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Role reversal: China cites human rights in spat with Canada
When China’s government recently protested the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou, it used something rarely heard from Beijing — the language of individual human rights.
“The detention without giving any reason violates a person’s human rights,” a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry said.
The arrest of Meng — done at the request of the U.S. government on allegations she violated American trade sanctions on Iran — has put a strain on Canada-China relations and has resulted in two Canadians being detained in China.
But the incident has also revealed the Chinese government’s efforts to reshape the way human rights are talked about, and conceived, globally. Those efforts have been remarkably successful — partly due to their acceptance by Western governments, including Canada.
Until 1997, China was regularly called on the carpet at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (now rebranded and upgraded as the Human Rights Council). Regular motions critical of China’s human rights record tended to centre on individual rights cases, while also making reference to the situation in Tibet.
Fearful of condemnation by a UN body, China was forced to resort to a procedure used by no other country: a counter-resolution calling for the CHR to take “no action” on human rights in China. Though China had the votes to get its way, the motions kept the pressure on. Chinese authorities felt this pressure keenly because it came from multiple channels, in an open forum protected by the UN system.
Keen for trade
That began to change as China’s economic power grew. Western governments were ever more keen to trade with China, and quite willing to lower the volume on human rights advocacy to reach that goal.
In 1996, Australia announced it would no longer co-sponsor resolutions critical of China (at the time not yet, as it is now, Australia’s top trading partner). It intended, instead, to open a “bilateral dialogue” on human rights.
A retrospective Australian government publication hailed the shift as more likely to get results, arguing that “non-confrontational, co-operative dialogue is the most effective way to address the human rights situation.”
Seventy years of international human rights
Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Spain followed suit the next year. Each government couched the shift to bilateral dialogues on human rights as a positive step from “confrontation” to “co-operation.” Yet dialogues are conducted behind closed doors, without open records, and with no measurable benchmarks of success.
Above all, these dialogues are disproportional. When China was poorer, as it was through most of the 20th century, its government resented being bullied by powerful Western governments. There is no longer any bullying China in the 21st century. It takes a host of Western or Southern states to match China’s size and economic power.
By pursuing one-on-one dialogues with smaller countries, China was able not only to take human rights from public to private forums, but also to make sure it was the more powerful state in the room.
So why did half a dozen countries — soon joined by others — break ranks and stampede to the new bilateral dialogue tactic? Long-held dreams of tapping the “China market,” which had beckoned Canadians for generations, were in play.
For centuries, European and North American merchants had longed to open China’s doors and sell to its vast consumer base. The 1990s saw an East Asian “economic miracle” that bedazzled businesses and governments alike. Like Australia, Canada stood at the forefront of governments hoping to harness a menagerie of “little tigers,” “rising dragons,” “flying geese” and so on to boost their own prosperity.
China dwarfed the other Asian countries in scale and in market potential. Western business and government leaders were positively giddy over the prospects.
Human rights linkage abandoned
Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney’s government was keen, but insisted trade should be partially linked with human rights. That linkage was abandoned under Mulroney’s successor, Jean Chrétien.
The leading symbol of Canada’s shift was Chrétien’s “Team Canada” trade missions, huge assemblages of politicians and corporate bosses that touched down, especially in Asian capitals, to do business.
Chrétien employed the same language of constructive engagement that Australian leaders had used. “Isolation is the worst recipe, in my judgment, for curing human-rights problems,” Chretien said during one Team Canada mission in Indonesia.
Chrétien was borrowing language on human rights developed by Asian dictatorships. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gained Canadian support for their conception of “constructive engagement” with human rights violators, a policy designed to justify deepening relations with Myanmar, then Burma.
ASEAN governments claimed that greater freedoms would come through bringing Burma into the international community, not isolating it. A related case came from Western universities, where several scholars were embracing “Lipset’s law,” a theory that greater wealth leads to more political freedoms.
Chrétien’s second foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, accepted that argument, arguing that human rights could best be promoted through what he called “active engagement and dialogue.” Trade and rights, Axworthy insisted, were “mutually reinforcing.” Good governance, including respect for rights and the rule of law, made growth possible, and growth made stable rights-respecting societies more likely. Here was Lipset’s law, recast as government policy.
