The African-Asian Conference Bulletin as historical source

AACB 9.1 coverOriginal publication by Canadian Network for Humanitarian History.

The Asian-African Conference Bulletin, published daily during the African-Asian conference at Bandung in April 1955, 65 years ago, is a significant and unused source in international history. In its pages, as much as in the conference hall around it, was born the idea of Asian-African solidarity and non-alignment. The Bulletin and other sources from the conference are now digitized as an e-dossier.

The creation of an idea of a “Third World” was one of the major themes of the 20th century. That “world” was born in Bandung, Indonesia, 65 years ago. Yet too few 20th century historians spend much time talking about the Asian-African conference and the world it gave birth to. The study is left to important networks outside the Western (and West-centric) historical mainstream, such as the Afro-Asian Networks project and the Bandung Spirit group, though there’s been an admirable revival in recent years with multiple perspectives on Bandung’s legacy – a literature too extensive to list here.

The conference was enormously important. It came at a time when the superpowers and their followers – Canada at the fore – were trying to divide the world into two sides. The Soviet Union’s chief ideologue, Andrew Zhdanov, spoke of “two camps.” So did the enormously influential US evangelist Billy Graham, using the same words. You were either with us, or against us. Or so thought the leaders of both camps.

AACB 9.7 AliSo when Indonesia, for instance, was seeking its independence from Dutch attempts to recolonize the former Netherlands East Indies, the issue turned on alignment. The United States supported Indonesian independence after President Sukarno crushed a communist uprising. Canada aimed to avoid US conflict with the Netherlands as NATO was being formed. The independent Indonesia that emerged and joined the United Nations in 1950 was supposed to be pro-Western despite the socialist leanings of its leadership. (The first prime minister, Sutan Sjahrir, spoke of living in “the sphere of Anglo-Saxon capitalism and imperialism, as I discuss in my book Fire and the Full Moon.) Canada’s Security Council representative even managed to do an end-run over a Soviet veto against the new Republic.

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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.

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First publication on medium.com. 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.

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Role reversal: China cites human rights in spat with Canada

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Meng Wanzhou, CFO of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, is shown arriving at a parole office in Vancouver on Dec. 12. Her arrest at the request of the U.S. officials has strained Canada-Chinese relations.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

David Webster, Bishop’s University

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.

In using this sort of “rights talk,” China is not simply jumping on the fact that Meng was in detention on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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.

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

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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.

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