Within days of the release of the UN internal review report on Sri Lanka, it became the subject of debate in Canada’s House of Commons. The House exchange belies an apparent discrepancy in present government policy, Tamil activists opine, citing the ruling Conservatives strongly denouncing the Sri Lankan government’s lack of respect for human rights, while simultaneously deporting Tamil refugee claimants from Canada to Sri Lanka. “I am happy that the Prime Minister who was generally silent with the mass murder of tens of thousands of Tamils during early 2009, is now beginning to stand up for the human rights of Tamils,” Neethan Shan, Eezham Tamil politician in Canada told TamilNet.
Mr. Shan, a grassroots community organizer, however questioned Canada’s policy towards Tamil refugees. “The Canadian government needs to be consistent in what it thinks about the situation in Sri Lanka. If they agree that Sri Lankan state continues to engage in various forms of human rights violations, then how can it justify deporting refugee claimants back to that country?” he asked.
On November 14, a day after being leaked to world media, the Petrie Report was officially handed to the United Nations’ Secretary General. It criticizes UN inaction in Sri Lanka during the death-pervaded closure of the conflict in 2009.
On November 19, MP Corneliu Chisu of the ruling Conservative Party of Canada stated in the House of Commons that “while the UN report reviews and acknowledges its own failures […], the government of Sri Lanka continues to fail in its responsibility to make progress on reconciliation, accountability and respect for human rights in post-conflict Sri Lanka.”
Prime Minister Harper made waves within the international community by threatening to boycott the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Colombo, unless the Sri Lankan government takes concrete action toward addressing human rights violations committed during and after the conflict. In an interview published January 4 in the Calgary Herald, Harper justified his threat, stating: “We’re looking for action on the events around the conflict in that country. We’re looking for action on refugees and displaced persons. And we’re looking for action on political reconciliation.”
The standard of “action” necessary to mitigate Harper’s threat has not yet been specified.
During Question Period on November 20, New Democrat MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan asked, “Unless concrete action is taken for an independent, impartial international human rights violations inquiry, will the Conservatives recommit to boycotting next year’s Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka and encourage other member states to do the same?” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird responded: “This government will continue to do what is best to promote the interests of people in Sri Lanka, including the Tamil population. We have not yet made a decision as to what will happen at the Commonwealth summit […]”
The government stance is, nonetheless, significant, says Neethan Shan. “This Prime Minister’s position today is the strongest ever both for Canada and for the Conservative Party,” he told TamilNet.
Prime Minister Harper’s boycott stance recently found resonance among Britain’s Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs. This, in addition to the damning Petrie report, may indicate a shift in perspective among the world powers – who uniformly failed to uphold their “responsibility to protect” in 2009.
Questions remain, however, as to how meaningful the Canadian threat of a summit boycott is – whatever the ultimate decision may be. Bill C-31, the “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act,” passed with the unanimous support of Conservative MPs on June 11. The Bill makes it far more difficult to mount a successful refugee claim, which will result in far more deportations from Canada. Specifically, the law provides for the detention without review of refugee claimants who are designated an “irregular arrival.” Human rights advocates have declared that this provision contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The words “irregular arrival” evoke the landings of ships carrying Eezham Tamil refugees from the island conflict to Canada’s Pacific coast. Clause 81.1 of the Act contains provisions unambiguously intended to retroactively include these claimants.
“Eezham Tamils in Canada need to become more organized in holding our elected representatives accountable. Our organizations, our media and community leaders will need to realize that you can have a good relationship with politicians while being strong on holding them accountable….Just having someone say what we need to hear is not adequate. Actions speak louder than words…. We cannot allow this issue to become partisan and therefore, building consensus and collective movement on this file amongst all political parties is critical.” Mr.Shan told TamilNet.
For its part, the Canadian government has kept the lines of communication with the Sri Lankan government open.