Tough yet inconsistent on human rights

For anybody who has been paying attention, it’s clear that the current government is injecting a new kind of fuel into Canada’s foreign policy. Prime Minister Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney form a trifecta of tone transformation: they give bang for their rhetoric’s buck, and bite to its bark. The PM, in recent conversation with Macleans, said that foreign relations has “become almost everything.” Those relations are taking on a decidedly edgier look. Along with the usual Canadian peacekeeping presence during interventions, the world has just seen a Canuck general lead an intervention in Libya. And once downright genteel UN speeches are now fire and brimstone sermons. 

One such speech came late September when Baird harangued supporters of Palestine’s statehood bid. The tirade described new outcroppings of anti-Semitism, likening it to pre-World War II fascism. It then moved right along to declaring that Canada will not appease Libya’s former Gadhafi regime, and neither will Canada stand for Syria repressing its own citizens. Finally, Baird drove his point home by stating that his government will not “go along or look the other way when a minority is denied its human rights or fundamental freedoms.” All very touching, and honourable. But does it depend on where, exactly, said abused groups reside?

Minister Baird lamented the struggles of  Chinese Christians, Burmese Buddhists and Muslims, gays and lesbians in Uganda, and the Bahá’í in Iran. Strangely, he breezed past the plight of women in the Arabian Gulf, glossing over one country in particular: Saudi Arabia. This is a state where a victim of gang rape by seven men was sentenced to six months in jail, plus 200 lashes, because she was accompanied by a man who was not her ‘guardian.’ It is a place where women have recently been allowed to vote in municipal elections, but aren’t allowed to drive. Many are skilled and educated, but are frequently barred from working. 

Two days after his UN rally, Baird did condemn a Saudi decision that sentenced a woman to 10 lashes for driving her own car, but refrained from publicly emphasizing the point through the Commons’ foreign affairs committee. 

His reluctance to press the Saudis on this incident can be summed up by this curious news excerpt from the Toronto Sun: “The oppression of women in Saudi Arabia has received much attention since Riyadh quietly tried to prevent Canadian broadcasters from running an ad promoting Alberta’s oil sands as an ethical alternative to Saudi-produced energy.”

Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia popped up as a useful throwing tool against Saudi Arabia only when they reacted negatively to our oil. How instrumentalist is this ‘rights rhetoric’ in other situations? When Minister Baird throws around minority abuse cases at the UN when talking about the Palestinian case, is he using the legitimizing power of human rights to further another agenda? Surely with human rights, as the man said himself, you cannot just “look the other way” when standing up for them doesn’t suit economic expedience. But apparently Canada can: Saudi Arabia is our second largest export market in the region. “Trade and economic interests continue to be at the forefront of Canada’s bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia,” says our government’s website. 

There might be nothing wrong with giving some fangs to Canada’s international presence. One must, after all, be able to act on the values one proclaims. But the problem starts when those fangs pretend to champion human rights on the one hand, while ignoring their flagrant abuse on the other. 

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