Canada's Prime Minister has announced he will not be going to the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka but more importantly he's threatened funding for the cash strapped organisation. Canada is one of the three top funders along with the UK and Australia, donating $20 million a year in voluntary and mandatory payments. Taxpayers Britain and Australia won't be keen on picking up the tab for the Secretariat and its myriad offshoots. The impact on the Commonwealth, which already has a problem with late contributions, could be major. But it seems that it's only now that the secretariat has realised that Canada really means business over its opposition to Sri Lanka heading the 53-nation organisation.
"It's not about three days of meetings; it's about this country taking over the leadership for two years," said one commonwealth insider. Already there are reports that the Gambia, which recently pulled out of the Commonwealth, angrily asked why it was coming under fire for its human rights record when a country like Sri Lanka was soon to chair the organisation. From November, as chair Sri Lanka will automatically have a seat on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which acts as the custodian of political values. Since Colombo has been accused by the UN of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, resulting in between forty to seventy thousand civilian deaths, it's unlikely to call for tough action on other countries' human rights failings. One country's veto is enough to stymy any punitive action. And yet this is a Commonwealth that's been working on reform, struggling to be more sophisticated in its defence of democratic values than just expelling countries that experience military coups. There was unanimous support (including Sri Lanka) for extending the Commonwealth mandate to include the defence of good governance, judicial independence and human rights. But Canada has found itself so isolated in its stance that one Canadian diplomat even joked that maybe the Commonwealth should just suspend Canada for its bias - bias in favour of freedom of expression and democracy.
"This could be the beginning of the end of the Commonwealth; the Queen is the only one holding it together," said one observer. 2013 will be the first Commonwealth summit that the Queen will not be attending - the palace says on ground of her health and age. In her place will be Prince Charles, who's likely to ask for a briefing from the Canadians before he goes. The Sri Lankans would like to turn Prince Charles' attendance into a major state visit but it's not clear he's going to want to be photographed shaking hands with the Sri Lankan President.