How Canada helped China wreck human rights

China’s government wanted to weaken the UN’s human rights system. Canada’s Jean Chretien helped that happen. International human rights still haven’t recovered.


First publication on Condensed from an article originally published in Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. Free full-text of original article via Bishop’s e-repository.

In the 1990s, Canada helped China to gut the international human rights system. We’re now living with consequences of an eroded, weakened rights system after prime minister Jean Chretien’s government agreed with China to abandon multilateralism for toothless “dialogue.”

In the 1990s, amidst a debate about integrating human rights into a trade promotion agenda, the Canadian government undertook a new tactic: the ”bilateral human rights dialogue.” Ottawa opened dialogues with three countries targeted for Canadian trade initiatives which had problematic rights records: China, Cuba and Indonesia. This weakened the overall Canadian stance on human rights without much evidence of improved human rights as a result.

Canada and human rights

Contrary to the Heritage Minute portrayal, Canadian diplomacy before the 1980s was characterized by reticence to undertake international human rights advocacy. True, McGill professor John Humphrey penned the first draft of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but Canada initially stood with the Soviet Union and South Africa in refusing to support it. It signed only under pressure from its allies.

Until 1975, no Canadian government showed significant commitment to international human rights, since rights were seen as a matter of provincial jurisdiction. That year, a federal-provincial conference approved Canadian ratification of the International Covenants on Civil and Political, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the elaboration and codification of the UDHR. This shift in Canada came as part of a larger global awareness of human rights issues.

In the 1970s, the Universal Declaration’s two linked covenants –one on civil and political rights, the other on economic, social and cultural rights — came into effect. President Jimmy Carter’s administration in Washington moved human rights to the centre of its rhetoric, if not always its policy, and other Western governments such as Norway and the Netherlands made their own pledges of allegiance to the principle that human rights should be a factor in foreign policy. Amnesty International won the 1977 Nobel Prize and its membership surged. Even amidst this global human rights moment, the Trudeau government’s foreign policy prioritized trade and development ahead of rights promotion.[1]

Prime minister Brian Mulroney committed the Canadian government to stronger rights advocacy with 1991 declarations that Canada would no longer “subsidize repression and the stifling of democracy” made at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Harare and the francophonie summit at Chaillot, France. Yet this rhetoric lacked any plans on how to implement it. The first test case of Mulroney’s rhetoric came when Indonesian soldiers opened fire on pro-independence protesters in Dili, East Timor. His government chose to freeze three planned projects valued at $30-million, while leaving existing projects untouched. Although this has been called a “harsh sanctionist approach” by one writer, it was really a measured attempt to show disapproval without harming bilateral relations. Canada had done the same following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, imposing limited sanctions but making sure they did not interfere with Canadian trade prospects.[2]

The Liberals under Jean Chrétien government returned to power with promises of stronger action on international human rights. Chrétien’s government identified the “promotion of Canadian values” as one of the three pillars of Canadian foreign policy. Far more important, however, was another pillar: Canadian prosperity, embodied in a push to promote Canadian exports to growing markets in Latin America and especially Asia, symbolized by the “Team Canada” trade missions.

The increased emphasis on trade sparked an ongoing debate about linking trade and human rights. Activists argued that trade should be in some ways conditional on respect for human rights.

Responses came in two flavours. The “Asian values” school placed the community ahead of the individual, and viewed the state as the embodiment of the community. This school downplayed Western notions of human rights in favour of cultural-relativist arguments drawing on a claimed “Asian tradition,” arguing that the right to economic development and growth was a higher priority than individual rights, at least in the short term.
Another view saw economic growth as a pre-requisite for greater respect for human rights. This school was bolstered by liberal theory that greater wealth created rising expectations, more space for civil society, and a larger middle class that was the primary carrier for democratisation demands. Summed up as “Lipset’s law” after a leading advocate, Seymour Martin Lipset, the case that economic growth was in itself a condition for human rights formed the philosophical justification for Chrétien government policy.

Creating Human Rights Dialogues

Chrétien government thinking was influenced by “Lipset’s law” and by an international system in which power was perceived as shifting towards the high-growth “miracle” economies of the Pacific Rim. With dynamic growth apparently centred on Asia’s Pacific rim, Ottawa wanted a piece of the action. It therefore chose to prioritize trade promotion and de-link economics from rights. The showpiece were huge “Team Canada” trade missions led by a smiling Jean Chrétien in full salesman mode.

