When Canada did – and didn’t – stand up for human rights

David Webster, Bishop’s University

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).

Nothing remarkable

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.

Children hold photos of the victims of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre during the 19th commemoration in Dili, East Timor, in November 2010.
(AP Photo/Jordao Henrique)

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.

Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson (right) shares a laugh with Barbara McDougall after presenting her with the Order of Canada during a investiture ceremony at Rideau Hall in October 2001.
(CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)

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.

Bella Galhos at a news conference in Ottawa in September 1999.
(CP PHOTO/Fred Chartrand)

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.

Ensaf Haidar is seen in this photo standing in front of a poster of her husband, Raif Badawi, in June 2015 in Montreal.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

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.

CBC News.

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.

A demonstrator is assisted after getting pepper spray in her eyes when police used the spray to break up a demonstration at the APEC Summit in Vancouver in November 1997.
(AP Photo/Dan Loh)

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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Canada’s checkered history of arms sales to human rights violators


David Webster, Associate Professor of History, Bishop’s University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Canada’s checkered history of arms sales to human rights violators


File 20180211 51703 hlh45x.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The controversial $12-billion sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia has embroiled Justin Trudeau’s government in controversy. The vehicle in question is shown here at a news conference at a General Dynamics facility in London, Ont., in 2012.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Spowart

David Webster, Bishop’s University

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.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks to MPs on Parliament Hill in February 2018.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

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.

Why?

A Dutch soldier is seen here questioning Indonesian villagers in this undated photo taken some time between 1945 and 1950.
(Creative Commons/Tropenmuseum)

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.

Lloyd Axworthy, second from left, is seen here with othelink text r foreign ministers at an emergency ministerial meeting on the East Timor crisis in Auckland, N.Z., in 1999.
(AP Photo/Greg Baker)

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 ConversationThe arc of Canadian arms sales is long, but it seems to bend away from, not towards, human rights.

David Webster, Associate Professor of History, Bishop’s University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.