The upshot was Axworthy’s decision to stop criticizing China’s human rights record in public, and turn instead to a bilateral human rights dialogue.
As rights groups assailed the Chrétien government’s decision to put trade ahead of human rights, the dialogue provided a way to perform human rights advocacy that was acceptable to China’s government, and thus would not jeopardize Canadian hopes for more trade with China.
A series of dialogue sessions took place until campaigning by Canadian rights activists made them a lightning rod for protest. When Stephen Harper came to power, he suspended the dialogues, never to be resumed.
Yet Conservative policy towards China descended into incoherence, then came full circle until one of his foreign ministers felt able to describe China as a Canadian “ally.” Justin Trudeau’s government has sought more trade with China and in 2016 established an annual leader’s dialogue between Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping that includes but does not stress human rights.
China’s ability to reshape human rights pressure into quiet dialogue, and then to make human rights simply one aspect of a wider dialogue process, mirrors a shift from denial that major abuses were taking place to insistence that although rights were indeed universal, they were best promoted through dialogue.
Since it suited their own economic interests and ideologies, Western governments came to accept the Chinese case in the 1990s, and embrace it entirely today.
China changed the norms
As a result, China has managed to change international human rights norms, rather than being changed by them.
It was able to convince the UN Sub-commission on Human Rights to endorse “constructive dialogues.” It can exclude critical activists from UN forums and weaken aspects of the UN human rights system. And this year, a Chinese resolution calling for “mutually beneficial cooperation” in UN human rights mechanisms passed 28-1, despite warnings that it would “entrench impunity for human rights violations.”
Human Rights Watch fears that China is remaking the UN’s human rights systems in ways that will leave victims facing “almost impossible odds in holding abusive governments accountable.”
China is influential, but would not have succeeded in changing the UN human rights system to this extent without quiet consent from countries who wanted to trade with it.
That consent has come because human rights almost always take a back seat to economics. Trade is integrated into most foreign ministries, while human rights remains an “optional extra.”
Canada’s current Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland insists that Canada is a “rule-of-law country,” but Canada remains hampered by its willingness to sideline human rights in relations with China, and to marginalize rights in its overall foreign policy.
The English-Canadian media’s selective outrage on bilingualism
Don’t get me wrong: It’s always nice to see folks in Ontario and the rest of English-speaking Canada say a few words in support of the English-speaking minority here in Québec.
But there are far more endangered, far more precarious, French-speaking minorities in Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and all nine majority-English provinces. In fact, those minority groups — English-speaking in Québec and French-speaking in the rest of Canada — are what make this country what it is.
There is a huge amount of work still to do on recognizing Indigenous rights and fostering Indigenous languages, of course. Important work is happening on that front, though the country has a long way to go. Maybe it’s time to declare Indigenous languages to be official languages.
In the meantime, however, it’s worth protecting the minority official language communities. But to read leading English-Canadian media, you would think that only one of those communities — Québec’s anglophones — were under threat.
Take the Globe and Mail, the country’s national newspaper. When Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently slashed services to Ontario francophones and axed plans for the province’s first French-language university, the Globe ran a total of five articles by Nov. 21, according to a search of the Canadian Newsstream database.
As La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé wrote — in English – that’s barely a fraction of the coverage given to the silliness of the “pastagate” story in 2013, in which an inspector from Québec’s French-language watchdog criticized the use of the word “pasta” in a Montréal restaurant (the watchdog quickly backed down and changed its rules). Canadian Newsstream finds 12 articles in the Globe on “pastagate.”
The Globe also issued a stern editorial against a Parti Québécois motion in Québec’s National Assembly that criticized the ubiquitous greeting “bonjour-hi.”
The motion was misplaced, but was non-binding and has changed nothing. Was it really — as the Globe editorialized — a call for the word “hi” to be “killed with fire, its ashes buried in lye and the location forgotten?”
One op-ed in support of Ford’s cuts
This sort of hyperbole is too common in the English-Canadian press. The Globe has so far issued no editorials against the Ford cuts to francophone services — though it did run an opinion piece in support of Ford’s move written by the president of Trent University.
