Writing in Embassy, Raj Thavaratnasingham, the president of the Canadian Tamil Congress, called on Commonwealth heads to boycott CHOGM next week. The full text of his opinion has been reproduced below:
In 2009, the Canadian government refused to support a bid by Sri Lanka to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, as a way to pressure the government to allow relief workers access to refugee camps following the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. In 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper first mentioned his intent to boycott the biennial summit if the human rights situation in Sri Lanka did not improve.
Last month, our prime minister announced that he will not attend CHOGM, scheduled to take place from Nov. 15 to 17, citing the ongoing human rights crisis in Sri Lanka. The Liberals and the New Democratic Party have in the past also expressed their support for a boycott.
Instead of showing improvement, severe human rights violations are only increasing in Sri Lanka. In September, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay presented an oral report to the Human Rights Council following a fact-finding mission to the island. She cited evidence of vast militarization by the government in Tamil areas, military seizure of private land, an increase in violence against religious minorities (Christians, Muslims and Hindus) across the country, and surveillance and intimidation of political opponents, lawyers, human rights activists and judges, in addition to the need to establish an inquiry into crimes committed during the final stages of the war. “I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction,” she stated.
Indeed, just two weeks ago, the Sri Lankan government announced that protests, marches and the display of black flags or banners would be banned during the first three weeks of November coinciding directly with the dates of the Commonwealth meeting. This is another slap in the face to the basic human rights of freedom of expression and assembly.
Earlier this year, the Queen signed the Charter of the Commonwealth, enshrining the principles of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression and assembly, among others, for which the Commonwealth of Nations stands.
After hosting the heads of government meeting, Sri Lanka will become the chair-in-office of the Commonwealth. This means it will chair the foreign ministers meetings and have a seat on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, the body in charge of investigating violations of human rights, democracy and judicial or journalistic independence.
Delegitimizing Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka should be suspended from the Commonwealth for these abuses, and certainly should not be hosting CHOGM. But if it is destined to be the next chair-in-office, Canada does not have to simply accept this. Those who attend the meeting, exchange pleasantries, visit the affected Tamil areas, make a statement or two, take photos and then go home, will be complicit in bestowing the honour of chairperson-in-office to a government and a president accused of allegedly committing war crimes. By not attending, Canada will not be legitimizing this appointment.
Some have spoken out against the prime ministerʼs decision to boycott, arguing that Canada should attend and speak at the event about the abuses. These suggestions however are idealistic at best; while the principles of multilateral diplomacy are important and may work in a country where there is some measure of rule of law, they fall on deaf ears in Sri Lanka.
If two UN Human Rights Council resolutions, condemnations from many countries and numerous requests and reports by various human rights organizations have not changed Sri Lanka four and a half years since the end of the war, it is naive to believe that attendance and polite words will make a difference. On the contrary, the Sri Lankan regime waits for prestigious opportunities such as this one to use as propaganda both within the country and to the international community at large.
Several international human rights groups have from the beginning called for the meeting not to be held in Sri Lanka, and have subsequently called for a boycott. Boycotting CHOGM in Sri Lanka will send a strong signal that Sri Lanka, and countries like it, cannot expect others to turn a blind eye to their human rights abuses.
There may remain some potential steps Commonwealth countries can take to show their commitment to human rights in Sri Lanka but so far, only Canada has taken a real one. And it is one we should all be proud of.