Playing the Rights Card

A history of Canadian foreign policy as domestic theatre.

At the beginning of Why Canada Cares: Human Rights and Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice, a powerful narrative on human rights in Canadian foreign policy, Andrew Lui challenges a claim entrenched in our national mythology—that Canada has always been a leading advocate of international human rights. He describes Canada as a “human rights laggard” in the decades after World War Two, despite the political rhetoric of Canada as a “human rights leader.”

A salutary, and embarrassing, historic example of this national self-delusion is Canada’s role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Lui quotes a comment by William Schabas that the Canadian government attempted to “scuttle or delay” the process, far from playing a central role, and approached the declaration with a mix of “scepticism, indifference, and outright hostility.” Some Canadian policy makers believed that economic and social rights as well as some civil and political ones (notably, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association) did not belong in the declaration at all.

According to Lui, Canadian concerns were fuelled in part by a parliamentary report that considered the declaration’s breadth and reach into domestic affairs. The parliamentary committee wanted capital and corporal punishment to remain a state prerogative, and expressed concerns that the declaration would allow certain minority groups (“Communists, Aboriginal peoples, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Japanese Canadians”) undue exemptions from federal and provincial laws.

By December 7, 1948, Canada was the only country outside the Soviet Bloc to abstain from a vote to approve the final draft of the declaration before submitting it to the United Nations General Assembly. Canada ultimately did vote in favour of the declaration, but, as Lui points out, only after continued pressure from the British and American delegations. This is certainly not the story we like to tell ourselves.

Why Canada Cares is a beautifully written and deeply researched account of 60 years of human rights in Canadian foreign policy since 1945. Lui mostly avoids the opaque, and at times incomprehensible, language of social science as he develops a chronological and theoretically grounded analysis of the role of human rights in Canadian foreign policy. He effectively deploys what he calls the “modest benefits of theoretical eclecticism” in order to explain the progression and, arguably in more recent years, the regression of Canada’s foreign policy on human rights.

Having set the theoretical stage, Lui tells a somewhat cynical story that Canada’s position on human rights has often boiled down to pragmatic politics for various domestic audiences. Canada, he says, has used human rights as part of a broader strategy to ground individual rights in Canadian federalism and thereby reduce friction between the country’s increasingly diverse social groups. Canadian international human rights policy, he implies, has much more to do with keeping peace within Canada’s borders than it does with promoting the rights of the world’s citizens.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the attention it gives to the two decades after World War Two. Lui does not spare the details of how diplomatic tensions in the Cold War restricted the role of human rights in international relations. Canada was always a small player on the international stage and, during the 1940s and ’50s, needed to focus resources on its military in order to be a factor in the alliance system and contribute to collective defence. During that time, Canada’s priorities were war and security. Lui correctly points out that, as a result, international human rights standards were held “hostage” to the superpower rivalry, with the United States promoting civil and political rights and the Soviet Union promoting economic and social rights, culminating in two separate human rights covenants in 1966.

Lui demonstrates that, wedged geographically between these two powers, Ottawa implemented international human rights to express an expansive vision of what Canadian society should look like. He provides us with some tantalizing examples, and he is no respecter of reputations. The policies of John D. Diefenbaker and Pierre Elliott Trudeau in particular are explored with incision and candour.

Lui paints Diefenbaker as a leader primarily concerned with promoting the material interests of Canada, raising human rights causes only when opportunities arose. For example, Lui describes him as a “key player” in 1961, along with the prime minister of India, in creating a Commonwealth resolution against racial discrimination. This resolution had beneficial human rights consequences, since it ultimately forced the apartheid government in South Africa to withdraw its application for membership, while also saving the Commonwealth from a serious internal division between developed and underdeveloped members. However, Lui reminds us that Diefenbaker’s decision to invest in the Commonwealth was motivated in part by Canada’s dismal bilateral relations at that time with the United States.