The Globe, of course, should not be singled out. A Postmedia editorial published in the Ottawa Citizen and other newspapers, called the loss of the position of French Language Services Commissioner “unfortunate” in the eighth paragraph of a nine-paragraph editorial.
Otherwise, the newspaper database finds no editorial comment of any sort — let alone the sort of scathing denunciation that descends when Québec’s language laws make headlines in English. “Pastagate” was mentioned 311 times in the Canadian Newsstream index in 2013, the year it made headlines; Ontario francophone services rate 96 mentions since Ford’s cuts were announced.
In some ways, Québec language policy serves as an “external enemy” for English-speaking media. Mocking the periodic outbreaks of Québec language-law foolishness sells papers — or in digital terms, poking fun at pastagate is great clickbait. Criticizing the powerful in Ontario when they attack minorities does not produce the same results.
Québec’s anglophone community has chided Ford. The English-language Montreal Gazette criticized the francophone services cuts. The Townshippers’ Association, a group of anglophones in the Eastern Townships region of Québec south of Montréal, pointed out that the cuts were “a significant setback for the development and vitality not only of Franco-Ontarians, but for minority language communities across the country as well.”
Anglophone universities in Québec
Let’s not forget, however, that Québec’s anglophone community has spawned three universities, and that the Québec government has made no moves to shut down these minority-language universities — in fact, a revision to Québec’s university funding formula this year helped Bishop’s University in the Eastern Townships, where I teach history, more than any other institution in Québec.
Outside Québec, there is only one full French-language university, in Moncton, N.B. (A few French-language colleges exist inside English-language universities or in affiliation with colleges, and there are a handful of bilingual institutions.)
Québec’s anglophones have fought to protect their institutions. When the previous government led by Philippe Couillard announced plans to amalgamate school boards, the English-speaking community mobilized to save English-language school boards, successfully. It may need to fight the same battle in the face of renewed plans by the new government under François Legault to shutter local school boards.
Protecting recent gains
Given this history, it’s no surprise that the Townshippers’ Association announced its “solidarity with our French-speaking counterparts in Ontario” as they mobilize to defend their own institutions and protect recent gains.
The Ford government’s cuts are not primarily about money, as a recent article by French-speaking university professors points out. Fiscal arguments are a “smokescreen” for a rejection of the very concept of minority rights. (To its credit, the Globe reprinted a translated version on Nov. 21.)
This is part of a renewed attack on the French in Canada by the rising populist right, exemplified by Ford’s Ontario government and the New Brunswick’s People’s Alliance, which props up the incoming New Brunswick Conservative government.
Anti-Francophone sentiment is nothing new in Canada, as University of Guelph historian Matthew Hayday has written.
But it seems to be on the rise — and that will only empower those in Québec, chastened by recent declines in their public support, who might want to crack down on the anglophone minority.
Justin Trudeau’s government is under fire not only from Saudi government officials, but also from some Canadians who have implictly criticized Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for being too aggressive in advocating for the release of Saudi human rights activists.
A tweet from the minister expressed her support for the activists, while her department followed up the next day with another seeking the “immediate release” of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah.
None of it was anything unusual: Western diplomats call for the “immediate release” of political prisoners all the time.
Canada’s Parliament unanimously called for the “immediate release” of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (Samar’s brother) in 2015. That followed a similar unanimous motion for Badawi’s “immediate release” by the Quebec National Assembly.
The same U.S. State Department official who now asks Canada and Saudi Arabia to sort out their dispute called on Russia earlier this year to “immediately release” Ukrainian prisoners. Navi Pillai, then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Saudi authorities in 2014 “to immediately release all human rights defenders.” Saudi Arabia imposed no sanctions on the U.N. – instead it stayed in, and soon afterwards sought and won a seat on U.N. Human Rights Council.
“Saudi Arabia must immediately free women human rights defenders held in crackdown,” nine U.N. experts added in June 2018 — again prompting no Saudi attack on the UN or its Human Rights Council (of which the Saudi kingdom remains a member).
So there’s little remarkable in Freeland’s anodyne call on Twitter for the “immediate release” of two Saudi activists. It is typical diplomatic language, and actually falls short of what the United Nations human rights system has said on several occasions.