Facing mounting domestic criticism of the Team Canada approach and its apparent silence over human rights, the Chrétien government looked for ways to display some rights advocacy. Foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy characterized this as “principled pragmatism,” drawing on a belief that Canada could act both in its own self-interest and in a moral fashion.[3]

“Isolation is the worst recipe, in my judgment, for curing human-rights problems,” Chrétien insisted. Raymond Chan, a prominent Vancouver-based campaigner for human rights in China named to the Liberal cabinet, argued that:

“our relationship cannot be reduced to a simplified trade versus human rights argument. We believe systematic and wide-ranging contact will lead to calls within Asian societies, such as China, for greater openness and freedom.” Then Chan offered a simplification of his own. “Trade reduces isolationism. Trade also expands the rule of law and generates the economic growth required to sustain social change and development.”

Trade and rights, Axworthy similarly argued, were “not mutually exclusive but 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.[4] Here was Lipset’s law, recast as government policy in the language of rights rhetoric.

The new tool for advocating rights to regimes with which Canada hoped to trade was engagement through “bilateral human rights dialogues” (HRDs). Australia and the European Union also opened bilateral HRDs in the 1990s. Neither was considered to have shown much success until 1996, when Australia announced it would end its sponsorship of the annual UN Committee on Human Rights resolution on human rights in China, and instead focus its efforts on the bilateral HRD.

Axworthy quickly followed suit. Instead of backing United Nations resolutions on human rights in China, Canadian rights advocacy would be done in private and bilaterally through a new HRD process. The annual CHR resolution never gained enough votes to pass, but it nevertheless carried tremendous symbolic importance as the major remaining symbol of international pressure once economic means were abandoned.

Axworthy justified his decision to withdraw Canada from the coalition pushing a CHR resolution on the grounds that international support was waning, and a bilateral HRD would be more effective.[5]

It wasn’t. The dialogue sessions produced no evident, provable results. They produced posturing, but little more.

Canadian “quiet diplomacy” on human rights in China was already under way. When president Jiang Zemin visited Canada in 1996, Axworthy stated that the Chinese had been “very forthcoming” on rights issues raised privately rather than publicly: “That channel has been very useful. We’ve seen some useful results.”[6]

Indonesia and Cuba, Canada’s next HRD partners, shared one thing with China. They were targeted by human rights groups in Canada and at times by the United States. Axworthy specifically justified the HRD strategy, and by extension “quiet diplomacy” or “constructive engagement,” as preferable to US megaphone diplomacy. To an audience of human rights supporters at the University of Ottawa, he argued that trade “opens doors” that could then be used for rights advocacy. “It creates a relationship,” he argued, “within which we can begin to speak about human rights.”[7]

The Canada-China Dialogue

Canada began its HRD with China in 1997, specifically as a substitute for sponsorship of a China resolution at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (CHR). Ottawa presented it as a Canadian move to engage, in contrast to an American preference to confront. Canadian efforts to engage “Red China” in international relations rather than isolating it began well before prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s initiative to extend diplomatic recognition to China in 1970. US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit ended the American policy of isolating China, and Canadian efforts were henceforth directed to integrating China into the international system. Under Deng Xiaoping, China accepted the invitation fully, agreeing to join the IMF and the World Bank, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and even the CHR in 1982.[8]

With this general background, a Canadian policy of “constructive engagement” with China was almost automatic. It also reflected Chrétien government priorities, which put China squarely at the centre of the “Team Canada” approach to trade promotion. As B. Michael Frolic wrote:

“From 1992 onwards trade began to emerge ascendant and the human rights agenda was consciously softened and directed into manageable initiatives such as legal reform and support to women’s organizations.”

Rather than Canada convincing China to alter its human rights record, China was able to convince Canada to drop its criticism, in the hopes of future change. In Frolic’s words:
“Canadian strategy was to engage China in areas which promised dialogue rather than confrontation. Thus, legal reform and training of judges replaced public demands to free dissidents or to inspect Chinese orphanages.”[9]

Not only had Canada been persuaded to drop its pressure, it had been convinced to pay for what China wanted — and to portray that as pressure, rather than acquiescence.

It was a remarkable display of empty words.

China takes aim at the international human rights system

The Chinese government’s position on international human rights shifted after the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, from an initial rejection of any foreign interference with Chinese national sovereignty, to a denial that major abuses were taking place, to conceding that there were human rights problems but that dialogue was the best way to resolve them.

