Canadian governments since the mid-1970s have claimed that promoting human rights around the world is a foreign policy priority. There are solid moral, legal, and practical grounds for doing so. Yet increasingly, the Liberal government, like its Tory predecessor, justifies the policy by drawing on vague appeals to Canadian “values” — as if these were both self-evident and appealing to a foreign audience. They are neither, and invoking them to justify rights promotion does more harm than good.
The moral argument for rights promotion suggests it’s the decent thing to do; we should not be mute or idle in the face of gross injustice, regardless of borders. The moral case is buttressed by a legal one — a vast array of international human rights standards that create binding legal obligations on all UN member states. These rules legitimize human rights as a matter of international concern. Further, it’s sound policy. Promoting human rights helps to prevent armed conflict, and supports democratization and good governance — all crucial to the rules-based, peaceful international order that our trading nation relies on.
Elements of all these arguments can be found in official pronouncements, but at the fore is often an appeal to Canadian “values.” In her policy-setting speech to Parliament in June 2017, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke of Canada’s “role to set a standard for how states should treat women, gays and lesbians, transgendered people, racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious minorities, and Indigenous people.” Such a role was justified, she added, because “we are safer and more prosperous … when more of the world shares Canadian values.” Although she (confusingly) also noted that “it is clearly not our role to impose our values around the world,” it is in these “values” that she largely anchored Canada’s global concern for human rights.
Prime Minister Trudeau too has frequently justified his progressive trade agenda, including concern for labour and women’s rights, as deriving from Canadians’ attachment to these “values.” In explaining why he pushed this agenda in his trade visit to China late last year, for example, the Prime Minister said “With China, as with all of our trading partners, we are committed to pursuing trade that benefits everyone, that puts people first and reflects Canadian values, especially when it comes to the environment, labour, and gender.”
This values talk is hardly new. Former Foreign Minister John Baird repeatedly invoked Canadian “values” when he spoke of promoting human rights in the world. In the most detailed speech he gave on the topic, he committed Canada to defending women’s rights, opposing child marriage, and speaking up in defense of LGBTQ rights worldwide. Canada’s obligation to promote this “principled, values-based foreign policy,” Baird said, was “steeped in the conviction that, as a free nation, we must promote and protect the fundamental liberties of people around the world. It’s a foreign policy I’m aggressively pursuing, one in which we promote Canadian interests and Canadian values.”
Part of the explanation for this invocation of “values” lies in stale debates about the balance between “interests” and “values” in our foreign policy. It has proven difficult if not impossible in an interdependent world to sustain such a dichotomy (why on earth would it not be in our “interest” to see democracy flourish worldwide?), so it is odd that government minsters continue to give it weight.
Odder still if one poses the obvious question — what are these Canadian values? Minister Freeland says they “include feminism, and the promotion of the rights of women and girls.” Baird spoke of liberty, Trudeau has invoked pluralism and the rule of law, alongside the gender, labour, and environmental concerns pushed in trade talks. But to speak of these as Canadian values suggests that we hold some kind of ownership of them, which is clearly absurd. People around the world repeatedly show their support for these ideas. Just as one example, in a recent survey in India, Nigeria, Morocco, and Mexico, a large majority of respondents (men and women) agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment that “women’s rights are human rights.” And who can doubt that the one billion poor people in countries racked by corruption would prefer — indeed value — the rule of law, labour rights, and a clean environment?
In short, these are universal values, even if governments elsewhere attack them or fall far short of upholding them. Moreover, if the problem lies with foreign governments, why do we think an appeal driven by Canadian values will have any traction? Shouldn’t we simply ask them to uphold the labour, gender, environmental, and other rights they too have endorsed in numerous UN and regional agreements?
Of course, seasoned diplomats employ precisely these tactics. The gender chapter in our free trade agreement with Chile, for example, explicitly refers to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Conversely, it would be foolhardy to attempt to convince a Chinese counterpart to respect labour or gender rights because these are valued by Canadians. The “Canadian values” talk is obviously just for domestic audiences, so why worry?
Three reasons. First, it gives ammunition to those in Canada who question Trudeau’s progressive agenda — stalled trade negotiations, for example, are said to be the fault of us imposing our values. Second, it lends support to a false (regrettably dominant) narrative of human rights being solely a Western concern, imposed on other countries. Dozens of non-Western countries actively promote human rights at the UN (and not all western countries do so with vigour). Third, it promotes Canadian exceptionalism — less jingoistic than that south of the border, but no more appealing to the many non-Canadians who share our values yet can’t understand why we think they are so particularly Canadian.
Promoting progressive trade and human rights in our relations with other countries is sound policy, but we didn’t invent the values covered in all those international standards. And we won’t impress others by making it sound like we think we did.