Human Rights and Canadian Foreign Policy: Principled Pragmatism

By Axworthy, Lloyd | Canadian Speeches, November 1997 | Go to article overview
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Human Rights and Canadian Foreign Policy: Principled Pragmatism


Axworthy, Lloyd, Canadian Speeches


Minister of Foreign Affairs

Canadians have never had a more compelling interest in the promotion of international human rights. Global commerce and technology have linked us closer to the world than ever before, and will increasingly do so. But our travel, trade, investment, incomes, and jobs can all be adversely affected by human rights abuses, wherever they occur, or strengthened by democratic principles and practices. Human rights are thus a core element of Canada's foreign policy, in a multilateral approach that combines principle and pragmatism. Address at McGill University, Montreal, October 16.

Next year is the 50th anniversary of the three events that have defined the past half-century: the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Berlin airlift and the establishment of the system of apartheid in South Africa. The Berlin wall has crumbled. Apartheid has been dismantled. But the Universal Declaration has grown in strength and stature over the past 50 years.

The year 1998 marks a turning point for the international protection of human rights--the end of the Cold War and the forces of globalization have both presented new opportunities and unleashed new risks to human rights. Forward progress depends on countries like Canada being able to adapt the tools they use to promote human rights in this changed international environment and to build on the legacy of the Universal Declaration.

Today I want to talk to you about the reasons why human rights figure in Canada's foreign policy. How the changing international environment has complicated our task. The link between our human rights policies and issues of peace and security, trade and development. And what uniquely Canadian contributions we can bring to the international protection of human rights.

Why Human Rights in Canadian Foreign Policy?

Respect for human rights, both internationally and within Canada, is crucial to government policy. Canada's human rights policies are firmly anchored in values fundamental to Canadians. These values are reflected in our democratic institutions and practices, in federal and provincial human rights commissions, in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in our traditions of peace, order and good government.

And of course, they are integral to our foreign policy -- in fact, in our international relations, human rights could be considered a "threshold issue." Human rights will be a consideration in any relationship we have, whatever its other aspects, from the moment we enter into that relationship.

This is not pure altruism or idealism. A principle-centred foreign policy reflects Canadian values but also serves Canadian interests. With trade, travel and telecommunications linking countries more closely together than ever, each individual country has a growing stake in how other nations govern, or misgovern, their citizens. Mature democracies are less likely to go to war with each other, unleash waves of refugees, create environmental catastrophes, or engage in terrorism.

Jobs and growth at home are increasingly dependent on trade and investment abroad. States that respect human rights and the rule of law are more likely to honor their commercial commitments. The health of the international economy is linked to issues of stability and security. All of this means that respect for human rights is an imperative of living in a global society.

A Canadian Approach is Human Rights

Our approach to international human rights is rooted in and reflects our approach to human rights at home. Canadians are deeply attached to democratic government that is transparent, accountable and participatory. They believe in the rule of law and in legal institutions to remedy injustice. There is a deep commitment to voluntarism and self reliance, reflected in our vibrant civil society. Canadians respect diversity and difference, tolerance and equality.

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