Human Rights: Beyond Indignation (in the Competition for Global Markets, One Nation's Criticism of Another's Human Rights Record Does Little)

By Pratt, Cranford | Compass: A Jesuit Journal, January-February 1996 | Go to article overview

Human Rights: Beyond Indignation (in the Competition for Global Markets, One Nation's Criticism of Another's Human Rights Record Does Little)


Pratt, Cranford, Compass: A Jesuit Journal


Two incidents during the recent visit of Chinese Premier Li Peng are sadly symptomatic. The route chosen from Ottawa's airport was altered so that Li would not see a boat on the Rideau Canal that had mounted a critical banner and was anchored in wait for his passing cavalcade. Then, at the end of their visit as they were to leave their hotel, a curtain was strung across the lobby so that Li Peng and his party need not see a peaceful sit-in protesting the human rights record of the Chinese regime. For many, indignation must surely have taken over at this point. As Charles Taylor wrote to the Toronto Globe and Mail, "Doesn't there come a point when regret for the murdered Chinese democrats (and anger for those still in jail) takes precedence over Mr. Chretien's desire to flog a couple of Candu reactors?"

Over the years, indignation has very often been the reaction of Canadians who have paid attention to their government's aid and trade relations with highly oppressive regimes. And understandably so. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Canadian policies towards such regimes varied widely but not randomly. Canada was firm and vigorous towards states that were gross human rights offenders as long as they were either closely allied with the Soviet Union or else unimportant to Canadian exporters and investors. We were tough, for example, towards Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan and Poland.

However, Canada had at best timid and minimal policies relating to the human rights records of states that, while equally repressive, were important or potentially important markets for Canadian exports or geopolitically significant and within the American orbit. El Salvador, Indonesia and Augusto Pinochet's Chile fell into this category. Far from cutting aid to such countries as a lever to influence their human rights policies, Canada tended instead to increase its aid in the hope of winning markets and foreign policy advantages. Thus, Canadian aid to Indonesia increased very significantly while Indonesian oppression in East Timor continued unabated. So also did Canadian aid to China despite the absence of any real signs of relaxation of its oppression.

By itself, however, moral indignation is inadequate as a guide when determining foreign policy. It is not reasonable to suggest that Canadian policy towards another government should be exclusively or primarily determined by that government's human rights records. Other important foreign policy objectives must also be considered. In the specific instance of Canadian foreign policy towards China, weight must be given to China's status as a major world power with a capacity to deploy nuclear weapons and as a country whose choice of development and industrialization policies have major consequences for the global environment. It should therefore be a high priority for the rest of the world to do what it can to ensure responsible Chinese policies in these and related policy areas. It is legitimate to ask whether it might not be necessary to temper international pressure on China over its human rights policies to avoid driving the Chinese leadership into a more hostile and belligerent "laager mentality."

Of course, the main motivation for Canadian reticience to be at all outspoken on China's human rights record has almost certainly been a desire to penetrate the vast Chinese market that is now opening up to foreign trade and investment. And even this more immediate self-interested concern cannot easily be dismissed out of hand. Trade objectives are a legitimate component of Canada's foreign policy. It is politically unreasonable to urge the Canadian government to refuse to promote trade with China when this would be unlikely to influence China but would instead yield valuable trade opportunities to other industrialized countries that are less squeamish.

We may be assisted in this discussion if we recall that a great many Canadians supported the Trudeau government's efforts in the late 1960s to win international acceptance for Communist China and to extend diplomatic recognition to the regime, even though these early initiatives coincided with the intensive repression of the Cultural Revolution.

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