Lui aptly points out that Diefenbaker had a poor relationship with the president of the United States. A question that he could have explored in more detail is why. Although he criticizes “historical snapshots” for not easily translating into political models, they do add layers of truth and texture to a narrative. As Robert Bothwell eloquently reveals in The Penguin History of Canada, Diefenbaker was a “man who stimulated strong reactions” and who was “actively disliked” by some members of his own party who “believed that he had a long and vindictive memory for slights real and imagined, and they were right.”

Lui glides over the Pearson years (although he does critically examine Pearson’s contributions as secretary of state for external affairs). Despite his commitment to theoretical eclecticism, Lui paints a blurry picture of the economic and demographic changes to Canadian society in the 1960s. As the country became materially well off, less prosperous regions began demanding equal opportunity. More immigrants were entering Canada from countries outside of Europe, and the large swell of babies born after World War Two were becoming adults and demanding a new social agenda. With increasing healthcare costs and a shift in Canada’s priorities from Cold War security to domestic social programs, spending on defence was bound to decrease. These conditions shaped the direction of Canada’s policy on human rights and set the stage for one of its more vocal proponents: Pierre Trudeau.

Lui acknowledges that Trudeau displayed much more genuine support for international human rights than previous Canadian governments. He launched the first foreign policy review in Canada’s history. However, Lui finds that Trudeau, like the prime ministers before him, committed Canadian foreign policy to calculations of national self–interest as defined by the domestic needs and priorities of the federal government. To this extent, Lui argues that Trudeau’s foreign policy is consistent with that of his post–World War Two predecessors.

He delves specifically into the crisis spurred by the Front de Libération du Québec in October 1970, and argues that, in response to this crisis, Trudeau was determined to create an image abroad of Canada “undivided despite its diversity.” According to Lui, human rights, then, became a key battleground for resolving—or possibly masking—the issue of Quebec separation. Although Trudeau launched the world’s first official policy on multiculturalism in 1971, Lui attributes this act not to Trudeau’s ideals but to his reaction to French-Canadian nationalism, escalating frustrations among Canadians of non-British and non-French heritage, and the growing social mobility of Canadians of Eastern European descent.

It was during his fourth term of office that Trudeau institutionalized his approach to human rights with the repatriation of the Canadian constitution and the introduction of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Once again, rather than emphasizing Trudeau’s idealism, Lui attributes this shift in part to the increased American interest in human rights during the Carter administration in the U.S., the Helsinki Accords finalized at the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe and violations of human rights that began to receive global attention in the late 1970s (in Uganda, Kampuchea and South Africa).

According to Lui, the pursuit of national interest continued with the transfer of power to Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government. Although Mulroney did not come to office in 1984 with the intention of promoting human rights, his government became a strong advocate of the anti–apartheid campaign in South Africa. Lui reveals, though, that Mulroney’s threats of “absolute” and “total sanctions” against South Africa were not backed up by policy. Trade figures show that imports and exports to South Africa increased in 1988, along with the approval of a large Canadian bank loan to a South African–controlled company. Despite the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, 1989, and widespread domestic and international condemnation of China’s government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, Lui maintains that the largely symbolic response of the Canadian government demonstrated a commitment to material interests. Mulroney’s foreign policy did, however, expand into areas of women’s and children’s rights.

The end of the Cold War caused a monumental shift in the balance of power and a new period of international relations, with the emergence of unexpected ethnic and intra-state conflicts (Somalia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia) as well as renewed insecurities over Quebec separatism. Lui argues that Canada’s experiment to broaden peacekeeping operations in the area of humanitarian intervention under both the Conservative and Liberal governments revealed further problems, such as the “execution-style” shooting of a Somali intruder and the torture and beating death of a Somali teenager by members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, which highlighted a “vast incapacity to protect human rights abroad.” Although Lui acknowledges that organizational failures were partly responsible, he attributes some of this failure to a lack of fit between the military’s traditional role of national defence and the defence of human rights abroad. He barely mentions Canada’s peacekeeping operations in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the inherent difficulties of leading humanitarian interventions through the UN.

