The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), a biennial summit of Commonwealth nations, is currently underway in Colombo, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper is not in attendance. The supposed reason for Canada’s boycott is that Sri Lanka, the island host of this year’s meeting, has done little to address the widespread accusations of human rights violations, persistent violence, and militarization that continue to plague the country almost five years after the end of the protracted civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) and Sri Lankan government forces.
The decision by the Canadian government was largely seen as a positive move by the sizeable Tamil community in Canada, which is the largest outside of Sri Lanka itself. However, the Canadian government has not always expressed concern regarding Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Canadian officials, for example, have worked closely with their Sri Lankan counterparts to prevent individuals trying to flee from these very human rights abuses in Sri Lanka from entering Canada as refugees. What explains this discrepancy in Canada’s policies?
Since the end of its bloody civil war in 2009, the Sri Lankan government has been marred by ongoing reports of human rights abuses, including “intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances, and allegations of extra judicial killings,” as recently noted by Al Jazeera. Due to the lack of meaningful effort to address these allegations, Prime Minister Harper noted that Sri Lanka did not respect the Commonwealth’s core values, so he could not endorse the summit.
However, these values, as outlined in the 1991 Harare Declaration, have not always been upheld by members of the Commonwealth. Indeed, there is much irony in the fact that the Harare declaration was drafted in the capital city of Zimbabwe at the very same time that civil liberties were under attack in that country. It is not surprising that human rights issues in Zimbabwe dominated the agenda of almost all Commonwealth meetings from 1991 to 2003, when Zimbabwe decided to withdraw from Commonwealth altogether.
Though some commend Harper for taking a principled stance against Sri Lanka, this foreign policy decision is paradoxical to Canada’s cozy working relationship with the country in relation to its domestic policies. When two cargo ships carrying asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka arrived on the shores of British Columbia in 2009 (the Ocean Lady) and 2010 (the MV Sun Sea), Canada actively worked with Sri Lanka to prevent asylum-seekers from arriving in Canada and deported those who had already arrived.
Through the Access to Information Act, the Canadian Council for Refugees obtained memos revealing that the Canadian Border Service Agency planned to pursue a “more aggressive” approach prior to the arrival of MV Sun Sea, a ship carrying 492 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, than the one taken less than a year earlier when the Ocean Lady arrived with 76 asylum seekers on board. The memos show that CBSA actively collected evidence to stop the migration, and liaised with Sri Lankan officials to “verify the identities of the passengers and whether they had a criminal record,” and that “special care” would be required when liaising with Sri Lankan authorities as “nationals seeking asylum in Canada could leave them at risk of persecution at home; because of their attempt to flee.”
Last month, reports emerged that a second migrant from the MV Sun Sea who had been deported back to Sri Lanka (identified only as B005), was detained upon arrival and has since lost touch with his family and counsel. Though court documents show that B005 was not suspected of being involved with criminal activities, he was arrested anyway. For some, this may be an example of why Canada should indeed boycott CHOGM this week; however, it also highlights that Canada is complicit in criminalizing and deporting asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, who then become vulnerable to human rights abuses in the very country they were fleeing from.
How can Canada, on the one hand, boycott CHOGM on the grounds of human rights violations perpetrated by the Sri Lanka government while, on the other hand, seek assistance from the very same government when attempting to prevent its nationals from fleeing the country? There are two possible explanations for this policy discrepancy.
First, Canada’s seemingly contradictory policy stance on Sri Lanka may be emblematic of a larger, more structural issue with the way in which federal government and its constituent ministries can operate in opposite and contradictory ways. Such inconsistencies can emerge when large ministries formulate policies independently of one another, failing to communicate important information to successfully co-ordinate and meet policy goals.
Another explanation for Canada’s recent hardline on Sri Lanka is Harper’s current need to exhibit concern over human rights violations in Sri Lanka to garner the attention and votes of Tamil-Canadians of Sri Lankan origin. Members of this community vehemently protested the last days of the protracted civil war in May 2009, with one protest even culminating in the blockade of the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Many in the Tamil diaspora still perceive that the Canadian government failed to prevent the atrocities from taking place in the final months of the war. Harper’s refusal to attend CHOGM could simply be a strategic move to gain the favour of conservative-leaning Tamils, especially as many Conservatives view outreach to ethnic groups as helping them clinch the 2011 victory.
Regardless of why the Canadian government is taking such a stance, there are broader implications for this particular policy inconsistency, both domestically and internationally. The blatant cherry-picking of circumstance in which to engage with the Sri Lankan government blemishes Canada’s international image as a serious advocate for justice and democracy. While the Canadian government recognizes and condemns Sri Lanka’s human rights violations and recent undemocratic tendencies, it remains unwilling to allow Sri Lankan nationals to find protection within its own borders. Due to Harper’s refusal to attend CHOGM, Sri Lankan nationals who are seeking asylum in Western nations may now be under the impression that Canada indeed recognizes the dire living conditions in Sri Lanka, and that it is a safe place to seek asylum–when, in fact, the Canadian government is altering its practices to make it more difficult for these individuals to arrive and stay in Canada.
Policy inconsistency of any sort should be avoided. However, special care must be taken when policies have serious human rights implications for both Canadians and non-Canadians alike.
Ahila Poologaindran is a 2014 MPP Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a joint degree in Political Science and International Development Studies from McGill University. Ahila has worked for the not-profit sector as well as for the Ontario Public Service. Her interests include migration, mental health, and social policy.