It’s looking likely that Prime Minister Harper will boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held in Sri Lanka this November, due to that country’s deteriorating human rights and governance record. If so, Canada may be alone among the Commonwealth leaders in adopting a boycott. Other countries seem to be endorsing a policy of engagement and waiting for Sri Lanka to make good on its promises of democratic reform.
Why would Canada stick its neck out on this issue? The answer to that question depends on whether you’re looking primarily at the particulars of the Sri Lankan case. If so, you’ll notice that despite many promises to enact democratic reforms, the government of Sri Lanka is continuing to persecute its minority Tamil population, and is becoming increasingly authoritarian. In January it removed the Chief Justice of its Supreme Court from power after she delivered a judgment against the government’s efforts to expand its control over the state.
Adopting a default attitude of cynicism about relationships between Canada’s diaspora communities and Ottawa’s responses to their concerns is no way to build a country together.
On the other hand, if you’re bypassing those particulars and taking a generalized cynical view of governmental decision-making on issues of concern to Canadian diaspora communities, your view will be rather different. It will look, for instance, like a recent Huffington Post Canada story that highlights one academic expert’s view of the Prime Minister’s apparent boycott as “pretty much pandering to a domestic audience” of Tamil Canadians, and as part of a larger electoral strategy of “catering to new Canadians.” Another academic expert similarly stated in a blog post last week that a Commonwealth boycott would be consistent with Canadian governments’ history of “pandering to the Tamil Canadians.”
What’s at stake in opting for one or the other of these interpretations is a lot more than just armchair punditry. In fact, the choice goes to the heart of how Canada as a democratic society will deal with the realities of an increasingly diverse and globally-linked population.
In the current situation, there’s a solid case behind the Harper government’s view that boycotting the Commonwealth meeting is required to convey principled condemnation of what’s happening to human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka. It is disputable, of course, whether a boycott is indeed the best tactic here. Last fall, for instance, the prime minister chose a different tactic in a similar situation: he attended the Francophonie summit in the Congo while condemning that country’s human rights violations and meeting with opposition leaders during the summit. But apart from the tactical question, it is clear that there exist significant principles and relevant facts worth acting on. (Indeed, Amnesty International Canada is supporting a complete boycott of the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka by all Canadian officials, not just the prime minister.)
A high-profile Canadian boycott would greatly please many of Canada’s 300,000 Tamils, to be sure. Yet that fact itself doesn’t justify experts’ cynical view of Tamil-Canadian approval (and its purported translation into voting-booth wins) as motivating the government’s decision. Trotting out the “diaspora pandering” line here overlooks the wealth of principles and reasons at stake in the current Sri Lanka case. By extension, it also implies that any governmental invocation of foreign policy principle where diaspora interests are also at stake is nothing more than a smokescreen for political corruption. That’s not true, and it’s not helpful to Canadians’ view of their democracy.
Moreover, a knee-jerk diagnosis of “diaspora pandering” behind Canada’s foreign policy decisions casts a host of unfair aspersions on Tamils and on all other diasporas within Canada. It falsely suggests a uniformity of opinion on “homeland” matters within these communities, and it presumes that members of these communities base their voting decisions en bloc on those matters alone. In doing so, it paints diaspora Canadians as less than responsible in their democratic voting, choosing to vote on the basis of narrow communal interests not directly relevant to Canada’s interests and well-being. These are not attitudes helpful to the task of forging mutual respect among the citizens of an increasingly pluralistic country.
To say all this is not to cast aspersions on the right, and desirability, of academics to commit political science. As many scholars have observed, it’s a general truth that governments’ domestic agendas often influence their foreign policy positions. Academic studies have shown that countries such as Canada, in which diverse immigrant communities maintain ties with “homeland” countries, may see those communities’ concerns with “homeland” issues reflected on the national stage. Such concerns can emerge on the policy level when a diaspora community lobbies officials and elected representatives; they can also emerge on the political level when diaspora voting blocs are large enough to catch the attention of electoral strategists.
There is nothing amiss in political scientists pointing out the existence of such general patterns. And equally, there is nothing greatly troubling in the fact that such patterns do exist within Canada’s democracy. They’re part and parcel of a globally-linked population and the widespread presence of interest-group influence on politics.
Yes, it’s true that occasionally cases arise in which Ottawa’s foreign policy decision-making is logically inexplicable except by reference to a diaspora community’s pressure and votes. Those generally aren’t sound decisions, and they deserve to be called out by pundits, the media and voters. They might even, when all the facts of the case are clear, merit the derisive label of “diaspora pandering.”
But those cases of egregious pandering to diaspora communities are not the rule in Canada’s foreign policy-making—neither with the Harper government nor with previous ones. It’s certainly not a plausible diagnosis to make with respect to a potential decision to boycott the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka. And that’s why it’s more than disappointing to see such an explanation ascribed in this case. Adopting a default attitude of cynicism about relationships between Canada’s diaspora communities and Ottawa’s responses to their concerns is no way to build a country together.