7 Oct 2013

Commonwealth crisis: Canada pulls out of Sri Lanka summit

PM brands Sri Lankan human rights violations “unacceptable”

It’s been on the cards for months, now it’s official. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he will boycott next month’s Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka over serious human rights concerns. By doing so, Canada becomes the first and only country to take such a stand.


In announcing his boycott of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo, Stephen Harper did not pull his punches. Canada, he said, is “deeply concerned” about the situation in Sri Lanka.

“The absence of accountability for the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war is unacceptable,” he said.

His decision was announced as Channel 4 News revealed that the Commonwealth secretary general had failed to inform the group’s leaders of independent legal advice he had received casting doubt on Sri Lanka’s suitability to host the prestigious summit.

Independent lawyers had informed him six months ago that in their view, the regime was in breach of its own constitution.

The British government confirmed in May that David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague would attend the CHOGM. Tamil rights activists accused it of “collaborating with evil.”

Mr Hague stated that he and Mr Cameron did not believe that a boycott would help bring about improvements in Sri Lanka’s human rights record.


Ottawa had previously made clear its misgivings and threatened its boycott:  in April this year, the Canadian foreign minister told Channel 4 News that he was “appalled” that the summit would take place in Sri Lanka, which will assume chairmanship of the organisation for a two year period, following the meeting. Alternative venues had been proposed.

According to the United Nations, at least 40,000 Tamil civilians – possibly nearly double that number – were killed in the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s 27-year-long civil war, which ended in May 2009.  Allegations of war crimes go to the very top of the regime of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which has steadfastly refused to allow an independent investigation.

At the end of August, Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights again called for an inquiry, stating bluntly – after a week-long visit – that the island republic, beloved of foreign tourists, was becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Democracy and the rule of law had been eroded, she said.

Today, the Canadian prime minister joined her in citing a litany of concerns: the impeachment of Sri Lanka’s chief justice this year, the “ongoing reports” of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, disappearances and allegations of extrajudicial killings.

‘Kept secret’

Mr Harper said the Sri Lankan government “has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values” – and it was for that reason, he said, that he had decided not to attend.

But read between the lines and what the prime minister is saying is that Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalash Sharma is, in his view, guilty of undermining the very values set out in the 54-nation group’s new charter, signed by the Queen in March.

Channel 4 News has obtained correspondence which show that the secretary general believed as long ago as January this year, that the impeachment of Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, “ran counter” to Commonwealth values.

A senior anonymous Commonwealth source has also revealed that a legal opinion from within the Commonwealth secretariat and two independent legal opinions – all of them sought by the secretary general – concluded that the impeachment was unconstitutional.

The source says:  “It seems this knowledge was kept secret.”

Asleep at the wheel?

This raises very serious questions as to why the secretary general allowed the Commonwealth summit to be hosted by Sri Lanka at all. Mr Sharma has repeatedly refused requests for an interview – but in light of these revelations, we will today submit a fresh request.

In May, Buckingham Palace announced that the Queen, who is the Head of the Commonwealth, would not be attending the meeting – despite having been present at every commonwealth summit for the past 40 years.

Two months earlier, two former foreign secretaries told Channel 4 News that the Commonwealth secretariat should stop Sri Lanka from hosting the summit. David Miliband described it as a repressive regime, fast “moving towards pariah status.” 

The statement by Prime Minister Harper says he has instructed his foreign affairs minister to “review Canada’s financial contributions to Commonwealth programs and the Commonwealth secretariat.”

Chitranganee Wagiswara, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Canada, disputed the idea that the human rights situation was bad.
“We don’t accept what is being said,” she told Reuters. “Over the last short period of four years we have made progress which is recognized by most in the international community,” she said.

Thirty years ago, the Commonwealth stood up to the apartheid regime in South Africa, demanding improvements in human rights.

Today the group is struggling for political relevance and its secretary general stands accused of falling asleep at the wheel.

Follow Jonathan Miller on Twitter.

Tweets by @millerc4

15 reader comments

  1. Sivendran says:

    One of the best article after long time.

    Canadian pm made the right decision

  2. James Wilson says:

    Following Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses, War Crimes against Tamils and the murder of the British tourist in Christmas Day 2011, it should not be allowed to stage the next Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka.
    In 2011 A British Tourist was stabbed in the throat and shot dead after he complained about the men sexually harassing his girlfriend as they enjoyed a drink in the early hours of Christmas Day 2011. His girlfriend was beaten unconscious and gang-raped, according to Sri Lankan police. But despite assurances from Mr Rajapaksa, suspicions of a politically-motivated cover-up to protect a key supporter have grown, amid threats against witnesses and misleading statements by government figures. No Justice jet.

  3. sam says:

    The British colonizers betrayed Tamils at every step.Their ultimate aim is total genocide of tamils.

    1-The British made maximum use of Tamils when they ruled Ceylon simply because Tamils are
    knowledgeable and hard working.

    2-But when the British left Ceylon they left the Tamils at the disposal of Sinhalese in the name of democracy.

    3-British made sure they kept pin drop silence when ever the Tamils were massacred by successive Srilankan governments in 1950s,1970s,1980s and 2009.

    4-Not stopping at that,the British branded the Tamil freedom struggle as “terrorism” and funded the Srilankan military to massacre Tamils.

    5-Britain is making sure the Tamil Genocide is successfully completed by continuing to support Srilankan governments in every possible way,for example

    #continue to refuse any independent international investigation and recommend LLRC
    (asking the murderer to investigate his own murder)

    #Legitimizing the Tamil genocide by Srilanka by supporting Srilanka to host commonwealth.

    #Deporting Tamil asylum seekers when ever the Channel 4 comes up with evidence against Srilanka in an attempt to diffuse the effect

  4. Raymond says:

    At least one leader has the back bone to stand up to the rights of minorities in Sri Lanka. If every leader follow the same path we will not hear and the world would have solved the refugee problem .
    Shame on you all other leaders who are going to Sri Lanka for Common Wealth Meeting and dinning with the President with a glass of blood of 400000 innocent Tamils massacred by the Regime

  5. Vani Kumar says:

    According to UN Report (UN Petrie internal review report – Nov 2012) 70,000 people lost their lives in the last months of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war and “Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN,” it concludes. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=43496)
    The international communities have been insisting on credible independent investigations into alleged war crimes. However, Sri Lanka sees little point in giving into what we would term is a ‘legitimate’ demand of the international community. Human rights and Democracy continues to be a major concern despite the end of the civil war and it is alleged Lankan Tamils are more suspiciously viewed. Sri Lanka is committed to alter the demographics of the North and the East.
    Therefore Sri Lanka to be removed from the commonwealth till it shows progress in the Commonwealth charter to the satisfaction of the Commonwealth nations and UN Human Rights Council.

  6. quietoakree says:

    “Thirty years ago, the Commonwealth stood up to the apartheid regime in South Africa, demanding improvements in human rights.”

    –WHAT ?


    -and forget the rest of the story ?

    Having visited Sri Lanka almost 30 years ago, the hatred between Tamils and Singhalese was difficult to overlook –the ´divide and rule´ was successful –and that ALL around the world where Britain conquered and exploited — in practically every Commonwealth country.

    With hatred within the societies –it should be condemned, but the blame placed elsewhere.

  7. anon says:

    Today I feel proud to be Canadian as well as British. The Commonwealth should uphold the values of the association. Whether or not the situation has improved is not really relevant in this context. An alternate meeting place would have been tactful at the very least.

    The killing of civilians on that scale is appalling. Continuing membership should have been re considered ..

  8. Siva Sankaran Sarma says:

    “According to the United Nations, at least 40,000 Tamil civilians – possibly nearly double that number – were killed in the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s 27-year-long civil war”

    Ah, here’s C4 with the big lie they’ve been trying to propagate time and time again. Can you point out where the UN claimed “at least 40,000 Tamil civilians” were killed?

  9. Kumar says:

    I congratulate C4 for standing up to an appalling regime in Colombo. An independent international probe will only clear all war crime allegations. The commonwealth leaders should tell President Rajapakse that he is unsuitable to host COHGM unless they want to align themselves with an appalling regime. The Commonwealth should consider the position of its Secretary General as he failed to inform the leaders of the independent legal advice he received,

  10. anon says:

    It is appalling that so many countries control their populations by genocide.

    Perhaps China’s one child policy has a lesson for many.

    I know little of the underlying problems of the civil war in Sri Lanka , but presumably racial hatred is a root cause .However to kill 400,000 in the last weeks of a war is unspeakably horrific.

    Population control has to happen as more and more diseases are eliminated by medical advances, if more and more KILLING FIELDS are to be prevented.

  11. john says:

    Human beings on earth could still have a glimmer of Hope,knowing that there is still one person(Stephen Harper) and one channel(Channel 4 news) left to respect human beings,human values and human rights and voice for the helpless, in a world that glorifies a MASS SCALE MURDERER LIKE MAHINDA RAJAPAKSE and people like DAVID CAMERONs,TONY ABOTTs and MANMOHAN SINGHs and tv channels like BBC AND CNN who continue to support his cruelty.

  12. Saro says:

    CH4 has been the champion of the voice of persecuted people all over the world.

    Even the Commonwealth monitors of the recent election in the north said that the heavy presence of the military all over the north intimidated, harassed and attacked the Tamil Alliance candidates and their reporters. This was independently verified and confirmed by two other independent sources, UN HRC Chief and local monitors CaFFE. But the Commonwealth SG is unmoved. Canada must withdraw its financial contribution as a last resort to highlight the importance of upholding neutrality and justice.

  13. Vani Kumar says:

    Many thanks to C4 News Team. Why the Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalash Sharma is repeatedly refused requests for an interview with Channel 4 regarding the “Commonwealth Cover-up”?

  14. Evad Gastner says:

    Shame on all the Leaders going to this conference , a pox on the lot of you.

  15. Sean says:

    People in Britain should be thankful for their gleaming cities, wealth and the monarchy to their colonies like Ceylon(Sri Lanka), which they raped and plundered for many, many years inflicting untold misery,destroying culture and civilization,etc. You leeches have the nerve now to lecture us on Human rights!!! You created disharmony among the different cultural groups of Sri Lanka(divide and rule) and gave favorable treatment to minority Tamils who had no qualms dancing to your tune, during colonial times.It is up to you to give a pittance from your ill-gotten gains to all these Tamil economic-refugees but don’t lecture us on Human rights. Your forces, along with those from other “neo-colonial” countries murder innocents around the world every day and yet you are “displeased” with how Sri Lanka successfully dealt with that murdering satan called Prabhakaran and his terrorist rabble. Now you use your money and influence to harass and de-stabilize Sri Lanka, which is trying to live free from bombs and killings after suffering for 30 years.Mind your own affairs-yours is NOT the haven for Human rights in the world,anyways. Hands-off Sri Lanka or pox on all you busybodies!

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