Harper’s Disingenuous Appeal to Human Rights

stop the deportation
Photo Credit: Murray Bush, Flux Photo

Vancouver residents will remember the 2009 and 2010 dockings of the MV Sun Sea and Ocean Lady. These ships were intercepted carrying Tamil refugees who had fled Sri Lanka’s brutal (and, some would argue, genocidal) war on Tamils from the Northeast region of the island. Many Tamils felt their historical grievances with the state warranted political independence.

Xenophobia about the landings became a means to bolster Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s support among conservative voters, particularly white conservatives. Having won a majority in 2011’s federal election, Harper and his government took the opportunity to pass Bill C-31, among whose provisions was a clause entitling the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism to designate any refugee entrance of two or more as an “irregular arrival.”

A Tamil “irregular arrival” was the equivalent of the “non-continuous passage” charge levelled at Punjabi passengers aboard the Komagata Maru in 1908 – resulting in the same de facto exclusion to immigration and fears for national security. The catch-phrase described a legal concept allowing the Minister to prevent people fleeing for their lives from automatically receiving the protections afforded other refugee claimants.

In fact, the 2012 law included section 81(1), a retroactivity clause encompassing arrivals since March 31, 2009. It was clearly designed to target the West Coast landings – after the fact – that had happened under a different set of legislation.

A recent National Post article reports that an alleged organizer of the MV Sun Sea voyage, Sathyapavan Aseervatham, turned up dead in September after being deported from Canada two years ago. The circumstances are inconclusively linked to his possible role as a Tamil organizer. Relevant, though, is an affidavit filed with Aseervatham’s lawyer that affirms he was tortured upon his forcible return to Sri Lanka – the very fate he undertook that dangerous voyage to escape.

The timing of this news is perhaps the most important counterpoint to Harper’s October 7th statement from Bali, Indonesia that he would not attend the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka – citing lack of respect for human rights in the country. Though a decision to send junior-level MP Deepak Obhrai to represent Canada at the summit partially mollifies the diplomatic snub, Tamils and the international community have largely welcomed this decision.

Certainly many Canadian Tamils have credited Harper with having the moral fortitude to help isolate the Sri Lankan government (again, often described within the community as “genocidal”) on the international stage. The announcement coincides with more overt Conservative measures to court the Tamil vote, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area. However, Mr. Harper’s statement, available on his official site, does not mention Tamils directly. Nor does it contemplate any punitive action against Sri Lanka within the legal framework of the United Nations, which houses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A possible reason for this omission is that many of Mr. Harper’s own actions toward Tamils in Canada might themselves be considered violations of their human rights. For example, Bill C-31, the “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act,” prevents refugees from applying for permanent residency or sponsoring family members for the first five years, and from appealing decisions regarding their refugee claims.

In an interview I conducted for the Tamil Mirror a year ago, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka coordinator John Argue affirmed his belief that these measures violated the UN Convention on Refugees. Article 7(1) of the Convention states that “a Contracting State shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to aliens generally;” while Article 32(2) elaborates that “except where compelling reasons of national security otherwise require, the refugee shall be allowed to submit evidence to clear himself, and to appeal to and be represented for the purpose before competent authority.”

Similarly, the Act means refugees aged 16 and older who arrive by “irregular” means may be detained, without appeal or trial, for up to one year or until a positive refugee decision is made. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, for one, believes this provision violates section 10 (c) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which formally provides the protection of habeas corpus against unlawful detention.

Anti-refugee legislation, which appeals to the xenophobic Conservative voter base, is quite easily enforced. Legal challenges against it have a slim chance of success, while the law directly compromises the lives and safety of refugees. Harper’s personal boycott of the Commonwealth summit, by contrast, affects no one. It provides good optics among Tamils in that it embarrasses Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, but does nothing to call him to account. It does not even change the fact of Canada’s participation in the event.

Such apparent contradiction garners criticism from Toronto-area Tamil youth activists, who characterize the CHOGM controversy as a sideshow to allegations of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity committed by Sri Lanka against island Tamils. Certainly, recent allegations of coerced birth control among Tamil women (reported in the September 13th’s issue of Sri Lanka-based Groundviews) fit squarely into the United Nations’ definition of genocide, which encompasses measures intended to reduce births within a population group. Harper did not list this in his reasons for boycotting the summit, making only general references to “the impeachment of the Sri Lankan Chief Justice earlier this year, …ongoing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances, and allegations of extra judicial killings.”

Yet the language of “human rights,” as in so many other instances, is perhaps intended less to chastise President Rakapaksa for the offences that Mr. Harper names, as to provide an acceptable disguise for a less high-minded objective.

“The Sri Lankan government on Tuesday said that its relationship with China has been misinterpreted by some countries,” stated a brief report published on both the Ceylon Today and Xinhuanet news sites on September 3. “Some countries feel China has strategic interests in Sri Lanka but [Defense Secretary Gotabhaya] Rajapaksa reiterated that even President Mahinda Rajapaksa had noted that Sri Lanka’s ties with China is [sic] not a threat to any other country.”

Sri Lanka’s most valuable strategic asset is the Trincomalee harbour on its east coast – territory formerly claimed by the Tamil insurgency. Today it has evolved into a possible site of contestation between American naval interests who want to build a military base there, and Chinese commercial shipping interests. The Sri Lankan government seems to lean in the direction of using the harbour for commercial purposes.

As the US’s closest neighbour and ally, host to the largest Tamil Diaspora in the world, Canada is the ideal candidate to exert subtle pressure on Sri Lanka to change its mind.

Such an explanation for Harper’s boycott of CHOGM would fit the general pattern adopted by Canada’s Conservatives since at least 2006, during the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the guerilla-controlled civil administration of the Tamil de facto state known as “Tamil Eelam.” Canada criminalized monetary remittances to the development agencies and military wing of the proto-state, outlawing the organizations that advocated Tamil political independence, and thus tilted the balance of forces in favour of the Sri Lankan army. Shortly thereafter, the ceasefire ended; in 2009, a large-scale massacre of Tamils definitively concluded the war.

Implicit in Harper’s rejection of attendance at the CHOGM is a realpolitik that has less to do with the moral outrage that accompanies human rights violations, and more to do with which world power controls a given region. After all, if human rights were really the priority, Sathyapavan Aseervatham would not have been deported to a country where torture awaited him.