Jean Chrétien began a thorough review of Canadian foreign policy in 1993, and the report, issued a few years later, declared human rights to be a core “Canadian value” and one of “three pillars” of Canada’s foreign policy. Nevertheless, Lui argues that internationalist diplomacy was deeply self-interested, and that during this decade, Canada linked human rights to good governance, which it regarded as necessary for achieving economic growth. According to Lui, the “Chrétien doctrine” that “concerns about human rights will not be allowed to interfere with Canada’s efforts to promote international trade” affirmed the primacy of Canada’s material interests over other pursuits.

Buried in Lui’s analysis is the instrumental role that Lloyd Axworthy played in linking human rights to the promotion of peace and security. Lui makes only passing references to human security and the responsibility to protect, measures created under Axworthy’s aegis to raise the bar on human rights issues. While he acknowledges Axworthy’s consistent interest-based argument for Canada’s promotion of human rights, he gives undue emphasis to detractors who unfairly criticize Axworthy’s agenda for resting on “‘excessive moralism’ that recklessly imposes Canadian values on others.” Lui also discounts the merit of quiet diplomacy as mere rhetoric used by Axworthy to deflect criticism of inconsistent foreign policy approaches. As Axworthy rightly points out, “it would be easy to take very public stands on every human rights abuse in every country, and it might even be quite popular, but this would not, on its own, change much in the country concerned. Each situation and each country holds a different potential for effective action.”

Lui also minimizes Canada’s leadership in the campaign against anti-personnel landmines as an accidental rather than proactive attempt to protect human rights internationally. Lui cites a report by Veronica Kitchen that showed that the UN’s list of countries that adhered to an export moratorium on anti-personnel landmines mistakenly included Canada, which had not enacted the ban. However, this example highlights more the divisions between Canada’s military and foreign affairs branches of government rather than any lack of leadership on the part of Chrétien or Axworthy. While the Department of National Defence was reluctant to tell the UN of the error, under pressure from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, it consented to an export moratorium in November 1995.

Lui does acknowledge Canada’s leadership in the establishment of the International Criminal Court. Not only did Canada play a leading role in negotiations for the creation of the Rome Statute for establishing the ICC in 1998, but also, two years later, Canada was the first country to implement the statute domestically by enacting the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. However, Lui attempts to minimize Canada’s commitment to the protection of international human rights during this period by suggesting that it “rests only on technical expertise and assistance.”

Another significant historical marker in international relations was September 11, 2001. In the fight against terrorism, Canada passed Bill C-36, the Anti-terrorism Act, which granted law enforcement bodies sweeping powers to act on suspected terrorist activity. Lui highlights the well-known Arar and Khadr cases (although he should have placed the failure to repatriate Khadr earlier squarely on the shoulders of Stephen Harper, especially in light of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2010). I agree with Lui’s analysis that Canada’s indefinite detention of terrorist suspects without charge, or collusion with governments that do, clearly violates domestic and international human rights standards and demonstrates the willingness of both Conservative and Liberal governments to sacrifice human rights commitments when national security is at stake.

However, Canada’s foreign policy on other human rights issues has not changed. Notable examples highlighted during the Paul Martin years include child exploitation, sexual abuse, forced displacement, poverty, hunger, disease, discrimination against women and other violations that affect the majority of the world’s population. Lui criticizes Martin for not responding to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur with troop deployment, but does not attribute the same criticism to his successor, Harper.

One of the weaknesses in Lui’s book is the final chapter, which feels more like a grab bag of compliments and complaints rather than a coherent critique of Canada’s foreign policy under Harper. Admittedly, Lui uses 2005 as a historical bookend to his research, which does not cover the election of Harper’s minority government in 2006. Even though Lui admits to being unable to do more than offer a “quick glance” of policies under Harper, he downplays “vociferous complaints” that Harper has attempted a “major reshuffling” of Canadian foreign policy. Notwithstanding Canada’s unprecedented loss in its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010, and major shifts in Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East, Lui maintains that the biggest change under Harper appears to be in Canada’s foreign relations with China.

Lui raises more questions than he has time to answer, and it will remain the task of successive scholars to determine the role of human rights in Canadian foreign policy over this next decade. Lui has taken a bold and respectable step in the right direction.