WASHINGTON, D.C.—Essentially there are two approaches for promoting human rights in the international arena: loudly and quietly.
For over a generation, following the creation of the annual U.S. State Department Human Rights Report (HRR), the United States has taken a prominent public stance excoriating human rights abuses and abusers. The HRR, coupled with high decibel hectoring in speeches across the globe, inside and outside international organizations, placed Uncle Sam loudly playing the role of global conscience/scold and mentor for countries seeking to improve their citizens’ human rights and freedoms. At a minimum, the annual HRR report card provided a comprehensive benchmark on human rights for many areas of the globe, regardless of the intimation that USG enemies (Iran, North Korea, Burma) were belaboured while friends such as Israel enjoyed no worse than a once-over-lightly review.
To be sure, many—and certainly those being criticized/critiqued—were virulent in their rebuttals
(and smirkingly contemptuous when U.S. action in countering terrorism post-9/11 left us vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy at best). The world does not intend to let Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo pass into history with Dubya’s departure.
However, more significant is the question whether criticizing countries for having a “poor” human rights record benefited their citizens. Or have we, in effect, only accentuated official ire and consequent persecution of those we seek to save? In this regard, the results are certainly mixed—and reflect the power of the state being criticized. Thus there is no indication that North Korea, Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, or the Taliban’s Afghanistan responded to USG criticism of their human rights practices. Nor are current countries criticized, e.g., Russia and China going to expand press freedom or kiss and make up with Tibetans seeking autonomy.
Indeed, the natural reaction to foreigners/NGOs publicly intruding on your business, e.g., criticizing the treatment of Canadian aboriginals is to suggest they take a long walk on a short pier while offering a “Trudeau salute” as they depart.
Thus the countervailing argument: a clear but not tendentious public rebuke for human rights violations coupled with “quiet diplomacy” on behalf of persecuted individuals and groups. And, to be sure, there are occasional releases (and expulsions) of those for whom we have intervened. But if our societal objective is to create improved politico-social circumstances, i.e., functioning democracies that will respect human rights virtually by definition, we cannot claim that quiet diplomacy has substantially advanced that status.
Thus the release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2008 (http://www.
state.gov/) on Feb. 25 juxtaposed the recently expressed comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her Asia visit and the content of the report. Secretary Clinton had just committed the diplomatic sin of honesty; she had made it clear that a great power has many interests and, in the hierarchy of interests, fixing the global recession and securing Beijing’s support in dealing with North Korea outranked the PRC’s poor human rights record. For single interest NGOs, publicly expressing this reality was virtually equivalent to the Pope declaring that abortion was acceptable in some instances.
Consequently, the secretary’s four minutes of scripted platitudes introducing the report after which she escaped without taking a single question was predictably unsatisfying. Playing flak catcher for the secretary, the acting assistant secretary for the human rights bureau responded briefly to a double-handful of media questioners, essentially saying that human rights are and will remain a fundamental concern for the USG. (Unspoken was the hope that a lower decibel approach will yield better results.)
But what does the 2008 Canada report mean for Canadians? This year the report is longer by more than 1,200 words from the 2007 report, but much of the text remains “legacy language” from previous years. Nevertheless, there is expanded discussion on the process for security certificates and a first review of Canadian actions in the Omar Khadr/Guantanamo case.
Explored in considerably greater detail are Canadian restrictions on free speech within federal and provincial human rights commissions. Particularly noted was the CHRC (non-binding) report recommending inter alia repeal of the section of the federal Human Rights Act dealing with hate speech. From the list of specific cases described, it would be hard not to conclude that human rights commissions exercise a chilling effect on speech and drive self-censorship for authors/commentators—especially when defendants must pay their costs while accusers are government funded. Indeed, some U.S. observers regard the Canadian precedent with HRCs as the most significant potential threat to American free speech.
Also of interest is the attention paid to Canadian aboriginals—the longest section in the report and over three times as long as the discussion of Francophone-Anglophone relations. And Canadians would probably be surprised to know the Canadian minimum wage still “did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family.”
To be sure, the report has its errors. It fails to update Canada’s population from the 2007 HRR total of 33.1 million when Stats Can offers a population of 33.56 million at the end of Feb 2009.
And somehow, you lost a Supreme Court justice with the HRR noting “eight members of the Supreme Court” instead of the correct “nine” (accurately depicted in the 2007 edition).
Bottom line? Canada still makes the “A List” with the report’s formulaic judgment, “The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens….” Rather scant praise one might argue; however, that is as good as it gets from the grudging Department of State.
David Jones is a former political counsellor who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa.