26 Apr 2013

Canada ‘appalled’ at Sri Lanka Commonwealth meeting

The Canadian foreign minister tells Channel 4 News he is “appalled” the Commonwealth heads of government meeting will still take place in Sri Lanka despite concerns over human rights in the country.

Canada‘s foreign minister John Baird said it was “not a good day for the Commonwealth” that its secretariat was going ahead with plans to host the heads of government meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka in November.

Sri Lanka will also take on the chairmanship of the Commonwealth after the summit – amid mounting concerns that some of the Commonwealth’s key democratic values are being ignored in the country.

Alleged war crimes committed at the end of Sri Lanka’s three-decade long civil war, which ended when the government crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, have never been properly investigated and attempts at reconciliation since then have effectively failed amid an ongoing atmosphere of government repression.

We are appalled that Sri Lanka is going to be hosting this summit. Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird

Mr Baird, speaking in London after a meeting of Commonwealth foreign ministers, told Channel 4 News: “We are appalled that Sri Lanka is going to be hosting this summit.

“The Canadian prime minister has been very clear that unless we saw progress on accountability, on reconciliation, and some sort of change on the growing authoritarian trend we’ve seen in the country, that he wouldn’t attend the summit.”

However, at this point Canada is the only Commonwealth country taking such a strong position on Sri Lanka. At a press conference earlier, the Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, a former Indian diplomat, confirmed that the meeting in Sri Lanka was still going ahead.

He added: “All member states subscribe to the same principles and values equally. Interacting with them [Sri Lanka] on many fronts as I have been doing at all levels, I am fully persuaded that they are sincere in subscribing to and following those values [of democracy and protection for human rights].”

Will the Queen attend?

The Queen is also due to attend the meeting in Sri Lanka as head of the Commonwealth. Prime Minister David Cameron is also on the list, but the British government has as yet made no decision about a possible boycott in protest at the situation in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s record on human rights has been questioned at the highest level across the international community, with particular focus on abuses committed at the end of its civil war in 2009. The UN has twice voted to urge the country to properly and transparently investigate killings and disappearances from the period.

Recent events such as the impeachment of the country’s chief justice, reports of torture of Tamils deported from the UK, and the shooting of a journalist have only heightened concerns. The government denies all allegations of abuses.

Earlier this year, former foreign secretary David Miliband described the idea of the Queen visiting Sri Lanka for CHOGM as “grotesque”.

No change to plans to hold CHOGM in Sri Lanka despite pressure

However, speaking today in London, Australian foreign minister Bob Carr said he hoped that engaging with Sri Lanka would allow the Commonwealth to check how much progress the country was actually making on human rights.

“It’s a view that many of us hold that in the lead up to CHOGM, this Commonwealth with its adherence to democratic values is in a good position to engage with the government of Sri Lanka and monitor progress,” he said.

But Canada’s foreign minister John Baird said there was no sign that this had made any difference so far – and referred to fears that the Commonwealth position on Sri Lanka was making the body look increasingly irrelevant in the modern world.

“We had hoped that the leader’s summit being in Colombo at the end of this year would see progress on accountability for the war crimes that took place at the end of the war, that it would mean some meaningful effort at reconciliation with the Tamil population, and that we would see improvements in good governance and respect for human rights.

“Regrettably, we haven’t seen any of these three – and in fact they’ve gotten worse…It’s obviously not a good day for the Commonwealth.”