Asia Pacific Foundation
Like others around the world, Canadians were horrified when they saw pictures last April of the collapse of the Bangladeshi garment factory, which killed close to 1,200 people. They are also upset when they read about the treatment of dissidents in China and elsewhere in Asia. Yet, as a new report on Canada and human rights in Asia makes clear, they are seeing only part of the picture.
Human rights has been an important part of Canadian foreign policy since 1947-48, when Canada played a pivotal role in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, surveys have shown that many Canadians view the country’s record of action on human rights in Asia to be ineffective.
How can this be changed? How can Canada successfully engage China and other Asian powers in a human rights dialogue that benefits their citizens? And can this be done while pursuing a successful trade and investment relationship with those powers?
The clear answer is yes, and it is one of the encouraging themes of a task force report entitled Advancing Canada’s Engagement with Asia on Human Rights. It was published Sept. 25 by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, under the umbrella of its National Conversation on Asia initiative.
More than a year in the making, the task force is the work of an impressive group of Asia and human rights experts who held high-level consultations in Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal.
No one likes to be preached to
As Canadians recognize, there are human rights abuses in Asia. However, Canadians should also understand that the region has made great strides in the past quarter century.
China, for example, has not only made a broad commitment to improving people’s daily lives but also signed on to domestic and international legal obligations that support human rights. Canada should encourage the Chinese to continue supporting those commitments.
What Canada needs is an integrated approach in its foreign policy towards Asia. That means providing more dynamic support for the full gamut of human rights while at the same time responsibly pursuing economic opportunities. It also means placing the emphasis not only on political and civil rights but also on social, economic and cultural rights.
A major conclusion of the task force is that if Canada takes a constructive approach to its relations with Asian countries, it can help move the dial on human rights while at the same time pursuing its economic interests.
This will require care and sensitivity to local conditions, a realization that Canadian values aren’t necessarily Asian values, and an awareness—not always there in the past—that no one likes to be preached to.
What does Canada need to do to produce the desired results? The role of the federal government is critical. It must provide consistent political leadership at the highest level and make the development of human rights a strategic objective of its Asia strategy. That means setting specific, realistic goals in consultation with governments in Asia.
An example of what Ottawa could do would be to assess and publicize the effect that any trade or investment agreement is likely to have on human rights in the country in question. Canada is currently in discussion with or negotiating such agreements with India, Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
The federal government also needs to attend to public opinion, by explaining the rationale and the benefits both for Canada and for Asia of its human rights policies and by supporting broader community and civil society engagement in human rights implementation.
Business is equally important, because it is on the ground in Asia, and it is the part of Canada that Asians will see the most. Companies should be sensitive to local human rights priorities, align their activities to recognized human rights standards and support the work of non-governmental organizations.
For their part, Canadian NGOs can, for example, support law reform and the training of local judges and lawyers.
A robust human rights strategy would have many benefits for Canada, as well as those in Asia affected by Canada’s policies. There is, of course, intrinsic value to making human rights part of our ongoing strategy. This strategy would also bolster Canada’s effectiveness in international leadership, trade liberalization and responsible development.
Canada has been trying for several decades with limited success to improve human rights in Asia and enhance its economic footprint in the region. The strategy outlined in this new report could at long last make that elusive goal a reality.