Virtue or Vice? Human Rights Diplomacy under the Tory Government

Foreign Minister John Baird’s speech to the UN General Assembly in September was widely reported for the forceful manner in which he condemned the Palestinians’ ’unilateral’ bid for UN membership. Largely unremarked upon, however, was the Minister’s emphasis on human rights—apparently the new lodestar of Canadian foreign policy.

Echoing remarks made by Prime Minister Harper in August, Baird said that Canada will no longer “go along” just to “get along”, and neither should the UN. “Freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law” will be the principles guiding Canada’s foreign policy. Multilateral institutions like the UN – and Canada’s engagement with them – will be judged on the degree to which they stand up for these principles against tyrants and terrorists.

Baird did not spell out the practical results of such a policy shift in any systematic way, although he highlighted some recent decisions: Canada’s refusal to attend meetings of the UN Disarmament Commission from June to August 2011, while North Korea sat in the Chair; our opposition to Iran’s efforts to seek election to leadership roles in UN bodies and, of course, our opposition to the Palestinian request for UN membership. Baird also denounced a range of abusive regimes, from Iran and Burma to Sri Lanka, Syria and Libya.

How to judge this proud, human rights-based non-conformism? One might question the sincerity of the approach. ‘No going along to get along’ appears a convenient way, ex post facto, to rationalise Canada’s failure to win a seat on the Security Council. It also offers a cover for potential future decisions not to stand for election to other UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council (when the real motivation is the fear of losing again). Further, if Canadian support for multilateralism is conditional on whether institutions and actions meet a test of virtue (as judged by Canada), this provides a convenient trump card to be played when needed to explain our non-adherence to international procedures and rules.

Perhaps it is only fair, however, to consider the policy on its merits. Can a principled, human rights foreign policy succeed? Is too much multilateralism bad for human rights? The short answer is that Baird’s principled non-conformism is unlikely to produce the results he seeks. As a strategy for Canada to advance the international protection of human rights, it is incoherent, and even worse, inconsequential.

The policy is incoherent because it is already inconsistently applied. Human rights and the rule of law are not mere phrases, empty vessels to be filled with whatever meaning John Baird or anyone else intends. Their content, at an international level, has been negotiated and agreed in several international human rights treaties and dozens of approved standards. The pariah states cited by Baird are in egregious breach of those standards, but so too are states he refuses to criticise. Palestinian terror is condemned, but not the clear breaches of international law evident and documented in the Israeli response. The repression of the Burmese dictatorship is condemned, but there is only the weakest reference to human rights abuses in China.

Beyond inconsistency, however is a deeper problem. Standing on principle alone is unlikely to improve respect for human rights in those countries we shun; nor is shutting them out of international institutions likely to coerce them into respecting the rules those institutions champion. Advancing the cause of human rights across borders depends on multilateralism. For Baird, however, compromise is a dirty word; he quotes approvingly Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “consensus [is] the process of abandoning all beliefs, and principles[.]”

Of course we need principle on human rights, and moral indignation and outrage – and the courage of political leaders to speak out. But we also need co-operation. It is through such co-operation, and through difficult negotiations across borders, ideologies and cultures, that today we have in place the very treaties that provide an international legal basis for the principles Baird asserts. Consensus in international decision-making may too often be unfavourable to human rights, but so too is a policy that amounts to ‘my way or the highway’. As a recently-published report by Human Rights Watch makes clear, cross-regional co-operation has resulted in real progress in the Human Rights Council during the past year (in relation to action on Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Syria and Iran, as well as several thematic areas). Yet in the same week this report was published, Baird’s colleague Jason Kenney was in New York unnecessarily and unfairly deriding the Council, and the UN High Commissioner herself while setting out the reasons for Canadian non-participation in the UN’s anti-racism conferences.

Beyond its incoherence, the policy is simply inconsequential. The hard truth is that Canada acting alone has very few levers with which to change the behaviour of repressive regimes. A Canadian policy of walking out every time a tyrant takes the stage will leave our diplomats – but no one else – on the edge of their seats.

While Baird points to a proud Canadian record of defending human rights around the world, it is a gross distortion of that record to identify it with a cynical view of multilateralism. Some of Canada’s greatest achievements – the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines, the negotiations to establish an International Criminal Court, the isolation of the apartheid South African regime, winning global endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect, and the mainstreaming of women’s rights – resulted from a very determined multilateralism.

If he truly wants to advance the cause of human rights, the Foreign Minister needs more than principle: he needs a plan. ‘No going along to get along’ provides nothing towards a strategy to reshape or reform the multilateral institutions needed for an effective global defence of human rights. Cheap shots and UN-bashing may please some voters.  But as Canada’s image on the world stage moves from that of broker to bully, we may find it increasingly difficult to build the coalitions required to defend human rights in a divided and dangerous world.

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