Canada needs to implement Magnitsky sanctions on Sri Lankan officials involved in war crimes

Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2013 sent a strong signal to world leaders  by boycotting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. Harper boycotted the meeting because of concerns over Sri Lanka’s human rights record.   His bold actions highlighted Canada’s value in defending human rights on the international stage.

With the Rajapaksa back in power and their heavy economic and military alignment with China. Human rights has continued to deteriorate in the island. Tamils in their ancestral lands of the North-East face heavy military occupation, a pattern of intensified surveillance and harassment of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and victims, and a shrinking space for independent media. 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stressed that the failure to deal with the past continues to have devastating effects on tens of thousands of family members from all communities who persist in seeking justice, reparations – and the truth about the fate of their loved ones.

“I urge the international community to listen to the determined, courageous, persistent calls of victims and their families for justice, and heed the early warning signs of more violations to come,” Bachelet said, calling for resolute measures by UN Member States.

“Given the demonstrated inability and unwillingness of Government to advance accountability at the national level, it is time for international action to ensure justice for international crimes. States should also pursue investigations and prosecution in their national courts – under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction – of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka,” Bachelet said.

“States can consider targeted sanctions, such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses.” Sri Lanka’s contributions to UN peacekeeping operations must be kept under review, the High Commissioner added. Bachelet also urged the Council to support a dedicated capacity to collect and preserve evidence for future accountability processes.

In an recent interview with Garnett Genuis – Conservative MP for Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan spoke on the continued failure of the Trudeau’s government to implement Magnitsky sanctions against Sri Lankan officials involved in war crimes and the lack of willingness to move forward the 2019 genocide motion passed in the house of commons.

You are championing for human rights issues around the globe. You regularly raise the Tamil human rights issue in Sri Lanka. Tell us how you become involved in this important issue.

Well, it is through the hard work and advocacy of the Tamil community having brought this issue to my attention that of many other members of parliament. My passion for human rights issues in general is linked to my own family history my grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. Both my wife’s parents were born in Pakistan and members religious minority communities there. So from  a few different directions I’ve grown up in now and in the context of my family relationship with my wife kind of come to be aware of and develop this passion for standing up for the voiceless and parliament using the voice I have to speak for those who are in a vulnerable position around the world and you know certainly the frustrating thing to see around the world is a lack of accountability for international crimes and really some of the backsliding we’re seeing in terms of human rights places like Sri Lanka, like Burma where there was once a lot of hope we’re seeing at a certain negative trajectory and it’s important for all of us to think about why that’s happening and what we can do about it and part of it I think has been the unwillingness of the international community to prioritize human rights and so we need to do better at putting these issues on the agenda and making them a priority.

Commonly people talk about Travel bans only, but you always refer to them as Magnitsky Sanctions. So, tell us what the Magnitsky Sanctions is? and what else is possible under it?

Magnitsky sanctions are named after a Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who was brutally killed by the Russian government and this was a piece of a political or sanctions technology that was kind of invented after his experience to say historically we thought of sanctions is being  kind of a broader thing you can’t do business with anyone in a particular country and there has been concerns about how kind of the breadth of traditional sanctions if you like might impact people that are not involved those human rights abuses, they’re themselves victims are just everyday people trying to go about their life in a country where human rights abuses are happening. The idea therefore the trend in sanctions to be more and more targeted to try to sanction specific individual, specific businesses, specific government entities that are involved in human rights abuses and Magnitsky sanctions focus on targeting and sanctioning individuals who were involved in gross violations of human rights, it includes as part of a travel ban, as well as freezing the assets of that particular person in the country.  

These sanctions are obviously more effective if they are done in coordination but when you have people across multiple countries that are sanctioning individuals involved in gross violations of human rights. That really limits the options of those people personally and financially and it sends a message of accountability. It says if you cross a certain threshold in terms of the violations of human rights then you will not be able to travel, move your money, it also by the way sends a message to human rights abuses that they will not be able to escape if the political regime sort of turns against them. I think are those that are involved in authoritarian regimes will understand well how sometimes the wheel can keep on turning and they could find themselves at the bottom of inconsistent politics and that’s why people in authoritarian regimes are often thinking about what their escape hatch might be and Magnitsky sanctions say to them if you cross certain threshold in terms of human rights abuses there is no escape hatch for you. You are going to have to stay at home and face the music and that is a scary thing so Magnitsky sanctions have a real impact in trying to end this this sense of impunity around human rights abuses and tell potential abusers there will be consequences for your act.

The UN human rights high commissioner’s reports said, given the demonstrated inability and unwillingness of the Government of Sri Lanka to advance accountability at the national level, it is time for international action to ensure justice for international crimes. But many of her recommendations are not in the resolution. Your release has said the same…..

My focus right now as an opposition politician in Canada is to get our government here to take a clear principled stand. Ideally, we would have a strong response through collective bodies like the United Nations and Canada should be putting that forward. The House of Commons passed a motion right before the last election calling for that international investigation into genocide and we have not heard anything from the government in terms of whether or not they’ve actually taken that idea forward. We know they co-sponsored this resolution but there were things that we want to see included in this resolution that that were not as you mentioned. We are pushing the Canadian government to do better. My impression of our Liberal government right now is that they talk a good game, especially in the lead up to an election, they make significant commitments to the community and they just do not fall through. I think what people in the community need to do on the domestic p olitical front is look at their options, look at all parties and hold our politicians accountable for the results.