China was one of several regimes with poor human rights records that sought membership on the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, partly in a bid to defuse criticism and form an “abuser’s club” to defuse criticism and mount a challenge to the universal nature of the international human rights regime. This was a sign not of the CHR’s impotence, as of its influence, as targets fought hard to avoid CHR censure.[10]
In the “dialogue” sessions with Canadian academics, one Chinese legal scholar and former member of China’s UN delegation criticized “irregular phenomena” that still existed on the CHR.

“Certain countries do not respect the sovereignty of other countries, but use human rights issues for political purposes or interfering with other countries’ internal affairs,” Liu Xinsheng wrote. Attacking its “confrontational atmosphere,” Liu called for the CHR to “encourage dialogue and cooperation among countries, increase understanding, and try to eliminate conflicts and criticism.” He ended with a demand that the West abandon its “anti-China conspiracy” at the UN.[11]

This semi-official voice echoed that of China’s leaders. Li Peng, for instance, told the UN in 1992:

“China values human rights and stands ready to engage in discussion and cooperation with other countries on an equal footing on the question of human rights.”

China issued white papers on human rights issued in 1991 and again in 1995, the second advocating “dialogues and exchanges in the sphere of human rights.” In 1997, China’s CHR representative attacked the commission’s atmosphere of “confrontation and politicization” and accused the United States of an attack on developing countries under the guise of human rights, warning colleagues “what happens to China today may well happen to them tomorrow.”[12]

China opened a wide array of bilateral human rights dialogues as states defected from the CHR coalition critical of its rights record: Australia, Brazil, Japan, France and the European Union in 1997, and others later.

The Canada-China HRD alternated between the countries, with nine sessions held up to 2005. Chinese government officials characterized the dialogue with Canada as a “model” HRD, “one of the best ones,” showing “less political prejudice against us.” Chinese officials clearly understood the HRD was a concession to Canada in exchange for taking no action at the CHR, one serving a domestic political need of the Canadian government by disarming criticism from Canadian human rights activists.[13]

There is no evidence that Canada wields any more influence on China than any other country as a result of being among the first to shift from public pressure to “quiet diplomacy.” Prime minister Steven Harper was unable to exert any influence at all in the Huseyin Celil case, in which a Canadian citizen of Uighur origin was jailed in China as a subversive.

As the Montreal-based and parliament-sponsored centre Rights and Democracy wrote in a 2001 critique of the Canada-China HRD:

“The bilateral human rights dialogue has not achieved its objectives, the situation of human rights in China has deteriorated, and Canada’s access to China’s markets has not yet increased. More importantly, the UN human rights system has been weakened by manipulation and application of a double standard.”[14]

Still more significantly, China was able to alter international human rights norms, rather than being altered by them. Western governments that once sought to condemn China came to accept the Chinese government’s argument that this “confrontational” strategy was counter-productive, and that “dialogue” was automatically more effective. As scholar Ming Wan wrote, “Beijing has succeeded in marginalizing human rights disputes in its official relations with the West.” The Chinese view gained official sanction when China was able to convince the UN sub-commission on human rights to call for “constructive dialogues … to enhance understanding.”[15]

UN bodies lowered the pressure on China. But only because countries like Canada threw in the towel.

Activist groups turn up the heat

Rights and Democracy played a lead role in forming a coalition of Canadian organizations concerned with the failings of the Canada-China HRD. This initiative from Canadian civil society did not aim at scrapping the HRD, but it did demand improvements. China-focused groups and the Canada Tibet Committee argued that the HRD did more harm than good and called for its abolition, while groups whose interest in human rights is thematic rather than China-centred, such as Amnesty International and the Canadian Labour Congress, did not. The coalition opted to maintain a united position calling for reform to the HRD rather than abolition. In campaigning for a more effective HRD, this coalition was able to make the process a public issue.

Activism worked.

Public discussion of the Canada-China HRD, in the context of the overall human rights situation in China and its place in the overall bilateral relationship, achieved three things. First, Stephen Harper’s government suspended the HRD. Although there was no official announcement of the moratorium, the round scheduled for October 2006 did not take place (and the HRD never again resumed). Second, a parliamentary sub-committee on international human rights held hearings on the HRD in fall 2006. Third, public debate forced the Harper government to agree to an independent review of the HRD. Reviewer Charles Burton, a Brock University professor and former diplomat at Canada’s embassy in China, identified significant problems with the process. That was probably enough to kill it for good.

