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Sri Lankan Rights Abuses Obstruct Trade Efforts with Canada

Fawzia Sheikh

TORONTO, Oct 29 2011 (IPS) - Despite the crossfire of Canadian accusations of human rights violations by Sri Lanka at the end of its civil war and Colombo’s corresponding counter-claims, the economically battered South Asian country aims to bolster its trading relationship with Canada and increase foreign direct investment.

A Sri Lankan trade delegation met with importers and exporters this week in Toronto and Montreal in the first trade-related push regarding Canada since 2009, which saw the end of nearly three decades of war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan army.

“We have to work hard to promote trade between Canada and Sri Lanka,” said Buddhadasa Herath, the Sri Lankan deputy consul general and trade commissioner based in Toronto.

With the conflict now over, Herath anticipates a “bright future” between the two countries, which share more than a half-century of trade. He told IPS that he has received approximately 100 enquiries from Canadian importers and exporters over the last 14 months.

Still, two elements have overshadowed Sri Lanka’s upbeat economic predictions.

One is the Canadian government’s insistence that Sri Lanka advance its reconciliation process. The other is Ottawa’s concern over the lack of accountability for human rights violations by both parties to the conflict; when the civil war wound down two years ago, allegations surfaced of abuses taking place during the last few months of fighting.

As a result, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been uneasy about Sri Lanka’s hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2013 and has repeatedly called for an international investigation. The current Commonwealth summit is taking place Oct. 28 to 30 in Australia.

Harper was pushed into action in part by a U.N. report issued in April that found “credible reports” of war crimes by government forces and the LTTE during the war’s dying days. The panel found valid allegations of serious infringements by the government, including the killing of civilians through widespread shelling and by denying humanitarian assistance.

Moreover, the documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, about a U.N. investigation into the country’s alleged war crimes, showed images of murdered and tortured bodies and semi-clad women thought to be sexually abused prior to death.

Last year, Sri Lanka established the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, but its lack of independence has been criticised.

Canada’s delayed reaction

Sherry Aiken, a law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, described Canada’s response to allegations concerning the Sri Lankan conflict as “too little, too late” but “better than nothing”.

The Canadian government could have had an impact during the months leading up to the war’s end, when international human rights monitors raised awareness of the rampant abuse in the war-wracked nation, Aiken told IPS. Yet along with many other countries, “Canada remained virtually silent,” she said.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think that the Sri Lankan government is going to be particularly cowed by anything that might go on in the Commonwealth forum,” she said. There must be concerted scrutiny aimed at Sri Lanka and an international accountability mechanism established, she added.

“I don’t think Sri Lanka can be trusted to respond to its own human rights violations; it’s been a perpetrator of them.”

Ottawa’s current fixation with Sri Lanka may also emanate from the influence on government policy exercised by the significant Tamil diaspora in Toronto, said Yiagadeesen Samy, an associate professor in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.

In May, Canada elected its first Canadian MP of Tamil origin, Rathika Sitsabaiesan, who has been “pushing for [the war-time abuses] to be discussed in parliament”, Samy told IPS.

Others believe that Canadian foreign policy toward Sri Lanka has been relatively consistent.

In 2009, Canada called for actions by Sri Lanka similar to the ones it calls for now, argued Gary Anandasangaree, legal counsel for the Canadian Tamil Congress in Toronto, even though Canada has not been as “vocal publicly” in the intervening years.

Now, Sri Lanka’s human rights record would appear to be a higher priority in Canada’s overall foreign policy, he added.

Certain governments, such as Canada’s and the United Kingdom’s, have argued they would refrain from participating in the 2013 Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka if that government fails to meaningfully address the allegations made in past reports, Anandasangaree told IPS.

He applauded the message but added that it must be clearer, such as a categorical objection to Sri Lanka as host.

Herath, the Sri Lankan trade commissioner, was reluctant to discuss the economic impact of the current human rights controversy, instead referring queries to the Sri Lankan high commissioner.

The office of High Commissioner Chitranganee Wagiswara told IPS that it could not respond to questions at this time, but in Canadian news reports earlier this month, Wagiswara accused Canada of being swayed by terrorist “propaganda” as Ottawa pressed for an international inquiry.

Diversifying exports, with some difficulty

Samy doubted current contention between Canada and Sri Lanka would breed negative economic fallout, as the two are not strong trading partners. In 2010, Sri Lankan exports to Canada totalled 124 million dollars, while Canadian exports to the country averaged 339 million dollars, Herath noted.

2009, however, had seen an 18 percent decline in export and import growth, according to the trade commissioner, and total trade activities in 2010 rose by 17.2 percent from the previous year.

Sri Lanka’s main export market is currently the United States, Herath told IPS. However, the South Asian nation is keen to expand trade and diversify its “export basket” with Canada, to which it mainly sells high-quality garments, tea, rubber gloves and tires, he said.

For the first time, this week’s trade delegation featured a Sri Lankan company promoting jewellery such as semi-precious stones and another firm selling power cables for the electricity and telecommunications industries, he said.

The recent series of claims and counter-claims documented in the media, however, may have an impact from the collective Commonwealth perspective, Samy noted. The accusations have “already damaged the reputation” of Sri Lanka, he added.

The widening spotlight on the war-wracked country, some argue, has also affected tourism policies. Next year, Colombo plans to impose a fee of 50 dollars for an electronic entry permit to visitors from all countries other than Maldives and Singapore.

The Canadian Tamil Congress’s Anandasangaree argued that this move will allow the Sri Lankan government, which feels “genuinely threatened”, to scrutinise Tamil diaspora members and human rights activists entering the country.

The Congress predicts that the world’s perception of Sri Lanka as a “little pet” will eventually change. The international community has offered the government there a “great deal of deference and leeway with respect to how they handle the post-war situation”, Anandasangaree argued, but the accumulating accusations will force Sri Lanka to act “more genuinely” on peace matters.

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