The current Liberal government headed by Prime Minister Jean Chretien has long attempted to trumpet Canada as being at the forefront of a global movement, led by the United Nations, to promote human rights worldwide.
Canada is currently signed on to a wide range of U.N. human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Political Rights of Women and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The government has incessantly promoted the message to Canadians that Canada is the torch-bearer for a global community that will no longer accept state behavior that condones systematic abuses of individual rights and freedoms. Canada is seen to advocate the standard themes espoused in the human-rights community; the rights of children, persons with disabilities, aboriginal peoples, and freedom of expression.
Our voice on these issues is projected to the international community via organizations such as the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Commonwealth and La Francophonie. In addition, the government supports numerous Canadian and international NGOs working on the implementation of global human rights initiatives at the grassroots level.
The government’s desire to continuously promote issues surrounding social justice betrays the fact that it has failed to translate its loaded words into fundamental change in the countries guilty of consistently ignoring human rights.
Canada is certainly not the only paper tiger in the international community when it comes to enforcing international standards, but our voice on these issues is often the loudest. The governments that are notorious for committing violations of the very U.N. treaties we signed continue to go unpunished for their actions.
Even more unfortunate is the fact that Canada continues to encourage and embrace international trade with some of the worst offenders. China is perhaps the most visible example of this hypocrisy, as it has risen to become our third largest trading partner. China’s human rights abuses are numerous and well- documented but our government understands that ignoring the Chinese market would allow other countries to fill the very profitable void created by our absence. As a result, it is willing to overlook China’s record while easing its conscience with the tried and true “controlled engagement” argument.
The case of Burma is particularly troubling, as the Canadian government has been a very vocal supporter of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in response to her repeated detention by the military junta controlling the country. In the meantime, Canada imported close to $18 million in 2001 of goods from Burma not including the millions of dollars that have made Burma Canada’s No. 1 heroin supplier.
Iran is one of Canada’s largest export markets in the North Africa- Middle East region with export’s of roughly $500 million a year (2001 figures). The extreme nature of Iran’s human-rights abuses was encapsulated by the recent killing of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi while being detained for photographing a prison. Canada is Cuba’s third-largest global trading partner with figures totaling $753 million. Fidel Castro’s regime has been responsible for, among other things, countless political imprisonments and the complete abolition of the free press. Canada also has active trade relationships with questionable regimes such as Syria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Zimbabwe.
Canada would lose valuable markets by refusing to trade with the large number of countries that systematically ignore its calls for human rights and freedom for all. As a result, putting serious economic and political pressure on these countries is a proposition that would require consensus among all nations.
Governments that consistently violate U.N. Human Rights treaties have no incentive to change their policies when the revenues keep rolling in. Canada should play a significant role in establishing a new global foreign policy framework that creates that incentive.
If Canada truly aspires to formulate a foreign policy rooted in the principals of human rights, than it must be prepared to lead in practice not just theory.
Greg Raikes is a free-lance writer.