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Commonwealth waits for Canada

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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prince Charles at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka last November.

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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prince Charles at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka last November.

Former prime minister Lester B. Pearson, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and one of Canada's foremost internationalists, described politics as "the skilled use of blunt objects."

This aphorism may have been in the mind of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in announcing in April the suspension of Canada's contribution to Commonwealth voluntary funds for two years.

"We can no longer justify providing additional funding to an organization that turns a blind eye to human rights abuses, anti-democratic behaviour and religious intolerance in its member states," he declared.

The trigger for the decision was Sri Lanka, but the target has turned out to be the Commonwealth itself: "Canada believes that if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant it must stand in defence of the basic principles of freedom, democracy and respect for human dignity, which are the very foundations upon which the Commonwealth was built," added Baird.

The consequence of this decision will be to withhold Canada's annual contribution of $10 million (5.4 million pounds) to the organization's development fund, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC), for the next two years, retroactive to July 2013. The Canadian government intends to reallocate the funds (11 million pounds) to combatting child, early and forced marriages and working with civil society in the promotion of human rights.

The Commonwealth secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, expressed his disappointment, saying "the difficult adjustments to Commonwealth development programs would be made."

Sir Ron Sanders, a prominent member of the 2010-11 Eminent Persons Group, recently argued the Commonwealth Secretariat was already some 3 million pounds short in its annual funding, noting a majority of its 53 members were more than two years in arrears of their contributions.

The cause of Canada's deep discontent was the Commonwealth's decision to accept the invitation of Sri Lanka to host the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Critics argued that, after a devastating 26-year internal conflict and with unresolved allegations of atrocities and war crimes by both sides, now was not the time for the Commonwealth to bestow an international seal of approval on the Sri Lankan government.

In 2011, at the Perth CHOGM, in Western Australia, Canada's attempt to reverse the decision to go to Colombo was firmly rebuffed, leaving the delegation largely isolated.

Subsequent initiatives to refer Sri Lanka to the Commonwealth's democracy and human rights watchdog, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) also ended in failure. As the Colombo summit approached, Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed that, as a result, he would not attend the CHOGM, although a Canadian delegation would take part, headed by a parliamentary secretary.

The final straw that precipitated the Canadian decision seems to have been Sri Lanka's response to the debates and outcomes of the United Nations Human Rights Council in March. At the time, in a statement to mark Commonwealth Day, Harper said: "I would also like to reiterate my concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka. As the current chair of the Commonwealth, the Sri Lanka government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth's core values and we continue to urge them to respect human rights and the rule of law."

In the event, the UNHRC approved a resolution calling upon the 's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights "to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties" during the conflict. The Sri Lankan government has not accepted the resolution and has declared that it will not co-operate with the UN investigation. It has also criticized the ambiguity over the time period covered by the investigation, arguing that atrocities committed prior to 2002 would be excluded from the inquiry.

The image of a fractured Commonwealth, headed by a chairperson-in-office (Sri Lankan Presiden, Mahinda Rajapaksa) who has rejected a UN investigation of alleged human rights abuses (including by a government he heads) is not one that sits well with Commonwealth's claims to be a values-based organization.

More widely, the Sri Lankan government, pointing to Canada's substantial Tamil population (concentrated mainly in the Greater Toronto Area), accused Canada of basing its decision on "electoral compulsions, thereby holding the membership of the wider Commonwealth to ransom."

While Canada denies pandering to its substantial Tamil lobby, there are many who will feel its moral outrage is selective and unfairly targeted at the Commonwealth as a whole.

And yet there are clear reasons the association itself may have become a particular focus for Canadian anger.

First, there is widespread frustration that this is a mess very largely of the Commonwealth's own making. Like a slow-moving car crash, the disastrous political consequences of the Colombo CHOGM were entirely predictable. And it is not yet over. As the March proceedings of the UNCHR in Geneva demonstrated, Sri Lanka's role as Commonwealth chair is, at best, severely curtailed; and, at worst, the continuing focus of condemnation and protest.

Second, Canada may well feel it deserved more support from fellow member governments. Top-level meetings in the Commonwealth have been relocated before when the political imperative demanded, and this has invariably called for all the guile and diplomatic skill that the Commonwealth secretary-general could muster.

In Perth, Canada was isolated -- humiliated, even -- by the determination of Commonwealth governments to go to Colombo. As votes in the UNHCR have revealed, Commonwealth disquiet about Sri Lanka is more widespread than it has publicly revealed. With Canada among three member countries that pay about 70 per cent of Commonwealth budgets, it may well ask why it feels duty-bound to have the courage of the Commonwealth's convictions.

Third, there is no denying that relations between Canada and Secretary-General Sharma are poor. A particular flashpoint arose in 2013 with the dismissal of Sri Lanka's chief justice. This was widely perceived as unconstitutional (and therefore a matter justifying Sri Lanka's referral to the CMAG) but Sharma refused a Canadian request to make available the confidential advice on the issue he had received from two eminent Commonwealth jurists. He said the material was 'privileged' within his Good Offices role. Canada's special envoy to the Commonwealth, Sen. Hugh Segal, was later reported as branding Sharma a 'stooge' of the Sri Lankan government.

Whether any of this justifies the blow Canada has struck at the Commonwealth's modest but valued development programs is doubtful. Canada played a leading role in establishing the CFTC in 1971. Now, its withdrawal of funding will not affect Sri Lanka but it will penalize a large number of other developing members that benefit from CFTC assistance. It is also likely that Canada's generous, but largely unsung, extra-budgetary support for the Commonwealth's democracy program will also cease, at least temporarily.

History will reserve a special place for the part Canada has played, across the political parties, in the creation of the modern Commonwealth. Canada's principled and spirited opposition to apartheid and support for sanctions (alongside Australia and New Zealand in the 'old' Commonwealth) ensured the Commonwealth did not divide along racial lines in this defining issue for the modern Commonwealth.

During the Commonwealth's battles over apartheid, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney recalled the remark of his illustrious predecessor, John Diefenbaker, about keeping a candle in the window for South Africa's return to the Commonwealth.

Today, many in the association will hope Canada ceases to curse the darkness -- and instead brings light back into a Commonwealth sorely in need of renewal and leadership.


Stuart Mole is chairman and longtime director of the editorial board of The Round Table: Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, a 100-year-old U.K. periodical on the subject. He was director-general of the Royal Commonwealth Society from 2000 to 2009.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2014 A9


Updated on Monday, June 9, 2014 at 6:56 AM CDT: Adds photo

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