Sri Lanka-Canada relations under spotlight

Thursday, 28 September 2023 00:00 –      – 34

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Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Ali Sabry has waded directly into the ongoing diplomatic clash between India and Canada, making it clear that Sri Lanka is firmly on the side of its neighbour. In a recent interview, Sabry accused Canada of being a haven for terrorists.

“The Canadian Prime Minister (Justin Trudeau) has this way of just coming out with some outrageous allegations without any supporting proof,” Sabry said in response to allegations that India had a hand in the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia.

The Lankan Foreign Minister tried to draw a parallel stating that Canada similarly accused Sri Lanka of genocide. “Everybody knows there was no genocide in our country. I saw yesterday he (Trudeau) had gone and given a rousing welcome to somebody who has associated with the Nazis in the past during the Second World War. I am not surprised that sometimes PM Trudeau comes out with outrageous and unsubstantiated allegations,” he said.

Sri Lanka and Canada have had volatile relations particularly after the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 with allegations of genocide and serious human rights violations being raised by the North American country. In 2021 Canada refused to accept former Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sumangala Dias’s nomination as High Commissioner and the SLHC remained headless for many months.

Canada has been rubbing Sri Lanka the wrong way for several years and successive Governments have expressed their displeasure through diplomatic channels.

Sri Lanka condemned the adoption by Canada of a motion passed by its Parliament on 18 May last year titled ‘Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day’. Canada is a member of the Sri Lanka Core Group at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and has campaigned for all resolutions adopted on Sri Lanka. All this means there is no love lost between Sri Lanka and Canada, and many will be happy to see support for India at this time. Sri Lanka has often accused Canada of interfering in its internal affairs and Trudeau’s statement this July as the country marked 40 years since Black July led to the Canadian High Commissioner in Colombo being summoned by Sabry who condemned the statement and said it was a “politically motivated statement, was divisive and was issued for domestic political consumption in Canada.”

Hence, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister’s decision to take India’s side on this sensitive issue which has plunged Indian-Canadian relations to an unprecedented low, is no surprise. But was it necessary for Sabry to go public on this issue and worsen already strained relations with Canada? While India reached out and assisted Sri Lanka as it struggled to overcome the economic crisis, Canada too assisted the country, not so generously but in a more moderate manner and despite the diplomatic ups and downs, has been a friend and partner. There is no doubt that Sri Lankan diplomats based in Ottawa have failed to engage constructively with Canadian authorities, which has led to a declaration of the Tamil genocide week and other acts which are seen as hostile by Sri Lanka.  Diplomacy is a lot about interpersonal relations between diplomats, politicians, officials, etc., and such solid relations can often help smooth out ruffled feathers.

In 1971, then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of Justin, made a four-day visit to Sri Lanka, which marked a milestone in relations between Ceylon and Canada. The friendship that Sirimavo Bandaranaike enjoyed with the Canadian Premier helped to strengthen relations between the two countries.

It is best for Sri Lanka to maintain cordial relations with all countries, and trying to use a diplomatic tussle between Canada and India to settle scores isn’t the best way to go.