Time for real Canadian action on Sri Lanka

By: Paul Dewar

The Canadian government can and should do more to defend democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka. Achieving real results will require committed and responsible action through international institutions and alongside our allies.

The Sri Lankan government has been given numerous opportunities to respect basic human rights and democratic liberties, and to commit to an impartial investigation of alleged war crimes committed in the final stages of the civil war. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan authorities have only strengthened restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and victims of human rights abuses are still no closer to the justice they deserve.

My NDP colleagues and I have been active and consistent on this file for many months. In numerous public statements and letters to the foreign minister, we have documented the damage being done in Sri Lanka to the fundamental elements of democratic life. And we have called for decisive action from the Canadian government, including a full boycott of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held this month in Colombo.

Physical attacks on independent journalists have been coupled with increasing constraints on media. Sri Lanka was rated the fourth worst country in the world last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists in terms of impunity in cases of murdered reporters. Active censorship is having a multiplier effect as news organizations self-censor out of fear of reprisals for critical reporting.

The politically motivated impeachment of the chief justice earlier this year is but one example of efforts by the Sri Lankan government to undermine the rule of law and an impartial judiciary.

Meanwhile, the government has taken no action to encourage, facilitate or even allow an international and independent investigation into violations of international law, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, allegedly committed at the end of the civil war. A United Nations panel of experts reported in 2011 that 40,000 civilians may have died amidst indiscriminate shelling by the Sri Lankan army. Yet just two weeks ago, the Sri Lankan foreign affairs minister called an international investigation “entirely without justification,” and declared that the government would not co-operate with such an inquiry.

Earlier this fall, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay reported that the country was heading in an “increasingly authoritarian direction.” She cited evidence of disappearances, displacement, military intervention in civilian activities, and surveillance and harassment of Tamils, Muslims, Christians and other minorities.

The United Nations Human Rights Council will be meeting again in March 2014. Assuming that the situation in Sri Lanka does not improve, Canada should show leadership in sponsoring another resolution at the council condemning the actions of the government and calling for the full protection of human rights and democratic freedoms.

Partial boycott half-hearted

In the more immediate term, the Canadian government’s partial boycott of the Commonwealth meeting is a disappointingly half-hearted measure. The prime minister’s decision to send a parliamentary secretary to the summit weakens the message that must be sent to Sri Lanka: continued neglect of human rights obligations cannot and will not be tolerated. The NDP has been consistent and clear in calling for a full and complete Canadian boycott, and continues to stand by this position.

Unfortunately, the prime minister also decided to use the announcement of his belated decision to boycott the Sri Lankan summit to launch a review of Canada’s financial commitments to the Commonwealth. This was a false and disingenuous connection between an individual member state and the broader institution. Sending a strong message to Sri Lanka is important, but the focus must be squarely placed on that country and its leadership.

If the Conservatives had wanted to send a stronger message, they could have moved to suspend Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth until and unless concrete improvements in human rights are realized. Instead, the government chose to continue its disappointing and damaging pattern of withdrawing and distancing itself from international agreements and institutions—a pattern that only undermines Canada’s reputation and influence in the world.

Moreover, the government missed a valuable opportunity to network and co-operate with its allies on the issue of human rights and the rule of law. The prime minister appears to have made virtually no personal effort to persuade other national leaders of his rationale for boycotting the summit. And sure enough, it appears that Canada will once again be acting alone. Rather than isolating Sri Lanka, it is Canada left on the sidelines.

Canada should be pursuing a strong, multilateral and targeted policy in defence of human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka. Instead, the Conservatives have offered only belated rhetoric. Canada can be a force for positive change, as it was in protesting the apartheid regime in South Africa. Delivering real results demands a more responsible commitment than has been demonstrated by this government.

Paul Dewar is the member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre and the foreign affairs critic for the NDP official Opposition.

Source: http://www.embassynews.ca/opinion/2013/11/06/time-for-real-canadian-action-on-sri-lanka/44747


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