suspension between 1995 and 1999 following the execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Pakistan's multiple suspensions over Pervez Musharraf's military coups, and Fiji's multiple suspensions for military coups.

If the Commonwealth is unable to similarly banish or censure Sri Lanka for thoroughly documented, systemic violations of basic human and democratic rights, then it is worth asking what value the organization serves. Even insiders have begun to question this.

"In reality there is very little benefit these days in membership of this club," wrote Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, a former director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, in the Guardian last week. "The only way the Commonwealth will thrive is to re-assert the moral authority it once had. This may mean more countries withdrawing, but a smaller, more effective Commonwealth is better than one that stays silent simply to keep the club together."

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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