What is remarkable is that Saudi government reaction has allowed Canada to be portrayed as a human rights champion even as it continues to arm Saudi Arabia and thus implicitly accepts Saudi human rights violations.
The incident recalls other times when authoritarian regimes have reacted with anger to Canadian words on human rights. Some lessons might be drawn from these past incidents.
There were similar clashes between Canada and Indonesia back in the 1990s, a time when Indonesia’s military regime was a lightning rod for human rights concerns in ways similar to Saudi Arabia today.
In 1991, Indonesian soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters in East Timor, now Timor-Leste. They had invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and had occupied it ever since, at the cost of more than 100,000 dead. The massacre at the Santa Cruz cemetery in the Timorese capital, Dili, prompted a wave of protest in Canada.
Barbara McDougall, foreign minister in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government, froze three planned aid projects to Indonesia and stopped permitting Canadian arms sales to the Suharto regime.
When the Netherlands also froze its aid, Indonesia responded with fury. It rejected any future Dutch aid and forced the dissolution of the Dutch-led consortium that co-ordinated foreign aid to Indonesia in favour of a more compliant Consultative Group on Indonesia.
Indonesian anger also targeted Canada, as Canadian foreign affairs files reveal. Ottawa was “treating us like a child,” complained one Indonesian cabinet minister. Another accused Canada of a “colonial mentality.” The Canadian Business Association in Jakarta warned against “meddling in the internal affairs” of Indonesia.
McDougall stood firm
Yet despite lobbying by Canadian businesses and by Trade Minister Michael Wilson, McDougall declined to grant new aid or permit arms sales to Indonesia. Canadian diplomats worked quietly to maintain open channels with Indonesian counterparts, and McDougall stood firm. Opposition parties agreed and even called on her to go further. Canada maintained its position and bilateral relations continued relatively smoothly.
Public protests in Canada, however, continued to spark Indonesian government rage. In 1994, Guelph University held an arms-length review of its regional development project in Indonesia. When the review handed down a critical comment on human rights in Indonesia, the Indonesian government immediately pulled the plug, giving project staff six weeks to get out of the country.
When a Timorese refugee in Canada, Bella Galhos, started to campaign for Timorese human rights from her new home in Ottawa, Indonesian diplomats tried to pressure her through her family.
Benjamin Parwoto, Indonesia’s ambassador to Canada, visited Galhos’s mother in Dili accompanied by a military escort, making what appeared to be threats.
Galhos went public and Parwoto was raked over the coals in the Canadian media and summoned for a tongue-lashing by Lloyd Axworthy, foreign minister in Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government.
Through this diplomatic clash, Canadian diplomats remained firm that they would advocate for the safety of a Canadian resident’s family. Galhos’s family was a valid topic of Canadian concern, not an Indonesian internal affair. The parallel to current events is clear: Canada spoke out for Samar Badawi in part due to previous advocacy for her brother Raif, whose wife, Ensaf Haidar, lives in Quebec with their children.
In these early 1990s cases, Canada’s government stated concerns on human rights grounds and did not back down when Indonesian officials responded with anger and threats. It did not use tweets, a form of communication that did not yet exist, but it did use the 1990s equivalent — written statements made available to the media and the public.
Canada emerged with less credit in 1997, when it was scheduled to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at the University of British Columbia.
The APEC protests
Chrétien and Axworthy were keen to make sure the summit succeeded, and pressed hard for Gen. Suharto to attend. Yet activists in Canada continued to make Indonesia’s human rights record a public controversy. They plastered the streets of Vancouver and other cities with posters of Suharto’s face and the slogan “Wanted: for crimes against humanity.”
This enraged Indonesian diplomats, who called the posters “soft terrorist tactics” and threatened a boycott of APEC and other damage to Canada-Indonesia relations.
The cost to obtain Suharto’s presence included a promise to spare the Indonesian president the sight of protesters. When activists armed with arrest warrants tried to carry out a citizens’ arrest of Suharto, they were promptly arrested by RCMP officers.
