By Stéphanie Bacher
Over the past year, Canada has taken some important steps to promote and protect human rights abroad. However, the picture is not as rosy as often presented by the government, and Canada still has a long way to go to become a true leader in the promotion of human rights abroad. Here are some of the highlights, and failures, of Canada’s actions on human rights around the world in 2018.
A New Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise
In January, the International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced the creation of a Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise to investigate allegations of human rights abuses linked to Canadian companies’ activities abroad.
The creation of this position, which will replace the toothless Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor, was lauded by several civil society organizations which had been campaigning for the creation of an ombudsperson for many years.
An ombudsperson should be appointed by the end of this year. To date, the government has not revealed the extent of the new office’s powers. This decision will reveal how serious it is about ensuring Canadian-based companies respect human rights abroad.
It can only be effective if it has real tools at its disposal, including the ability to order the production of documents, summon witnesses, and compel them to give testimony under oath, as well as sufficient financial means to carry out investigations.
Championing Human Rights in Saudi Arabia … on Twitter
On August 2, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted that she was “very alarmed to learn” of the arrest of Samar Badawi, the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, in Saudi Arabia. The next day, Global Affairs Canada urged Saudi authorities to immediately release all imprisoned human rights activists, including Samar Badawi.
This tweet sparked a diplomatic crisis between the two countries, after Saudi Arabia accused Canada of interfering in its internal affairs. Saudi authorities ordered the Canadian ambassador to leave the country, suspended all new trade and investment transactions and all flights to and from Toronto.
Freeland insisted Canada would always speak up for human rights, even if it meant facing sanctions. This promise, however, didn’t translate into meaningful action, as Canada refused to cancel its arms deals with Saudi Arabia, even after the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey. A few European countries took a much stronger position and halted their arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
A Timid Inclusion of Human Rights in the New Trade Agreements
Canada concluded two major trade agreements over the past year.
The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed with 10 other countries, will enter into force at the end of this year and create the third largest free-trade area in the world.
Canada’s push for a “progressive trade agenda,” however, didn’t lead to the inclusion of strong human rights provisions. Gender equality and Indigenous rights are only mentioned in the preamble, and thus not legally binding. The trade deal also makes it difficult to prove labour rights violations and seek redress. Nonetheless, a few provisions should benefit women, notably measures to support small and medium-sized enterprises.
Canada also put a lot of time and effort into the renegotiation of NAFTA, signing what is now called USMCA (United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement.)
The government sent a strong message by making gender equality the overarching theme for the summit.
Although Canada’s negotiating team pushed for a specific chapter on gender rights, they met strong resistance from the Donald Trump administration. The United States also added a footnote to exempt itself from supporting labour practices that would protect workers against employment discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
However, USMCA includes specific references to Indigenous peoples in several sections, and is the most inclusive international trade agreement for Indigenous peoples developed to date, according to the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Women and LGBTQ Rights
In June, Canada hosted the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Que. The government sent a strong message by making gender equality the overarching theme for the summit, and creating a Gender Equality Advisory Council to ensure its inclusion across all themes, activities, and outcomes of Canada’s G7 Presidency.
At the end of the meeting, the G7 countries, except the U.S., committed to invest $3.8 billion for girls’ education across the globe. Feminist advocates, however, were disappointed by the lack of concrete actions and commitments other than the $3.8 billion investment.
Canada also hosted the Equality Rights Coalition Global Conference on LGBTI Human Rights and Inclusive Development in August. Randy Boissonneault, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on LGBTQ2 issues, pledged for $1 million in new funding for LGBTI civil society organizations in conflict zones and a commitment to update the government’s Voices at Risk guidelines on supporting human rights defenders.
The Way Forward
In the new year, Canada should take effective action to demonstrate that its commitments are not just empty rhetoric seeking to promote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s brand. Human rights should also not be put on the back burner when commercial and electoral interests are at stake.
Stéphanie Bacher is a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of Ottawa who works on Canada’s human rights record and participation in East Africa. She is also a member of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre and The McLeod Group.
This article was first published on 13 December 2018 on the Huffington Post blog “Development Unplugged,” which was created by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.