The Right Path, the Hard Path: Canada Must Continue to Call Out Global Rights Abusers

Saudi Arabia’s reaction to statements of concern from Canada’s foreign ministry over repression of human rights activists shows a willingness to weaponize trade policy in order to secure consent to human rights abuses. This can only embolden other human rights violators like China, despite provisions of the World Trade Organization aimed at forestalling trade retaliation in response to political disagreement. Canada has already been on the receiving end of critiques from China over efforts to promote a progressive trade policy supporting womens’ rights, fair labour standards, environmental protection, Indigenous rights, and equitable dispute resolution. Canada should not be bullied by repressive regimes that attempt to leverage trade and investment relations to secure silence on human rights. Rather, Canada should be applauded for having the courage to call out human rights abuses among friends and adversaries alike, and encouraged to promote human rights accountability privately when possible, publicly when necessary.

Canada has an important opportunity to demonstrate the strength of its commitment to human rights in the context of free trade discussions with China. Reliable reporting on abuses of rights to the integrity of the person, freedom of expression, religious belief, and due process in Xinjiang and Tibet exemplify human rights abuses in China generally. These have intensified in recent years, in violation of Beijing’s international legal commitments. China’s responses to concerns expressed at the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Human Rights Council attempt to redefine human rights to enable repression by the party-state by justifying abuses as lawful exercises of national sovereignty. As China’s “socialist rule of law” system operates almost exclusively to enforce the policies and practices of the ruling regime, legal rights in China—weak as they have always been—are often discarded in deference to the whims of the Communist Party.

This is not only about human rights but also about business. In negotiating a free trade agreement with China, Canada needs to be confident that FTA provisions will not be dismissed at the whim of the PRC Party-state. How can Canada be confident China will honour trade and investment rights of Canadian firms when China repeatedly demonstrates a willingness to disregard its legal obligations to its own people? Canada needs public and credible assurances about the effectiveness of legal protections for human rights and business before agreeing to a free trade agreement with China.

In addition to explicit commitments to abide by the provisions of a free trade agreement, including associated WTO requirements on such issues as rule of law, transparency, intellectual property, trade in services, and government procurement, China should provide specific assurances that it will (i) allow unrestricted access by the International Committee of the Red Cross to “re-education” camps in Xinjiang; (ii) allow access by international journalists to all areas of China, including Xinjiang and Tibet; and, (iii) fully implement the provisions of international covenants that China has ratified on socio-economic and cultural rights (ICESCR) and elimination of racial discrimination (CERD). Whether in response to public or private entreaties from Canada, such public commitments on human rights together with credible arrangements for performance and monitoring are essential to give Canada some measure of confidence that China will comply with the terms of a free trade agreement.

China will no doubt object, raising the same extremist sovereignty arguments about non-interference in domestic affairs it has used in the past. But it is China’s credibility that has been undermined by its policies and practices on human rights, so the burden is on Beijing to establish that China’s international legal commitments are reliable. Canada should not be reluctant to press for specific commitments on human rights, business rights and the rule of law as conditions for entering into a preferential trade agreement with China. This is not an easy road to be sure, but a path that Canada can be proud to take and one that ultimately will benefit our national interests.

This piece first appeared in The Hill Times on September 17, 2018.