The RCMP later used pepper spray to stop protesters from scaling a fence that marked off the APEC meeting zone, and forcibly cleared the roads leading out of the meeting area at summit’s end, using force to keep Ottawa’s promises that Suharto would not witness any protesters.
The police crackdown on protests at APEC saw Canada’s government painted as an enemy rather than a defender of free speech.
Faced with Indonesian anger and threats, Canada had surrendered to Indonesian demands. It emerged looking weak and won no favours from Indonesia in return.
When Axworthy considered offering Canadian “good offices” to mediate the East Timor dispute, the Indonesian foreign minister refused on the grounds that “Canadian NGOs are the most ferociously anti-Indonesian in the world and he is skeptical, therefore, of the Canadian government’s ability to resist domestic political pressure and maintain its neutrality.”
Public pressure advances human rights
The comparison of these 1990s cases suggests that when confronted with threats, Canada best serves its interests by standing firm. It also suggests that public expressions of diplomatic concern, rather than “quiet diplomacy” alone, are a useful tool for rights advocacy.
Indonesia felt the growing pressure so much so that, by 1998, it allowed a referendum in East Timor to resolve the issue one way or the other — a Timorese demand that Indonesia’s government had refused for many years. In that referendum, the Timorese opted massively for independence.
The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste is now southeast Asia’s most democratic state and makes useful and creative diplomatic contributions to this day. Public debate in Canada and other countries over human rights in Timor and Indonesia helped make this possible.
If there is a lesson from Canada-Indonesia clashes, it is that Canadian rights advocacy, both private and public, can be useful — and that Canada should not surrender to threats from authoritarian states to abandon advocacy.
Ironically, Canada’s words on human rights in Timor and Indonesia were stronger than those offered recently by Freeland on Saudi Arabia — and unlike Freeland’s words, were sometimes backed by concrete actions.
The Saudi incident, in fact, has displayed a stark gap between Canada’s strong words on human rights, in the Badawi case and others, and the lack of teeth behind those words — shown best by Canada lecturing others on human rights while trying to sell arms arms that in turn will be used to violate these very human rights.
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Opening section of D. Webster, “Self-Determination Abandoned: The Road to the New York Agreement on West New Guinea (Papua), 1960–62,” Indonesia, January 2013, Cornell SEAP. DOI: 10.5728/indonesia.95.0009
“My Country favors a world of free and equal states …. Within the limits of our responsibility in such matters, my Country intends to be a participant and not merely an observer in this peaceful, expeditious movement of nations from the status of colonies to the partnership of equals. That continuing tide of self-determination, which runs so strong, has our sympathy and our support.” – John F. Kennedy to UN General Assembly, Sept. 25, 1961
“We must meet our oft-stated pledge to the free peoples of West Berlin …. We have previously admitted our willingness to remove any actual irritants in West Berlin, but the freedom of the city is not negotiable. We cannot negotiate with those who say, ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.’… The solemn vow each of us gave to West Berlin in time of peace will not be broken in time of danger.” – John F. Kennedy’s report to the nation on the Berlin crisis, July 25, 1961
“Oh, that is entirely different because there are something like two and a quarter million West Berliners where there are only seven hundred thousand of those Papuans. Moreover, the West Berliners are highly civilized and highly cultured, whereas those inhabitants of West New Guinea are living, as it were, in the Stone Age.” – Kennedy in conversation with Netherlands Ambassador J.H. van Roijen, 1962
In 1960, the Dutch colony of West New Guinea (later known as West Papua, West Irian, Irian Jaya, and Papua) embarked on a ten-year plan slated to end in self-determination for its indigenous Papuan population. This plan was presented explicitly within the framework of international decolonization and at the same-time as the United Nations was working out its self-determination law, first enshrined in the UN declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples (Dec. 14, 1960). WNG was in many ways the first test case, and the international community failed abysmally. The reason was realpolitik, the strategic cold war imperative of the United States. The US while extolling self-determination as a high and holy principle for West Berlin and elsewhere, abandoned it for WNG. But it should be noted that the principle was also abandoned by the international community and all the players directly involved: Indonesia, Australia, and even the Netherlands. The sole exceptions were a group of African states who saw parallels to their own (then very recent) experience of political decolonization.
