While Canadians are engrossed in a debate over boycotting the Sochi Olympics, few have noticed that the Harper government remains undecided as to whether it will skip another significant international gathering: the Commonwealth heads of government meeting to be held in Sri Lanka this November.
Canada’s prime minister first threatened to miss the event in 2011 to draw attention to the Sri Lankan regime’s questionable human rights record.
And while there are times when boycotts are good public policy, in the present circumstances, the Commonwealth meeting is not one of them.
Boycotts are meant to put pressure on rogue states. They are most effective when the absence of the protestor has a tangible effect on the regime’s domestic credibility (or the country’s economic prosperity).
Had Ottawa been able to convince major Commonwealth donors like Great Britain, Australia, or even New Zealand to join its proposed boycott, its actions might therefore have been justified.
But two years after Prime Minister Harper first threatened to skip the meeting, Canada appears to be the only significant country that has yet to RSVP.
In this context, a unilateral boycott will isolate Canadians, not Sri Lankans, from the Commonwealth, and draw attention to Ottawa’s diplomatic failure, not the Sri Lankan government’s human rights record.
What’s more, absenting itself from the conference will deprive Canada of the opportunity to make its concerns heard amongst its Commonwealth allies. The Harper government will be unable to alter resolutions coming out of the meeting and will lose any chance of ensuring that regimes like the one in Sri Lanka don’t serve as Commonwealth hosts in the future.
A boycott, then, would essentially leave Canada neutral. And for a government that is so proud of its willingness to take sides, such a move hardly makes sense.
Regrettably, this is not the first time that the Conservative government has pursued, or threatened to pursue, a foreign policy that feels good, no matter its negligible impact. Its unilateral boycott of the UN Conference on Disarmament while Libya was in the chair also served no practical purpose.
One must hope, therefore, that, in spite of Foreign Minister John Baird’s denials, recent reports in two Sri Lankan newspapers that he has personally committed to attending the conference are indeed true, and that the prime minister is reconsidering his own pledge not to participate.
Canada won’t make any difference in Sri Lanka if it’s not at the table.