There is only so much the House of Commons can do without the government actually taking those calls from the House of Commons and pushing them forward and again talking a good game but a real lack of action in the last 6 years on the Sri Lanka issue but also on human rights in general. The other thing is Canada doesn’t have to wait for international responses, we can use policy tools ourselves here ! Such as Magnitsky sanctions as I have talked about no officials connected with Sri Lanka have been sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act, I think we can do a better job of drawing a clear line and not accepting violators of human rights to come here for different conferences.

There was a peacekeeping conference in Vancouver during the last ten year of parliament,  I know a lot of people in the Tamil community were frustrated about the government granting a waiver under which people could come here without fear of prosecution for international crime. There are international steps that Canada could take but there are domestic steps that we can take in terms of being clear about where we stand on international human rights and I don’t think it many keys we’ve been taking those steps so we can we can do a lot better and we can expect a lot better from the government and people should hold members of parliament and members of the government accountable for what has been done and what has not been done in recent years.

The Conservatives continue to ask for an independent international investigation into  genocide. To date the Trudeau government has not advocated for that investigation. What else can we do to kick start that international investigation?

Generally speaking, when it comes to international U. N. level diplomacy the actors there are countries, member states and so what people here in Canada can do is ask if the Government of Canada is carrying that voice in a strong enough way in those multilateral fora and I  think the these conversations around human rights happening in multi lateral fora are so critical especially in a time when there’s a coordinated effort by more authoritarian states led by China to redefine doctrines of international human rights and undermined the pressure that has been historically exerted through these bodies for the advancement of a human rights. Canada needs to be very engaged and fearless and principled. We cannot just be showing up in order to show up. We have to really have a have a mission when we go into these international dialogues which is about defending our fundamental values and human rights.

What can people in the community do ? Well they need to push their elected officials to be part of taking that stand. I think the frustrating for a lot of people is you have Members of Parliament and then you have the executive. It’s executives, it’s the Prime Minister, it’s the government that really control the stand that Canada’s taking in these international bodies. But you don’t vote for the executive you vote for your local member of parliament so for a lot of people they might have a Liberal member of parliament who talks a good game to make statements in the house the sorts of things. But the government, the executive just does not seem to be pushing these human rights issues for with the same intensity that that they should be with us on the weaker genocide motion for example you had individual Liberal MP’s voting for that motion but then the government, the ministers, the executive abstaining from that vote in failing to take that position. But I would encourage people to think about the next election think about how they voted who they vote for, they need to think about who the government’s going to be and where the government is going to take those issues forward it’s just not good enough to have a member of parliament that’s making nice statements about these issues. You need to have a government that using our presence, our resources international bodies I’d put these issues forward. I think if we want to see yet I change we need to see either a change in the attitude of the government or a change in government at the executive level. I think that is what it’s really going to take to really put these issues on the agenda in a different way.

The House of Commons unanimously passed motions in 2019 calling on the “United Nations to establish an international, independent investigation into allegations of genocide against Tamils committed in Sri Lanka. What is the status of the motion?

That motion passed. It was a statement at the House of Commons. We have submitted what is called a written question which if everyone is familiar with question period where that you ask verbal questions and often times you don’t get much of a response. Another tool you can use is to submit written questions.  Another conservative colleague of mine from Alberta Arnold Viersen someone who has been involved in Tamil human rights issues as well submitted a written question to the government asking what steps, what meetings, what action has happened since the passage of that motion by the House of Commons, and we have not received a response yet and certainly will be releasing that as soon as we do receive a response. I can’t say that no conversations have happened coming out of that motion but certainly there’s been no action that we’ve know of that the governments has announced and now so we’ll have more information once hopefully soon will receive the response that written question will have more information but there there’s really no indication that the government has been championing the idea of a genocide investigation, of course there are there are components of this resolution that talk about gathering evidence and so forth but it it’s not really at the core of the issue as the motion passed by the House of Commons was.

The situation in Sri Lanka is continuously worrisome. The Canadian Tamils are gravely concerned about their family members well-being. What is your message to them?

Well, I have always deeply admired the commitment of people in the Tamil community to human rights advocacy and I know that that comes from personal experience from those personal connections, but it also comes from a deep commitment to these underlying values, and I see how that advocacy is it extends to a commitment to human rights not only in Sri Lanka but a desire to see the expansion of human rights. Of our human rights advocacy throughout the world.  I want to just encourage people to keep going to be steadfast in your work, your advocacy on these issues and it can be frustrating to see backsliding, but it is a long road, and it is always a long the road. I think people understand that in the Tamil community. I talk to people in other communities or who are new to politics and they will get involved in an issue for 6 months and they will be frustrated that you know they have not managed to solve that problem and I have to come back it’s a part of political advocacy is its steadfastness and patience and committed to doing that work for the long haul. But it’s it but it’s hard when you have a family member suffering and all we can do is to do the things we can do right as if to say what are the opportunities I have to get involved to me with my elected officials to participate in conversations that are happening to educate my neighbors, to educate my colleagues and if all of us do our part of all of us do what we can do together that’s how we progress towards a better world.


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