WNG was handed over to Indonesia in 1962 with the promise of an “act of free choice” to be held by 1969. That this act was a stage-managed whitewash is generally accepted. But the principle of self-determination was in fact abandoned earlier, in the three-way Dutch-Indonesian-American negotiations of 1960-1962. Self-determination was by no means impossible after this point, nor were Papuan rights to self-determination extinguished, but the path to self-determination was made much harder. After 1962, no major power would take it seriously in the Papuan case, and thus it was no surprise when the international community rubber-stamped the 1969 “act of free choice” and accepted WNG’s incorporation into Indonesia, an incorporation that is shaky under international law. This article traces the abandonment of the principle of self-determination leading up to the Dutch-Indonesian New York Agreement of August 1962, which put an end to Dutch rule and to the self-determination process.
The Canadian government has been taking flak lately for its arms sales.
Helicopters destined for the Philippines could be used for internal security in President Rodrigo Duterte’s harsh crackdowns, critics charge.
The $12-billion sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia has also embroiled Justin Trudeau’s government in controversy.
In response, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has pledged to review both deals, suggesting Canada is toughening up arms sales restrictions based on human rights grounds.
But how did Canada get into the international arms trade, anyway?
A look at the history of how Canada started selling weapons overseas following the Second World War reveals that, contrary to Freeland’s implication, Canada actually used to be much more restrictive on arms sales than it is today.
Canada has not made human rights any more central to its arms export policy than it was in the 1940s — in fact, it’s reduced oversight and the consideration of human rights issues when it comes to selling arms.
“Canada’s export controls are among the most rigorous in the world,” the government states.
It “strives to ensure that, among other policy goals, Canadian exports are not prejudicial to peace, security or stability in any region of the world or within any country.” In the post-Second World War period, Canada did not exactly “strive to ensure” these things — but it did say no when there was a risk of any of them happening.
How Canada got into the arms trade
Indeed, Canada entered the arms trade cautiously and carefully. After the Second World War, Ottawa was willing to pass surplus military equipment in Europe to allied governments.
But sales to less reliable countries, and those who might actually use the weapons, always required approval by the full cabinet. Prime Minister Mackenzie King noted that “great care should be taken with respect to all sales of weapons and supplies of war to foreign governments.”
The first test came in 1946, when cabinet agreed to sell six million 30-calibre cartridges and four million magazines to the Dutch army just as it was about to embark on a colonial war in Indonesia. But when the Dutch asked for 10,000 Sten machine guns for use in Indonesia, Canadian officials turned them down.
“We have no reason to believe that Canadian public opinion would support such a sale, nor would it be in the Canadian interest to make the sale,” according to one document from the day, now filed at Library and Archives Canada.
The guns would probably be employed in the “‘pacification’ of the native population,” exposing the government to “severe domestic and international criticism for supplying these arms” and potentially “prejudic(ing) for a long time our commercial relations with the Indonesians.”
Any further talk of helping the Netherlands — a close Canadian ally — was blocked by the Department of External Affairs
No to China
Cabinet did get to decide on a proposal in 1946 to sell warships to China, then a pro-American regime desperately fighting off the advances of Mao Zedong’s Chinese communists.
The Canadian government certainly sympathized with the Chinese Republicans. And the sale of 10 or 11 surplus Canadian frigates would have netted Canada some $2 million — the equivalent of $27 million in today’s money. Yet cabinet blocked the sale on the grounds that the ships “might be used in civil warfare.”
The same logic underpinned a Canadian decision to bar all military exports to Chinese Republicans in 1947.
In both cases, the logic was clear: Canada should sell arms only to close allies, and if there was any likelihood of use against civilians, no sale should be made.
Arming a dictatorship: Indonesia
By the 1970s, however, Canada had thrown early caution to the winds, becoming a keen seeker of arms exports. A recent analysis shows that Canada supplied $5.8 billion worth of arms over the past 25 years to countries classed as “dictatorships” by the human rights group Freedom House.
The example of arms sales to Indonesia curiously shows both a greater Canadian willingness to sell and the limits to that willingness.
