Two weeks before a Commonwealth summit that could be marred by divisions on the issue, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is pressing forward with demands that Sri Lanka show “progress” on accountability for alleged human-rights violations that occurred at the end of the civil war in 2009 with the Tamil Tigers.Harper will bring his case to the upcoming Oct. 28-30 summit of leaders in Perth, Australia, and is saying that unless he is satisfied with the actions of Sri Lanka he will boycott the next biennial Commonwealth meeting, which is being held in that country.
“We do expect a discussion at the Commonwealth on this and the prime minister will make his position clear,” Harper’s associate director of communications, Andrew MacDougall, said in an interview Friday.
Moreover, MacDougall said the prime minister has not wavered from the concerns he outlined in a round table discussion he had a month ago with some Canadian ethnic media.
At that session, Harper was responding to questions about Canada’s stance on whether Sri Lanka should be permitted to host the next Commonwealth summit in 2013 and whether there should be an international investigation into allegations of human rights violations by the government.
In response, Harper was clear.
“I intend to make clear to my fellow leaders at the Commonwealth that if we do not see progress in Sri Lanka in terms of human rights and some of the issues that you raised, I will not as prime minister be attending that Commonwealth summit (in 2013),” he said.
“And I hope that others will take a similar position, but I hope that this will pressure the Sri Lankan government to take the appropriate actions. We are concerned about the situation.”
Harper said that Sri Lanka needs to “make progress” not only in terms of what it did to the Tamil Tigers, but also needs to show advances in the areas of “political reconciliation, democratic values and accountability.”
Furthermore, the prime minister said he supports calls for an international investigation of the issue in the wake of a report done by an expert panel earlier this year for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon which found “credible allegations” that government forces and the Tamil Tigers both committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the final months of the civil conflict.
Specifically, that report concluded there were credible allegations that the government killed civilians through “widespread shelling,” including at hospitals, that it denied humanitarian assistance and that it tried to silence the media and critics through intimidation tactics such as the use of white vans to abduct people who would then disappear.
The mounting evidence has not gone unnoticed in Ottawa, where Harper’s government — which has long been critical of the Tamil Tigers as terrorists — is now also demanding accountability from the Sri Lankan government itself.
“The prime minister’s comments from September stand,” MacDougall said Friday.
“That’s still his view — that there has to be progress in Sri Lanka.”
MacDougall noted that the 54-nation Commonwealth exists, in part, to “build support for democratic reform and the rule of law.”
“We want to see progress on these fronts and the prime minister has made that clear with respect to Sri Lanka. We’ll have the discussion in Australia.”
But on Friday, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Canada, Chitranganee Wagiswara, told Postmedia News that her country does not want the issue raised at the Commonwealth summit.
“In Perth, I think we don’t want any sort of division created. I think Canada doesn’t want that. It’s up to Canada to decide.”
Wagiswara said Commonwealth leaders already decided at their last summit, in 2009, that Sri Lanka would host the conference four years later.
“We don’t want the issue, the subject, re-opened. We feel that it is unfair to reopen that subject because it was already decided by the Commonwealth member states.”
She denied allegations that Sri Lanka committed human rights violations, stressing that the government was fighting a war against terrorism when it defeated the Tamil Tigers.
She said the report prepared for the UN secretary general is filled with “unsubstantiated allegations,” and that a “propaganda campaign” is now being circulated by Tamil Tigers which has influenced governments.
However, Harper appears to have the support of political critics and international organizations, and a critical question will be how other large Commonwealth countries such as Britain and Australia react when the discussion occurs at the upcoming summit.
NDP foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere said her party believes an international investigation into the alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka is “essential.”
“It’s the only way we cannot allow impunity to stand and the only way to make sure that we have durable, sustainable peace.”
Moreover, she said she believes Harper is right to have it on the table at the meeting in Australia.
“The Commonwealth has played an important role, for example, in the case of South Africa,” said Laverdiere. “We’re not talking the same situation here, but we’re still talking about a very serious situation. And I think this is the kind of issue that the Commonwealth should address.”
John Argue, of Amnesty International, said his organization and other groups have long called for an international investigation into Sri Lanka. He said the country has rejected those pleas and has, instead, established a Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission which will submit its report in mid-November.
But he said the review falls far short of what is needed.
“It doesn’t really investigate human rights violations.”
British journalist Derek Ingram, widely regarded as the world’s leading scholar on the Commonwealth, said it is unusual for a situation to arise where the leaders are faced with a tough debate over the proper venue for the next summit.
Still, he said they won’t be able to avoid the issue by putting off the thorny discussion.
“They have to decide at this summit the venue of the next summit,” said Ingram.