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Harper hints he'd be open to moving Commonwealth summit from Sri Lanka

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OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is hinting he'd like to see this year's Commonwealth summit moved out of Sri Lanka in protest of the country's human rights record.

Harper has made it clear for more than a year that, without major reforms, he personally will not be attending next fall's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo.

On Wednesday he appeared to take it step further.

Liberal MP Bob Rae rose in question period to cite the Sri Lankan government's "appalling human rights record" which he said includes impeaching the country's former chief justice and murdering journalists.

"I wonder if the Prime Minister would consider this proposition: Why would Canada not invite the Commonwealth countries to come to Canada for Canada to host the conference and for Canada to become the chairman of the Commonwealth for two years?" Rae asked.

Harper responded to Rae by saying "he and I and almost all members of this House are of one mind on this issue."

"I know we are deeply troubled by the direction in Sri Lanka and the fact that Sri Lanka is, at this point, the host of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting," Harper continued.

"I know suggestions have been made of any number of countries who would be willing to host that."

Harper said that "in the meantime" his government would continue to monitor the situation and continue to put pressure on Colombo to reform, adding that as the situation stands "it would be very difficult for this government to fully participate."

The Prime Minister's Office, when asked to clarify the remarks, did not address a direct question about whether Harper's comments in parliament indicate he'd like to see the venue changed.

But as recently as last month Canada's special envoy to the Commonwealth, Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal, was assuring Sri Lankan media that Harper had "at no time" indicated he wanted the country stripped of the conference, which is held every two years.

"There is no Canadian boycott of CHOGM. There will be a Canadian delegation in Colombo for CHOGM," Segal was quoted telling The Island newspaper online on the eve of a fact-finding trip to Sri Lanka last month.

Sri Lanka has received international condemnation since it brutally suppressed a long-standing Tamil insurgency on the island nation in 2009.

And the country has become a lightning rod for concerns about the future of the 54-member Commonwealth.

An internal report presented at the last leaders' summit in Australia in 2011 flatly asserted that the future of the Commonwealth was in danger if the organization could not credibly address human rights, democratic and rule-of-law abuses by some of its member states.

An international human rights group said early Thursday that the meeting should be moved unless Sri Lanka makes progress on human rights.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Sri Lanka needs to make ”prompt, measurable and meaningful progress on human rights.”

The Canadian Tamil Congress also weighed in late Wednesday with a statement that also called for the Commonwealth summit to be moved elsewhere.

The CTC said it is ”appalling to think that Sri Lanka ... will be taking over chairmanship of such an important organization.”

Canada is home to perhaps the largest diaspora community of Tamils in the world, and their concentration in certain urban ridings has made them an attractive electoral target for both Liberal and Conservative politicians.

An internal Conservative email during the 2006 election campaign that brought Stephen Harper to power revealed the party was attempting to keep their promised terrorist ban on the Tamil Tigers out of the media for fear of alienating Tamil voters.

The issue remains a sore point for the government in Colombo, and Segal was asked directly by his Sri Lankan interviewer last month whether domestic politics was at play in Canada's tough stance on the Commonwealth summit.

"It is rubbish that the Canadian government go against Sri Lanka due to Tamil vote bank," Segal is quoted responding.

"The government of Canada does not enjoy or has not enjoyed any particular support from the Tamil community."

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