Indonesia notoriously invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975, with more than 100,000 Timorese perishing under the subsequent military occupation. From 1975 to 1991, Canada nonetheless was willing to sell arms to Indonesia.
Writing in the 1980s, Timorese leader José Ramos Horta described Canadian “double standards” in scathing terms: “These weapons play an important role in the war in East Timor. But how does the Canadian government explain the weapons exports to Indonesia if Canadian law states that export permits should be issued only for ‘non-conflict’ areas? Simply by asserting that there is no armed conflict in East Timor – knowing that to be a lie.”
Yet there were limits.
In 1991, a massacre in East Timor prompted Barbara McDougall, foreign minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, to impose an arms embargo.
There was no suggestion that Canadian-made arms had been used in the massacre, but McDougall was taking no chances.
Arms sales to Indonesia resumed as Jean Chrétien’s government embraced Indonesia, but there was increasing dissent within the Department of Foreign Affairs about it.
“Any question of military sales to Indonesia, by definition, is a sensitive issue,” one divisional director wrote. After all, he noted acidly, “the Indonesian army is still killing people in East Timor.”
In September 1999, after extensive public pressure, foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy imposed an arms embargo as pro-Indonesia militia groups killed, forcibly relocated and terrorized the Timorese population. No evidence was required that Canadian-supplied weapons were being used against civilians. The government simply acted.
Bending away from justice
Some 80 years ago, British historian Herbert Butterfield criticized those who rewrite the past in order “to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”
This “Whiggish” view of history insists that things get better over time, in a progressive arc leading to general improvement.
It’s this sense that Chrystia Freeland invokes when she promises to ban the sale of a weapon “if there were a substantial risk that it could be used to commit human rights violations” — and describes that as progress.
In actual fact, if previous debates on arms sales are anything to go by, Canada is less vigilant on human rights than it was in 1946, or even in 1999. It has some way to go before it approaches the standards that once prevailed.
The arc of Canadian arms sales is long, but it seems to bend away from, not towards, human rights.
Flowers in the Wall: Truth and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Melanesia is now available for free Open Access download, thanks to University of Calgary Press.
What is the experience of truth and reconciliation? What is the purpose of a truth commission? What lessons can be learned from established truth and reconciliation processes?
Flowers in the Wall explores the experience of truth and reconciliation Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific, with and without a formal truth commission.
Poem by Abe Barreto Soares
1 Introduction: Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia, and Melanesia
2 Incomplete Truth, Incomplete Reconciliation: Towards a Scholarly Verdict on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste
3 East Timor: Legacies of Violence
4 Shining Chega!’s Light into the Cracks
5 Politika Taka Malu, Censorship, and Silencing: Virtuosos of Clandestinity and One’s Relationship to Truth and Memory
Jacqueline Aquino Siapno
6 Development and Foreign Aid in Timor-Leste after Independence
Laurentina “mica” Barreto Soares
7 Reconciliation, Church, and Peacebuilding
8 Human Rights and Truth
9 Chega! for Us: Socializing a Living Document
Maria Manuela Leong Pereira
SECTION I I
Memory, Truth-seeking, and the 1965 Mass Killings in Indonesia
10 Cracks in the Wall: Indonesia and Narratives of the 1965 Mass Violence
Baskara T. Wardaya
11 The Touchy Historiography of Indonesia’s 1965 Mass Killings: Intractable Blockades?
12 Writings of an Indonesian Political Prisoner
Local Truth and Reconciliation in Indonesia
13 Gambling with Truth: Hopes and Challenges for Aceh’s Commission for Truth and Reconciliation
Lia Kent and Rizki Affiat
14 All about the Poor: An Alternative Explanation of the Violence in Poso
Where Indonesia meets Melanesia: Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Tanah Papua
15 Facts, Feasts, and Forests: Considering Approaches to Truth and Reconciliation in Tanah Papua
Todd Biderman and Jenny Munro
16 The Living Symbol of Song in West Papua: A Soul Force to be Reckoned With
17 Time for a New US Approach toward Indonesia and West Papua
Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Solomon Islands
18 The Solomon Islands “Ethnic Tension” Conflict and the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Terry M. Brown
19 Women and Reconciliation in Solomon Islands
Betty Lina Gigisi
Bringing it Home
20 Reflecting on Reconciliation
21 Conclusion: Seeking Truth about Truth-seeking
John Coast, Recruit to Revolution: Adventure and Politics during the Indonesian Struggle for Independence. Edited by Laura Noszlopy. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2015. xxvi + 336 pp.
