On Human Rights, Baird Leaves a Troubled Legacy

This is one of a series of CIPS Blog posts examining the legacy of John Baird as Canada’s foreign minister. See also the posts by Peter Jones, Ferry de Kerckhove and Colin Robertson.

John Baird’s decision to resign naturally invites comments on his 20 years in politics. His record will be contested, of course. Yet no doubt all will applaud his energy and dedication, and his formidable parliamentary skills. This is only fair. There is a risk, however, that in deference to his undoubted commitment to public service, commentators will overstate his achievements.

This is already evident in the uncritical assessments being given to his supposed ‘principled’ promotion of human rights abroad. The truth is that John Baird’s tenure as foreign minister has been largely negative for Canadian human rights diplomacy; he has weakened Canada’s ability to promote and secure human rights abroad.

The truth is that John Baird’s tenure as foreign minister has been largely negative for Canadian human rights diplomacy; he has weakened Canada’s ability to promote and secure human rights abroad.

Certainly his speeches routinely invoked the need to defend “freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”. But the real test is in what a foreign minister actually does to advance human rights objectives. And on human rights, Baird rarely walked the talk. Moreover, when he did, his partisanship and selectivity, and his unapologetic disdain for the multilateral system so crucial to advancing human rights in the world, combined to undermine the impact of the few well-meaning initiatives he launched.

Those defending Baird’s record point to his efforts to keep the UN focused on the human rights situation in Iran, and to fund innovative means to promote free expression and access to information in that country, and to measure its human rights performance. They also cite Baird’s advocacy at the global level to end early, forced and child marriage, to criticize the criminalization of same sex relations, and in promoting religious freedom.

Although these were good initiatives, they were advanced in such a way that partisanship and selectivity undermined the objective. For example, Baird’s efforts to mobilize international pressure on Iran over its dismal human rights record did ramp up the efforts of previous Liberal governments. But while naming and shaming Iran, Baird downplayed similarly dismal records in the Gulf States—Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain in particular. Indeed, in his many visits to the Gulf States, Baird barely raised human rights concerns.  As these (largely Sunni) states are allied against (largely Shi’a) Iran, his message was widely perceived in the region and beyond not as being principled, but rather as heavily politicized (and thus more easily deflected).

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This double standard was glaringly evident in the case of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to imprisonment and 1000 lashes (doled out by 50 each week). Baird resisted calls to speak out on the case, and only did so after an outcry followed the first round of flogging. Even then he limited his concern to the type of punishment, and did not make clear that Canada thought it outrageous that he should be in prison at all.

On Israel, Baird showed uncritical support; and while quick to denounce Palestinian abuses and attacks on civilians, he almost never did so vis-à-vis the Israelis. He is likely the first Canadian foreign minister since the1970s who has refused to explicitly point to the illegality of the Israeli occupation and settlements (although that view remains official Canadian policy); these are the underlying cause of much human rights abuse.

Beyond minimizing Israeli abuses, Baird let his uncritical support for Israel over-ride Canada’s support for international justice. When efforts were underway to pressure the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Baird pointedly did not add Canada’s name to the list of states petitioning the Security Council. The Israelis objected to the ICC having any role in the region. Only very late in the day, and only half-heartedly, did Canada sign on to this effort.

Moreover, Baird actively sought to dissuade the Palestinian Authority (PA) from joining the ICC, and indeed complained bitterly when they did so. In a visit to Israel, Baird called the PA’s action “a huge mistake” (despite the fact that the ICC must examine alleged abuses by all sides, including Hamas). He pointedly did not distance himself from the views of his Israeli counterpart, who openly questioned the Court’s existence and asked Canada and western powers to cease funding the ICC.

Earlier, Baird had expressed his strong disagreement when the PA acceded to a range of human rights treaties – ones that would protect Palestinians from abuses by their own government! His opposition was grounded in the spurious claim that treaty ratification would undermine any peace negotiations.

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On freedom of religion, Baird set up a new Office in his department, but in a manner that seemed designed to ensure it flew a Tory flag. Having been neither consulted nor welcomed as partners in what should be an all-Canada initiative, opposition parties have little stake in its work. It is an open question as to whether it will survive a change in government.

Finally, there is a broader context to consider. If Canada hopes to wield the moral authority needed to effectively promote human rights abroad, it needs to show that it too welcomes external scrutiny of its record. Here too, Baird has failed. In his four years at the helm, no progress was made on Canadian ratification of several new UN human rights protocols, including ones to ensure humane treatment of detainees and better scrutiny of children’s rights. Indeed, he made it clear that Canada had no intention of signing any new UN human rights accords.

Baird also refused to sign a new global treaty that would limit arms sales where they fuel conflict or human rights abuse. There is no obvious reason to do so other than to placate Canadian gun lobbyists, who ignore the fact that the treaty is only about foreign arms sales.

In his farewell speech to Parliament today, John Baird regretted his perhaps too zealous approach when he began in politics. To make a difference, he had learned, he said, “… you can’t be defined by partisanship, nor by ideology. You need instead to be defined by your values.” Sadly, it’s not a lesson he brought to promoting human rights abroad.

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