The Harper government did not hesitate to send harsh condemnatory words in the direction of China, although there was little apparent thought of backing up rhetoric with a plan of action. The “old Liberal gang” (in the words of one human rights activist) was sharply critical of the Harper approach to China, arguing among other things that it risks harm to Canadian trade prospects. Although Harper rejected these criticisms, his government moved to repair relations with China. A battle within the government saw the pro-China wing of the party win out and the government perform a pirouette back into China’s good graces — so much so that foreign minister John Baird embraced China as a key “ally.”[16]

Lessons from the HRD experience

“Dialogue is not a substitute for pressure or public censure,” said Lloyd Axworthy, originator of the HRD process, at the 1999 Foreign Affairs annual consultation with human rights groups. “It is another channel that can be used to deliver tough human rights messages and to work with a range of actors in government and civil society to bring about change.”[17] Yet HRDs became just that: substitutes for pressure. Canadian policy had previously claimed to support the development of the multilateral human rights regime. HRD processes exist outside the multilateral system, and weaken its universality.

HRDs became more about means than ends, as the dialogues themselves were held up as evidence of Canadian human rights advocacy. “The show’s the thing.” Results became irrelevant to the performance.

In all this, China managed to change the international human right system to its liking. Canada, to its shame, helped to wreck the human rights system that is so badly needed to this day.


[1] Jennifer Tunnicliffe, Resisting Rights: Canada and the International Bill of Rights, 1947–76 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2019).
[2] Kim Richard Nossal, Rain Dancing: Sanctions in Canadian and Australian Foreign Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994); Sharon Scharfe, Complicity: Human rights and Canadian foreign policy, the case of East Timor (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1996); Gillies.
[3] Lloyd Axworthy, “Human Rights and Canadian Foreign Policy: Principled Pragmatism,” speech at McGill University, 16 Oct. 1997, DFAIT Statements and Speeches 97/42.
[4] John Stackhouse, “PM defends cautious stand on Indonesian abuses,” Globe and Mail (G&M), 18 Jan. 1996, A16; Raymond Chan, “Cda and the Asia Pacific,” in Fen Osler Hampson, Maureen Appel Molot & Martin Rudners, eds., Canada Among Nations 1997: Asia Pacific Face-Off (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1997), pp. 11, 113; Axworthy, “Human Rights and Foreign Policy,” in Gurcharan S. Bhatia et al, eds., Peace, Justice and Freedom: Human Rights Challenges for the New Millenium (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2000), p. 34.
[5] Rights and Democracy, 2001 annual report; DFAIT news release #70, 14 April 1997.
[6] Jeff Sallot, “Ottawa prods China to sponsor talks,” G&M 29 Nov. 1997, A18; Axworthy, “Human Rights and Foreign Policy,” p. 32.
[7] Axworthy speech, University of Ottawa, 10 Dec. 1997,, accessed 20 April 2007.
[8] Paul M. Evans and & B. Michael Frolic, eds., Reluctant Adversaries: Canada and the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1970 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991); Rosemary Foot, Rights Beyond Borders, pp. 16–17, 71.
[9] B. Michael Frolic, “Re-engaging China: Striking a Balance between Trade and Human Rights,” in Canada Among Nations 1997, pp. 325, 345.
[10] Andrew J. Nathan, “China and the International Human Rights Regime,” in Elizabeth Economy & Michael Oksenberg, eds., China Joins the World: Progress and Prospects, (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1999); Ming Wan, Human Rights in Chinese Foreign Relations: Defining and Defending National Interests (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001); Foot, Rights Beyond Borders, p. 24; Ann Kent, China, the United Nations and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999); Paul Lauren, “To Preserve and Build on its Achievements and to Redress its Shortcomings: The Journey from the Commission on Human Rights to the Human Rights Council,” Human Rights Quarterly 29 #2 (2007).
[11] Liu Xinsheng, “The People’s Republic of China and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights,” in Mendes & Traeholt, pp. 235–7.
[12] Nathan, p. 137; Foot, p. 186; Béatrice Laroche, “Dodging Scrutiny: China and the U.N. Human Rights Commission,” China Rights Forum, Summer 1997.
[13] Charles Burton, “Assessment of the Canada-China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue,” report to DFAIT, final version, 19 April 2006.
[14] Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue with China, Rights & Democracy report, Jan 2001.
[15] Ming Wan, p. 8; UN sub-commission resolution E/CN/sub.2/1997/L.33.
[16] Paul M. Evans, Engaging China: Myth, Aspiration, and Strategy in Canadian Policy from Trudeau to Harper (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).
[17] Axworthy, Notes for an Address to annual NGO human rights consultations, 4 March 1999, Statements and Speeches 99/18.

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