The Republic of Indonesia won its independence by combining perjuangan (struggle) and diplomasi. Combat took place both on the ground inside Indonesia, and in the global arena through diplomatic pressure on the Netherlands. In other words, the Indonesian revolution was both a domestic and an international event.
John Coast, later to become a British impresario who worked with such artists as Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar, is not at first glance an obvious choice as chronicler of the Indonesian revolution’s diplomatic and military story. And yet, he embodies the revolution’s dual aspect well. Held as a Japanese prisoner in Thailand (then Siam) during the Second World War, he fell in love with Indonesian culture, and especially Balinese dance. Soon after Indonesia declared independence in 1945, Coast was a supporter. By 1949, when the Netherlands finally recognized Indonesian independence at the bargaining table, he was handling the Indonesian Republic delegation’s press relations. In the years between, he worked first as a British government information officer and then as an advisor to the Republic of Indonesia. In this latter role, Coast handled everything from running the Dutch blockade of the Republic’s trade by air, to trouble-shooting bad press that accused the Republic of opium smuggling.
Laura Noszlopy has made a valuable contribution by editing a re-issued and enhanced edition of Coast’s 1952 classic of his journey as pro-Indonesia partisan, Recruit to Revolution. This book follows her editing of Coast’s earlier account of his days as a Japanese prisoner-of-war, Railroad of Death. Originally written for a mass audience, Coast’s work will now interest scholars of Indonesian history. The tale through his eyes is one of adventure, personal political journey, and one man’s experience of the Indonesian revolution. It both entertains and sheds light on less-studied aspects of that revolution. Coast’s key roles were to establish an air route around the Dutch blockade, flying in and out people and supplies between Siam and the Republic’s capital, Jogjakarta (now Yogyakarta). He positions himself as both insider and outsider, as confidante of Indonesian leaders and as independent observer of their own and their new country’s foibles. Fascinating character sketches of President Sukarno, vice-president Mohammad Hatta, and such leading figures as Sutan Sjahrir, Amir Sjarifuddin, and Haji Agus Salim offer useful additions to the narrative.
Although Jogjakarta features, it does not always come across as a city that Coast enjoyed – still less his Sumatra stopovers in Bukittinggi and elsewhere. Coast’s portrait of Indonesian leaders and their Republic mixes admiration and advocacy for their cause with criticism. He was based in Siam for most of the period in question, and the book thus features a series of looping arcs from Siam to Jogjakarta and back to Siam (three times), from Siam to Britain (where he travelled, twice, on missions for the Republic), and finally from Siam to Jakarta, capital of the new independent state established in 1949. So although the material on the Republic’s struggle is useful, this book may make its strongest contribution to historical study of the Indonesian revolution by its examination of the far-flung (if poverty-stricken) overseas diplomatic network of unofficial Indonesian embassies and offices outside the country. These both funneled cash to the Republic and carried its message, with impressive success, to global audiences. If diplomasi and struggle were both needed, Coast is one of the minority of writers who tells us things about diplomasi’s contribution to Indonesian independence.
In this new edition, Noszlopy has added much. The text is unchanged, but footnotes explain references to individuals and contexts that a 1952 reader might know well, but which may leave a 2017 reader in the dark. A postscript tells the tale of what happened after the book’s story finishes, detailing the futures of the major protagonists. Three historical documents – two reports by Coast, a British Foreign Office dispatch, and a radio broadcast by Coast, round off the book. An insightful introduction by Noszlopy puts it all in context. The book, in sum, is a model of how to edit a historical classic by bringing it back into the historiography, adding value, and respecting the original text.
Originally published as David Webster (2018) Recruit to Revolution: Adventure and Politics during the Indonesian Struggle for Independence, History: Reviews of New Books, 46:2, 52-53, DOI: 10.1080/03612759.2018.1412762. This version is the author pre-print.