John Baird’s Journey

In a speech last week to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Minister John Baird set out the priority he attaches to human rights in Canadian foreign policy. That Minister Baird prioritizes human rights is hardly new: his speeches and public statements repeat, mantra-like, the Harper government’s commitment to defend and promote “freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law”. Whether this amounts to more than public posturing, and whether it includes a commitment to defend those principles with friends and foes alike, are questions that have been addressed previously in this space. Among the significant shortcomings in the Minister’s approach so far have been a thinly disguised contempt for multilateralism (which is so crucial to progress in this area); an unwarranted privileging of some rights over others; and an overly partisan style, both at home and abroad, in the way he takes up human rights issues.

The Montreal speech is interesting, however, in that it appears to signal a departure. First, Baird clearly stresses the need to build alliances to bring about lasting change. “We can accomplish so much more when we work with others,” he says, and recognizes the need to build coalitions and to use “multilateral connections to amplify Canada’s voice and advance our values exponentially.” The point seems obvious, but up until now it has been lost in Baird’s near-fetishization of the virtue of standing alone on points of principle (more colloquially presented as “no going along to get along”).

“If Baird means what he says in all three areas—working multilaterally and with others to support local change initiatives, embracing a more holistic understanding of human rights, and de-linking the defence of human rights abroad from the scoring of cheap political points at home—then he is likely to find that his approach will find broad support.”

Further, Baird now recognizes that megaphone diplomacy on human rights will accomplish only so much. “Doing what is right does not mean forcing our values on others….Change must come from within.” Exactly—and that means Baird will need to place a much stronger emphasis on working with civil society, which represents local agents for change.

Second, Baird takes a more holistic approach to human rights than he has in the past. Whereas previously his starting point has been the defence of freedom, and his emphasis has been on classic civil and political rights (and freedom of religion in particular), the Montreal speech begins with a different idea: dignity. “Whether in Tunisia, Cairo or Damascus,” Baird begins, “people are fighting for dignity”. This is the “common denominator” he suggests.

‘Dignity’ is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “All human beings are born free and equal, in dignity and in rights”. Though agreement on the ethical boundaries of the concept is elusive, it is clear that a life lived in “dignity” is one that goes beyond an understanding of freedom as simply non-interference (in the realms of speech, religious practise, etc.) President Roosevelt famously articulated the four freedoms: freedom of speech and religion, but also freedom from fear and want. And indeed, in the Montreal speech Baird embraces this wider understanding, referring to the “dignity to live in freedom, the dignity to live in peace, [and] the dignity to provide for one’s family”.

If this is not mere empty rhetoric, it entails that Canadian human rights policy will need to give equal weight to so-called economic and social rights: to education, to decent work, to minimum guarantees of shelter, health care and nutrition. All of these are essential—no less than free speech or religious freedom—to a life lived in dignity.

The third departure is Baird’s at least partial retreat from the partisanship he has shown in the past when defending the government’s human rights policy. Both he and Prime Minister Harper have painted previous Liberal governments with the brush of appeasement—suggesting that those governments failed to stand up to tyrannical regimes; kept quiet in order to “get along”; and were insufficiently robust in defending Israel against what the Tories see as spurious human rights complaints. Though these charges were rarely grounded in fact, they were skilfully wielded to score political points.

But in Montreal, Baird not only quotes approvingly the record of previous Liberal governments and Liberal parliamentarians, he states clearly that the government’s policies towards human rights “are not partisan issues; they transcend politics. These aren’t the values of conservatives, socialists or liberals. They aren’t the values of one province or another. They are distinctively Canadian values, which have been shaped by our national experience.”

If Baird means what he says in all three areas—working multilaterally and with others to support local change initiatives, embracing a more holistic understanding of human rights, and de-linking the defence of human rights abroad from the scoring of cheap political points at home—then he is likely to find that his approach will find broad support. More than that, however, such an approach will be the only way he can hope to make progress in the three specific policy areas that he highlights as being important for the government: the protection of women’s rights, the ending of child marriage, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

His overly partisan and even biased approach so far gives room to doubt that he’s had a full conversion; but let’s hope it’s true.

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