Harper's Sri Lankan boycott includes swipe at Commonwealth

Usually, when world leaders don't show up for a summit, they blame a scheduling conflict. But Stephen Harper did something unusual when he decided not to attend next month's Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka: he said it's not because he can't, but because he won't.

PM denounces lack of accountability for meeting host's human rights abuses

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, Australia in 2011, confirmed Monday he will skip next month's gathering in Sri Lanka. He cited 'unacceptable' human rights violations - and served notice he is holding the rest of the Commonwealth to account. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Usually, when they don't show up for your summit, leaders say, gosh, they'd love to come, but they just can't get away. It's a scheduling conflict.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, Barack Obama's doing it, just as Bill Clinton did it in his day. At the last Commonwealth summit, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said simply, look, I'm too old.

But Stephen Harper did something unusual when he decided to stay away from the next Commonwealth summit, in Sri Lanka. He declared that it's not because he can't, but because he won't.

This is a decision the Commonwealth has made and the Commonwealth will have to live with it.— Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Simply put, he is not going to the Sri Lanka summit in November because he can't stand the company. Harper's concluded that Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a serial abuser of human rights and is refusing to be photographed getting out of a car and shaking hands with him.

This doesn't happen every day. Harper himself used to condemn the communist bosses of China; now, he courts them. He sits down with Russian President Vladimir Putin, like it or not.

But to read his carefully prepared indictment of Rajapaska is to realize how rare such bluntness is. He has looked at the aftermath of Sri Lanka's ghastly civil war and, in place of the garbled generalities that often infect the official pronouncements of his own government and many others, he declares flatly that "the absence of accountability for the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war is unacceptable."

Harper cites "intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances, and allegations of extra-judicial killings." He also notes the impeachment and ouster of Sri Lanka's former chief justice Bandaranayake earlier this year.

It reads like a blast from Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International — both of which have excoriated the Commonwealth for turning a blind eye to Sri Lanka's record.

And that is where Harper does a second unusual thing: he adopts that indictment of the Commonwealth, too. As he sees it, the great, lumbering remnant of the British empire has betrayed its values by letting Sri Lanka off the hook, and by allowing it to host the summit at all.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott take part in a bilateral meeting during the APEC summit in Indonesia, on Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

He even adds a threat — to cut the $20-million annual contribution that Canada makes to the Commonwealth organization.

"We will examine our engagement and financing of the Commonwealth, which is considerable, to make sure we are wisely using taxpayers' dollars and reflecting Canadian values, " he told reporters at the APEC summit in Bali, Indonesia.

"This is a decision the Commonwealth has made and the Commonwealth will have to live with it."

“Canada believes," a government-issued "backgrounder" adds, "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 foundation upon which the Commonwealth was built."

Worse still, the backgrounder says, is that, as host of the summit, Sri Lanka will become chair of the Commonwealth and a member of its Ministerial Action Group, charged with monitoring violations of its values.

We quickly get the sense that this is what pushed Harper over the edge.

Acidly, the document predicts that, "the world will be watching to see how the Commonwealth reconciles the actions of its incoming chair with the values and principles enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter."

It's as close as it gets to saying that it's becoming a farce.

A boycott of 1, so far

Other leaders are not joining in Harper's walkout. Britain's David Cameron is going, and two fellow Commonwealth prime ministers who met Harper in Bali emerged unrepentant.

"Whether he attends CHOGM [as the Commonwealth heads of government meeting is known] is really a matter for him," said Australia's new leader, Tony Abbott.

"But certainly I intend to attend CHOGM and will do my best to make a constructive contribution to the deliberations there ... You do not make new friends by rubbishing your old friends or abandoning your old friends."

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key offered what he said was a quotation from President Xi Jinping of China: "Engagement increases understanding and leads to change over time."

That sounds a lot like Harper's explanation for his change of heart toward China. But on Sri Lanka, he's made up his mind. Sometimes, you hold your nose and go through with it. But this, he believes ... this is too much.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?